Thursday, 8 August 2019

The Great James Robertson Justice - a vignette

Bearded and booming, James Robertson Justice was the sort of memorable screen presence that we just do not have these days, and we are all the poorer for it. Everyone remembers him as the domineering Sir Lancelot Spratt in the Doctor films, but I like him as the appropriately named Captain Boomer in Moby-Dick - a brief but noteworthy appearance in a great film.

I came across JRJ at TNA recently in a most surprising way; not, as one might expect, in connection with his fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War (although I've often wondered if that story is apocryphal), but as a passing reference in PREM 13/2774 which confirms that JRJ had a passion for falconry - apparently he pursued the pastime with Sheikh Zaid bin Sultan al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi. I wonder how that worked in practice: the same briefing note confirms that the Sheikh spoke no English.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

The brass neck of some people

So, slavery is abolished throughout the British Empire in 1834 and the so-called apprenticeship scheme - intended to ensure that the former slave-owners had access and continued control of a supply of labour - collapses in 1838. Your slaveowners have pocketed some £20m as compensation, while the drudges on whom the whole system rested get nothing. And yet what do we find in CO 321/81, a volume of official Colonial Office documents from 50 years later? We find one F. B. Byar writing to the Colonial Office because he is considering instructing his solicitor to bring a case that he is due further compensation for the two slaves he had owned in Barbados. In exquisitely polite terms, Byar wants to know about the compensation payments from 50 years previously. People can, of course, rationalise anything to themselves, but this? The mind reels at the sheer audacity.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

WW2 Rubber Neckers

I chuckled at this item, found among some press-cuttings at Westminster City Archives concerning civil defence in London in WW2 (ref: CD 146.8); the Borough's Civil Defence collection, of which these cuttings form a small part, is a remarkable collection, incidentally. This was from the Daily Sketch of 1 July 1940:

Don't Rush to Incidents
Sightseers with nothing to do are still hampering the Civil Defence Services personnel working after flying bombs have fallen. This anti-social behaviour was the subject of comment in the Daily Sketch yesterday.
Immediately after one bomb fell yesterday morning sightseers collected. 
For some time they were responsible for delaying ambulances and rescue parties trying to reach buildings with injured people in them.
Thirty minutes after the bomb fell a police loudspeaker car arrived and a police announcer added his pleas to those of the other police for the public to move on.
A police car, making continuous appeals, pushed its way through the crowd to clear the way for an ambulance.

Not exactly in the Spirit of the Blitz, but it could have been worse: these days they'd all be taking selfies.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Deputy Director of Biscuits...

We seem to be stuck in a never-ending loop of political absurdity at the moment, but the archives furnish us with numerous examples that confirm that the absurd has - thankfully - always been with us.

I call as my next witness one Mr W. H. Phillips, but first consider:
November 1943 - British troops continue their advance in Italy; Berlin is pounded by the Allies from the air; the Cairo Conference considers ways to defeat Japan; the Tehran Conference gets under way, attended by the big three; fighting continues unabated in all of the major theatres of war...

And Mr Phillips? Well he's just been promoted from Assistant Director of Biscuits to Deputy Director of Biscuits in the Bakery Division of the Ministry of Food. Lest there be any doubt about the truth of this momentous event check the MoF's 'Bulletin of Staff and Accommodation Changes (No. 48)' in MAF 84/670.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Simple joys

So, we are in the mid 18th century, and after a punishing stint in India working as a physician for the East India Company our man - one Edward Ives - sets out on the long, long journey home and decides to keep a detailed diary. Not surprisingly, Ives and his companions endure appalling hardship and a series of heinous travails as they trudge slowly across the Arabian peninsula. In fact, such is the misery that at several points the members of the party look all set to lose their minds; and then this, noted in the desert outside Diarbekir:

25 July 1758
'... we saw a wild goldfinch, which settled upon a thistle close to our tent; the sight of this little, agreeable songster gave us exquisite pleasure, owing to the single consideration that birds of this kind are inhabitants of Great Britain.'
'We could not help looking upon this tuneful goldfinch, as a fellow citizen who had kindly flown thus far to bid us welcome, to raise our drooping spirits, and signify to us that we were drawing nearer to our native country, that land of liberty after which we had so long and so passionately sighed.'

How wonderful and life-affirming is that? And I'm pleased to say that Ives and all of his friends did manage to stagger home, allowing the good doctor in his declining years to work up from his journal the following publication:

A voyage from England to India, in the year 1754, and an historical narrative of the operations of the squadron and army in India, under the command of Vice-Admiral Watson and Colonel Clive, in the years 1755, 1756, 1757 ... Also a journey from Persia to England by an unusual route (London, 1773).

I can confirm that it makes modern travel writing seem pretty pallid in comparison.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Oscar's literary remains

Saw The Happy Prince the other day; a superlative performance by Rupert Everett of course, but if we didn't know it to be a true story it might be tempting to dismiss it as overwrought melodrama. But it is a true - and quite appalling - story that I confess left me rather shaken at times.

Before seeing the film, and quite coincidentally, I came across two of Oscar Wilde's calling cards in the British Library, sitting quietly (possibly unobserved up till now?) among Add MS 81733. They simply read:

        Sebastian Melmoth: Hotel de la Plage, Bernaval-sur-Mer, Dieppe

Unbearably poignant, obviously, but the chance to hold something that Oscar Wilde possessed, even something as mundane as a calling card! Not many get that chance.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

The natural history of Richmond Park

All civilised and humane persons have a love of the natural world, or at least what remains of it. Here is the eminent surgeon Sir Frederick Treves discussing the wildlife of Richmond Park in a letter dated 22 March 1918 to fellow surgeon Sir John Bland-Sutton (Royal College of Surgeons Archives, MS0287/19):

  • 'Weasles are common here and I am sorry to say my gardener killed a polecat in the garden. Hares were fairly common when I came here ten years ago [Treves lived at Thatched House Lodge near Richmond Park] but I have not turned up one for the last three or four years'.
  • 'The birds here are quite magnificent. In spite of the war the nightingale never left us.'
  • 'Few Londoners will believe that I can nearly always show a long-tailed tit on Ham Common.' 

The letter is absolutely charming, although painful to read in some ways - you have absolutely zero chance of seeing/hearing a nightingale in Richmond Park these days, let alone a hare or even a polecat! Absolutely extraordinary to think that Treves saw these things so close to central London back in 1918. That said, I regularly see long-tailed tits in my garden and I live in Stepney Green, so that's good news at least.