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Thursday, 25 August 2011

“…Just Simple Accounts of her Family, Experiences, and Observations of Life” Or: The Work of M.V. Hughes: Could it Save Our Illiterate Youth?:

As a mild collector of old and antique books, I was pleased to recently get hold of a first edition of M.V Hughes ‘A London Home in the Nineties’ (1937) – my first antique M.V Hughes, having a couple of her books in 1980’s re-print – when a thought struck me.
I enjoyed reading ‘A London Child of the 1870’s’ a great deal, and find that M.V Hughes – or Mary – has a very innocent and plain style of writing. She is neither superfluous nor overbearing in her writing, but concise and simple, and as a reader, that is quite a joy.

Reading her books is almost like listening to your favourite Granny talk about her childhood. The funny, witty Granny who makes you laugh and promises not to tell your parents if you do something wrong, or stands behind your shouting mother winking at you to make you feel better about being told off.
It is difficult, when reading about the life of such a person, not to be drawn in and feel the emotions with them, and the thing that occurred to me was, wouldn’t it be great if M.V Hughes was taught in schools?
M.V Hughes

I know a great many people reading this will know who she is, but the average person on the street will have no idea, which, I think, is a bit of a shame. When I was at school, in English classes we read Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, and, of course Shakespeare, and looking about the class it was clear that the prose on the page was not designed for 20th century thirteen-year-old minds, who struggled with the weighty ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’ ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice’ especially when tapped on the shoulder and asked to read aloud – a study in perfect monotony.

I understand that the likes of Shakespeare and Dickens are hugely important figures in our culture as a whole, not just in literary terms, but would it not be more interesting to learn about the men, rather than read their work at that age? What fourteen year old boy would not be interested in reading about Dickens’ grim childhood?

If any actual text should be read, surely it would be easier for teachers if that text was in a language that their students may recognize as English? And thus, my mind turned to the breezy, humorous and flowing writing of M.V Hughes, who documents in her autobiographical work the everyday life of her family from the 1870’s to the late 1930’s.

In these books, she – perhaps unwittingly – depicts the gradual change in middle-class life in England over the course of sixty years, as the reign of Victoria ends through to the time of George VI. She trained to be a teacher, and at the age of twenty-six, in 1892, she was head of the training department at Bedford College, the first college for women in the UK, and Mary played an important role in setting out the teacher training curriculum.

In her books she describes her job at the college – the very foundation of equal educational rights for women in Britain. I use the word unwittingly to describe Mary’s account of all these social changes that occurred around her because, from reading her work, it certainly seems that she documented only her life, and the life of her family – paying no heed to what was happening in society. Her work contains no political opinion or social commentary. But, of course, her environment played a part in her family life, and so, such changes in general life and society are recorded.

This is probably best explained by Jack Gray, who lived next door to Mary in his childhood, or as she referred to him; ‘the little boy next door’. He said Mary’s writing was:

“…just simple accounts of her family, experiences, and observations of life, which, because they are so well written, are timeless, fascinating and will be enjoyed for all time. They just keep you reading. She was an outstanding person.”

She was born Mary Thomas in 1866, and had four older brothers. Her father was a stockbroker in the city of London and the family lived on a quiet street in Canonbury, north London. At the end of the first of her four books of memoirs, ‘A London Child of the 1870’s’, Mary describes the tragic death of her father, saying that he had been hit by a carriage and died, however, it seems that he actually committed suicide, though, nobody can be sure why. (Some sources say that he was involved in a financial scandal at work)

In 1897, she left her job at Bedford College and married her long term partner, Arthur Hughes. They had four children – a daughter and three sons. Arthur died in 1918, and Mary went back to working at Bedford College in her old role, and began to write.

In 1927 her first book was published. ‘About England’ in which she states in the preface that: "England is not well known to the English people". She goes on to address the chapters to the people of England, who may be unaware of the wonders around them and the depth of their surroundings, and asks them to look at them with fresh eyes. In the chapters, Mary highlights the wonders of the English weather, scenery, towns and even ‘how to spend a wet afternoon in London

She wrote other books in the thirties about England and London, but, Mary is best known for her four books that make up her memoirs: ‘A London Child of the 1870’s’ (1934) ‘A London Girl of the 1880’s’ (1936) ‘A London home in the 1890’s’ (1937) and ‘A London Family Between the Wars’ (1940) Which give the reader a tremendous idea of what everyday life was like for a family living through these changing times.

Mary died in Johannesburg in South Africa in 1956 at the age of ninety.

Large portions of the news this week have been filled with the exam grades achieved by our nation's youth, who, for the twenty-ninth year in a row have achieved better results than the previous year's crop of young folk. Predictably, the seasonal perennial hardy of "Exams aren't what they used to be" is being trotted out in the papers, television and radio, as the country's commentators lament the fact that education has, in their eyes, become a political football.

Politicians say that exam's are not getting easier, but that children and young people are 'working harder.' This view, however, is tempered somewhat by the opinion of employers, who claim that increasing numbers of school leavers cannot spell and have terrible grammar and English skills, deeming them "unemployable."

I'm certainly not hinting that reading M.V Hughes in English lessons, rather than Shakespeare would put an end to all this, but surely if the subject holds the pupil's attention better, then they will pay more attention and take more in? I'm certain that learning to read and write in a way that does not resemble a badly constructed text message need not begin with a foundation of 'Little Dorrit' and 'Romeo and Juliet', but can begin with anything?

Perhaps such opinions are incorrect.

That said, Mary's work, like that of Dickens, is not merely classroom material, and anyone with a keen interest in the life of normal people in London at the end of the Victorian era should certainly look out for Mary’s books, and from reading them, her gentle style confirms the words of ‘the little boy next door’ when he said she was an outstanding person, and what an outstanding little time-capsule the work she left behind is, and will be, to us and future generations – as long as she is not forgotten.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

“…I Have Never Excited in Anyone a Desire to Forget Themselves…”Or: The Short and Melancholy Life of Amy Levy:

The Victorian era is absolutely littered with talented individuals who, for some reason or another, become forgotten and lost in the midst of time until they either become ‘fashionable’ – as is often the case with artists of the era – or are gradually discovered by wider modern audiences, who give these people posthumous publicity and they are recognized as the talent that they deserve to be.

One such person, who was brought to my attention recently, is the poet and writer, Amy Levy.

To be described by Oscar Wilde as a genius is not a compliment to be taken lightly, and in the periodical, Women’s World which he edited for a couple of years, he published enough of Amy’s short stories and poems to know what he was talking about.

Amy Levy was born the second of Lewis and Isobel Levy’s seven children in Clapham, South London, in 1861. The Levy’s were a middle class Jewish family, her father was an export merchant, and sent Amy to school in Brighton, where she studied at Brighton High School.
Amy Levy
Amy began writing at a very young age, and, as many aspiring writers of the time did, she sent her poems and short stories to the editors of various periodicals. The Pelican, a feminist journal, had published within its pages Amy’s poem, ‘The Ballad of Ida Grey’ and the previous year, she had contributed several literary reviews to the young person’s magazine, Kind Words.

The Headmistress of Brighton High School was twenty-one year old Edith Creak, a graduate of Newnham College in Cambridge, and one of its first ever female pupils. Amy greatly admired Miss Creak, and developed an intense passion for her Headmistress.

After leaving high school, Amy followed in Miss Creak’s footsteps by attending Newnham College, where she became their first Jewish student in 1879 at the age of eighteen. By now she already had a small body of published work behind her, and whilst she was at college, published a collection of poetry; ‘Xantippe and Other Verses’ in 1881.
When she left Newnham after three years, she traveled across Europe, often returning to London to spend time with her family, who by now had moved to Regents Park, in North West London.

Her writings continued to appear in many and various periodicals, from The Jewish Chronicle to the Pall Mall Gazette, and in her social life, she had become friends with fellow literary and political peers such as Clementia Black (who would go on to become a member of the Women's Trade Union League, and in 1886 would become its honorary secretary) Amy was also good friends with daughter of Karl Marx, Eleanor, novelist Olive Shreiner and playwright George Bernard Shaw. She also started to mix with followers of Charles Darwin and his revolutionary ideas, as well as people in favour of eugenics, such as statistician Karl Pearson (credited with establishing the discipline of mathematical statistics) She began to move in a social circle far different from that of her conformist Jewish family, and struggled to straddle both worlds, continually finding herself stuck in the gap between the two.

A Minor Poet and Other Verses’ was published in 1884, and contained sad and melancholy poetry, mostly upon the subject of death and suicide.

In 1886 Amy was in Florence, where she met writer Violet Paget (Better known by her pseudonym of Vernon Lee, under which she wrote supernatural fiction, as well as essays on the arts) Violet was a lesbian, and was involved in a relationship with poet and writer Agnes Mary Robinson. Amy soon fell in love with Violet, and upon her return to England would send her many letters, but Violet, it seems, did not love Amy, but, as she admitted in letters send to her mother, (“…I don't love her, but she's a poor little person and clever and can talk poetry...”) saw her more as a friend and someone to pass the time with.
Violet Paget / Vernon Lee
In 1888 Amy’s first novel was released, entitled ‘Romance of a Shop’ it was published in ‘Woman’s World’ and described by its editor, Oscar Wilde as:

…the adventures of some young ladies who open a photographic studio in Baker Street to the horror of some of their fashionable relatives . . . the book is admirably done, and the style is clever and full of quick observation. Observation is perhaps the most valuable faculty for a writer of fiction…

Romance of a Shop’ is essentially the story of four young ladies who, following the death of their father open a photographic studio in bohemian London, which disappoints their prim and proper relatives. The story explores the differences between the well established Victorian lady, happy (or not) to be kept at home by her husband and bound by social and moral codes of conduct, and the ‘new women’ who began to spring up in the late 1870’s – women who did not take husbands and went out and earned their own money by doing jobs. (The phrase ‘new women’ did not become widely used until the 1890’s, when famous novelists included ‘new women’ in their books, most notably, George Gissing’s ‘The Odd Women’)

The following year, Amy’s second novel was published, ‘Reuben Sachs’, which shone a light upon the lives of the Jewish community in London, which had had a romantic veil thrown over it by George Eliot in her final novel, ‘Daniel Deronda’, in 1876.

The character of Reuben Sachs is a young Jewish man living in a Jewish community. A brilliant political career awaits him, but he must marry a wealthy woman to support himself. Reuben, however, is in love with a poor girl, Judith. The community surrounding Reuben and Judith snobbishly gossip about them, and the novel criticizes societies requirement for women to marry, and for people with ambition to marry into money.
Its criticism of the codes and morals of polite society caused controversy when it was first released, as well as its harsh, unblinking view of claustrophobic Jewish communities.
Oscar Wilde confirmed:

…its uncompromising truth, its depth of feeling, and above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make it, in some sort, a classic.”

To this day it remains Amy’s most successful novel. However, whilst she was enjoying literary success, her young body, now only twenty-seven years old, was failing her. She suffered from numerous abscesses, eye infections, painful neuralgia and, by now, worsening deafness. Whilst in Dresden, Germany in 1880, she had written home to her sister, whilst seemingly in one of her dark and self-loathing moods, saying:

I write to you out of the very depths of affliction brought on by a diseased body. God must love me awfully for he chasteneth me without cease ... Really if this confounded neuralgia don't stop I shall have to go to a chemist - no, not a chemist - the river; for the German chemist is alas! not permitted to retail the death-fraught drug to the chance customer.”

Throughout her life Amy was never happy with herself. Ever since she had studied at Brighton School she had attempted to ‘be’ Edith Creak. The fact that she was not caused her to supper bouts of depression. She was unhappy with her looks, too, thinking herself ugly and unattractive. Also from Dresden, she wrote to her mother:

"There won't be any impropriety in my teaching any number of young men… I have never excited in anyone a desire to forget themselves."

In the summer of 1889 she holidayed in a cottage in Dorking, Surrey with a friend. Here, they spent some time with the science writer, novelist and advocate of the theory of evolution, Grant Allen and his family, who lived not far away, in Haslemere. They spent time walking and talking, and Amy seemed apparently happy. She returned to London and in the early hours of the 10th September, she locked herself in her bedroom and lit a charcoal fire in the grate, from which she breathed in carbon monoxide until she died, aged only twenty-seven.

The coroner’s report states that Amy Levy died of ‘Suicide when of unsound mind.’ Did Violet Paget think the same? Writing from Florence to a friend she shared with Amy, she wrote:

“…Poor Miss Levy! The truth has little by little dribbled out. She killed herself with charcoal ... But she had every right: she learned in the last 6 weeks that she was on the verge of a horrible and loathsome form of madness apparently running in the family

That Violet Paget did not reciprocate the affection Amy felt for her is quite clear here.

But Amy had a bright future, so why did she commit suicide? Was it the pain she was in, either physically or emotionally? Was it depression? Was it the struggle to fit in to two very different worlds? The reasons are unclear, and yet the fact that her death was a tragic waste is perfectly plain.

It is only really in the last ten years that Amy Levy’s life and work have been looked at in more detail, and in between the release of Linda Hunt Beckman’s ‘Amy Levy: Her Life and Letters’ in 2000, and ‘The Woman Who Dared: A Biography of Amy Levy’ by Christine Pullen, released in 2010, there are a couple of re-releases of Amy’s work, including ‘Reuben Sachs’ in 2001 by Persephone Books, who re-print largely forgotten but important work from mainly female authors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a similar publisher, Black Apollo Press, re-printed ‘Romance of a Shop’ in 2005.

Also in 2010, the book ‘Amy Levy: Critical Essays’ was released, but prior to these, I can see only one release, from 1993; ‘The Complete Novels and Selected Writings of Amy Levy, 1861-89’. Perhaps there are others, but these are the only ones I could find.

Like so many of the great talents of the Victorian Era, Amy Levy was lost to us for over a century, until she began to make a posthumous comeback in the last decade, her work being of enough cultural importance – especially her criticisms, chronicles and portrayals of the Anglo-Jewish communities of the nineteenth century – for people to research it and re-publish it. How many other lost Victorian talents and treasures will be unearthed over the coming decades?

Thursday, 11 August 2011

“…Four Killed and Forty Wounded was the Tally, and Indignation Raged….” Or: The Clerkenwell Prison Explosion of 1867:

On 12th December 1867, the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, banned all political demonstrations in London in an attempt to put a stop to the weekly meetings and marches that were being held in support of the Fenians. He anticipated a public backlash. The government silencing political protests in a country famed for its democracy? There would be outrage.

Little did he know that in less than twenty-four hours time, public opinion would be dramatically spun in his favour…

In his excellent book, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties’, Alfred Rosling Bennet remembers the incident:

“On the afternoon of December 13th I was on Threadneedle Street, near the Royal Exchange, about 4 o'clock, when a loud dull bang rose above the din of the traffic. Wayfarers paused and looked interrogatively at each other, but nobody proffered any explanation, not even the Royal Exchange beadles, wise as they looked and doubtlessly were. Later, the evening papers disclosed quite a modem gunpowder plot. With the object of freeing Fenian prisoners, a barrel of black gunpowder had been exploded against the wall of the Clerkenwell House of Detention in Corporation Row by two or three Irishmen, with the result that several inoffensive persons, including a little girl, had been killed and many injured. Further particulars disclosed considerable method in the murder. The barrel had been placed under cover on the end of a costemmonger's barrow and wheeled to the site just as the prisoners were known to be exercising in the yard adjacent to the street. The truck was turned across the pavement, tipped up and the cask rolled off against the prison. While two men took the barrow rapidly away, a third lighted a fuse on the barrel and likewise decamped. A big slice of the wall went down, but the warders were not demoralised and were able to prevent any escapes. Four killed and forty wounded was the tally, and indignation raged….”
"Fenian explosion at Clerkenwell Prison" By J. Wood

So, first of all, who, or what, is a ‘Fenian’?

The Fenians were members of the Fenian movement in Ireland. An organization dedicated to the establishment of an Irish Republic, independent of Britain. The Great Famine of Ireland, in 1845, had been almost apocalyptic for the country. Two million Irish men, women and children either emigrated or died, roughly 25% of the population, with many there believing that the British government could have helped, but chose not to, initially citing that Ireland had suffered famine before and survived, and should now have the necessary experience to help themselves. When this did not happen, and it became apparent that the famine was extremely serious, the government corn to Ireland – a country with virtually no mills in which to grind the corn to flour.
In Ireland, many believed that the government had deliberately stood by, and even secretly been happy that the famine had swept away a huge chunk of the Irish population, as it may go some way to solving the 'Irish Problem' (Ireland wanting to become independent) The Irish saw the actions of the government as a form of genocide, and certain people there decided that the only hope Ireland had for its future was a complete separation from Great Britain. If London was unwilling to grant this, then they would fight for it. These people formed a group in order to set about their independence, and came to be known as the Fenians.

So, the explosion at Clerkenwell Prison was the work of the Fenians. It was the most serious terrorist action by Irish Republicans in Britain in the entire 19th century, but why did they do it? In November of 1867, a senior Republican arms dealer to the Fenians, Richard O’Sulivan-Burke, was arrested. He had planned the prison van escape in Manchester a few months earlier, in which a police officer named Charles Brett was shot and killed as the police van containing Irish Republicans William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O'Brien was attacked by thirty to forty Fenians, in order to free the prisoners. O’Sulivan-Burke was consequently arrested, and sent to Clerkenwell Prison, London.

The Fenian threat as depicted by Punch

On the 13th of December 1867, the Fenians attempted to rescue O’Sullivan-Burke by blowing a hole in the prison wall whilst the inmates were taking exercise in the yard. The idea was that O’Sullivan-Burke would be able to escape through the hole and be carried to freedom. A poke in the eye for the British judicial system and government and a victory for the Fenian movement. The explosives were placed in a costermonger’s barrow and leaned up against the wall, the fuse was lit, and the plotters ran from the scene.

But the explosion did not go according to plan. True, a large section of the prison wall was blown away, but there were other casualties. The houses opposite, on what is now Corporation Row, but was then Corporation Lane, were rickety tenements housing the poor; some of these were destroyed in the blast, leaving families homeless. Twelve innocent members of the public were killed by the explosion and another fifty suffered injuries of varying natures.

The man charged with causing the explosion was twenty-seven year old Irish republican Michael Barrett. Months earlier he had been arrested in Glasgow for illegally discharging a firearm, but was subsequently freed.

His trial took place in April 1868 at the Old Bailey, in which a witnessed gave Barrett an alibi, testifying that the accused was in Scotland at the time of the explosion. The prosecution called their own witness, a Patrick Mullany, who told the court that Barrett had informed him that he triggered the explosion with an accomplice named Murphy. Despite a lack of corroboration and no further evidence or witnesses – along with the fact that Mullany had given false testimony to a court in the past – the jury (seemingly intent on seeing someone punished) found Barrett guilty of murder after two hours of deliberation.

After being found guilty, Barrett was asked if he had anything to say before his sentence was passed. He gave an emotional speech from the dock, which ended:

…I am far from denying, nor will the force of circumstances compel me to deny my love of my native land. I love my country and if it is murderous to love Ireland dearer than I love my life, then it is true, I am a murderer. If my life were ten times dearer than it is and if I could by any means, redress the wrongs of that persecuted land by the sacrifice of my life, I would willingly and gladly do so.”

The next day the Daily Telegraph reported that Barrett had:

“... delivered a most remarkable speech, criticising with great acuteness the evidence against him, protesting that he had been condemned on insufficient grounds, and eloquently asserting his innocence.”

He was hanged on Tuesday, May 26th, 1868, outside Newgate Prison before a “vast concourse of a crowd.” Indeed, two thousand people turned up to watch the hanging. They booed, jeered and sang ‘Rule Britannia’ as Barrett was hanged. His death was the last public execution to be witnessed in Britain.

Queen Victoria was outraged that only one man went to the gallows. She urged that in future, instead of being brought to trial, Irish Republican suspects should be lynched on the spot. This, however, did not happen.

On May 27, following the execution, Reynold’s News summed up the feeling of many people who believed Barrett had been made a scapegoat, saying:

Millions will continue to doubt that a guilty man has been hanged at all; and the future historian of the Fenian panic may declare that Michael Barrett was sacrificed to the exigencies of the police, and the vindication of the good Tory principle, that there is nothing like blood.”

Following the Clerkenwell explosion, security measures in London were increased Special constables were appointed to assist the police and show a greater presence of law on the streets. Scotland Yard set up a secret service department to gather intelligence on Fenian activity.

Alfred Rosling Bennet attempted to become a special constable in the wake of the bombings, but failed:

“A man named Barrett was executed the following May for this cruel outrage. He had been brought from Glasgow specially to fire the barrel. His was the last public hanging in London. Fenianism had been rampant throughout the year and it was deemed judicious, in view of the many deeds of violence – the famous attack on the police van at Salford and the murder of Sergeant Brett had been one of them – to swear in special constables in London. I was considered too young to be enrolled, but two friends of mine were accepted and duly provided with badges and batons.”

Despite making a number of arrests leading to Fenians being tried and convicted, Michael Barrett remains the only one to have been executed.
His body was buried in Newgate gaol for thirty five years until 1903, when the prison was torn down, and his remains exhumed and buried in the City of London Cemetery. A plaque marks his grave today.

As an addition, below is part of the article from The Times newspaper the day after Barrett’s execution, which gives a detailed description of the event:

The Execution of Barrett

The execution differed little from other similar exhibitions. On Monday the barriers were put up, and on Monday night a fringe of eager sightseers assembled, mostly sitting beneath the beams, but ready on a moment’s notice to rise and cling to the front places they had so long waited for. There were the usual cat-calls, comic choruses, dances, and even mock hymns, till towards 2 o’clock, when the gaiety inspired by alcohol faded away as the publichouses closed, and popular excitement was not revived till the blackened deal frame which forms the base of the scaffold was drawn out in the dawn, and placed in front of the door from which Barrett was to issue. Its arrival was accompanied with a great cheer, which at once woke up those who had been huddled in doorsteps and under barricades, and who joined in the general acclamation. The arrival of the scaffold did much to increase the interest, and through the dawn people began to flock in, the greater portion of the newcomers being young women and little children. Never were there more numerous than on this occasion, and blue velvet hats and huge white feathers lined the great beams which kept the mass from crushing each other in their eagerness to see a man put to death. 

The crowd was most unusually orderly, but it was not a crowd in which one would like to trust. It is said that one sees on the road to the Derby such animals as are never seen elsewhere; so on an execution morning one see faces that are never seen save round the gallows or near a great fire. Some laughed, some fought, some preached, some gave tracts, and some sang hymns; but what may be called the general good-humoured disorder of the crowd remained the same, and there was laughter at the preacher or silence when an open robbery was going on. None could look on the scene, with all its exceptional quietness, without a thankful feeling that this was to be the last public execution in England. Towards 7 o’clock the mass of people was immense. A very wide open space was kept round the gallows by the police, but beyond this the concourse was dense, stretching up beyond St. Sepulchre’s Church, and far back almost, into Smithfield—a great surging mass of people which, in spite of the barriers, kept swaying to and from like waving corn. Now and then there was a great laughter as a girl fainted, and was passed out hand over hand above the heads of the mob, and then there came a scuffle and a fight, and then a hymn, and then a sermon, and then a comic song, and so on from hour to hour, the crowd thickening as the day brightened, and the sun shone out with such a glare as to extinguish the very feeble light which showed itself faintly through the glass roof above where the culprit lay. It was a wild, rough crowd, not so numerous nor nearly so violent as that which thronged to see Muller or the pirates die. In one way they showed their feeling by loudly hooting a magnificently-attired woman, who, accompanied by two gentlemen, swept down the avenue kept open by the police, and occupied a window afterwards right in front of the gallows. This temporary exhibition of feeling was, however, soon allayed by coppers being thrown from the window for the roughs to scramble for. It is not right, perhaps, that a murderer’s death should be surrounded by all the pious and tender accessories which accompany the departure of a good man to a better world, but most assuredly the sight of public executions to those who have to witness them is as disgusting as it must be demoralizing even to all the hordes of thieves and prostitutes it draws together. Yesterday the assembly was of its kind an orderly one, yet it was such as we feel grateful to think will under the new law never be drawn together again in England.

With the first sound of the bells came a great hungry roar from the crowd outside, and a loud, continued shout of “Hats off,” till the whole dense, bareheaded mass stood white and ghastly-looking in the morning sun, and the pressure on the barriers increased so that the girls and women in the front ranks began to scream and struggle to get free. Amid such a scene as this, and before such a dense crowd of white faces, Barrett was executed. His clergyman came first. Barrett mounted the steps with the most perfect firmness. 

This may seem a stereotyped phrase, but it really means more than is generally imagined. To ascend a ladder with one’s arms and hands closely pinioned would be at all times difficult, but to climb a ladder to go to certain death might try the nerves of the boldest. Barrett walked up coolly and boldly. His face was as white as marble, but still he bore himself with firmness, and his demeanour was as far removed from bravado as from fear. We would not dwell on these details, but from the singular reception he met as he came out upon the scaffold. There was a partial burst of cheers, which was instantly accompanied by loud hisses, and so it remained for some seconds, till as the last moment approached the roars dwindled down to a dead silence. To neither cheers nor hisses did the culprit make the slightest recognition. He seemed only attentive to what the priest was saying to him, and to be engaged in fervent prayer. The hangman instantly put the cap over his face and the rope round his neck. Then Barrett turning spoke through his cap and asked for the rope to be altered, which the hangman did. In another moment Barrett was a dead man. After the bolt was drawn and the drop fell with the loud boom which always echoes from it, Barrett never moved. He died without a struggle. It is worthy of remark that a great cry rose from the crowd as the culprit fell—a cry which was neither an exclamation nor a scream, but it partook in its sound of both. With the fall of the drop the crowd began to disperse, but an immense mass waited till the time for cutting down came, and when 9 o’clock struck there were loud calls of “Come on, body snatcher!” “Take away the man you’ve killed!” &c. The hangman appeared and cut down the body amid such a storm of yells and execrations as has seldom been heard even from such a crowd. There was nothing more then to be seen, so the concourse broke up with its usual concomitants of assault and robbery.

The body on being taken down was placed in a shell and removed to an adjoining building in the presence of the Sheriffs and Under-Sheriffs, the Governor, the prison surgeon, and the Ordinary. There the rope having been removed from the neck, and the leathern straps by which the legs and arms had been pinioned, the surgeon certified that life was extinct. The expression of the face was marvellously serene and placid, and the features composed to a degree irreconcilable at first sight with the notion of a violent death, though the lips and parts of the forehead were unusually livid. Towards evening the body was buried in the accustomed place within the precincts of the prison, in a grave upwards of five feet deep, in the presence of the Governor and other officers of the gaol. Barrett was an Irishman by birth, about 27 years of age, of a thick-set, muscular figure, rather below the average height, and with a prepossessing countenance. He was unmarried, and by trade a stevedore. Neither before nor after his conviction did any relative call at the gaol to see him, and after sentence he was only, or chiefly, visited by the Rev. Mr. Hussey, who was with him a considerable time daily, and by his counsel and occasionally by one or other of the Sheriffs. His behaviour in prison was uniformly becoming, and he bore himself to the last with great fortitude, submitting himself at the same time with affectionate docility to the exhortations of his priest, and gratefully receiving the consolations of religion. He was never unduly buoyed up by the efforts made out of doors to reverse his sentence, but rather welcomed the repeated respites as affording him further time to prepare himself for the worst, should it come to that. 

He died without making any confession of the crime of which he was convicted, so far as any of the authorities are informed. What he may have said to his priest, if anything, in reference to the murders may never be divulged. All that is known is that he gave him “immense satisfaction,” to use that gentleman’s own expression, by his humble and penitent demeanour, his extraordinary fortitude, and by the earnestness with which he strove to prepare himself for his end. Yet there was this peculiarity about him, as observed more than once by one of the authorities in his visits to him after sentence—that he never absolutely denied his guilt. On those occasions, whenever he referred to the crime, he always said he had been convicted on insufficient evidence, and that he was not guilty of murder.
            - The Times, 27th May 1868

Thursday, 4 August 2011

“I Removed my Straw Trilby and Gave a Polite Bow, as the Lady in Question was None Other than Queen Victoria” Or: A Victorianist’s Maltese Travelog:

Miss Amateur Casual and I have recently returned from a holiday to Malta, but no Victorianist is ever truly on holiday when visiting a former British colony, and to my delight, the influence of the British Victorians can still be seen today, if you look for it.

I have picked out a couple of examples, some of which I was lucky enough to see, whether in their full glory or a mere glimpse.

The Opera House Ruins
In the capital of Malta, Valletta, can be seen the ruins of an old building which, according to the map I purchased for a scandalous amount of euros was the Royal Opera House. The ruins looked extremely old, as you can see on the right, but after a little bit of research it transpires that they are not as ancient as I first thought, and the Opera House was first built there in 1866, after being designed by none other than the third son of famous English architect Charles Barry, Edward Middleton Barry. Edward’s other works include Burnley Grammar School, built in 1860, Birmingham Free Public Library, built in 1861, Charing Cross Hotel and the replica of the Eleanor Cross in London, built in 1865, and, perhaps most famously, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, opened in 1858 (upon which his designs for the Valletta Royal opera House was based)
E. M. Barry’s original designs for the Valletta Opera House had be changed because the steep, sloping streets adjacent to the site where the building was to be, had not been taken into account. The neighbouring street, Strada Reale, was fitted with a terrace to level the land out a little.
Building started in 1862, and four years later, the Opera House, with an overall capacity for 1,295 people spectators (1,095 seated and 200 standing) opened on 9th October 1866.

Six years after the grand opening, the Opera House was struck by disaster when, in May 1873 there was a fire. The outside of the theatre remained in tact, but inside, the heat of the fire had swept through the building destroying almost everything. The heat had been so intense that the interior stonework had calcified.
Back in its Glory Days
What was to happen next? Nobody was sure. Should they demolish the Opera House? Was it safe to rebuild? In the end, it was rebuilt. The rebuilding process took as long as the original build, and on 11th October 1877, the Royal opera House in Valletta staged its second grand opening, eleven years and two days after its first, with a performance of Verdi’s ‘Aida’.

Whilst the Opera House’s ‘second coming’ lasted a lot longer than its first, its life was still ended prematurely, when sixty-five years later, in April 1942, it was destroyed by Luftwaffe bombers, and never rebuilt, which is why the Opera House is still in ruins today, and looking so ancient.

Whilst we were in Valleta, we noted that building work on the entrance to the city was taking place, a project which the information posters advertised as being entitled ‘The City Gates’. Whilst the artist impressions of the finished project looked nice, it seems that the Maltese people are vehemently opposed to the work, which has been agreed by the Maltese parliament, seemingly without consulting anybody.

The project involves building a brand new parliament building, tearing down the existing city gate and turning the ruined Royal Opera House into an open-air performance space. Whilst all that remains of the Opera House now are the steps which once led up to the entrance hall, battered and graffiti-covered parts of wall surrounding a litter and weed-infested concrete square, my personal opinion is that the Opera House as it currently stands serves as a fitting tribute, first and foremost, to the efforts of the island during World War Two, for which it was awarded a George Cross, and secondly, to the rich history we Brits share with the Maltese people, but then, I suppose people with a fondness for history can be a little sentimental about such things.

Also in Valletta, as we strolled down the main street on our way back toward the bus station, I was met with a familiar face. Of course, out of respect for this lady I removed my straw trilby and gave a polite bow, as the lady in question was none other than Queen Victoria, carved elegantly in marble and sat upon a plinth in front of the Maltese National Library in Republic Square.

The Queen
A little bit more research on her majesty informed me that she was not – as I had originally assumed – the work of a British Victorian, shipped to Malta during height of the Empire, but of a Sicilian named Giuseppe Valente. Victoria was sculpted in Palermo, and then travelled to Malta, where she was unveiled as part of the celebrations to commemorate her golden jubilee in 1887. Republic Square, where the marble Victoria finds her home, is known locally as Pjazza Regina – Queen’s Square.

Whilst traveling on one of the new Maltese busses (Second-hand Arriva busses replaced the quaint antique busses synonymous with Malta a little over two weeks prior to our visit – a god-send in terms of air conditioning but not much to look at) Miss Amateur Casual wondered whether Malta had any rail system to speak of. My answer, which was purely a guess, was that I suppose they did not require one, the island being quite small, and most places seemingly easily within an hour or so drive of wherever one may find oneself. Miss Amateur Casual also commented on the vast amounts of hills on the island, which would make a project such as a rail system extremely difficult, requiring extensive tunneling on land not too far above sea-level.

In sense, we were correct, but after observing what we assumed to be a dried up river (essentially a large trough in the ground, overgrown with trees, bushes and grasses running through the middle of a town) I purchased a book on Malta’s history from a local shop, and, sure enough, there was once a small railway on the island, but it no longer exists. More ghosts.
The Malta Railway was only tiny – a single line, which ran from the current capital city of Valletta, to the old capital city, the walled, medieval fort town of Mdina (pronounced im-deena, we were told by our guide book)

The train line was first proposed in 1870, in order to shave two and a half hours off the three hour traveling time by horse and cart between the two cities. The Malta Railway Company was set up to plan and carry out the works. The planning and design took a long time, and the Malta Railway Company turned to the British engineering firm of Wells-Owen & Elwes from London, to design the railway.

The carriages, too came from England, being built by Manning Wardle & Co. Ltd. from Leeds, Black, Hawthorn & Co Ltd. from Gateshead, and Beyer, Peacock & Co. Ltd. of Manchester.

Delays to the start of the project were brought about by problems in purchasing land for the track, some of which was occupied by houses and businesses, with whom the Malta Railway Company had protracted negotiations regarding the buying of the land. Eventually, the legal and practical issues were sorted out, the construction began, and on the 28th February 1883, crowds watched the first train depart Valletta station for Mdina. The railways were in business. The Malta Railway Company, however, were not to be so for much longer. In 1890 they were declared bankrupt, and the line they operated between the old and new capital was closed after only seven years of operation.
Two years later, in January 1892, the Maltese government re-opened the line, having made improvements and investments to it, and the Maltese railway was back up and running, better than before.

The opening decades of the 20th century, however, dealt deadly blows to the railways; in 1903 a tram service was set up in some areas of Malta, which took away a lot of the custom from the trains, and in the 1930’s, Malta began to use motorized busses to carry people around the streets.
The Vehicle that Condemned the Railway
The busses wiped out the railway trade, and sent the trams down too, and now, only relics of the old train lines exist – entrances to tunnels in hills, etc, and interestingly, when the railway closed, a lot of the railway track was surfaced with tar, and if you know where you’re going, you can still walk much of the old train tracks today.
Many of the busses were still in use right up to the middle of this year, along with other designs from later decades. Sadly, I never got to ride on an old bus. 

In the same year that the Malta railway began operation, heralding the onset of new technology on the island, an altogether more ancient phenomenon occurred on the tiny island of Gozo, just to the north-west of Malta. The tale was told to us by a local bus driver, taking us from the island’s capital, Victoria, to its port, so that we could catch the boat back to Malta. En route, we were to stop at an old church named Ta’Pinu. (part of the exterior of which can be seen on my holiday snap, below) The story was that in 1883, a forty-five year old local woman named Carmela Grima, who was a regular worshipper at Ta’Pinu church, was walking past and heard a woman’s voice urging her to come into the church to pray. Although she did so every day, she was not intending to on this occasion. Confused by the voice, she began to run away, but the voice called again, and this time Carmela realized that the voice was coming from inside the church. She went inside and the voice – which had come from the image of the Blessed Virgin – asked her to recite three Ave Maria’s.
Ta'Pinu Church

Carmela did as the voice asked and went on her way. Shortly afterwards she fell ill and remained confined to her bed for more than a year. After this time, Karmela revealed her secret to a friend, Francesco Portelli, who in turn told her that at the same time he also heard a woman's voice asking him to pray from within the chapel. Shortly after this mysterious call Francesco's mother was miraculously healed.
News of the events spread, and people came from all over Malta to pray for miracles of their own, and still do to this day.

I supposed that perhaps her illness had made her delirious and caused her to hear voices, but voiced this opinion solely to Miss Amateur Casual, who tended to agree.

On the way back to port after leaving the church, our amiable driver pointed out the ruins of some aqueducts built by the British in the 19th century to supply fresh water to the people of the island. Work started in September 1839, with former British Army officer, and Governor of Malta from 1836 to 1843, Sir Henry Bouverie in charge of proceedings.

The Obelisk
The Aqueducts took fresh water from a spring on Ghar IIma Hill (Ghar IIma meaning ‘The Cave of Water) and conveyed it to the capital city of Victoria where it gathered inn a reservoir for locals to collect. Work was completed in September 1843, as the first water, carried by the aqueducts, issued from a fountain in St. Sabina Square, Victoria

A monument commemorating this event still stands today, but unfortunately, I got no photograph of it myself.
(Thanks to Le Monde1 for allowing me to use his FlickR photograph of the obelisk monument to the opening of the aqueducts, much appreciated.)

Today, of course, the aqueducts are no longer in use, but stand – just like the Royal Opera House – as a monument to out interlinked history with the Maltese. Unfortunately, as we were on a bus driving past the ruins I was unable to get a photograph of my own, but below is typical of what they look like today.
Aqueduct Ruins
Of course, any former British colony will still bear some signs and harbour the odd ghost of British rule, and I enjoyed seeing the evidence of our Victorian ancestors in Malta conmbined with the influences of all manner of other times and cultures, from Arabic to Italian, from medieval times to modern day. The effects of being ruled by so many different countries and empires – such as the Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, French and British – all combined on these little, catholic islands to form a culture all of their own.

The red telephone boxes and post boxes which are scattered over the island, certainly make you feel a little at home, along with the fact that our Victorian ancestors were once there, building and engineering as only they could, to add their signature and a note of good wishes to the metaphorical guestbook of Malta’s history, and put a British stamp upon the islands which continues to echo today.