Friday, 12 December 2014

The Witching Hour

It is nearly Halloween and the time when witches are abroad casting spells and causing mayhem. Witches hold a powerful hold on the imagination as the interest in the Pendle case in Lancashire of the 17th century testifies. The fear of witches and their persecution resulted in a discussion I had in 1991 with a friend when visiting the Museum of Witchcraft in the delightful Cornish village of Boscastle. I had read a book on European witchcraft in the 17th century and remarked that the increase in witch hunts was linked to times of social distress and political upheaval. It was particularly marked in Germany when the number of cases increased greatly during the period of the 17th century 30 Years War. Over 30,000 people were convicted and executed during this period in a time when Germany was divided by strife. In Britain the number of witches executed was around 1,200. The majority, about 70% , were women

. It is a fallacy to think that British witches were burned: burning was practised on the Continent. The favoured method in England was hanging and the peak of witch trials was in a 50 year period from 1590 to 1640. In England this was a time when the country suffered with famine, growing poverty, religious intolerance and ultimately civil war. In short my contention was that the times called for scapegoats when people were looking to fix their fears on some poor unfortunate usually a woman.

 The counter argument put by my woman friend is a feminist one that the persecution of witches is a frightened response to the power of women. Women have always been healers. They were the unlicensed doctors and healers in rural societies carrying out a variety of roles. They were abortionists, nurses and counsellors. They were midwives, travelling from home to home and village to village. “For centuries women were doctors without degrees, barred from books and lectures, learning from each other, and passing on experience from neighbour to neighbour and mother to daughter. They were called “wise women” by the people, witches by the authorities”.

Irrespective of the reasons stories about witches abounded in the community. Locally one of the better known stories concerns the Witch of Getliffe’s Yard who had the ability to change shape into a cat. Another Leek witch in an interesting clash between the old world and the new caused a factory to stop production when she put a spell on machinery until bought off with drink. The Moorlands does not feature in any major witch trial in the period, but elsewhere in the county investigations did take place. In 1596 a 13 year old boy Thomas Darling claimed that he came across a little old woman wearing a grey gown, black fringe cape, broad hat, and who had three warts on her face. Darling angered the woman, causing her to curse him to go to hell. Darling believes this was the Witch of Stapenhill named as Alice Goodridge and her mother were interrogated at Burton. Under pressure, they confessed.

  By the 18th century a more rational view of the existence of witchcraft came to the fore and the last witch trial that resulted in an execution was  in 1716. By the Victorian Age a belief in witches was thought absurd. In 1857 the Times reported mockingly of an allegation of witchcraft in a case of obtaining money under false pretences when a “cunning man” named Tunnicliffe convinced a Rugeley farmer called Charlesworth that his cattle herd was bewitched.

Gunpowder Treason and Plot

There was a story circulating around my old  University York  that the distinguished historian Gerald Aymler  one November evening was stopped by children to ask for  a  “ penny for the guy”?. Professor Aylmer’s speciality was 17th century English History and so he answered humorously that if the children went away and came back to tell him about Guy Fawkes then he would give them a pound. A pound in 1976 is about the equivalent of a fiver today. If the children had done their home work they would have discovered that Fawkes was a local lad who was born in High Petergate in 1570. A soldier Fawkes spent much time in what is now Holland fighting against the Dutch who wished to free themselves from the yoke of Spanish  power. They would have also found out that many of the plotters in the Gunpowder Plot were Midlanders with homes in Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Staffordshire. In fact the last stand of the conspirators was at Holbeche House in Staffordshire after the plot had been discovered. The plot they would have researched was a desperate attempt by leading Catholics to assassinate King James 1st as he opened Parliament on the 5th November 1605 by packing a cellar under the building with gunpowder. Of course the attempt on the Kings life was revealed when the shadowy Lord Monteagle was tipped off and Fawkes captured as he made ready to lay the fuse.

Since then the exposure of the plot has been commemorated by bonfires and fireworks, but the people lighting fires this evening are perhaps unaware that the object of Bonfire Night in the past was a brutal assertion of Protestant Ascendency over Roman Catholicism. The date November 5th has another significance as it is  the date that William of Orange later William III landed at Torbay in 1688 to wrestle the crown from Catholic James II. To complete the Protestant triple whammy of key dates in November, the 17th was the date that Elizabeth 1st the person who established the Church of  England succeeded to the throne in 1558 after the death of her Catholic half sister Mary.

The sectarian nature of Bonfire Night was especially marked in the past. In 1827 in Coventry a newspaper account  records that the fires along roads were so great that coaches had to zigzag through the bonfires “ amidst the bursting of fireworks and showers of serpents- it is truly astonishing that no serious event took place. We have heard of the horses of a wagon taking fright, which only stimulated the lads to a more energetic assault of fireworks, but the poor animals did no damage to themselves or others”. In Preston the following year the discovery of the Popish Plot “was celebrated with much spirit”.  In Reading a strong “Church and King “town, the Guy was committed to the flames “with exultant shouts and the explosion of squibs, crackers and rockets” In Chester the Cathedral bells were rung and the garrison cannon fired. And finally closer to home in Macclesfield the police fought a losing battle with a mob determined to celebrate the discovery of the “detestable conspiracy” with displays of fireworks and the discharge of guns.

It is worth noting that during this time the Tory Government led by Wellington struggled against fierce opposition to remove 17th century laws applied to Roman Catholics denying them full citizenship and passed at a time when Catholics were regarded with suspicion following incidents such as the Gunpowder Plot.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The eating of "umbles"

One of the delights of the summer is eating samphire the sea weed that grows in the salt marshes of the coastal regions. You can usually get it in June or July. I  first became acquainted with it in East Anglia. It is very tasty boiled and served with lemon and butter. A French lad who was in a group I was camping with thought it was one of the tastiest things he had tried whilst on holiday, a rare acknowledgement indeed .

Samphire appears in the “Whole Art of Cookery” published in the early 19th century by a local publisher in Bemersley near Knypersley. What makes the book unique was that it was published by Primitive Methodists. It was produced in Hugh Bourne’s, the founder of Primitive Methodism, own publishing house. The printer was more used to producing prayer books and religious tracts rather than such works of domesticity. However early Methodists were very keen on personal development and the book had a strong ethic of self improvement which would have fitted with the ethos of advancement. It would have achieved the Primitive Methodist seal of approval. Although one aspect of a puritanical religious movement they would have baulked at was the copious amounts of wine that many of the recipes required. The cynic in me thinks that knocking back a few bottles of Sack may have been one way to cope with some of the servings.

The unknown author of the work  drew on  earlier writings. In the 18th century cookery writers such as Hannah Glasse and Susannah Carter dominated the scene and some of their recipes  appear in the “Whole Art of Cookery”. One example was a dismal sea  farers dish called Portable Soup which even then was thought to resemble glue. It was a mistake that one of the characters in “Swiss Family Robinson” also makes It might be useful to speculate whether the poor diet of the sailors indicated by the existence of portable soup might be a reason why there were so many naval mutinies in the late 18th century. Another strand that is evident in the “Whole Art of Cookery” is the drawing  from earlier culinary traditions of  the medieval period as the book includes heavy use of spices and dried fruit in such dishes as sweet chicken pie 
or lamb with currants. One item that appears in a number of meals is the oyster. In the early 19th century oysters were the dish of the poor until later in the Victorian Age when pollution destroyed the oyster beds driving the price beyond the reach of working people. They appear in such dishes as “Oysters and pistachio nuts” and “oyster ragout”. Verjuice is also mentioned made from crab apples as an alternative to vinegar. In the Middle Ages it was widely used and more recently has made something of a comeback.

Tastes change especially in regard to the use of “umbles” or offal which many turn their nose up at. It was not always the case. As a child I have eaten tripe, chitterlings and pigs trotters. Many would be appalled at the prospect. In the “Whole Art” there are instructions to make Calf Head Pie which includes sliced palates and coxcombs. Battalia Pie requires two lamb’s  testicles or stones.. An essential ingredients of hashed calf’s head are “brain cakes”. The recipe for dressing “Calves Chitterlings curiously” calls for the meal to be “closely covered with fire”

 The book includes directions for making wine, elder, cherry and gooseberry wines indicating the range of flowers and fruits that could be turned into semi palatable alcohol. Home brewing of beer was always a commonplace activity in the 18th century home. Instructions are given for “strong October” as well as “small beer” and “strong ale”.

There are some omissions: no bread or scone recipes are included and, given that it is a North Staffordshire cookbook, no oatcakes

Black Consciousness and Delma

It was almost certainly a rare sight in a town like Leek in the early 1950s. The black face of little Delma stares out apprehensively at the camerain  February 1950.  She is wearing the school blazer of All Saints School which she was soon to start. Delma’s guardian appears more confident. The Reverend Payton, vicar of All Saint’s was a man in his early 40s. He stands in the doorway of the Vicarage with his wife. Delma aged 10 was the daughter of a Nigerian barrister  staying at the Payton’s for several months before becoming a boarder at Wellington private school in Shropshire. She was enrolling at a local school before moving to Wellington the following Autumn. I imagine that Delma would have been the only person of colour in Leek at the time. I wonder how she would have been treated?  Probably as a figure of curiosity as  all social surveys carried out at the time do not report overt  hostility to black people. Writing in the early 1950s the South African writer Doris Lessing thought that the general positive  attitude to race in Britain then stood in marked contrast to her own country and the decade before black servicemen in the US Army report on the friendliness of British people compared to the segregated nature of society back home.

If there is one characteristic that comes through in the reporting of Delma’s arrival it is a patronising one that was a standard response throughout much of the media at the time of her arrival in Leek coincided with some debate over mixed marriages. As a leading advocate of African self determination the Botswanan leader Seretse Kharma had married a fellow Oxford student a white woman leading to discussion on the subject of mixed marriage.

 However the 50s began to see a change in the question of an African consciousness that begin to see the granting of independence to African countries by the end of the 50s and into the following decade. The seeds were sown not too far away from Leek in Manchester. In 1945 the fifth Pan African Congress held at Chorlton Town Hall was significant politically, coming as it did just months after the end of the Second World War. The war had been fought in the name of freedom, yet around the globe hundreds of millions of people lived in colonies run by  European powers. The Congress brought together a number of important political activists including Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah who went on to lead anti-colonial struggles in Kenya and Ghana. Delma’s own country would become free from colonial rule in 1960 and as a professional her own father may have played a part in the administration of the newly independent Nigeria.

This is not to say that the transition was a smooth one. The 50s saw the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya which was brutally suppressed by British forces, the implications of which are still being played out in the law courts.  It saw ferocity and slaughter in other European colonies most notably in the Belgian Congo and in French North Africa and the consequences of colonial powers arbitrarily drawing a line on a map would eventually lead to a Civil War in Delma’s own country in the 1960s and into the 1990s with the horrors of Rwanda

Alstonefield Church

During the summer I visited Alstonefield Church. It was a late June day and the wild flowers rich in colour crowded round the grave stones. It was a place to take in the wonderful countryside and reflect.  Alstonefield is interesting in that some of the oldest gravestones in the country stand in the church yard. The oldest I saw belonged to Alice Green who died in April 1518. There seem to be others of a similar age. The beginning of the 16th century is a very interesting time. Within a 50 year period from 1490 to 1540 a person like Alice would have heard of new countries being found  across the western sea, new ideas of Luther and Calvin were challenging the orthodoxies of faith , books were published on the new printing presses to spread new ideas. I wonder if Alice Green was aware of the radical transformations.  Or was Alstonefield too remote a backwater place that by the time of her death in the second decade of the 16th century the news had not reached the community?

Inside the church are impressively ornate pews carved by a local craftsman sometime in the 1630s as well as a Jacobean three decker pew with sub ordinate clerk’s seat and the family pew of the Cotton family painted green and also dating from the 17th century.

One item I had not seen before. It was discovered in the rubble several years ago and now  fixed on the wall. It was described as a head of Sheela Na gig, a carved fertility figure from about 1100. The figure is usually quite a sexually graphic one. A very good example , if not explicit one is outside the 12th century Church at Kilpeck in Herefordshire. There is some debate on whether Sheela Na gigs were first carved at around the time of the Norman Conquest or whether they are from an earlier time and are representative of a pagan tradition that clung on in the more remote areas. Another interpretation is that they were  warnings against lust.

It has been suggested to me that the Alstonefield figure is not a Sheela Na gig at all, but the remnants of the head of the triple goddess. A better example of the stone head of this deity exists not too far away  in a porch at Grindon Church. The triple goddess theme is common to a number of religions including the Celts and the Norse. In Irish tradition the Morrigan are depicted as three powerful goddesses who influence power, battle and sovereignty. Some suggest that Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend is a later representation of the Morrigans. The Norns in the Norse tradition are female beings who control the destiny of the Gods and men. And some neo pagans believe that the early Christian Church accommodated ancient beliefs such as the Goddesses in their own beliefs in for instance the Three Marys.

Whatever the stone represents, at some point in the past the Alstonefield figure was wrenched from the wall and buried in rubble to resurface in the early 21st century. Perhaps it was the result of the early Protestant zeal directed at idolatry and graven images that first occurs  in the period that Alice Green lived. 


 It’s the month of the Leek Blues Festival in which musicians both local and further afield will be bringing the music of the Deep South to local pubs and clubs. It’s over 40 years since I saw Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee perform in the  Legendary Bluesmen Tour. They appeared at the Heavy Steam Machine in Hanley. Older readers might recall the venue. It had been a ten pin bowling establishment until turned into a music venue in around 1972.( I also saw a young Elton John there )  Both men were the real deal in terms of living the life of true bluesmen. Terry’s father was a share cropper and Sonny went blind in his teens the result of an accident while McGee was from a working class family whose father was a factory worker. He was crippled with polio as a child and was pushed around in a cart by his brother until a charity organised an operation to cure the illness. Both men were from the south and both experienced hardship and racism as travelling musicians through the country during the 40s and 50s. Like many blacks they moved north and established themselves on the folk music scene in New York.  They were welcomed in the left leaning bohemian clubs of Greenwich Village, venues that would later nurture Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

 McGee and Terry toured the UK frequently after 1957 so when I saw them in the Potteries they were well known and had played with some of the most influential musicians of the period. Curiously I gather although it was a musical partnership that carried over a 30 year period the two men disliked each other intensely and off stage would not talk to each other. I saw a clip of them on You tube from a TV show of the 50s. They were playing with Woody Guthrie the legendary folk singer and song writer. Guthrie  chronicled life in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma in the depression of the 1930s in his songs and writing who then went on to influence Bob Dylan.

What musicians like McGee, Terry and Guthrie( and from an earlier generation Leadbelly, Son House and Robert Johnson) had was authenticity. They had the genuine  experience of working in the fields or factories and in the case of Lead belly and House grim experience in the prison farms of the South. Some of them found solace in religion or in politics. House was an itinerant Baptist preacher. Leadbelly and Guthrie supported left wing causes which led to them coming under scrutiny in the communist “witch hunting” phase of the 1950s.

 They learned their skills at the feet of earlier musicians such as Blind Blake and Irene Scruggs of the Piedmont Blues style. McGee and Terry in turn went on to inspire later musicians such as Led Zeppelin, Rory Gallagher, the Animals and Rod Stewart whom I saw in the music venues of the Potteries in the 1970s. And the baton is now being passed to another generation who are playing at the Leek Festival.

I will end with an anecdote: Jeff Parton of Werrington  used to run the Folk Club at the Red Lion in Stoke, now part of the Crich Tram Museum. Woody Guthrie’s son Arlo was touring UK folkclubs in the 60s and wandered in to Stoke Folk Club. Arlo later went on to write many political songs following in his father’s tradition but was then unknown. The manager  of the Folk Club asked  to do an audition which compliantly he did.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

King John- a misunderstood Monarch

In truth King John has had a bad press. He is usually considered one of the worst Kings ever to rule England which he did for 17 years from 1199 to 1216. John is in the same league as Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI in terms of  inept medieval monarchs. Cruel, militarily inept, untrustworthy, devious and sadistic are just some of the epithets that are usually directed against him. It culminated in the Barons forcing him to sign the “Great Charter” or Magna Carta in a field by the Thames curbing his dictatorial powers. I was thinking of him as a gazed down on his tomb at Worcester Cathedral. He asked to be buried in the same church as St Wulfstan, a local saint, so on his death at Newark( after according to one source eating unripe peaches and drinking too much cider) his corpse undertook a long cross country journey before it was buried beside the River Severn.

But Leek owes John a lot and perhaps his reputation needs to be restored.  It was John who granted the Market Charter to Leek in 1207 as he did for many other towns in the country. Liverpool got its charter in the same year. This was a consequence of the king needing to raise additional revenue as a consequence of losing all his family’s possessions and land in Normandy. John stands poorly in comparison with his brother the courageous Richard the Lion Heart who only spent a short period in England before going on the Third Crusade and in consequence bankrupting the country. John followed in the steps of his father Henry II who energetically got round the country administering justice. John was in his father’s mould in being a serious administrator. He was probably the first King since the Conqueror to know  England very well, crisscrossing the country in frenetic activity, like his father, personally overseeing the running of his land. His awareness of the country was assisted by his enthusiastic pursuit of game. John like all the Angevin Kings was a keen hunter and there is evidence that he hunted throughout the Midlands, the North and the West Country. As a consequence he was one of the few medieval monarchs to encourage the building of bridges and improving roads. He was also the first to recognise the pottery industry in Staffordshire as an order for 4,000 plates and 500 cups was made to supply a Christmas banquet at Tewkesbury in 1204.

John’s main problem was an inability to get on with the leading barons and the high handedness he frequently showed to them would eventually lead to the showdown at Runnymede. This can be demonstrated by his handling of the most powerful lord in these parts, the founder of Dieulacres Abbey, Ranulph Earl of Chester a very loyal and dependable knight. In 1203 John accused him of aiding his enemies in France and the following year of siding with the rebel Welsh. Despite these slurs Ranulph remained faithful aiding him  in the last rebellions of his rule and acted as executor of John’s will.

John was unlucky. The poor economic situation of England forced him to embark upon ever more ingenious ways of extracting money from the barons which caused ill feeling. The brutal methods that he employed to ensure their loyalty such as hostage taking only worsened the situation. The verdict of history on him must be that he had the ability and energy to be a great king, but all too often he acted like a petty tyrant

West Indian Cricket

It’s the 50th anniversary of me seeing sporting legends at Norton Cricket Club. I was 9 and not really aware that I was in the presence of two of the greatest cricketers who were playing in North Staffordshire league. They were the West Indians Gary Sobers and Wes Hall. My father took me to watch cricket at a couple of local league grounds such as Knypersley or Norton although the latter was a very attractive proposition for my father with the great Sobers playing. Of course both Sobers and Hall were not the first West Indians to play in North Staffordshire. Both Sonny Ramadhin and Frank Worrell had played locally in the previous decade.  Ramadhin who played for Ashcombe Park has the distinction of being immortalised in at least three calypsos because of his role in the famous victory against England at Lords in 1950. The first time that the Caribbean had beaten the “mother country Along with Valentine he is immortalised in “Cricket Lovely Cricket” by Lord Beginner (“With those little pals of mine, Ramadhin and Valentine”); Ramadhin on the Ball by King Radio (“We want Ramadhin on the ball”); Cricket Calypso by Lord Kitchener (“Ramadhin, you deserve a title, Sir Ramadhin, followed by a medal”).

But back to 1964, I had seen the West Indies play against England the previous year when Cowdray the England captain returned to the crease with arm in plaster having broken it after been hit by a delivery by Wes Hall the demon fast bowler.  Cow dray’s brave and resolute action resulted in a draw and a year later I was to see Hall not too far away from the family home in Stoke. I was recently informed by Peter Wright from King St that he recalled that Leek cricketers wore extra padding when playing against Hall. I gather though that he was a good natured man although it must have been intimidating to see that 6 foot 3 inch muscular frame bear down at you at high speed. Sobers also exuded grace and athleticism whenever he played and he has been described as the “greatest all round cricketer the world has ever seen”. Who could forget the six sixes he scored at a Glamorgan against Nottinghamshire some time  later? Some years later the proudest boast of Peter Fitchford who used to get into the Swan was not only had he played football against John Charles of Wales and Juventus- Il Gigante Buono – The Gentle Giant. But he had also taken the wicket of Sobers when he played for Knypersley which is something to brag about.

Later on I have seen a number of touring West Indian sides at work and at play. I saw Joel Garner “the Big Bird” squeeze his 6 foot 8 inch frame under a low beamed Worcester pub during the tour of 1980 and a 1984 match at Old Trafford when King Viv and Gordon Greenidge were in their pomp.

The West Indian approach to life was recalled to me in a Wigan pub once when a  stranger told me that he was stopped  by a car load of fellow West Indians who were lost on their way to Old Trafford. He got in the car with them and  was offered a bottle of Rum and was “lost” for three days. His wife took a dim view. “She never did have a sense of humour” he said.

The Return of the Otter

Otters have been seen locally. Altogether it’s very good news and although understandably the authorities want to keep  the animal’s location secret it is cause for celebration. Otters have been seen locally. I’ve been told  they are living in the waterways of the Moorlands including in the upper reaches of the Trent as well as the Churnet. They have even  been seen within the boundaries of Stoke!!  This sleek and playful mammal almost became extinct about 50 years ago as a combination of persecution and change to  its habitat. One factor was the use of pesticides after the War which affected fish stocks on which the Otter depends. Belatedly in 1978 the Government banned hunting of the animal and the Otter achieved further protection from wildlife legislation passed in 1981.  It is certainly a testament to the cleanliness of local rivers especially the Trent which suffered from pollution and neglect for many years. It is not only in Staffordshire but reports of otter increase have been reported from the Ribble in Lancashire to the Medway in Kent in areas where they have not been reported for many years

I have never seen the animal in the wild. My only sight has been at refuge centres in Devon and Derbyshire but it is certainly an engaging, inquisitive creature almost child like in its liveliness. Otters are playful animals and appear to engage in various behaviours for sheer enjoyment, such as making water slides and diving in to rivers. They may also find and play with small stones. It is also a ferocious defender of its territory and family. It’s the top of the chain as a predator of the waterways feeding on fish and water fowl. Of course its increase has attracted grumbles from some anglers who complain that the growth in numbers has had an impact on fish stocks. However I for one think that the re appearance and advance of the Otter in the Staffordshire Moorlands is unalloyed good news.

Lutra Lutra to give it its Latin name appears in many myths. In Welsh legends the sorceress Ceridwen left young Gwion to guard her cauldron, but he tasted the draught accidentally gaining knowledge of all things. He transformed into a hare to escape her anger, but she pursued him as a dog. When he plunged into the river as a salmon, Ceridwen became an otter to continue her pursuit. Gwion was eventually reborn as the great bard, Taliesin.

. The animal features frequently in modern literature. The Otter in Kenneth Graham's Wind in the Willows is an affable character, with a particularly adventurous son who lives up to the creatures playful image .Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson follows the life of an otter in the rivers of North Devon, and Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water recounts the touching, funny and tragic true story of his friendship with otters, giving a lyrical portrayal of their intelligence and irrepressible sense of fun. It was later filmed. But perhaps my favourite Otter story is the short story Laura by Saki in which the dying woman has her wish granted by  coming back as an Otter with an “elegant svelte figure”

Walter Scott and the Union

This month the Scots have their referendum to determine whether they stay within the United Kingdom. Most Scots who live locally that I have spoken to are opposed to the country going its own way although I understand that the vote will be close.
One man can claim to have invented “Scottishness”. He’s considered to be the first internationally known novelist. His statue in Edinburgh is the largest to a writer in the world and for most of the early 19th century his reputation stood unparalleled. He organised the visit to Scotland in 1822 of George IV, the first visit of a  monarch from south of the border that wasn’t at the head of an invading army, and was to blame for clothing  the fat, alcoholic King in swathes of tartan and plaid. This writer is also responsible for coining such well known phrases as “caught red handed”, “ wide berth”, “lock, stock and barrel” and “back of beyond” and yet is now completely unread, even with Tony Blair’s endorsement of “Ivanhoe” on radio 4 “ Desert Island Discs”. I am referring to Sir Walter Scott.
What we think of the romantic notion of Scotland, the Highlands, the landscape, the tartans and the tradition can largely be put down to some canny promotion by Scott nearly 200 years ago.
 He wrote “Rob Roy” (1817), Ivanhoe (1819) and Peveril of the Peak (1821).  In 1818 he was knighted. In 1826 circumstances began to turn against him, he became bankrupt when his publisher Archibald Constable and printers Ballantyne failed and on 15th May his wife died. His health began to fail as the pressure of work increased; he suffered a minor stroke. Scott was a man of honour and decided that he would write and any money earned from his writing would go into a trust fund which would be used to clear his debts. The period 1826 to 1828 was a period of ferocious writing including a biography of Napoleon which brought in £40,000 by December 1827. But his most lucrative plan was the production of cheap editions of all his novels with new introductions and copious notes, a project called “Magnum Opus”. He had written “Fair Maid of Perth” by the end of March 1828 and set off to London as soon it was completed to meet with his publisher and to discuss the production of “Magnum Opus”. On the way to London on April 5th he stayed the night in Leek.

April 5th- Breakfasted at Chorley, and slept at Leek. We were in the neighbourhood of some fine rock scenery, but the day was unfavourable; besides I did not come from Scotland to see rocks.

One is clear what Scott’s view of the forthcoming referendum on independence would be. He was a Tory of the most committed kind fiercely attached to maintaining the union with England. He foretold some of the arguments used by both sides of the referendum debate in “Rob Roy” with the dialogue between the clansman Fairservive and Nicol Jarvie on whether to have closer links with England. He was reactionary enough to oppose at the end of his life the Reform Bill which offered limited reform to parliament and concocted a plot to kidnap Princess Victoria should the measure be passed. His historical view prompted another writer and also visitor to Leek Mark Twain to attack “sham chivalry, of a brainless and long vanished society. He did measureless harm”

Monday, 1 September 2014

Ludschurch and the Lollards

Ludschurch is a fascinating if somewhat forbidding place. Some months ago I revisited the place and even in bright sunlight it still has an all pervading gloomy atmosphere. In 1680 the historian Dr Plot described” the stupendous cleft in the rock... the sides steeped and so hanging that it preserves snow all summer”.  It is alleged the deep ravine proved useful when hiding cattle from marauding Scots during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745

The place has strong spiritual connotations and people remain drawn to it today as our ancestors once were. The name Ludschurch might have derived from Lugh the Celtic deity honoured in the festival Lughansa on 1st August. There are stories that sacrifices took place to appease the God as well as visiting sacred areas linked with water. Or the name might come from Llud who appears with his wife Llefelys in the collection of Welsh myths  called the Mabinogion. Their son was Gawain. The link between the writer of the medieval allegorical poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and Ludschurch was first made by Professor Philips in a letter to the “Times” in 1958.

 In other accounts the chasm is connected with the Lollards the heretical group who first came to prominence in the 14th century as followers of the radical priest John Wycliffe who believed in a simpler faith. The Lollards, whose  name is thought to originate from an early Dutch word meaning to mumble, attacked the wealth and luxury of the Church. They believed that the Bible should be in English and disapproved of the veneration of images or pilgrimages. The movement was considered by the powerful as a direct attack on their authority and they sought to suppress it. It has been called an early form of Protestantism.

The local story dates from the reign of Henry V who was zealous in his attempts to root out heresy. A local group led by landowner Walter Lud Auk held religious meetings at Ludschurch. They were attacked by soldiers and Walter’s granddaughter named Alice was killed  and then buried near the entrance. The earliest record of the incident was in the 1550s during a period of repression directed against Protestants, so the story could be simply be a myth. However, Lollards were supported by sympathetic aristocrats such as John Oldcastle of Herefordshire( and a model for Shakespeare’s Falstaff)  who rebelled against Henry V in 1414 . He had backing in the remote country areas of the Welsh borders and across the North Midlands. Some support for the rebellion existed in Derbyshire and Burton on Trent and there is an account that Oldcastle took refuge in Lollard supporting communities along the Staffordshire and Derbyshire border. (Nothing however, suggests a Ludschurch connection with Oldcastle). He was eventually caught and executed and the movement lost support among the aristocracy and the middle class as it was now tainted with revolt.

One striking aspect and that is the influence of women , a distinction it shares with another medieval heretical movement the  Cathars. Among the Suffolk Lollard heretics investigated in the 1420s were a number of women. Joan Broughton who was burned at the stake in 1494 was so stout in her opinions that “all the doctors could not turn her from use of them”.

A shooting at Grindon

Any violent death has an impact upon a community even, it seems, after the passage of time. When I chatted to a person from Grindon sometime ago he said that although the event happened nearly 90 years ago and could not possible be in anyone’s living memory it was never discussed in the village. I imagine that what made it the more shocking was that they were  carried out by a leading member of the community and in a very  deferential society like  the Moorlands of the 1920s then there would have been consequences that would have reverberated down the years.

The tragic story was told in newspapers around the country in block headlines that  a Vicar was involved in a shooting incident in a remote, rural area. John Alexander Smith had been Vicar of Grindon, a parish of around 300 souls for 24 years by 1926. He was ordained in 1887 and had been Vicar of Handsworth in Birmingham for 5 years and then Rector of Rodington in Shropshire from 1893 for another 5 years before coming to the Staffordshire Moorlands. In his youth Rev Smith had a reputation as a keen sportsman and in his years at Grindon was well regarded for his pastoral work. His kindness was frequently remarked upon. His wife fell ill and he spent many years nursing her. Eventually Hannah Smith died in February 1926. The Vicar was badly hit by his loss. Smith confided with friends that he was suffering from depression and insomnia. He contemplated drowning himself and told his doctor that he had a desire to smash things. The clergyman apparently suffered a reaction to the medication he had been prescribed by his doctor. He went away on holiday for a period, but found no relief from his anxieties.

No one knows the chain of events that led to the tragic outcome in August 1926. Miss Poyser called into the rectory on the evening of Thursday 12th to deliver milk. She found the dying Hannah Austin the 37 year old house keeper who had been shot twice . Hannah had worked at the rectory for some time and was said to be happy and contented with her lot. It later transpired that Rev Smith had left her a large legacy. Miss Poyser called the landlord of the “Cavalier” Mr Derbyshire and Mr Walters the village school teacher who found the Vicar unconscious in an upper room. He had shot himself in the head. The police arrived and put the Vicar under open arrest, but the clergyman succumbed to his wounds at the North Staffs Royal Infirmary a few days later. The inquest the following month recorded an open verdict of suicide whilst temporarily insane. Reverend Smith was buried in the churchyard by his wife.

 Suicide rates after the First War increased up to the early 1930s especially among unemployed older men who probably had the after effects of involvement in the war to come to terms with. I wondered how the Rev Smith had been buried in consecrated ground?  It seems  the law concerning the burial of suicides changed in the 1880s although suicide attempts remained illegal until 1961. Even in the 1950s people were sent to prison for attempting to kill themselves. Thankfully in 2014 we are more sympathetic to the plight of the desolate.

Dieulacres Abbey and the power of Dreams

2014 is the 800th anniversary of the founding of Dieulacres Abbey near Leek. How the Abbey was established in Leek is a fascinating story. It is a story of how a dream caused a medieval baron to build a monastery beside the Churnet. Ranulph the Earl of Chester dreamt that his grandfather Ranulph de Gernon visited him one night. He told his grandson to found an Abbey on the site of a former chapel to the Virgin Mary which the Earl did. He was a generous benefactor providing the monks with ample funds. The spirit told the Earl to transfer monks from a settlement in Cheshire on the Welsh border. The monastery at Poulton had suffered from Welsh raids, although only established about 50 years earlier. The monks welcomed the invitation of Ranulph to move to Staffordshire. How the Leek monastery got its name is equally an interesting story. When Ranulph told his wife about his vision and the proposed foundation she exclaimed in French: 'Deux encres'— 'May God grant it increase'. Ranulph then fixed the name of the place as 'Dieulacres' and gave it this name when he laid the foundation stone of the abbey in 1214. Dieulacres was a central part of the local community for the next three hundred years.

To the medieval mind a dream could either be interpreted as a message from God leading the recipient on a spiritual path or more darkly an attempt by a night demon to invade sleep. The Anglo Saxon word “mare” in nightmare means “demon”.

 Dreams continued to interest commentators into  modern times although we had to wait for Freud to attempt a systematic analysis. I was drawn to a recent article in New Scientist on the ability to manipulate dreams. In the 1950s a researcher at Chicago noticed Rapid Eye Movements during sleep signifying a time of intense brain activity when dreaming occurs. When people were awakened during this time they were able to tell researchers of their dreams. Taking this a step forward a psychologist as devised an app on a smart phone that could control dreams. The subject sets an alarm and a soundscape, such as walk beside the sea and then falls asleep. The app detects when the person is in deep sleep from breathing and movement patterns and plays the chosen soundscape. Once awake the individual recounts the dream and there is usually a strong correlation between the soundscape and the dream.

Further analysis has revealed that most dreams involve a playing out of some anxiety. They are the result of the mind attempting to deal with everyday worries by reinterpreting incidents. Scientists have found an interesting insight into the dreams of those diagnosed with depressive illness. These dreams are frequently negative and on waking the individual feels sad and dispirited, but those depressives who could alter the direction of their dreams to result in a more positive outcome recovered and eventually recovered their wellness.

Drawing together Ranulph’s experience of a dream that led him on a path of spiritual fulfilment and the modern hope that dreams can be influenced to improve well being it seems that they can play a role in determining our sense of completeness.

The Water Gypsies of Foxt

I have always had an interest in canal boats and boatmen. It probably derives from a childhood spent living near the Trent and Mersey canal in the 1960s when barges were still being used to transport materials such as clay, coal and flint to factories and potbanks but it was an industry in decline

One hundred years ago the industry was still thriving although inroads were being made into it by the railways. In the 1861 national census taken to ascertain the population of the country we receive a glimpse into the self contained lives of the people who manned the craft. In Foxt by the Caldon Canal 16 boats were moored up on the March night the census was taken. The occupants would have lived in cramped conditions as the boats were about 10 feet long and 7 foot wide with only a tiny cabin as a living space.

 One family the Tobeys had 6 people, four of them teenage girls. Matilda Tolley a 1 year old was the youngest person and Joseph Greenhall of Worcester aged 62 the oldest. All the adults were illiterate marking the register with a cross. The boat people were not locally born, most were from the Black Country. They were carrying ironstone for smelting in the foundries of Staffordshire. It would have been a filthy business and the wives of the boatmen would have been hard pressed to keep the boats and their possessions clean, fresh water was always at a premium. The women and the children like 7 year old John Parret or Elizabeth Firkins aged 6 were expected to work. One job that was important was to look after the horse that would pull the barge. The children would often walk the horse which was usually looked after and kept in canal side stables. Consequently the education of bargee children was neglected as families moved around.
Canal people were also called “Water gypsies”  lived isolated lives. They did not mix with the general population and married other boat people. I am sure that the Stokes, Ward and Wond families of Brierley Hill would have been related to each other.

 Boatmen had a fearsome reputation for drunkenness and lawlessness . One newspaper of 1839 describes them as a “ wretchedly debased part of the population”. This charge arose out of a murder that took place in June 1839 in Staffordshire when 37 year old Christina Collins was raped and murdered by two boat men James Owen and George Thomas. She was a passenger on a barge between Liverpool and London where her husband had moved to find  work. They attacked and drowned her at Brindley Bank. The following year the two men were found guilty and hanged at Stafford. (The story was used by Colin Dexter the creator of Inspector Morse in “The Wench is dead”.

The outrage that resulted in the trial and conviction of Owen and Thomas focused on the immorality of the lives of the boatmen heightened by the lack of religion as some would believed. During the Victorian period clergymen sought to bring God to the lives of the “ water gypsies”. One clergymen in Foxt in the early 20th century attempted to address the lack of education of the children of the bargees by opening a school.

Oldest Pub in Leek

What is the oldest pub in Leek? There are a number of candidates including the Green Dragon, the Roebuck and the Wilkes Head. It is often thought that the Green Dragon has the record for the oldest pub in the town with evidence that the Green Dragon as the Swan was called prior to the 18th century having a landlord running the pub at the end of the 17th century. However the esteemed local historian John Band showed me a document that shows the existence of another “Swan” at least 100 years before the pub locals called the “White Swan” until its name change to the “Green Dragon” last summer.

John Band, a collector of 17th century pamphlets and letters concerning the Moorlands during the Civil War, let me have a letter that complained about the behaviour of two early law officers in the town who in 1638 spent too much time in the “Swanne” and not enough time maintaining law and order in Leek. Their drunken condition had in fact led to a near riot in the town

“Andrew Simpson and Henry Whitticars seldom have kepte true watch but when they should have been watchinge in the streets have been drinkinge in the Alehouse, and burgulary hath byn committed in the towne and parties have escaped by reason of the neglecte of the watche. Francis Hulme a boy about sixteen beeinge sent on some business about eight of the o’clock by the mother of the said Francis unto the Swanne and the said Francis meetinge with the watchmen, beinge as it seems drunke, laid hands on Francis as hee was goein on his business and drawing him in and giving hem a Flagon of Ale which he refusing and goein about his business, the said Watchmen gave him opprobrious words and blowes.

Thomas Hulme his father came to his aid of Francis and a mass brawl broke out in the street and the watchmen “did dangerously wounde and stryke him”. Mr Ashenhurst the magistrate became involved and the pair were bound over to keep the peace. The Hulme family feared retribution from Whitticars and Simpson and the writer of the letter requested that the two disgraced watchmen be relieved of their duties.

What sort of place was a 17th century tavern? I was reading the excellent notes from a CD “ Bawdy Ballads of Old England” which paints a contemporary picture of the clientele offering a “ ripe selection of bawdy songs, filthy ballads and scurvy rhymes bellowed out in ale blown voices in detestable boldness , the lubbers roar, the people run, the Devil laughs, God lowers and good men weep”. It is not surprising that the Hulme family did not want their innocent boy enticed into such premises

But where was the Swan? Malcolm and his partner Alison make a convincing case that their pub “ Wilkes Head”(its present name was acquired in the 1780s-)was during some point in its history was called “ The Swan” and during the early 17th century would have stood on the edge of a vastly extended market square. The present market square is its size because of building encroachment during the 18th and 19th century.

Intriguingly the site of the “Wilkes” could be pushed back even earlier as documents also suggest an even earlier name of the “Phoenix” a name for a medieval tavern named after the disastrous fire that burned down Leek in 1297

Leek and the outbreak of World War One

It was a glorious summer, that summer of 1914. The people of the Staffordshire Moorlands were determined to enjoy the season in time honoured fashion by attending events, going on a trip to the seaside, or playing or watching summer sports.

An event that had been going for over 60 years in 1914 was the Endon Well Dressing held in late May. The procession was led by St Anne’s Valley band. The Rev Morris gave the service and crowned Miss Hammersley as the Queen. On the green Morris dancers performed the horn pipe. On the second day a fancy dress was held with Mr Thorley winning the males section dressed as an Indian Chief and Miss Newman the female dressed as Elizabeth 1st. Miss Grundy won the skipping race and in the Milk Churn race for farm hands S Fletcher of Rudyard triumphed.

There were concerns for the people of the Moorlands that summer. In Ireland there was resistance to the idea of granting independence to the island. The Protestant North threatened to rise in armed insurrection and politicians were unsure of the loyalty of troops. One of the MPs against “Home Rule” for Ireland was Leo Amery who attended a packed public meeting in Leek.

The period before the First World War was known as the “Great Unrest” as strike action took place in most major industries. Troops were seen on the streets of Britain.

The campaign to grant women the vote was reaching a crisis. The previous year Miss Davison had thrown herself before the King’s horse at the Derby. The debate was also played out locally. Suffragette Charlotte Despard had addressed a meeting in Leek in 1911. One should recall also the work done at a national level by Hannah Kidd of Leek.

Away from politics locals could enjoy watching cricket as Leek Highfield beat a team from Abram Colliery of Wigan (Abram had been the scene of a major pit disaster 6 years before).

There were charabanc trips out to Wales or one could stay at home and take pleasure in smoking Egyptian cigarettes supplied by Simpson’s. Again the cinema was in its infancy and the curious could see an American film “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” or catch Kimberley and Melbourne “two favourite comedians” who appeared at the Grand.

A real red letter event was the Leek Rose Festival organised by the Band of Hope (the temperance movement was always strong) with float after float filled with youngsters dressed in the costumes of the people of the Empire. Pride of place went to the Coronation Coach with Queen Carrie Morgan and her ladies in waiting filled with flowers and messages against the evils of drink. The weather was perfect. In the newspaper of the 4th July reporting the affair were details of an assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in a far off little known town of Sarajevo.

Later in July as Austria declared war on Serbia Vera Brittan, mother of politician Shirley Williams took her Oxford entrance exams at Leek Technical College complaining in the heat of the “odiferous” students in the hall. And as British politicians made their fateful decisions to commit the country to war in the last weekend of peace West End Crusaders cricketers played a team from Wardle and Davenport. Of the 22 players 7 would die in the bloodbath that was about to engulf the world.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Language of the Old and the Young

I was ticked off by my daughter one fine day earlier this year, I saluted Councillor Cowie in the centre of Leek with a “What a gorgeous day”. Phoebe took a dim view and told me that I should not use the word “gorgeous” as it was a girlie word and that boys should use words like “epic” or “cool”. “Epic”, I countered meant big or on the grand scale while “ cool” in describing a warm evening did not sound right. I was told not to use the word again as it might damage her social standing. When I mentioned it on a social network site a debate ensued on how the word “sick” had altered in modern speak now to mean “great”.

The confusion at exists between the older and younger generation has been the stuff of social commentators for many years. Perhaps an early example is demonstrated in the classically comic novel “Diary of a Nobody” written by George and Weedon Grossmith in 1892. The novel describes that North London suburban life of a member of the middle class who yearns for respectability and to be a pillar of local society, but his pomposity only invites ridicule from among others his son the contumacious Lupin on a day trip to Broadstairs.

August 17. - Lupin not falling in with our views, Carrie and I went for a sail. It was a relief to be with her alone; for when Lupin irritates me, she always sides with him. On our return, he said: “Oh, you’ve been on the ’Shilling Emetic,’ have you? You’ll come to six-pennorth on the ’Liver Jerker’ next.” I presume he meant a tricycle, but I affected not to understand him”.

Phoebe used the word “cool” to describe something that is good I have always thought that it was a word that came from jazz although it might be older than that with some dictionaries suggesting that it had 19th century origins.

It’s with jazz that the slang term was most closely associated and out of which it became more widely known throughout the English-speaking world. In the fifties cool could have a variety of meanings ranging from being restrained, relaxed, laid-back, detached, cerebral on the one hand but also meaning, stylish, excellent, or other confirmatory meanings. It became the totemic word of the Beat generation which later migrated into teenage slang in the 60s.

Another word that is older than is thought is “dude” which originally meant a snappy dresser and was coined by Cowboys to mean Easterners who visited the Wild West during the 1880s. There was in fact a “Dude” President, the 21st President Chester Arthur (1881- 1884) who was always well turned out with luxuriant sideburns. Now to quote a modern dictionary “it is a universal word, used in every possible corner of the globe, in every possible situation”.

Text language, of course, opens up another aspect, but it did amuse me to discover that the letters OMG meaning “O my God” according to Stephen Fry were coined by the First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher in a letter to his friend Winston Churchill during the First World War

Broadway and a Leek Man

New York is a wonderful town. It is easy to find your way around, the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down.  In my opinion anyone who has been to the Big Apple cannot help but be enchanted by it. I have my own personal favourites- Central Park, Greenwich Village, Central Station and Broadway. Broadway must have been an area of New York that a certain returning native of Leek must have known very well. In 1947 after an absence of 35 years William G Kelsall, a former pupil of St Mary’s, was sitting in the front room of his mother’s house 17 The Walks and reminiscing about the Leek he had left in 1914 as a 19 year old. He said the Sisters at his old school had taught him how to perform on stage. It was a lesson he learned well. The reporter who covered his home coming was something in awe of this well manicured, tanned middle aged man in his immaculately tailored suit and red and yellow silk tie. Mr Kelsey, to use his stage name, was bringing greetings from some of the established stars of the day such as Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Dorothy Lamour and George Raft. He also brought a large basket of fruit as a gift which in austerity hit Britain would have seemed miraculous.

He told his story on how he left Leek helped by his father who had also appeared on the Broadway stage. William Calvert appeared in a few comedies before the First World War. After he served an apprenticeship in Canada William came under the wing of Henry E Dixey a long established comedy actor and producer in New York. Kelsey went into vaudeville and then was involved with one of the long running hits of the 20s “Blossom Time”. Kelsey acted alongside the redoubtable Eugene Leontivitch who later starred in the play “Grand Hotel” in the role that Greta Garbo played in the film. Kelsey had worked with Bing Crosby in the early days of his career and a high point was performing before President Roosevelt at the White House. At the time of visiting his mother in Leek he was appearing in a long running TV program a review called “Gay Nineties”.

And yet he does not appear in the comprehensive Broadway performer database although his father does. A clue about Kelsey at this time can be found through his daughter Ena Rollini. Ena was married to Art who was a tenor saxophone player in the Benny Goodman Orchestra and played in the famous performance at Carnegie Hall in 1938. Art produced a memoir of his career as a jazz musician in the 1980s when he describes meeting Ena for the first time in 1932.  She was living with her mother the Shelton born May Kelsall who was running the cloak room  concession in a Californian club when she met Art. She told the musician that her father had appeared in “Blossom Time” but was suffering hard times and was working as a singing waiter. He could not afford to send any money to his family.

It may well be that William Kelsey recovered his status and wealth by 1947. If so he would have been very grateful to President Roosevelt the architect of the recovery

The Art of Noise

I was listening to  Radio 4 about the intention of producing a European soundscape by a Swedish researcher. The soundscape would consist of noises we hear in everyday life. I wonder what people think is a distinctive English sound? Church bells, the whack of willow on leather, the beep of the supermarket till, the roar of traffic, a brass band?

Sound means a great deal to me. I spent the first 10 years of my life in an industrialised area of Stoke in the early 60s which had a very noticeable clamour which instantly takes me back.

We lived between a railway line and the canal and there were also factories and workshops in the street. The sound that the wagons made as they were shunted into sidings with the distinctive, diminishing clatter they made along with the sound of the steam engines as they pulled out of Stoke Station with their whistles was a very early memory. In that period many boats worked the canal. Their engines strained and spluttered as barges moved along the Trent and Mersey making phut, phut sounds and a final cacophony when they unloaded into silos. Over the road was a cooper’s making barrels with the scream of a high powered saw and the banging of mallets fixing the hoops of iron around the planks. Further along the street was a mill that ground flint with the deep pounding, rather satisfying sound. On match days we could hear the roar of crowds of 40,000 from the Victoria Ground less than a mile away from Lytton St.

Then there were the street cries of the rag and bone man and clip clop of horses hooves, the  man who sold the local paper, bawling out “Sen-tin-ell” and the costermonger’s distinctive “Cooking Ap-pels, ripe pears,
 fresh to-ma-toes””. Street cries, of course, go back a long way. The 16th century composer Orlando Gibbons noted down the hawkers of the capital in “Cries of London” .

 Today I can experience the yell of the scrap metal dealer seeking bargains in Leek.

It would also be a mistake to think that the countryside is a silent. Once on Stiperstones in Shropshire some years ago I made a note of the sounds I could hear early one Saturday morning. The roar of a tractor, the barking of a farm dog, the cawing of crows, the sound of a jet far above- all were  recorded.
 And of course places and the noise they generate  can change as the  newspaper account from 1936 of Froghall Wharf  proves “ Some 50 years ago the basin was a scene of bustling activity with limestone being broken into ballast grades by large groups of men, limestone was burned into agricultural lime. On the other side of the canal brick making was practised and further into the valley coal was mined from galleries running into the valley sides”.

 There would have been sounds of heavy industry with  bricks being made and stacked, of limestone being crushed and materials being loaded on to narrow boats of wagons, of steam trains trundling up the valley and the shriek of hooters and yells of men.

 In short, a scene of noisy frantic activity and not the untouched sylvan glade we see now.