Thursday, 26 February 2015

Samantha Cameron and the Leek Connection

I read towards the end of last year a newspaper article that appeared in the Daily Mail claiming that Samantha Cameron the Prime Minister’s wife had ancestors who were slave owners and  did very well out of compensation when the Slave Trade was abolished in the early 19th century. Mrs Cameron was related to Rev William Jolliffe’s an industrialist whose company had been responsible for the building of a number of notable buildings such as Dartmoor Prison and London Bridge. Jolliffe was related to a family that had interests alongside the Sussex and Hampshire border  and controlled politically the town of Peters field a constituency the family represented for much of the 18th century. The Jolliffe family had interests in slavery that went back to the end of the 17th century in the Caribbean

The name “Jolliffe “intrigued me. Could she be related to the Jolliffe family that originated out of Leek in the 17th century?  It seems that the answer is yes. Sleigh’s history of Leek has a family table of the Jolliffe family. In terms of their Leek connection the family had a property in the market square which was incorporated into the “Red Lion”. Remains from Jolliffe Hall were discovered in March 1991. Their Hall long thought to be demolished many years before was rediscovered in the structure of the Red Lion Inn in Market Square. Workmen carrying out repairs found the remnants. The Red Lion was established as a coaching Inn in 1767 when the incorporation of the early structure into the Inn must have taken place. Chief conservation officer at the time John Leech considered the discovery one of the most important archaeological finds in Leek. It appears that the front of the hall was removed when the Red Lion was built and a second floor added with a flat roof. It had been long thought that the hall built by William Joliffe in 1627 had been demolished to make way for the coaching Inn.

 A daughter of the Jolliffe family Dame Elizabeth Ash married into wealth in the City of London and a dedication to her memory and the Jolliffe family appears on the Almshouses on the corner of Compton and Broad St with the date 1696. It was her brother Thomas Jolliffe of Leek born in 1617 from who the Prime Minister’s wife descends. Thomas was active in developing trading links with Russia especially in furs and fishing rights. From Thomas who was active in Parliament after the Restoration the line leads to John Jolliffe who married Catherine  Michell the daughter of Robert Michell the MP for Petersfield acquiring the seat in the 1730s. It was this branch of the family that the interest in slaves developed. The Ballenbouche Estate in St Lucia was worth £4,174 at the time of the abolition when it was inherited by William Jolliffe the grandson of John worth about £3 million for which they were compensated by the state.

Another brother of Thomas Jolliffe was William Jolliffe another successful merchant who owned Caverswall Castle He went into trade in London, where his uncle, John Joliffe, was already established. His growing prosperity was augmented by  fortunate marriages into prominent families. Although on his father’s death he inherited Caverswall Castle, he remained active in the city of London and was appointed alderman by royal commission in 1687. The appointment was superseded by the restoration of the charter in October 1688.As a historical side line one marriage that William Joliffe made was to Mary Hastings the daughter of the Earl of Huntingdon whose family were descended from the Plantagenet monarchs through George Duke of Clarence the brother of Richard III 

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

"Birth of a Nation" comes to the Grand Leek 1915

A few days ago I saw the film “Selma” which chronicles the fight for Civil Rights in the US in the 1960s in the Southern States of the USA. It is a story well known to me even as a child of 9 I can clearly recall the bombing of a Baptist Chapel that resulted in the death of four black girls. What resonated with me that these girls would have been the same age as me. The unfairness and the injustice of this singular event struck me at the time as a consequence of this I followed the Civil Rights Movement even from the distance of several thousand miles from our terraced house in Stoke.

 “Selma” includes  all the leading characters of the period Martin Luther King, George Wallace, LBJ and J Edgar Hoover and some of the events of the mid 60s which led to President Johnson signing into law legislation that ensured that Blacks could vote as many Southern States such as Alabama had made it difficult for them to exercise their democratic rights. The film is an honest one and , for example, shows Martin Luther in an honest light. It is not an exercise in hagiography.

This year sees the 100th anniversary of film that portrayed the American Black in a very different way. “Birth of a Nation” was the first Hollywood blockbuster and achieved a world wide showing. In 1915 the film was shown in Leek at the Grand and the newspaper reports of the time indicate that it was a popular film with the film shown over two weeks an unheard of showing at the time. It was a success repeated in many communities in Britain. The tone, feel and the message that it portrayed was as far as it could possibly be from “Selma”

  The film was directed by Southerner DW Griffiths and was his first major success. The film charged a high price for admission . It had a special score composed for the film and at its premier a  30 piece orchestra played. In 10 years the film had reached an audience of 50 million . It made Hollywood millions in profits. Beyond the money it made it wanted to send out the message of white supremacy over the black population of the USA. Thomas Dixon, author of the book and the movie, stated that his goal "was to revolutionise Northern sentiments by a presentation of history that would transform every [white] man in the audience into a good Democrat!"

In many cities the showing stirred racist violence against African Americans, and no wonder. White actors put on blackface and played evil African Americans who were grasping for political power over white people—except when they were intent on raping white women. The “gallant” Klan were shown as heroes  riding to the rescue of be leagued white communities. It projected an air of authenticity by using pictures of Lincoln and from the American Civil War, and quotes by noted historians such as President Woodrow Wilson.  The President was a noted racist and called it "history written in lightning" after it was shown in the White House.  When it was shown to members of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Edward White proudly confided to author Thomas Dixon, "I rode with the Klan, sir."

The movie also stirred the first large nationwide in the US Black-led protests and boycotts. So many black (and white) people marched on theatres that some mayors ordered the removal of lynching and other scenes, or cancelled showings. African American and other historians exposed the movie's lies, distortions, and omissions.
It is impossible to say what response the film had in Leek. Reading the local newspapers during the early 20th century it is very easy to find disparaging and patronising comments about Blacks. Concert parties and glee clubs featured minstrel shows with whites blacking up, the use of language unacceptable to ears of people in 2015. Although the debate in Leek a couple of years ago about “Golliwogs” rather proves the point that old stereotypes die hard. It is worth noting that the “Golliwog” was created by the American  born  Frances Upton in the 1890s. It quickly became a term of racist abuse.

However it is some measure of progress that 100 years after Wilson welcomed fellow Southerner Griffiths to the White House Barack Obama welcomed the Black Director of “Selma” to the White House which must be a measure of progress although the tensions in US society remain

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Tommy Cooper at Swinscoe

There is a story of a depressed man in the early years of the last century who went to see the eminent psychiatrist Sigmund Freud at his practice in Vienna. On hearing the troubled man’s account Freud attempted to shake off man’s lethargy by  suggesting that he see the famous comedian Grock who was in town. “But I am Grock” the man replied. The story might be fanciful,but I saw it mentioned again after the suicide of Robin Williams  illustrating the struggle that many comics seem to have with their inner demons which can overwhelm them.

I am a fan of the great British comedian Tommy Cooper. I sometimes use his joke at work about whisky. “I’m on a whisky only diet- I’ve lost 3 days'”. I noticed a picture of Cooper taken when he performed at the “Dog and Partridge” at Swinscoe on April Fool’s day 1965. In the picture he is performing some trick before an admiring chef. Cooper, along with Morecambe and Wise and Les Dawson, must be considered Britain’s most loved comedian. Who can forget the manic laughter, the wonderfully gormless face , the look of  bewilderment, and the fez perched on top of a 6foot 4 inch frame. The fez, I gather, was acquired during Cooper’s military service in the Middle East in the Second World War.

 His ability to appear comic without doing anything was legendary. He  had a great presence as well as a brilliant sense of timing . I was  talking recently  to a man who said that he saw Cooper at Leeds and  Cooper  just stood on stage not saying anything for several  minutes while the audience convulsed with laughter. Then there were the dubious tricks.  He is supposed to have developed an interest  in magic after  a relative gave him a box of conjuring tricks when he was young.  Was he  a  dreadful magician with occasional displays of brilliance or – and this is more likely – a brilliant magician who could appear terrible in performing tricks?

  I had heard of some unfortunate aspects of his character such as the alcohol problem and his affairs. Someone I knew saw him very drunk in a shop in Bournemouth once. He also had a reputation as being the meanest man in show business. A TV program  earlier this year, broadcast on the 30th anniversary of his death portrayed a drunken bully who abused his wife. Members of his family have since  come to his defence believing the play was very unfair, misrepresenting a man who was devoted to his children and his wife. Whatever the truth I pose the question of whether knowing that a great comedian behaves appallingly undermines his appeal? Tony Hancock was a comic genius, but had his flaws as did Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams. I feel  a great comic talent off sets any inadequacies that the individual had. This is best illustrated by an incident that happened to a friend of mine who saw Ken Dodd at a pantomime in the late 80s. Dodd had been acquitted on a tax fraud case and was also a fervent supporter of Mrs Thatcher. This was enough to turn my friend against Dodd, but the brilliance of the comedian ‘s act melted opposition . As for Cooper it says something for his immortality that wearing a fez and a gesture with the hands and the phrase “ just like that” can still 30 years after his death prompt laughter

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Honora Sneyd and Major Andre'- A story for Valentines Day

The story of Honora Sneyd and Major Andre’- a story for Valentine’s Day

I was given a copy of John Sleigh’s tombstone of a book on Leek’s history which dates from 1883. Although the author has in recent times has been criticised for inaccuracy especially with regard to his account of the Huguenot involvement in the development of the silk industry in the town it is still an interesting read. I particularly like the genealogical tables of the established families of the area which are scattered through the book.

The Sneyd family of Ashcombe, Basford and Onecote has a distinguished history that goes back to Henry de Snede from Burslem a force in the area in the 14th century. But as it’s now Valentine Day my story concerns Honora Sneyd, granddaughter of Ralph Sneyd of Onecote and her ill fated relationship with Major Andre’ whose large monument has a significant place in Westminster Abbey which details his sad fate.

Honora was born in 1742 in Bath and spent much of her early life in Lichfield and the Peak District. Andre’ was eight years her junior of French Protestant origin. London born, he was something of a charismatic character, fluent in a number of languages. He was a poet, an artist and a gifted musician. Sometime in the mid 1760s they met and fell in love. Resistance from the relationship from Honore’s father clergymen at the Cathedral. Andre had a rakish reputation. The father demanded that Andre’ settled down applied himself and became rich. However the relationship cooled between Honore and Andre’ and after a meeting in Buxton in 1769 the engagement was broken off.

John it was said was upset by the breach, A Lichfield poet Anna Seward who knew them both thought that his disappointment led to Andre joining the Army gaining his commission in 1771. A few years later he joined the forces fighting the American rebels in the Revolutionary War. He kept a journal which is an interesting account of the war.
He became involved in intelligence during the conflict and found himself engaged in covert activity .  AndrĂ© was sent on a secret mission to General Benedict Arnold to negotiate the surrender of West Point to the British. However he was captured within the American lines, in civilian dress , with incriminating plans of West Point concealed in his boot. He was taken before General George Washington’s board of inquiry and in spite of every effort to obtain his pardon, he was hanged as a spy on 2nd October 1780 and buried beneath the gallows at Tappan, New York.

 Even before his execution AndrĂ© had aroused the sympathy of the British and the Americans. As he walked to the gallows he was watched by many sobbing women, one of whom is said to have given him a peach which later grew into a tree above his grave. He became a romantic hero in England and after the war the monument was erected in the Abbey and it was proposed that his bones should be brought back for burial. During a stay in England Benedict Arnold and his wife Peggy, who had been a friend of John, visited the monument.

In 1765 Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the well-known author, visited Lichfield.  He had been a wild young man, and had eloped with his first wife, who died in March, 1773.  His personal address was “gracefully spirited, and his conversation eloquent.”  He danced and fenced well, was an ingenious mechanic, and invented a plan for telegraphing, consequent on a desire to know the result of a race at Newmarket.

 Becoming very intimate with the Sewards, and the addresses he had made to and for Honora, “after some time being permitted and approved,” Edgeworth married her on 17th July, 1773, as his second wife, in the beautiful ladies’ choir in Lichfield Cathedral.  Mr. Seward, who had become a Canon Residentiary of Lichfield Cathedral, performed the ceremony, and shed “tears of joy while he pronounced the nuptial benediction,” and Anna Seward is recorded to have been really glad to see Honora united to a man whom she had often thought peculiarly suited to her friend in taste and disposition.

Honora died of consumption in 1780, and, in accordance with her dying wish, Edgeworth married her sister Elizabeth on Christmas Day in the same year.  Honora, who was buried at King’s Weston, had  two children.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Hey Buffalo Bill and Chaplin as well- a week in April 1904

I did not know my grandfather Bill Sherwin. He died when I was three in 1958. He had done quite a bit in his life Born in Hanley in 1891 he was many things in his life. He worked for the GPO as an engineer , he was a miner, a soldier in the North Staffordshire Regiment where he was wounded fighting with the 7th battalion in Mesopotamia ( Modern day Iraq) and an intriguing story of him being in the Merchant Navy and jumping ship in Montevideo after punching an officer. He had the reputation of being an interesting conversationalist.

 One of his stories that I was interested in finding out more about was the time in the early years of the last century when he saw Charlie Chaplain as a young boy entertaining the crowds in Market Square, Hanley.

 I was interested if this was right.

What was Charlie Chaplin's early life like?

 By the time he was ten, he had encountered a range of experiences greater than most of us know in long lifetimes. He had known abject poverty and hunger, and the loneliness and deprivation of life in workhouses and children's homes. He had witnessed at close quarters alcoholism, madness and death. For much of the time he survived only by his own initiative and wit.

It was a life, which would simply have killed many ordinary children. But Charlie Chaplin was not ordinary. He had a strength and resilience, which appears phenomenal.

And then at ten years old, his life changed. He went to work. And his work, like his parents', and thanks to his father's connections, was in the music hall. He was engaged to dance and sing with a juvenile act called 'The Eight Lancashire Lads.'

The music halls of those times provided an incomparable schooling in method, technique and discipline. A music hall act had to seize and hold its audience and to make its mark within a very limited time - between six and sixteen minutes. The audience was not indulgent, and the competition was relentless. Every performer had to learn the secrets of attack and structure, the need to give the act a crescendo - a beginning, middle and a great exit - to grab the applause. He had to learn to command every sort of audience.

By the time he was 14 Chaplin was touring with a company in the role of the Billy in a play written by Conan Doyle based on his great character Sherlock Holmes.

“Sherlock Holmes” was remarkable for its staging. There was total darkness during which the scenes changed an unprecedented use of blackouts; and a mass of electric equipment to provide such novel lighting effects as the glow of Holmes' cigar in the darkness. The part of Billy was a good part for him. Chaplin made a half a dozen appearances in the course of the play, and has quite funny dialogue, elaborately written in cockney dialogue. It toured the provincial theatres of the north and the Midlands and it arrived in Hanley at the Palace of Varieties, the Theatre Royal for a 6-day tour beginning on the 12th April 1904.

The Sentinel of that first performance notices the young man and comments approvingly

Billy the “good boy” there is something very catching about the voice, is played by Charles Chaplin, who makes him a sharp, cheery little chap who would go through fire and water for his master and is always in his place when wanted

Chaplin was in the Potteries which would have included spending his 15th birthday in the town- his birthday was on the 16th April. Did he have an inkling of his approaching world fame?

Thus the Sentinel first makes known to the public of North Staffordshire who ten years later is making films for Hollywood. Charlie Chaplin is t the first global superstar. Famous everywhere, imitated by many, loved by millions, featured in comic books, toys and other early forms of merchandising, and with a glamorous lifestyle.

And undoubtedly my grandfather was right. He did see the young Chaplin performing his act to an amused crowd in Market Square, Hanley over a century ago.

But by an odd quirk and perhaps it gives an appreciation why April 1904 was memorable in the Potteries another great entertainment figure was in town- Buffalo Bill. William Cody, to give him his real name, came to embody the spirit of the Wild West for millions, transmuting his own experience into a national myth of frontier life that still endures today.

He was known to Pottery audiences from an earlier tour that he gave in the area in 1891. Thirteen years later he was back with an even bigger show that needed 3 trains to transport the participants and their trapping to Stoke. The trains were in sidings at Etruria and the show was performed at Boothen.  The Sentinel reporter during the rehearsal found the level of activity and organisation astonishing. He opined that it was the “only organisation in the world capable of such a distinction”

 The show comprised hundreds of performers, over 200 horses and a score or so of bison. They also bought enough scaffolding and canvas to build a pavilion to seat 15,000 spectators. Local workers built the set in three days. An Indian village was also built to house the Native Americans and their families. The event included a representation of the Battle of Little Big Horn and Sioux attacking the Deadwood Stage.

But central to the event was Buffalo Bill himself

His fleet mount carried him around the arena at such a pace that his long hair streamed in the self created breeze and when he reined up and doffed his slouch hat to bow courteous acknowledgements to the cheers of the spectators he looked a perfect picture of manhood, taunt and trim, and as hard as nails, full of grit and determination, fit head of a gathering of warriors. “Permit me to introduce to you the congress of rough riders”, he said.

Buffalo Bill gave his Native American warriors status as part of his "Congress of Rough Riders," a contingent which represented the finest horsemen in the world: American cavalrymen, German Cuirassiers, Cossacks, Arabs, Cubans, and Pacific Islanders. Unusually for the time Buffalo Bill elevated them to a status of equality with contingents from other nations, and therefore recognized their skills as horsemen and warriors by stressing their patriotism in defending their hunting grounds.

Certainly as my grandfather as a boy of 13 made his way with the thousands teeming down Campbell Road clutching eagerly the precious yellow ticket with which he gained entrance to this never to be forgotten event little did he realise he stood at the beginning of a century which would have such irrevocable consequences for the people of Stoke on Trent.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Oscar at the Nicholson 1880s

In 2000 the British Library held an exhibition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Oscar Wilde. One of the flyers at the exhibition advertised a public meeting that Wilde spoke in Leek in the early years of his fame.

The meeting held on Monday February 25th 1884 at the Temperance Hall in Union St saw the Irish born writer lecture on ” the House Beautiful” for members of Leek Art Classes. William Challinor chaired the meeting. Among the sponsor of the event were much of the establishment of the town including the Challinors, Thomas Wardle, Thomas Shaw and the Nicholson family.

A number of local clergymen also attended the event including the Reverends Berrisford, Wright and Evans Belcher. The cost of attending the meeting was 2 shillings and 6 pence for an adult and 11 shillings for families.

The poster printed by Mr Marks of 6 Derby St requested the audience to be in their seats by 7.30pm. “Carriages may be ordered by 10”. The site of the Temperance Hall is now occupied by Leek College extension”.

Oscar returned to Leek in March 1885, this time the lecture he delivered was held at the Nicholson Institute which had opened the previous autumn. The meeting on that occasion was chaired by Joseph Challioner. Wilde at one point in the proceedings commented on the beauty of the Nicholson commenting that few towns could have boasted of such a wonderful facility. Challioner at the beginning of the meeting commented that the attendance was limited due to unforeseen circumstances. I wonder what they could have been. The weather, the room, or the lack of advertising for the event? It seems curious that the attendance was down on his visit from the previous year as Wilde had established almost celebrity status both in the UK and abroad. He had met such distinguished writers as Walt Whitman and Mark Twain on the American tour and had his artistic sensibilities had been parodied by Gilbert and Sullivan in “Patience” a few years earlier.

One interesting fact is the interesting choice of material that Wilde choose for the subjects of both talks in Leek “ The House beautiful” and “Dress” were both the subjects of lectures he gave in the US 18 months early so they lectures he gave in Leek were of rehashed material and not new.

Wilde rose to applause and began to speak on the chosen topic of dress. He would have given a polished performance as he lectured on this subject on his tour of the US in 1882. He spoke on the different types of costume worn by the Ancient Egyptians and the Greek as being the most beautiful and natural there had ever been. He also mentioned the disposable nature of fashion and that an item of clothing could be fashionable one moment and then outmoded the next. He felt that men took a delight in being behind the times in matters relating to clothing.

“Art would gain immensely by improvement in dress. Art was now an affair of the studio, but the proper place for its study was the streets of our towns and cities”

Image especially dress was an important aspect of the personality that Wilde created for himself. It gives no account in the March 1885 newspaper of the clothing that wore but studio photographs taken 3 years earlier give a clear impression of the type of clothing that Wilde wore when giving a lecture. He dressed flamboyantly. At 6 foot 3 inches Wilde cut an imposing figure when the average height for a man would have been 5 foot 7 inches. It would seem that he based his dress on the Masonic dress that he wore when a member of a Masonic lodge in Oxford especially the knickerbockers and the short jacket. He also pioneered men wearing a fur coat. One was especially made for the American tour of 1881-2: the coat meant a great deal to Wilde and he asked about its whereabouts when he was released from Reading Jail shortly before his death in 1900.

There is a mystery surrounding the second visit that Wilde made to Leek in that his name does not appear in the Nicholson Institute visitors book despite the fact that the Nicholson had opened in October 1884. Why should be the case? It may well be that the unforeseen circumstances mentioned in the opening remarks by Challioner may not have made the visitors book available

A possible reason why Wilde’s name does not appear in the Nicholson Institutes visitor book is that the building was only completed in the autumn of 1884 some months after Wilde’s visit. I have been carrying out some research on the 1890s in North Staffordshire and what does seem clear that many well known writers passed through the area in the period before the First World War such as Wilde, Shaw, Wells and I had heard an interesting story that Conan Doyle got the idea for the plateau in “ Lost World” following a walking tour of the area in 1910 and admiring the outline of the Roaches. Anyway, back to Oscar and one always is at risk fiddling with Oscar and facts. After the great man said that the truth is rarely pure and never simple.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

The Execution of William Collier 1866

I came across a newspaper report in the Leek Post and Times of the birthday celebrations of a centenarian from Kingsley who informed the journalist that he had witnessed the last public hanging in Stafford in 1866 when he was a young man.

 IN 1866, the Kingsley farmer William Collier was living with his wife and family in a cottage. He had the reputation as a poacher supplementing his low income with game.  He had many mouths to fill as there were seven children. Collier’s activities were well known and this frequently led to conflict. The struggle between poachers and landowners in the 19th century was often a  violent one and it was to be the case with Collier and the 24 year old Thomas Smith a game keeper at Whiston Eaves. While poaching on land owned by Smith’s father a violent confrontation ensued. A shot was fired and the younger man fell to the ground and he was beaten to death by the stock of Collier’s gun. Although the poacher protested his innocence he was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Many local people made their way to Stafford to witness the execution scheduled to take place on the 7th August. The executioner was a Black Country man called George Smith who had a reputation for blundering .  Smith decided to use old rope for the hanging. The makeshift rope slipped off the beam and the poacher fell through into the pit underneath the scaffold with a loud sickening thud. A large crowd had gathered outside the scaffold, many were from Kingsley, as there was some sympathy for Collier .  As the condemned man fell  ; a cry went up that the rope had broke. The condemned man emerged from the pit dazed and blooded . The officials gathered around wondering what to do next. The priest officiating at the execution was heard to exclaim “God help me”. One of the prison guards ran off to find another rope which was soon acquired and the unfortunate Collier was strung up a second time. The crowd booed and yelled at Smith angered by his ineptitude.

19th century public hangings were notoriously rowdy affairs with the crowd often   engaged  in criminal activity.  Dickens railed against the antics of the mob after attending a public hanging in the 1850s “I was a witness of the execution at this morning. I believe  the  sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the crowd collected at that execution “

Parliament legislated and two years after Collier’s execution ended the practice of public executions. The last man to die before a crowd was an Irish Republican called Barrett implicated in a prison break out that led to the death of many innocent bystanders following an explosion at Clerkenwell. In an odd instance of the old world clashing with the new many of the crowd  travelled  to the execution site at Newgate by the very modern underground train.

Execution techniques also improved in the following decade with the introduction of the “long drop” which broke the prisoner’s neck perfected by hangman William Marwood and first used on Burslem murderer William Horry in 1872.

The question of capital punishment occasionally returns to public debate, but it is worth recalling that 2014 sees the 50th anniversary of the last hanging in Britain when Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans were executed at the same time at Liverpool and Manchester jails on the 13th August 1964 for the murder of John West a Cumbrian van driver following a botched robbery.

Leek Mechanics Institute 1847

In my searches of  the British Newspaper Archive I came across a heated debate held in the Swan in Leek on the 16th April 1847 over the issue of whether novels should be admitted to the library of Leek Mechanics Institute. Mechanics Institutes were an early Victorian institution in which progressive members of the local establishment could meet to cogitate on  the important issues of the day . They  provided a place where men could read the latest “improving” books and meet to discuss topical matters. The emphasis in such establishments was always on moral and intellectual development with a slant towards scientific  advance. In short what could be deemed useful knowledge. It was hoped that the developments of Mechanic Institutes  would help to turn workers  away from Chartism and other revolutionary activity

Clearly the donation of novels especially romances caused perturbation among the leading men of the town. There were some supporters of fiction, but there were opponents as well. Mr Russell thought that the reading of novels was “ evil”...depraving the taste and hardening the heart and creating a distaste for all that was real and useful”.. Mr Alsop thought that novel reading was a form of moral opium eating. Mr Challioner demurred from this view believing that works of fiction could be ethical. He cited the works of Dickens, Scott and Mrs Edgeworth in defence of the genre. The last word went to the Rev Goshawk who could have been a creation from the pen of Anthony Trollope in Outslopeing Obadiah Slope in sneering   at popular entertainment. He regarded the reading of novels as time misspent. He regarded the people who attended theatre, dance and music with “pity and contempt” Noting disapprovingly that some members of the Institute had been foolish enough to suggest the introduction of “tea dances”. The vote to admit novels was narrowly carried by 62 votes to 58.

 Of course many of these names live on in the street names of the town.

It led me to consider what novels were published in 1847. Many fictional works such as “Inundation” by Catherine Gore or “Patty or Beware of Meddling” by Charlotte Tonna published by Methodists Sunday School Union – which I would imagine even the Rev Goshawk would have approved are forgotten . But one novel of 1847 would almost certainly be known to the people of 2014 – “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte.  The novel detailing the lives of Catherine, Edgar and Heathcliffe set in the Yorkshire Moors challenges religious hypocrisy, notions of class and gender and morality. It would have been the sort of novel to have Messrs Alsop, Russell and Rev Goshawk reaching for a phial of ammonia to combat the shock. They would not have been alone. Graham's Lady Magazine reviewed the novel thus "How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors” Of course we know it for the various adaptations including the films, the TV adaptation and perhaps most familiarly the  Kate Bush hit single of 1978. Kate Bush recently completed a series of concerts for the first time in quarter of a century and her albums have once again dominated the charts. She has not won everyone over though as my daughter described her dismissively as “sounding like a mouse”.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Remembering the Holocaust

Each year National Holocaust Day, held on the 27th January, seeks to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust as well as stressing a continuing commitment to oppose racism and genocide. The date is significant as it is the day  the Red Army liberated Auschwitz Concentration camp in 1945. This year makes it the 75th anniversary and the theme is” keeping the memory alive “

I met a concentration camp survivor purely by chance one day in the early 1980s on the Abbey Hulton Council estate in Stoke. I was working for the Education Department collecting information of Free School meal applicants when I visited a woman who was looking after her grandchildren.  She was born in Vienna and had witnessed the Nazi takeover in 1934. She was from a devoutly Catholic family. Their piety made them fall foul of an uncle who was a senior figure in the Nazi Party. He sent the whole family to a Concentration Camp as their faith made him question their loyalty to the Fuhrer. She showed me the concentration number tattooed on her arm. It ended badly for her uncle who was assassinated by Yugoslavian partisans.

More recently I met a local woman who was living in a small Dutch town during the war whose best friend was  a Jewish girl called Saartje aged 6 who along with other Jewish residents of the town was taken one spring day in 1942 ultimately to die at Auschwitz. The memory of her little friend fate haunts her still.

 2015 as well as being the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is also the 100th anniversary of the genocide of the Armenian people in the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The Armenians, a significant Christian minority, in a Muslim country fell under suspicion when Turkey declared war on the Allied powers in World War One especially as one of the enemy powers Russia was sympathetic to the Armenian cause of self determination.  Following a Turkish military defeat when Armenians were accused of acting like a fifth column for the Allies the Turks began a systematic campaign to eliminate the Armenian populations. There were mass executions, and death marches of men, women and children across the Syrian Desert to concentration camps with many dying along the way of exhaustion, exposure and starvation. It was estimated that approaching 1.5 million Armenians died in what historians would later recognise as genocide.

Much of this was quite well documented at the time by Western diplomats, missionaries and others, creating widespread wartime outrage against the Turks in the West.  News even reached Staffordshire where the Tamworth Herald of November 20th 1915 carries a very full account of atrocities perpetrated.  Although its ally, Germany, was silent at the time, in later years documents have surfaced from high ranking German diplomats and military officers expressing horror at what was going on.

But the message of the thoroughness of the Turkish actions and the indifference of the West was not lost on one particular person. To justify his wish to destroy the Polish Nation Hitler remarked in 1939 “Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?”  And in Turkey today the fate of the Armenians still remains a taboo subject. In fact raising the subject can lead to a criminal charge, but the fate of Armenians still needs to be kept alive in Turkey and the World.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The Black Sun above Caverswall 1783

The residents of Caverswall were convinced on the 23rd June 1783 that the strange colour of the sun was down to supernatural causes. For a few days the sun was black which the more superstitious villagers blamed on the malevolent influence of the ghost of Lady Vane. It was also very hot and the fog was so thick that ships were unable to leave harbour. Not so far away from Caverswall ,the people of Derby witnessed an extraordinary thunderstorm and the blood red sun commenting on the state of the atmosphere.

What the observers in Caverswall, Derby and elsewhere were witnessing was the after effect of millions of tons of material being expelled far into the atmosphere by the eruption of an Iceland volcano Laki at the beginning of June. A large amount of sulphur dioxide was emitted, about three times the total annual European industrial output now  (but delivered to higher altitudes, hence  the more persistent).

 Iceland initially  suffered  grievously itself , about 20% of natives and 50 % of livestock either died from the effect of the gas or from the famine that followed. Further away outpourings of sulphur dioxide during  eruption  caused a thick haze to spread across Western Europe, The dense cloud of gases were blown south east. It reached Prague by the 17th. By the 20th it had arrived  in Paris and 3 days later it had crossed the Channel, A fine dust ,in effect, a volcanic ash  fell throughout England and the summer became known as the “Sand Summer”. It was a time of extremes as the very hot weather came with violent thunderstorms and hailstones which were so large that it was reported that Cattle were killed. The summer gave way to an early and long winter. The Naturalist Gilbert White recorded 28 days of frost in Hampshire, the River Severn froze at Worcester and cottages in Northamptonshire were covered so deeply with snow that the inhabitants starved to death. The deep snows and plunging temperatures killed thousands in Britain but it was the arrival of the gas the previous June that killed many more

 Inhaling the noxious gas causes victims to choke and their internal organs to swell as the gas reacts with the moisture in lungs and produces  sulphurous acid. In Great Britain, the records show that the additional deaths were among outdoor workers; the death rate in East Anglia was perhaps two or three times the normal rate. It has been estimated that 23,000 Britons died from the poisoning.

The meteorological impact of Laki continued, contributing significantly to several years of extreme weather in Europe.  In France, the sequence of extreme weather events caused poverty for the rural population, and a violent hailstorm in 1788 destroyed crops. These events contributed significantly to an increase in poverty that may in turn  have contributed to the French Revolution in 1789.

It would not have  been the first such occurrence to claim a dynasty in the 10th century the Eldgja eruption in Iceland caused  such freak weather conditions in China that the resultant famine bought down the Jin Dynasty.

Volcanoes in Iceland are  back in the news as scientists have been closely observing Iceland’s volcanic activity.  Bardarbunga volcano in the early autumn was continually spewing lava and sending tremors across the island. The amount of material voided is greater than a volcanic eruption of 2010 when ash and dust high in the altitude caused flights to be cancelled in the UK.

Trolling in Alstonefield= an example from 1737

Until a few years the only troll I heard about existed in Scandanavian legend. They were the ugly, misshapen creatures of evil intent who undermined the good order of society by causing chaos and disruption. Now Trolls are ugly, misshapen individuals who use social media to bully threaten and accuse with equally damaging effects on the good order of society. The original trolls were destroyed by light. I suppose the modern day ones are equally damaged when exposed to the glare of public obloquy. Although on reading a newspaper article some time ago my perceptions about trolls and trolling were questioned when I discovered while most are  isolated young men, there are some trolls who are older and more socially adjusted than I had imagined.

In the past society took a very dim view of people who slandered others believing such actions “contrary to piety, justice to our neighbours and sobriety to ourselves” it became the practice to hear false accusations against people in Consistory Courts, an ecclesiastical court presided over by a Chancellor usually a Cathedral official who could pass judgement on offenders. Their remit was to keep good order in society and as it was a time when the vast majority of people would go to church it had power over people. Originally a medieval court, by the 17th century consistory courts dealt with cases in certain areas: defamation, wills, matrimonial disputes including divorce and accusations against the clergy. (Many of the functions of the court were transferred over to civil courts during the Victorian era.)

The clergy could be summoned for a variety of transgressions such as dereliction of duty, not carrying out their priestly duties and brawling.

The Consistory Court that covered the Moorlands met at Lichfield. They had a variety of punishments at their disposal such as excommunication or ordering penance, although the church authorities sought initially to mediate.

One serious case of brawling in Hanbury near Burton was heard in 1746. John Cauldwell the Vicar was involved in a fight with a churchwarden named Robotham over the offertory box. During the kerfuffle the contents of the box were spilled in front of the altar and Cauldwell hit Robotham over the head with the empty box. Both men were dismissed for failing to restrain themselves.

The court also dealt with a 1737 case of slanderous comments being made in Alstonefield against a widow in her 60s, a button maker called Rachel Brindley. She brought a case against Grace Chapman  a local woman alleging that she had slandered her accusing her of lax morals. Matters came to a head in Alstonefield Churchyard and in a scene reminiscent of an Ena Sharples encounter with Elsie Tanner many years ago they set about each other with some venom. They were involved in a lengthy shouting match, with each woman calling the other one whore and other names. Witnesses from Alstonefield sided with Widow Brindley describing  her as a pious woman who paid her taxes and did not take any money from the parish in poor relief. There were some snide remarks made about Grace. At the hearing in Lichfield it was discovered that the underlying quarrel revolved around the ownership of a shop in Hollinsclough. The dispute was resolved through arbitration.