Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Poverty knocks

Some weeks ago I gave a talk to the Caverswall History Society on the old Poor Law which was in place until the changes in the 1830s which led to the widespread introduction of the work house. The workhouse had existed prior to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and it was the existence of a “House of Industry” in Caverswall which I saw in an 1800 Staffordshire Advertiser which led me to explore this area of history.

What is remarkable is the similarity of argument that existed in the past about the community response to poverty and now. Recently a storm of controversy surrounded the Channel 4 program “Benefit Street”, but exactly the same viewed was expressed about the feckless in Parliaments of the 18th century. Our response to what to do about the poor is comparable. The Coalition Government has introduced workfare in which the unemployed have to work for their benefit. In the 1720s the poor were often put to work spinning wool to defray the cost to the authorities of looking after them. The writer Daniel Defoe wrote in 1727 that by doing this you were putting out of work spinners elsewhere “then there must be a skein the less done by some poor family that span it before….It is only transporting manufacture from Colchester to London and taking the bread out of the mouths of the poor of Essex to put it into the mouths of the poor of Middlesex”. Today we have a situation where  putting unemployed people to work for nothing in retail stores means that shop workers face the possibility of being put out of work themselves.

Another 18th century example was the subsidising of low wages by using bread in the Speenhamland system named after the village in Berkshire where the scheme was pioneered to assist farm labourers whose wages were being cut. It was adopted nationally and proved ruinously expensive as a series of poor harvests and war caused economic hardship. Now the wages of the low paid are made up through the tax payer funded Working Tax Credit system effectively subsidising stingy employers. 

The view often expressed by commentators of “Benefit Street” is the anger directed at the scrounger who will not work and is a drain on the country’s resources. We see past comments such as “sturdy beggar” directed at the 17th century wandering vagrants- the scrounger of his time. However in the reports of the overseers of the Leek Poor Law in 1808, one can glimpse the circumstances that can bring people low. Decisions were made to support an elderly widow, a deserted family or a disabled army veteran.

In the welfare debate we seem to be constantly replaying the old arguments about deserving or undeserving poor. Perhaps we should be looking at other ways to provide support as well as freeing people from the bureaucratic complexity of the present benefit system? I have always favoured the Basic Income approach. It has a long history and has been championed by people as diverse as Thomas More, Tom Paine and Martin Luther King.

The impact of Shakespeare

It is St George’s Day and it is also the 450th birthday of Germany’s National Poet. Before you think I am confused, Shakespeare for a time in the early 19th century was venerated by German writers such as Goethe as having qualities that they believed that Germans  should aspire to. Of course although Shakespeare is English Midland born he has been adopted by many different cultures and is flexible enough to be turned into “West Side Story”, a Japanese film epic of Kurosawa such as “Ran” or modified and set as a recent “Julius Caesar” production in contemporary war torn East Africa. And he may have had North Staffordshire roots as Doug Pickford, a former editor of the Post and Times claimed he had ancestors who moved from Trent Vale to Warwickshire during the 15th century. Perhaps he was a Stokie after all! As a form of proof I came across the word “sneap” in “Henry IV Part 2”.

I began to appreciate Shakespeare from an early age. I was first exposed to him through a BBC production of the “Age of Kings” and the very funny portrayal of Falstaff by Robert Hardy in 1962. I was given the” Complete Works” for my 10th birthday and earlier this year when my daughter a volume when she reached that milestone. I hope she treasures it. It could be for her the beginning of a life long passion. Over the years I have seen many memorable productions, Robert Stephen in “King Lear”, Emma Thompson in “Midsummer Night Dream, Simon Russell Beale in “Richard II” as well as some of the infrequently performed plays such as “Pericles” or “Henry VIII”. I firmly oppose the argument that the plays have no relevance to the modern day a view expressed by a Stoke Councillor at a meeting I attended a few years ago. He cited “Romeo and Juliet” as having no significance, a poor choice, as it is a play that features arranged marriages, gang warfare and the relationship between the old and the young. What a fool!

It’s impossible to say when the people of the Moorlands first saw Shakespeare’s play. My guess is that during the 18th century with improved roads touring companies would have visited. There is a playbill  I have seen of a production of “Othello” at the Red Lion in Leek in the 1840s as well as a 1877 “King Lear” at the Swan where one of the actors was accidentally stabbed. The Mechanic Institute in Russell Street would have had lectures and talks on the plays a tradition that carried on into the next century with courses put on by the Workers Educational Association. Shakespeare before the First World War would have been well embedded into the culture of Leek.

The “Complete Works” I bought for Phoebe contained an essay by the great Victorian actor Henry Irving rubbishing the theory that the provincial, low born Shakespeare could  not have written the plays, but they were created by the well- placed Oxford educated Francis Bacon 1st Baron St Albans. I have always thought that this belief is founded on pure snobbery.  Three great cultural figures living in the 17th Century Shakespeare, Newton and Bach all came from provincial towns- a fact that we who live and work in a provincial town should hold on to this April 23rd.

Bees in Staffordshire

One of the pleasures of rooting around the William Salt Library is coming across an arcane article in the many volumes of deliberations of the Staffordshire Field Club. I found a piece on the history of bee keeping in Staffordshire, the article dated from the 1930s.

It seems that the first reference to bee keeping in the county occurs in the reign of King Stephen in the 1130s when travelling expenses for the king’s entourage through Staffordshire includes sums of money for local honey for the production of mead. It also seems to have been important in Leek, with 5s. raised by the sale of honey from the manor in 1185 .  Honey bees were also maintained by religious communities in monasteries such as Croxden mainly for the wax they produced. From this beeswax candles were produced; these were far superior to the candles made from tallow used by the general population. By the time of the Tudors two early writers on agricultural practice in Staffordshire commentated on bee keeping. Fitzherbert in 1534 is quoted “he that hath sheep and swine and hyve slepe he, wake he, thrive he”. During Elizabeth’s reign William Harrison described local hives as being made of “rye straw and wattled around with bramble quarters, but some are made of wicket”. One of the first historians of Staffordshire Doctor Robert Plot writing in the 1680s believed that Staffordshire hives differed from those elsewhere as they were made from osier twigs woven into basket like shapes and covered with dried mud and cow dung. In the 17th century one of the principle apiarist of the area John Rudyard of Dieulacres near Leek had many hives in the area covered by a straw hackle to keep off the rain.

One of the giants of 19th century bee keeping was Edward Bevan who was born in London in 1770 became medically qualified and served as a doctor in Stoke in the early 19th century. He later moved to Congleton, but his “magnum opus” on apiary and their upkeep was published in 1827, “The honey bee; its natural history, physiology, and management”. Later editions were dedicated to a great admirer and fellow bee keeper Queen Victoria. Like Izaak Walton on fishing or Augustus Whiffle on pigs it is a book that has never been out of print. In his obituary Bevan was described as resembling Mr Pickwick. “He will always remain a shining example of excellent work done by the shy, retiring man”. I am surprised that the work of this sterling character is not more widely recognised in the Potteries. His fame has lasted 150 years after his death. I wonder if any of the celebrity names that are banded about now such as Robbie Williams will be known by the cognoscenti 150 years after they leave the stage?

Today the tradition of bee keeping is kept alive with a local bee keeping association meeting monthly in Leek. There are serious issues around the collapse of bee numbers which is a matter of concern as the insect role as a pollinator is vital for the growth of food on which humans as well as other species need to survive.

The fugitive priest 1581

I came across a reference in a history of Catholicism in Staffordshire to a clandestine visit made by St Edmund Campion to Throwley Hall near Ilam in January 1581.  The Old Hall is a picturesque ruin set in the beautiful Peak District, but once it was a home to the Meverall family who were keen to maintain their Catholicism. The terrible pressures that many believers especially priests like Campion faced in maintaining their faith is a cruelly overlooked aspect of history. Campion’s story is a vivid commentary on this persecution. He first came to prominence while a student at Oxford. He was considered one of the most brilliant scholars of his generation chosen to deliver a homily in Latin in praise of Elizabeth 1st to a delighted queen when she visited the University in 1570. In the decade that followed he converted to Catholicism, trained as a priest and undertook a dangerous mission to England to give support to the Catholic community.

It was a perilous time to be a priest. By the end of the 16th century in a time of Protestant Ascendancy life for Catholics was becoming increasingly difficult. The Elizabethan establishment feared them. England was threatened by a militant Catholic Spain, in France at the St Bartholomew Massacre of 1572 scores of Protestants were slaughtered in the streets of Paris, the Pope urged Catholics to kill Elizabeth and a number of attempts were made on her life. Under the circumstances repressive measures were passed making it an offence punishable by death to persuade people to join the Church. The State issued fines and seized the property of Catholics who did not attend Church of England services drawing up lists of believers on a county by county basis. In 1590 in Staffordshire listed Catholics included Richard Biddulph of Biddulph, Thomas Cotton of Grindon,William Whadyere and Margaret Grey of Cheddleton and Elizabeth Beardsley of Draycott who received  sanctions. Investigators appointed by the Government were sent in to root out priests and their supporters. Among them perhaps the most loathsome man in English history Richard Topcliffe  torturer, sadist, rapist and MP. He regarded Staffordshire as a “backwood” and he clashed with William Basset of Blore fellow MP and Sheriff of Staffordshire who was a secret Catholic. Bassett may have been aware of the visit of Campion in January 1581 who toured Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Lancashire preaching to the faithful. The priest was eventually caught, interrogated and led through the street of London wearing a sign “ Campion, seducer of the people” before being publicly eviscerated. He was canonised by Pope Paul in 1970 along with Ralph Sherwin of Derbyshire, who I might be distantly related to through my Mothers Sherwin family.

Commentators have cited the similarities between the treatment of Catholics in the 16th century and Muslims now. Both were regarded with suspicion, both beliefs have been regarded as “outlandish” and agents of foreign powers. A few Catholics during the 16th century carried out attacks against the State as have a few Muslims now. Some Catholics were seized and tortured and some Muslims have been the victim of “extraordinary rendition” removed and tortured with the knowledge of the British Government. But  most 16th century Catholics wanted to live their lives peaceably with their neighbours as do most Muslims today. It took Catholics 200 years to achieve full civil rights in Britain.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Hillsborough 25 years on

I can recall clearly that April day in 1989. I had gone for a run down the Manifold Valley. It was a beautiful sunny day and many had also taken the opportunity to visit the Peak District. However it was soon clear that there was a problem at Hillsborough from the radio reports coming from the cars parked on the verge at Wetton Mill. The comments made grim listening, as news of the terrible disaster in South Yorkshire became known. I phoned my Father who always maintained a media blackout on such occasions, as he wanted to watch the match later on TV. He was a big fan of Brian Clough whose Nottingham Forest team were playing Liverpool in the FA Cup semi final. He refused to listen and yelled that he did not want to know the score. In the end the result was 96 dead- including a young man from Endon.

Some years later I was on a train in the Wirral and noticed a very drunken man wearing a "Justice for the 96" tee shirt. It would have been his brothers 40th birthday that day. His brother had died in the disaster aged 22.

I have always liked Liverpool and Liverpudlians and I have never moved an inch from the view that the victims and their families had suffered a great injustice. It now seems my unalterable faith was justified. The recent report detailed the whole terrible catalogue of mistakes and what is unforgivable, the exertions by authorities in South Yorkshire to cover up the culpability of their actions by blaming the Liverpool fans. The behaviour included the appalling attempt by the Police and a Tory MP in Sheffield to pin the responsibility of the disaster on the dead. In this they were aided by the Sun newspaper spewing toxic material in an effort to blacken the reputation of the victims. They all now stand revealed as being answerable for one of the greatest conspiracies in modern times. Could it happen now? I like to think not and the existence of Freedom of Information legislation and the much-maligned Human Right Act has secured, I hope,a change of culture.

Public authority will no longer be able so easily to evade their guilt and hold in contempt the citizens they are supposed to serve

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Guinness at 100


Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alec Guinness . In the spring a film commemorating his birth will be shown at the “Foxlowe” in Leek. (Incidentally I think it’s a brilliant idea to show a film on the same day as the “Totally Locally” market)   The showing of an Alec Guinness film is no accident as I suggested that this anniversary should be marked. The film chosen was the 1949 black comedy “ Kind Hearts and Coronets”. It is an exquisite essay in snobbery, class and revenge as Louis Mazzini the anti hero of the film points out” revenge is a dish that people of taste prefer to eat cold” as he murders his way to a dukedom. Louis, the result of a behind stairs liaison between an Italian Opera singer and the daughter of a Duke, takes revenge on the aristocratic family that have snubbed him condemning Louis and his mother to the dreary existence of living in Clapham. The film continues as Louis befriends members of the Dascoyne family and then kills them off one by one dispatching the Duke while spending the weekend as his guest. “It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms” as Mazzini remarks in one of the many felicitous comments in the film. The eight members of the Dascoyne family were played by Alec Guinness including the role of Lady Agatha Dascoyne a suffragette killed while flying a balloon over London to distribute women’s rights leaflets.” I shot an arrow in the air; she fell to earth in Berkeley Square”.


“Kind Hearts and Coronets, the title is taken from a Tennyson poem, is among my favourite films. It also was tellingly Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath’s favourite. I can imagine that he, as it were had to “murder” many a Tory grandee on his way to the top. To conclude the film also includes a brief appearance in his first screen role of Arthur Lowe as a reporter and Miles Malleson as the hangman “Even my lamented master, the great Mr. Berry himself, never had the privilege of hanging a duke. What a finale to a lifetime in the public service!”


Alec Guinness starred 3 years later as the principle character Denry Machin in an adaptation of the Arnold Bennett novella “The Card”. He was joined in the film in another actor who appeared in “Kind Hearts” Valerie Hobson. It was filmed on location in Burslem and Middleport and is interesting in that it shows the Potteries in all its smoky glory. “The Card” in question was based on the real life character of Harold Hales, entrepreneur, showman, eccentric and at the end of his life MP for Hanley. Hales inaugurated the "Hales Trophy" for the Blue Riband award for the ship with the record for the fastest transatlantic crossing. It was commissioned in 1933 and designed by Henry Pidduck & Sons Ltd of Hanley at a cost of $4,000. In the 1890s Hales cycled on a penny-farthing for a bet against a horseman to get from Burslem to Leek in the shortest time. Hales won.


Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Tompkin- a grisly myth

I was in conversation with two women from Tompkin near Bagnall and soon the subject of the skinned drummer boy came up.  The legend goes that during the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion a young rebel Scots soldier was captured, killed and flayed by the locals who kept the skin. Some times the event is put back a further 100 years and the episode is set in the English Civil War.


I should start be saying what “flaying” involves. (Perhaps readers of a nervous disposition might want to look away now as I continue). The practice of removing the skin even when the victim is alive was known to the Assyrians who used it against their bitterest enemies. The Aztecs sacrificed slaves to the flayed Deity Xipe Totec- the God of death and rebirth. The cross bowman Basile who killed Richard the Lion heart suffered this fate. St Bartholomew one of the Twelve Apostles was martyred by flaying. The wooden door of Hadstock church in Essex is thought to date back to Saxon times. In 1791 a small piece of what looked like leather was found under the iron fittings of the door. It found its way to a local Museum, where analysis suggested it had a more gruesome origin. A label from 1883 tells the story of the piece of skin, suggesting that it once belonged to a Dane, a sacrilegious Viking, killed for stealing from the church. He was flayed and his skin mounted on the door as a warning. It turns out not to be true and the human skin was tested and found out to be leather after all.

 This leads me back to our local Tompkin or “Tom’s skin story”. I am inclined to discount it as a grisly fable. My main reason for doing this is that the story is so bizarre that it would have been reported fully at the time. The Jacobite Rebellion was well covered by newspapers and such a story would have been reported. The only reference to anything that suggests ill treatment in the area is reference in the Stamford Mercury to rebels abducting a local Attorney called Mills who was seized by the Highlanders from his home in Leek and forced to go with them. He was later found dead by a road between Garstang and Preston as they moved north. This also might be loyalist propaganda


I suggest that Tompkin or Tomkin was a local name which was used for the hamlet. I came across a reference to a John Tomkin who was a bailiff for a local lord Sir Roland Egerton who was the Member of Parliament for Staffordshire who had lands in Cheddleton and had been a supporter of King Charles. Tomkin appeared before the Parliamentary Committee who sat in Stafford in the summer of 1644 who were querying the support that Sir Roland was prepared to give Parliament and there was a demand for money from landowners. The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of William Tumkyns. This was dated 1327, in the Subsidy Rolls of Staffordshire, during the reign of King Edward III. This confirms my hunch that it was named after some long forgotten Mr Tomkin.



1958- a different age


Vivien from the Laundrette in Picton Streethanded me a bundle of old newspapers that were found when some building work was carried out. The newspapers dated from late November and early December 1958. Many newspapers were present including the Leek Post and Times and Sentinel, the Express, Mail, Mirror and publications like the Herald and News Chronicle that are defunct.

It is a very different age from 2014 with references to Mr K (that’s Khrushchev the Soviet leader rather that a breakfast cereal or a cartoon character), a rail crash in Manchester, concerns over the impact of television on the young and items on debutants. What interested me was a reference to a scandal involving a sexual encounter between a Tory MP Ian Harvey and a Guardsman on a wintry night in St James Park. (It might have been the occasion when Churchill told that the incident occurred in sub zero temperatures that the old man exclaimed “Make’s you proud to be British”). In 1958 homosexuality was illegal and we also had back street abortions, colour bars in operation and capital punishment.

Gays led a very secretive life and got on with life as best they could and for most of the time the subject was taboo. In the 50s the Wolfenden Committee was set up to examine the issue of decriminalising homosexual acts between consenting adults. Wolfenden referred to gays in the early draft of the report as “Huntley’s” to spare the feelings of his female secretaries came to the conclusion that prison was not the most suitable place for “dealing “with the homosexual offender. Gays throughout the period were subject to prosecution with the authorities resorting to raids on clubs, entrapment, surveillance and phone tapping. Occasionally reports of local gay men found guilty of indecent acts surface and were then faced with the shame of their sexuality being paraded in the local media. In 1954 two men, one a civil servant living in Leek were prosecuted. I presume they faced opprobrium locally after the case was reported.

In 2001 I asked George Melly the Jazz musician who was appearing at the “Swan” in the Leek Arts
Festival what form police harassment took. He cited the case of a friend of his a Belgian surrealist artist who was arrested after being entrapped by a police officer in a pub toilet in Soho. The man got off when the Magistrate found out that he was married and refused to believe that married men did that sort of thing.

On a lighter note that period also saw the opening of the Preston Bypass, the first stage of the M6 (the AA regretted that the speed and density of the traffic would make the traditional salute from their patrols impractical), the introduction of subscription trunk dialling and the appearance of a marmalade eating bear from West London. The first Paddington Bear book were published in December 1958, the print edition rapidly selling out.