Category Archives: English History

This was the day England’s postmen stopped delivering your Sunday post.

Sunday 12th June 1921 was the day that the postmen in Britain stopped delivering their mail on a Sunday. The Saturday Hull Daily Mail of the time spelled out the situation for their readers:

‘The changes notified by the Postmaster General as to the postage rates and the Sunday collections and deliveries come into force at mid-night on Sunday. Subject to the payment of a special fee of one shilling, plus the ordinary postage and express fee, any letter or posted packet other than a parcel, will be accepted up to time of the general night mail posting on Saturday, at selected offices mentioned below, for special dispatch to any of the towns mentioned, but not elsewhere, and will be delivered by express messenger during the hours that office of destination is open for telegraph business. By the payment of a special fee of one shilling plus postage a letter will be accepted on Sunday for the offices mentioned for express despatch to any of the towns indicated for the first house-to-house delivery after its arrival on Monday.

The selected offices are, outside London, the head offices at Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle-on-Tyne and Sheffield.’

Hull was disappointed and surprised that it was not one of the selected offices.

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Enjoying a ‘Furry Dance’

On 8th May every year (or Saturday 7th if the 8th is a Sunday) the Cornish town of Helston is home to ‘The Furry Dance’. A Gentleman’s Magazine report in 1790 tells us that: ‘At Helstone (sic), a genteel and populous borough town in Cornwall, it is customary to dedicate the 8th of May to revelry (festive mirth, not loose jollity). It is called the Furry-day, supposed Flora’s day; not, I imagine, as many have thought, in remembrance of some festival instituted in honour of that goddess, but rather from garlands commonly worn on that day. In the morning, very early, some troublesome rogues go round the streets with drums, or other noisy instruments, disturbing their sober neighbors, and singing parts of a song, the whole of which nobody now recollects. About the middle of the day they collect together to dance hand-in-hand round the streets, to the sound of the fiddle playing a particular tune, which they continue to do till it is dark. This is called a ‘faddy’.

In the afternoon, the gentility go to some farmhouse in the neighborhood to drink tea, syllabub, etc., and return in a Morris-dance to the town, where they form a faddy, and dance through the streets till it is dark, claiming the right of going through any person’s house, in at one door and out at the other. And here it formally used to end, and the company of all kinds to disperse quietly to their several habitations, but latterly, corruptions have in this, as in other matters, crept in by degrees.’.

Many things have changed since this piece was written but the day still sees a 7 a.m. dance; a Hal-an-Tow pageant at 8 a.m.; children’s dance at 10 a.m.; a midday dance which replicates the earlier dance of the gentry and their ladies. All wear Lily of the Valley sprigs – the gentlemen wearing it on the left, with the flowers pointing upwards, and the ladies wearing it upside down on the right. The day ends with an evening dance at 5 p.m.

It is one of the oldest British customs still practiced today but the modern variant of the dance holds few similarities with the original, having been revived long after the event had died out. Traditionally, the dancers wear Lily of the Valley, which is Helston’s symbolic flower. The gentlemen wear it on the left, with the flowers pointing upwards, and the ladies wear it upside down on the right. Lily of the Valley is worn on Flora Day by dancers, bandsmen, Flora Day stewards and by those who are “Helston-born”.

Ragtime gets closer

Last week we started our story with a broad overview of ‘Ragtime’ from both sides of the Atlantic.  This week we’ll have a look at early British popular music. This music can be seen as originating in the 16th and 17th centuries and from this we can trace the arrival of printed musical copies which were sold cheaply and in great numbers through to the 19th century.

Most of the instruments used by British brass bands had existed for some time but they only became a mass activity in the 1840/50s out of village, church and military bands. For many these brass bands were an expression of the local solidarity and their newly formed and often rapidly growing communities.

This developed as a result of a steady increase in the number of households with enough surplus cash to purchase musical instruments and instruction in music and with the leisure time and cultural motivation to engage in recreational music-making. This high point of the parlor song came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a distinction arose between ‘art music’ and ‘popular music’, even if it was not expressed exactly in those terms.

The increase in urban populations and the rise of the bourgeoisie brought a need for public demonstrations of social standing, since it was no longer common knowledge who was important. Attending concerts was, among other things, a means of displaying status.  What for a working-class audience might be down-to-earth, plain-speaking and funny – for the bourgeois audience might appear as rude, vulgar, and silly! Perhaps this is why inversion was common in popular form – for example, lust not love, crudity not politeness, degradation not sublimity, materiality not spirituality.

For the middle class, culture was in itself instructive but first required that people be instructed in it; hence the didactic character of attempts to encourage working-class ‘appreciation’ of music. The People’s Concert Society, founded in 1878, was an amateur organization dedicated to making high-status music known among the London poor. The Society began Sunday concerts of chamber music in South Place, Moorgate, in 1887. From the succeeding year, admission was free, or a voluntary contribution could be made, and attendance was good.

The British Brass Band Movement, in the second half of the century, was another example of ‘rational recreation’, with the willingness of factory owners to sponsor works bands. These bands had their roots in the industrial North, but the steel, ironworks and shipping companies of east London also had bands in the 1860s. Some of the difficulties and distractions facing London bands compared to bands further north have been discussed by Dave Russell. Huge annual contests were held at the Crystal Palace during 1860-63. The first of these, a two-day event with entrance prices of 2s 6d for the first and 1s for the second day, attracted an audience of 29,000. The test pieces for the contests at the Crystal Palace placed an emphasis on high-status music: selections from Meyerbeer’s grand operas were the favourite choices, as at the Belle Vue contests in Manchester that same decade.

The labouring poor may have been sung about and even felt to be understood in certain socially-concerned drawing-room ballads, but their lives often lay outside the experience of those who sang the ballads. Antoinette Sterling, who so movingly sang ‘Three Fishers Went Sailing’, confessed that not only had she no experience of storms at sea, but ‘had never even seen fishermen’. Actual acquaintance with fishermen was undoubtedly unnecessary, since the subject position such ballads addressed was that of the middle class.

So we have now had a glance of both sides of the water in the years as music met with the changing needs and attitudes.
Our story, though, was born as being from ‘Ragtime to Rock ‘n’ Roll’. That arrives next week – on Wednesday 25th April 2018.   Please be there!

We were first over the top of the world

The the 29,029-foot-high summit of Mount Everest was first conquered on foot by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary in 1953.  BUT – it had been two decades earlier – on Monday 3rd April 1933 – that Everest had been conquered by air – by Britian!

With the financial backing of philanthropist Lady Houston, the Houston Everest Expedition took off from an airstrip near Purnea, India at 8:25 a.m.  Squadron Leader Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, the Marquess of Clydesdale as he was then known, was flying a modified Westland PV-3 biplane accompanied by Colonel Stewart Blacker. Following them in a Westland PV-6 were Flight Lieutenant David McIntyre and photographer S.R. Bonnett.  The flight would test not only the mechanical capabilities of the biplanes at dizzying altitudes, but also the endurance of the pilots in the thin and frigid air.  After 30 minutes’ flying the planes passed over Forbesganj, their forward emergency landing ground forty miles from Purnea, and at a height of 19,000 feet Everest first became visible above the haze.  The crew members were flying without the benefit of pressurized cabins, and relied on oxygen tanks to breathe and at one point in the flight, the photographer Bonnett felt faint and experienced shooting pains in his stomach. He paused filming and sat down inside the cabin, where he discovered a gaping fracture in his oxygen line.  He quickly tied a handkerchief around the breach, and was able to resume his duties without losing consciousness.

With that now under control they were neared Everest, when wind presented them another challenge.  The deflection of winds off the mountain had created a down current that caused the planes to drop 1,500 feet as they struggled to climb skyward.  However, despite the high winds, both planes soared a hundred or so feet over the summit and the men spent some 15 minutes circling the roof of the world before beginning their journey back.

In recognition of his achievement Douglas-Hamilton received the Air Force Cross in 1935. Also in his open cockpit was an unnamed cine-photographer and following them was a second Westland PV-6, piloted by Flight Lieutenant, D F McIntyre.  The flight took three hours, covered a return distance of 320 miles reaching nearly 30,000 feet clearing the mountain by a reported 100 feet. Close range photographs of Mt Everest proved the achievement.

A film, ‘Wings over Everest’, was made of the record-setting flight – no doubt using the film of Squadron Leader’s cine-photographer.  In 1936 the story was told in a book ‘The Pilot’s Book of Everest’ written by the two pilots.

In England and fancy a day out this Saturday, 6th January 2018?

It is Haxey Hood day – the day when a part of the Isle of Axholme goes a bit crazy for the afternoon to mark one of England’s oldest traditions.  Where is it? It’s in North Lincolnshire – the only part of Lincolnshire west of the River Trent – and between the three towns of Doncaster, Scunthorpe and Gainsborough.

There in the Isle of Axholme goes one of England’s oldest traditions. Regulars from four pubs will be going head to head in a marathon battle to get the famed Hood into their favoured watering hole in the latest staging of the traditional contest which has been running for more than 700 years.

The official story is that in the 14th century, Lady de Mowbray, wife of Isle landowner, John De Mowbray, was out riding towards Westwoodside on the hill that separates it from Haxey. As she went over the hill her silk riding hood was blown away by the wind. Thirteen farm workers in the field rushed to help and chased the hood all over the field. It was finally caught by one of the farm workers, but being too shy to hand it back to the lady, he gave it to one of the others to hand back to her. She thanked the farm worker who had returned the hood and said that he had acted like a Lord, whereas the worker who had actually caught the hood was a Fool. So amused was she by this act of chivalry and the resulting chase, that she donated 13 acres of land on condition that the chase for the hood would be re-enacted each year.

If you can get there this year, or want plan for a visit next year, or want to arrange a similar event for your community, here’s 21 things you might like to know about the Haxey Hood!

  1. The contest is always held on the Twelfth Day of Christmas – January 6, unless the date falls on Sunday when it’s held on January 5.
  2. The rugby style scrum is officially called The Sway.
  3. The hood is actually a cylindrical piece of leather.
  4. Four pubs compete – The Loco, Duke William and the King’s Arms in Haxey and the Carpenters Arms in Westwoodside.
  5. The nobles mentioned in the story did exist. Records show that John De Mowbray (29 November 1310 – 4 October 1361), the 3rd Baron Mowbray of Axholme, would be the most likely candidate for the husband of the lady. {If you can’t get one of these I’m sure someone will improvise}
  6. The Hood is thought to date from about 1359. {I’m sure someone could make a hood to suit.}
  7. It has similarities to other village combats, such as Ashbourne’s Royal Shrovetide Football, the Shrove Tuesday Football Games in Sedgefield, Durham and Alnwick, Northumberland and the Hallaton Bottle Kicking contest in Leicestershire. {Gives you a valid excuse to do your own event.}
  8. There is speculation regarding the hood having originally been the head or penis of a sacrificial animal used in a fertility ritual is just that. {I guess that it could be replicated.}
  9. The songs sung ahead of the contest in the pubs are well-known folk songs including ‘John Barleycorn’, ‘Cannons (Drink England Dry)’ and ‘The Farmer’s Boy’.
  10. The red-coated overseer of proceedings is the Lord of The Hood. He is assisted by the Chief Boggin, ten other Boggins and the Fool.
  11. The Fool leads the procession between pubs and has the right to kiss any woman on the way.
  12. Once at the green in front of the Parish Church, the Fool makes his traditional speech of welcome at around 2.30pm standing on an old mounting block in front of the church known as the Mowbray Stone.
  13. During this speech a fire is lit with damp straw behind him. The smoke rises up and around him and this is known as ‘Smoking the Fool’.
  14. This is a watered-down version of the earlier custom in which a more substantial fire was lit with damp straw beneath a tree. The Fool was then suspended over the fire and swung back and forth until he was almost suffocated before being cut down and dropped into the fire, where he had to make his escape as best he could.
  15. At the end of the speech, the Fool finishes with the traditional words that the crowd chant along with him. They are: “hoose agen hoose, toon agen toon, if a man meets a man knock ‘im doon, but doan’t ‘ot ‘im,” which translates as: “house against house, town against town, if a man meets a man, knock him down but don’t hurt him.”
  16. The Lord also carries his wand of office. This is a staff made from twelve willow wands with one more upside down in the centre. These are bound thirteen times with willow twigs and a red ribbon at the top. The thirteen willow wands are supposed to represent the twelve apostles and the upside down one represents Judas.
  17. Proceedings start at 3pm with the throwing of twelve Sack Hoods. These are rolled hessian sacks, a prequel to the main game, mainly for children.
  18. The Hood, which cannot be thrown or run with, is moved slowly by ‘swaying’, that is pushing and pulling the Hood and people within the ‘Sway’ toward the direction of their pub.
  19. Nobody parks on the roads where the Sway may go, and for good reason. In 2002, a couple of drivers parked opposite the Duke William. The Sway headed right for them and pushed one of the cars 10 feet down the road and into the other.
  20. The game ends when the Hood arrives at one of the pubs and is touched by the landlord from his front step. The landlord then takes charge of the Hood for the year, and is supposed to give everyone a free drink. The winning pub pours beer over the Hood and then hangs it behind the bar (each pub has two hooks especially for this purpose).
  21. Last year’s winner was the King’s Arms, the first time the pub had won since 2014.

Let me know if you go and enjoy or if set about replicating it in your community,  I’m happily post the fact! 

Not in the UK and our history?  No problem – I’m sure that there are similar opportunities to put on a similar event.  If you do have a go I’m happy to post the fact!

In Flanders Fields

John McCrae is remembered for what is probably the best known and most popular of all First World War poetry.  It is believed that he was so moved by the death of his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmet, who had been killed by a shell burst, and inspired by the profusion of wild poppies he could see in the nearby cemetery, that he wrote In Flanders Fields. Sadly, John McCrae did not survive WW1; he died from pneumonia whilst on active duty in 1918.  He is buried at the Commonwealth War Grave Commission, Wimereux Communal cemetery.

In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.  Short days ago
We live, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold on high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The words of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD, Canadian Army (1872-1918)

My mother’s father was involved in this war and served in many areas of conflict – but not in Flanders.  He died in the mid-1930s and, according to my mother, the doctor said it was because of what he did in the war.

 

What Guy Fawkes could have done!

I just can’t leave the following alone.  It was in the ‘Daily Mail’ of Saturday 28th October 2017 in their ‘Weekend Magazine’ supplement.  It reads:

‘If Guy Fawkes had managed to blow up Parliament on this day – Saturday 5th November 1605 – it has been calculated that the 5,500lbs of gunpowder would have also destroyed everything within a 500-metre radius – and that that would have included Westminster Abbey!’

 

A king that changed England

Anne became Queen of England on Wednesday 8th March 1702 and, on Sunday 1st May 1707, under the Acts of Union, two of her realms, the kingdoms of England and Scotland, united as a single sovereign state known as Great Britain.  Seven years later, on Wednesday 1st August 1714, she died in Kensington Palace in London.

Let us roll forward now to Saturday 20st October 1714.  By the terms of the Act of Settlement, at her death Queen Anne, who had no surviving children, was to be succeeded by her second cousin; George, Elector of Hanover who was to be crowned King George I on this day in Westminster Abbey.  However, the service was less than smooth!

George could not speak much English so the ceremonies had to be conducted mostly in Latin as his ministers could speak no German!

He was also not a choice of most people in the country and, on the Coronation day, banners mocking the new king were displayed throughout the country. When loyalists celebrated the Coronation they were disrupted by rioters in over twenty towns in the south and west of England. In addition to this, the Tory aristocrats and gentry absented themselves from the Coronation, and in some towns they arrived with their supporters to disrupt the Hanoverian proceedings.

Things were happening across parts of Britain on the night before the coronation.

In Taunton one Francis Sherry said that “on the morrow we must take up Arms against the King”.

In Birmingham a local rioter, John Hargrave, said they must “pull down this King and Sett up a King of our own”.

In Dorchester rioters attempted to rescue an effigy of the Catholic James Stuart, who had a strong claim to the throne, that was to be burnt by Dissenters and asked: “Who dares disown the Pretender?”.

The Anglican clergy mainly kept a low profile but at Newton Abbot the minister removed the bell-clappers so that the bells could not be rung in celebration of the Coronation.  All in all it was a very unusual Coronation.

During George’s reign however, the powers of the monarchy diminished and Britain began a transition to the modern system of cabinet government led by a prime minister. Towards the end of his reign, actual political power was held by Robert Walpole, now recognised as Britain’s first de facto prime minister.

George died of a stroke on a trip to his native Hanover, where he was buried.

Wednesday 20th September and the Victoria Cross:

The Victoria Cross was introduced in Great Britain on Saturday 29th January 1856 by Queen Victoria. Its ‘role’ was to reward acts of valour during the Crimean War. The VC takes precedence over all other Orders, Decorations and Medals and may be awarded to a person of any rank in any service and to civilians under military command.  The first presentation ceremony was held on Thursday 26th June 1857 when Queen Victoria invested 62 of the 111 Crimean recipients in Hyde Park.

The Battle of the Alma took place just south of the River Alma and is usually considered the first battle of the Crimean War. It was on this day – Wednesday 20th September 1854 – at that Battle, that Edward Bell & Luke O’Conner of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and John Knox, William Reynolds (the first private to be awarded the VC), James McKechnie & Robert Lindsay of the Scots Fusiliers Guards each earned their Victoria Cross. All survived the war.

63 years later, on Wednesday 20th September 1917 Second Lieutenant Hugh Colvin of the 9th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiments won his VC during an attack east of Ypres in Belgium. He took command of two companies and led them forward under very heavy machine gun fire. He then went to assist a neighbouring battalion. In the process he cleared and captured a series of ‘troublesome’ dugouts and machine-gun posts, some on his own and some with his men’s assistance. He personally killed several of the enemy and forced others – about fifty in all – to surrender. His Victoria Cross citation concludes ‘Later he consolidated his position with great skill, and personally wired his front under close-ranged sniping in broad daylight, when all others had failed to do so. The complete success of the attack in this part of the line was mainly due to Second Lieut. Colvin’s leadership.

An extract from ‘The Diary of Beatrice Webb volume one – 1873-1892.’

I have read many of Beatrice’s diaries and find them fascinating.  I wonder how many of us have sat and thought something similar to this that she recorded on Saturday 21st July 1888.  She writes:

‘I wish I could rid myself of self-consciousness and ambition in all its forms.  Life is so short and there is so much that needs doing that it is a sin to waste a thought or a feeling on self.  Some days I seem to rise above it, to look down on my own struggle, failures and little successes as something too small and insignificant to be noted, to see it all in proportion to the great currents of life, of all kinds, that surround one.’

Published by Virago in association with the London School of Economics and Political Science.