Saturday, 27 February 2021

Natural History in the Middle of London

 'What's hit is history, what's missed is mystery.'

A rather gnomic comment, unless you are a birdwatcher who knows something of the history of their hobby. For rather than the simple, unalloyed pleasure of watching birds, your Victorian/Edwardian naturalist seems to have felt that his day (and it was inevitably a he, of course) was not complete without having shot a number of the objects of his study out of the sky.

The phrase immediately came to mind while poking about in the stacks of Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (where I am lucky enough - still - to work part-time) when I chanced upon L/SMB/E/5/2, the accessions book of the Stepney Borough Museum covering 1904-1933. An unremarkable volume perhaps, but I couldn't resist a peek and there under 15 May 1911 was confirmation that the Museum paid four shillings and took receipt of two specimens of the Blue-headed Wagtail (Motacilla flava flava)! These unfortunate Motacillas had been shot by one R. M. Presland at Walthamstow (Marshes, presumably) in August 1910, along with a Grey Wagtail (what did the man have against Wagtails I wonder). I immediately took against this Presland character, forming a mental picture of a mustachioed, trigger-happy oaf in tweeds, apt to blast away indiscriminately at anything that came in range. My dislike increased when I saw, with incredulity, that Presland also sold the Museum other specimens: a Red-backed Shrike, a Little Stint, a Brown Owl - a Tawny Owl presumably - a Blackcap and a Tree Pipit, the latter purchased for six old pence!

But personal dislike of this hitherto obscure historical character aside, a couple of points are worth making about this archival curio; firstly, who would have thought that the collections at THLHLA, with their overwhelmingly urban bias, would have furnished us with such a fascinating nugget of natural history. And secondly, were these specimens really Blue-headed Wagtails -  a pretty rare bird I thought, and the Wagtails are easily confused. 

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Fake News 1662-Style

Found and copied - word for word - from CO 5/1380: Acts passed by the Virginia Legislature 1662-1715

23 March 1662: [Act] XCI

Divulgers of False News

Whereas many idle and busy-headed people do forge and divulge false rumours and reports, to the great disturbance of the peace of His Majesty’s liege people in this colony [Virginia]: be it enacted, that what person or persons soever shall forge or divulge any such false reports, tending to the trouble of the country, he shall be, by the next Justice of the Peace, sent for, and bound over to the next County Court; where, if he produce not his author, he shall be fined two thousand pounds of tobacco, or less, (if the Court think fit to lessen it) and besides, give bond for his behaviour, if it appear to the Court, that he did maliciously publish, or invent it.

I would not have believed this had I not read it, and would have dismissed it as fake news about fake news...

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Medical woes, but then again maybe not

Things medical have been uppermost in everyone's mind for most of 2020, and it will doubtless continue this way for many months to come. It has been a grim period, but I've got off lightly and whenever I get to moping about how I haven't been able to go to the pub or a gig (shame about the Las Kellies show at the Shacklewell Arms on 26 March being cancelled, but there we are) I force myself to read again the following document, which I happened across at TNA shortly before lockdown.

SP 78/100/102 f. 331

Viscount Scudamore to Sir John Coke, Paris, 18/28 April 1636

Sir Francis Crane was cutt this morning. Within an hour after, the stone was brought to mee. It is almost as big as an ordinarie hen-egg; & of that shape; & rough well neere all over. Hee went to it cheerfully, & so endured it. They were not in the operation longer than you may judge I have been writing thus farre. Some 7 hours after I sent to congratulate wth him. And then he spake heartie, & said hee had lived now so many houres, meaning that his freedom from his former payne made him think his present being different as life & that wch is not life or worse. But when the urine passeth through the wound his payne is great. In a word, Mr Davison thinks him as well as could bee expected hee should bee now.

Enough to make you shudder; the modern world may be a cesspool and getting worse, but at least we - or at least some of us - have medicine (for the time being).

(Poor Sir Francis's ordeal was all in vain - he died from gangrene on 26 June.)   

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

London American Civil War Veterans

A remarkable - to me at least - snippet of information emerges from the murky pages of the South London Press, 16 May 1919, in the form of a short report on a meeting of the London Association of American Civil War Veterans, held at the Bermondsey Ragged School, Gedling Street. Salient details as follows:

  • Colonel Bevington, treasurer of the Association, provided tea, while Mr F. W. Smith, secretary, took the chair (Mr Ambrose Pomeroy JP, the vice-president, was unable to attend). The business before the meeting included arrangements for decoration day and also organising a visit Windsor.

Of course a quick search of Google reveals that those in the know have long known about this Association, but its existence came as a surprise to me; hopefully this fragment will add a little more to the scholarly knowledge about the organisation. (And it goes to show, yet again, that if you really want to drill down through the layers of historical sediment forget The Times etc. and go for the local press - much more interesting and useful.)

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.