Monday, 23 June 2014

Arnold Bennett and HG Wells- A Leek connection

2008 saw the 100th anniversary of the publication of Arnold Bennett’s finest novel “Old Wives Tale”. Its publication date quickly follows that of Bennett’s great friend and rival HG Wells book “In the Days of the Comet” which was written in 1906. What links these two pieces of Edwardian fiction? They both have a Leek connection.

 Bennett knew the Staffordshire Moorlands and while the main setting of his books remained Stoke, Leek especially crops up in various guises in his work. In first appears as “Axe” or “Manifold” in one of his earliest novels “Anna of the Five Towns” published in 1902 and again in his collection of short stories “ Tales of the Five Towns (1905) and “The Grim Smile of the Five Towns” which have Leek and Rudyard Lake settings. This is especially the case in the later collection in the story “ Death of Simon Fuge” his short story on the artistic life and pretensions of Burslem in the 1890s. Rudyard Lake was a popular venue for a young man from the Potteries to visit in that decade with frequent train from Stoke.

  The Moorland connection is continued in Old Wives Tale. Sam walks to Axe (Leek) to tell his mother in law that he is become a father. Leek also played a role in perhaps his most popular literary creation Denry Machin in the “Card”. The character on which the novel is based HK Hales once in the 1890s cycled on a penny-farthing for a bet against a horseman to get from Burslem to Leek in the shortest time. Hales won.

Wells, who lived in North Staffordshire for several months in 1888, used  his experience of living in the area in a number of his novels and short stories prior to his “Comet” novel. The short story Cone with its gristly ending of a character falling into a furnace was based at Shelton Bar Steel Works.

 North Staffordshire with its industrial and squalid landscape had a profound impact upon his work, which stayed with him throughout his life.

But it came to me then, I am sure, for the first time how promiscuous, how higgledy piggedy was that jumble of mines and homes, collieries and pot banks, railway yards, canals, schools, forges and blast furnaces, churches, chapels, allotments hovels a vast irregular agglomeration of ugly smoking accidents in which men lived as happily as frogs in a dustbin.

I get the impression that Wells used the surrounding countryside to contrast with the hideousness of the industrial landscape which he experienced in his stay in Basford.

But back to the North Staffordshire based Bennett who was born in Hanley in September 1867 to lower middle class parents. Bennett professed to be a radical, and he remained throughout his life a hater of injustice, but his own belief system marked him out as a child of nonconformist certainties. He had a belief in industry, patriotism and thrift. He was of a class and from a geographical area. He soaked up every detail of the people and character of North Staffordshire. He was a laureate to the lower middle class and the provincial.

He regarded writing as a trade and at each year’s end would note the amount of words that he had written that year and how much he had been paid. One critic unkindly suggested that a sign should be erected outside his study “Articles written to order”

If he took a workingman’s approach to his craft he still remained a bourgeois and a little tyrant as well especially in his relationship with women, something that he shared in common with Wells. He was easily bored- he tired of his home, his car, his yacht and of his wife. He certainly recoiled from the area that has provided the source of his material. On his last visit through North Staffordshire he is alleged to have shuddered and pulled the blind of his railway carriage down. But behind his heavy set figure with his showy clothes, his heavy lidded eyes, his half open mouth and his slight speech impediment, was a shy man.

But he never wrote of a dull character and he made the ordinary interesting chronicling the lives of a stoical and defiant people. North Staffordshire belongs to him as Wessex belongs to Hardy or Haworth to the Bronte’s

His greatest novel was the Old Wives Tale. It also celebrates the commonplace although never in a dull way. It is the story of two women Constance and Sophia Baines who have different destinies. It charters their progress from running a drapers shop to old age. It contrasts the stay at home Constance who marries Sam Povey with the spirited Sophia who elopes with the dashing but wastrel Gerald Scales. It proved to be the most critically acclaimed of his books.

One of the admirers of Old Wives Tales was Wells who wrote to Bennett praising him for his efforts.

No further question of First Rank. A great book and a big one.

Wells came to live in the area following an accident he suffered as a schoolteacher when working at a school in Wrexham. The accident damaged his lungs and he went to convalesce with an old College friend John Burton, originally from Manchester, who was working at Wedgwood at the time. (It does seem odd that you would choose to stay in Stoke of the late 1880s with its appalling atmospheric pollution to recuperate from a lung injury!)  He went to live with the Burton’s at their house in Basford. He proved to be a very difficult lodger. He was fractious, touchy, quarrelsome, impatient and without much control. He behaved like Kevin the Teenager. In later life Wells did apologies for behaviour that he felt was very immature. But he did spend his time in the area in a productive way and it allowed him to explore the local scenery. He used this experience to colour descriptive passages on industrial landscape and as a metaphor for the hell of modern life. Although Bennett was living only 2 miles away: they never met in 1888.

Bennett wrote to Wells after the publication of the Invisible Man enclosing a review he had written and enquiring whether Wells time in North Staffordshire had an impact upon his writing. Wells reply was genial and a friendship developed which lasted until Bennett’s death in 1931. The men were of the same age, their social class was similar, and their writing practises were very alike to be bracketed together.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Cheadle Militia 1809

It being the 18th June and the 199th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo I came across a reference in a newspaper to the Napoleonic War version of the Home Guard, the militia regiments that were recruited during the years of the war with France and her allies. During the early 19th century regiments were formed in local communities to defend the country from enemies, both external and internal. Militia largely comprised of the landed gentry or the middle classes, Catholics and some Nonconformists were excluded although restrictions were lifted later when the country faced an acute manpower shortage after 1812 when wars against the French and the Americans drained resources. Over 100,000 men joined the Militia and recruitment increased sharply when there was a possibility of French invasion during 1803-4. The number of men under arms was staggering with something like half of all men of military age donning uniform. The presence of the military in everyday life even finds itself described in the pages of “Pride and Prejudice” with the flighty Lydia drooling over the presence of the uniformed Mr Wickham and his soldier colleagues. The need for large numbers involved in the war caused strains on the manufacturing capacity of British factories and shortages of uniform and weapons were reported which reminded me of similar problems faced over 100 years later when the Home Guard was formed.

Their duties were varied and could include guarding prisoners of war. In 1799 the Staffordshire Militia were called out to guard Dutch prisoners, the task of standing watch over captured enemy combatants grew more onerous as the war progressed and more prisoners were landed in the country. By 1810 prisoner numbers stood at 52,000, some of the number finding their way to Leek which housed 300 French POWs.

The Militia were also called to suppress civil disorder in times of hardship. One example occurred at the “Battle” of Macclesfield in April 1812 when 300 rioters descended on the town demanding shop owners lower their prices.  It was an example of what the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm would have called “collective bargaining by riot” Order was eventually restored by the Stockport Militia who even brought up cannon to deal with the disturbances. (On one occasion the Militia sided with the rioters when soldiers in Portsmouth demanded that butchers reduce their prices). Staffordshire Militia were also ordered to Nottinghamshire during the Luddite uprising in the same yea.

There were also times of display when the Staffordshire Militia paraded before the Prince of Wales at Windsor in 1799 to celebrate his birthday.

Discipline could be lax and whimsical; the Dorset Volunteers fined soldiers 6p for laughing when the command of “attention” was given. Nearer home in Cheadle in April 1809 the local regiment “composed of well sized and muscular young men” who were well drilled, but lacked control as the following incident illustrates.  One of the recruits insulted the commanding officer Colonel Wilson. The man was condemned to be flogged, but Wilson revoked the order and addressed the company on the need to follow orders which had a “salutary effect of the corps”

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Biddle Moor in the 1890s

I had always assumed that the collecting of folk music and custom at the end of the 19th century was always a male preserve. I think of people like Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughn Williams and Gustav Holst weighed down with heavy sound recording equipment seeking out some ancient in the depths of Somerset to meticulously note down folksong.

 Over the years I have had an interest in folk music and have attended many a concert. I had always assumed that North Staffordshire was not especially rich territory as far as local folk music or lore was concerned. Some areas of the country such as the West Country appear to have a richer tradition although subsequent commentators have suggested that the industrial areas were missed because folklorists felt they were somehow” tainted”.

 I looked recently at the archive of folksong that exists at Cecil Sharp House and the digital archive contains a number of games and dances collected in the Cheadle and Tean areas by Alice Keary and Charlotte Burne in the 1890s. Charlotte Burne who was born on the borders of Staffordshire and Shropshire was something of a pioneer in folk music and rose to pre-eminence within the organisation.  She produced a book on Shropshire folklore and edited the Folklore Society’s magazine. She became the first women president of the Society unusually as the organisation was London based and she remained in Staffordshire. She lived near Eccleshall. Miss Keary was from Oakhill in Stoke on Trent and spent most of her life immersing herself in the myths of North Staffordshire.( Her brother wrote an experimental novel which was admired by James Joyce)  Together the two women spent three years circa 1890-1893 collecting materials  in North Staffordshire. While a number of joint papers were published, Burne moved to Cheltenham in 1894, and their research failed to be realised in book form. It is probably true to say that the role of women in the story of collecting the folk tradition of the country has been neglected by a masculine dominated art form.

In the 1890s they were collecting material on Biddulph and their account of life on the Moor is worth recounting

 “One very curious settlement we have, locally reputed to be a separate race, the "Biddle Muir" men. Biddulph Moor is situated in the north-western extremity of the county, bordering on Cheshire. The people live in houses scattered here and there over the moor, and are said to have been much more peculiar a generation ago than they are now. They wore their hair, which is said to have been generally either red or black, cut short in front and hanging long at the back. Their houses consisted of two apartments, one entered through the other. The outer room was the abode of the cattle and pigs, the inner one that of the family. Tradition, according to the guide-books, says that they are descended from a party of Saracens brought home in the time of the Crusades by the lord of the adjoining manor of Knypersley. Their dialect is said to include many words which are unknown in the surrounding district, and which some have thought they could trace to an Arabic origin”


I took part in a trade union health and safety course recently. The lecturer made the point about how many lives had been saved by the implementation of the legislation since 1974. It made me think of my own ancestors who had died in accidents at work such as Thomas Sherwin killed in an explosion at the pit at Wetley Moor in 1841. I considered when the view was taken that accidents ceased being the result of Acts of God and began to be seen as a consequence of organisational failure. Of course some attitudes persist. Witness the recent remarks of the Nigerian Aviation Minister who blamed a series of plane crashes on God’s displeasure.

By the 17th century for the first time statistical evidence began to be collated on the causes of death. The “Bills of Mortality” for London in 1647 give a death rate of unintended as 2.1 per 100,000. For reference, the rate in Britain was 53.6 per 100,000 in the 19th century. Today it is 0.6. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, accident rates soared with the introduction of unguarded machinery in confined spaces as well as in mining. The state then began to collect data on a more systematic basis and legislated accordingly. The first Factory Acts were passed in the 1840s and inspectors appointed to ensure that laws were enforced. It is difficult to find any suggestion that industrial accidents were caused by divine displeasure, most sought human failing as a reason.

I found in the Oxford Journal of 21st December 1779 a report of a “shocking” accident when “Mr Cooper’s London Waggon from Manchester being left to the care of a boy about 4 miles from Leek when coming to descending ground and the boy not able to stop the horses to lock the wheels the wagon ran down the bridge and there overturned into the river; whereby Serjeant Adkin, his wife( who was pregnant and near delivery) and a little girl of his; all Passengers therein, were instantly all crushed to death; one Horse was killed, and others much hurt, the Waggon broke to pieces”.

A later comment suggested that the boy driver was too young for that level of responsibility.

The accident probably happened on the border of Staffordshire and Cheshire beside the River Dane on the A523.  The road to Macclesfield had been improved and turnpiked in 1762 although the route was later changed by a later road.

The London Waggon was a large cart with benches inside and covered by canvas. It was drawn by 8 horses with the Waggoner walking beside them travelling at 2 miles an hour .It would have taken several days to cover the 200 miles from Manchester to London. The Waggon was an inexpensive form of transport, about half the cost of a stage coach. Travellers could take as much luggage as the vehicle would hold and the horses could draw. The ride was a very uncomfortable and slow experience.

An advert from two years earlier recorded

'This is to acquaint all Gentlemen, Tradesmen, and Others, that Mat. Pickford's Flying Waggons to London Via Leek, Derby, etc in Six days Set out from the Saracen's Head, in Market Street Lane, Manchester, every Wednesday, at Six o'clock in the Evening, and arrive at the Swan Inn, Lad Lane, London, the Tuesday noon following”

Monte Cassino 70 years on

May sees the 70th anniversary of the final Battle for Monte Cassino in which the Allies were engaged in a 5 month battle to dislodge well dug in German troops in a bitter and protracted fight. The last assault involved 20 divisions including British, American, Moroccan New Zealand, Indian and Polish soldiers.

On top of the mountain ranges that dwarfed the valleys was the 6th century Abbey which was an excellent viewing point for defenders in the early weeks of 1944 it  was demolished by bombing. Unfortunately the rubble proved an excellent defensive site for the German Parachute troops who defended their positions resolutely.

In total there were 4 separate attempts to take Monte Cassino. It was during an early attempt that local soldier Tom Beardmore of No 9th Royal Marine Commandoes of Cheadle was killed in February. In the woods above the Ramblers Retreat at Dimmingsdale a shrine exists to honour Beardmore’s memory. His son- also called Tommy- describes his last action 

 “The Germans had been dug-in and prepared for months, and while No. 9 Royal Marine Commando stormed to the top of Monte Ornito to secure it and other points, the No. 9s stealthily went around the eastern side of the slope to take and secure the base of Monte Taito, a 3,000 feet mass of rock with no cover at all, only the boulders, which would splinter when hit by shell-fire and the rock fragments killed and maimed many a good soldier.

When No. 9 Commando reached their target, the whole sky lit up with German Verey lights, bombs, shells, and anything else they could throw at them.

German snipers found their target time and time again and my poor father was hit by shell fire or land mine, either way he was badly wounded on his lower leg, and while being carried or dragged back to the safety area a machine-gun opened up and he was killed”.

It was incredibly hard fighting in exceptionally cold weather in which many suffered appallingly. My partner’s father Robert Davies in the Cheshire Regiment took part in the campaign. The 7th Battalion took part in the crossing of the swollen Rapido River and he told me of the terrible conditions soldiers of all nationalities suffered in freezing conditions.

The final assault on four fronts began on the 11th May with fierce sometimes hand to hand fighting undertaken with constant artillery and machine gun fire directed from the fortified positions above the Allies. North African soldiers skilled in mountain warfare were used in the final assaults, but the honour of capturing the citadel fell to the Poles who raised their nation’s flag from the heights. Among the Polish soldiers who must have taken a great deal of pride in defeating the cream of the German Army including units that had taken part in the invasion of Poland in 1939 was Priest Pawel Sargiewicz who later would become Priest to the Polish community on Blackshaw Moor until his untimely death in a road traffic accident in 1967.

Over 100,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded and around 25,000 German soldiers. The capture of the heights ensured the road to Rome was free.