Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The genius of China

I have a booklet which I acquired 40 years ago this week- 3rd December 1973.  I was 18 and a member of Stoke Archaeological Society. We were visiting the “Genius of China” exhibition at the Royal Academy. It was a ground breaking show as, for the first time; Westerners were able to see artefacts excavated during the Communist rule of China. It demonstrated a thaw in relationships between the People’s Republic and the West. It had only been a few years since the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, but the arrival of order and the need for China to build alliances required, in this case, diplomacy through archaeology. The “Genius of China” exhibition was a manifestation of a better relationship with Britain.

The program illustrates what a magnificent exhibition it was with pottery, bronzes, and silks dating back thousands of years. The centre piece of the exhibition was the Jade Funeral suit of Princess Tou Wan dating from the Han dynasty (about the same age as the Romans). It was built by Taoist craftsmen who believed that Jade had magical qualities which arrested decay.

This began a life long interest in China. At University I studied Chinese History. I got to understand something of the philosophy of the country through terms such as “Mandate of Heaven” the legitimacy conferred on the Emperor, the sophistication of the country compared to Europe, the voyages of Admiral Zheng who may have made it to America years before Columbus. Many of the elements that make up the foundation of the modern world originated in China, including paper, gunpowder, credit banking, the compass and paper money.  Then there was the decline beginning in the 18th century when Europeans over took the Chinese whose leaders were contemptuous of Western “Barbarians”. Later European powers would endeavour to weaken China to satisfy their craving for Empire. Hong Kong was acquired as booty following the British victory in the disgraceful 1840 Opium war.

 China  also exerted an influence on the artistic imagination of the West and examples exist close to hand from the ersatz Chinese sculptures at Biddulph Grange, the silk industry of Leek and the porcelain of Wedgwood.

Since 1973 China has been transformed. The leader of the Chinese Revolution Chairman Mao died in 1976. Demand for political and economic liberalisation led to the Tiananmen Square disturbances in 1989 and since then China has been the work shop of the world with growth, even in a bad year, of over 8%. The country surpassed Japan as the second most powerful economy  in March 2011. It is likely that China will become the leading power of the 21st century.

What does it mean for the Staffordshire Moorlands? Certainly the need for understanding of the history and culture of a country with 1.3 billion people. Will local schools be eventually teaching Mandarin, if only to assist the two Chinese tourists seen in Derby Street recently? 

The last wolf in England

Earlier this year there was a news report that the body of a wolf was found beside a road in Holland.  It was the first time such an animal, outside zoos, had been seen in the Netherlands for approaching 150 years. Commentators suggest the bringing down of the Iron Curtain has led to the wolf leaving its East European habitat and moving westwards. There has also been talk that this magnificent member of the canine family might be re-introduced to the Scottish Highlands to help keep down the Deer population.

Wolves, many years ago, were a creature that had a long presence in the Staffordshire Moorlands. Bones of the animal have been found at a Neolithic rock shelter above Wetton Mill. The Saxon Saint Bertram lost members of his family to a wolf attack near Ilam. Wolfscote Dale on the Staffordshire/ Derbyshire border indicates that it had a presence in Dovedale. It seems to be the case that wolves represented a serious threat to live stock in the area and during the early medieval period criminals were allowed remittance on their sentence if they killed a number. The Wolf has always had a presence in popular culture for instance in fairy tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood”. A number of English proverbs mention it “A wolf in sheep’s clothing” being a good example. It was also used in personal names in Old Norse Ulfr, in Old English Aethelwulf and Cuthwulf and so it frequently turns up in place names of which Wolstanton (Wulfstan’s tun) is a good local example.

But when was the last wolf in the area killed? Edward I who reigned from 1272 to 1307 ordered the total extermination of all wolves in his kingdom and personally employed one Peter Corbet, with instructions to destroy wolves in the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire and Shropshire where they were more common than in the southern areas of England. In the Peak District wolf keepers were employed to control the vast numbers of wolves which roamed the area. John de Wolfehunt, who died around 1309, was given a dwelling house and land, but everyone was encouraged to trap and kill wolves. Wolf pits were scattered around the moors and woods to trap them. The Wolfehunt family, who resided in Peak Forest, would hunt in March and December and during the dry summers would enter the forest to destroy cubs.

 Their actions over time removed the threat of the wolf and by 1586 William Camden wrote ‘There’s no danger of wolves now in these places, tho’ infested by them heretofore”. There is a tradition that the last wolf in England was killed at Wormhill near Buxton in the 15th century.

Ben Britten and Dovedale

November 23rd  is St Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of music, it will also mark the 100th anniversary of the British composer Benjamin Britten, arguably the greatest composer of the 20th century. Britten is usually associated with Suffolk and the concert hall at  Snape Maltings close to Aldeburgh is a project which he devoted many years of his life, but there is a link with Dovedale at a particularly crucial juncture of his life.

This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the first performance of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, a work that holds its place in the classical repertoire. It was written shortly after he returned from the United States where he had spent several years collaborating with the poet WH Auden. (Auden has a Staffordshire Moorlands connection as he wrote poems as a young man following a visit to the area in 1925 on Froghall Wharf and Waterhouses Railway Station). The most notable result of their collaboration was the 1938 short film promoting the GPO “Night Mail” with its opening line “This is the night mail crossing the border, bringing the cheque and the postal order”

The Serenade opens with “Pastoral” a poem by the 17th century poet Charles Cotton of Beresford Hall near Dovedale. He was very much a lover of the Staffordshire countryside and passionate about the local landscape. Sadly, the old hall was demolished in the 1850s and very little remains apart from gateposts visible from the road. He took his public duties seriously and was a local Magistrate and a Revenue Commissioner from 1665. He was widely recognised as an authority on the county and it seems that Dr Robert Plot who wrote the first history of Staffordshire in the 1680s consulted him.

In 1681 Cotton published the “Wonders of the Peak”, the first travel book of the area, which is a poetic description of several sights including in 1681 the newly built Chatsworth, St Anne’s Well, the Caves near Castleton as well as his beloved Dove.

He died of a fever while on a visit to London in 1687. He is buried far from his beloved Dove in a wall tomb in St James Church in Piccadilly in the middle of the bustle of the West End.

Interest in Cotton began to decline during the Victorian period as polite society found his poetry too ribald for polite society. A revival of sorts began following the use of his poetry in “Serenade”. Britten took considerable care with the text. No doubt he was helped by his close friendship with Auden. “Pastoral” describes a June evening in Dovedale with the lengthening shadows making objects appears far larger than they are:” brambles like tall cedars show” and ending as the light fails.

And now on benches all are sat
In the cool air to sit and chat
Till Phoebus dipping in the west,
Shall lead the world the way to rest.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The ancient rocks of Leek

I was showing my daughter the prominent bands of Sandstone rock that lies at the bottom of Broad Street and on the road to Cheddleton. They are noticeable by pebbles stuck in the rock like currants in a cake. The quartzite pebbles are very smooth and suggest that they were once part of a fast flowing river system. It must have been a formidable obstacle to the 19th century road builders blasting their way through the town.

I was right. The Sandstone dates from the Triassic period of around 250 million years ago at a time when life on Earth nearly came to an end. Other rocks around Leek are older; the grit stones of the Roaches are from the Carboniferous period of 380 million and the limestone of the White Peak marking the one time existence of tropical coral sea date from 340 million years.

I have always been interested in the age of the Earth, which irrespective of what Creationists might think, is about 4 billion years old. Recently, I bought a book on a history of the Earth and I looked up the early Triassic period and how the area might have looked.

During this period there was only one Continent called Pangea. Britain lay near to the ocean that circled Pangea called Tethys and was closer to the equator. The Leek deposit is part of a larger group called Sherwood Sandstone covering areas out to Cheshire and eastwards towards Nottinghamshire.

 Weather conditions during the early Triassic were monsoon- like in this time which accounts for the pebbles worked smooth by the deluge and indicate a delta type area similar to the Nile today. Temperatures were high and a desert climate existed.  It was a forbidding landscape with little life. Few fossils exist in the local rocks. Later in this epoch however the first dinosaur made their impression on the landscape.

 Chirotherium, a crocodile-like ancestor of the dinosaurs, left five fingered hand-prints behind in the sand which were found millions of years later by fossil hunters. A fine example can be seen in the World Museum in Liverpool found in a sandstone quarry on the Wirral.

The Triassic period saw a long process of re-birth after the calamitous previous era- the Permian- when the planet saw a Mass Extinction event with increasing volcanic activity, methane release and acidification of the seas resulting in raised temperatures and the extinction of around 90% of all species on the Earth. It was called the Great Dying. It took the planet millions of years to recover and the rocks in the south of the town bear witness to a period when the Earth was recovering from this cataclysm. It was the greatest Mass Extinction event of which there have been five. Scientists think that the current global warming might result in the sixth Mass Extinction event now.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Local women serving in the World Wars

A friend’s mother was wounded while serving on an anti aircraft battery near Hull during World War 2. This Remembrance week I would like to write about the many women who served in both World Wars. I have decided to concentrate of the Second War as the Post and Times has bound volumes of the period. During the war it carried features on the local men and women whom served.

 The largest organisation Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) which had by the end of the war over 190,000 serving women carrying out a variety of tasks such as manning anti aircraft batteries through to clerical, telephonists and radar operators. It was work that carried risks as over 700 were killed.

 Typical was Leek woman Isabel Williams who was 22 in 1943 and was attached with the Royal Corps of Signals as a wireless operator having joined the services from Leek Moorlands Building Society. Most local women joined the ATS which was followed in numbers by the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force- the WAAF. Evelyn Mee of Wellington St felt the call of patriotic duty and joined the WAAF working at an aircraft base in the South of England. Many WAAF’s were based at Fighter Command bases which put them in great danger as bases, such as Biggin Hill , were  targets in the first raids by the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. Many WAAF’s served as the eyes of Fighter Command as they plotted the movements of incoming enemy aircraft. There were 183,000 women, who joined the WAAF at its height in 1943, 191 were killed in combat.

 The Women’s Royal Navy Service was popularly known as the Wrens and had originally been set up in 1917, at the outbreak of the Second they were reformed and at their peak numbered 75,000. 100 died in the conflict. Again a Wren’s duties mirrored that of women in the other services working as cooks, wireless operators and clerical support.

 Among Leek women was Joan Aggas of Daisy Bank whose father had fought in the First War and was the Secretary of the local British Legion. Another Wren whose family will have particular memories of Victory in Europe day was May Goldstraw of West St who married Petty Officer Trowell of Cambridge in that week and left to live in East Anglia.

Women were engaged in all areas and not just in the Services. Isobel Ede of Longsdon served as a Queen Alexandria Nurse having trained at a local hospital. Women also worked in munitions including my Auntie Ethel at Swynerton following another relative who had cleaned out gas shells at a factory in Hanley during the First War.

 War inevitably brings casualties and sadly one local woman was killed working in the Land Army in May 1944. Nancy Meredith aged 21 of Park Road worked with the Timber Corps and died in a road accident. The newspaper report of her death said that she liked the outdoor life.

On a lighter note other women were doing their bit to help the war effort as in 1943 two young Macclesfield women were caught trying to break into the American camp at Blackshaw Moor and as the war progressed other women were stopped by the Police trying to fraternise with our war time allies.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Ghosts of Staffordshire Moorlands- Halloween Special

A couple recounted to me a curious episode when they were driving on the A53 near Flash. It was early in the morning and on the road they saw dressed in a very old fashioned way a rider on the road. The man was wearing a long brown cloak with an unusual design at the neck and a pipe stove hat, in short he was dressed for a person from the early 19th century. The couple were driving towards Buxton and were passing a path on the left which the horseman was turning to use. After only a few yards down the track the man and horse disappeared in mist in front of their eyes. The couple told me emphatically that they had seen something unexplained. They later carried out research which suggested the sighting was well known.

It is nearly Halloween and people will be out looking to see if they can experience a ghost. I have never seen anything although I did hear something odd in a Georgian house in Lancaster- it was the sound of a child skipping on bare floorboards in an empty carpeted room. I have frequently been told very strange incidents that have happened to local people. A Farmer told me that his dead father called to him over some fields at Rushton. A man claimed that a well in his house near Ipstones was haunted. A work colleague was clear that she saw the ghost of a child at a house in Leek. Locals in Bradnop claim that a ghostly dog haunts the grave of a dead Highlander. A friend researching a 19th century murder in the Peak District got the uneasy impression that he was being watched when taking photographs of the scene.

People seem to believe in them and in increasing numbers, both in Britain and in the US. In the case of the later over 50% and the proportion has gone up markedly since the Second World War. And women are more likely to believe than men. The idea that the dead remain with us in spirit is an ancient one, and one that offers many people comfort; who doesn't want to believe that our beloved but deceased family members aren't looking out for us, or with us in our times of need?.

But I shall end by recounting another Moorlands ghostly horseman- the Headless Horseman- who rides the hills around Onecote. It is a well established legend which many locals will know. I was talking to a local woman whose grandfather farmed at Onecote. One autumn evening he recounted the story of the Horseman to his young grand daughter. As he finished the tale they could hear in the lane leading to the farm the clip clop sound of a horse getting closer and closer to them. The sound unnerved the old man as he feared that the spectral rider was near. Fortunately it was a van with a flat tyre making the “trotting” sound.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Crime watch 1642

Mr John Band of Leek has showed me a fascinating collection of documents dating from the 17th century concerning Leek at a time when the country was caught up in the Civil War. The collection is made up of journals, newspaper accounts and letters which gives a real flavour of the time- and a really turbulent time it was.

A letter signed by the prominent citizens of Leek and dated early 1642 is indicative of how law and order was breaking down before the onset of the war which started in October. The period was a very harsh one. The late 16th century and the first decades of the following one saw a series of harvest failures, the possible result of climate change, food price rises and inflation hitting the poor hard. Famine conditions frequently occurred. Roving bands of impoverished were a common sight in England and the response of the authority was one of panic as the example from Leek shows.

The letter was addressed to King Charles 1st representatives complained about riotous disturbances in the town especially on market days.

“ Unto which said markets and ffairs there have usually come and repaired divers misbehaved, deboyst and felonious people not only to the disturbance of his Majesty’s peace committing many felonious acts amongst said inhabitants, but also among other of the said majesty’s liege people”.

(“Deboyst” means corrupt or depraved and appears in Shakespeare’s “Tempest” and “King Lear”}

According to the writer of the letter the answer to the bands of vagabonds and beggars was the construction of a cage and stocks. But Leek being Leek was that no one would pay for the work hence the need to go cap in hand to the authorities in Stafford.

“Accordingly whereby the saide worke beinge a thing of soe great necessity & consequence is likely to bee neglected & utterly loste of unlesse by yor hono worships yor petitioners may be herein relieved”

Of course, England was not the only part of Europe where disturbances occurred. In 1642 the Thirty Years War which had convulsed Central Europe was coming to an end with approximately a third of the population of Germany dead and the countryside ruined. Ireland had been in rebellion the previous year with atrocities recorded.

And in Holland the problem of fecklessness was addressed in a unique way. Simon Schama in his book on the 17th century Dutch Republic describes, not quite believing, the existence of a “water house” in Amsterdam which ne’er do wells were tethered and put in a cell which filled with water and were forced to work a pump to stop from drowning.

I am sure there are people who would agree with such a contrivance existing now!

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Carlos Trower- African Blondin

October has been for several years now been designated Black History Month. The Black existence in the Staffordshire Moorlands has not been  marked although the occasional account indicates that there were people of colour passing through the area from the 18th century onwards. I subscribe to the British Newspaper Archive and some time ago I read of a visit made to Rudyard Lake by Carlos Trower the “African Blondin”  so called after the French tightrope walker who was the first to cross Niagara Falls who Trower admired..

Trower was born in the late 1840s in New York and began tight rope walking at an early age. He appears to be a natural performer who worked on perfecting and developing  his craft. He first performed at Rudyard in 1861 while still a teenager.

 By the 1870s he was well known in the country and regularly performed at various venues around the country. In June 1878 he made a triumphant return to Rudyard Lake.

 The Sentinel of the 28th June 1878 carried a full account of his show in which he performed before a crowd of 10,000 admirers. The lowest admission price was 1/6.  Special trains ran from Manchester, Macclesfield and  the Potteries. There was a grandstand erected for the wealthier spectator and the audience were grouped on three sides of the lake. A tower was erected and a rope strung 100 feet above and for 200yards over the water. Additional weights  were added steadying  the rope. The weather had been hot and fortunately by the evening a cool wind began to blow although this added to the danger for Trower. A band struck up “ See the Conquering Hero Come” to announce the start of the demonstration. The crowd cheered as he began to walk slowly over the 6 inch rope adjusting his balance to suit the breeze. He made his way to the centre of the rope and sat down acknowledging the applause. He returned to the tower and reappeared with a stove and cooked and ate a meal on the rope. Carlos finally was blind folded as he walked above Rudyard Lake one more time

The Sentinel concluded “ At the close of his performance a hearty cheer attested the satisfaction almost universally felt at his gallant performance”

Trower returned to the States in 1878 appearing at a Coloured Persons Celebration in Brooklyn, Connecticut and Coney Island which indicates that he was sensitive to the  changes that had effected the black population since Emancipation.

As can be imagined his occupation was risky and he fell or was injured on several occasions. Early in his career he fell and was badly injured at Beverley and in 1886 he was receiving hospital treatment in London following an accident. By this time his career was in decline and he was having increasing bouts of ill health. He died penniless in an Asylum in Bow in 1889. His great grandson Ron Howard of Essex who helped me with this article visited Rudyard some years ago  to see the site of his ancestor

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Buxton Rock Festivals 1972-4

I was looking through the 1974 archive of the Post and Times when I was staggered to see an advert for the Buxton Rock Festival which featured a billing for the “New York Dolls” appearing with the likes of Mott the Hoople, the Faces and Lindisfarne. The thought of the “Dolls” one of the founders of punk playing in a muddy farmer’s field near Hollinsclough was bizarre to say the least.

In the week of the Leek Blues and Americana Festival which was held in various pubs around the town perhaps it is timely to reflect on the hardy souls who for three years camped out on wind swept, rain lashed moors to listen to some world renowned rock bands.  This was a Glastonbury with flairs and Afghan coats at an altitude of 1500 feet. Perhaps a campaign medal ought to be struck? The 72 Festival had “Steppenwolf” whose “Born to be Wild” featuring in the cult film “Easy Rider” was an anthem to disaffected youth. Apparently they played an excellent set. The following year top billing was shared between Canned Heat and Chuck Berry who spent some of his act showing a drunken Hell's Angel how to duck walk before leaving quickly allegedly without being paid. The Angels engaged in a drink fuelled mud fight while Canned Heat played on- imagine a sort of Peak District Altamont.  The bar was provided by Samanthas of Leek. In 1974 the festival was held over two days in July although the weather was worse. It rained more or less continuously. Ronnie Wood playing with the Faces complained that it was so cold that his fingers were numb and he could not play. Over the weekend a number were treated for hypothermia although the sun did break out momentarily to ironic cheers when Roger Chapman formerly with “Family” sang “My friend the Sun”. It is rumoured that Rod Stewart did not get paid and who knows looking down on the sea of mud under a leaden sky might have persuaded him to move to LA.

I never went to the Festival, I may have been put off  by the cold and the real prospect of looking like Jack Nicholson at the end of “the Shining”, The truth , however, was  that I could see many of the bands in the comfort of Trentham Gardens or Vicky Hall. I saw groups like Mott the Hoople, Groundhogs, the Faces, Curved Air, Lindisfarne and Wishbone Ash and many others in the Potteries over this period. As for the “Dolls” they did not appear. Anyway, perhaps they might drop into the Wilkes Head soon fulfilling their contractual obligation of nearly 40 years ago?

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Harrying of the North- William I and the Moorlands

I visited Pickering Castle in Yorkshire in August. Its a Norman Motte and Bailey structure constructed as a result of the Anglo Saxon uprisings in the North and the Midlands against the rule of William the Conqueror. First to revolt were the Mercians who joined forces with the Welsh under Eadric the Wild and went on the rampage along the Welsh border. William came north and defeated this Saxon/ Welsh alliance near Stafford. In retaliation Staffordshire and Cheshire were put to the sword. Discontent continue to  simmer especially in the North which exploded in 1069 when Norman officials were murdered. William  ensured that the Danes were bought off who had sided with the rebels in Yorkshire and then began the systematic strategy which became known as the “Harrying of the North”. The Normans slaughtered  ,destroyed crops and livestock and burned down towns and villages. The ground was salted to ensure nothing would grow and the survivors left to starve.

 A chronicler wrote “ there was such hunger that men ate the flesh of their own kind, of horses, cats and dogs. Others sold themselves into perpetual slavery that they might be able to sustain their miserable lives. It was horrible to look into the ruined farmyards and houses and see the human corpses dissolved into corruption, for there were none to bury them for all were gone either in flight, or cut down by the sword or famine. None dwelt there and travellers passed in great fear of beasts and savage robbers”.

I was chatting with an archaeologist in York who told me that it has been calculated that over 100,000 people died as a consequence of William's actions. Interestingly from the size of skeletons discovered in the Anglo Saxon period and for hundred years after William's the average height of the peasantry fell by 3 inches. He felt that it was the consequence of the Feudal System.

As far as the Staffordshire Moorlands the immediate impact of the “Harrying” were catastrophic. Many communities were abandoned  The Doomsday Book established by William to survey the wealth of the country 20 years after Hastings demonstrates this poverty. Several villages are registered as having no population such as Endon, Sheen, Rudyard and Grindon. Leek had 28 households and Cheadle 11. The Norman  invasion saw also a radical transformation of land ownership in Caverswall, for instance, prior to 1066 the land was possessed by Wulgeat of Madeley, in 1086 the owner was Arnulf of Hesdin originally from Picardy and a friend of  King William. In the immediate aftermath of the rebellions only 4% of land was in the hands of old Saxon aristocracy and I am guessing that the population of the upland areas was lower than before the Roman occupation of Britain. It took many years to recover.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Why Rudyard's war memorial has 1921 as the end of First World War

It has always occurred to me as odd that the war memorial in Rudyard should have the date August 31st 1921 as the date signifying the end of the First World War. Why should this be so? Most people, if asked, would automatically pick November 11th 1918 as the end of the War. Perhaps others might suggest June 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles between the belligerent powers was signed in the Hall of Mirrors. But again this seems not to be the case. The facetious side of me thinks that no one bothered to tell the people of Rudyard that the war was over. There is a precedent for official oversight as the people of Berwick on Tweed were left out of the peace treaty concluded between Britain and Russia in 1855 at the end of the Crimean War- Berwick was always included as a separate entity as it was a disputed border town between England and Scotland.

 There is also a Laurel and Hardy film “Blockheads” when Stan is asked to defend a trench. The Armistice is declared and Mr Laurel is overlooked and stays on the Western Front. Years later he is found, a huge pile of empty bean cans behind him and a furrow that Stan has ploughed constantly marching up and down are evidence of his steadfastness.

More seriously, I wondered if the continuing fighting in Soviet Union and in Ireland might offer a clue. After 1918 the Allies came to the assistance of the “White” pro Czarist forces who were fighting the Communist Government that had seized power the year previously. About 40,000 British troops were sent to the Soviet Union. The 7th Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment, my grandfathers unit, were sent to the oil fields of Baku in the Caucasus to fight with Armenians against the Soviets. I did know an old comrade of my grandfather Bill Daniels who took part in the campaign which ended in 1920. The other possibility is the Irish War of Independence involving British troops which at the time was at a crucial stage.  In 1921 a truce was being negotiated between the IRA and the British Government. However this does not seem to enter into the Rudyard case.

The answer lies in a report made in the official Government mouth piece British Gazette of the 12th August 1921 which announced the official end of the First World War following the signing of a peace treaty with Hungary. As part of the old Austro Hungarian Empire it was an element of the alliance that Britain went to war with in 1914. Therefore agreement with the Hungarians over territory and reparations triggered the official ending of the war and the rather pedantic date carved into the war memorial in Rudyard.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The phantom of Kiln Lane, Leek 1936

The news in September 1936 was grim. In Spain the Civil War raged as the Battle for Madrid reached a crisis. Hitler was beginning on a course of conquest in central Europe and his troops had marched into the Rhineland the previous March thereby breaking the peace treaty of Versailles. Mussolini’s air force had bombed the tribal armies of Abyssinia into submission in a matter of weeks. Stalin was about to unleash a reign of terror in the Soviet Union that would kill millions. In Britain, unemployment remained high in the industrial areas of the North, Scotland and Wales. 1936 was the year of the Jarrow March and in that year the crisis involving the King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson would reach a head three months later and the King would be forced to abdicate. And in Leek fear stalked the lonely byways of the town.

 While carrying out research on the development of sport in North Staffordshire I came across a report of a “ ghost” haunting an area of Leek. Residents of Kiln Lane were fearful that the area was haunted. Local historians at the time testified that prior to reports that early autumn that area of Leek was not known for or associated with ghost stories. But the women who contacted both the local and national press were emphatically clear about the noises and sights they had observed. The article in the Daily Dispatch began “ Women living in the lonely Kiln Lane district of this Moorland town with a hundred ghostly legends are afraid to walk out alone at night because of the fear that the area is haunted”. The piece continues that rapping’s on windows, strange lights and sounds, weird noises and figures appearing at windows were reported by terrified people in the area. An elderly disabled women who lived in a ground floor room Mrs Jane Stonier is quoted “ There have been knocking at the door and a strange face appeared at a window. It stared at me and then disappeared into the night”.  Mrs F Astles saw a “ terrifying figure glide by the wall at the front of the house”. Mrs Edwards the daughter of Mrs Stonier heard weird laughter and chuckling outside her cottage. Locals cowered behind closed doors wondering what spectre stalked the local area.

 The local newspaper list a number of locally reported ghosts such as the “White Lady” and the “Luminous Children” and suggested that the event at Kiln Lane drew parallels with reports of “ Spring Heeled Jack” the Victorian ghoul which had terrorised communities all over the UK the previous century.

 The first report of the terror of Kiln Lane appeared in the Sentinel on the 16th September 1936. A follow up report claimed that the haunting was in fact practical joke and that local youths would patrol the area in the hope of catching the hoaxer. For some time hysteria seemed to be gripping the town but the fear after awhile began to abate.  A subsequent article in the Leek Post offered an explanation of the phenomena. The moving lights the author concluded was due to headlights of vehicles on the Macclesfield road and the figures and noises the result of farm animals breaking out of fields and wandering into lanes.“ Dobbin and his friends have been seeking pastures new, and of course, the heavy shoes of the horse and the bleating of sheep in the night, are enough to provide sounds which easily frightened people might construe into other things”. The reportage of the time is very sceptical of supernatural reports seeking a logical and scientific explanation of the incident and suggesting that the terror was simply the result of hysteria and ”the imagination of frightened women”.

The effect of hysteria and popular delusions has been well documented throughout the ages from the witch trails of the 17th century to the fear of UFOs after the war to the modern day trend of chain letters. Humankind is as superstitious and as prone to panic as any earlier generation. Indeed only a few years ago the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh was in the grip of a panic a people claimed that there were attacked by a creature called the “face scratcher” described as a mystery creature that attacked after dark. Over 100 people claimed to have been attacked by something that flashed blue and red lights. Indian scientists dismissed the alarm as “ mass hysteria” and suggests that the lights in the sky are due to atmospheric conditions.

The irony of the story of Kiln Lane is that three years after September 1936 Britain and the world would be plunged into the horror of total war, which would claim 60 million lives. In 1936 real monsters stalked the earth that would require the exorcism by the terrible exertion of the Second World War

Thursday, 19 September 2013

JRR Tolkien died 40 years ago this month

In September 1973 JRR Tolkien died. The creator of the Lord of the Ring trilogy was well known in North Staffordshire. His eldest son John was the parish priest at Hartshill and led the funeral service for his father. John Tolkien commented that his father was last in Stoke in Easter and had spent many Christmas’s at the presbytery. The Sentinel carried a picture of JRR sitting on a bench at Kibblestone Scout camp taken in the early 70s.

 He did have strong connections with Staffordshire predating John’s position as a local priest as he lived in Great Haywood in 1916 while convalescing from wounds received whilst fighting on the Somme.

Tolkien’s reputation as the creator of Middle Earth and the Hobbits remains very high nearly 40 years after his death. In 2003 in the BBC Big Read survey the Lord of the Rings was voted Britain’s best-loved book. I read the book in 1975 appropriately enough besides the fjords of Norway.

Tolkien did claim in a radio interview in the 50s that he also knew the Leek area and that a boy he stayed in Leek with his parents at the George Hotel. The hotel was demolished in the late 60s.

An intriguing question exists over the medieval poem “ Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” written, it is alleged by someone who knew Leek and the Roaches well. Tolkien worked on the translation of the poem in the 20s

 The first references to Lud’s Church being associated with the Green Chapel, to my knowledge, only happen after the publication of a letter by Professor RWV Eliot’s to the Times on 21st May 1958. He linked the poem with the Cistercian Abbey of Dieulacres beside the River Churnet about 1 mile from Leek. Some however believe that JRR also knew the legend.

The creator of the Lord of the Rings trilogy remained proud of his West Midlands associations. In a letter to the “New York Times” Tolkien described the geographic inspiration for the books the third and final volume of which was to be published in October 1955.

“ I am a West Midlander at home only in the counties upon the Welsh Marches; and it is I believe , as much due to descent as to opportunity than Anglo Saxon and Western Middle English and alliterative verse have a childhood attraction and my main professional sphere”

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

A Male Midwife announces his services- Leek 1799

Mr Thomas Birch advertised his profession with the address of his establishment in Market Square Leek. He hoped to follow the late John Wooliscroft who previous ran his surgery from the premises. Mr Birch announced in January 1799 in the “Staffordshire Advertiser “that he was Leek's male midwife and surgeon and  promised that he would apply himself diligently to the task. Mr Birch also required an apprentice.

Earlier  in the century  a baby was born with the assistance of a self- taught traditional midwife. The skin was scoured with salt to remove the “ slippery glue” from its skin. The baby was then wrapped up tightly in swaddling cloth. It was thought  swaddling was needed to protect the delicate limbs of the child , it kept the baby warm as well as for the convenience of the mother and resulted in passivity and therefore easier to manage. The infant could then be hung by a nail on a beam and left so that other tasks could be could be got on with.

The baby would be put to the mother's breast only after milk was seen to come, meanwhile it was purged. Oil of almonds, rose syrup and chicory with rhubarb were given. A strengthening glass of wine or in Scotland oatmeal and whisky was also taken. If the child had difficulty in suckling the midwife would cut through the skin beneath the tongue by finger nails kept long and sharp for the purpose.

By the end of the century that situation began to change as Thomas Birch would have recognised and taken advantage of. More men began to take over the role of the traditional midwife, partly this was due to fashion, but also the consequence of  technological changes. One development that began to be more widely used was the invention of forceps.( Women were thought not to have the technical ability to use them) There was also a class element as the middle class began to prefer a fee paying male practitioners at the birth to demonstrate their higher status . Society seemed to enjoy this mode due to an increase in an interest in science. By 1800 almost half the deliveries were attended by male midwives.

Irrespective of whether a child was born to a male doctor or female midwife the mortality rates of the newly born were extremely high in the 18th century with around 1 in 5 babies not living to the first year , higher when epidemics swept the country. Nor should we suppose that the parents of the time were indifferent to loss, there exist enough letters and diary entries to suggest that infant death  effected parents as badly then as it does now.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

"The Boss" was the greatest leader.

A hundred years ago the adventurer  Sir Philip Brocklehurst married in the society wedding of the year at Swythamley. The guests included  the principle families of the area including the Nicholson's. A telegram of congratulations was received from the King's sister Princess Victoria. The best man was the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleon. Brocklehurst had met Shackleton some 5 years before when the Ulsterman led an expedition to the South Pole which included the 21 year old Sir Philip. It is certain that the young man was mesmerised by the charismatic Shackleton. He would not have been alone.

What makes a great leader? If you were to ask to name an example then Ernest Shackleton would certainly be close to the top of the list. The remarkable 1914-7 Polar expedition lay in the future which cemented his reputation for command for all time. He lost his ship Endurance in the ice , but led his crew to safety after a two year titanic struggle. When the ship finally sank he allowed each member of the expedition to carry only a few items necessary for survival- one took a banjo! For months the men camped on a large floe, hoping that it would drift towards Paulet Island approximately 250 miles away, where it was known that stores existed. They spent months in the darkness and cold of a polar winter huddled together for warmth in tents so thin that the Moon could be seen through the sides.  After the thaw the men took to three  lifeboats. They fought huge seas before landing on the storm lashed Elephant Island. The crew were cold, hungry and so thirsty that their tongues swelled. Shackleton showed his concern for his men by giving his mittens to the expedition's photographer Frank Hurley as a result he suffered frost bite.  Eventually Shackleton took a small group  leaving the majority on Elephant Island and sailed 800 miles to South Georgia. On landing they climbed over frozen  mountain peaks with only very basic climbing equipment before reaching a whaling station and safety. Shackleton then turned around and rescued the 22 men left on Elephant Island after three attempts foiled by sea ice and worsening weather.  No one was lost in this heroic struggle for survival.

“The Boss” as the crew called him based his leadership skills on a foundation of experience, trust, courage and optimism. Many years later the First Officer of the Endurance Lionel Greenstreet was asked “ How did you survive when so many expeditions perished”. The old man replied in one word “ Shackleton”.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Kitten Overboard!

We have recently acquired a kitten called Lola. She is a tabby cat and, as kittens do, spends her life in a flurry of activity.

I am told on good authority that the Tabby is a descendent of the Wild African Cat. The long legs of the tabby are an indicator of its ancestors need to hunt in the  grasses of the Savannah. I gather that the  tabby cats were first introduced into England in the early 17th century when a number were given as a gift to William Laud ,Archbishop of Canterbury who according to the gossip John Aubrey was  "a great lover of Catts”  and "was presented with some Cyprus-catts, i.e. our Tabby-catts".
I do like cats although I do wish they would drag something useful through the cat flap other  than some poor bird or mouse. A bottle of wine, vintage immaterial, would do. The capacity for cats to embarrass is well-known.

 On one occasion when I lived in Lancashire the two cats I owned had dragged a magpie into the house. The local Council were called by a neighbour and the dog catcher came along although for what purpose I know not. By the time I got home the bird had  made something of a mess of the house before the gaze of two bemused cats who had realised it had bitten  off smore than they could chew.

Have we always been sentimental about animals? I would have thought the Georgian Age was a time of cruelty, both to man and beast. Cheering crowds gathered at Tyburn to see some poor criminal throttled on the gallows, the “quality” paid to mock the mad at Bedlam and all classes betted on the outcome of  cock fighting and bull baiting. And yet, the writer Henry Fielding in “Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon” written in the 1740s described the attempt to rescue the ship's captain's  kitten when it fell over board. The captain ordered all hands to try to deliver the young cat from its peril.

“ I was , I own, extremely surprised at all this; less, indeed at the Captain's extreme Tenderness, than any Possibility of Success; for, if Puss  had nine thousand , instead of nine Lives. I concluded they had all been lost”.

However a Boatswain saved the Cat by diving into the water returning to the ship “ bearing the motionless Animal in his Mouth..... the Kitten was now exposed to Air and Sun on the deck, where its Life, of which it retained no Symptoms, was despaired of by all”

However ,Fielding concluded happily

“I have too wantonly endeavoured to raise the tender Passions of my Readers in this Narrative.. the Kitten at last recovered, to the great Joy of the good Captain”

Perhaps compassion especially when Kittens are concerned transcends the ages?

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Leek Cycling Club in the Edwardian Age

Some time ago the BBC repeated Alan Bennett's 1972 play “ A Day Out”. It concerns a group going on a cycling trip to the Yorkshire Dales in 1911. The piece is elegiac, funny and concludes poignantly. At the end of the play there is a reunion of the club in 1920 who stop before a First World War memorial to honour the memory of members of the club who did not return from the trenches.

I was thinking of the programme after an afternoon spent in Leek Library turning the pages of local newspapers of the Edwardian Era. A report of Leek Cycling Club's tour of the Isle of Man in May 1904 caught my attention. The anonymous writer of the article detailed evocatively an escapade that a group of friends made ten years before the outbreak of war, and I am sure that as in the Bennett play, some of the cyclists would have died in the war.

After a rough crossing from Liverpool the men meet up with old friends in the Smoke Room of the Talbot Hotel, kept by a Staffordshire man Mr Weston. They refreshed themselves and set out for a tour of the island. The camp-site is at the Union Mills near Peel. The weather conditions are poor( so much for the Golden Edwardian summer) and the camp site waterlogged . The party were forced to seek refuge in a laundry room where they make the best of it. The conversations are boisterous and good natured joshing occurs. It is obvious the men delight in each others company. Engaging fragments of comment illuminate the article- the erratic chiming of Douglas Town Clock, the novelty of an early telephone box, the Whit Sunday parade with children dressed in white and a military band playing Strauss.

Cycling by 1904 was a major leisure activity. It was made easier by a number of innovations in the design of the bike. By the 1880s springs were added to seats ( not for nothing were early bikes called bone shakers), later pneumatic tyres was invented. In 1891 Eduard Michelin had patented the inner tube making the speedy repair of the tyre far more easier. ( The intrepid adventurers of the Leek Club repaired punctured tyres at Rainhill on the way back). By the last years of the century Cycling Clubs were being created . Leek now is one of the longest surviving clubs in the country.

An early problem which Clubs tried to exert an influence over was the lamentable state of the roads. A particularly egregious example were the roads of North Staffordshire. According to the 1874 'Book for Riders' “ Liverpool to Prescott 8 miles of good road, then within 6 miles of Newcastle under Lyme a very bad bit full of holes”... plus ├ža change

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Leek Labour Church: On ale houses and sedition

Leek Labour Church: On ale houses and sedition

On ale houses and sedition

My usual hostelry on a Friday night is the Wilkes Head named after the radical politician John Wilkes whose cross-eyed portrait stares ,one eye looking down St Edward Street and the other toward Napoli Pizza restaurant. Wilkes libertine, zealous defender of free speech and dogged opponent of monarchical absolutism-was still alive when the pub was called after him in 1786.

( Wilkes was responsible for a memorable put down directed at his great rival and inventor of the snack, the Earl of Sandwich. “ Wilkes, I have long considered your fate and have concluded that you will either hang or die of a pox” Wilkes “ It depends if I embrace your Lordship’s principles or your Lordship’s mistress”)

T.here are now only two pubs named after the great reprobate . One in in Leek and the other in up Chichester in Sussex.

I believe that the pub has a long history in the dissident tradition from its earliest days to 1900s where it was the meeting place of trade unionists up until today. In the early 19th century it was a much bigger pub and crucial to my argument it was also a coaching inn with regular coaches to Birmingham and Manchester ,both hotbeds of radicalism. News would have been carried and information on the upheavals gripping the country in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars would have been eagerly debated. Every town would have a pub while working men, some in more formal groups than others met to discuss current affairs.

The Tory poet Southey described the scene, the crackling fire, a hard days labour done, smoking pipes, heady brews and over heated political debate. “ Every pot house is supplied with the Sunday papers- doses of weekly poisons . One reader serves for the whole tap room full of open mouthed listeners and at the moment the army is the single plank between us and destruction”. He wrote this on the day that the Prime Minster Percieval was assassinated in 1812.

For the authorities it was a dangerous, unsettling prospect. In 1819 Magistrates issued a threat . “They had learnt that SEDITIOUS PAPERS are taken in, for the purpose of poisoning the minds of the ignorant and unwary” so they reminded the publicans that their business could be closed any time until they stopped circulating such papers. Despite the threat of official sanction alehouses like the Wilkes Head provided a rowdy setting for political debate and would not have been exceptional.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Early women's rights campaigners in Leek 1872

I saw “Lincoln” at the Foxlowe some weeks ago. The film describes the struggles the American President had in getting through the House of Representatives legislation granting civil rights for slaves in the last days of the Civil War. In one incident a speaker argues against the proposition that Negroes should have the vote and mockingly describes an even more absurd suggestion that women should qualify for the franchise. The debating chamber erupts in derisive laughter.

That was in 1865, but only 7 years later the notion that women should exercise their democratic rights was earnestly debated in Leek. In October 1872 at the Temperance Hall, the site of which is occupied by the College, the following motion was passed without dissent at a well attended meeting.

“ That the exclusion of women from voting in the election of Members of Parliament is contrary to the principles of just representation”

Two formidable women addressed the meeting- Lydia Becker and Elizabeth Wolstenholme. These Manchester women can with some justification be described as some of the earliest exponents of women’s rights in the Victorian era. They set the path that was followed by others into the early 20th century.

Lydia Becker was the granddaughter of German immigrants. A scientist by training, Becker in 1868 moved the resolution that women should be granted voting rights on the same terms as men at the first public meeting of the National Society for Women's Suffrage in Manchester. In June 1869, Becker and others were successful in securing the vote for women in council elections. The following year women gained the right to vote and stand for election in the School Boards in England and Wales. She successfully stood for and was elected to the Manchester School Board.

In 1870 Becker founded the Women's Suffrage Journal. Soon afterwards, she began organising speaking tours– a rarity in Britain at the time. At an 1874 speaking event in Manchester organised by Becker, fifteen-year-old Emmeline Pankhurst attended her first public meeting in the name of women's suffrage.

 Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy was one of the most significant pioneers of the British women's emancipation movement; though she is now overlooked. She was central to every campaign Victorian feminists conducted.

A strong advocate of human rights, as the secretary of the Vigilance Association for the Defence of Personal Rights she earned the nickname of the parliamentary watch-dog from Members of Parliament anxious to escape her persistent lobbying.

Elizabeth Wolstenholme, who was pregnant at the time, married a poet from Congleton named Elmy at Kensington Register Office in October 1874. The wedding was a civil ceremony and true to her principles, Elizabeth refused to make a promise of obedience to her husband and to wear a wedding ring or to give up her surname.

She supported the rights of the disenfranchised to exert force in pursuit of the vote and Emmeline Pankhurst lauded her as first among the most determined of suffragettes.

Where Becker and Wolstenholme led , the Pankhurst's, Emily Davison and Leek's own Harriet Kidd followed. Poignantly, Elizabeth Wolstenholme died only days after women over 30 obtained the vote in 1918.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Madeley and the " day of judgement has come"

Some weeks ago I met with Leek resident John Band who wanted to show me his very interesting collection of 17th century pamphlets and journals. Several of them mention events in North Staffordshire during the period of the Civil War. But one very curiously mentions an incident that happened in Madeley in the spring of 1651. It is recorded in a newspaper called the Perfect Diurnal

By Letters from Cheshire we had an exact accompt of a late strange appearance in the Air at a place called Madeley, of the Sun, Moone, and sighting, and other strange things as followeth, 16 Aprill 1651. Mary Sidway, Wife unto Robert Sidway in the Parish of Madely, Gent. in the County of Stafford saith, That sitting in her doore, one of her children being playing by her, about a quarter of an houre before Sun setting, taking notice of the Sunne, thought it to be of a strange bloudy colour, looking more earnestly upon it; perceived over it a perfect halfe Moon, but she thinking she might be deceived in her sight, wiped her eyes, and looked upon it againe: Upon which the said Moone suddenly vanished, and there appeared round about the Sunne many darke bodies, in compasse like unto ordinary Pewter Dishes, all which instantly turned as red as bloud, those of the North side, flying off from the Sunne,

Mary Sidway called her maid who was looking after Mary's children. She was asked if she had seen the curious spectacle at first the maid denied that she had seen anything but recanted

Crying out unto her Dame, ah Dame they come upon us! they come upon us! and forthwith in their view came downe from the Sun into the Court before the door, multitudes of darke bodies in the signs of men, having arms and swords discernable, but from the rest of the bodies were of a thick darknesse without fome, of which they can give no good accompt; there also in their view arose out of the ground as many like bodies in opposition unot these, which to their judgements ran violently one upon another; In their running up and down the Court they pressed so near the door where she sate and the maid stood by, that being afraid of hurt by them, they withdrew themselves into the entry of the house, but she, the said Mary Sidway, remembering her little Child to be left without doors desired her maid to fetch the Child “

The maid collected the child and the women and child barricaded themselves into the house and began to pray. They looked out of the windows to see if they could see anything. They saw

 Two horses shapes being by them seen amongst this Company, and that which most affrighted them with the Mote beore the window, which seemed to be spotted all over in the Compass of Round Trenchers with staining blood: Her Maid then desired her to look out of the other window upon the other side of the house, (which she did) and there they beheld all the back side full of long Cannons, and holsters standing rowes, with their mouthes upwards; They being still in feare went to prayer againe, after which they looked out on both sides the house, and all was gone and seemed to be cleare.

The women left the house and wandered over some fields. A fog descended and out of the mist

out of which came flying to them a creature in the bignesse of a Canon, with a broad face all hairy, two large wings (in their description, like unto the Angels wings pictured in Churches) upon sight whereof she the said Mary Sidway, said to her maid, certainely this is an Angell, and the day of judgement is come, come let us go and hasten to our folks and die together; but while she was thus speaking came another in the like shape, and after that a third”

The creatures disappeared and a farm labourer that the women saw did not see anything odd.

What can we make of the references to “pewter plates” or “ multitudes of strange sights” or the flying creature with “large wings and face all hairy”.

John Band is of the opinion that the women were suffering from ergotism the result of an enzyme released when rye or oats get damp and develops a fungal infection which can cause symptoms such as hallucinations. Some historians believe that religious visions or charges of bewitchment might be caused by ergotism. Although the early 1650s are characterised by fine springs and summers and drought like conditions.

Another suggestion is given in the clue of the the bloody colour of the Sun is that the woman witnessed an partial eclipse although it occurred on the 19th April and not the 16th. It could have been an error in typography and the wrong date given. The eclipse was visible in Lichfield not too far away.

And of course there is the fanciful view that it really was a Close Encounter of the Third Kind!

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Battle of the Atlantic 2

The name Geoffrey Charles Purslow ought to be better known in the area of his birth. As an example of self sacrifice it stands comparison with the death of Maximilian Kolbe at Auschwitz or Capitan Oates in the snowy wastes of the South Pole. Purslow was born in Cheddleton in 1916. His father was killed in the trenches when his son was 2. His mother re-married a Mr Gwynne and was living at “Fairways”. Geoffrey was educated in Shropshire. He was highly intelligent and studied Medicine at Birmingham, graduating in 1940 and joined the Merchant Navy as a surgeon beginning work on SS Laconia in December 1941. The Laconia formerly a liner had been converted to a troop ship.

On 12th September 1942, at 8.10pm, the Laconia was hit by a torpedo whilst sailing in the Atlantic. A second torpedo struck and the ship quickly sank. The order to be abandon the vessel was given and women, children and injured aboard the troop carrier were placed in life boats.

Over three thousand passengers, including some 1,800 Italian prisoners of war, experienced explosions, chaos and a listing ship. Many of the lifeboats had been destroyed by explosions, too few for the survivors, many were struggling in the ocean. At this point the U-boat which fired the two torpedoes, the U-156, surfaced. A further two U-boats came to assist, along with the Italian submarine Capellini.

Despite showing a large Red Cross flag, an American bomber attacked the submarines forcing them to dive to safety. The lifeboats that were alongside the submarines were cast adrift and the survivors were left to fend for themselves.

In November 1943 the local newspaper included an extract from a pamphlet“Atlantic Torpedo” written by a survivor Doris Hawkins. She recalled at first the role that the Doctor in navigating the lifeboat and distributing rations until illness struck.

Doctor Purslow developed a deep infection of his left hand and arm and of his right foot and leg..His glands began to swell, and red lines streaked his arm and leg. He felt ill, and we were anxious....One morning, about nineteen weary days after the ship was torpedoed, I heard voices, and after a while realised that one was his, although I could not hear exactly what was being said. I gathered that, realising that he was a potential source of infection to the rest of us, Doctor Purslow had come to a great decision .

He was quite conscious, and in a voice stronger than I had heard from him for many days, he said: "As I cannot be of any further help, and if I am now a source of danger to you all, it is better that I should go." As he heaved himself painfully up the side of the boat, I found my voice, and said: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." He said: "Goodbye", and with a long look, he took that final step backward. The sea closed over him.

Of Laconia’s original complement of 2,732, only 1,113 survived .The majority who died were Italian POWs.

Purslow is commemorated at his old school in Shropshire, at Birmingham University and at the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill in London.

Battle of the Atlantic 1

They that go down to the sea in ships and do business in great waters”

Mr and Mrs James dreaded the arrival of the telegram from the Royal Navy which came to their home at 10 London St, Leek in late September 1943. It confirmed that their youngest son Able Seaman Edward James aged 21 had been lost at sea and therefore must be confirmed as dead. Edward was one of the 72,000 Royal Naval and Merchant Marine personnel along with 40,000 Germans who died during the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continual engagement of the Second World War. It lasted from the earliest days of the war right through to its conclusion. Earlier this year a service of commemoration was held at Liverpool Cathedral recognising the huge losses endured by men and women of both sides on the 70th anniversary of the height of the conflict. Britain, being an island nation, required a constant flow of supplies and material to continue the struggle against Nazism. It was assisted by its North American Allies as well as other nations. The response of the German Navy was to stop the convoys by the use of surface vessels as well as the terrifying U Boats that caused great damage on Allied shipping.

The fate of Edward James illustrates the awfulness of this operation in microcosm. Edward was a silk worker prior to joining the Royal Navy in September 1941. He had been educated at All Saints School and the Britannia Street School before beginning work at the Euston Mill. He was a keen sportsman and very popular. The Leek paper reported him as being genial and of a sunny disposition. Edward had an older brother Frank who was in the Army serving in Iceland. Another relative Alf James was in a POW camp in Germany.

Edward wrote the last letter to his parents shortly before sailing with his ship HMS Fidelity formerly a French cargo vessel which during 1941/2 had been engaged in covert activity supporting the work of SOE in France. Interestingly the First Officer was a French woman Madeline Barclay who had been involved in espionage. It is unique that a woman should hold a senior rank at that time on a Royal Naval vessel. HMS Fidelity joined Convoy ON 154. The convoy was attacked by U-boats from 27 December while north of the Azores. Fidelity, suffering from engine problems, was left behind by the convoy and attempted to get to the islands. At 5pm on 30 December, the vessel was finally hit by two torpedoes from U-435 and sank immediately after heavy explosions. The U-boat reported a high number of survivors on overcrowded rafts and swimming in the water, none of them were rescued and all drowned in the worsening weather. The temperature of the ocean would have killed them in minutes,The dead included 274 crew, 51 Marines and 44 survivors from SS Empire Shackleton which the Fidelity had rescued the previous day.

The only survivors were the eight crew of the motor torpedo boat, detached on anti-submarine patrol, who were later picked up by HMCS Woodstock

The commander of the U435 was an experienced naval officer Siegfried Strelow he is credited with sinking 9 merchant ships and 2 Royal Navy vessels. The U435 was sunk by a Wellington Bomber off the Portuguese coast on 16th July 1943. All 43 hands were lost.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Premature Burial- A justifiable Victorian fear

I walked through Rushton Spencer churchyard with a local group and came across the tombstone of Thomas Meaykin buried on 16th July 1781 and as the inscription reads “ As a man falleth before united men so fell I” Two words in the Greek alphabet follow bia thanatos meaning to die violently. The story of Thomas is a terrible one according to Murray's Handbook for Staffordshire (1868 )

“This is a reference to a tragic story of a youth who dared to make love to his master's daughter, and was supposed to come to a sudden end hereby. At all events he was buried in the reverse of the usual way.”

The local legend is that he was giving a sleeping draught by the master which gave the appearance of death. Meakyn was buried initially in Stone, but when he was re-interred at Rushton and the full horror that he had been entombed prematurely was revealed.

Premature burial! The fear of being buried alive was a real one given the inexactness of medical science then. As the 19th century progressed , the possibility of premature burial increased. In the poorer urban areas doctors were hard pressed to keep control especially during an epidemic. When a patient was seriously ill or obviously dying they were happy to issue death certificates on application of the relative without seeing the corpse. The leading medical journal of the time outlined the fear in dramatic prose

“The last footfall departs from the churchyard, leaving the entranced sleeper behind in his hideous shell soon to awaken to consciousness and to a benumbed half- suffocated existence for a few minutes or else , more horrible still, there he lies beneath the ground conscious of what he has been and what he still is”

During a panic in the 1880s, doctors received much correspondence from people who had narrowly avoided this fate. One man was about to be screwed down in his coffin . He was aware of what was happening to him, but could not communicate to the undertaker. It was only when someone noticed that the “corpse” had broken out into a sweat that he was rescued.

As can be imagined many people took precautions against the possibility of being buried alive, The author Wilkie Collins left a letter that whoever found his body should call a doctor and make certain. Lady Burton provided for her heart to be pierced with a needle while the composer Meyerbeer arranged for bells to be tied to his extremities when he was dead.

By 1896 there were about 200 books on premature burial. It is not surprising that the superstitious believed that people who had been buried alive returned as vampires to take revenge on the living