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?