Thursday, 26 July 2018

Prince Albert: Consort to Queen Victoria

Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was born on 26th August 1819, the second son of the Duke and Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The title may have sounded prestigious, but the territory in question was one of the myriad of small principalities that comprised Germany prior to its reunification in 1871. The holders of ducal and princely titles had connections with other European royals, but often had very little money to support their desired lifestyles.

Albert was a first cousin of Princess Victoria of England (his father and her mother were brother and sister) but was virtually penniless. On the face of it, he was an unlikely candidate for the role of husband of the ruler of a major imperial power.

Albert had an excellent education before being introduced to Princess Victoria (his senior by just three months) in 1836. It is clear that they took an instant liking to each other and it was therefore no surprise that on their second meeting, in 1839 after Victoria had become Queen, that she proposed marriage to him. They were married in February 1840.

Albert’s position at court was difficult for some people to accept. Not only was he yet another German in the Royal Family, but he was utterly devoid of wealth. He was therefore seen by some as an opportunistic adventurer.

Albert’s difficulty was finding a role as the Queen’s husband, other than ensuring that she produced a succession of healthy children – nine of them in total, all of whom lived to adulthood.

However, Albert had no intention of merely being a royal cipher and he sought a role that made use of his undoubted abilities. There is little doubt that he had a greater intellect than Victoria, who always depended heavily on sound advice from her trusted ministers when it came to making important decisions. Albert – although not a member of the Government – was one such adviser, and one on whom Victoria came to depend a great deal.

Albert did much to make the royal household more efficient and economical, as well as ensuring that the royal residences of Buckingham Palace, Balmoral Castle and Osborne House were kept in good repair.

Albert also channeled his administrative abilities into philanthropic activities and promoting science and the arts. His major achievement in this regard was his championship of the Great Exhibition that took place in 1851 in London’s Hyde Park. This was a major success that showcased British arts and industries to the millions of visitors from Britain and abroad. The large profit from the event was used to buy land in South Kensington that now houses the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum.

Albert was eventually accorded the title of Prince Consort in 1857, but he only had four years left in which to enjoy the status this gave him. He died of typhoid on 14th December 1861, aged only 42. Queen Victoria long blamed their son Albert Edward (who later reigned as King Edward VII) for hastening Albert’s death, given that Albert was appalled by their son’s dissolute behaviour and had made a hasty visit to Cambridge to reprimand Edward when he was already seriously ill. He died only two weeks later.

Albert’s death was undoubtedly the greatest tragedy in Victoria’s life. She immediately withdrew from public life and spent the rest of long life wearing mourning black and playing very little part in affairs of state. Had Albert lived longer, there is little doubt that Victoria would have had a much more productive reign than she did.

© John Welford

Monday, 23 July 2018

Zita, the last Empress of Austria

Zita Maria Grazia Adelgonda Michela Raffaella Gabriella Giuseppina Antonia Luisa Agnese was born on 9th May 1892 at Viareggio in northern Italy. As might be expected from someone with that number of names, she was born into an aristocratic family, her father being the Duke of Parma. However, her parents were not wealthy and her only chance of enjoying the sort of life that went with her name would be by making a suitable marriage into another aristocratic clan, but one that had a bit more money attached to it.

That is what she did, although the clan of which she became a member was not destined to provide her with an easy life.

In 1911, at the age of 19, she married Archduke Charles of Austria. Charles’s late father (Archduke Otto) had been the son of Archduke Karl Ludwig, the younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph and the father of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Charles was therefore only a minor member of the Austrian imperial dynasty and had spent his earlier years pursuing a military career. His young wife Zita must therefore have thought that she had made an excellent marriage in becoming part of one of the most powerful royal families in Europe (the Habsburgs) and able to enjoy all the benefits that this brought but with no specific responsibilities.

However, her life of privilege and luxury, semi-detached from the world of politics, would not last long. After only three years of marriage her husband’s uncle, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated while on a visit to Sarajevo and Europe soon became embroiled in the “Great War”. Not only that, but Charles now became the heir apparent to Emperor Franz Joseph.

Two years later the Emperor died at the age of 86. Charles was now Emperor in his place, at the head of a vast empire in the middle of a war that threatened to pull that empire apart. Zita – the daughter of an impoverished Italian duke – was now the Empress consort of Austria and the Queen consort of Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia and many other parts of the empire.

After another two years, the empire did indeed fall apart with the defeat of the Central Powers that included German and Austria-Hungary. All of Charles’s royal privileges disappeared, and so, therefore, did Zita’s. The former imperial family were forced into exile, although Charles refused to abdicate. They eventually found a permanent home on the Portuguese island of Madeira, where Charles died in 1922 at the age of only 34. At the time of his death Zita was pregnant with the last of their eight children.

There are parallels between ex-Empress Zita and Queen Victoria, in that both were utterly devoted to their husbands, who died young having fathered large families, and both continued to mourn them for the rest of their long lives. Both widows never again wore anything other than black.

Zita died on 14th March 1989 at the age of 96, having spent her years of exile in Switzerland and the United States. She never forgot that Charles had not abdicated his throne and continued to believe herself to be an Empress and Queen. It was therefore fitting that she was granted a state funeral in St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, with all the ceremony due to a Habsburg monarch. She shared her burial place in the cathedral’s crypt with 142 other members of the dynasty.

© John Welford

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Matthew Webb: the first man to swim the English Channel

Swimming the 21 miles of the English Channel is now quite a regular event, with a large number of successful crossings made every year, whether as solo, team or relay attempts. However, this feat was believed by many people to be impossible before Matthew Webb achieved it in 1875.
Matthew Webb’s early years
Matthew Webb was born on 18th January 1848 at Dawley, Shropshire, which is not far from Ironbridge on the River Severn. He was one of twelve children born to a country doctor, also named Matthew, and his wife Sarah.
He learned to swim in the river at the age of eight and, when not much older, rescued his younger brother who had got into difficulties.
He was only twelve years old when he became a cadet on a Merchant Navy training ship on the River Mersey. He was noted as being a strong swimmer who could swim for an hour without a break, but not with any great speed. 
As a merchant seaman he used his swimming ability to good effect, for example in recovering some cargo that had been lost overboard in heavy seas off South Africa. In 1874 he was awarded a gold medal for attempting to rescue a passenger who had fallen into the Atlantic from a ship, although the attempt was unsuccessful.
In 1875 he became captain of the “Emerald of Liverpool”. Although he only held the post for a short time he was always known from this point on as Captain Webb. He left the ship’s service when he read about a failed attempt to swim the English Channel and he determined to try this feat for himself. 

His Channel swim
He spent several weeks in training, being accompanied in his swims along the south coast by Robert Watson, a journalist, who was rowed along beside Webb, who used a slow breaststroke. 
Webb’s first attempt from Dover was on 12th August 1875, but he abandoned his swim having covered more than half the distance, due to bad weather which threatened to swamp the accompanying boat.
He tried again on 24th August, and this was the swim that achieved its aim. He started from Dover’s Admiralty Pier at 1 pm, wearing a red silk costume. During the night he was spotted by the crew of the “Maid of Kent” who hung a lamp overboard so that the passengers could cheer him on by singing “Rule Britannia”. 
Unfortunately, the tide turned before Webb was able to reach the French side, with only seven miles to go. He appeared to be swept backwards and he was forced to swim much further than he had anticipated. It is estimated that the actual distance swum by Webb was more than 40 miles, or nearly double the shortest possible distance between the two shores. He took 22 hours to complete the crossing, but recovered quite quickly.
Captain Webb became an overnight sensation, with huge celebrations held in his honour. He was invited to give talks about his exploit all over the country, which should have made him a small fortune, but he was never adept at handling money and it was not long before poverty forced him into undertaking other feats and exhibitions. For example, he allowed himself to become an exhibit as he floated in a tank of water for up to 60 hours. He took part in race challenges, even though his forte was endurance rather than speed. 

A forced challenge that proved to be fatal

He married Madeleine Chaddock on 27th April 1880 and started a family. This made his financial situation even worse and he could see no way of avoiding destitution other than to undertake another dangerous feat, the opportunity for which arrived in 1883. This was to swim the Niagara River below the Falls, which would involve negotiating the rapids and a quarter-mile wide whirlpool. He hoped to earn $10,000 from the swim. However, he was now aged 35 and past his best as an athlete. He was advised against the attempt by friends and doctors but he ignored all their warnings.

He sailed the Atlantic with his family in July and spent a few days training off Nantucket, although he had not told his wife what he was intending to do. He therefore travelled to Niagara alone, having arranged to make the swim on 21st July. The date was put back to 24th July because the railway companies wanted time to put on extra trains to take the expected 10,000 spectators to the event.

At 4 pm Webb was rowed to the centre of the river and dived in, wearing the same red costume that he had used for his Channel swim. It was clear that he knew just how dangerous this swim was because his last words to the boatman were to ask for his wife and children to be provided for should he not survive. Although he negotiated the first part of the swim without apparent problems, when he reached the whirlpool he was soon pulled under.

It was several days before Matthew Webb’s body was recovered, much battered by the ordeal. His skull had been fractured by being smashed against the rocks and his famous red costume was cut to ribbons. His body was buried in the “Stranger’s Rest” plot of Oakwood cemetery, close to the river.

His legacy

Captain Matthew Webb will always have the honour of being first to achieve the notable feat of swimming the English Channel, although his performance has been outdone many times since. His time of 22 hours has been beaten by most of his followers, with the current record being under seven hours. Other swimmers have crossed the Channel on multiple occasions (Alison Streeter has made 43 crossings) and some have even swum “there and back” (with several three way swims also being recorded). However, only one person can be first!

It is also inconceivable that, had Matthew Webb been around today rather than in Victorian times, he would have been forced by poverty to attempt the exploit that cost him his life. The modern cult of celebrity has much in its disfavour, but at least it keeps most of its “victims” in a healthy financial state.

© John Welford

The conquests of Tamerlane

The names of Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan are much better known in the history of medieval empire-building than that of Tamerlane, but the latter’s ruthless domination of a vast area of western and central Asia in the late 14th century certainly deserves a high ranking in the chronicles of conquest and tyranny.

Tamerlane’s early years

Also known as Timur (sometimes “Timur the Lame”), Tamerlane was born at Kesh near Samarkand (in modern-day Uzbekistan) in 1336. Tamerlane claimed descent from Genghis Khan (a Mongol) but this is unlikely if, as seems probable, Tamerlane was a Tatar. 

By the age of 28 Tamerlane had become vizier (equivalent to prime minister) of the Mongol khanate of Jagatai, which controlled a vast area stretching east from the Caspian Sea into Central Siberia, and in 1369 he overthrew the khan to take full control. This led to ten years of fighting to secure his position, but by 1381 he was ready to expand his empire by undertaking the series of conquests for which he is best remembered.

1381-87. Conquest of Persia

Tamerlane captured Herat (now in western Afghanistan) in 1381 and took four years to overcome the region of Khorasan (northeast Iran and northwest Afghanistan). By 1387 he controlled an area corresponding to present-day Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

1385-95. Toktamish Wars

Toktamish, the ruler of the Golden Horde, a Mongol khanate that controlled much of Central Asia to the north of the Caspian and Black Seas, had formerly sought and gained Tamerlane’s help in establishing his position, but in 1385 he invaded Azerbaijan and defeated one of Tamerlane’s armies. Tamerlane repulsed this invasion, but Toktamish later (in 1388) invaded Transoxiana (modern Uzbekistan) and threatened Tamerlane’s capital of Samarkand while the latter was campaigning in Persia. Tamerlane forced his army to march more than fifty miles a day to counter the threat and drove Toktamish back. When Toktamish invaded yet again, Tamerlane defeated him at the Battle of the Syr-Darya in 1389 and forced him to retreat northwards.

In an effort to defeat Toktamish once and for all, Tamerlane gathered an army of more than 100,000 men (mostly mercenaries) and marched northwards, where Toktamish had a much larger army and was able to lure Tamerlane far into his territory. The armies eventually met at the Battle of Kandurcha (also known as the Battle of the Steppes) in June 1391. The battle, which lasted for three days, was only won when Tamerlane convinced Toktamish’s men that their leader was dead whereas the truth was that Tamerlane was on the verge of defeat. Despite his victory, Tamerlane withdrew to his own territory for fear of being over-extended.

The Golden Horde was only finally defeated in 1395 after a further battle, the Battle of the Terek River (in northern Georgia) on 15th April. This was another occasion on which Tamerlane seized victory when seemingly on the brink of defeat, but this time he followed up by sweeping into the Golden Horde’s lands across the whole region from the Ukraine to central Russia. He slaughtered everyone he could find and laid waste to the land, forcing Toktamish to flee, never to return. The Golden Horde was effectively finished. 

1398-99. Invasion of India

With his northern borders safe and his territories consolidated, Tamerlane was able to turn his attention eastwards.  Aided by two of his grandsons, Tamerlane conquered the Punjab and then led a small hand-picked army across the Hindu Kush to descend on Delhi, destroying the army of Mahmud Tughluk at the Battle of Panipat on 17th December 1398. Tamerlane’s behaviour was appalling, plundering and killing wherever he went in northern India. Some 100,000 captured Indian soldiers were massacred prior to the attack on Delhi. The city and the region would not recover for more than a century. 

The slaughter and destruction continued as Tamerlane then swung west to head back home. The whole campaign cost hundreds of thousands of lives for little strategic purpose. Tamerlane merely seemed intent to go down in history as one of the world’s most terrible and bloodthirsty tyrants.

1400. Invasion of Syria

Victory at the Battle of Aleppo on 30th October was followed by typical ferocity on Tamerlane’s part as the cities of Aleppo and Damascus were captured and many of the inhabitants massacred. More slaughter was to follow at Baghdad (in modern-day Iraq) as punishment on the citizens for daring to revolt.

1402. Invasion of Anatolia (modern Turkey)

Tamerlane defeated the sultan of the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Angora on 20th July and captured Smyrna from the Knights Hospitalers.  He then overran the whole of Anatolia before returning to Samarkand in 1404.

1405. Death of Tamerlane.

Although aged 68, Tamerlane had still not satisfied his lust for power and conquest, his aim being to control a larger empire than that of Genghis Khan. His next target was China, but he died after catching a cold when recruiting troops at Otrar in modern-day Kazakhstan.

Although there have been many conquerors and warlords in the history of the world, few have been as appalling as Tamerlane in terms of his passion for bloodletting and destruction. Christopher Marlowe’s play “Tamburlaine the Great” (published in 1590) introduced some elements that suggested a softer side to his character, such as a love theme, but also included a scene in which the captive Turkish sultan beats his brains out against the bars of the wheeled cage in which Tamerlane has dragged him around to humiliate him. Whether invented or not, incidents such as this only serve to emphasise Tamerlane’s despicable nature.

© John Welford

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Joseph Hansom and the Hansom Cab

Until a few years ago, the signs that welcomed visitors to the town of Hinckley in Leicestershire declared it to be the “Home of the Hansom Cab”. This might be thought to be a strange claim to make, given that Hansom cabs had not been seen on the streets of Hinckley or anywhere else for about a century, and most people would have very little idea what a Hansom cab was.

Joseph Hansom was not a native of Hinckley, and his time there was short, given that he arrived in 1834 and left in 1837. He was not an engineer, but an architect who spent most of his long career designing and restoring church and domestic buildings. There is also some doubt over how much credit Hansom can take for the original cab design, and the version that later appeared on the streets had many differences from that designated in the original patent.

It is somewhat ironic that the project for which Joseph Hansom should take most credit does not bear his name, but the unfortunate outcome of that project led to the circumstance that led to the patenting of the Hansom cab which, as mentioned above, is now consigned to history.

Joseph Hansom, born in York in 1803, showed an early interest in architecture and, in 1828, entered a partnership with Edward Welch. Their most famous building was Birmingham Town Hall (recently restored) which was modelled on a Roman temple and is now a familiar landmark in the heart of the city. However, although the design was a triumph, Hansom and Welch made some poor financial decisions and were declared bankrupt in 1834.

Thus forced to abandon architecture for a while, Hansom was invited to manage the business affairs of a local man, Dempster Heming of Caldecote Hall (near Nuneaton), who was in the process of setting up a bank in nearby Hinckley. Hansom lived with Heming’s family at Caldecote Hall, and Heming was later to make use of Hansom’s architectural skills to convert a suitable building into a bank.

However, Heming and Hansom must also have had many discussions on whether it was possible to design a simple carriage that could ply for hire on the streets of a major city such as London. Whether the ideas were mainly Heming’s or Hansom’s is an interesting question, but it was Hansom who submitted the patent for a “safety cab” on 23 December 1834, and it was therefore the “Hansom cab” rather than the “Heming cab” that was to feature so prominently in the lives of Sherlock Holmes and countless other people, both fictional and real.

The basic concept was for a two-person carriage (plus driver) to be pulled by a single horse. Being both narrow when seen from the front and short from front to back, it would take up much less space on a city street than the hackney carriages then in vogue.   

That said, the original Hansom cab was not particularly successful, and Hansom himself gained very little from his patent. The principle was sound enough, in that by equipping the carriage with two large wheels and suspending the passenger compartment between them, the centre of gravity was lowered and the carriage was therefore safer when going round corners. Problems concerned the design of the cranked axle, which passed beneath the passenger compartment, and the positioning of the driver at the front, as his weight placed extra strain on the horse, which could therefore not work for as long a time as desired.

Joseph Hansom built a prototype cab in Hinckley in 1835 and tested it in the town, but he did not open a factory or consider becoming a “captain of industry”, as this was not his main interest in life.

He sold his interest in the invention for ten thousand pounds, to a company that wanted to manufacture it, and this suggests that Hansom made a handsome profit. However, none of the money was ever paid, and he only gained three hundred pounds after he assumed temporary management of the owning company when it got into difficulties in 1839. By this time Hansom had returned to architecture as his chief activity, and he was able to build a new and successful career in this field.

The carriage that was to bear Hansom’s name was the result of many changes and improvements that had nothing to do with him. The design familiar to Sherlock Holmes et al owed more to the inspiration of Frederick Forder of Wolverhampton than to Joseph Hansom, temporarily of Hinckley.

The two most important developments were to replace the cranked axle with a straight one and to move the driver’s position to a high seat behind the passenger compartment. The straight axle passed underneath the rear of the carriage which was cut away to allow for this, and the driver’s weight now balanced the carriage in such a way that less strain was placed on the horse (see picture). This meant that relatively light horses could be used, which could proceed at higher speeds (up to 15 miles an hour) and work for longer before being rested.

The “Forder Hansom” was the model that came to dominate London’s streets and those of other cities. Forder’s patent was registered in 1873 and his company continued to manufacture cabs up until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

Other developments included the use of stronger and lighter materials and the instigation of driver-controlled doors (via a lever mechanism), so that passengers could not leave until the fare had been paid.

Readers of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes will be familiar with how a Hansom cab operated in its heyday. The passengers (usually two, three at a squeeze) sat side-by-side facing forwards, thus getting an excellent view of where they were going, plus that of the rear end of a sweaty horse! The journey could be a cold one in winter, as there was little protection from the elements apart from the two small doors that came up to about knee height. Later improvements included curtains (and eventually glass windows) that sheltered the passengers from the mud and stones thrown up by the horse and other traffic.

The driver had a perfect view, his seat being some seven feet above the ground. He could communicate with the passengers via a small trap-door in the roof of the carriage, and he could be paid his fare through this as well. Sherlock Holmes would often bang his cane on the roof to attract the driver’s attention.

In their heyday, in the 1880s and 1890s, some 3000 Hansom cabs plied their trade in London alongside horse-drawn trams and buses. They also became popular in many other cities in Britain and abroad, including New York.

However, their numbers declined when motor and electric vehicles grew in number, although it was not until 1947 that the last licence for a horse-drawn cab was issued in London.

So, although the Hansom cab was a huge success in its day, the former claim of Hinckley as the “Home of the Hansom Cab” does need to be put into perspective. As it is, Hinckley does not go overboard in celebrating Joseph Hansom. A short pedestrianised shopping street has been named “Hansom Court”, and that is about it! The signs have been changed – Hinckley now reminds visitors that is it the home of Triumph Motorcycles – which go at somewhat more than 15 mph!

© John Welford

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Patrick Abercrombie: post-war town planner

Patrick Abercrombie was an important figure in post-war town planning in England.

He was born in 1879 in Ashton upon Mersey which was then in Cheshire (now part of Greater Manchester). He qualified as an architect and his earliest architectural experience was in Liverpool, where he began to formulate his ideas about town planning.

In the 1920s he worked on a series of urban planning studies and proposed that London should be surrounded by a “green belt” of land that would not be subject to urban spread.

He was a member of a 1937 Royal Commission on population distribution, on which he stressed the need to mitigate the hazards of industrial and urban concentration. 

The Second World War, with the intense bombing of British cities, brought the problem of urban reconstruction to the fore and gave Abercrombie the perfect opportunity to put his theories into practice.  Between 1941 and 1946 he prepared detailed plans for London and its immediate surrounds, the West Midlands, Hull, Plymouth, and the first “new towns”. 

The best surviving example of an Abercrombie planning scheme is probably Plymouth, characterized by the presence of orbital roads and the separation of traffic from pedestrians in shopping areas.

Today’s conservationists are often critical of Abercrombie’s work because of the scale of demolition of existing buildings that his plans often involved.

Patrick Abercrombie, who was knighted in 1945, died in 1957.

© John Welford