Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Victorian Theatre

In the final weeks of the year that saw the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens it is appropriate to revisit an aspect of life that the writer loved -the Theatre. I am thinking particularly of the provincial touring company immortalised in “Nicholas Nickelby”.

 The Inns of Leek would have seen real life characters unlike the fictional Vincent Crumles the actor- manager who appears in the book. They would have been part of the local scene especially as improvements in roads made travel easier from the late 18th century onwards. A favourite revenue of the actors was the Swan and the Red Lion. I have seen a playbill from 1843 for a production of “Othello” in the Red Lion. In the 18th century the Swan had a theatre at the back of the pub and was used by a number of touring companies. It is thought that the first performance in Leek of Richard Sheridan’s play the Rivals was performed.

It most famous association was with a celebrated 18th century actress Harriet Mellon who first appeared at the Swan in 1789 and then two years later when the company wintered in Leek. In late 1790s she broke into the West End Theatre and her fame was assured.

 Sometimes things could go wrong and the same venue much later saw a performance of “ King Lear” in 1878 which was bought to an abrupt halt when one of the actresses was accidentally stabbed. Fortunately the injury was not serious.

A report in a Derbyshire paper in 1850 described a company in Ashbourne on enroute to Leek with productions of “Macbeth”, “Romeo and Juliet” and the “ Rose of Ettrick Vale” with Mr Thornton, of which more later, “playing the pantaloon”

What the quality of performance witnessed by audiences of the time can be surmised by character sketches of the actors who appeared in “Thespian Dictionary”

Mr Henry Thornton: “As an actor he boasts of that merit which constitutes a good country performer, for he can bustle through a part with considerable ease, though unacquainted with the authors words”.

Mr George Cooke: “This actor has experienced both the frowns and smiles of fortune; he is consequently soon conquered by the Tuscan Grape”

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Harold Davies MP for Leek and a trip to Vietnam 1965

It is a very rare occasion that the antics of a Leek MP would be the subject of a question at a US Presidential Press Conference, but it did happen. The President was Lyndon Johnson, the Leek MP and the extraordinary incident was a secret peace mission to North Vietnam undertaken by Harold Davies at the behest of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in July 1965.

But first a little explanation is required Davies a fiery left wing MP from south Wales was first elected to the Leek constituency in the Labour landslide of 1945.

He was a very assiduous MP, which is proved by the incredible hard work he put into a constituency, which at the time included a part, of what is now Stoke on Trent. Reading the newspapers from the 1950s and 60s it seems that Davies was everywhere. He was involved in rural issues especially the supply of water to the remote parts of the constituency, helped secure the main office site for the Britannia Building Society, and a keen interest in comprehensive education were just some of the many initiatives that wore the Davies stamp.He was an ardent supporter of public housing in areas of the constituency such as Weston Coyney as well as keeping the Post and Times regularly supplied with copy of his parliamentary exploits. He was a regular contributor in debates. It seems he had to be as his parliamentary majority leastways in the 50s barely rose above 1,000 votes.

Davies was also well connected and during the 50s a stream of principle Labour Party figures spoke in the constituency including future Labour party leaders in Jim Callaghan and Michael Foot. But perhaps the greatest coup was during the 1955 General Election when the great hero of the left the creator of the NHS and fellow Welshman Aneurin Bevan spoke at Kidsgrove Town Hall.

However one thing is certain Davies was an expert on South East Asia and wrote frequently on the subject often in learned journals which were carried fatefully by the Post and Times.

Davies wrote critically of American action in Korea especially the gung ho tactics of the American general McArthur during the early 50s. The Leek MP visits Moscow in 1952 commenting that he had previously visited the Soviet Union capital in 1938 when he was a WEA Lecturer. He seems remarkably uncritical of life in Moscow in whet was the last year of the tyrannical rule of Stalin. Davies writes about the happy citizenry when the reality for many Soviet people was terror and repression and the Gulags, but then many on the left were blind to the cruelties of the Communist system.

In 1955 Davies undertakes a long and difficult trip to Mao’s China writing regular articles to the Post and Times on what he found in the People’s Republic

“ China is not a side-show in world affairs. She is a living and powerful reality. The West must adjust itself to the regime of Mao Tse Tung and it is here to stay.” He visited farms, factories and mines in China and praised the economic development in the country barely a decade from the time that the Communists had taken power.

“ The miners would have been home in the North Staffs Coalfield. The seam I saw was at an angle of 45 degrees and some six feet in height was being cut at a time. I crawled for some thirty yards to the main conveyer belt and followed it to the main loading belt where a Russian diesel engine puffed along, pulling some twenty or more trams to the pit bottom”

“This is China the old and the new tumbling incongruously into the lap of history”

In 1959 Davies was on his travels again to the Philippines and Viet Cong when he met the leader of the North Vietnamese Communist Party Ho Chi Minh. Ho had fought in campaigns firstly against the Japanese during the Second World War and in the early 50s against the French. The French colonialists were beaten and the country became involved in a civil war between the Communist North and the Non Communist South. 1959 involved North Vietnamese in insurgency actions in South.

To his credit Davies at an early stage did not believe in the prevailing military doctrine espoused by elements of the American Government that Vietnam was another piece in the falling dominoes following China and Korea and that the country was rife for a communist take over. Davies believed and history has proved him correct in this analysis that Vietnam was a civil war.

By the early 60s it was clear that Britain would soon see a return of a Labour Government and with a new Labour Party leader Harold Wilson in 1963 the return of a Labour Government at the General Election in the following year occurred. However the Labour Government was not in a strong position with a majority of 4. The new Prime Minister had to appease the left wing of the Labour party represented by people like Harold Davies and there was also the problem of the Americans. The US President in this period was a no nonsense bluff Texan Lyndon Johnson who had succeeded the assassinated Kennedy in 1963. Johnson was convinced of the need to escalate the war in Vietnam and wanted to involve British troops. Wilson pointed out to the President that Britain was doing its bit fighting Communist rebels in Malaysia. This would not rub with the President and Wilson conceived of the idea of a secret peace mission to involve a man who was known to have a keen interest in the region. He asked Davies to take part in a secret peace mission.

In July 65 Davies was prepared to take the long trip to South East Asia. The hope was that Davies would be allowed a visa to visit Hanoi and be able to see the senior political figures in the North Vietnamese capital. However it was important that the trip was kept secret from both the British and Vietnamese perspective. According to Wilson the details of the visit were disastrously leaked to the British press. By the time the Leek MP got to Hanoi there was bitter recrimination and Davies was ostracised seeing only minor officials and no meeting with Ho Chi Minh.

The Americans were highly critical of the visit and had no confidence in the Welshman. They were that Davies was travelling on his own, did not have diplomatic experience, did not speak French was a talkative left wing sympathiser and “ and is not noted for his judgement”

Some British Foreign Office officials agreed with the judgement of the Americans and the British Ambassador to the US David Bruce believed that Harold Davies was a person who “ could be easily used by the communists” and that the Prime Minister should never have supported the proposal. One of the Labour Cabinet Minister Richard Crossman damned the initiative as a gimmick. Another Barbara Castle was aware that Harold Wilson feared the press leak undermined the secrecy of the visit but was “well satisfied with the gesture” mainly because it put some distance between the British and the Americans. The central problem was that neither the Vietnamese nor the American were in the game of going down a path of a negotiated settlement. The Hawks outnumbered the Doves and both were committed to escalating the war. President Johnson still felt that there was something to gain by building up American military involvement in South East Asia. News came from the White House that “ further British initiatives such as the Davies trip would do more harm than good because it undermined the American position and gave an impression to the Communists that the Americans were suing for peace.

Back in Leek the Post and Times carried a small article headlined “ Leek MP hits world headlines with visit to war torn Vietnam”. The article mentioned the visit in the briefest of details.

The Vietnam War of course dragged on throughout the 60s and is regarded as part of the iconography of the decade. It effectively wrecked the political career of President Johnson and ended with the South Vietnamese capital Saigon to Viet Cong forces in 1975. Many millions of Vietnamese were killed, as were 60,000 Americans and it has taken for some time to recover. Harold Davies finally lost the Leek seat following boundary changes in 1970 and went to the House of Lords as Lord Davies of Leek

Thursday, 13 December 2012

On reclaiming William Morris

During the early 80s my parents visited the dacha or summerhouse of the Russian composer Tchaikovsky outside Moscow. My father commented about the homosexuality of the composer. Despite all the evidence to the contrary the guide declared that Tchaikovsky was not gay.

This anecdote came into my mind following a visit to the National Trust property Wightwick House just outside Wolverhampton. It id a splendid Arts and Craft inspired house built in the 1890s by the paint manufacturer Manders family. It was inspired by a Oscar Wilde lecture that one of the family attended in 1884 on the House Beautiful. The house is filled with the art of the Pre Raphaelite Movement central to which is William Morris. The influence of Morris in the place was palpable. There was a plaque of Morris with the words “artist, craftsman and designer” surrounding his image. The house and its contents were certainly beautiful. But there is one think that is missing in all the displays that was that Morris was a socialist and a Marxist one at that. Incidentally so was Oscar Wide!  In the same way that the Soviets were pained by Tchaikovsky’s sexuality it seems that the National Trust appear embarrassed by Morris’s political belief. It was central to his work. A driver of the Arts and Craft movement was a rejection of the excesses of late capitalism of the Victorian era. Fiona McCarthy’s biography that came out in 1995 has a chapter on the impact that witnessing the living conditions of the workers in Leek had on leading Morris to embrace a radical response. We do a great injustice to Morris if we attempt to neuter him by overlooking his politics. He saw his passion for the cause as an extension of his work as an artist and a designer. He put it very simply: "nothing can argue me out of this feeling," he wrote, "which I say plainly is a matter of religion to me: the contrasts of rich and poor are unendurable and ought not to be endured by either rich or poor." It could serve as a creed for today

Beating a deadly disease

Ellastone Parish records state that it was Katherine Bott a servant to Mr Hugh Sheldon who was the first to die. She must have thought she had the flu when she fell ill in May 1636. There would have been headaches, tiredness and sickness. At this time, she would have been too sick to carry on her normal duties.  Small red spots later emerged on her tongue and mouth. These spots develop into sores that broke open spreading the virus. At this time she was highly contagious. Death would have followed by the second week. It may have come from the intense fever causing dehydration, kidney and heart failure. The disease that Katherine succumbed to was a scourge- Smallpox. The disease entered into the country the previous century although it had been known about since Roman times. The parish record in Ellastone chronicles its progress that summer of 1636 with Katherine the first victim. John Weston, John Smith, quickly followed her until the 10th victim Prudence Walker died on August 10th. The disease was to become a frequent visitor to the Staffordshire Moorlands with epidemics breaking out regularly. Even as late as 1878 there was a report of an outbreak in the West End part of Leek.

Smallpox was particularly successful in virgin populations. The Spanish inadvertently owe much of their success in conquering the Aztecs in the 16th century to smallpox. Unlike the Spanish, the native Indians had no immunity to the disease, having never encountered it before. It wiped out millions of them.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) is credited with introducing variolation to Britain in 1721. Severely pockmarked herself after surviving the illness, she learnt about the method in Constantinople, where her husband was the British Ambassador. She had her children inoculated- the first Westerner to do so, She is buried at Lichfield Cathedral. It was Edward Jenner who later developed vaccination that proved the turning point

 The fight against smallpox, one of the great killers of mankind, proved successful .A concerted effort by the World Health Organisation to eliminate the disease through vaccination triumphed. In the 1950s 2 million people were dying of smallpox throughout the world. By 1980 the disease had been eradicated- surely one of mankind’s better moments

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Horace Barks's War 1914-8 Part 1 Mobilisation

I knew Horace Barks in the last years of his life. In 1982 I was elected as a Councillor in Stoke and put on the Museums Committee. Horace was a former Chairman of the Museums Committee and an Alderman of the City. He had been born in Ipstones in 1896 and I knew about his First World War service and that he had been involved in the Somme. Horace was also a strong supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He was press officer at the time and he proved an able spokesman and given his service in the trenches he validated the pacifist position. One of his last acts was to send a food parcels to the Greenham Common women.

In the autumn of 1981 Horace gave an account of his war service to a local historian Michael Ollershaw who produced an account in a local magazine in 1988

On the wars outbreak Horace enlisted into The Reserve Battalion, which was later, became the 2/5 North Staffs part of the 46th North Midland Division. Horace recalls spending Christmas at Saffron Walden in Essex. An incident that happened on Christmas night made an impression on the young Barks.

“ I remember sleeping in a house similar to this, but the walls between the walls were very thin. We were there at Christmas 1914. There was a father and son called Jones and the father got very drunk. He was in his late 30s. I suppose that they were doing a little bayonet charging on the wall and the bayonet came through the wall above my head. I was a bit worried by Jones”

He narrowly missed going over the top in the Neuve Chappelle offensive in the spring of 1915 but a transport problem- they were supposed to be conveyed to the front by London buses meant there section in the line was taken by the Duke of Wellington Regiment. That regiment suffered badly in the subsequent engagement.

Horace had a rough calculation of the losses one could normally expect “going over the top”

“ If you were over 800 strong the normal thing we would mean between 100-150 would be killed, about three times would be wounded and about 150 would come back”

Part of the problem with the failure of the attack was a shell shortage. Horace spoke to a man from Leek in an artillery battery who told him that “they got a shell a gun a day perhaps”.

King’s regulation always unsettled him..” each morning we had to listen to them being read out and at the finish. and shall be shot or such less punishment as the act decrees those last words. I must have heard them so often”

There is an interesting account of the “Live and Let live” way in which both sides engaged

“ I was on the firing step. There was an old soldier from the Notts/ Derby next to me. I could see the heads and shoulders of three German soldiers wearing the pork pie hat in a gap in their parapet. The old soldier said, “ what’s up chum”. I had got it into my head to shoot that sort of game”

“ I was not a blood thirsty fellow. I was an Internationalist but on the other hand that was what I came for I suppose”

The old soldier suggested that I shoot at a chimney He said that we had it pretty quiet and we want it to remain so. If you manage to hit anybody- he did not think I would- they might reply with shells.

“ Live and let live could be disturbed by the arrival of a young officer referred to as a Thruster”. Barks recalled a conversation with Sir George Wade of the pottery firm and an officer in the Machine Gun Corps who wanted to pursue the war with more aggression.

“ When I relieved a bunch of French soldiers south of Armentieres one of the chaps asked if I wanted a wash in the morning. We went over the top and there was a brook running through No Man’s Land between the two lines and they said if you went out to wash the Germans would be on the other side of the brook. 

Sir George said that I would stop that when I am in charge. The British fired over the heads of the Germans. I thought that it was a bit filthy to shoot to kill although a nice wound would have done some of them good”

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The earth moves in Flash lane

North Staffordshire is an area beset with earth tremors. It has a number of geological faults to the west at Apedale and the Red Rock fault, which, may have had a bearing on the problems, faced during the 70s. However earthquakes were known even before the large-scale mining. One of the earliest earthquakes ever investigated was one centred in the Midlands in February 1575, which was felt as far away as York and Dublin. And Boswell the biographer of Doctor Johnson noted a minor earthquake-hitting Leek in September 1777 causing the locals to flee into the streets.

 But it is with the advent of deep coalmines after the Second War, which saw acceleration locally of the recording of earth tremors. At the start of the 1970s movements were felt in Normacott and Longton felt to be caused by mining activity at Hem Heath but the real centre of the disturbances was Trent Vale where disturbances were happening almost on a daily basis

Frequent convulsions led to a two-year investigation by Edinburgh University, whose findings eventually placed responsibility on the National Coal Board. Evidence from seismic tests showed that the tremors were caused by underground workings at Hem Heath Colliery. Tensions underground caused energy to be released which resulted in tremors at the surface. The Edinburgh findings as well as other local research were initially opposed by the National Coal Board who believed the effect was caused by the natural faults in the area. Locals resisted this view. Mining was taking place near the Apedale fault and this was exacerbating the situation. Barrie Seckerson a long term resident of the area was equally convinced that the Coal Board were to blame as the tremors only occurred during the working week “ every resident is convinced that we are dealing with a problem created by the NCB. If it is a problem caused by Mother Nature then she appears to be on a five day week,” he wrote in a letter of July 1976.

Residents in Flash Lane recalls the tremor in July 1975 which detached the gable end of a house from the roof, leaving a gap of seven feet. Alice Evans of Riverside Road, Trent Vale recalled a series of tremors in the summer of 1976, which caused the TV aerial to shake, and made teacups and saucers to rattle. And in another incident a chimney pot collapsed narrowly missing a nursery, which had to be closed. Local MP Jack Ashley was involved early on and felt a tremor himself when visiting constituents in Flash Lane. He raised the matter in Parliament, which led to an investigation of the phenomena. The Minister Peter Shore set up a working party with the brief of investigating the causes of the disturbances

Seven monitoring stations were set up, covering an area which included Trent Vale, Hanford, Trentham, Clayton, Oakhill and Penkhull, all linked to Keele University.

In June 1976 a geological team from Keele staged a test tremor of their own with a 100 lb. bomb was buried 90ft below a field at Clayton to help scientists find out the cause of the earth movements. This event did not prove conclusive, as the explosion did not lead to seismic disturbances in the immediate area

The Head of Geography, Mr B Whittaker at Edward Orme School involved himself in the brouhaha who believed that the low rainfall might have had an impact on the waterfall.

“ It is conceivable that any shrinkage of the strata as a consequence of it drying out and the readjustment of the strata will lead to an increase in earthquake. He wrote in a letter to the Sentinel in the summer of 1976.

Some years before the earth tremors shook Trent Vale, Keele's Professor F Wolverson Cope conducted his own research into "shakes, vibrations and unusual noises" detected around the area. In the early 70s he reported his conclusions that they were caused by old mine workings and calmed public fears about the possibility of a major earthquake in the district, saying this had been overstated.

The story had a positive ending as householders affected by the tremors in the vicinity of Flash Lane received compensation from the NCB after negotiations in the late 1970s.

But the issue of earth movement in the area continued even after the last pit closed. In 1984 many areas of North Staffordshire and South Cheshire were affected by a widespread earthquake centred in North Wales which measured around 5.2 on the Richter Scale. The quake was described as the biggest ever recorded in Britain. A sequence of earth tremors hit Smallthorne in the late 1980s and even last month the Keele Seismological Unit picked up a 2.4 reading centred on Light Oaks.

 The earth continues to move in North Staffs

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Another Child is bored in the grotto

"Laurence Olivier was once asked to play Santa for a friend's Christmas party, but his portrayal was so frightening that children at the party ran screaming in terror into the street. My performance as Santa at a north-west shopping centre was not so Grand Guignol, but simply sitting there was enough to scare some of the children who passed through the grotto.
"I now have a good in-depth knowledge of the consumer habits of young children and as I have a two-year-old daughter I was able to trade knowledgeable banter about Peppa Pig and Bob the Builder. The intricacies of Game Boy and other computer games escaped me but I was able to turn the conversations with older children around by asking whether they enjoyed school or what was their favourite football team.
"Sometimes you could see the neuroses of the parent transmitted to the child. A rather grave little boy looked at the bench I was sitting on and declined to sit with me for his photo on the grounds that it was not safe. A future career in the Health and Safety Inspectorate beckons, I thought.
"The last time I played Santa was when I was an education welfare officer during the 80s. A school caretaker had played the part for years before being rumbled by one of the older boys. Looking into the old gentleman's eyes he blurted out: 'It's bloody Bill Bates.' I became briefly Mr Bates's replacement.
"This latest shift as Santa reminded me of my old education welfare job as it was obvious that many of the kids were playing truant with acquiescent parents and I felt like revealing myself as an undercover truancy officer at the right moment to the surprised miscreants.
"The most touching moment was when a woman with severe disabilities came into my grotto. She held my hand and told me that Abba was her favourite group, and her favourite track was Dancing Queen. I told her mine was Voulez-Vous.
"At the end of the day I caught the train and tucked into the novel I'd bought to read on the journey. Resurrection by Tolstoy: another elderly geezer with a long white beard."

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Homes fit for heroes- 1920s in N Staffs

When Prime Minister Lloyd George announced at the end of the First World War the hope that victory in 1918 would result in making Britain a “land fit for heroes”. There was a expectation born in many people of North Staffordshire that the titanic struggles of the war were not in vain. The 1920s has therefore to be seen in the light of that pledge to the returning veterans that the blood shed by the 750,000 UK servicemen had worthwhile.

The history of North Staffordshire in the 1920s has to be framed in the light of the Great War. The pages of the local papers especially during Remembrance Sunday each November bear testimony to the pain endured by many in the area. Thousands of men returned home with some disability, blind, deaf or limbless. Thousands of women who lost fiancées or husbands and were to remain single for the rest of their lives. Many children would be fatherless Scores of men resident in local asylums the consequence of psychological trauma. And there were the dead always to be remembered at the building of the Great War memorials testifies. The Nicholson War memorial in Leek was constructed and dedicated by 1925 as just one example of many in the area.

The mid date of the decade- 1925- was also an important one for Stoke on Trent which received its City status by King George V whilst visiting the area and laying a foundation stone at NSRI. The title of Lord Mayor was granted by royal patent three years later on the first citizen of the City. But the City in terms of size and prestige had received a tremendous boost at the beginning of the decade when it increased in area in 1922 when large swathes of land were acquired from Chell in the north to Meir and Lightwood in the south.

It was an important decade politically as throughout the period the Labour party grew to be the principal political force in the area both in Council and parliamentary terms a pre-eminence it has rarely ceded in the last 80 years.

The City expanded in size and population growing from 240,000 in 1921 to 276,000 in 1931. Its growth and the condition of the housing stock were a priority for the City Council in the 20s and it was a test that it tried to deal with robustly. Linked with the problem of over crowding and poor housing stock in the City was the question of public health. Stoke on Trent in the early 20th century had an appalling public health record, for instance it was considered the scarlet fever capital of the UK. Many inhabitants fell ill and died from a variety of illness associated with poor living conditions such as typhus, smallpox and TB which was a major killer and which accounted for my grandfather at an early age in 1932.

The state of the housing stock can therefore be described as dire. By the 1920s 25,000 houses had no inside toilet and 19,000 were simply ashpits. A major public works scheme using local unemployed labour virtually solved this problem by the end of the decade. I cannot help but think from the position of 2011 that the same drive and vision directed at addressing adequate insulation of homes and fuel poverty could equally provide work for local unemployed 80 years later.

An issue facing the City Council was a problem caused by smoke from pottery manufacture, which accounted for high levels of respiratory illness. The bottle ovens being low, unlike the tall chimney associated with the textile industries of Lancashire and Yorkshire, meant that pollution blew over nearby housing causing health problems. Acquiring land after 1922 enabled the Council to begin building estates aided by progressive housing legislation passed by the first Labour Government in 1924. During the decade Stoke was building 550 houses a year in areas such as Stansfields, Chell, Abbey Hulton and Meir.

The private sector had a role as well and the activities of Sutton Housing Trust should be mentioned. Over 300 houses were built in the Trent Vale area by 1929.

One evident benefit from the improved sanitation, housing and living conditions especially an awareness of hygiene was a dramatic reduction in infant death rates, which halved from 1900 to 1940

Services followed the new estates The Hardman Institute in Milton housed the first community library during the decade and others were to follow during the 1930s.

The same development was occurring in Newcastle as 2,700 houses were built during the decade. The 20s also saw the growth of private estates in the Westlands and Clayton

But what about jobs?

Coal, Pottery, Iron and Steel and Textiles dominated the local economy.

 In the early 20s nearly 54,000 people or half the work force were employed in the pottery industry. A significant proportion of the labour force were women. A local trade directory of 1920 identified 250 firms that were associated with pottery production. Yet it was an industry that was trying to re establish its pre war dominance and was under threat from foreign competition most notably from East and Central Europe. However it was an industry that understood the need to adapt and during the 20s pottery manufacturers were beginning to install gas and electrically fired kilns. Another development especially with the growth of the new electricity industry was the expansion of ceramic insulators at a new factory in Milton.

The local tile manufacturers in Etruria also benefitted from the boom in house building in the inter war period.

Coal was mined at about 70 pits in North Staffordshire at the start of the decade with the largest mines owned by companies such as Shelton Iron and Steel and Florence Coal and Iron. The geologists were finding new and deeper seams and pits were being developed at Wolstanton, Hem heath and Chesterton. 37,000 men were employed in local pits at the start of the decade, which fell to 30,000 as the slump began to bite, Of course the work was always hazardous and shortly before the decade proof of the dangers of mining was demonstrated by the Minnie Pit disaster of 1918 at Halmerend which killed 156 men and boys.

 Given the nature of the work relationships between the men and mine owners were always fraught and it was the coal mining industry which was the front line of the struggle between the forces of capital and labour which culminated in the General Strike of 1926. The roots of the strike were the increasingly acrimonious series of disputes. 1921 saw a lengthy strike over pay and conditions, but following a report that recommended cutting miners pay and conditions coupled with an increasingly hard line taken by the owners and Government the Trade Union Congress agreed to support the Miners. A General Strike was called for the 9th May 1926. In reality both the TUC and the Government did not want a prolonged strike and the General Strike only last 9 days.

But the Miners continued with the strike for months before hardship forced the men back to work. The local writer Fred Leigh in a collection of essays on local history recounted the story of a miner called Archer living in Hanley who endured the misfortune of the dispute. In 1926 Archer was 30 years old and the father of 4. He was a veteran of the First World War having served on the Somme. As the strike went on the union strike pay ceased and the family were forced to pawn what little possession they had at the pawnshop in Hanley as well as relying on a little relief from the council. Archer also engaged in the illegal act of picking coal from a tip near Hanley Deep Mine to supplement his income. Eventually he was forced to pawn the war medals he had from the Great War. The manager of the shop did not want them and showed him a draw of medals proffered by other striking miners who were in the same predicament as Archer. The miner sold his medals for 4 shillings remarking in Leigh’s account.

“And those buggers said it would be a country fit for heroes”

Archer was caught taking coal from the waste tip near Hanley Deep Pit and was given 21 days in prison. The family’s humiliation is complete.

 Other big employer in the area were the iron and steel industry, which employed about 3,000 during the 20s and the silk industry based in Leek which continued to flourish during the period employing 4,500 in the town over half the working population of the town a majority women. The industry kept abreast of new technology with the company Wardle and Davenport pioneering artificial silk thread.

There were also new industries coming into the area and the most successful was Michelin allegedly resisted by local pottery manufacturers alarmed by the higher wages the French based company were paying their staff. Nevertheless attempts to block the tyre manufacturer failed and Michelin opened by 1927, it was employing 1550 by 1939.

Unemployment badly hit the area after the collapse of the economy after 1929. Kidsgrove was a particular black spot having an unemployment rate of 22% by 1929.

But what of activities to take the mind of the locals from a collapsing economy? Well, there was always football.

Port Vale had a good 1920s. It including beating rivals Stoke City in the 1925-6 season 3-0 on both occasions when both teams were in the Second Division. Vale after Stoke’s relegation from that division were the areas premier club. Vale was no doubt helped by one of the most prolific scorers in the clubs history Wilf Kirkham a local teacher and Methodist preacher. In three seasons in the 20s Kirkham scored a total of 109 goals.

Stoke City on the other hand hardly achieved their potential during the decade. Their promotion to the First Division proved short lived in 1922. They stayed anchored to the bottom of the division although and perhaps inevitably they did beat West Brom at the Hawthorns. They spent the decade bouncing between the divisions. A long term stalwart of the club who joined in the 20s was Bob McGrory and was to remain as player and manager for another 31 years despite the local legend that he so detested the industrial scenery of the area that he wanted to return to Scotland instantly

By the end of the 20s great emphasis was being placed on the younger players coming up. Stanley Matthews was given his debut for the club in March 1932.

Getting around the area was an important factor of life in the 20s. Trams, buses and trains presented the means by which locals moved around the conurbation at that time. The Potteries Electrical Traction expanded its bus service at the expense of trams, which it finally dispensed with in during the 20s. Stoke on Trent was unusual as it was one of the few manager cities that did not have its own passenger service unlike Liverpool, Manchester or Leeds. The period saw much competition for routes amongst many bus companies although PET emerged as the strongest of the companies and amalgamations occurred leading to PET, which eventually changed its name to PMT by the outbreak of the Second World War.

Incidentally the trams of Stoke on Trent received a type of literary immortality in their final year of existence in 1928 of being featured in Evelyn Waugh’s comic novel “Decline and Fall”. The” war hero” Captain Grimes admits that he really lost his leg, not in the trenches but falling over drunk and being run over by a tram in Stoke on Trent.

The times saw the demise of the fiercely independent local railway the North Staffordshire Railway known affectionately as the “Knotty” because of the use of the county symbol on the company crest. It had resisted attempts on a number of occasions of being taken over but in 1923 it became part of the London Midland and Scottish Railway. During the summer holidays throughout this period the distinctive red livery of the NSR could still be seen as far away as Llandudno taking Potters on holidays to the North Wales coast.

It would be wrong not to include some of the activities that people of the decade would have enjoyed. The 1920s saw people taking advantage of good public transport to discover the surrounding countryside especially in such new organisations as the Scouts.

Scouting continued to thrive in North Staffordshire during this period and the local papers carried regular reports on the health of the movement. The founder Robert Baden Powell visited Leek in 1920 and his connections with the area have been well documented. His book “Scouting for Boys” was partly written in the Staffordshire Peak District before the Great War. In May 1924 an anonymous correspondent “Scouter” in the Leek Times rhapsodised on the coming of summer. One could look forward to the smell of the campfire and the early morning dip in the river and the pleasures of living the natural life as opposed to the artificiality of the modern town dweller.  Scouter however was troubled

“ A number of privileges are given to scouts are now be taken away owing to the careless habits of people who preceded them and who fail to see that there careless habits are spoiling the ground for others. Scouts do not do this and the object of the scout camper is to leave as little trace as possible and he usually manages to do this. To learn to fend for yourself should be the object of every youth”.

Not all youth or adults were as hale or hearty. Local cinemas pioneered by George Barber continued to attract huge audiences at this time. The Regent in Hanley opened in 1929 in time for the first talkies in the area with capacity to take over 2000 people. And for the home stayers radio began to establish itself although it was an expensive medium. The BBC was established during this time

But if I was to name one person who perhaps the essential positive and dynamic view the North Staffordshire had of itself during the 20s that person would be Clarice Cliff the Tunstall based working class woman who took the world of art deco pottery by storm. Her attractive designs and bright colours could for some encapsulate the Jazz Age. By the late 20s following a visit to Paris she was leading the way in innovative patterns demonstrated in her Bizarre range. The success of Bizarre was phenominal and stylish patterns and ware flowed from her studios. The paradox being that Clarice born in 1899 would not have been able to vote until 1929 as the vote did not include women under 30. It was only in the 20s did Britain eventually become a democracy.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

The fall of Singapore 1942

A friend of mine Penny Stafford has a family heirloom a crystal bowl which is chipped. How it was broken is a story in itself. It was buried in the grounds of the family home in Singapore when the Japanese invaded in 1942 and the chip was caused by a bayonet prodding the ground in search of possessions. After the war the bowl was retrieved and now sits on a table in the family home in Surrey.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the fall of Singapore, according to Churchill the worst disaster ever to befall British military. About 80,000 Allied servicemen ended up in captivity. Many had just arrived and had not fired a bullet in anger.

The calamity was compounded by the loss of two capital ships the Prince of Wales and the Repulse sank by Japanese aircraft, Despite having numerical superiority the Allies were out manoeuvred by an enemy who were better trained and led. The British commander Arthur Percival and his staff underestimated the Japanese especially their ability to advance through the jungle. General Percival refused to accept the reports of the rapidity of the Imperial Army. His high handed attitude with subordinates and his willingness to reject new thinking on the need for adequate defences doomed his troops.

 My friend’s father was unusual in that he fought in both World Wars. He was a Second Lieutenant in the Australian Army on the Western Front and a Colonel in the Malay Infantry Brigade. He owned rubber plantations on the peninsula. His command fought bravery and he was captured and served 3 years in Changi Jail. He was 6 foot 2 inches and weighed 5and half stone on his release. He was treated terribly .Two Leek men died in the campaign Ordinary Seaman Horace Lovatt of 37Abbots Rd was killed when HMS Dragonfly was bombed during when evacuating troops and Private Ron Sheldon of the North Lancashire Regiment died in the fighting in Singapore. Another Leek man Leading Stoker Frederick Rogers of Mill St was captured when HMS Grasshopper was beached. He would later die the result of forced labour on the Burma Railway. The brutal treatment of Allied servicemen and civilians caused much bitterness. For many years later my parents refused to buy Japanese

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A North Staffordshire Christmas in hard times -1916

Christmas 2012 will be a very difficult time for many in North Staffordshire. For some in our area they will be battling the continuing recession, some will have lost their jobs, others will have had work hours cut and pay reduced. People will also feel the impact of price rises and their feelings of misery will be compounded by the present cold snap.. A general feeling will be that this Christmas will be one to be endured, could any Christmas be worse than the one that we will face soon?

The purpose of this article is to shine a light on a Christmas that was far bleaker in terms of circumstance than the present festive season. Christmas 1916 occurs, although people would have been unaware of this, right in the middle of the First World War. 1916 was an appalling year; over 1 million soldiers had died in the epic battles of the Western Front. At Verdun and at the Somme the Armies of Britain, France and Germany had been involved in titanic struggles. In the case of the Somme began on the 1st July 1916 over 60,000 British soldiers were killed and wounded on the opening day of the Battle. The Battle of the Somme would peter out into a bloody stalemate in November with very few of the overall objectives reached a sense of futility was beginning to settle in the minds of some. In Ireland the Irish Republican Army rose in rebellion in Easter 1916 which ultimately see the beginning of the long struggle for Irish self-determination. In other theatres of war involving British War there were no great advances. In the Middle East the Turkish Army was mounting a stiff resistance to the British Army and a similar picture emerges in Greece and Italy. The successful German U Boat campaign had sunk many British Merchantmen and by the summer it was reckoned that there was only 6 weeks grain supply.  The Royal Navy had failed to destroy the Imperial German Navy at the only great naval battle of the war- Jutland. Britain’s Allies were also coming under pressure. The French had taken huge losses that year, The Russians were on the brink of collapse and America was yet to enter the war.

The principle domestic news during December was the replacement of Herbert Asquith the Prime Minister of the last 8 years with the more dynamic David Lloyd George who was thought to bring more drive and action into the prosecution of the war. The Sentinel approved of the choice but the events that crowded Lloyd George’s in tray were as daunting as Winston Churchill’s 14 years later.

Christmas 1916 was beset with food shortages, bad news from the front and the worst weather for over 30 years. It must have been a miserable time. The people of the area were now engaged in a total war and news from the front was eagerly sought. That December Burslem Picture Palace showed stirring film of the recent successful defence of Verdun as well as the ground breaking film record of the Battle of the Somme. The iconic clip of film that showed a British Tommy carrying a dying fellow soldier is made even more poignant by the fact that the soldier William Holland was from Tunstall.

But the news from the front and the prospect of a telegram bearing terrible news was a constant possibility for the households of servicemen

Mrs Cullen of Ricardo St, Buslem received the official news that her husband James of the North Staffs Regiment had been killed. A former miner he had volunteered in the early days of the war.

Another telegram reached the home of Sargent Perry of Elizabeth Street Hanley informing his wife that he had been killed. A veteran of the Boer War JW Perry had worked at Hanley Deep Pit. He left 5 children. It must have been the worst imaginable Christmas for the Perry family as the telegram reached them on the 23rd of December.

These incidents were played out in countless homes in North Staffordshire in the four years of the war.

The thoughts of families of soldiers and sailors turned to them this Christmas season and thought went into making their lives in the service of their country more bearable. Swinnerton'’ of Snow Hill, Shelton the caterer were supplying Christmas Hampers for the troops. Elsewhere mothers were exhorted to send your boy a soft woollen scarf and helmet.

For the public-spirited shopper Huntbach’s of Hanley had a large supply of British Doll’s and Toys. Germany in the year’s before the war exported many dolls into the country and hostilities had cut that supply off. Webberleys were offering a wide range of popular books again at their Hanley shop. Dewberry’s of Queen St Burslem advertised a large selection of Christmas presents. However shoppers in a Sentinel were urged to shop as early as possible. The lighting restrictions were in force and it was doing one’s loyal duty to shop in the day light.

The war however was increasingly being fought in an atmosphere of growing shortages on the domestic front as bread and meal prices increased sharply on the previous year the consequences of German Naval action

A Butcher in Tunstall wrote to the Sentinel pointing out that cheap food was a thing of the past

“ The House wife will be called on to pay more for the Christmas joint and I’m afraid to say that the higher prices that we latterly have known will prevail after Christmas”

The Bread Question even made into the debating chamber of the City Council who called for Government action as high prices were proving damaging top morale. The Council moved to open up some of the local parks into allotments to increase food production.

What is interesting in the advertisement are the products that we know such as Bovril and Oxo “that gives strength to resist cold, exhaustion and fatigue” with line drawings of our brave boys at the front. And if you over indulged at Christmas you could always reach for a glass of Andrew’s Liver Salt.

Perhaps even more interesting are the products that are no longer in use such as Doan’s Kidney Pills especially good for Miners, Pinkabolic soap and Scott’s Emulsion to protect your baby from the cold and medicinal compounds with dubious claims Nostroline cured influenza.

Of course Christmas is a time to consider people less fortune than the rest of the population. The difficult question of whether the poor of Stoke Workhouse should receive their beer ration was a vexed one. In a patriotic gesture the King George V had renounced alcohol and the Poor Law Commissioners now had this royal steer in deciding whether the local poor could have their usual libation. On an even vote 12-12 the chair a local Methodist Clergyman decided to cast his vote for temperance and the ban stood. Mr Gifford who had supported retention of the beer allowance raged in the Sentinel that it was a “great injustice”. The whole incident brings to mind the quote from the American journalist of the time that “ Methodism was the haunting fear that someone somewhere was enjoying themselves”.

The Temperance Movement was never too far away in the Potteries at that time there was an advertisement for a Milk Stout that represented a revolution in temperance drinking

There was plenty of ways to enjoy yourself even in war ravaged North Staffordshire. Charlie Chaplin who only 12 years earlier was appearing in local theatres was by now a world star and his latest film “ The Fireman” could be seen at the Majestic Cinema. The blockbuster of the time was the DW Griffiths film “Birth of a Nation” an inflammatory film in its representation of black Americans it caused race riots when it was shown in the States. The response in Hanley was more muted. Barber’s Picture Palace s had during the Christmas season the Six Marcellas. A revue played at the Theatre Royal Sugar and Spice starring Claire Romance and the Sweetie, Sweet Chorus promised wonderful dresses worn by a bevy of beautiful ladies. It went down well and my eye was drawn to a positive comment made about the dancing and singing of a young Lancastrian juvenile comedienne the 11 year old Hylda Baker “ a clever young lady”.

The pantomime at the Hippodrome was Jack and the Beanstalk “ an entirely new and costly production”.

What the visiting actors thought of the Potteries at this time can perhaps be gleaned by a quote from a young Noel Coward who was touring with a production of Charlie’s Aunt in 1916. He wrote to his mother as a homesick 16 year old “ Hanley is the most horribly depressing place I have ever been to”

There was always the Football. Stoke were doing very well that season they drew at Ewood Park in very heavy conditions and their draw at Blackpool was considered by the football reporter to be a “moral victory if not an actual victory”. Port Vale playing at Hanley entertained Manchester United during a match that month.

The weather does not seem to have disrupted the football season, as the weather in December 1916 was terrible. The worst weather for many years hit North Staffordshire that month with the worst snowfall since the 1880s. The snow caused havoc and trams were running very late and the snowfall suspended rail travel. During the Christmas weekend the Sentinel reported that the snow covered ground made conditions far from pleasant and the general desire was to cling to the house fireside.
The Sentinel reported Christmas day events at the North Staffordshire Hospital, which was decorated very effectively

“ The cheerfulness of the soldiers affected everybody. A number of men masqueraded in wonderful make up, costumes and created much merriment”

Some days afterwards the letters page carried a brief letter from a wounded soldier who was present that day on the war.

Please grant me space to say that I am extremely grateful for all our good friends in the Potteries who have done so much to make our Christmas day a happy one. As a wounded Canadian I feel deeply touched by the warm heartedness of the people of the district and I’m sure the boys here would love to chorus to all who gave their help. Thank you very much

G Aldridge 8th Canadians.

What can we conclude from this account? People in 1916 seem to have dealt with their very difficult circumstances very stoically. The letter pages are full of good cheer; there is no questioning of the war although censorship and a more deferential age would not have countenanced protest. Above all one comes away of a feeling of great solidarity and comradeship, which would be tested, in another two years of bloodshed and grief.

An Edwardian Ghost story

A drinking companion told me a fascinating story concerning a walk he and a group undertook one day along Monsal Trial in Derbyshire. Being a fit man Derek, not his real name, was well ahead of the other walkers. Derek was striding out with another chap. Suddenly they were over taken by a curiously dressed figure. Derek heard his companion say, “ It’s a long time since he has been on a train”. The figure did not respond but with fixed stare marched steadily on ignoring their good morrows. I said curiously dressed for indeed he was. The middle aged  man was dressed as a railway worker from around 1900. He was wearing three-quarter length coat with brass buttons a kepi cap and polished boots, very fashionable in the Edwardian period but a trifle bizarre in the 21st century. The figure marched past them into a cutting and vanished before their incredulous gaze. There was no where he could have gone. The larger group who were some distance away had not seen the railway guard. The trail had been a former railway line opened in the 1860s closing a hundred years later.

 The incident led me to discuss with another friend the Edwardian ghost story. We both agreed that the past master of the type was MR James. James’s world is an evocative one of railway branch lines, country houses, flickering gaslight, dusty archives and ancient legends. The provost of King’s College Cambridge his annual Christmas treat was to invite undergraduates to his study and over port read his latest ghost story. My friend and I spoke of our favourite. I would select “ A Warning to the Curious” a story of what happens to an archaeologist who delves too far into a legend concerned a buried Saxon crown and its dead protector. He liked “ Whistle and I’ll come to you my lad”. Both stories are set in the Suffolk town of Aldeburgh. James is not the only master although his name is the one most frequently evoked. Another name to suggest for those interested in a spine chilling read is the shamefully neglected Algenon Blackwood. His stories such as “ The Empty House” and “Keeping his promise” are worthy of perusal but preferably when not alone or highly susceptible to unexplained noise

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

TE Hulme- the warrior poet from Endon

Between November 1915 and March 1916 a number of articles appeared in the national press under the pen name of “North Staffs”. “North Staffs” was a serving soldier in the army who used the articles to attack the direction of the war, the stupidity of the officer class as well as the necessity for the First World War in the wake of a growing pacifist movement.

The author of these articles was Thomas Ernest Hulme born in Gratton Hall a brick built mansion on a hill which commanded good views of the North Staffordshire countryside. A few miles away to the south west lay Dunwood Hall the home of his paternal grandparents. It is a prominent 19th century building which still stands today beside the A53 just outside Leek.

Thomas Ernest Hulme was born on the 16th September 1883. He was born to a moderately prosperous family who had made their money from ceramic transfers used to create large amounts of pottery and incidentally the same business that Vera Brittan’s family were engaged. Although in the First World War the views of the University educated scions of North Staffordshire on the war would take different directions. His privileged upbringing ensured that he was able to go on to the local public school in Newcastle under Lyme and then on to Cambridge.

His career at Cambridge was not a success and he was expelled for riotous behaviour in 1904. He gained a reputation for womanising- a reputation that remained with him throughout his life. One of the features of life at this time was his unwillingness to settle to a direction in life he was given to walking the countryside and  on one occasion walked from London to the family home in Endon. To the frustration of his family for a few years he continued to drift around including a period of living in Canada. After 1907 he went on to teach English in Brussels while also learning German and French. It was here that he finally decided to become a writer and a poet.

 He was fortunate in that he was financially supported in this objective by an elderly North Staffordshire based aunt who believed in his abilities. His father was less convinced believing that there was no need for a philosopher or poet in Endon. He returned to London and began to write and read poetry. Hulme was very proud of his North Staffordshire accent and it was so strong as to make it difficult for refined members of the audiences he lectured to understand him. For the next years up to the outbreak of the First World war Hulme established a reputation as one of the developing thinkers on the direction of poetry in the early years of the 20th century. He was closely associated with the magazine New Age where his articles became a powerful influence on modern poetry and criticism. His admirers included Rupert Brooke, although Hulme felt that he was precious, the American poet Ezra Pound and his compatriot TS Eliot who was introduced to his work in the 1920s after Hulme’s death. He also was briefly associated with DH Lawrence although he had a long term association with the sculptor Jacob Epstein.

In August 1914 war broke out and Hulme volunteered for the Honorary Artillery Company although initially he did not apply for a commission as he was rather ambivalent to authority. He went to France with his regiment in January 1915 describing the war in a series of lengthy letters to his father as trench war began in earnest. On the 14th April 1915 Hulme was wounded in the elbow by a bullet that killed the man behind him.

 He wrote to a friend that the dead man was a good footballer and his colleagues in the trench would have preferred it that a poet had been killed and the footballer slightly wounded.

When he returned to Britain for treatment medical staff were shocked that he read books by German philosophers. He returned to the war quickly and sought a commission in the Royal Marine Artillery. The death in the war of a close friend the French sculptor Henri Gaudier Brzeska- whose life was made into a film by Ken Russell hardened him to the war when previous he had an indifferent attitude to the fate of his comrade. It also convinced him of the need to become an officer as the quality of officer that he observed in the early months of the war did not fill him with any confidence. The idea of being killed merely because the man in charge was a complete fool struck him with particular force.

In 1916 a bill was passed in the House of Commons making all men between 18 and 40 liable to military service with single men being conscripted first. The morality of this hit him hard. He recognised the argument that conscription was an intolerable attack on civil liberties but felt that the war was just and had to be fought. He recognised that given that this was now a total war that political and military authority had a responsibility to ensure that lives were not needlessly sacrificed in the prosecution of the war. This attitude brought the Cambridge educated Hulme into conflict with the Cambridge educated Bertrand Russell who in early 1916 took issue with the arguments that Hulme was advancing.

 Russell the grandson of a 19th century Prime Minister was the most passionate of advocates of the pacifist cause. He was well known to Hulme from their Cambridge days. The differences between the two men were complete both in terms of personality and belief. For Russell liberty was an inherent right- for Hulme it was something that had to be fought for. For Russell, a German victory in Europe if it led to a preserved peace was to be welcomed, for Hulme, such a victory meant the disappearance of democracy and the emergence of tyranny. Hulme believed that there were certain values than were more important than life itself and which were worth dying for. He realised that such opinions were easily mocked in the pacifist circles that Russell moved in. An exchange of published letters took place between the two men throughout 1916.

 A problem for Russell in countering Hulme’s arguments was that the sentiments expressed by “North Staffs” were not simply of the warmongering or militaristic type. The view of the soldier poet was that war was stupid a necessary stupidity but still a stupidity. A refusal to fight and adopting the Russell position of pacifism would lead if the Germans won to a loss of the liberal tradition of this country and its replacement with Prussian militarism.

During 1916 Russell began a lecture tour of the north to propound his views on the war a number of the meetings were banned by the Government fearful that Russell’s views might have an impact upon morale. Russell did find time to conduct an affair with an actress Constance Malleson an opportunity arose to consummate the affair after a lecture in Manchester in November 1916 when they stayed at the “Cat and Fiddle” pub on the Derbyshire/ Staffordshire border.

Russell recalled that,” it was bitterly cold and the water in my jug was frozen in the morning. But the bleak moors suited our mood. They were stark but gave a sense of vast freedom. We spent our days in long walks and our nights in an emotion that held all the pain of the world in solution”

 However, during this time of conflict in print the two men never met. Russell confirmed Hulme’s view of his pacifist opponents that they could never take seriously any view except their own. Years later Russell believed Hulme was an “evil man who created nothing but evil” and that he would have ended up a fascist like Oswald Mosley

In the last year of his life Hulme spent a period training in Northern Scotland before rejoining his unit in Belgium in command of 9.2 inch gun shelling German costal positions near Ostend.

He travelled back to Endon to see his family a last time on leave in September 1917. His sister noted that he seemed older and realised that this might be his last leave. He was blown to pieces by a German shell 4 days after his 34th birthday. What was left of him was buried in a Military Cemetery at Koksijde in Belgium.

A window to his memory exists in St Luke’s Church in Endon there is a text from the Book of Common Prayer which was found on a piece of paper in the pocket of his uniform at the time of his death

The man who feared Vampires- Jan 1973

As befits a former Navy man Frederick Hails ran a tight ship. As the Coroner for North Staffs from the 1960s to 80s  he was known for asking awkward, probing questions especially in the cases of death arising from working in the pottery or mining industry. On one occasion he was so interested in conditions underground that he arranged a visit down a local mine to see for himself. He was involved in a number of groundbreaking cases including the first inquest into a death caused by the contraceptive pill. He was the first Coroner to call for the introduction of childproof drug containers. Later his investigation into a death revealed that a chemical was responsible for giving workers stomach cancer- the chemical was speedily withdrawn from usage. He was not averse from using technology in his cases and he introduced a tape recorder to take down evidence.

 But it was a bizarre case that he heard on the 8th January 1973 that must be regarded as such by this experienced public servant to ever to have come across. The matter concerned the discovery of a body some weeks before in a bed sit in 2 the Villas off London Road in Stoke. The corpse was that of Demetrious Myiciura a 56-year-old pottery worker who was found dead in his small dimly lit bedroom. The scene surrounding the corpse that was met by Police Constable John Pye will have probably stayed with him his entire career. Around the body on the floor was laid out sheets of newspaper. A bag of salt was wrapped around the dead man’s neck and another was placed between his legs. The man had mixed salt with his urine and put it in various containers around the room. There were a number of crucifixes hanging from the wall.  On the window ledge was a bowl containing a mix of human excrement and garlic. In the mouth of Myiciura was what appeared to be a pickled onion on which he had apparently choked to death. At the inquest the pathologist reported that Myiciura had choked to death on the onion. Frederick Hails thought this unusual, but commented that it was not unknown for people "to bolt their food and die." Meanwhile the young policeman could not forgotten what he had seen. He had gone to Hanley Library and read books on vampires and vampirism. His suspicions were confirmed; the salt and garlic are traditional vampire repellents, and the mixture on Myiciura's window ledge was intended to attract vampires who would then be poisoned by the garlic. When told of this, the coroner ordered a re-examination of the pickled onion. It was found to be a clove of garlic. As a final desperate measure to ward off the vampires, Myiciura had slept with a clove of garlic in his mouth, and the garlic had choked him to death. Fear and dread killed him: the vampires did get him in the end.

There is renewed interest in vampires as this year is the 100th anniversary of the death of the creator of the modern vampire myth Bram Stoker whose 1897 novel Dracula did a great deal to ignite the modern day interest in the cult. A film set in 1972 staring Johnny Depp as the Count is being released. Of course the fear of vampires lies deep in the psyche of Central and Eastern Europe especially in rural areas. The Coroners report in the Sentinel in early January 1973 states that Myiciura was a farmer before the Second World War from the Southern Polish town of Mysienice. It should be also worth noting that as he was born in 1917 he would have seen a great deal of blood shed. In his early years the Poles were engaged in a conflict with Soviet Russia. The war led to atrocities on both sides and in 1939 both the Nazis and the Soviets invaded the country. Poland's population losses during World War II were proportionately by far the greatest of any nation participating in the war. Of its 35 million people before the war, Poland lost 6.5 million. An estimated 664,000 were battlefield deaths (this figure exceeds combined losses of the United States and Great Britain in the Second World War), and the remainder, or 90 percent, were civilians of all ages. His hometown saw the massacre of its Jewish population in 1942. It is not surprising that his mind harboured dark thoughts of mayhem and loss of blood that led to his squalid death in a bed sit in Stoke.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Werrington UFO

Watching the skies for unidentified flying objects was a trend that became more noticeable after the Second World War with reports of flying saucers cropping up everywhere. I was fascinated therefore of an early account of a cigar shaped object seen in the skies of the Midlands and Wales in 1909. It was described in the Tamworth Herald as a boat cigar shaped making a whizzing noise and travelling at great speed. At the time there were fears of Germany aggressive intentions. It was concluded that the mysterious airship was a secret weapon of the Germans.

 The real hysteria that gripped the nation about “flying saucers” started in the late 40s coinciding with the start of the space race and the developing Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West. The peak of such sighting occurred in the late 60s with accounts of many UFOs seen locally. A hot spot for such sightings seems to have been Werrington. In October 1967 a local saw through a window a glowing orange-red, cigar-shaped object hovering low in the sky, a bluish-green area visible on its underside. It was a clear night. The brilliant light from the object tended to conceal its outline and illuminated his room like the full moon. After several minutes, the object accelerated and sped away at speed, its front portion increasing in brightness until it appeared white

Two years later a police officer was driving a marked police vehicle in Werrington when he was advised by radio to look for an unusual object heading in his direction. Moments later he observed a ‘V’ formation of nine UFOs. There was no sound at all and they moved at an exceptionally high speed. The policeman thought the object had mother of pearl effect with colours swirling all around each other. It was a clear night with little cloud cover. He reported his sighting over the radio and heard another officer saying he too had witnessed the lights. The next day he visited Leek police station with another five officers who had witnessed the formation. They were told to keep quiet about their experience.

Of course the majority of these sightings can be explained by satellites, aeroplanes or celestial objects such as meteors. However the persistence and the variety of such incidents does make you wonder whether we are alone. In the manner of a narrator of a B movie from the 50s we should continue watching the sky

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Hares and "Unquakerly" behaviour at Swythamley

The Hare ambled nonchalantly off as the car passed. It was sitting beside the back road between Monyash and Bakewell as we approached. I have been closer to them before. One March day in fields near Ipstones I came across them “boxing” and so unconcerned by my presence that I got close to them as the fur literally flew.

Throughout the world, there are legends concerning Hares from the Americas to the Far East, from Africa to Europe. The animal is embedded deeply in the folk myths of our ancestors. It is associated in mythology with the Moon, cunning and bravery. There is evidence of Hare mythology in ancient pottery, coins, seals, and cuneiform writings and in oral history.

The most striking thing about the mythology of hares is the degree of commonality across the globe. Similar to the fact that most ancient cultures have a flood myth, most also seem to have hare mythology

To the Celts the Hare was sacred to the White Goddess - the Earth Mother - and as such was considered to be a royal animal. Boudicca released a Hare as a good omen before each battle divining the outcome of battle by the animals movements.

Hares have a place in British folklore. The suggestion that the animal is unworldly is an ancient one. Gerald Cambrensis writing in the 12th century tells of a belief that witches in Wales can change themselves in Hares. One such story closer to home was collected by a Catholic priest in Leek during the 1950s. WP Witcutt’s account concerns Hag Farm near Swythamley and a 17th century witch who turned herself into a Hare to be coursed by a farmer called Wood in return for a gratuity given by her husband. The husband of the witch would watch the event with interest and often money was exchanged. Witcutt mentions that Wood was a friend of the Quaker William Penn the founder of Pennsylvania. The Priest speculated what the local Society of Friends in Leek must have felt of this bizarre carrying-on, as it is very unquakerly behaviour, is unknown

Monday, 26 November 2012

North Staffs and the American Civil War

John Clews was born in Burslem in 1839 and left as an 8 year old with his father to be part of the scheme to set up a community in Wisconsin supported by the Potters Union after recession hit the industry in the 1840s. This decade was known as the hungry 40s as many suffered poverty and hardship emigrating to the New World seemed the only way to escape unemployment. A number of families from the area arrived in New York on the ship the Clifton in May 1847 and journeyed north to establish a settlement in Columbia County, Wisconsin..
Unfortunately the community did not thrive and quickly collapsed. The settlers stayed in the States amongst them John Clews who was working as a farm labourer in the 1860 US Census. He married in March 1863 and joined up the following year. Clews enlisted in E Company 38th Infantry Regiment which saw heavy fighting before the key Virginian town of Petersburg. In many ways this battle seemed to prefigure the terrible battles of the First World War as Union and Confederates fought in trenches in heavily fortified positions. Clews was killed on the 21st August 1864 at the Battle of Weldon Railroad. As the official history of the 38th Regiment details the regiment threw up a barricade across the railroad track
" These works were scarcely completed, before the enemy made a fierce assault at 9am determined to gain this important line of supply. They were repulsed with great slaughter. Again and again they returned to the assault and each time they were repulsed. After two hours hard fighting the Union forces drove the enemy from the field and fortified their position".

Another veteran of this particular battle was Clews near neighbour Henry Sawyer who was born in Burslem in 1840. Unlike Clews he survived the war and became a prosperous dairy farmer. Sawyer died in the 1920s
Tracing a North Staffs connection with the Confederate forces is however is problematic as the South was a more settled agrarian community. One family that settled in Virginia in the 17th century were the Bagnalls. John Bagnall received land in the area for dealing in slaves in 1654. Some years later the area became known as Stafford County, the Bagnall family honouring their ancestral home. During the Civil war several Bagnalls fought for the South including Richard D Bagnall who joined the 6th Virginian Infantry Regiment who fought at Petersburg close to where John Clews of Burslem, fighting for the other side, lost his life

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Colonel Olcott and Ceylon

Bill Cawley on a Leek connection to Sri Lanka and bloody business now.
The American Colonel Henry Olcott is the only speaker, as far as I am aware, at the Nicholson Institute ever to have a national day proclaimed after him as well as appearing on a national stamp. Olcott spoke at the Institute in November 1889 as the guest of Ralph de Sneyd Tunstall of Onecote- mystic, collector and eccentric. Both were engaged in the Theosophical Society founded in New York by Madame Blavatsky
The Society developed in response to the interest shown in the Victorian period in spiritualism and Eastern religions. Sneyd who was fascinated with the occult met Blavatsky in 1889. He fell under the spell of the movement and arranged that Olcott later to become President of the Society to give a talk in Leek.
Olcott was a very interesting man. He was the only Yankee journalist to attend the execution of John Brown in 1859 after the failed uprising at Harper’s Ferry- one of the causes of the American Civil War.
He was also a member of the board of inquiry set up after the assassination of President Lincoln. He later moved to Ceylon or Sri Lanka as it is now known and was one of the instigators of the Buddhist Nationalist revival which fuelled the independence movement. He is commemorated on a Sri Lankan stamp and the death of his death 19th February is honoured by the lighting of candles.

Sri Lanka is in the news now. There are substantial accusations of war crimes carried out by the army following the ending of a particularly bloody civil war involving the separatists Tamil Tigers who also committed atrocities. Over 40,000 civilians, many of them children, died in the final stages and covering up of these events has caused international condemnation. They are not brought to book because they have powerful friends in India. The Indians don’t want to upset the Sri Lankans as their business interests are threatened. In the same way that the Russians excuse the behaviour of the Syrians and the West overlook the Chinese actions in Tibet. Sadly commercial interests will always trump human rights every time and the result is innocents suffer.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Leek and the Haiti connection

I saw a puppet Baron Samedi the voodoo deity in a garden in Leek. His black top hat was covered frost. He did not look happy. The figure suggests that the Haitian cult of voodoo may have a toe hold in the town. Curiously enough though Leek does have a connection with the benighted Caribbean island in the shape of General Brunet of Clerk Bank.

The early 1800s saw the culmination of a bloody slave revolt on the island of San Domingo. The man who would eventually lead the revolt was Touissant L’Ouverture regarded by admirers as the “Black Napoleon” due to his military prowess. This remarkable man the son of African slaves proclaimed the end of slavery on the island and lead a war of liberation taking on the French, Spanish and finally the British who sent 20,000 to conquer San Domingo in 1798.

 By 1802 Napoleon was determined to recapture the island and reinstitute slavery. And this is where General Jean Baptiste Brunet comes in. An army commanded by General Le Clerc with Brunet as a second in command landed. Toussaint waged a successful guerrilla war against the French who lost many. Eventually both sides wearied of the conflict and peace negotiations agreed. However, Napoleon still wanted him arrested and Brunet drew Toussaint in on a promise of safe conduct. It turned out to be a trick and he was arrested along with his family and taken to an isolated chateau in the French Alps. (I realise that readers might find difficult to believe that the French act duplicitously).

The manner of Toussaint’s betrayal of which Brunet played a prominent part lead to a violent uprising which lead to the French abandoning the island. San Domingo changed its name to Haiti and became an independent country, perhaps the most successful slave uprising in history.

As for Brunet he was captured by the British in October 1803 and arrived in Leek the following year. By 1812 he was living in was living in Clerk Bank. He held a soirée, which met weekly in the Sheepmarket. The General had a comfortable life to be contrasted with the humiliation and privation suffered by the great man he brazenly tricked.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Russian War hero visits Alton Towers 1839

Gallitzin- a battle hardened visitor comes to Alton Towers

It is gratifying to note that corrections in spectacular mistakes in newspapers are not a new phenomenon. I came across such a correction in the Staffordshire Advertiser in July 1839 concerning a distinguished visitor to the home of the Earl of Shrewsbury- Alton Towers. The newspaper amended a previous report that Prince Dmitry Gallitzin of the Imperial Russian court was the governor of Moscow and not Mexico as had been previous stated.

It was something about the name Gallitzin that triggered a response in me. I looked further. They were an extended family of Russian aristocrats that served the Czar’s right up to the revolution where a descendent of Dmitry was the last Prime Minister to Nicholas II and like his master was shot by the Communists. The one who visited Staffordshire in the 1830s was a soldier. He seems to have been involved in every battle fought against Napoleon from Austerlitz in 1805 to the killing grounds of Borodino in 1812. His mother was the model for the poets Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades”, she was also known as the “moustached lady”, and his brother Nicolay was a patron of Beethoven and commissioned the late string quartets. While Dmitry was in the area he visited the Potteries he visited the Copeland showrooms.

The Battle of Borodino was a ferocious encounter fought was the largest and bloodiest single-day action in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. It involved more than 250,000 troops and resulting in at least 70,000 casualties. Such losses were next seen in World War One. The French attacked the Russians under General Kutuzov, but failed to destroy the Russian army despite heavy losses. About a third of Napoleon's soldiers were killed or wounded; Russian losses were also heavy. Gallitzin commanded a cavalry division. The Russians retreated after the engagement and the French advanced on Moscow burning it before being forced into an ignominious retreat. By the time they left Russian lands over 300,000 had died in fighting or cold and disease. In the depths of the savage winter the retreating French ate their horses and huddled inside the carcasses of animals to keep warm. The campaign forms a backdrop to Tolstoy’s great novel “War and Peace”. Given this experience the life of French Prisoners of War at this time lozzucking in Leek would seem to be cushy.

Rousseau- father of the French Revolution and the Moorlands

Jean Jacques Rousseau, political theorist, father of the French Revolution,  creator of the first autobiography and pioneer conservationist spent time in the Moorlands.

Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712. His mother died in childbirth and he had a very difficult childhood. He came to writing late and achieved fame in an essay that promoted the notion of the “noble savage”.

 A principle target was the Catholic Church, which he accused of supporting tyranny. He particularly criticised the role that religion had in educating the young. These sentiments bought the wrath of the Church down on his head in his adopted country France.

 His house was attacked by a mob and he had no choice but to become a refugee. The agent for achieving this rescue was the philosopher David Hume who met Rousseau in Paris.  Hume made the arrangements for Rousseau’s move to Britain. The journey was incident packed, foolishly he allowed his mistress the sexually insatiable Madame Levasser to travel later with the philanderer biographer Boswell.

He was offered the use of Wotton Hall, which offered him the rural tranquillity that he sought.

Philosopher, mistress and Sultan the dog all arrived in Staffordshire in late March 1766. He instantly fell in love with the area.

His wandering figure was a strange sight for Moorlanders.  William Howitt in “Visits to Remarkable Places” published in 1841 reported him dressed in Armenian cloak, a furred cap and long stripped robe. The locals  80 years on recalled the strange figure that some thought was an exiled potentate.

 “ What owd Ross Hall? Ay know him I did, well enough ah’ve seen him monny a tarm, every dee comin and gooin ins hays comical cap and ploddy gown.”
His mistress however was complaining in the manner of a modern day WAG found shops of Ashbourne unworthy of her custom.

Eventually having to endure another cold spring at Wotton, Rousseau whose mental instability had been exacerbated by the sour feelings that his mistress had for the area. They left in May 1767; he distributed his clothes amongst the poor. He continued to correspond with his Staffordshire friends for years after. He died in 1778. In 1794 at the height of the Revolution his body was exhumed and he lies in the Pantheon in Paris, a city he despised in life.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Leek Soldier in the Crimea 1854-5 Part 2

The 20th Regiment of Foot was involved in one of the major battles of the campaign at Inkerman when they were part of the Second Division under the command of Sir George Cathcart at Shell Hill above Sevastopol. The Russians launched an attack on the heights, which nearly took the British by surprise on the 5th November 1854. It was a bloody and closely fought affair as a report from the New York Times describes

“It was a series of dreadful deeds of daring, of sanguinary hand-to-hand fights, of despairing rallies, of desperate assaults - in glens and valleys, in brushwood glades and remote dells, hidden from all human eyes. No one, however placed, could have witnessed even a small portion of the doings of this eventful day; for the vapours, fog and drizzling mist, obscured the ground where the struggle took place to such an extent as to render it impossible to see what was going on at the distance of a few yards”

The Leek soldier must have been heavily involved in the murderous fighting which took the life, amongst the 597 British soldiers that Sunday morning of the commander Cathcart. He was forlorn

“I have left many thousands of my brother soldiers dead on the field of battle, praying that their souls are in heaven are far better place where any are of us are at this time. The miseries that I endure are unaccountable”

He was cold and starving as there were difficulties with transporting supplies  handicapped by impassable roads and frequent blizzards. Basic supplies were not getting through. The French by contrast had a better stores. Stuck in the trenches before Sevastopol he was knee deep in mud and water. The conditions predict the conditions endured by First World War soldiers 60 years later. “May God send you and yours may not suffer what I have suffered”, he wearily wrote. He sent his brother a gift of 3 red feathers taken from the hat of a Russian General at Inkerman. He asked that they be distributed to friends and his niece Ann. “I could tell you things that would blood turn chilly, if I should return I could tell you many a tale”. The ink, which the soldier had written his letter, was made from gunpowder, as there was a shortage of ink and paper.

The fate of the Leek soldier is unknown but his account indicates that the lot of the ordinary soldier is a common one throughout the ages.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Comet 168o

In the parish records at Alstonefield is an astrological phenomenon that the villagers witnessed

Very strange and fiery meteors in form like a sword, appeared North West by west in December 1680, and continued about 6 weeks after which ensued a long and tedious drought.

Between 1663 and 1680 there were 5 comets seen over England which to the contemporary mind linked celestial activities and the unsettled times that the country was living through with plague, pestilence and revolution all occurring at this time. There is a sense that whoever wrote the comments in the parish journal was simply echoing the feelings of the time that comets seen in the sky were a fearful celestial sign of events that were being played out on earth. People believed all over the world that the Day of Judgement was approaching.

But the 17th century saw a growing interest in the heavens through the work of Galileo, Newton and Halley aided by technological advance such as telescopes and an intellectual framework on which to develop concepts

On November 14, 1680, Gottfried Kirch the German astronomer detected a new comet, becoming on that day the first person to discover a comet using a telescope. Astronomers throughout Europe tracked its position for several months. It was visible in the Northern hemisphere and by the end of that year the comet became bright enough to be seen at noon as it completed its hairpin turn around the Sun. The long, golden tail of the comet of 1680 was estimated to be 30,000,000 miles in length.

Originally thought to be two comets, the comets of late 1680 and early 1681 were in fact a single comet observed before and after perihelion- the point closest to the sun- a situation that hindsight reveals as critical in the determination of the comets trajectory. Upon examining the course of comets, it is easy to believe that some of them must occasionally fall into the sun. The comet 1680 approached so near, that, at its perihelion, it was not more distant from the sun than a sixteenth part of its diameter; and, if it returns, which some predict, in the year 2255, it may then fall into the sun. This must depend upon the accidents it meets with in its course, and the retardation it suffers in passing through the sun's atmosphere