Sunday, November 20, 2011

Memories of The Golden Treasury

Strange as it may seem these days, there was a time when reading poetry together could be a form of family entertainment.

When I was a child, I would often sit with my father as he read aloud his favourite narrative poems from The Golden Treasury, a compilation of verse by F. T. Palgrave, first published in 1861.  I would be completely captivated by the rhythms of the language and the images it invoked.
Although much of this poetry has fallen out of favour and is considered old-fashioned, or just too pompous or jingoistic for modern tastes, some of it remains popular today. Who can mention the Crimean War without the temptation to quote at least a couple of these famous lines from The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson?

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Loss of the Royal George, Spithead, 1782

An early poem in this genre of tragic military or naval disaster was Loss of the Royal George by William Cowper. The poem was also set to patriotic music by George Handel.
Toll for the Brave!
The brave that are no more!
All sunk beneath the wave
Fast by their native shore!

... But Kempenfelt is gone,
His victories are o'er,
And he and his eight hundred
Must plough the wave no more.

Other narrative poets have also slipped into obscurity.
T[homas] Campbell wrote about episodes from the Napoleonic era. Stirring stanzas such as these from Hohenlinden can apply to any battle before or since.
Then shook the hills with thunder riven,
Then rushed the steed to battle driven,
And louder than the bolts of heaven
Far flashed the red artillery. ...

And redder yet those fires shall glow
On Linden's hills of blood-stained snow,
And darker yet shall be the flow
Of Iser, rolling rapidly.
Campbell's Ye Mariners of England and Battle of the Baltic were my early introduction to the exploits of Britain's great naval age. I defy anyone to read such poems aloud and not be moved in some way, by the metre and use of language at least if not the content.

'Hearts of oak!' our captains cried, when each gun

From its adamantine lips
Spread a death-shade round the ships,
Like the hurricane eclipse
Of the sun.  ...
Brave hearts! to Britain's pride
Once so faithful and so true,
On the deck of fame that died
With the gallant good Riou:
Soft sigh the winds of heaven o'er their grave 
While the billow mournful rolls
And the mermaid's song condoles
Singing glory to the souls
Of the brave!
Grandpa by John Faed, 1876 (private collection)

Robert Southey's poem After Blenheim had special attraction for me as it featured two children, Peterkin and Wilhelmine, who unearthed a skull and took it to their grandfather, Old Kaspar. He told them the story of the battle, how he dug up soldier's bones with his plough and how the countryside was laid waste with the loss of many innocent lives. But Old Kaspar does not seem to bear hatred or indignation, just a simple confusion and resignation to the unfathomable nature of war. Only with the excuse of it being "a famous victory" can the grandfather answer the children's probing questions. Written in 1798, its message is timeless and as relevant today as it ever was.
'It was the English,' Kaspar cried,
Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for
I could not well make out.

...'Why, 'twas a very wicked thing!'
Said little Wilhelmine;
'Nay ... nay ... my little girl,' quoth he,
'It was a famous victory.
And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win,'
'But what good came of it at last?'
Quoth little Peterkin: -
'Why, that I cannot tell,' said he,
'But 'twas a famous victory.

Derek Jacobi gives an excellent reading of the complete poem here.

Burial of Sir John Moore, Cassells Illustrated History

Another sombre offering that might seem a strange sort of poem to read to a child was The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna by Charles Wolfe, but it didn't disturb me in the least as I almost revelled in its drama and Gothic melancholy. (Like Admiral Kempenfelt of the Royal George, or Captain Edward Riou who rates a single line in Campbell's Battle of the Baltic, Sir John Moore is another largely forgotten figure from British history.) 

Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corpse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where our Hero we buried.
Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory;
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone -
But we left him alone with his glory.

Stones were raised to Sir John Moore later and here are some photographs of his grave as it is today at A Coruna.

And finally, with recent media reports that the coffin of Sir Francis Drake could soon be located in the Caribbean, it is worth mentioning that other rousing work Drake's Drum by Sir Henry Newbolt that I greatly enjoyed as a child, its most famous stanza being: 

Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,
Strike et when your powder's runnin' low;
If the Dons sight Devon, I'll quit the port o' Heaven, 
An' drum them up the Channel as we drummed them long ago.

Youtube of the sung version of Drake's Drum by Sir Thomas Allen.

And the real drum itself can be seen at Drake's home, Buckland Abbey.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Brayvo, Hicks!

It is always a pleasure to discover an interesting individual who was greatly celebrated in his day but is completely forgotten now.  One larger-than-life character came to light for me after reading recent media reports announcing the reopening of the home of William Hogarth in Chiswick, West London, after a closure of some years. Hogarth, of course, is very well-known for his illustrations of 18th Century life (perhaps lesser so for his association with the Foundling Hospital), but it was a brief mention of his house once having been lived in by one Newton Treen Hicks, a popular melodramatic actor, that sent me digging in the dust. 
Here was a man whose over-the-top acting style was loved by thousands of London theatre-goers and led to an expression that was immortalised in the popular slang of the era, as can be found in Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Historical Slang:  

Brayvo, Hicks! [meaning] Splendid! [Used in] music-halls and minor theatres: from ca. 1830; ob[scure] by 1910.

Ware , "in approbation of muscular demonstration ... From Hicks, a celebrated ... actor .... more esp. "on the Surrey side". In late 19th - early 20th Century applied in South London widely, e.g. "Brayvo Hicks - into 'her again".  
There does not seem to be any published biography of Hicks, but from the many colourful facts I unearthed in old newspapers and court documents, he is certainly worthy of rediscovery. 
He was sometimes referred to as a "transpontine" actor and the scathing London critics of the day had a snobbish attitude towards any acting done south of the river, i.e. at the Surrey Theatre in Lambeth where Hicks excelled.
Critics haven't changed much and just like those today who look down on any entertainment that is popular, they were just as dismissive of the rowdy, cheering audiences who appreciated the gusto of Hicks' perfomances.
In his career, Hicks played everything from Macbeth and Hamlet to Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre and Rob Roy, from the Count of Monte Cristo to gypsy kings, pirates and swashbucklers of every persuasion, but it seems he was best-loved when being comedic and playing to excess in melodrama and farce.
Hicks as Morden Brenner
 Hicks probably lived beyond his means; he was a part-time publican as well as an actor and occasionally used the name of Theodore Hicks. It appears he also wound up in debtors prison on more than one occasion. The London Gazette has several references over a ten year period to him appearing before the Court for Relief of Insolvent Debtors. Some vivid descriptions of this Court in operation during the mid 19th Century (including Dickens in Pickwick Papers) can be read here.
The actor's temperament was probably as combustible as some of the characters he played, and an 1837 court case which "excited much laughter" over an incident at Sadlers Wells Theatre sounds like a plot from one of his melodramas.
After a performance and while still in his costume as a Knight, it seems he first tried to set fire to, and then drown head-first in a water butt, one James Shankes, a scene shifter who was in charge of creating fire and brimstone for the play and had supposedly spotted Hicks' inappropriate attentions towards a young girl in the ballet and dared to report the same to her father.
Hicks was fined 6s. 8d. for his attempt to send Shankes to the "nether regions" but was "strongly congratulated by his professional brethren at the result". The unfortunate James apparently hightailed it to another theatre!

The Blood Red Knight (Hicks?)

There are a number of references to the numerous injuries Hicks received from the stage antics and leaps for which he was well-known and his obituary of 1873 states he was possessed of "extraordinary strength, combined with indomitable courage" [and]
"While fulfilling an engagement at Colchester a fire broke out, and he, at the hazard of his life, saved two children from the flames by ascending a ladder, when even the firemen and all around refused, succeeding in reaching the top of the house where the children lay, and bringing them down in safety. The ladder was absolutely on fire while he was upon it, and went to pieces the moment he had reached the ground."
I have been unable to find a serious portrait of Hicks, but the tinsel prints by John Redington were popular for many years for use in children's cut-out theatres. Those on this page come from Toy Theatre website and a number of them can also been found in the digital collection in the New York Public Library.

Hicks married Elizabeth Bell in 1837 and acted with her in a number of productions but in the Census Return of 1871, when he was living in Hogarth's House, the name of his wife is listed as Sarah - possibly he was then widowed and she was a companion or housekeeper. Hicks' obituary states that he had suffered from "brain softening due to overstudy" for some years before his death.

Numerous reviews of Hicks the actor can be found in newspapers of the era: some critics described him as "perfection" but more often than not, they were disparaging or mocking about his enthusiastic and "over-loud" performances, but if the audiences loved him then that is all that mattered.

Here is a website detailing the history of the Surrey Theatre in Lambeth.

Theatrical playbills can be found at the
East London Theatre Archive from the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Hicks as Claude Duval

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Bloody Monday - an undistinguished vengeance

Family tree research can often lead you to discover localised historical events that for some reason have remained little-known.
When I stumbled across the story of "Bloody Monday" that took place in Hexham, Northumberland, on 9th March, 1761, I was astonished to note that quite a number of familiar surnames, villages and hamlets were listed in connection with it and it is highly possible some distant ancestor of mine was involved.
Unlike the more famous Peterloo Massacre or Gordon Riots, the "Hexham Riot" or "Hexham Massacre" has not received much attention in the history books.
The Militia Acts were brought in during England's Seven Years War and included a system of ballots forcing men to serve in the militia. As only the poorest men such as coal miners or agricultural labourers would be called up while richer ones could opt out by paying for a substitute *, there was a natural groundswell of ill feeling against the ballots among the inhabitants because wives and families could often be left destitute after male breadwinners were taken away. Several thousand people filled the Hexham market place in protest.

Hexham Market Place c. early 19th Century
 The authorities had forewarning of the gathering and sent the North Yorkshire Militia to keep the peace, but despite the formal reading of the Riot Act the protestors tried to gain access to the country lieutenants in the Moot Hall, an ensign was fatally injured, and all hell broke loose.
Several summaries of the Hexham Riot can be found and read online, most derived from antiquarian publications available via the Internet Archive such as the Historical Register of Remarkable Events by John Sykes and The Annual Register of 1761.
Also, John Crawford Hodgson's North Country Diaries covers the episode in some detail and lists the names of many of the dead and wounded who included pregnant women and young children.
Some of the newspapers of the day gave cursory coverage of the event and reported that no more than 18 or 19 people lost their lives, while Hodgson's original diary has notations in the margins that friends of his believed that the death toll was actually around 200.
On the other hand, this article by D W Smith of The Northumberland & Durham Family History Society lists about 50 deaths, and there is no way of knowing how many of the wounded escaped only to die later hiding out in fields, cellars and in barns.
On the day following the massacre it was apparently quiet, it rained heavily and "washed away all the remaining evidence of what had transpired".
The brutal aftermath was inevitable as prosecutors chased up the ringleaders. E. Mackenzie in his Historical, Topographical Descriptive View of Northumberland states, "... many women and children suffered in the undistinguished vengeance of the day" and "The country was placed under military law, and dragoons galloped in every direction carrying terror wherever they appeared."
Ultimately 16 men were charged and 10 discharged. Two men, Peter Patterson and William Alder, were charged with high treason but the only one to be executed was Patterson who is said to have behaved "with a becoming decency" but whose suffering was increased by a botched first attempt and his last words were said to have been: "Innocent blood is hard to spill". According to some reports, he wasn't even in Hexham on that awful "Bloody Monday".

In 2004, a reenactment in Hexham of the Riot was organised and reports and photographs of the event can be found here.

Tom Corfe also wrote a book about the episode entitled Riot.

* An unsavoury practice that became notorious a century later in the American Civil War

Hexham Abbey & Moot Hall

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Gads - none of our chaps would do such a thing!

It's a well worn cliche that history is written by the victors, but one might also add that it is written by the rich, privileged and influential with loud voices or those who come from the right strata of society.
On a recent trip to the Orkney Islands, I heard the story of the Arctic explorer, John Rae, whose claim to fame was seriously muddied by a woman whom I must I admit I had once greatly admired - Lady Jane Franklin.
It seems that when John Rae discovered evidence that members of Franklin's lost expedition to find the North West Passage had resorted to cannibalism, society back home in Britain would have none of it, and certainly not Lady Jane, Sir John Franklin's widow. Other famous Victorian individuals such as Charles Dickens also added fuel to the outrage that no member of the Royal Navy could possibly stoop to such a disgusting thing as eating his fellows even when in starvation extremis.
It didn't help either that John Rae believed in learning from native peoples and took advice from the Inuit on how to travel in the Arctic; notions that were anathema at the time to the arrogant British. Rae was shunned and never received his due as perhaps the greatest-ever British Arctic explorer.
Cannibalism among members of the Franklin Expedition has now been proved by modern archaelogical research and there is also a campaign in Orkney for Rae to be restored to his rightful place in history. You can read more detail on that campaign here and the Hudson's Bay Company entry for him is here.
He is buried in the grounds of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall and this somewhat unusual effigy of him asleep in the wilderness is to be found inside the Cathedral itself.

Monday, August 8, 2011

With his hounds and his horns in the morning ...

My interest in folk tunes has led me on another investigation and turned up a surprising Australian connection. 

"D'ye ken John Peel with his coat so grey [or] gay ..." has been sung by generations of choirs and was especially popular around the Empire as the most quintessential of all English traditional songs. Now it has now fallen on hard times and is politically incorrect, associated as it has been with the bloodsport of foxhunting which is now banned in Britain. An entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography gives a summary of the man who wrote the words, John Woodcock Graves who ended up in Tasmania.

As well as a sometime lyricist, he was also a landowner and an "eccentric", although it seems he wasn't a likeable character, even being described as "a most violent and dangerous person and certainly unfitted to be at large"

In some recollections from the New Town, Tasmania, Orphan School at St John's Park Precinct, this entry doesn't paint an endearing picture of the man:

John Woodcock Graves, remembered for composing the song 'D'ye Ken John Peel' had four children in the orphanage. Abigail was there for seven years, Isabella for nearly four, John junior and Joseph for four years. John junior, became a lawyer and Joseph an owner of saw mills. Both the 'Australian Dictionary of Biography' and Wikipedia's articles on the father, fail to mention the orphanage connection. The Wikipedia entry states: 'His fortunes varied but he was able to give his children a good education'.
This Dickensian image of Graves in old age is from the State Library of Victoria collection.

And did John Peel have a "grey" coat or a "gay" coat? As a child I'm sure I sang about his coat "so grey" rather than "so gay" which seems more logical on the assumption that hunting coats were bright red (confusingly called "pink") and surely had to be gay rather than grey! But others suggest that "grey" is correct and a Cumbrian dialect word - and this popular image of John Peel would bear that out.  No matter which, and although the famous foxhunter is no longer esteemed, his image is still popular on jugs, mugs, china plates, etc. and he continues to be part of the Doulton collection.

As to the way the song should be sung, here is a good old-fashioned choir rendition in the British Pathe film archives by the Paramount Mastersingers of 1933 (it sounds like they use "gay" in this instance).

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"One of the darkest secrets of all time"

Anyone who is familiar with Gilbert & Sullivan comic operettas or the works of Charles Dickens will have enjoyed the humorous and imaginative names those creative genuises often gave their characters, so when I came across a real historical tale featuring secret identities, a disappearing act, Napoleonic skulduggery and a cast of individuals with rather bizarre names like Tryphena Thistlethwayte, Galway Mills, Captain Kitzing, Philadelphia Batty, Caroline de Cresigpny and Emmeline Pistocchi among many others, I almost thought it was a major leg-pull.  Plus added to the mix is the eccentric author Sabine Baring-Gould who wrote weirdly divergent works such as The Book of Werewolves and the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers (in company with Sullivan of all people!)
The Byronic Benjamin
But no, the story of the vanishing of Sir Benjamin Bathurst in 1809 is deathly serious, although the facts have been twisted and altered over the last two centuries to suit numerous believers in the wacky or the "unexplained", time-travel, abduction by aliens and the like. The Wikipedia entry on Benjamin Bathurst gives the basic facts but when one appreciates the volatile historical era and that this was simply a case involving espionage and politics, then a more plausible reason for Bathurst's disappearance and murder can be deduced.
For anyone interested in finding out more there are various reports of the disappearance posted online, in journals and books, including this one that appeared in the Fortean Times in 1990.
Mary Crawford Fraser's 1915 book Storied Italy also relates the drowning of Benjamin's teenaged daughter, Rosa, in the Tiber at Rome some years later. (If it wasn't such a tragedy, the effusive sentimental screed on her tombstone - not far from that of John Keats - could also border on the Gilbertian. It can be read in full here.)
Crawford also retells the tale of the disappearance of Rosa's father as heard from his sister Signora Pistocchi and which she calls "one of the darkest secrets of all time". She also describes the subsequent dastardly murders of the French secret agent Comte D'Antriagues and his actress wife by an Italian servant who committed suicide after doing them in, which is yet another twist in this strange story and could well have been a forerunner plot for numerous future spy novels. The lurid turn of phrase in reporting the "shocking spectacle" of these gory murders using a "most superb Turkish poignard" and at least four pistols is also typical of the journalism of the time. This extract from Jackson's Oxford Journal, July 25, 1812:

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cossack Braveheart

One of the most evocative folk melodies of all time has to be the Russian Stenka Razin. People in English-speaking countries may recognise it as The Carnival is Over popularised by The Seekers in the 1960s. But although that version has now acquired a nostalgia of its own, it can't compare to the spine-tingling effect of the original, particularly when sung by a great Russian bass or a choir with a balalaika accompaniment. When one knows the tragic lyrics of the song, it adds extra frisson.

Stenka (or Stepan) Razin was a real-life Robin Hood or Braveheart type figure who lived in 17th Century Russia: a Cossack brigand and pirate who fired up the peasant population and created havoc for the Tsar. The best summary of his life and activities can be read on the Russiapedia site.

According to the song, Razin fell in love with a princess he abducted from Persia. But as "happily ever after" does not exist in the lexicon of Russian drama or music, of course things ended badly. His men thought he had become soft with his head turned by romantic notions, as the accusing lyrics go:
He has left his sword to woo;
One short night and Stenka Razin
Has become a woman, too.

Razin was outraged and to prove that he was still a tough leader dedicated to his followers and his cause, he threw his beautiful princess over the side of his boat and sacrificed her to the mighty Volga. Other more pragmatic versions say he was prone to terrible mood swings and killed his mistress - no doubt exacerbated by a great deal of vodka or beer - simply because she wouldn't accompany him when he went to war.

Razin was eventually captured and publicly hung, drawn and quartered and bits of him fed to Moscow dogs and that was probably the only possible resolution given the age in which he lived but naturally his gruesome ending was a sure-fire route to immortality.

Whatever the facts, the story has all the elements that Russians adore and for centuries Razin has continued to fascinate artists, musicians and writers. As he was probably also a prodigious drinker, it seemed inevitable that a St Petersburg Brewery was named after him and his image still appears on a beer label today, now owned by Heineken.

I've been unable to find out whether there is any real historical basis to the love story, but Razin did raid into Persia (Iran) and he could have captured a woman there, but whether the romance was reciprocal is another matter. As with all legends, however, maybe there is a kernel of truth in it.
There are numerous interpretations of the song Stenka Razin to be found on Youtube, including a 1930s tango version, and where you can also see the 1908 Russian film (no soundtrack). Another film of the tragic love story was made in 1933.
This modern representation of Stenka Razin comes from George Stuart's gallery of historical figures. Whether Razin really looked like this or not - he was most likely even wilder and scruffier - it is still a great romanticised image to accompany the stirring song. Turn up your volume to get the full effect! 

I'm now off to browse more more of George Stuart's brilliant gallery. Click here.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Introduction to Digging the Dust

Augustine Birrell (1850-1933)
caricature by by Harry Furniss
pen and ink, 1880s-1900s
National Portrait Gallery
Welcome to Digging the Dust!

This is a companion blog to The History Bucket which deals primarily with women from history who have been marginalised or forgotten in some way.

Here, you will find more eclectic and random topics on events, people, places and things that are not as well-known as they might once have been and could be of interest to anyone who likes to dig or fossick * about in the historic dust-heap.

The phrase - "The great dust-heap of history" - was coined by Augustine Birrell, a British lawyer, essayist and politician blessed with a sense of humour and dislike of pomposity. His light and witty style of writing and speaking became known as "birrelling". See his entry in Wikipedia .

 * To "fossick" is an Australian term that originally meant to search for gold or precious stones in abandoned mind workings or rivers, etc., but now usually means to rummage about or search for (something). Most likely it comes from the English word "fussock" that means to bustle about or fuss.

The real "Great Heap of Dust"

This 1837 water colour of The Great Dust Heap at King's Cross forms part of an exhibition currently on at the Wellcome Collection in London.

A number of newspapers and other history bloggers have already reviewed and written about this exhibition on Victorian "dirt" at length and I will not repeat what they had to say here, except the story that the Great Heap was cleared to make way for the building of King's Cross Station in 1848 is at odds with an entry in British History Online which states that it was removed much earlier: "... in 1826 when the ground was sold to the Panharmonium Company". Apparently the Heap itself was exported to Moscow to make bricks for new streets.

The year 1826 sounds far more plausible as this would have been only 14 years after Moscow was burned by Napoleon and surely the worthy Muscovites wouldn't wait over 30 years for a pile of British dirt? And why would a country the size of Russia have to import cinders and dirt anyhow? Didn't they have enough of their own?

If anyone reading this knows more about the processes involved in shifting and exporting the Great Heap to Russia, I'd love to hear from them.

And who or what was the Panharmonium Company? Like so many speculative enterprises before or since, it collapsed and came to nothing. Here are the relevant extracts:

Some reference should be made to an ambitious scheme projected ... by Signor Gesualdo (Gemaldo) Lanza (1779–1859), an Italian teacher of music, to provide a centre for music and the drama on an island site facing Euston Road and contained within Birkenhead Street and Argyle Street. Lanza had a deserved reputation as a singing master, and with the help of the architect, Stephen Geary, a plan was produced, a copy of which is in the Crace Collection at the British Museum. In the centre of the site was a large building styled the Grand Panharmonium Theatre, facing north, with a refreshment room to the east and a ballroom to the west, stretching together across the whole site. The space south of the theatre was to be occupied by pleasure gardens, with a music gallery built against the theatre itself. In front of the theatre was a courtyard with two approaches from Euston Road on the site of the present Crestfield and Belgrove Streets. Residences were to be built on the Euston Road frontage and in other parts of the site. A dramatic school was also to be built facing Birkenhead Street. There were to be picture galleries, reading rooms and many other features as well.
As far as can be gathered the only building actually erected was the little theatre in Birkenhead Street  ... which may have been that first intended as a dramatic school. But there seems to have been some preparation of the grounds which were furnished with an overhead railway from which cars were suspended [The image can be seen here.]
The opening day was on Thursday, 4th March, 1830, but the project was short lived. On 28th February, 1832, particulars of sale were published concerning bricks, balustrades, gates, plaster figures and unfinished buildings, "late the Panarmonion Gardens." The ground was to be carved into plots and laid into "a new square called Argyle Square." Demolition must have followed immediately, for a newspaper cutting of 20th March, 1832, refers to an accident when an arch was being pulled down "at the Piano Gardens near Battle Bridge." A plan drawn by Ebenezer Perry in 1832 for a re-distribution of the property shows the lay-out of the streets that exist to-day.
From: 'Battle Bridge Estate', Survey of London: volume 24: The parish of St Pancras part 4: King’s Cross Neighbourhood (1952), pp. 102-113. URL: 

R.H. Horne's famous description of what could be recycled from Great Heaps also makes for fascinating reading, although I'm somewhat unnerved by the trade in dead cats. Presumably they were made into fur trims for muffs, hats, etc. for women who probably wouldn't be as fussy as modern fashionistas when it comes to the method of manufacture or the ethics or dangers to health involved.

The image below comes from a 1908 issue of the Illustrated London News and shows a stall selling items recycled from great heaps. Note the alligator!