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

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Foxe Book of Martyrs and a local villain

It must have been a troubling time to be a church goer in England in the mid 16th century as the country went on a roller coaster ride plunging between positions from the English Catholicism of Henry VIII , extreme Protestantism of Edward VI back to the fanatical Catholicism of Mary before the arrival of the Elizabethan Settlement and the establishment of the Church of England.

Of course, a wrong choice in the matter of religious belief could result in imprisonment, torture and at worse a gruesome execution. One book that chronicled the 300 or so Protestants who were executed during the reign of “Bloody” Mary was the “ Acts and Monuments” of John Foxe better known as the “Book of Martyrs”.

It was one of the most important books of its time whose graphic illustrations helped to frame the anti Catholicism of the country right up to the 20th century. The main message of the book that Catholics were cruel oppressors was so powerfully conveyed that a essential characteristic of “Englishness” up to fairly recent times could be defined as not being Catholic. One account in the Book of Martyrs features as a villain a local man Anthony Draycott, a native of Draycott- in- the- Moors, a prelate at Lichfield Cathedral and a zealous Catholic. He was determined to root out heresy locally. Draycott had also been Rector of Grindon and was well known in the area. He and the Bishop of Lichfield Baines began to eagerly conduct trials of Protestants after 1555. The case of Joan Waste, a young blind woman from Derby, came to their attention. A Protestant convert she had objected to the services now being read in Latin. She was sentenced for buying a New Testament in English which she asked friends to read to her.

 Waste also denied the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and held that the bread and wine were only that. She was quickly found guilty and condemned to die at the stake in Derby. Foxe takes up the story

“Sentence was then adjudged, and Dr. Draycott appointed to preach her condemned sermon, which took place August 1, 1556, the day of her martyrdom. His fulminating discourse being finished, the poor, sightless object was taken to a place called Windmill Pit, near the town, where she for a time held her brother by the hand, and then prepared herself for the fire, calling upon the pitying multitude to pray with her, and upon Christ to have mercy upon her, until the glorious light of the everlasting Sun of righteousness beamed upon her departed spirit”.  It said that after the burning Draycott calmly ate a meal.

However, he quickly fell foul of the new Queen Elizabeth and was imprisoned in London before being allowed to return to North Staffordshire dying at the family home Painsley Hall near Cheadle in 1572.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

For Independence Day- a Reepsmoor born Oregon Pioneer of 1848

The Staffordshire Advertiser of April 1851 carried a letter sent to Robert Ball from his brother Isaac which detailed a harrowing account of his journey to Oregon Territory three years before. Isaac Ball was born in Reepsmoor in 1812 and in his early 20s crossed the Atlantic seeking a new life in the States. He settled at first in New York working as a brick maker then gradually moving westward, he married Abigail who would eventually bear him 8 children. Along with over 60 wagons they set off for the new land in March 1848 from St Joseph, Missouri . North of the Platt River, in what is now Nebraska, calamity struck when Isaac broke a leg when he was run over by oxen. He was in a dire predicament as he wrote to Robert back in Reepsmoor

“Think of my condition dear brother 500 miles from a settlement in Missouri and 1,700 miles from Oregon with a wife and six children” A seventh child was born in the wagon. They crossed the Rockies and Isaac describes the wondrous sight of Cascade Mountain before arriving in Yam County, Oregon in September. The family were destitute during their first winter and Isaac was walking with the use of a crutch. ( A later biographer states that Isaac Ball limped for the rest of his life). In February 1849 he sold the team of oxen and the wagon and staked everything on becoming a gold miner in the Californian Gold Rush. He did well and made around $800 in the 40 days he was prospecting. An 1893 account describes Isaac as returning from the mines

“ he settled on his present property, and here he has since been engaged in farming, stock-raising and brick-making. When the rail road was built, the company gave him a station, and in honour of home named it Ballston. Here a nice little village has sprung up, which is destined to become an important one and which will perpetuate the name of this worthy pioneer. Mr. Ball has divided a portion of his homestead and sold a number of village lots. He has also sold 100 acres of land to one of his grandsons. He still owns 540 acres of land, a part of it his old donation claim and the rest  lands which he has since purchased”.

Isaac was a deeply religious man who founded Methodist Chapels and Schools in the locality. Sadly Ballston is a ghost town now A late 1950s guide book unflatteringly describes Ballston as “flat bellied as a ballet dancer, pungent as a cow barn and as productive as a queen bee”