Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Birds and History

Anyone not sensible to the enriching presence of birds in our everyday lives is denying themselves a simple but profound pleasure, but what about birds and history - or rather birds in history? Is there anything significant beyond their mere presence in the historical record? Anything of genuine importance in historical terms? Well, I'd argue that the domestication of the original wild chicken was a process (not an event) that has had a considerable impact on the course of human history. The use of homing pigeons in the two world wars is surely worthy of more than just passing comment; and does not the founding of the RSPB in the late nineteenth century by women appalled at the use of grebe and egret feathers in the millinery trade tell us something about political campaigning at that time? I dare say if I looked deeper there would be many other such examples, but the two things I have are not in this league; mere curios in fact, but interesting in themselves I think.

First, a simple coincidence: a recent article in Birdwatch magazine examined the arguments for and against including 'ship-assisted' vagrant birds on the official British list. A subject of warm controversy it would seem, although not one about which I myself have strong feelings. But a few weeks after reading this I was given a copy of The Birds of the British Isles by T. A. Coward (London: Frederick Warne & Co Ltd, 1941), and lo, there on pp. 360-61 is mention of a voyage made by the (ultimately doomed/infamous) Lusitania in August 1913 during which two large curlews (possibly Long-billed Curlews says Mr Coward) were seen flying alongside the vessel as she steamed towards the Irish coast. Mr Coward's correspondent suspected that the two birds rested on the ship at night, but couldn't prove it. So a minor point: a soon-to-be world-(in)famous ship probably providing temporary respite for two exhausted and lost souls a long, long way from home.

Secondly, while ploughing through Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well recently I smiled at the mention of 'choughs' language' (Act IV. I. 19); the reference is to the garbled and unintelligible babbling of foolish people, and anyone who has ever heard choughs soaring and chattering to each other will know just how perfect the comparison is. But look at it this way: the metaphor is so apt that Shakespeare must, surely, have actually heard the birds in the wild at some time (either that or he heard captive birds, the comparison was proverbial, or someone else in the company supplied the relevant speech); and to do so, he would have to have travelled to one of the birds' coastal strongholds. Today, these are on the fringes - Cornwall (a happy recent recolonisation of a historically inhabited range), the Welsh coast, the Isle of Man and Ireland - but in the past the Chough may have nested on the Channel cliffs, as close to London as Dover. Shakespeare's life is notoriously undocumented, and so although my suggestion of him seeing and hearing the birds above the Channel cliffs or even further afield will always remain unproven, I like to think of it happening and of a superb dramatic image forming in his mind as he watched. Well that's my take on it anyway: the Chough as a biographical footnote - possibly illuminating a famously obscure life!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Thoughts on WW1

I couldn't let the centenary of the outbreak of WW1 go by without something, and it just so happens that I have come across two things in the archives recently that I thought worth recording. Both relate to the war at sea, and although not important in themselves they have now become important to me - historical memory in action I suppose you might say.

The first incident relates to the torpedoing of the British Chantala in April 1916; one particular document I read struck me as interesting for the way it provides some evidence of the incident from the German point of view. The submarine commander (a Claus Rucker, I believe) must have picked up the survivors of the sinking; the account of events given later by the master of the Chantala describes a man nearly broken by the stress and responsibility of command: storming back and forth, spitting, foaming at the mouth, screaming abuse, incoherent at times. One cold and clear-eyed passage from the papers in ADM 137/1196 sums it up:

'In the opinion of the master of the CHANTALA the commander of the submarine is on the verge of a serious nervous or mental breakdown.'

No use feeling anything but enmity towards your enemy in the circumstances, of course, but I can't help thinking what a pitiful scene this was; I wonder if Rucker survived the war and ever recovered?

The second incident also concerns the loss of a British ship in the Mediterranean, but in this case it is something missing from the documents that is important. The torpedoing of any ship must have been an appalling spectacle: the chaos and din, the struggle to maintain order, the rush for the boats, the almost inevitable collapse of discipline as the ship founders and then the physical shock of the cold water. But this particular ship was a horse transport, and the screams of the terrified animals must surely have added to the nightmare quality of it all. No one saw fit to mention the dreadful fate of these creatures in any of the documents (I suppose the people who sent these telegrams, drafted reports and what not had more important things to worry about), but this is what immediately occurred to me; and rightly or wrongly, my own overactive imagination has rushed to fill the gap, in the process magnifying the horror of the sinking.

So no great ideas or theories - the war is too vast and complex a subject to offer anything in that line - just two small and relatively insignificant incidents that, to me at least, convey something of the essential terror of the conflict.

Friday, 19 September 2014

'Dr Livingstone, I presume?'

Thus - supposedly - Sir Henry Morton Stanley on finding Dr David Livingstone on the shores of Lake Tanganyika on 10 November 1871, and apocryphal or not it is one of the classics of British understatement.

I may, quite possibly, have recently made a minor Livingstonian discovery of my own: I had been commissioned to visit the Hydrographic Office in Taunton, and my efforts to find relevant letters in the in-coming files not producing as much as I'd hoped I thought I'd try looking for retained copies of correspondence sent out from the Office. Buried within one of the entry books was indeed a rich stash of letters of interest to my client, so that was gratifying, but it was while frantically trying to get copies and notes of all of this material that I happened to notice a letter dated 5 November 1859 addressed to one Dr Livingstone - presumably the Dr Livingstone. No time to dwell on these things of course, as I was more concerned with my client's interests, but I couldn't help skimming the letter: the writer (John Washington, the Chief Hydrographer at the time) congratulates Livingstone on certain of his recent discoveries that had been made public, and goes on to list the technical specifications of a proposed steamer that would be built by the shipbuilders Thompson of Blackwall/Rotherhithe and put at Livingstone's disposal. I've no idea whether the steamer was actually built and used by Livingstone, but it would be interesting to find out and doing so might add a little more to the biographical storehouse.

All of this got me thinking about the complexities and challenges of the biographer's art, not so much the writing - difficult though that surely is - as the inevitable incompleteness of research. I dare say that this particular letter - if indeed it is addressed to the right man - has already come under the notice of his biographers (the original is presumably at SOAS, the National Library of Scotland or one of the other repositories which holds Livingstone's scattered papers), but what if it hasn't? What if it does actually contain information of real biographical value that has never been used? And therein lies the problem: if I were anyone's biographer I'd always have that nagging thought that my efforts were incomplete because I'd missed something absolutely vital; mind you, I can hardly make sense of my own life at times, let alone someone else's so it's not a problem I'm ever likely to face!

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Local newspapers and the gems therein

We're all used to reading books which cite the grave and Olympian pronouncements of The Times, Guardian, Daily Telegraph, etc., but what of local newspapers and their less exalted position in British life? I'm not sure if local papers ever get used by anyone other than local historians, but if some recent work at Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre is anything to go by then what treasures there are for those who can be bothered to look. True, the parochial minutiae can be somewhat wearisome, but the following list of trivial and serious stuff from notes I hurriedly threw down whilst working through the Hampstead press of the mid-1930s shows what can be found. Some of this stuff was irresistable because it resonated with me in such an odd way - so distant and yet at the same time so familiar - and some of it is, I think, of genuine use to historians and scholars working in a variety of fields:
Hampstead & Highgate Express
  • 18 May 1935: short note of a meeting of the Greenshirts in Kilburn - 200 people in attendance; it wasn't just the British Union of Fascists and the Communists getting attention in the 30s, but in popular memory the Greenshirts barely register at all.
  • 11 April 1936: letter from M. W. Smelt (no, really, that's the name ...) - an Orphean Warbler and 'gtr/lsr Willow Warbler' seen on Hampstead Heath - I'd bet that the OW was a Blackcap, and am not sure what the writer meant by gtr/lsr Willow Warbler; we only have the Willow Warbler in the UK as far as I know.
  • 21 November 1936: report on the trial of Sidney Nobbs, joyrider - who, with a name like that, no doubt went on to an illustrious career in petty crime. I'd have him played by Alfie Bass in the Ealing comedy version.
Hampstead & St John's Advertiser
  • 24 January 1935: John Laurie - he of Dad's Army fame - in The Duchess of Malfi at the Embassy Theatre. His work in the classics is well-known and well-regarded - no wonder he did those ghost stories in Dad's Army with such aplomb. In the same edition of the paper we have 'Save the Skylark': farmers threaten skylarks with wholesale destruction - poets, led by W. H. Davies object; that no doubt had the NFU trembling in their boots.
  • 21 February 1935: an irate correspondent describes the Independent Labour Party as the 'Ignominious League of Perverts' (following the appearance of ILP graffiti in Hampstead) - they do not write insults like that anymore. 
  • 30 May 1935: another Greenshirts open-air meeting; the speaker addressed the inadequacy of mere 'sabotage' of the system - he advocated the need to increase workers' purchasing power. Pay rises all round - sounds like a good idea.
  • 25 July 1935: recipe for Strawberry Empress - never heard of this before, but it sounded tasty; a sort of mousse (and much better than some of the other recipes featured which should, frankly, remain forgotten).
  • 23 July 1936: John Beckett, former Labour MP for Gateshead and Peckham and now a fascist, involved in a fight at a BUF meeting. We all know about Churchill and Mosley himself, of course, leaving one party for another, but it obviously went on in the lower ranks - I wonder if Beckett followed Mosley.
  • 30 July 1936: Charlbert Street evictions - working class victims of development and the 'Portland Town fight'. This story was a prominent feature in the paper for a year or more, and it has a depressingly modern ring to it: working-class Londoners getting stiffed by wealthy property developers. Again.
  • 27 Aug. 1936: a report on 'Queer Occupations': Ministry of Health insurance records note 'hobblers' at Bristol docks. Fact: the term is still in use today.
  • 12 November 1936: Alexander Korda, (Hungarian emigre and film producer) of 81 Avenue Road, St John's Wood, announces that he has become a naturalized UK citizen. One for his biographer.
  • 18 February 1937: Reverend Frederick Chesnutt-Chesney appointed to the living of Holy Innocents, Hornsey. Now there's a surname.
  • 25 February 1937: Wilfred Macartney, author, wounded fighting in Spain. But author of what?
  • 21 October 1937: Sir Reginald Blair MP condemns the BBC for 'internationalism'. The poor old BBC: it never can get it right, can it?
Hampstead & Highgate Record
  • 22 March 1935: William Joyce - better known as the infamous Lord Haw Haw - addresses a meeting at Forresters' Hall in Kilburn. Another fragment for biographers.
So there we have it: a source that can provide the student of London's ornithological history with something of interest and a blow-by-blow (literally) account of tensions in north London for those researching political history is no bad thing. The problem is that until these papers are digitised this material will essentially remain locked up and inaccessible, without you plough through each issue looking: if you're tempted be warned - it takes stamina!

Friday, 13 June 2014

William Thomas Whiffin revisited (and some football fantasy)

I thought that it might be time to reconsider WTW; my original post seems to have caused some degree of interest in the man (and thanks to all those who were kind enough to comment and apologies for not replying personally to everyone - lack of time is a feeble excuse, I know, but it is true in this case), mainly, I suspect, on account of that surname, although hopefully also because of increasing interest in his skills as a photographer.

Not long ago it occurred to me that I'd never done the simple thing and searched for his name on the catalogue of The National Archives. Sure enough there he is: three entries in the records of the Copyright Office:

COPY 1/494/306:
'Photograph (cabinet) of George Newlands, Queens Park Rangers football team, nearly full face'.
Copyright owner and author of work: William Thomas Whiffin, 770 Harrow Road, Kensal Green, London.
Form completed: 14 February 1906. Registration stamp: 16 February 1906.

COPY 1/501/383: 'Photograph of a football team entitled "The Queen's Park Rangers" taken at Park Royal 8th Sept 1906'. Copyright owner and author of work: William Thomas Whiffin, 770 Harrow Road, Willesden, London.
Form completed: 25 September 1906. Registration stamp: 27 September 1906.

COPY 1/513/292: 'Photograph of Queen's Park Rangers Football Team with Directors'.
Copyright owner and author of work: William Thomas Whiffin, 770 Harrow Road, Willesden, London.
Form completed: 27 September 1907. Registration stamp: 28 September 1907.
I see that the apostrophe in Queen's appears to have been mislaid since the mid-1900s, which is a matter of regret, and why aren't teams prefixed with the definite article anymore: 'The Queen's Park Rangers', 'The Arsenal' 'The Villa', 'The City', etc. has a hearty and wholesome ring to it I think.
As far as I can tell, the COPY 1 series does not contain the actual photographs themselves, which is a great shame as I'd like to see them, but you just know from the descriptions alone that COPY 1/501/383 and COPY 1/513/292 are classics of their kind. I picture a team of ill-nourished and wiry men swallowed up by billowing shorts and thick jerseys, plenty of heavily greased centre partings (and the odd moustache), a ball that looks more suited for firing from a cannon than any sporting use, and let's not forget the inevitable fellow wearing a suit and bowler hat. In short, the sort of no-nonsense football team that the local meat pie magnate would have owned. I can even give a list of imaginary names for this fearsome side:
  1. Alf Cripps
  2. Bert ('bonecruncher') Prodgers
  3. Maurice Grimble
  4. Herbert Toutt
  5. Harry Gubbins
  6. Ted Smalls
  7. Archie Backhouse
  8. Fred Tunstall
  9. Walt Goldfinch
  10. Charles 'Charlie' Charles
  11. Arthur Gumbes (blessed with a cultured left foot)

Keeping the sub's bench warm we have Enoch Honeychurch, and the ashen-faced supremo in the bowler hat? Why Captain E. A. V. Carruthers (ICS, rtd) of course, who for some obscure reason has ended up managing a west London football team. Eat your heart out FIFA! 

But let's return from the slightly odd world of football fantasy 1906-style. In other news, I am pleased to say that a long-running project for a client based in the States has reached its conclusion with the private publication of the family history I researched and wrote for him. I can't claim the credit for the title - Salt Beef and a Side of Bacon (my suggestion was far more prosaic), and plaudits for the eye-catching design and layout are also due to others, but I was pleased with the fact that I researched and wrote the thing virtually from scratch - and it's always a moment of quiet pride to see your own name in print, to reread the occasional well-turned phrase and think, did I really come up with that!

Sunday, 9 March 2014

What do Thomas Twining and Daniel Defoe have in common?

I have remarked before about the pleasure of incidental archival finds when trawling records, and I recently caught another couple of gems to add to the bag.

The first item was the registration of the insurance policy taken out by Thomas Twining in July 1715 with the Sun Fire Office to protect his coffee house (where, it appears, he was also living) in Devereux Court just off The Strand; the name Twinings is of first rank importance when it comes to the history of coffee and tea, and it is also a pretty extraordinary fact that 300 years later the Twinings shop still stands on the same site. The second item was the name Daniel Defoe, which I happened across in the Middlesex Sessions list of those eligible to serve as jurors in 1725. The spellings 'Daniel D'ffoe' and 'Stoak Newington' caught my eye (I wonder why 'Stoak' fell out of favour to be replaced by the much less interesting 'Stoke').

But what, if any, is the value of this sort of thing? Well I would suggest that you can squeeze a surprising amount of meaning from ostensibly limited sources and their archival context; and you could argue that being able to do so separates the astute and imaginative historian from the merely pedestrian. So what could be wrung out of my two inconsequential documentary examples? The following list of facts and light-hearted inferences occurred to me, and doubtless people who really do know something about the history of tea/coffee/insurance/business/eighteenth-century legal processes and what not could offer more:
  • The act of insuring - then, as now - suggests a cautious and prudent nature; perhaps these were among Thomas Twining's defining personal characteristics.
  • To warrant insuring the premises, the coffee house must have been a thriving concern, some nine years after Twining took it over.
  • Twining lived above the shop, so to speak - possibly common practice at the time.
  • In the policy register we learn that it was called 'Tom's Coffee House'; the popularity of tea had yet to catch on, and of course the expense would keep it out of the reach of most for many years to come.
  • The Sun Fire Office policy register is a hefty volume; the business was obviously expanding rapidly in the early eighteenth century.
So that's my five for TT and his insurance policy. For Defoe, I came up with:
  • Eligibility for jury service depended on a property qualification: so Defoe must have possessed freehold, copyhold or life tenure somewhere in Stokey to the value of at least £10 per year.
  • English spelling had yet to settle down.
  • The machinery of local government was working pretty well in this part of England at this time; the Middlesex jury lists are well kept. 
  • Defoe may have been starved of good company at this time; few 'gentlemen' are named on the 1725 list, although I noticed that the number of names varied considerably over time - that probably is significant in some way, but I'm not sure what.
  • For some reason I had always thought that Defoe had suffered constant money problems and was pursued and hounded throughout his life by his creditors; but perhaps not - if he was known to the local authorities surely his whereabouts would have been known to those he owned money to (who I gather employed some fairly robust methods in getting what was due).
So there we are: five facts, meanings and suggestions from each of these documents - a bit tenuous I know, but good practice.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Cinema and history

Report has it that 12 Years a Slave is compelling - if grim - viewing; it couldn't really be otherwise given the subject matter. I'd be willing to bet that most historical researchers uncover plenty of stories that would - in a better world - undergo the cinematic treatment, but unfortunately most of this material remains largely unknown. I have at least one such story from my own work: in idle moments I entertain thoughts about a biopic of one particular nineteenth-century West Indian figure whose life I have researched and written about. The condensed facts about Henry Loving may be readily stated: born a slave in Antigua in the late eighteenth century; freed by master aged nine; traveller; businessman; newspaper editor and controversialist; political campaigner and abolitionist; and, finally, a notable figure in Antigua local government before a rather tragic death after a long and debilitating illness.

I scoured various archives looking for information about Loving and amassed enough evidence to knock together an entry for him that made it into the New Dictionary of National Biography, but I always felt that the essence of the man remained for the most part elusive, mainly because of the absence of surviving personal papers. I did find the occasional document that caused the personality - or at least my notion of it - to materialise before me, and when it did I found myself mentally constructing whole scenes from the man's life based on what amounted to little more than documentary scraps. One example of this will illustrate what I am talking about: in 1831 Loving was in London pressing the British government to force the white oligarchy which controlled Antigua to concede political and civil rights to what historians describe as the 'free coloured' class. A copy of a letter from the committee that sent Loving to London survives, and in it the writer tactfully notes:

'For us, we can readily conceive, and fully excuse those excited feelings, which naturally prevail with most men, and as we know, in an eminent degree with yourself, when giving vent to the expression of, and descanting upon those odious, undeserved and unjust restrictions which you, in common with the class to which you belong, still continue to be borne down with ...'

So a quick-tempered individual, combative and unlikely to take a backwards step in argument. And based on just these four lines I have manufactured and rehearsed an elaborate scene where Loving addresses a political meeting of his fellows in Antigua: it is a humid night; much wine is taken and toasts to the Crown are proposed (doesn't quite fit with modern leftish sensibilities but tough - that's what they would have done); Loving's turn to speak comes (he follows some fairly leaden performers); he stands and begins, slowly at first but the rhetoric gathers pace; he thumps the lectern for emphasis as the list of grievances rolls on; there are shouts of 'hear him, hear him'; the speech climaxes with veiled threats; the audience roars their approval, and Loving smiles tightly and enjoys his moment ... The reality was doubtless more prosaic, but in the absence of written proof how are we to know; and that is where sensible cinematic licence can step in to fill the gaps. Any takers?

Monday, 6 January 2014

Suffolk antiquities and the London Shard

Prior to a short break in Suffolk just before Christmas I did what I always do before going on holiday in the UK: check the HMC's Guide to Papers of British Antiquaries and Historians to get some sense of how well the history of the county has been studied. My feeling was that Suffolk would have attracted the attention of a considerable number of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholars, and I was proved right. There turned out to be a long list of names in the index, many with a sonorous ring to them and all doubtless familiar to modern local historians of the county. No point in listing them all, but the following stood out because of the depth and range of their papers:
  • Sir John Cullum (1733-85)
  • David Elisha Davy (1769-1851)
  • William Stevenson Fitch (1792-1859)
  • James Ford (1779-1850)
  • Sir Thomas Gage (1781-1820)
  • Craven Ord (1755-1832)
  • John Gage Rokewode (1786-1842)
  • John Wodderspoon (1806-42)
The descriptions of their collections indicates the nature of their interests: endless volumes of 'church', 'parish' and 'manorial' notes; abstracts and extracts from Domesday, charters and other early documents (some perhaps now lost); pedigrees and biographical notices; monumental inscriptions; and topographical notes and sketches. Nothing surprising about any of this - it was what motivated scholars at the time, especially the desire to describe and capture the topographical essence of a place at a certain point in time and before it changed.

And the thought that occurred to me as we were trudging along the beach at Shingle Street in late afternoon weakening light (very M. R. Jamesian that!) concerned the topographical: what did those antiquarians make of the Martello Towers that now squat so defiantly in the landscape along this coast? To my twenty-first century eye they are tremendous structures, utilitarian antiquities to be admired as much as any medieval cathedral. But having lived through the period of the their construction, Davy, Fitch, Gage et al. may have had a very different view (and we'll leave to one side those antiquaries who died much earlier; I think we can guess their views) - in fact it's easy to imagine them turning away in disgust at the desecration of the Suffolk landscape however grave the threat of invasion. What we regard as topographically valuable in terms of the built environment all depends on when we happen to be alive; everyone today thinks that buildings over 75 years old should be conserved at all costs, even if at the time of their construction they were deplored. It's strange to think oneself into the future and speculate on what, for instance, Londoners might think of the Shard; perhaps 200 years from now their spirits will soar at the sight of it, and it will be the subject of preservation orders and what not. Speaking as someone who thinks that there's nothing wrong with it that half a ton of dynamite wouldn't solve I rather doubt it, but you never know - there's no accounting for taste when it comes to these things.