Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Sybil Leek- Queen of witches

Cheddleton born Sybil Leek, the self proclaimed “Queen of the Witches” was a contentious figure and a colourful one as well: her trademarks were a loose fitting cloak, hoods a pet jackdaw called Mr Hotfoot Jackson and a snake named Sashima. Even Sybil’s birth date was the subject of some argument. She gave the date as 22nd February 1922, while others set the date at 5 years earlier. She also claimed to be the reincarnation of the Burslem witch Molly Leigh. Sybil maintained many things in her life for example that she had a friendship as a child with HG Wells and Lawrence of Arabia.

She was interested in paganism from an early age and was on good terms with Aleister Crowley- the self-proclaimed most evil man in the World and a great fraud. There is a story that Crowley and Leek visited Burslem to seek out Molly Leigh’s grave- a jackdaw perched on Leek’s shoulders. After the war Leek went to the United States and became a media star appearing on TV shows. She met and married a man named Brian.

Sybil was also involved with a number of American celebrities including  Ronald Reagan who maintained an interest in clairvoyance throughout his life. She also had a friendship with the writer Robert Bloch best known for his novel Psycho.

She believed that she could predict events and scored an undoubted hit with a prediction she made in the early 70s.

"There is one menace to the career and potential of George Wallace”- the candidate for the American presidency in 1972," Leek asserted in her Astrological Guide to the Presidential Candidates.

 "The nearer he gets to his goal, the greater the danger of political assassination”.

Written in early 1971, these words were of more interest to horoscope buffs than to political ones. But when Arthur Bremer, nearly 18 months later, fulfilled the prophecy and shot Wallace, crippling the Governor of Alabama some political pundits decided to take a closer look at what is written in the candidates' stars.

 Not that Leek's peeks into the future always proved entirely accurate. She once predicted, for example, that in 1970 President Richard Nixon would become embroiled in a sex scandal that would jeopardise his renomination by Republicans, nor did she predict Watergate which really did bring Nixon down.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Rushton Mutilation

When two farmers Johnson and Clowes left the Fox Inn at Rushton Spencer one snowy December night in 1879 they little thought of the terrible ramifications over an argument about the sale of geese with another local man named Brooks would have. The pair met farmer Brooks on the road. That night Johnson realised that Brooks was still annoyed at being out bid by Johnson for the birds. But in Johnson’s account nothing was really said and the men went home. A day or so later Johnson heard that Brooks had been attacked and maltreated. Although in the demur way of the press of the time this was not the whole of it as Brooks had been castrated by an unknown assailant. Johnson thought that when the police called a day or so later that he would be called as a witness having seen Brooks prior to the assault. It turned out that the police had arrived to arrest both men on a charge of grievous assault. The judicial process was speedy and both men found themselves in the dock by the end of January 1880. They were found guilty. Johnson in a subsequent interview was very contemptuous of the lack of guidance and support by his legal team. Johnson and Clowes got ten years penal servitude. They rigorously protested their innocence and began to serve a prison term firstly at Pentonville and then at Chatham. It was hard at first as they were in solitary confinement and the two men were used to the outdoor life. The regime was a severe one and the two men were put to work in menial back breaking work. Johnson did not feel any bitterness to Brooks for allowing this situation to develop. Johnson gained some solace from the prison chaplain at Pentonville “ But many a night I burst my eyes thinking about it”. The poor diet and toil reduced both men to shadows of their former selves physically and mentally.

Clowes added a statement ” Our conviction came on us sudden. We could not blame the jury or the judge, for no one at the trial had anything to say for us and Brooks words were not contradicted”.

The two men’s luck changed when Brooks died and in a death bed confession insisted that the two men were innocent. Brooks had in fact wounded himself. The Home Secretary ordered their release and the two men were given a change of clothing and put on a train to North Staffordshire. They were well treated and spent some time in Burslem where the Mayor of the town gave them money before the men went to their homes.

Mrs Clowes told the press that the family had been broken up and she had been turned out of the farm. The children were living with other relatives and she now ran a shop on Biddulph Moor. Johnson had been much changed by the experience.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Children's Street Games

My daughter taught me a clapping game from the school playground that goes “ Teacher, teacher over there, what colour is your underwear, is it black or is it white? O my gosh its dynamite.9,8,7,6 5,4,3,2,1 Schools out. There is another one that she sings is rather rude about school dinners and their purging effect “ I feel sick, toilet quick

This is of course not a new tradition. And goes back and is certainly international with songs and games been collected globally. My mother in her 80s told me of the song that they sung in Stoke about Mrs Simpson and the Abdication crisis “ She been married twice before and now she’s knocking on Eddy’s door”. Or north country children on the grisly Dr Ruxton murders of 1936 “ Red stains on the carpet, red stains on the knife, Oh Dr Ruxton, You’ve murdered your wife”, they can be topical as well as subversive.

 The subject has fascinated folklorists for a long time. Its over 50 years since the husband and wife team the Opies chronicled the unknown play and street songs of children in Britain. They attempted to counter the notion that in an age of television that the tradition had died. They also suggested that new songs could be passed on very quickly. The Opies proved the custom was still alive. I recall as a kid growing up in Stoke parodying Beatles’s songs “ Is there anything that you want? Fish and Chips would be the shouted reply. It’s good to see that the tradition still continues.

It is something that changes with the times and is thriving. Only last summer I saw a group of children near the Wellington in Leek act out a version of the X factor. Another group of children was judging a small girl on her singing ability. One of the children said, “I’ll be Simon”. The girl won through.

I can happily conclude that even with the demands on children’s time the street song and games still have power to poke fun at figures of authority and have relevance. 

Honesty and Sport

Geoff Brown mentioned George Lovenberry a regular writer of lengthy articles that featured in the 1970s.

I came across an article by GA Lovenberry from December 1974 on cricket games he had seen between the wars. In a time of gloom, both climatically and in terms of a sport engulfed in scandal its time to wallow in nostalgia of a less complicated time. One of the first games that George saw was a “ Roses” match played at Old Trafford in 1929. That match featured the wily Wilfred Rhodes then in his 50s and fellow Yorkshireman Emmot Robinson. The later was something of a character loud engaging in jokey asides with the crowds.

Lovenberry also saw the Australians play England in the 1st Ashes Test at Nottingham the following year. He was present when the English batsman Sutcliffe was controversially given out. Bradman stepped over the boundary to take a catch. The crowd saw it but not the umpire who lifted his finger. The crowd signalled their disapproval but still had to go. Sutcliffe did not argue.

If George was appalled with the antics of cricketeers in the 70s what would he have thought of the betting scandal that infected many including the Essex bowler Westfield recently?

An inkling can be assumed by his description of the Indian Duleepsinghi being caught at a match he saw at Hastings. “ Not for him to stand there under false pretence of the umpire making a mistake. He knew he was out”

George knew that gamesmanship was not approved at any level. He witnessed a local game when a batsman was reluctant to walk. The umpire was unimpressed. “Thay cast sling thee ‘ook. Its no use standin there so nar goo”

My own favourite story of integrity concerns Lancastrian Ernest Tyldesley a player that GA knew. He took a catch during an Ashes match and the Australian began to trudge toward the pavilion. Tyldesley threw the ball back saying it had bounced before getting to him and the batsman went back to the crease. Later the writer Neville Cardus congratulated Tyldesley on his honesty. He replied “Westhoughton Methodist Sunday School, tha knowst”

Friday, 26 October 2012

Colourful local MPs

The death of Jack Ashley marks the end of an era. Ashley was representative of a period when, in my opinion, when there were many great characters in the House of Commons. Parliament could draw from both sides of the House men- there were only a few women- who had experience of both sides of industry. Men who had dirt under their fingernails unlike the situation today where 24% of the new intake of MPs in 2010 were special advisers. Many MPs in the 20th century also had military experience- six Prime Ministers from Churchill to Callaghan saw war service. The impact of the war was especially marked on “One Nation” Tories such as Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath whose period in office were marked by social legislation in an attempt to bridge the social divide.

One type of Tory MP largely vanished from the political scene was the knight of the shires. Men with portentous names like John Langford Holt, Harry Legge Bourke and Hugh Munro Lucas Tooth. There was Walter Bromley Davenport MP for Knutsford, Chief Whip during the 50s who on seeing an unfamiliar MP leaving early for home was so enraged that he booted the man up the backside. Unfortunately it turned out to be the Belgian Ambassador and the Cheshire MP had to resign. There was Reginald Manningham Buller later Lord Dilhorne whose over bearing manner led him being called “ bullying manners”. He once delivered a dressing down to Margaret Thatcher- respect. High Peak’s Spencer Le Marchant probably not the most cerebral of members. The joke was that he went home on a train with a placard round his neck saying, 'please put this MP out at Buxton.

 Derbyshire seems to have produced a number of singular MPs. One who visited Leek during the 1959 General Election campaign was George Brown MP for Belper. George later Deputy leader of the Labour Party was at a reception in Latin America. He went up to an elegant figure in red to ask for a dance. The figure refused for three reasons “ Firstly you are drunk, secondly the tune that is being played is not a waltz, but the Peruvian National Anthem and thirdly I’m the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima”

Thursday, 25 October 2012

The poor of Sheen- a tale from 1886

The editorial in the Leek Times of the 15th May 1886 was condemnatory

If we had been asked to name the happiest village in the Leek Division, we should unhesitatedly have selected Sheen. Blessed with prolific soil; ample school provision; blessed with a princely benefactor in Mr Beresford Hope; and with two services in the pretty church every day, - one can scarcely imagine that poverty and misery could exist in or near the place.

The editorial then briefly explains its reasoning in coming to this conclusion. An elderly man named Percival had spent the winter in a calf shed. Damp and rotten straw for a bed and sacks for a covering were all that he had The police officer who arrived on the scene following the death of John Percival described the hovel as smelling worse” than a ferret box”. He shared this squalid accommodation with a brother who had been charged with breaking into the house of the local vicar. His brother had been ill for some months and was dying of consumption and starvation. The authorities had known about the condition of the men yet little had been done to remove the men from the abject state they had been living in for many months.

Later in the month the Chairman of the Board of Guardians John Sheldon responded to the accusation that the Workhouse had done little to assist

The two men had only recently come to live in Sheen and had survived by begging in the locality. John Percival the dead man had worked in the past but he did not have a reputation for industry. Work was available but to the annoyance of people in Sheen John Percival preferred to live the life of a vagrant. He had spent some time in Leek Workhouse before returning to Sheen. Several attempts had been made to try and get Percival to return to the Leek workhouse but he preferred to live in Sheen.

Bought up in vice and idleness, accustomed for more than twenty years to depend upon eleemosynary support, who I would like to know, could have changed the tastes or habits of this poor human waif”

Sheldon’s opinion encapsulates an age-old problem and that is what do we do with people who refuse help. It is a year since the death of Claire Bromley and even though a welfare state and a century divides her death and that of John Percival there are similarities. The willingness and the obligation of authority to intervene will always come up against the desire of people to lead whatever life they wish even if it appears incomprehensible to the rest of us.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

October 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis recalled

We are coming up to the 50th anniversary of a time, which was nearly the end for humanity in October 1962. It was the occasion that the Soviet Union and the United States almost went to war over the siting of Soviet missiles on Cuba the Caribbean island off the coast of Florida. President Kennedy issued a series of ultimatums to Soviet President Kruschev demanding that the missiles, which could easily reach cities on the eastern seaboard of the United States, be removed. The US Navy began a naval blockade of the island with the tacit threat of firing on any Soviet ships. October 24th was the peak of the crisis. The Soviets relented and the possibility of a nuclear war passed. It was a close thing

I was 7 at the time. I can dimly recall the tense atmosphere of the time when the threat of nuclear war was a real possibility. A physical reminder of those nervous times was evident just across the road from where I lived. Somebody had painted on a war close to Stoke Railway station in large letters the slogan NO WAR OVER CUBA. The graffiti was so discernible that it stayed there for many years.

However reading the newspapers of the time there is no evidence that fear gripped the populace although it is likely that fears were deliberately surpressed by a Government keen not to panic the general public. The burning question for example that animated the parish councillors of Tean as the real prospect of atomic Armageddon approached was the fear that local couples were making out in a local telephone box. A Horton farmer Mr Bailey had photographed an odd shaped vegetable- a potato that looked like a rabbit. A letter from Rushton WI warned of the dangers of fireworks

However after the event passed realisation dawned that we had a narrow escape did dawn on some

The possibility of a nuclear holocaust remained a real one during the period of the Cold War- we again claim close in November 1973 when President Nixon put US forces on a high state of alert. And with the appalling availability of fissionable material possible falling into the hands of terrorists arguably the terrible prospect continues to haunt humanity.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

A stench in time- a history of smells

A few weeks ago I received a letter from Shirley Williams thanking me for sending her an article I had written on her mother Vera Brittain. In the piece, which appeared in May, I wrote of Vera’s taking her Oxford entrance exam at Leek College one hot day in July 1914. She wrote of the unpleasantness of the occasion the consequence of being cooped up with “odiferious” 16-year-old students. In her letter of reply the Baroness believed that the personal hygiene of teenagers had not changed much in a century. It’s an opinion, which I challenge given the range of deodorants available. But nevertheless this led me to think of the olfactory landscape of North Staffordshire in the past.

One great change is the absence of horses nowadays compared with 100 years ago the by-product of equines would have been very noticeable as would have been the absence of cars and exhaust fumes. People would have smelt of carbolic, especially as soap become more widely available after the 1880s. There was the odour of camphor from mothballs on clothes during the winter. My mother recalls clearly the smell of “Rinso” on washing hanging in the alleyways in the 1930s. Industry would have its own emanations. Smoke hung heavily in the air. Dye works gave off a pungent fragrance. The smell of steam trains to me is wonderfully evocative, other places would give off from less pleasing stenches. A friend recalls the reek coming from a bone mill near to where he lived in Silverdale. Slaughterhouses smelt of blood and the acrid smell of scorched hide, but for my mother an unforgettable aroma was that of roasting meat on the range. My own Proustian recollection is that of hot Brown’s sausage rolls in Stoke market. Of cigarette smoke during a football match combining agreeably with wintergreen. And I do miss the smell of pipe tobacco in public places.

Certain places carry with them unique bouquets. I always think of the pleasing reek of Higson’s brewery- sadly gone- as you walked out of Lime Street Station in Liverpool. When the wind was in the right direction aniseed fragrance from the Uncle Joe’s Mint balls factory pervaded the air of Wigan and catching a train in Worcester was made the more congenial by the close proximity of the Lee and Perrin works.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Richard III and Staffordshire

Bill Cawley on the death of the last English King and the Staffordshire connection

The news that bones thought to be those of the last English King Richard III were found under a Leicester car park has fired my interest. The remains, which indicate that the man had curvature of the spine and died violently, might clear up a mystery of something of the character of a much derided monarch.

I should be clear on what side of the Ricardian controversy- who killed the Princes in the Tower- I am on. As a child I was fascinated in the history of the late 15th century especially the life of Richard Plantagenet a monarch whose reputation was falsely blackened by the supporters of the man who beat him at Bosworth Field in 1485 Henry Tudor later Henry VII.

My father used to play a recording of Shakespeare’s play with Laurence Olivier in the title role. I still can recite large chunks of it with the famous opening “ Now is the Winter of our Discontent”. Over the years I have visited places that are associated with Richard such as Middleham, Fotheringhay and Sheriff Hutton just outside York.

There is of course a strong Staffordshire connection with his final battle. In the summer of 1485 Henry Tudor landed in West Wales. He moved west marching through Staffordshire in the hope of gathering support. Whilst in the county he had two secret meetings with Thomas Lord Stanley a kinsman. Stanley whose ancestors came from Stanley near Bagnall had land and supporters in Staffordshire and the North West. He gathered his forces and marched through Newcastle forced under duress to side with King Richard who had his son George under custody.

 The armies of Richard and Henry drew up on the 22nd August in Leicestershire at Bosworth. Stanley held his troops in reserve someway from the main battle. Richard led a direct attack on Henry’s position personally killing a number of knights around Tudor’s standard. It was at this stage that Thomas Stanley committed his force in support of Henry and Richard died according to the chronicle “fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies”. Legend has it that the man who delivered the coup de grace was Ralph Rudyard of Rudyard. Richard’s crown was found according to tradition in a hawthorn hedge and placed on Henry’s head as Henry VII- the founder of the Tudor dynasty. Richard’s remains were buried in a Leicester church until the possible recent discovery

Edward Lear and Limericks

Apart from the widely known example of Charles Dickens this year also marked the 200th anniversary of another literary giant

Also born in 1812 was Edward Lear the developer of the limerick, he was in addition an outstandingly good artist and a travel writer with a particular love of the Mediterranean. The limerick is of course a witty poem especially one in five-line meter with a strict rhythm. It is quite an exercise to produce work to this scrupulous metre. Although he did not invent the form Lear certainly did a great deal to popularise limericks. Lear had a troubled life. From childhood he endured ill health, including epilepsy, of which he was ashamed, and was effected by depressive illness. He never managed to marry, but he had good friends and doted on his cat Foss.

 He was a wandering artist, travelling, despite his paranoia, to wild parts of Europe to make exquisite watercolours. Some of these journeys were risky. Corsica, for instance, was infested with brigands who made a habit of kidnapping solitary travellers. He wrote accounts of these journeys, sketching wherever he went, grumbling  about miserable accommodation, boring encounters with German travellers, and also about the monks he found everywhere and detested.

Lear did have North Staffordshire connections. He did the rounds of the aristocratic homes of the area such as Trentham where he was appalled by the smoky atmosphere from nearby Stoke.

Simon Daniel a fellow scribbler in Leek and I believe we should not allow this anniversary to pass unnoticed in the Moorlands. Earlier this year we produced a few local examples.

A farmer who lived outside Leek
Had a prize Dexter bull that could speak
He taught it good diction
And fed it pulp fiction,
The classics, pig Latin and Greek

A vicious young thug from Brown Edge
Tipped young birds out before they could fledge
But one day they fought back, with a vicious attack
And pecked him to death on a ledge

A Teutonic zealot from Flash
In the First War sprouted a ‘tasche
He looked like the Kaiser
He should have been wiser
And he wouldn’t have been run out of Flash.

We did write a limerick regarding a wayward young woman from Tean, but judged it too lewd for the readership of the Post and Times.