Category: History

World War One: The Army Cyclist Corps

Gravestone of Private W. Samworth, Army Cyclist Corps, Isleworth CemeteryOne sunny spring afternoon earlier this year, I found myself wandering round Isleworth Cemetery. This is a fascinating and peaceful place, opened in the 1880s when the graveyard at the nearby All Saints Church became full and was closed to new burials. Among the many memorials at Isleworth is one to a member of the well-known local Pears family (the soap manufacturers), who died in the Titanic disaster of 1912.

There are also a number of memorial stones relating to the two World Wars here. These headstones are easily identifiable, all conforming to the simple and elegant design laid down by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1917. Each lists the deceased serviceman’s name, rank, age, unit and date of death, along with his regimental badge, a religious symbol and a brief inscription often chosen by the family.

As you can see from the photograph (left), William Samworth’s headstone is no different in that respect. But it was the nature of some of the details on there that really struck me. The first and most important thing was his unit. Despite having studied both World Wars in great detail, I had never encountered the Army Cyclist Corps before. I admit I was intrigued by the concept, and determined to find out more about the ACC – and about Private Samworth too…

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World War One: 100 Years On

One hundred years ago today, Britain declared war on Germany – and thus began this country’s involvement in the First World War. This, what was assumed to be ‘the war to end all wars’, soon became a ‘total war'; a conflict that killed millions of soldiers and civilians and left millions more permenantly physically or mentally scarred. Even more people worldwide, but particularly from countries across Europe, lost family, friends, lovers and homes as a result of the fighting and destruction. A whole generation was virtually wiped out by what was quite simply industrial warfare.

World War One was unquestionably one of the most significant events of the 20th century. The fact that historians are still debating its exact causes one hundred years later says a great deal about its impact on our society and others  – and the fact that we are all still paying the price of this conflict (in the Middle East, for example) shows how its effects have echoed down the decades since the Armistice in 1918. It is, therefore, important to remember.

So, to commemorate this important anniversary, I’ll be publishing a number of new posts on the subject of some of the lesser known or more unusual aspects of the conflict from the British perspective. Much will be written by others about military leaders and famous battles (and there is nothing wrong with that), but I prefer to focus mainly on the war on the Home Front and the people who lived through that, with particular reference to events in London. I have some fascinating and enlightening stories to tell about the experiences of this city at war – my small tribute to the men and women who served in numerous capacities, whether they survived or died, during the four years of this terrible conflict.

Watch out for the first of these new posts later this week and more to come over the next couple of months.

Charles Dickens and the Story of ‘A Christmas Carol’

Charles Dickens, a former resident of Lant Street.For many people, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a bit of Charles Dickens. Indeed, there is a strong argument to be made that it was the popularity of his works (and the often sentimental descriptions of the festive season therein) that actually went a long way towards reinventing the festival and creating what we now see as a ‘traditional’ Christmas. But even if you’ve never read any of his novels, there is one of his stories that everyone knows because its characters and events have become an integral part of our culture of Christmas – and it is the story behind that particular story I’ll be looking at today, on this Christmas Eve…

Born in February 1812, Charles Dickens had a peripatetic childhood, his family frequently moving to where his father’s job as a pay clerk in the Royal Dockyards took them. In the 1820s, his spendthrift father was jailed for debt, and the young Charles went to work in a blacking factory making shoe polish to help the family’s often parlous finances. This experience of family disruption and what we would now call child labour must have left deep psychological scars on the young man at a formative time in his life – it was certainly something he drew on in his later writings, as the reader can see in his ‘Christmas Books’ amongst others.

All this upheaval during his youth meant that Dickens had little formal education (he was mostly self-taught having effectively left school by the time he was 15), but his childhood experiences had made him ambitious and determined to make a success of himself from an early age. Starting out in a solicitor’s office, he worked his way into journalism and was a parliamentary reporter by the early 1830s. But he was also writing fiction, and his first short story was published in 1833. Three years later, the initial installment of his still-popular novel The Pickwick Papers was published and he rapidly became a household name as a result of its immediate success.

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Quote of the Day: On how little things change…

I was in the library today. While flicking through the pages of a book on the 1832 Reform Act, I found this little story. You can imagine my reaction (and yes, I did get a dirty look from the librarian for laughing…):

[A] little girl asked her mother, ‘Mamma, are Tories born wicked, or do they grow wicked afterwards?’ To which the mother replied, ‘They are born wicked and grow worse.’

Whether this parental exchange really happened is immaterial – the story obviously struck a chord at the time. And, not far off two centuries later, absolutely nothing has changed…

Stir-Up Sunday

Ah, the pudding. Months in the making. Finally...I’ve written previously about strange and interesting seasonal traditions, but here’s one I don’t think I’ve ever covered before….

A Twitter discussion last week about the wonder of proper British puddings (seriously, they really are the best in the world when done right) reminded me that today is Stir-Up Sunday. In this age of ready meals and 24 hour supermarkets, that may not mean much to you, but for many families it has long been the traditional start of the preparations for the Christmas season.

Stir-Up Sunday falls on the last Sunday before the start of Advent (as calculated by the Anglican church), and although it began life as a tradition loosely associated with religion and the impact of the church calendar on the everyday lives of ordinary people, it soon developed to have both religious and secular aspects – much as Christmas itself does in our modern world. Despite this tradition only really stretching back a couple of hundred years in its best-known form, the name ‘Stir-Up Sunday’ itself is derived from a prayer that dates back to the 16th century Book Of Common Prayer. Still said in a modern form every year on the last Sunday before Advent, the original version reads:

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

That’s all very well, but what exactly does Stir-Up Sunday involve in reality? It’s the day on which households would traditionally gather to make the Christmas pudding for the year, having been reminded by the prayer said in church that morning – with each member of the family taking it in turns to ‘stir up’ the mixture and make a private, secret wish. In some traditions, there is a distinctly religious element to this, as it is believed that the pudding mixture must be made with twelve or thirteen ingredients (to represent Jesus and his disciples) and stirred from East to West (right to left, or anti-clockwise) to honour the Three Wise Men of the Nativity.

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Quote of the Day: On how to be a football fan, Victorian style

I don’t often write about sport, but I couldn’t let this one pass me by. I was rummaging in amongst my small library of football books today, searching for a particular quote (which is actually a whole other blog post in itself. Probably), when I found this little gem.* Apparently taken from the 1897 edition of the club handbook, here’s some useful – if perhaps slightly patronising – advice on how to be a proper 19th century Spurs fan:

Hints to Spectators

Learn the rules well before criticising.

Respect the rulings of the referee and refrain from unseemly demonstrations so common on many football fields when decisions are unpalatable – the best of referees make mistakes.

Applaud good football impartially.

Don’t let a defeat discourage you. It is at this time that encouragement is most wanted by players.

Don’t express your disapproval of a player so that everyone can hear, it only upsets him and he loses confidence.

This season’s team will doubtless accomplish some fine performances. Don’t, in your enthusiasm, forget that there is such a thing as mistaken kindness where athletes in training are concerned.

Don’t stop at home when the team goes away; they want your support more than ever when on opponents’ grounds.

Let visitors go away with the impression that the Tottenham crowd are good sportsmen.

Whether at home or away don’t forget the ‘Tottenham whisper’.

It’s amazing how little some things change over the course of a century – quite a few of these ‘hints’ are still clearly recognisable as issues within the game as a whole, and rightly so in some cases! However, despite being a life-long Spurs fan, I have absolutely no idea what the ‘Tottenham whisper’ is. Can anyone enlighten me?

* Powley, Adam and Cloake, Martin – ‘The Spurs Miscellany’ (Vision Sports Publishing, London; 2007), p.116

Horsemeat, Sloe Leaves and Arsenic: Food Adulteration Past and Present

It can’t have failed to escape your notice in recent months that most of the major supermarkets have been pulling beef products off the shelves at a rapid rate of knots due to the fact that it has been discovered that they have been adulterated with horsemeat.

Unlike many other cases of food adulteration, this isn’t necessarily a public health issue. In Britain, at least, the decision not to consume horsemeat is a cultural choice (although this hasn’t always been the case); however, this is more a case of whether we can assume honesty and are able to trust the products that we buy – or not. If our microwave meal claims to contain beef, for example, then beef is exactly what it should contain.

What is in our food is actually regulated by law, but that hasn’t always been the case either – and the horsemeat scandal shows how ineffective even these modern laws can be against those determined to make a fat profit out of the food we eat, whatever the consequences. However, a horsemeat lasagne is really nothing compared to some of the highly disturbing things that have been found in foodstuffs in the past.

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Richard III and reading history

Kings and queens don’t usually feature that highly among my regular historical interests, but even I was fascinated to learn last month that the skeletal remains found during a recent archaeological dig in a Leicester car park (of all places…) have been identified as those of Richard III, the last Yorkist king of England - whose body had been considered all but lost for centuries. And the twists and turns of this complex historical detective story got me thinking about history and about how we portray and interpret it.

Richard has long been a controversial figure historically. Not initially ‘born to be king’, he is believed by many to have been a severely physically disabled and emotionally embittered man who connived his way to the throne, murdering his young nephews in the process (these nephews being the sad little figures known to history as ‘The Princes in the Tower’); a dark image both reinforced and exacerbated by the works of some near-contemporary chroniclers, later plays such as that by William Shakespeare, and countless portraits and engravings produced long after Richard’s death.

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Christmas in London: The Trafalgar Square Tree

Dusk in Trafalgar Square

The arrival of the huge Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square each December is a familiar part of the festive season for many people in the capital, Londoners and visitors alike. Some years back, entirely by accident, I found myself in the Square on the evening the tree was due to be lit. As darkness gathered over the city, carols were sung and speeches made – and, with great ceremony, the switch was flicked, lighting the tree to an admiring chorus of oohs and aahs from those watching.

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Christmas in London: The Geffrye Museum

A Victorian Christmas

Tucked away in a row of 18th century almshouses just behind Hoxton Overground station, the Geffrye Museum of the Home is one of London’s real hidden gems. Examining the homes of the urban middle classes over the last four hundred years, the museum is divided up into a number of different ‘living rooms’ which each represent – and are decorated in the style of – a different time period.

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