Friday, 30 November 2018

Earl of Aberdeen, Prime Minister

George Hamilton-Gordon, the 4th Earl of Aberdeen and Prime Minister from 1852 to 1855, was born in 1784. 

He was a member of the Cabinet under the Duke of Wellington as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1828 and as Foreign Secretary from 1828 to 1830.

He served in the government of Sir Robert Peel as Secretary for War and the Colonies (1834-5) and as Foreign Secretary (1841-6). In this latter role he did much to improve relationships with France and the United States.

In 1846 he resigned, along with Peel, over the Corn Laws issue, but succeeded him as leader of the Peelite faction. 

In 1852 he formed a government consisting of Peelites and Whigs but was forced to resign in 1855 over his mismanagement of the Crimean War.

Apart from his political activities, Lord Aberdeen had scholarly interests, presiding over the Society of Antiquaries from 1812 to 1846. In 1843 he tried unsuccessfully to prevent the “Disruption” of the Church of Scotland when a large number of clergy and laity broke away to form the Free Church of Scotland.

He died in 1860.

©John Welford

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Catherine of Braganza, Queen Consort of England

Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705) may have had a privileged life surrounded by luxury, but she must also be counted as one of the more unfortunate wives of an English king, in that her husband – King Charles II – took very little interest in her. Although she was young and beautiful, he much preferred the company of other women, of whom there were many.

Catherine was a Portuguese princess who married the English king for purely political purposes, as well as bringing a substantial dowry with her. She was 23 at the time of her marriage to Charles, which was quite an advanced age for a royal spouse at that time – the brides of Charles’s father and grandfather had both been only 14 when they married. Charles was 31, and already well provided with female company.

He made it clear to Catherine that he had no intention of changing his ways, and did not. It is not known exactly how many mistresses he had during his life but he fathered at least sixteen illegitimate children, many of whom were later given dukedoms or – if girls – found suitably aristocratic husbands.

However, Catherine remained childless – almost certainly because Charles hardly ever visited her bed during their 24-year marriage. Despite this neglect, Catherine remained faithful to her husband and actually adored him. It is difficult to see what basis this adoration had, especially as she spoke no English and he did not speak Portuguese.

As Charles lay dying in 1685, Catherine was overcome by emotion at his bedside and had to be carried away when she fainted with grief. She sent word to ask Charles to forgive her. His reply was : “She asks my pardon? I beg hers with all my heart”.

After Charles died, Catherine stayed in England for a short time before returning to Portugal, dying and being buried in Lisbon in 1705
 at the age of 67.

© John Welford

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Robert William Thomson: inventor of the pneumatic tyre

If asked to state who invented the pneumatic vehicle tyre, most people would answer that the honour belongs to the Scottish veterinary surgeon John Dunlop, whose invention in 1888 of a reliable rubber tyre for bicycles was certainly a very significant step on the way to the modern tyre.

However, the concept of pumping air inside a tube surrounding a wheel, with a view to absorbing most of the bumps and producing a smoother ride, goes back to 1845 and the Scottish civil engineer Robert William Thomson (1822-73). 
Thomson had his own workshop from the age of 17 and later became a civil engineer on the burgeoning railway system. One of his most useful inventions in this capacity was a method for firing explosive charges remotely by using electricity, which no doubt saved many lives as tunnels and cuttings were blasted out of solid rock.

He was only 23 when he thought up the idea of the pneumatic tyre, which he termed the “aerial wheel”. It consisted of an air-filled tube of natural rubber encased in leather which in turn was fixed to the wheel of a carriage. He patented his invention in France in 1846 and the United States in 1847, and it proved to be a reasonable success. However, the leather coverings did not prove to be very durable, and Thomson did not proceed with further developments.

Instead, Thomson turned his attention to the possibilities offered by a new form of rubber, namely vulcanized rubber, that was tougher and more resilient to changes in temperature. The process had been invented in 1839 by Charles Goodyear, and it involved heat-treating rubber to which sulphur had been added. However, Thomson abandoned the concept of air-filled tubes and concentrated on developing carriage wheels shod with solid rubber tyres.

It was therefore left to John Dunlop to combine the use of air-filled tubes and vulcanized rubber covers to produce the sort of tyre that is familiar to us today. Dunlop’s work was extremely timely, given the important improvements in bicycle design in the 1870s and 1880s. The combination of the “safety” bicycle and Dunlop’s tyres led to a massive boost in popularity of the bicycle, which was to become a “must have” for people across the social classes.

However, Robert Thomson had the last laugh, because Dunlop was told in 1890 that Thomson’s earlier patents invalidated his own of 1888.

© John Welford

Sunday, 28 October 2018

George Washington and the cherry tree

When George Washington was six years old he was given a hatchet, which he used to inflict serious damage on his father’s young cherry tree. When challenged as to whether he was the culprit, George said that he could never tell a lie and that he had indeed done what he was accused of.
Do you actually believe that this is true? There are probably still huge numbers of people who do, simply because they were told the story by people whom they trusted to be as truthful as young George Washington, but there is absolutely no reason why they should! The whole tale was complete fiction – fake news if you like to use that term. 
The fib was the work of George Washington’s biographer Mason Locke Weems, who was born in Maryland in 1756 and ordained in London by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1784 before returning to America. He ministered at a church in Virginia that had formerly been attended by George Washington and his father, and he therefore saw himself as ideally qualified to write the President’s biography. 
When Washington died in 1799 the book was underway but not yet complete. Parson Weems rightly concluded that demand for a biography would be high and that a heroic yarn would sell far better than a dull political biography. He therefore decided to spice it up with a few extra tales from the President’s youth that would demonstrate why he became the man that he did. The fact that the events in question, including that concerning the cherry tree, were complete myths was a minor consideration.
When “A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington” was published in 1800 it became the instant best-seller that Parson Weems had hoped for, and had reached its 29th edition by 1825, when Weems died. The book found a place in the homes of many thousands of Americans, sitting next to the Bible on the nation’s bookshelves. Just like the Bible, every word in it was held to be true, including that of the cherry tree hatchet job!
© John Welford

Thursday, 25 October 2018

What really happened to Grigori Rasputin?

History is full of stories that “everybody knows” but which later turn out not to be true after all. One of these concerns the assassination of Grigori Rasputin, the “mad monk”, in December 1916.

Rasputin was a strange character from Siberia who persuaded the Russian Tsar and Tsarina, Nicholas and Alexandra, that he could help with the treatment of Crown Prince Alexei, who suffered from haemophilia. He did indeed appear to have a beneficial effect on the boy’s health, possibly through keeping at bay the court doctors whose treatments were making his condition worse.

However, Rasputin then went further and started to become influential in political matters, which did not go down well with the class of aristocrats who formed the Russian court and whose advice was being ignored. It was one of these, Prince Felix Yusupov, who is credited with being Rasputin’s assassin. 

The story that is usually told is that Yusupov invited Rasputin to an evening drinks session where he was given poisoned cakes which he wolfed down greedily but which had absolutely no effect on him. Yusupov then – according to him – shot his victim twice in the heart but Rasputin refused to die. The prince was then joined by associates who continued to shoot Rasputin as well as stabbing him and kicking him in the head, again to no effect. He only died after being wrapped in a rug and dropped through a hole in the ice on the frozen River Neva.

But the real facts are very different.

For one thing, the plot to assassinate Rasputin originated in London, not St Petersburg. Had Rasputin succeeded in his aim of persuading Tsar Nicholas to withdraw Russia from World War I, the full might of the German Army would have turned westwards to make life extremely difficult for the Western Powers, especially Great Britain. The British therefore had very good reasons for wanting Rasputin dead.

The chief agent in the plot was a British intelligence officer named Captain Oswald Rayner, who had known Prince Yusupov at Oxford University and travelled to meet him in St Petersburg. It was Rayner who actually killed Rasputin by shooting him once in the forehead with his Webley service revolver. The mad monk died instantly and was then dumped in the river. Captain Rayner promptly made his escape back to England.

The Yusupov account, which made him look like a noble hero who had saved Mother Russia from the Devil incarnate, was full of holes, unlike Grigori Rasputin.

For one thing, Rasputin would never have been tempted to drink madeira or eat sweet cakes. This was because a previous abdominal injury had made it impossible for him to ingest sugar without causing him severe pain. 

For another, an autopsy carried out on the body when it was recovered from the river found no water in the lungs, which meant that he did not die from drowning and was already dead before going though the hole in the ice. Reviews of the autopsy by forensic pathologists working in recent decades have confirmed the original findings and pointed out that the fatal wound almost certainly came from a weapon that was only used by British soldiers at that time.

However, if the assassination aimed to prevent Russia from abandoning World War I, it did not succeed, because that is what happened. This was due in part to Germany responding by allowing Vladimir Lenin to cross Germany from his exile in Switzerland so that he could return to Russia and lead his Bolsheviks to victory in the 1917 Revolution.

So the clinical and well-planned assassination of the mad monk only succeeded in delaying the inevitable.

© John Welford

Monday, 22 October 2018

The murder of Prince Arthur by King John

King John of England (reigned 1199 to 1216) is widely regarded as one of the country’s “bad kings”. This was largely due to his tyrannical behaviour and the actions he undertook during his elder brother Richard’s reign to raise money to pay for Richard’s ransom when the latter was imprisoned in an Austrian castle. The methods he used to drag money out of people were largely responsible for the Robin Hood legends that tell of resistance to tyranny.
As king, John’s autocratic rule led to him being forced to sign a document in 1215 that guaranteed certain freedoms to the people of England (most notably its aristocratic classes) that is known to history as Magna Carta.
Although King John’s reputation may be worse in some respects than he deserved – he was an able administrator if nothing else – one incident can only serve to tip the balance towards the negative side. This was the murder, by his own hand, of his nephew Arthur.
King Henry II (reigned 1154 to 1189) had four legitimate sons who survived to adulthood. The eldest, Henry, died before his father did, which meant that the second, Richard, became king in 1189. The third son, Geoffrey, also died during Henry II’s reign, but he left behind him a son, Arthur, who was born in 1187.
John, who was the fourth son of Henry II, therefore became king when Richard died in 1199, with there being only one other member of the royal family who might constitute a threat to his rule, namely Prince Arthur, aged twelve when Richard died. Richard had actually made it known that he wanted to be succeeded by Arthur, as opposed to John, so the threat was far from imaginary on John’s part, especially as Arthur soon made it known that he was not averse to becoming king as his Uncle Richard had suggested.
Arthur had been brought up and educated in Brittany, his father Geoffrey having been Duke of Brittany. It was while campaigning in France in 1203 that John happened to capture Arthur almost by chance. It had not been his intention to make such a capture at the time, but the opportunity to nullify the threat posed by Arthur could not be ignored.
Arthur was imprisoned firstly at La Falaise in Normandy and then at the fortress of Rouen, also in Normandy which was still an English possession at that time.
A contemporary source relates that, on the day before Good Friday, King John was at Rouen and had drunk too much wine at dinner. He flew into a rage that he directed at Prince Arthur, then aged 16. He seized the prince by the throat and throttled him. He then tied a heavy stone to his body which was dropped into the river Seine. 
Some time later Prince Arthur’s body was recovered by some fishermen and given a respectable but secret burial.
Not surprisingly, the story has not been universally accepted as true, and it is not possible to be absolutely certain about it, either in substance or detail. However, it would certainly not have been out of character for John, and Prince Arthur definitely disappeared from the scene at this time.
© John Welford

Thursday, 4 October 2018

The death of Olympe de Gouges

Olympe de Gouges lost her head to the guillotine on 3rd November 1793. Her mistake had been to question whether the French Revolution was going in the right direction.

She was a remarkable woman who was definitely ahead of her time. Born in 1748, she was a playwright who ran her own theatre company and campaigned against slavery. She was also an early feminist, who wrote a pamphlet entitled: “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen”. Her earnest belief was that women were born equal to men and deserved to have the same rights. 

Her humanitarianism was what led to her downfall. She became horrified by what had happened to the Revolution that had begun in 1789 with promises of freedom for all and the end of tyrannical rule. One form of tyranny, namely that of France’s absolute monarchy, had been replaced by another, in which Robespierre and the Jacobins had created a new dictatorship that could not countenance any opposition.

She published a poster that called for a national referendum to allow the people of France to decide which way they wanted to go – towards a republic, a federal regime or a restored monarchy. This sealed her fate.

Her feminism was perhaps the final straw. One Jacobin commented that her death would be a lesson “for every woman who abandoned the cares of her home to meddle in the affairs of the Republic”.

© John Welford

The motoring adventure of Bertha Benz

Would the motor car have made its impact on the world at the time it did without the exploits of a woman named Bertha Benz? One has to wonder.
Bertha was the wife of inventor Karl Benz, who built the world’s first road vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine. However, having built it he seemed reluctant to do anything with it, apart from admire it as it sat outside his house. It was an odd-looking vehicle by modern standards, having three wheels, steered by a tiller, and with seats that faced each other as in a railway carriage. 
Bertha decided, one day in August 1888, that this invention needed a bit of a publicity boost. She therefore took two of her sons on a ride in the car, to go and see her mother, who lived 65 miles away.
Bertha Benz was obviously an adventurous and ingenious lady, who was quite prepared to take whatever steps were necessary to overcome the shortcomings of her husband’s invention and face the discomforts of the journey. For one thing, the roads she had to travel along were nothing like modern ones with nice smooth surfaces, and the wheels of the vehicle did not have pneumatic tyres. The only springs were similar to those found on a horse-drawn carriage.
The engine soon needed cooling, so she had to stop whenever she crossed a river to collect water for this purpose. When the fuel line became blocked she freed the obstruction with a hatpin and had to use one of her stocking garters to insulate the ignition. 
The fuel tank was too small for a journey of this length, so she had to buy a petroleum solvent from a wayside pharmacy. Fortunately, this did the trick.
News of her trip sped faster than she did and she was greeted by eager newspapermen when she and her passengers reached her mother’s house. After three days she started off back home again, having made a detailed list of all the improvements that husband Karl needed to make in order for his invention to be commercially viable!
© John Welford

Thursday, 13 September 2018

The funeral of Queen Mary I

Queen Mary I died on 17th November 1558 at the age of 42. Her reputation as “Bloody Mary” was well deserved, following her determination, throughout her 5-year reign, to rid the country of Protestants and return England to what she saw as the true Church, namely the Roman Catholic one.

Her funeral in Westminster Abbey was both a first and a last. It was the first royal funeral for a Queen, as opposed to a King, and the last for a Catholic monarch. The authorities did not have a rule-book for interring a Queen, so her coffin was preceded up the nave by a carried helmet, sword and body-armour. The service was celebrated in Latin, as were all Roman Catholic religious ceremonies then and for centuries to come.

Catholic priests were used to preaching to congregations who did not understand a word of what they were saying, but that did not apply in this case to Mary’s half-sister, who was now the new Queen. Elizabeth spoke Latin as well as she did English, despite having brought up as a Protestant.

So Bishop John White’s funeral sermon did not slip under the radar as he might have hoped. His words, in Latin, included the somewhat tactless:

“Our late sovereign hath left a sister, a lady of great worth, behind her, whom we are bound to obey, for a living dog is better than a dead lion”.

Elizabeth’s anger at being called a dog was not only fully understandable but immediate. She ordered Bishop White to be arrested the moment he stepped down from the pulpit.

The scene that followed was not one that would have been expected at a solemn occasion like a royal funeral. The Bishop responded by threatening to excommunicate Queen Elizabeth, thus – in the eyes of everyone present – condemning her to Hell when she died. However, Elizabeth possessed considerably more tact and commonsense than either the Bishop or her late sister and realized that stirring up even more religious hatred at such an early stage of her reign would not be a good idea. She therefore backed down and pardoned Bishop White.

Elizabeth would not have to wait long before getting even with Bishop White. He was deprived of his see (that of Winchester) a few months later and replaced by the ultra-Protestant Robert Horne, who had fled to Europe during Mary’s reign and thus avoided being one of her victims. Ex-Bishop White was imprisoned and died early the following year.

Elizabeth would also “overcome” Mary in a different way when her own funeral was held 45 years later. Her lead coffin was buried in the same vault as Mary’s, but instead of the two coffins being placed side by side, Elizabeth’s was deposited right on top of Mary’s.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Charles Darwin's lifelong love of worms

Which book by Charles Darwin (1809-82) sold most copies during his lifetime? “The Origin of Species”? No. The answer might surprise you. It was “The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms”, which was published in 1881 and was the last title to appear in his lifetime. 

As well as formulating the theory of evolution by the processes of natural selection, Darwin had been interested in earthworms for many years. This came about shortly after his return to England in 1837 after his famous voyage on HMS Beagle. He had picked up various illnesses while overseas and visited his uncle, the potter Josiah Wedgwood, with a view to spending some time recuperating in Staffordshire. 

Uncle Josiah could see that young Charles needed something to occupy his mind during his stay and suggested earthworms as a subject for study. To Josiah’s surprise, Charles was extremely interested, and forty years of research ensued. 

Darwin’s final book made clear to his audience that earthworms were the lifeblood of the average garden through their action in aerating the soil and aiding drainage. The Victorian reading public may have had serious doubts about the Theory of Evolution, but they were more than ready to learn about nature’s unsung garden heroes. 

On publication of “The Formation of Vegetable Mould” Charles Darwin remarked that he wanted to publish the fruits of his work on worms “before joining them”.

© John Welford

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Henry of Blois

Henry of Blois was a 12th century churchman for whom political power and personal wealth had far more importance than holiness or the cure of souls. In this he was not unusual for his time!

Probably born in 1096, he was one of the five sons of Count Stephen of Blois. His mother was a daughter of William the Conquerer. He was brought up as a monk in the Benedictine abbey at Cluny.

In 1126 his uncle King Henry I gave him the abbey of Glastonbury and, three years later, the bishopric of Winchester. He made excellent use of these gifts, holding them both for 40 years and exploiting their potential as money-making enterprises. He therefore became the wealthiest churchman in England.

When King Henry died in 1135, Henry played an important role in helping his brother Stephen to become king in preference to Henry’s daughter Matilda. However, the brothers were not always close, and there was a time when Henry switched his allegiance to Matilda’s cause before changing back again.

Stephen died in 1154, to be succeeded by Matilda’s son Henry II, who had been extremely active in his mother’s cause. Henry reckoned that his best plan would be to return to Cluny, where he stayed for the next four years.

However, Henry was not deprived of his bishopric and he still had many interests in England that he wished to oversee and maintain. He therefore returned to England and played the role of elder statesman to King Henry.

Henry of Blois was a lifelong builder of castles and palaces. The works he commissioned included additions to Winchester Cathedral, the Winchester Palace at Southwark as a London residence, and castles at Bishop’s Waltham, Taunton and Wolvesey. He also built many smaller churches and inspired the construction of villages and canals.

Henry also had a liking for ancient pagan statues, buying a large number in Rome and bringing them back to England. His interest appeared to be entirely artistic, but this activity did not escape censure from the austere Bernard of Clairvaux, who questioned why a senior churchman wanted to acquire so many statues of naked and semi-naked gods and goddesses. Henry’s reply, namely that he sought to save the people of Rome from being tempted to worship idols, did not save him from being called the “whore of Winchester” by the sainted Bernard.

Henry died in 1171 aged about 75.

© John Welford

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Wihtgar, King of Wight: myth or reality?

The Isle of Wight lies off the south coast of England, separated from Hampshire by two narrow waterways, namely The Solent and Spithead. It might be thought that its name derives from a corruption of “white”, with a reference to the white cliffs that culminate in the Needles rocks at its western end, but this is not so. 

Tradition maintains that “Wight” comes from “Wihtgar”, who was a shadowy – probably legendary - figure from the early history of England.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that two warriors, Stuf and Wihtgar, fought against the British in the year 514 and were later given lordship over the Isle of Wight by Cerdic and Cynric (Kings of Wessex), to whom they were related. Wihtgar is said to have died in 544 but to have founded a dynasty that ruled the island until 685. One of his descendants was reputed to have been Osburh, the mother of King Alfred the Great. 

But can the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle be believed? Although the name Stuf is acceptable as a personal name, there are problems with “Wihtgar”. “Wiht” is an Anglicised form of Vecta, which was the Latin name for the Isle of Wight going back to Roman times, and the later inhabitants of the island were often referred to as “Wihtgara”.

The Venerable Bede, who wrote his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” in around the year 730, held that Kent and the Isle of Wight were settled by people known as Jutes, a Germanic tribe who arrived in Britain alongside the Angles and the Saxons in the late 4th century. Doubts have been cast by later historians over whether the Jutes ever existed as a separate people, but there certainly appear to have been links between the settlers of Kent and the Isle of Wight. One such link is that several royal personages in Kent had names that began with “Wiht-“.  The suggestion is therefore that the name Wihtgar derives from Wiht and Wihtgara and not the other way round.

The connection between Wihtgar, Cerdic and Cynric also appears to have been made much later than the early 6th century, the first mentions of such a link being from around the time that the last King of Wight, Arauld, was killed after the island was overrun in 685 by the West Saxon King Cædwalla. 

It therefore appears that King Wihtgar may never have existed at all but to have been an invention of the early chroniclers who sought an origin for a name, which was something that is known to have happened in other cases.

© John Welford

Thursday, 6 September 2018

King William IV

Born on 21st August 1765, William was the third son of King George III and would not have expected ever to become King. 

He joined the Royal Navy in 1779 and served in America and the West Indies. He was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet in 1811 and Lord High Admiral in 1827. This service was what gave him the nickname of “Sailor King” during his later reign.

He married Adelaide, daughter of the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, in 1818, but the two daughters born to the marriage died in infancy. This was in contrast to the nine healthy children that William had previously fathered with an actress, Dorothy Jordan, with whom he had lived between 1790 and 1811.

From 1820 the throne had been in the hands of William’s elder brother George (as King George IV), but his sole legitimate daughter (Charlotte) had died in 1817, leaving him without an heir. 

Next in line should have been Frederick, Duke of York (satirized as ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’), but he died in 1827, also without leaving any legitimate children behind him.

When George died on 26th June 1830, William became King at the age of 64.

The first part of William’s reign was largely given over to the political crisis surrounding electoral reform, which concerned doing away with the medieval and highly undemocratic methods then in force for electing Members of Parliament. 

William was completely opposed to reform, which would have meant a huge diminution of aristocratic privilege and the involvement of the middle classes in the business of government. He used every means at his disposal to frustrate the efforts of reformers, but he could not prevent the election in November 1830 of a Whig government, led by Lord Grey, that was determined to push reform through.

Grey exacted a promise from King William to appoint enough Whig peers to enable his reform bill to pass a vote in the House of Lords, but William later tried to go back on his word and only reluctantly allowed the “Great Reform Bill” of 1832 to become law. 

Although William was not particularly active in the political sphere, he did try, in 1834, to exert influence on who should be Prime Minister. Lord Melbourne had succeeded Grey in July 1834, but William did not like the reforming nature of the Whigs and dismissed Melbourne in November, appointing the Tory Robert Peel in his place, despite the latter’s lack of a Parliamentary majority. Peel’s government soon fell, leading to the return of Lord Melbourne as Prime Minister for the rest of William’s reign. William was the last British monarch to make such an appointment against the will of Parliament.

Despite his innate conservatism and elitism, William was a popular monarch with the British people and was surprisingly informal in many of his personal ways. For example, he was known to issue open invitations for anyone to dine with him, in informal dress, at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. He also gave half of the royal art collection to the nation and even tried to give away Buckingham Palace, which his predecessor as King had spent a huge sum on restoring.

It is to be noted that William’s short reign included the passing into law of several important social reforms, as well as the Reform Act. These included the Factory Act of 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 and the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

© John Welford

Monday, 27 August 2018

A shilling on the stairs

Lady Nancy Astor was the first woman to take her seat in the British House of Commons. She won her seat at Plymouth in a by-election in 1919 when her husband, the previous MP, was elevated to the House of Lords. She stood as a Conservative.
Because she was a woman it was thought advisable that she be accompanied by a man when she was canvassing for votes in the rougher parts of Plymouth, which is a well-known Naval base. Her escort for this purpose was a Royal Navy officer, in full uniform.
All went well until she knocked at a door that was opened by a young girl aged 9 or 10. Lady Astor asked if her mother was at home, but got the reply:
"Mum's out, but she said that if a lady called with a sailor they were to use the back bedroom and leave a shilling on the stairs".
© John Welford

Sunday, 19 August 2018

An October birthday for famous people

26th October seems to be a day on which prominent politicians like to get born, particular those with a left-leaning or revolutionary approach to politics.
26th October 1759 was the day on which Georges Jacques Danton (pictured) was born in eastern France. He was an early leading member of the French Revolution of 1789 who voted for the overthrow of the monarchy and the execution of King Louis XVI. He became head of the Committee of Public Safety that condemned thousands of people to death, although he later fell from power and was himself a victim of the guillotine. 
On 26th October 1879 Lev Davidovich Bronstein was born in the Ukraine. He was to lead a parallel life to Danton’s in several respects, notably as a revolutionary leader, regicide, and eventual victim of the monster he helped to create. Under the name Leon Trotsky, he was a leading member of the Bolshevik Party that overthrew the Russian Tsar in November 1917 (although the use of the Julian calendar means that the event is always referred to as the October Revolution). Lenin and Trotsky were almost certainly behind the decision to execute the Tsar and his family in 1918. Trotsky’s fall from power was engineered by his greatest rival, Joseph Stalin, who ordered Trotsky’s assassination after the latter had fled from Russia and was living in Mexico in 1940.
A Socialist of a somewhat different hue was François Mitterand, born on 26th October 1916 in Jarnac, southwest France. He emerged in the 1960s as a left-wing opponent of General de Gaulle and, after several failed attempts against Gaullist candidates, eventually became President of France in 1981. He served two complete 7-year terms and therefore holds the record as France’s longest-serving President. Unlike previous members of the “26th October club” he died peacefully in 1996, from cancer.
The fourth member of the club has very little in common with any of the others, this being Hillary Rodham, born on 26th October 1947 in Chicago, USA. As the wife of Bill Clinton she held the honorary office of “First Lady” from 1993 to 2001, was a senator for New York State (2001-9), and was Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013. Her ambition of becoming the United States’ first woman President came to nothing when she was defeated by Donald Trump in 2016. However, she possesses very few of the Socialist credentials of the erstwhile predecessors who shared her birthday!
© John Welford

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