Tunnel Vision – The Genius of Marc Brunel

If you ask a random selection of people to name the greatest British engineer, the almost certain reply would be Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He certainly was the most famous and his genius can be in no doubt, with his phenomenal output including bridges, dockyards, railways and steamships, during his short and productive life. However, not so many people will have heard of his father, Marc Isambard Brunel, whose own unique genius paved the way for his more famous son.

I first came across Marc Brunel nearly 25 years ago, in another life, when I was part of a team working on the refurbishment of the Thames Tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping, which had been one of the greatest engineering projects of the Victorian age. Unfortunately, it was tired and sad and needed a well earned facelift, but more of that in due course.

Marc Brunel was a French citizen and how he ended up on the shores of this country is a tale that’s definitely worth the retelling, involving as it does romantic love, revolution, flight and a happy ending in exile. He was born in 1769 in Normandy and from an early age was fascinated by mathematics and drawing and was soon a prolific inventor with a great aptitude for engineering.

While living in Rouen, Normandy, he met an English Governess, Sophia Kingdom and they became engaged in 1793. Unfortunately, this coincided with the height of the French Revolution and the beginning of the period known as the “Reign of Terror”, when Robespierre sent thousands of people to the guillotine. Because of his Royalist sympathies, Brunel was in imminent danger and had to flee the country on a ship bound for America.

Sophia was arrested and accused of being of an English spy, facing almost certain execution, but thanks to the fall of Robespierre in 1794, she was released and was eventually able to return to England.

Meanwhile, in America, Brunel wasted no time in establishing his reputation and, amazingly, by 1796, he was appointed Chief Engineer of New York City, designing houses, docks, commercial buildings, an arsenal, and a cannon factory. He had also come up with a proposal to automate the production of pulley blocks for the Navy and in 1799 he decided to sail to England to put his idea before the Admiralty. This was an incredibly risky thing to attempt, leaving a prestigious position in New York, on the off chance of a Contract with the British Government.

However, this was also his opportunity of being reunited with Sophia and one can’t help thinking that this was the real motivation for the journey. The gamble paid off, he was awarded the contract and by November 1799, he and Sophia were married and he settled in Britain for the rest of his life.

During the following few years Brunel was involved in many projects, many successful but also a number that were unprofitable and by 1821 he was deep in debt, culminating with his imprisonment in the debtor’s prison in Southwark. Following the possibility of Brunel’s debt being paid by the Russian Tsar on condition that he move to Russia, the British Government paid all his debts on condition that he abandon his plans to emigrate.

Below is a portrait of Marc Brunel painted in 1812/13, which shows Brunel looking thoughtful with a sheaf of engineering drawings on his knee, the archetypal Victorian man of vision looking to the future.

Marc Brunel painted by James Northcote in 1812/1813 (National Portrait Gallery)

Brunel’s greatest invention had already taken place in 1818, when he had patented a tunnelling shield of cast iron in which miners were able to work in separate compartments, digging at the tunnel-face. Once a certain amount of tunnel had been completed, large jacks would then push the shield slightly forward, and at that point the exposed tunnel surface behind it would be lined with brick protection.

This invention became the prototype for the construction of his greatest triumph ‘The Thames Tunnel’, both the world’s first shield driven tunnel and first major underwater tunnel. A diagram below shows part of a sketch for the shield used for the Thames tunnel construction.

A tunnel under the Thames had previously been attempted in 1805 using traditional mining methods, but was abandoned in 1807 as being impossible. Now, following Brunel’s radical invention, the decision was made in 1824 to make another attempt and in 1825 construction started in Rotherhithe, commencing with the sinking of a vertical access shaft, followed by the assembly of the tunnelling shield underground. Brunel’s son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was now 18 years of age and already showing great engineering promise and so he became an assistant to his father from the very beginning.

The Tunnel was fraught with difficulties from the outset, with difficulties steering the shield, poor air quality, financial problems and poor ground conditions , which eventually led to numerous inundations of the Thames, resulting sadly in the deaths of a number of the workers. In 1826, the Resident Engineer became ill and resigned his post and a very young Isambard took over as Resident Engineer, thus launching his prestigious career.

The first major inundation took place in in May 1827 and again in January 1828, where Isambard nearly died, having been dragged out unconscious from the tunnel. These problems took their toll and money finally ran out, resulting in the bricking up of the tunnel in August 1828 at the halfway point .

The tunnel remained closed until 1834 when the Government loaned the company enough capital to continue and following many trials and tribulations, including more major inundations and serious health problems for both father and son, the tunnel was eventually completed in 1843. The Chronology below lists in greater detail the events of those many tumultuous years of its construction.

On the 25th March 1843, the tunnel was opened to a great fanfare and celebration, with the production of many souvenirs to commemorate the opening; on that first day 50,000 people descended below ground each paying one penny entrance fee. A typical cheap commemoration medal produced for the occasion can be seen below:

Although the tunnel had originally been intended for wheeled vehicles, this was quickly dropped due to financial constraints and during its first few years it was open to pedestrian traffic only. In the early days it was a tremendous success, attracting about 2 million people a year, many from overseas, who had heard about this 8th wonder of the world. It became a gigantic market-place attracting all sorts of hawkers and entertainers plus less reputable company once darkness had descended. An American tourist, William Allen Drew gave a graphic description of the tunnel in 1851 in his book “Glimpses and Gatherings During a Voyage and Visit to London and the Great Exhibition in the Summer of 1851, Homan & Manley, 1852″

Now look into the Thames Tunnel before you. It consists of two beautiful Arches, extending to the opposite side of the river. These Arches contain each a roadsted, fourteen feet wide and twenty-two feet high, and pathways for pedestrians, three feet wide. The Tunnel appears to be well ventilated, as the air seemed neither damp nor close. The partition between these Arches, running the whole length of the Tunnel, is cut into transverse arches, leading through from one roadsted to the other. There may be fifty of them in all, and these are finished into fancy and toy shops in the richest manner – with polished marble counters, tapestry linings gilded shelves, and mirrors that make everything appear double. Ladies, in fashionable dresses and with smiling faces, wait within and allow no gentleman to pass without giving him an opportunity to purchase some pretty thing to carry home as a remembrancer of the Thames Tunnel. The Arches are lighted with gas burners, that make it as bright as the sun; and the avenues are always crowded with a moving throng of men, women and children, examining the structure of the Tunnel, or inspecting the fancy wares, toys, &c., displayed by the arch-looking girls of these arches … It is impossible to pass through without purchasing some curiosity. Most of the articles are labelled – ‘Bought in the Thames Tunnel’– ‘a present from the Thames Tunnel‘”

Unfortunately, within a few years the tunnel fell further into disrepute and became a no-go area frequented by prostitutes, thieves and muggers by which time the pedestrian traffic had all but ceased. Eventually, the tunnel was purchased in 1865 by the East London Railway Company, which was eventually incorporated into the London Underground network, where it became part of the East London Line, where it continued until March 1995, which is where I became part of the story.

Site investigations carried out during 1994 and subsequent analysis demonstrated that the tunnel was in urgent need of strengthening and additional waterproofing and Taylor Woodrow Civil Engineering Ltd, who I was working for at the time, won the Contract for this refurbishment. The state of the existing tunnel in 1995, following removal of the track, can be seen below.

The preferred solution for London Underground Ltd. was just to line the tunnel with a sprayed mesh reinforced concrete, with an expected closure of about 7 months, in order to minimise disruption.

However, there was a strong backlash from English Heritage and many other conservation groups, who felt that Brunel’s great achievement needed to be preserved in a more meaningful way. Three days before the contract was due to commence, the Heritage Secretary designated the tunnel a Grade II* listed structure and immediately suspended all work until a new solution could be found.

Following protracted discussions between the parties, in late 1995 a compromise solution was eventually agreed, which preserved 30 metres of the original tunnel at the Southern end and contained an agreement to reline the remainder, while retaining the original 64 cross passages and replicating many of the original features. A comparison between the original tunnel with the 1990’s repair work shows that the refurbishment stayed true to Brunel’s original concept; I’m sure as an engineer, he would have approved of the final result.

In the end, the various delays meant that the East London Line did not re-open until the Autumn of 1997, almost 2 years later than planned, no doubt purgatory for the thousands of people using the line for their work, but a triumph for conservationists and architectural historians.

Following the first major inundation in 1827, a celebration banquet had been held in the tunnel for the great and the good, when the tunnel was almost halfway completed. As the work was stopped for 7 years shortly afterwards, it may have been somewhat premature for a celebration.

To commemorate the original celebration and in tribute to Brunel and his achievement, Taylor Woodrow hosted a black tie dinner to celebrate the success of the project in March 1997, sensibly this time at the end of the works, by recreating the previous banquet 170 years previously. I was honoured to have attended and as we took our seats we were accompanied by a string quartet. The VIP’s were seated closest to the camera, while my work colleagues and I were at the other end of the table, a distant blur in the background of the photograph. I feel privileged that I am one of the few people in the world that can claim to have dined in a tunnel beneath the Thames.

Marc Brunel died in 1849, at the age of 80; he was a modest man and his work was his passion, but his achievement was enormous, his inventions were legion and his revolutionary tunnelling shield paved the way for the London Underground network, the first in the world, and finally, of course, he sired Isambard, arguably the greatest Civil Engineer of them all.

It would also be remiss not to mention the role of Marc Brunel’s wife, Sophia Kingdom, a formidable woman who spent two periods in prison, one fearing for her life and the other in a debtors prison supporting her husband. They were devoted to each other and she supported him through thick and thin. Brunel stated that without Sophia there would be no tunnel and there can be no doubt that their’s was a true love match.

Today, Marc Brunel’s legacy is safe in the hands of the Brunel Museum , which is housed in the old tunnel engine house in Rotherhithe. The original shaft down to the tunnel has now been opened to the public, who can now visit where the tunnel first began its life.

And for me, the tunnel will always be with me; I mean this quite literally, as I have a piece of the original tunnel, sealed in perspex, sitting on my desk at home as a memento of my time working on the Thames Tunnel, two of the most interesting and happiest years of my working life.

A Rebel in the Family

Lewis Valentine – Welsh Patriot and Pacifist

Llanddulas is a small village along the North Wales coast of about 1,500 people, midway between Abergele and Colwyn Bay. It derives its name from the River Dulas, which winds its way through the village, bound for the Irish Sea. In past times you would have driven through the village and perhaps tarried a while, on your way to one of the tourist destinations such as Llandudno, Conwy or Angelsey. These days the North Wales Expressway, the A55, bypasses and ignores Llanddulas, cutting off the village from the beach, which is also hidden by a seemingly unending row of caravan parks. However, if you travel about a mile inland to the neighbouring tranquil and beautiful hamlet of Rhyd-y-Foel, you get a glimpse of what Llanddulas was like before modern life came along with its wrecking ball.

River Dulas at Rhyd-y-Foel

One of the most momentous events in British history occurred in Llanddulas just over 600 years ago, but appears to be almost unknown locally. In 1399, Richard II was ambushed by Henry Bolingbroke on his way back from Ireland, at Penmaen head, a rocky outcrop just outside Llanddulas. He was forced to surrender and was deposed as king, thus ending 300 years of the Plantagenet dynasty and sowing the seeds for the Wars of the Roses between the Houses of Yorkshire and Lancashire in the mid 15th century. Strangely enough, there is no commemoration anywhere in the area to mark this turning point in British history.

However more recently, it is celebrated as the birthplace of the Welsh patriot, Lewis Valentine, who infamously was involved in the arson attack on a controversial bombing school in Penyberth in 1936 and later became one of the founding members of ‘Plaid Cymru’, the Welsh Nationalist Party.

Lewis Valentine in his early 40s taken about the time of the Penyberth attack

He also happens to be a relative of mine, albeit a distant one and this is his story, which is closely intertwined with my own family history, due to the fact that he was born in the house where my family later lived, a house named ‘Hillside’, situated on the small lane of ‘Clip Terfyn’ on the eastern outskirts of the village.

Llanddulas and ‘Hillside’ hold a special place in my heart and I spent many happy holidays there as a young child, while my ‘Nain’ (Grandma) and ‘Taid’ (Grandpa) were alive, roaming free on the large limestone hill (Cefn-yr-Ogof) overlooking Clip Terfyn.

Clip Terfyn c1910, Hillside is the furthest house on the right hand side of the road, one of two large semi detached houses

Limestone is the key to this part of North Wales, it was the lifeblood of the village and provided employment for its men for 200 years. Limestone was first quarried in Llanddulas in 1696, but during the 19th and 20th centuries, became a major industry with the limestone being transported by a specially constructed railway line from the quarries to a jetty on the beach, where it was shipped off to many places around the world. The extent of the devastation to the area can be seen below, in this aerial photograph from the 1930s, which shows three enormous craters on the outskirts of the village and the jetty can also be clearly seen. In 2021, the glory days of limestone quarrying are now in the past and many of the quarries have been filled in and returned to nature.

However, in the past, everyone in the area seemed to have had some sort of connection to the limestone quarries, both my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were quarrymen, although my grandfather managed to escape the quarry by starting his own own taxi and haulage business.

Life for the limestone quarrymen was hard and relentless, with long hours in appalling conditions and many people died before their time. My Great Grandfather, Thomas Roberts, dropped dead at the age of 38, leaving my Taid having to find work as a farm labourer at the age of 14, in order to bring money in for the family.

Group of Llanddulas quarrymen circa 1900

The other main driving force in the area was religion, which came in two forms of Protestantism, Methodist and Baptist, which although different in many ways, were both of a fundamentalist nature and emphasised the rewards of hard work and a strict obedience to the Gospels. This meant that for most people in the village, there was church several times on a Sunday and the majority of the population were strict teetotallers.

My Mother’s side of the family were Methodist and had worshipped in Welsh at the Salem Wesleyan Chapel in Rhyd-y-Foel for several generations, whilst the Valentines were strict Baptists and attended the Bethesda chapel in the heart of Llanddulas.

Lewis Valentine was born in ‘Hillside’ in Clip Terfyn in 1893 to Samuel Valentine, a lay preacher at the Bethesda Chapel and a checkweighman at one of the limestone quarries, and Mary Roberts, who was the sister of my Great Grandfather, Thomas Roberts, hence the family connection.This meant my ‘Taid’ was first cousin to Lewis Valentine.

Bethesda Chapel in Llanddulas in the early 20th century

My grandparents lived a few doors down in Clip Terfyn from the Valentines in a small cottage called ‘Mountain View’ and my mother clearly remembers regular Sunday tea visits at ‘Hillside’ with Uncle Samuel and his family, but by that time, Lewis was married and was an ordained Baptist Minister in Llandudno. In about 1933, ‘Taid’ purchased ‘Hillside’ from Samuel , who was moving away from the district, which was how my Mother grew up in the house that Lewis had once spent his childhood.

The Bethesda Chapel was of enormous influence on Lewis as he was growing up and although he studied Welsh and Semitic languages at University, it was his intention to become a Baptist Minister once he had graduated. However, the First World War got in the way and although he already had strong pacifist leanings, he volunteered in the Royal army Medical Corps as a stretcher bearer.

His role as a stretcher bearer meant he witnessed some terrible sights in the worst battles of the war, including the Somme, Arras and Ypres, culminating in the living hell of Passchendaele, where in 1917 he was subjected to a gas attack, which left him blind and unable to speak for several months. These experiences, plus the loss of his closest friend Frank Carless, left an indelible mark on the young Lewis Valentine and left him with a visceral hatred of war, which stayed with him for the rest of his life..

A typical stretcher division in the First World War

The war convinced Lewis that his calling was as a Minister of the Church and in 1921 he was ordained as a Minister in the Welsh speaking Tabernacle Baptist Chapel in Llandudno, the largest Baptist chapel in North Wales. Over the next few years he established a reputation as one of the great preachers of his generation and his fame spread throughout Wales.

It is hard to imagine in this day and age, when religion plays such a small part in people’s lives, how much these preachers were hero worshipped and were almost the rock stars of their day. There is a unique Welsh word for this called ‘Hwyl’, which was a special characteristic of traditional Welsh revivalist preaching, which led to a surge of intense emotional and spiritual fervor between the preacher and the congregation. The ‘Hwyl’ is sometimes induced by chanting the attributes of God in a rhythmic sequence.

The upsurge in religious fervour, especially in North Wales, can be traced back to what is known as the Welsh Revival of 1904 -1905, when Joseph Jenkins, Evan Roberts and other charismatic preachers toured Wales converting thousands of people. This mass movement had an enormous impact on people’s lives and continued well into the middle of the 20th century.

Bethel Chapel, Dre-fach, Preaching Festival 1910

During this period Lewis had married Margaret Jones in Llandudno and started a family. Meanwhile, his growing brand of Welsh Nationalism, a heady mix of religion, language and nationhood, was being fuelled by his passionate love of the Welsh language, which he felt was in danger of being subsumed by English.

Language gives a nation its unique identity and the Welsh language is no exception. For centuries, beginning with Henry VIII, the English had tried to suppress and destroy the Welsh language, by banning Welsh in schools and in workplaces, often through corporal punishment with the barbaric use of flogging, named the Welsh Not or Knot

This and other systematic tools of oppression was bound to lead to a renewed independence movement and by the early part of the 20th century, many Welsh patriots were looking to form a new political party. In 1924, Lewis met other like minded colleagues in Caernarfon, who launched Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru (The National Party of Wales) in 1925 and Lewis Valentine was elected as the first president, a post which he held for a year until he was succeeded by Saunders Lewis, one of the other founders. It is not so well known, that he was also the party’s first parliamentary candidate in Caernarfonshire in the 1929 general election, where he polled 609 votes. It was not until after the 2nd World War , that Plaid managed to elect its first MP, Gwynfor Evans.

And then we come to the action that has gone down in legend as ‘Tân yn Llŷn’ (Fire in Llŷn) which ignited the Welsh Nationalist cause and earned Lewis Valentine both notoriety and eminence in equal parts, depending on your viewpoint. In the 1930s, the Ministry of Defence had announced their intention to build an RAF Training school on the Llŷn peninsula at Penyberth, after two English sites had been rejected due to protests from Naturalists and Historians. However, despite widespread objections from all walks of life including many distinguished Welsh academics, Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister at the time, pushed through the decision without any local consultation.

To the leadership of the newly formed Plaid Cymru, it felt like an act of pure vindictiveness and the decision was made to strike a blow for Wales and the Welsh language, by a symbolic act of arson. For Lewis Valentine, it was also a means of protesting his hatred of war, which came out of his experiences in the first world war and to gain publicity for the Nationalist cause.

The three men who carried out this attack, all pillars of society in their respective professions, Lewis Valentine, a Baptist Minister, Saunders Lewis, a University Lecturer and D.J. Williams, a schoolteacher, were the unlikeliest of saboteurs, but on the 8th September 1936, they calmly drove to Penyberth and set fire to sheds and offices on the site, which were in the process of being constructed. They then drove to the nearest police station and handed themselves in, their work accomplished.

The three men can be seen the photograph below, taken in 1936. Lewis Valentine is on the left towering over his two compatriots, Saunders Lewis and D. J.Williams.

At the trial in Caernarfon, a Welsh jury could not come to a verdict, so there was a controversial decision to hold a retrial at the Old Bailey in London, which angered many people in Wales. At the retrial, Lewis enraged the Judge by refusing to engage with the court in English and he gave an impassioned speech on behalf of his beliefs from the dock in Welsh.

Needless to say, all the men were convicted and were sentenced to 9 months imprisonment in 1937 in Wormwood Scrubs. They returned home to Wales as heroes and were met by a cheering crowd of 12,000 people in Caernarfon. My mother, who was 13 at the time, remembers how proud the people of Llanddulas were, including my own Taid, of their most famous son. His job as a Minister had been kept open and he recommenced his life in Llandudno, preaching to large congregations.

From this time onwards, Lewis settled back into the life of a Baptist Minister and withdrew from the centre stage of Welsh politics, but this one defining act had ensured his place in the mythology of Plaid Cymru. He also became a respected poet and writer, magazine editor and literary critic.

Throughout his life, he continued to push the case for the Welsh language, which he saw as being in crisis and in 1962 he gave an address, where he stated that ‘the great call for the Welsh-speaking Christians of Wales today is to save the Welsh language as a medium to promote the Kingdom, and as a medium to preach the Word’

At this time, he also wrote the words of a patriotic hymn, which he decided to set to the tune of ‘Finlandia’. Lewis was a serious admirer of both Sibelius and Finland and felt their situation in respect of independence, in many ways, mirrored that of Wales. Choosing to set his words to one of the most achingly beautiful tunes ever written was an act of genius and ensured that this hymn became so well known, that today that it is now regarded by many people as Wales second National Anthem. This is the full text below in the original Welsh and in translation:-

Dros Gymru’n gwlad, O Dad, dyrchafwn gri,
y winllan wen a roed i’n gofal ni;
d’amddiffyn cryf a’i cadwo’n ffyddlon byth,
a boed i’r gir a’r glan gael ynddi nyth;
er mwyn dy Fab a’i prynodd iddo’i hun,
O crea hi yn Gymru ar dy lun.

O deued dydd pan fo awelon Duw
yn chwythu eto dros ein herwau gwyw,
a’r crindir cras dan ras cawodydd nef
yn erddi Crist, yn ffrwythlon iddo ef,
a’n heniaith fwyn a gorfoleddus hoen
yn seinio fry haeddiannau’r adfwyn Oen.

Translation:

For Wales our land O father hear our prayer,
This blessed vineyard granted to our care;
May you protect her always faithfully,
And prosper here all truth and purity;
For your Son’s sake who bought us with his blood,
O make our Wales in your own image Lord.

O come the day when o’er our barren land
Reviving winds blow sent from God’s own hand,
As grace pours down on parched and arid sand
We will bear fruit for Christ by his command,
Come with one voice and gentle vigour sing
The virtues of our gentle Lamb and King.

There are many versions of this hymn, some excellent, and some frankly dire. I have chosen below my two favourite versions. In the first version, it starts out with the single tenor voice of John Eifion with piano, moving onto a small group of singers and finally to full blown choir with a stirring organ accompaniment.

The second version, by Dafydd Iwan, a well known folk artist in Wales and himself a former President of Plaid Cymru, is more restrained, but has a simplicity that I found very appealing. You can make up your own minds, which version you prefer.

Lewis Valentine had left Llandudno in 1947, to be the Minister of a chapel in Rhos, a mining village and he stayed there until his retirement in 1970 when he and his wife moved back to Llanddulas. They felt, however, that the village had changed for the worse and they soon moved again to nearby Old Colwyn, where Lewis spent the rest of his life, dying in 1986 at the age of 92.

In 1996, a memorial to Lewis Valentine in the shape of a pulpit in local stone and slate was built in Llanddulas. On top it states ‘Righteousness exalts a Nation’ and ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’ and below it reads ‘To the Glory of God, in memory of the Reverend Lewis Edward Valentine MA DD, 1893 -1986, Minister of the Gospel, Nationalist, Pacifist’

A fitting tribute and in a supreme irony it sits on land directly opposite the local pub, aptly named the Valentine Arms. What Lewis, a life long teetotaller, would have made of this can only be guessed at, but I would hope that he would have been wryly amused.

What of his legacy? I’m sure he would have been delighted that Wales has more autonomy and its own Parliament and of course it would have been a great source of comfort to him to know that the Welsh language has enjoyed such a great renaissance and its survival now seems assured well into the future. His views on modern life, however, might have been more mixed, in particular the godlessness that he would have perceived around us. He would, no doubt, still have wished for full independence for Wales, especially in today’s uncertain climate, following the political and social upheavals of recent years.

And how do I feel about my first cousin twice removed? He was a man of his time and his world is not my world and his religion is not my religion. Looking at his life though, even through the lens of today, it can be seen that he was a man of principle and conviction who believed in the fellowship of man and the desire for world peace. In contrast to most of the self serving public servants and politicians in office today, he comes across as a towering figure of integrity and the conclusion has to be that his was a good life, well lived.

In researching this article, it made me think deeply about what it means to belong and about my own cultural heritage. In one of my recent articles I wrote about my father’s family that could be traced back centuries to Nottinghamshire, now I am writing about by Welsh heritage and in truth, like everyone, I am a mongrel. If anything, I am a European and to use that much maligned expression, a Citizen of the World. However, I realise there is a part of me that will be forever Welsh and whenever I go back to the hills and valleys of Wales, my heart sings that I am in ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’.

   

Ar gyfer fy mam, Gwyneth Mary Roberts

Sacrifice in a Bog

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

Extract from the Tollund Man by Seamus Heaney 1972

In 1983 I was living and working in Denmark; I did go to Aarhus or rather I went to Silkeborg Museum; I saw his peat-brown head and his pointed skin cap; I also saw the serene look on his face and I felt a kinship that is still with me today. My then girlfriend, now my wife, and I were on a trip exploring Jutland and when I entered the museum I knew so little of the Tollund Man, but he has been in my thoughts many times since that day nearly 40 years ago.

When you walk into the small room and up to the cabinet housing ‘Tollund Man’, all conversation dries up as you gaze in awe upon this man with a leather skull cap and stubble on his chin, lying in gentle repose. He has a face that seems vaguely familiar and you almost expect him to suddenly open his eyes, smile at you and enquire how long he had been asleep. Then suddenly you are drawn to the rope around his neck and, with a shock, you realise that this seemingly peaceful face masks a violent and traumatic death in the desolate fens of Jutland 2,300 years ago.

The reason for his death is still open to discussion and dispute, but one theory keeps returning and refuses to go away, that this man and countless others, found in the bogs of Denmark and beyond, were willing victims, who were sacrificed to appease the ancient pagan gods and goddesses and to ensure fertility and prosperity for the year ahead.

A few months after my first meeting with Tollund man, I was chatting to a work colleague about my visit and he introduced me to the definitive book on the subject, written in 1971, which not only covered the man from Tollund but numerous other bodies that had been discovered in the Peat Bogs of Denmark and elsewhere. It was called appropriately ‘The Bog People’ and was written by P. (Peter) V. Glob, a renowned archeologist and director of the Danish National Museum. My colleague lent me the book which I devoured and when he left the firm a few months later, I am ashamed to say I forgot to return his dog-eared paperback. I have it still to this day, even more well thumbed; I hope I am forgiven.

In the book, Professor Glob tells the stories of the bog people of Northern Europe in the Iron Age, their beliefs, how they lived and speculation on how they died. Throughout the centuries there have been dozens of bodies discovered in peat bogs throughout Scandinavia, the British Isles and elsewhere, but somehow Denmark seems to have had its fair share of discoveries. The earliest finds have not survived, but from the 19th century finds were better documented until at last in the 20th century many of these bodies were preserved for posterity.

The unique conditions in peat bogs means that bog bodies often retain their skin and internal organs, as well as hairs , nails, teeth, wool and leather. A combination of the acidity of the soil and a lack of oxygen preserved the skins, whereas the bones are dissolved by the acidity in the peat. The bodies are all a red, brown colour as a result of the tannins in the soil. There is also large amounts of spagnum moss in the bogs which aids the preservation process.

Spagnum Moss in typical Peat Bog

Tollund man was discovered on a spring day in 1950 by two farmers, who were cutting peat as fuel for the following winter. When they first uncovered the face , it seemed so fresh that thought that they had found a recent murder victim. It was only later that the more astonishing truth was discovered. There is a atmospheric and poetic description of this event in ‘The Bog People’, as follows:-

“An early spring day – 8 May 1950. Evening was gathering over Tollund Fen in Bjældskov Dal. Momentarily, the sun burst in, bright and yet subdued, through a gate in blue thunder-clouds in the west, bringing everything to life. The evening stillness was only broken now and again, by the grating love-call of the snipe. The dead man, too, deep down in the umber-brown peat, seemed to have come alive. He lay on his damp bed as though asleep, resting on his side, the head inclined a little forward , arms and legs bent. His face wore a gentle expression – the eyes lightly closed , the lips softly pursed, as if in silent prayer. It was as though the dead man’s soul had for a moment returned from another world , through the gate in the western sky.”

 © P.V.Glob 1965

Of the numerous bog bodies, Tollund man was unique in that his face was intact and in perfect condition. In fact, it is the best preserved human head, to have survived from antiquity in any part of the world. Unfortunately, a decision was made to concentrate on the preservation of the head, which was detached from the body and as a result after initial analysis the body disintegrated. It was subsequently reconstructed by experts and the replica of the body attached to the original head is what can be seen today in the museum. The photograph below shows Tollund man as he looked shortly after he was excavated.

A close up of 2000 year old stubble
The Tollund Man after excavation

But how and why did these people die? Most people during pre-Christian times in Northern Europe were cremated on pyres, so there was obviously a particular reason why the bodies in the bogs were buried in a ritualised way. They were killed in a variety of ways, either bludgeoned, strangled, hanged such as Tollund man, stabbed or a combination of all of them. They were also laid in the earth in a special manner on their side with their legs drawn up to their stomach (see photograph above). Glob argues very persuasively that these were votive offerings to the gods and he uses as evidence the many artefacts found in the peat bogs, which show a deep allegiance to the Nordic pagan gods, including the famous Gundestrup cauldron, which was found in a bog north of Silkeborg.

Gundestrup Silver Cauldren c 150BC with representations of Gods and Goddesses (By Rosemania – https://www.flickr.com/photos/rosemania/4121249312)

Since Glob’s time other theories have arisen that bog people were social outcasts, witches or enemy hostages killed over broken treaty arrangements, although many archeologists still believe that the most likely explanation is still that of human sacrifice .

That day in Silkeborg has been etched in my memory, as in addition to the Tollund man, we also visited the nearby Silkeborg Art Museum (now renamed Museum Jorn), where I was introduced to the art of that great Danish modern artist Asger Jorn, founding member of the CoBrA group, whose wildly expressionist and primitive art, echoed ancient cultures and seemed somehow apposite after visiting Tollund Man.

In the Beginning was the Image 1965 – Asger Jorn (Copyright – Fair use)

However, it was only in the course of researching this article that I discovered, much to my surprise that Peter Glob and Asger Jorn were associates and had collaborated on a number of projects, the most important being the delightfully named ‘Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism’ , whose stated purpose was to throw new light upon the Scandinavian culture in the age of migrations and Vikings. My initial instincts on a connection between the ancient and modern were perhaps not that wide of the mark.

Of course, I am not the only person to be drawn into the web of the Bog people and the Tollund man. The greatest Irish poet of his generation and Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney, became obsessed after reading Peter Glob’s book and in his 1972 collection ‘Wintering Out’ he wrote one of his most famous poems ‘The Tollund Man’

THE TOLLUND MAN
I

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint's kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters'
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.


II

I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards,

Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.


III

Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names

Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,

Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.

Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home. 

© 1972, Estate of Seamus Heaney
From: Wintering Out 
Publisher: Faber & Faber, London, 1972

In his 1975 collection ‘North’, Heaney’s meditation on the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, he wrote many more bog poems including ‘Bog Queen’, ‘Grauballe man’ and ‘Punishment’ amongst others, where he uses the Bog bodies as a metaphor for the violence, punishment and terrible sacrifices being made in his home country.

Of course, when Heaney wrote ‘The Tollund Man’, he was well aware that he was housed in Silkeborg and not Aarhus, but he used poetic licence to fit in with the rhythm of the poem. Also, at the time of it’s composition, Heaney had not been to Denmark and his poem was solely inspired by Glob’s book. He remedied this several years later by visiting the Museum and meeting Glob in person and he made number of subsequent trips to Denmark.

Poetry is at its best when read aloud and even more moving and affecting when spoken by the Author himself in his soft, lilting Irish accent, as can be heard in the following link to the Poetry International Archives. The Tollund Man read by Seamus Heaney

After all this time, Tollund Man still fires my imagination; was he a willing sacrifice, an enemy combatant put to death or just a common criminal paying for his sins? We shall never know, but this I do know; very soon when the world is back to normal, we will go on a pilgrimage, retracing our Jutland trip and we will once again greet Tollund Man, lying there in his eternal slumber, just as he was nearly 40 years ago.

Notes:-

  1. Header Photograph – A small part of the remaining bog, where Tollund Man was found on Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula. Photograph courtesy of Robert Clark , National Geographic.
  2. The Bog People by P. V. Glob – For anyone wishing to discover more about the lives and deaths of our Iron Age ancestors, this is essential reading.
  3. Visiting the Tollund Man – Silkeborg Museum
  4. The Art of Asger Jorn – Museum Jorn, Silkeborg
  5. Peter Glob’s daughter Lotte Glob is a celebrated ceramicist living and working in a remote area up in the North-West of Scotland. I can see a clear influence in her work in the wild landscape in Scotland, but also the spirit of her father and Asger Jorn are present in her ceramics. Lotte Glob, Ceramic Artist

Leftovers – The Art of Tal R

Tal R first appeared on my radar a number of years ago, during one of our many trips back to my wife’s homeland, Denmark. A number of our friends were telling us about this new ‘wunderkind’ who was creating a stir in Denmark and beyond, mainly in Germany and the USA. I was intrigued, but did not follow it up, because as often happens, life got in the way.

Fast forward to Berlin, April 2019, where we were enjoying a spring break with Danish friends. We had been visiting a Danish artist living in Berlin and he informed us that Tal R was opening that very night with a small exhibition in one of Berlin’s top galleries. We duly turned up and the exhibition was a revelation to me; here was an artist plundering the giants of 20th century art to create a unique vision, which was solely his own.

Instrument, deer and kuldhare 2018, from the exhibition ‘Jew Cherry, Clown and Congo, April 2019, courtesy of Artist and Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin
Cat and Telephone, from the exhibition ‘Jew Cherry, Clown and Congo, April 2019, courtesy of Artist and Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin

Imagine my excitement, when I heard that he was shortly coming to Hastings with a major exhibition. Since moving to the area, I had been volunteering for what was then the Jerwood Gallery, which had opened in March 2012 and had played a major part in the continuing regeneration of Hastings. In 2019, the Jerwood Foundation and the Gallery Management parted company and a new era began for the gallery under its new name, Hastings Contemporary.

The grand reopening in July 2019 represented a new and exciting chapter for the gallery and the management wanted to open with a splash, by featuring an internationally acclaimed artist, albeit one not so well known in the UK.

When I walked into the gallery on the first day, I was not sure what to expect, but what greeted me in the entrance corridor was a sedate line of blue ships, standing out perfectly against a pink background, a brave but inspired choice. The exhibition was entitled ‘Eventually all Museums will be Ships’ and this definitely fitted the brief. The influence of Alfred Wallis, the naive Cornish Fisherman and Artist is clear and Tal R has himself spoken of his admiration for this artist’s work.

Hastings Contemporary; Hastings, Installation View; 2019. © Pete Jones pete@pjproductions.co.uk, courtey of the artist and the Victoria Miro Gallery, London
Hastings Contemporary; Hastings, Installation View; 2019. © Pete Jones pete@pjproductions.co.uk, courtesy of the artist and the Victoria Miro Gallery, London

However, when I entered the main foreshore gallery, my senses were overpowered by a riot of colour, the walls filled with large bold work encompassing many different styles, varying from his earlier works, right up to more recent paintings along the back wall, some of them similar in style to his Berlin works that I had seen just 3 months earlier. The overall impact was overwhelming and moving; Tal R seems to have that effect.

Hastings Contemporary; Hastings, Installation View of Foreshore Gallery; 2019. © Lens and Pixel, courtesy of the artist and the Victoria Miro Gallery, London
Hastings Contemporary; Hastings, Installation View of Foreshore Gallery; 2019. © Lens and Pixel, courtesy of the artist and the Victoria Miro Gallery, London

So who is Tal R that he can have such an effect on people? Tal R, whose full name is Tal Rosenzweig, was born in Israel in 1967 to a Czechoslovakian Jewish father and Danish mother, but has spent most of his life from the age of 1 in Denmark. When you hear Tal R speak you can hear that he is a typical Copenhagener, and in many ways, to use the Danish expression, he is ‘Pæredansk’, which roughly translates as ‘Danish through and through’.

However, like all people of mixed backgrounds, there is something of the outsider about him, not quite fitting in, that I think informs his work as an artist. He absorbs influences like a sponge from diverse sources such as Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, the Abstract Expressionists and closer to home from that great iconoclast Asger Jorn, one of the Danish founding members of the Cobra group. Combine that with elements of ‘outsider art’ or ‘art naif’, comic book art and an innate understanding of colour and you end up with the unique talent that is Tal R.

Tal R has a word for it, which is the Hebrew word ‘Kolbojnik’ ,which roughly translates as Leftovers and brings into his art all the ‘creative potential’ of what has been thrown out. In the exhibition, one of his earliest works on show was ‘Lords of Kolbojnik’ a mixed media work packed with cultural references. Personally, I find this picture too busy and is not as compelling as many of his later works.

Hastings Contemporary; Hastings, ‘Lords of Kolbojnik’ 2003. © Lens and Pixel, courtesy of
the artist and the Victoria Miro Gallery, London

One section of the exhibition was from a 2011 series called ‘Fog over Malia Bay’, a group of abstract paintings showing another side to Tal R, but still demonstrating his impeccable use of colour.

Hastings Contemporary; Hastings, ‘Fog over Malia Bay’ photograph by Author, courtesy of
the artist and the Victoria Miro Gallery, London

Also in the summer of 2011, an expedition was made to Greenland on the ‘Activ’, a Three Mast Schooner, containing a crew of scientists, artists and philosophers with no brief, in an experiment to see what this unusual mixture of disciplines would bring back from one of the last untouched wildernesses on Earth.

Tal R was one of the invited crew and in less than 2 weeks, produced dozens of drawings, produced at great speed with only crayon and paper, recording his immediate sensations of the unique world surrounding him. The series is called ‘Qaqqarsuaq’ and was shown in the main foreshore gallery on the walls and in display cabinets in the centre of the room. To see all these works together, some figurative and some abstract, but all in luscious colours, was one of the highlights of the exhibition.

Hastings Contemporary; Hastings,’Qaqqarsuaq’2011,. photograph by Author, courtesy of
the artist and the Victoria Miro Gallery, London

One of my favourite paintings at the exhibition was ‘House Red, 2018’; it is, on the face of it, a simple painting, almost childlike. But there is something about it that gets under the skin, it excites but disturbs at the same time. There is a story here, but we don’t know what it is and so we have to draw the story out of our own imagination. I think that this is exactly what Tal R is after, he wants us to be a participant in a painting, not just a passive onlooker.

Hastings Contemporary; Hastings,’House Red, 2018′, courtesy of
the artist and the Victoria Miro Gallery, London

In order to view Tal R’s own perspective on his Hastings exhibition, a short film which was made for Hastings Contemporary can be seen on the following link Tal R: eventually all museums will be ships

Tal R states in the film that he wants us to leave the gallery with a stone in our shoe, it’s not enough for the viewer to ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ the art, the art has to stick with us long after we leave. All great Art should make us think about more than the picture itself, it forces us to ask questions about the world and our place in it.

And for those who wish to delve deeper into the world of Tal R, I would highly recommend a video, produced by Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and filmed over a 6 month period, which sheds light on his life, his work and his motivations. Tal R: Louisiana Channel

Finally, I would also like to thank Hastings Contemporary for allowing me to use their photographs from the exhibition. Hastings Contemporary (and its previous incarnation Jerwood Gallery) has continued to be a beacon of cultural excellence in our area and beyond. Long may it continue once life returns to normal.

My Family and Nottingham Lace

In memory of Horace Edward Bostock (1912 -1969)

During this dreadful pandemic, I have been thinking a lot about my Father who died far too young at the age of 57, when I was only 19. I wonder what he would have thought about the times we live in and how the world has changed since his untimely death in 1969. I felt the urge to write about my father’s ancestors and, in my small way, to honour his family.

This is a story that begins, 8 generations ago, in 1661 with the birth of a William Bostock in Trowell, Nottinghamshire and is the story of a family and a place. It is also a story of 350 years of English History that started in rural villages, then moved for nearly 200 years to the cities during the Industrial Revolution and finally in the 20th Century broke free from the shackles of place and class, as a result of increased social mobility and the upheavals of two world wars.

The story is of my father’s predecessors and like all of these stories stretches back into the mists of time, but the date of 1661 is the first definitive record that is known about our family tree ‘the Bostocks of Trowell’. The Bostock name itself is also far older and the likelihood is that its origins lie in village of Bostock Green in Cheshire. The village of Bostock or, in its original form, Botestoch was first mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1087 and to support this theory, the majority of the Bostock family trees converge back to Cheshire or other Midland counties.

Everything that I have learnt about the Bostock name including my own family tree has been researched and compiled by Roland Bostock and before that his father Edward, now sadly deceased. The amount of research and work involved over many years by them has been enormous and I would like to thank Roland for his endeavours, which has made it possible for me to write this article. Genealogy of the Bostocks

I have also exchanged further valuable information with Rosemary Probert, a distant cousin of mine, whose family are also direct descendants of our Great Grandfather. Rosemary has been working on her family history for many years and has produced an enormous database covering hundreds of her related family trees. Rosemary’s Family History

Trowell is a small village of 2,500 people on the Derbyshire border, 6 miles west of Nottingham city centre and there has been a village here since Saxon times. It is here that the trail begins with William and Sarah and carries on for another approximately 120 years until the story switches to the industrial heart of Nottingham. In William and Sarah’s time, there probably weren’t more than a few hundred people living in the village.

In the research carried out by Roland, the Bostock Family Tree that commences in Trowell is the largest of all the Bostock family trees and was for a very long time confined to the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire borders. It was dominated by trades such as coal mining, spinning, weaving, lacemaking and labouring, with very few professional people to be found along the way.

William Bostock (1661-1713) – Married to Sarah (1663 -1712) in ???

We cannot be absolutely sure that William and his wife Sarah were born in Trowell, but we know from the Parish Records that they both died there and were buried in St. Helen’s Churchyard in Trowell, within a year of each other. It is likely, however, that there may have been Bostocks in Trowell for many generations before them, as a quick online search of Bostocks in the area reveals a large number of connections to Trowell. Intriguingly, just 2 miles down the road from Trowell in the village of Sandiacre, is a Bostocks Lane.

There are no further records of what work they did, but at that time prior to the Industrial Revolution, this would have been almost exclusively a rural community and most people would probably have worked on the land, eking out a living.

John Bostock (1689-1743) – Married to Sarah Greasley (1697 – ?) in 1723

John Bostock (1724- ?) – Married to Mary Bough (1727- ?) in 1750

The next two generations, William’s son John and then his son John were both born in Trowell and their is very limited information about them. They appear to have spent their lives in the same limited rural area, as John and Mary’s son Jonathan was born in Stapleford in 1764, just 2 miles down the road from Trowell.

Jonathan Bostock (1764-1837) – Married to Dorothy Lowe (1766 -1801) in 1786 and to Ann Hopkin (1771- ?) in 1802

Although Jonathan was born in Stapleford, he appears to be the first person in his family to make the move to the City. Records show that by the 1780s he was in Nottingham and married to his first wife Dorothy in 1786 and after she died, he married Ann in 1801 in Radford, where they and their offspring lived for the next nearly 150 years. Unfortunately we have no record of where they exactly lived or their occupation, as this was all prior to the first major Census of 1841.

When Jonathan and Dorothy arrived in Nottingham in the 1780s, vast changes were taking place in Nottingham, the Industrial Revolution was taking root and large scale lacemaking production was still in its infancy. The other main occupations for the population at this time, were hosiery, frame-knitting and coal. Within 50 years, Nottingham would be transformed from an elegant Georgian town into one of the worst slum cities in the country and lace and coal mining would be the main driving force.

At this point, it is worth giving a bit of background to lacemaking and its development in Nottingham from a small cottage industry into a world dominating mechanised business. Hand made lacemaking can be traced back to the Pharaohs in Egypt and prior to the 18th century it had been produced all over Europe, employing large numbers of woman in their own homes, working long hours, earning a pittance and producing fine and beautiful lace for the upper classes. As the saying went ‘By the Poor, For the Rich’.

Industrial Lace had its origins in the end of the 17th century when a certain clergyman, Rev. William Lee invented a machine called the stocking frame, which knitted stockings on a frame using fine needles, fifteen times faster than could be made by hand. However, for various reasons it was not taken up on a large scale until the 1700s when the frame was used for cotton and silk hosiery. Finally, in the 1780s in Nottingham, the stocking frame was then adapted by various people to enable production of a basic lace netting, heralding the commencement of the worldwide “Lace Trade”

Stocking Frame 1820

From then on, there were rapid developments in the production of proper lace on an industrial scale, but more of that later.

As there are very few records of Jonathan and his wife, it is not known whether he worked in the early lace trade, but, as we shall see, the fortunes of the people who followed were totally dependant on lace and lacemaking.

Joseph Bostock (1795 – 1864) – Married to Ellen Abel (1806 – 1856) in 1823 and to Caroline Oakland (1810 – 1877) in 1857

Joseph was the 4th child of Jonathan and Dorothy and other than his birth and marriage to Ellen Abel , there is no further information on the family, until the 1841 census, where they shown as living in George Street in Radford with 4 children and Joseph’s occupation was stated as being a lacemaker. The 1831 map of Radford below, shows that Radford was still a reasonably small area surrounded by fields, but if you then compare with the further map of 1861, it can be seen that the whole area had now been developed with very few green areas left, with the exception of the Nottingham General Cemetery built as a burial place for the new influx of workers and their families.

Map of Radford in 1831
Map of Radford 1863

By 1851, the census shows that Joseph and his family were now living a short distance away in No. 13 Chapel Street and his occupation was now stated as being a Bobbin and Carriage maker. His 15 year daughter was also working as Lace mender and his 22 year old son, William Henry, my Great-Great grandfather was working as a Smith and Fitter.

By this time, machine lace making in Nottingham was a major force, as a result of two inventions, one the Bobbinet Machine and the other the Leavers Machine, which by the 1840s were capable of producing lace on a vast, industrial scale. In 1841, the Leavers machine was adapted to incorporate the Jacquard system which was invented in France and which incorporated a pre-designed punchcard, which was fitted to the lace machine, enabling complex and intricate patterns to be created and able to replicate the most delicate hand made lace on an industrial scale.

This final innovation meant that machine made lace could hardly be distinguished from the hand made lace it was replicating, thus spelling the death knell for the hand made lace industry. The scene was set for a massive increase in production, resulting in Nottingham becoming the lace manufacturing centre of the world during the 19th Century.

A typical Leavers Machine can be seen below and these heavy machines were worked predominately by men, the Lace makers, who worked long shifts but were comparatively well paid compared to other trades.

What was produced was not the final product and it was left to the Lace finishers, mainly women, to work on the finished product “the black lead needed to be removed, and they needed to be bleached, dyed, dressed and be subjected to a number of other processes to convert them into finished lace acceptable to the public, whether it was a one inch breadth or edging, curtain or tablecloth, or hat veiling, mittens or shawl.” BBC article on Nottingham Lacemaking

The work for lace finishers was very poorly paid and the working conditions for these women was atrocious and illness, especially tuberculosis, was rife.

Machine with the Jacquard Fitted

Joseph’s work, as a bobbin and carriage maker, was not as prestigious or as well paid as the Lace Makers who worked the machines. However, it was a recognised trade, making parts for the machines, probably in one the large specialist machine making factories that were springing up in Radford and elsewhere. The picture below, shows a typical brass bobbin and carriage that Joseph probably would have made to be used in the Leavers Machines. It is a far cry from the wooden bobbins that were traditionally used in hand made lace.

In this article, I have barely touched the surface of the Nottingham Lace Trade. For anyone wanting to discover more about the history of Industrial Lace making in Nottingham during the 19th and 20th centuries, there is a wealth of information online. In my research, I also discovered a book written in 1982 called ‘The City of Lace’ by David Lowe and Jack Richards which I found invaluable and it is still available to purchase for those wishing to learn more about the lace trade.

William Henry Bostock (1828 -1907) Married to Isabella Goodman White (1837 – 1914) in 1858

My Great Grandfather was the 3rd of 4 children born to Joseph and Ellen and was married to Isabella Goodman in 1858. There is an intriguing mystery surrounding his marriage to Isabella and how they met. William Henry’s mother Ellen Abel had died 2 years earlier and in 1857 Joseph, now a widower, had remarried Caroline Oakland, a widow, who just happened to be the Mother of Isabella Goodman. So Father and Son ended up marrying Mother and Daughter, within a year of each other.

But who met who first; was William Henry courting Isabella and introduced Caroline to his father? This is the more likely scenario as Joseph had only been a widower for a year when he married Caroline, which suggested that he might have known her for sometime, but we will never know the true story; another tantalising glimpse into the lives of our ancestors.

Once married, William and Isabella moved a short distance away to the Parish of St. Marys, where in the 1861 he and Isabella both had an occupation as Tobacconists and were living with a 9 month old baby Caroline. This move to a new occupation seems not to have been a great success as by 1871, they were living in another house in Mill Street and William’s occupation was stated as being a Lace Machinist and by this time they already had 5 children, with Caroline having apparently died between the 1861 and 1871 (no records of her death can be found at present).

In 1871, they were back in Chapel Street, where William had lived with his parents, but now in No.28 and it was here they lived for the rest of their married life, no doubt close to friends and family. By 1881, they had 8 children between the ages of 2 and 18 living at home. William’s occupation was as a Machine Smith at the John Jardine Lace Machine factory nearby, a son aged 18 was working as a Plumber and Gas Fitter also at John Jardine and the 2 oldest daughters, aged 15 and 17 were also working in the industry as Lace Menders, Two other younger children were still at school. It can be seen that the fortunes of the family were totally tied up with that of the lace trade.

It is hard to imagine what life was like in a road like Chapel Street, with 10 people living in a small terraced house and unfortunately we have no photographic record, as the original worker’s terraces in Chapel Street (now renamed Highfield Street) disappeared in a large slum clearance project in 1955, where large swathes of old terraces in Radford were demolished, often to be replaced by the high rise flats that were so popular in post war Britain.

Day to day life must have been incredibly tough for so many people living in these conditions, but somehow people survived and often prospered. An impression of how they might have lived can be gleaned from this mid 20th century photograph taken from a high window overlooking the crowded terraces, which would have been a view unchanged from a 100 years earlier.

The last we hear of William and Isabella together is in the 1901 Census, William has survived to 72 and is listed as a Superannuated Lace man i.e. he was receiving a Company Pension. Things had moved on since the early days of the lace trade, the trade union movement had arrived in Nottingham in the mid 1800s and had transformed the conditions of the lace workers and men with a skilled trade such as William were rewarded for their loyalty with some sort of financial security in their old age, thus enabling them to avoid the Workhouse, unlike many of their generation.

William died in 1907 and he was the first person in the Bostock Family in a position to leave a Will, bequeathing the house at No. 28 Chapel Street, which by this date was fully owned by William, to Isabella to live in or to let out for the rest of her life. The estate was valued at £206, the equivalent of £25,000 in today’s money. The fact that William had managed to pay off a mortgage on a house, as well as bringing up 10 children, demonstrates how conditions for the trained working classes were beginning to change by the turn of the century.

An extract from the Will can be seen below:-

Extract from The Will and Last Testament of William Henry Bostock dated 31st July 1908

The Will also stipulated that after Isabella’s death, the house in Chapel street should be sold and the proceeds split equally amongst the surviving children. As there were 8 children still living when Isabella died, the proceeds for each child would not have amounted to a great deal.

Isabella lived another 7 years and and in the 1911 Census, 3 years prior to her death in 1914, she was living alone in Sherwood, so we assume the house in Chapel Street had been rented out. Why she was not living in their old home until her death is another one of those mysteries that is probably lost forever; were her memories of the house in Chapel Street happy or unhappy?

Both William and Isabella had lived long lives for their time, 79 and 77 respectively, had been married for 49 years and Isabella had given birth to 10 children, of which 8 also lived relatively long lives. Their story is one of hardship, no doubt, but also of resilience, endurance, strength and ultimately hopefully they had a pride in their achievements and dare one to hope, a happy marriage. They are buried in Nottingham General Cemetery in Radford, less than half a mile from where they had lived most of their lives.

The only surviving photograph that the family has of our Great, Great Grandparents can be seen below, taken in the early 1900s, possibly about the time of the marriage of Albert Joseph to Ellen Haida, the Grandparents who I never knew, and who are also shown in the photograph. It is tempting to think that the shawl that Ellen is wearing, might be a present of Nottingham lace from her new family.

From Right to Left, William Henry Bostock, Albert Joseph Bostock, Ellen Haida Bostock, Isabella Goodman Bostock, Will Watts? Ellen’s brother, Photo taken early 1900s

Albert Joseph Bostock (1878 – 1947) Married to Ellen Haida (1880 – 1934) in 1902

As the 19th Century gives way to a new century of social upheaval and two world wars, so the story moves away from Lace and from Nottingham. There was change in the air and many people were on the move, wanting a better life. Of William and Isabella’s 8 children, 3 stayed in Nottingham, 2 emigrated to Pennsylvania, 2 moved a short distance to Derby and Albert Joseph my Grandfather married Ellen Haida from Kent, and settled in Enfield, North London.

They had 4 sons and this photograph taken around 1930 shows them all, William (Bill) who emigrated to Mexico, Albert (Bert), Arthur and Horace, my father. But this is the story of Nottingham and lace , so the continuing saga of the Bostocks in the 20th century will have to wait for another time.

The Bostocks circa 1930, From Left to Right William (Bill), Ellen, Albert Joseph, Arthur, Horace and Albert (Bert)

And what of the lace industry? It reached its zenith at the turn of the 20th century, but like many industries worldwide it was devastated by the first world war and its decline can be traced from then. There was a gradual decline in production exacerbated by the Great Depression and the Second world war, and by 1950 the trade was all but finished.

Today, no lace manufacturers exist in Nottingham city, the last closing its factory in 2011. However, the flame is being kept alive a few miles away over the border in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, coincidently less that 2 miles from Trowell, the place where my story commenced.

Here the Cluny Lace company are still going strong, the last remaining factory in England making traditional Leavers lace, using the machines that created a revolution in the 19th century. The Mason family at Cluny Lace started making lace on the first basic lace machines in the 1760s and the present owners are the 9th generation of the Mason family to carry on the tradition and long may it continue. Their recent high point was to provide the lace for Kate Middleton’s wedding gown. The short clip below shows one of their Leavers machines in action and it is truly a wonder to behold, a testament to Victorian inventiveness and ingenuity.

Also, there is a resurgence worldwide in traditional hand made lace, and the craft is going back to its roots. It appears that the production of lace, one way or another is safe and in good hands in the 21st century.

Ritual and the Mundane

Resilience and Survival in the time of Pandemic

Ritual; a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.”

Mundane 1 : of, relating to, or characteristic of the world. 2 : characterized by the practical, transitory, and ordinary : commonplace the mundane concerns of day-to-day life.”

As we enter a new lockdown at the worst stage of this frightening pandemic and in spite of the light at the end of the tunnel, our resilience is starting to crack and all our good intentions from a year ago are beginning to look worn and frazzled.

I’m certainly no exception to this and, like most other people struggling to make sense of the situation, I have my bad days in between. We feel helpless and have no control over the situation. This has led me to thinking on how we best can survive the bad times and the resources that we might need to reach the other side. Perhaps also a a recipe for our future behaviour.

I then started contemplating the things that we are already doing, perhaps subconsciously, that contribute to our mental wellbeing and survival; the two words that came to mind were Ritual and Mundane. Everyday we carry out tasks to a set pattern, be that drinking a cup of coffee, preparing food, brushing leaves in the yard or even filling the dishwasher.

These actions are also mundane i.e. commonplace, practical, ordinary; there is another definition of mundane in the Oxford Dictionary which is “Lacking interest or excitement; dull”. These are not words that I would use to characterise mundane – just because something is commonplace and ordinary does not make it boring and dull.

One great artist and writer who knew this to be true was D.H.Lawrence. Aldous Huxley said of him that “He could cook, he could sew, he could darn a stocking and milk a cow, he was an efficient woodcutter and a good hand at embroidery, fires always burned when he had laid them and a floor after he had scrubbed it was thoroughly clean.”

Everything that Lawrence did, be it writing or any other tasks that he performed, were carried out with a deep sense of reverence and total commitment. His work ethic was phenomenal and was perhaps a result of his working class background, his mother was very house proud, despite the relative poverty of the family.

Lawrence had an almost religious attitude to physical work and was convinced that it was necessary to carry out your own tasks in order to counteract what he regarded as the softness and blandness of modern society. How he would have hated our Netflix generation. Physical work was probably a necessity for him on a more personal level, as a antidote to his life as a writer, which appeared to cause him severe mental distress.

He also wanted total control over every situation which was probably verging on pathological. I am not suggesting that we should all be like Lawrence, but perhaps we could all learn something in today’s society from something of that quality of his, which was both earthy and mystical.

Much of what I have learned about Lawrence’s phenomenal capacity for work was gleaned from a fantastic online site called ‘D.H.Lawrence Memory Theatre’ a digital resource that explores the literary and cultural heritage of Nottingham. For more fascinating information concerning Lawrence please follow the link at D.H.Lawrence Memory Theatre

I should also give a thanks to my daughter Camilla, whose PhD in 2018 on Lawrence, rekindled my interest in his life and work “Between Letters: D.H. Lawrence, the Nonhuman and the “Life of Writing”

It has long been known how rituals within different cultures reduce anxiety by giving people a set of strict rules to live by in order to counteract the uncertainty and confusion of life. This is, after all, the basis of most of the world’s major religious movements, where historically people have performed ritual actions in order to bring certainty to their existence. As well as formal religious services which are widespread amongst the major religions, there are numerous ritual practices throughout every culture in the world, too many to mention, but including such notable examples such as the Japanese tea ceremony, the Sufi whirling dervishes and even the humble family dinner to name but a few.

Below are images showing Whirling Dervishes, Catholic Tridentine Mass and a French Masonic ceremony from 1745:

More recently, a definitive link between the performing of rituals and mental health is being established on a scientific basis and it is the neuroscientists that are providing the answer. There is a fascinating article in Psychology Today from 2017 entitled ‘The Anxiety-Busting Properties of Ritual’ by Nick Hobson PhD a research psychologist and lecturer at the University of Toronto. The subtitle is ‘How ritualized actions act as a natural anxiolytic’. An anxiolytic is a medication or other intervention that is prescribed to reduce anxiety, so it can be seen that if an anxiolytic is natural, it has enormous repercussions for medicine and science.

The crux of the article is that the brain’s main function is to make predictions about the future and then adjust behaviour based on those predictions.

“A brain that can predict (one that is certain) makes a human feel safe and happy. A brain that cannot predict (one that is uncertain) makes a human feel threatened and anxious.”

Unfortunately, despite the brain’s wonderful capabilities, even it cannot process the infinite amount of data involved and therefore the result is confusion and anxiety. From man’s earliest days he has adapted his behaviour to deal with this anxiety, developing complex rituals in order to make sense of the world. In everyday modern life , we have also developed many rituals which we perform every day to lessen anxiety and which have been shown, in experiments, to reduce activity in the parts of the brain that cause anxiety.

The article concludes by making suggestions on how we can reduce anxiety in our day to day lives by firstly formalising and committing ourselves more to the rituals that we already are aware of. The other thing is to create further rituals of our own, which if carried out on a daily basis, will over time create resilience. If you like, a compound interest for the soul.

A link to the article in Psychology Today can be found here and is well worth the read The Anxiety-Busting Properties of Ritual

Many of these rituals are what are termed mundane and one of the best descriptions that I have read is in an article by a Zen Buddhist monk on his early days as a novice in a temple in Vietnam, and it is all about that most mundane of activities washing up. He writes eloquently how an activity like washing up carries the same weight and importance as every other activity and if carried out with reverence becomes a sacrament.

“I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to be able to finish so I can sit down sooner and eat dessert or enjoy a cup of tea, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles!” ……..

“Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end. We do the dishes not only in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them, and to be truly in touch with life.”

Memories from the Root Temple: Washing Dishes

In a similar vein, one of my favourite poems, which I discovered a few years ago in an anthology, is by the Californian poet, Al Zolynas. Many of Al’s poems deal with the everyday and the mundane in the best possible meaning of the word. Al is a long time practitioner of Zen Buddhism and in this poem he seems to capture the essence of both the ordinariness and the extraordinariness of everyday life, they are of course one and the same thing.

Al Zolynas – The Zen of Housework

"I look over my own shoulder
down my arms
to where they disappear under water
into hands inside pink rubber gloves
moiling among dinner dishes.
My hands lift a wine glass,
holding it by the stem and under the bowl.
It breaks the surface
like a chalice
rising from a medieval lake.
Full of the grey wine
of domesticity, the glass floats
to the level of my eyes.
Behind it, through the window
above the sink, the sun, among
a ceremony of sparrows and bare branches,
is setting in Western America.
I can see thousands of droplets
of steam—each a tiny spectrum—rising
from my goblet of grey wine.
They sway, changing directions
constantly—like a school of playful fish,
or like the sheer curtain
on the window to another world.
Ah, grey sacrament of the mundane!"

Printed with Kind Permission of the Author.

First Published in:- The New Physics
Wesleyan University Press,
Middletown, Connecticut 1979

I think I should make a confession here, in that most of the dishwashing in our house is carried out by a machine, but I do have a number of precious pieces of pottery and glass, which I meticulously clean with great love and attention. Also stacking the dishwasher in a particular and most efficient way has become a daily ritual.

During the first lockdown, back in the Spring of 2020, which now feels like a lifetime ago, my wife and I established a routine of aiming to carry out a few tasks every day, mainly outside jobs in the garden when the weather was good, plus also having a cup of coffee at fixed times, a walk into nature, the planting of vegetables and the preparation of food together.

Later in the year, as the weather deteriorated, indoor activities took over, and, as well as the general maintenance, other activities started to surface. As my good friends know, I am an avid collector of studio pottery and have a largish collection, which moves around the house. In this lockdown I have become prone to rearranging my collection, as well as handling many pots on a daily basis, the feel of a piece of pottery in the hand is very important.

Paintings that had hung on the wall for 20 years or more, assumed a greater importance. I spent more time looking and discovering small details never before noticed. It was as though they were telling me that they had been ignored for far too long.

We also noticed that life slowed down, so that even though we were working, we had more time to take in our surroundings and really take in the nature around us. The birds feeding outside our kitchen window, the antics of the squirrel, the shape of a vegetable, a spider making its web, the larvae of a butterfly.

Of course this will not last, eventually life will slowly get back to normal, and within a couple of years people will forget and move on back to the old way of life. But maybe, just maybe, there will be a small voice within us saying that things can never be quite the same again. Things will need to change both inside ourselves and in the outside world, if we are to save both mankind and the planet.

In writing this article I am not in any way wishing to diminish the terrible devastation this pandemic has wrought worldwide with several million deaths and further untold millions suffering bereavement, sorrow, financial hardship and poverty. For those who survive there is very little comfort, and this article is, in my small way, a dedication to them.

The Town that loves to Party

“There are many ways to the Divine. I have chosen the ways of song, dance and laughter” Rumi, 13th century Persian Sufi Mystic and Poet

One of the first things I discovered on arriving in the area 8 years ago is that they love a good party in Hastings and if you have to dress up for it, even better. There’s a celebration for every time of the year and more. There are pagan festivals, a weird pirates day, bonfire shenanigans, their own unique version of Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), numerous seafood and other gastronomic events during the summer months plus countless other more esoteric events to cater for every taste. Most of them seem to have one thing in common, copious quantities of alcohol and the chance of dressing up in a costume, often the more outrageous the better. Although there are numerous events, as I stated above, I will concentrate on the 3 largest events in the calendar, namely Jack in the Green held in May, Pirates Day in July at the height of the summer and the Bonfire Procession normally held in the middle of October. The rest will have to wait for another time.

The year we arrived, our first experience was the pagan festival of Jack in the Green held on the May Bank Holiday and we were not prepared for it. For a start, we were vastly underdressed (i.e. we didn’t have a costume) and initially it brought back traumatic memories of watching the human sacrifice in the cult 1970s film “the Wicker Man”. However, my fears were unfounded and at the end of the day no one was sacrificed to the gods (at least to my knowledge).

Jack in the Green is an ancient ritual with origins in paganism and is held in a number of places throughout Britain, although Hastings would claim theirs is the biggest and best and who am I to disagree. By the 20th century the custom had mainly died out, but in 1983 it was revived in Hastings and since that time has grown into an enormous event.

The main procession starts at 11am on Bank Holiday Monday, where Jack is released from the Fisherman’s Museum in Hastings Old Town, together with his protectors, the Bogies and Black Sal, his consort. The procession is followed by various groups including the Lovely Ladies, the Gay Bogies, the Milkmaids and of course the Chimney Sweeps, who have always been historically associated with Jack-in-the-Green. Mayday was a traditional holiday for chimney sweeps and is often known as Chimney Sweepers Day. The procession continues with Giants depicting various historical and mythical figures together with Morris Dancers from the length and breadth of UK. Finally, last but not least, are the ubiquitous drumming and percussion groups, which are an exciting feature of all the main Hastings Festivals.

The procession winds through the narrow streets of the Old Town and then continues its way up to the top of the West Hill that overlooks the Town. Dancing and Singing continue for several hours until at last, at around 4.30pm, Jack is brought forward and is symbolically slain and the spirit of Summer is released for another year. We all live in hope.

At last the crowds can all disperse home feeling energised and exhilarated as yet another successful celebration draws to a close.

Jack surrounded by his Bogies

Following the debacle of Jack in the Green we were more prepared for the following event, Pirates day, so we found appropriate hats and scarves and added an eye patch and thought we looked the bees knees. We then we walked into town and then the terrible truth dawned on us – this was serious stuff. People go to tremendous lengths to achieve a realistic look, many having their own tailor made costumes and sporting genuine old pistols and cutlasses. There are scores of Jack Sparrow look alikes, each competing to look like Johny Depp. In light of recents events concerning Mr. Depp, they might not be so keen in the future.

There is a rebellious streak in the people of Hastings and Pirates Day gives people a chance to channel their inner Buccaneer. How Hastings became the Pirate Capital of the World is not entirely clear, but what is indisputable is that Hastings holds the Guinness World Record for the most pirates gathered in one place, 14231 to be precise, which took place in 2012 and which hasn’t been beaten since. Towns in the USA and Germany plus Penzance in Cornwall have all tried to take our crown but without success. Penzance feel they deserve the crown as they’ve had a Gilbert and Sullivan opera written about them and I agree “The Pirates of Hastings” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but they need to get over it. Hastings is ‘Pirate Central’ and will continue to be so for some years to come.

The procedure is similar to Jack in the Green, with a mass procession in the Old Town with again loads of percussion and drumming and finishing up this time at the beach, where there is normally plenty of live music. There may be a bit more alcohol consumed than Jack in the Green, but we are talking about pirates after all, who you wouldn’t expect to behave themselves.

Its a great way to spend a summer’s day and wonderful to see the bewildered stares from the holidaymakers who had not been warned of what was taking place.

The ships surgeon exhibiting a particularly messy amputation

Finally we come to the Bonfire Procession, which is not unique to Hastings but is part of a wider network throughout the South Coast. The Sussex Bonfire Societies, of which there are approximately 50, are unique in the UK and have their historical roots in not only the Gunpowder plot but also the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs in Lewes’s High Street from 1555 to 1557, during the reign of Mary Tudor. Because of the large number of societies involved and the collaboration between the various towns, the bonfire season starts at the beginning of September and finishes in November. Lewes is by far the largest procession in early November, but Hastings is probably the second largest and has the advantage that people can still view it at close quarters and feel the excitement and danger as the flaming torches pass by, a few inches from their face.

It takes place in the middle of October and the best spots to view the procession are in the narrow streets of the Old Town in either All Saints Street or the High Street. This gives the bystander a visceral thrill and edginess, which is not present in the other Hastings festivals. The procession seems to go on for ever, as Bonfire Societies from all over Sussex and Kent descend on the town, distinguished from each other by their uniforms and their particular society and banners, but with nearly everyone of them carrying a flaming torch. And of course there are the drummers, who never miss the opportunity of a good festival.

At the rear of the procession are people carrying flaming carts, picking up the dropped and waylaid torches along the way. The procession wends its way down to beach, where an enormous tower of driftwood and pallets has been prepared and the flaming torches are thrown onto the timber construction, creating a monumental bonfire that can be seen for miles around.

Finally, at the end of the proceedings there is a wonderful firework display, which even in the few years I have attended seems to be getting better and better, the end of another exhilarating evening.

One thing that I have noticed in the few years that I have lived here is that these seasonal events seem to cement a common unity amongst us who live in Hastings and St. Leonards. In spite of all our differences, both political and personal, for a few hours we become one, living in the moment and enjoying life with song, dance and laughter.

But alas, the pandemic in 2020 has put paid to all our communal enjoyment in a particularly cruel way as we studiously avoid each other and steer clear of any sign of a crowd. The rowdy Festivals that took place in 2019, seem like a distant memory before the whole world changed. As things recover slowly, we must hope that 2021 will allow us once more to recapture that unique spirit of Hastings so that we can once again be the Town that loves to Party.

Pandemic Blues

Inevitably I’ve been thinking recently about viruses and disease, along with most of the world’s population. I’ve also been thinking about the blues, that great musical outpouring of pain and suffering from a downtrodden black population in the USA in the first half of the Twentieth Century.

Like all young teenagers, I was blown away by the pop explosion of the early sixties from the likes of the Beatles, Rolling Stones etc., but in a very short time the Blues became my passion. While many of my friends were still only hooked on the latest new number one single, I was exploring the music of Skip James, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and dozens of other familiar and unknown musicians singing songs of suffering and despair.

Together with the occasional optimistic song, the majority of this music dealt with poverty, money troubles, unhappy love, sex, alcohol abuse and inevitably illness.

So I have decided to investigate how the various blues and country singers and songwriters have dealt with infection and disease and how this tragically often led to an early death. I can think of no other genre of music that deals so openly and honestly with the impact of illness on the lives of the performers and their families.

I was familiar with some of the songs that dealt with Tuberculosis, but I was amazed in my research at the sheer range of music and the range of diseases covered. In my search I have uncovered two songs that refer directly to the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918/19, but there may be more. The first one is the 1919 Influenza Blues by a rather obscure singer (at least to me) called Essie Jenkins, recorded well after the event in the 1940s. It is probably a much older song and the opening verse gets straight to the point:

It was nineteen hundred and nineteen;
Men and women were dying,
With the stuff that the doctor called the flu.
People were dying everywhere,
Death was creepin’ all through the air,
And the groans of the rich sure was sad
.”

This song is belted out with gusto by Essie, rather inappropriately, to a jaunty blues beat with a gorgeous boogie woogie piano accompaniment.

At the other end of the spectrum, the famous Gospel and Blues singer Blind Willie Johnson, also recorded a song in the late 1920s about the 1918 flue pandemic, but he disguised this under the title “Jesus is Coming Soon”. Blind Willie sings, or should I say growls, through a gloomy song about man’s wickedness and the resulting punishment by God in the form of a pandemic.

Another virulent disease that became a topic for blues singers in the early part of the twentieth century was meningitis and the great female singer and guitarist Memphis Minnie recorded a great number called ‘Meningitis Blues’

Sickbed songs of a more generalised nature were also common and below you can hear ‘Pneumonia Blues’ by the famous singer and guitarist Big Bill Broonzy, who when he toured the UK in the early 1950 had a profound influence on the burgeoning blues and folk scene.

Another tortured soul was Skip James, who after recording a few songs in 1931, disappeared into obscurity until the early 1960s, when he was rediscovered by a younger generation of blues enthusiasts. His minor key tuning and high plaintive singing is totally unique and is both beautiful and chilling at the same time. ‘Sickbed Blues’ was recorded in the 1960s; his ghostly voice and guitar sends shivers down my spine whenever I hear it:-

“The doctor came, lookin’ very sad
He diagnosed my case and said it was awful bad
He walked away, mumblin’ very low
He said, “He may get better but he’ll never get well no more
I hollered, “Lord, oh Lord, Lord, Lordy, Lord
Oh Lordy, Lord, Lord, Lord
I been so badly misused and treated just like a dog”

And then there’s TB. In the 19th and 20th centuries, more people died in the USA of tuberculosis, than any other disease. People of all classes and background caught and died of TB, but as in all infectious diseases, including the present pandemic, it was the deprived areas that bore the brunt of the disease.

TB cut a swathe through the downtrodden and poverty stricken communities of America, both black and white. It was inevitable, therefore, that TB was the subject of much blues music.

One of my favourites is the “T.B. blues” by Huddie Leadbetter, better known as Leadbelly, a convicted murderer, whose trademark was the 12 string guitar and a powerful baritone voice.

To demonstrate the amazing variety of blues styles, this is exactly the same song as recorded by Victoria Spivey in 1927. Spivey was a blues and vaudeville singer whose style was closer to Jazz than the folk style of Leadbelly and she often sang with the likes of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. Here she sings an impassioned version of the TB blues accompanied by a simple piano and guitar.

I couldn’t write a story of epidemics and blues, without talking about the tragic story of Jimmie Rodgers , the father of American Country music and arguably the greatest white blues singer that ever lived. Rodgers was an itinerant railroad worker, who in his his travels absorbed the folk music around him from black blues singers to the white hillbillies of the Appallachian mountains with their music brought over by their Scots and Irish forefathers.

Rodgers also incorporated a yodel in his music, which he claimed he heard from a group of Swiss singers that he heard in a church. The result was a new and unique sound.

There is a common misconception that there was no musical cross fertilization between the races, but this is totally disproved by the evidence; Jimmie Rodgers became one of the great blues songwriters, Leadbelly picked up ballads and popular songs from the white inmates in gaol and there are many other examples.

Rodgers had caught TB when he was 24 and the rest of his life was a relentless fight against this terrible disease. He wrote and recorded his own TB Blues in 1931 and it is an unflinchingly dark song, accompanied by wonderful guitar and tender singing. The song ends with these verses:-

Gee but the graveyard
Is a lonesome place
Lord that graveyard
Is a lonesome place

They put you on your back
Throw that mud down in your face
I’ve got the T.B. blues

This is a stark and unsentimental acceptance of how this disease will inevitably end. Two years after he recorded this blues, Jimmie Rodgers was dead at the age of 36.

These songs served a profound purpose, expressing deep and powerful emotions on behalf of their oppressed community. We need these honest and uncompromising songs, that speak truth to power, more than ever. In this year of pain, sorrow and discord, who will sing our 2020 blues.

A Jewel in Rural Kent

Not many people are familiar with the small rural village of Tudeley on the edge of the High Weald in Kent. I certainly hadn’t before I moved to the Sussex and Kent area, but as I discovered, the local church of this unpretentious village, houses a treasure by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

So back in January, in happier and more innocent times, I decided to investigate and discover more. As we entered the churchyard of All Saint’s Church, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, just a normal country church no different to hundreds of others scattered throughout the country.

But as we opened the church door, we were confronted by a revelation, a vision in glass. The church was bathed in a glow of blues and yellows emanating from every window, housing some of the most beautiful stained glass windows that I have ever seen. The effect was so surprising and spectacular that for a moment I was stopped in my tracks.

On display, of course, was sublime art from from of the towering giants of 20th century post-impressionism, Marc Chagall. The largest window above the altar is an mainly intense blues, with patches of yellow, red and green. It shows the crucified Jesus at the top with the Virgin Mary in the lower right hand corner and then a number of typical Chagall angels floating around at the edges and, of course, a Chagall donkey.

Close up of the altar window

But how did a small church in a remote corner of Kent end up with twelve priceless windows from the great Russian/French artist. The story begins with a tragedy; in 1963 Sarah d’Avigdor-Goldsmid died aged just 21 in a sailing accident off Rye. Her parents, a Jewish father and an Anglican mother, were a well known and established local family and they wanted to have a permanent memorial for their daughter.

They decided to commission Chagall, whose work had been loved by their daughter and when Chagall arrived in Tudeley 1967 to oversee the commission of the first window, he was apparently so enthralled by the interior of the church that he exclaimed that he would do all of the windows.

Over the next 15 years, Chagall worked on the remaining windows, with the last window being installed in 1985, the year of Chagall’s death at the grand old age of 98. It is now the only Church in the world with a full set of Chagall windows; what a claim to fame.

The eleven further Chagall windows are both figurative and abstract, but all of them beautiful. A selection of some of these windows can be seen below.

On the day we visited there were just a scattering of people in the church, a young Japanese couple and then a couple of other families arrived in the space of an hour. I was struck by how few people there were and how it was obviously a pilgrimage for the few that were there. I was also struck by how accessible the windows are; the only other Chagall window that I have seen is in Chichester Cathedral which is so high up that it is difficult to appreciate. Here the windows are at eye level and you can take in every detail and even see Chagall’s own markings on the glass.

The main window over the altar

As an aside, on the way out, I noticed a prayer stuck to one of the front pews. It was written by Archbishop Sentanu, then Archbishop of York and was written as the Government was still negotiating the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

It seems to me now that in the middle of the present crisis, in these unprecedented times, these words have even more resonance. Whether the prayer will work, or whether the powers that be are listening, remains to be seen.

The church, of course is currently closed, but when things are back to something like normality, I hope that this church continues to be a spiritual and artistic beacon of light for many years to come.

More details of All Saints Church and the windows can be seen on their web site All Saints Church, Tudeley

Edith’s Story

When I first moved to St. Leonards-on-sea nearly 8 years ago, I used to pass a dirty statue in a park close to the beach, feeling very sorry for itself and which had obviously suffered the ravages of time and the weather. It was very difficult to see what was going on, but at first sight it looked like a woman astride a man, trying to strangle him. As it seemed unlikely that this was celebrating some form of perverse sexual activity (although anything is possible in St.Leonards), I investigated further.

We are living, of course, in 1066 country (which is impossible to forget, as it is signposted on every road leading into the area) and my strange statue turned out to be that of a distraught woman lifting the head of Harold on the battlefield. The woman in question was Edith Swan-neck and this story is about her, rather than her more famous husband.

Living in the area, you find it impossible to ignore the one date in English history that every schoolboy knows, 1066. However, since my arrival, many of my preconceptions have been upended – I had always been told that Harold had been killed by an arrow in his eye, but this turns out to be unlikely, the story perpetuated by that early purveyor of fake news, the Bayeux Tapestry.

Anyway, back to Edith Swan-neck otherwise known as Eadgifu Swanneshals and Edith the Fair. She was, I have it on good authority, a great beauty with that quality of pale white skin that was so popular in the Middle Ages, hence the swan-neck. She was a wealthy and powerful landowner of Anglo-Danish heritage and was the great love of Harold’s life, having been together for 20 years. They had been been married ‘More Danico’ (in the Danish manner), a pre Christian form of marriage and had six children.

Unfortunately for Edith, in 1065 just prior to the famous battle of Hastings, Harold went through a Christian marriage of convenience to the daughter of a Welsh King, which was obviously bad news for Edith. However, this was all very short lived, for as we all know by October 1066, Harold lay dead on the battlefield and as Harold dies so begins Edith’s fame.

The main source of Edith’s story was from the 12th century Waltham Chronicles, which narrates how the monks at Waltham Abbey in Essex had searched for Harold’s body on the battlefield without success and how they had then enlisted Edith in the search. Together with the monks she trekked barefoot down to the battlefield and amongst the bloodied corpses, she eventually recognised Harold by the teeth mark scars on his shoulder, as a result of a particularly passionate bout of lovemaking. Harold was then transported back to Waltham Abbey by the monks for a Christian burial.

This is the stuff of legend, but it was not until the 19th Century that the legend took flight, under the guiding hands of the Romantics. The themes of battle, gruesome death and undying love were just the sort thing that stirred the romantic soul and the German poet Heinrich Heine was no exception. Heine was famous in his home country, for his lyric poems, which were frequently set to music by those arch romantic composers Schubert and Schumann.

Portrait of Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) 1831 (oil on paper on canvas) by Oppenheim, Moritz Daniel (1800-82); 43×34 cm; Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany; German, out of copyright

The story of Harold and Edith stirred Heine’s fevered imagination and, as a result, he wrote his epic poem ‘The Battlefield at Hastings’. The poem is quite long and to my mind, a bit overwrought, but that maybe a result of this particular translation. Here are some of the closing lines below, giving a taste of the style:-


“The woman stopped not for the blood;
She waded barefoot through,
And from her fixed and staring eyes
The arrowy glances flew.
Long, with the panting monks behind,
And pausing but to scare
The greedy ravens from their food,
She searched with eager care.
She searched and toiled the livelong day,
Until the night was nigh;
Then sudden from her breast there burst
A shrill and awful cry.
For on the battle-field at last
His body she had found.
She kissed, without a tear or word,
The wan face on the ground.
She kissed his brow, she kissed his mouth,
She clasped him close, and pressed
Her poor lips to the bloody wounds
That gaped upon his breast.
His shoulder stark she kisses too,
When, searching, she discovers
Three little scars her teeth had made
When they were happy lovers.”

Edith finding Harold on the battlefield – painted by Horace Vernet in 1828

So this is the story with all its melodrama and passion, but what of the statue. This was commissioned by famous Hastings resident, Lord Brassey, Liberal MP, Explorer, Philanthropist and much more in the 1870s and completed by the renowned sculptor Charles Wilke in 1875 in white Carrara marble. It has had various homes over the years, but finally came to rest in West Marina Gardens over 60 years ago, since when it has deteriorated due to the weather and pollution. Carrara marble is not made to withstand the elements.

And so this was how I found the statue, when I first set eyes on it. Luckily there were many people in Hastings and St. Leonards who had treasured the statue long before I knew of its existence. In particular, a local Historian Ian Jarman launched a one man campaign to rescue Edith and has, with the aid of volunteers and fundraising, within the last month restored Edith and Harold to almost its original glory .Link to article in Hastings in Focus

These are some recent photographs following the restoration and cleaning plus the addition of a plaque; more work will still be required to protect the statue in years to come, but this is already a great improvement.

Other than this statue, there is no other memorial in Hastings, to one of the defining events in British history. Edith, once a forgotten footnote in the history of England can once more take her rightful place next to the side of Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England.