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