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Monday, 21 January 2013

"The Pages I Turned Last Year..." Or: My 2012 Reading List:

In 2011 I decided to begin keeping lists of all the books I read over the last twelve months, the idea being twofold; that I could keep track of what I have read, and also for when anyone asks me for recommendations I have them virtually at my fingertips.

For anyone interested in what I read in 2011, the list can be found within this post

As for 2012, it was a less than fruitful year of page-turning for me, it seems, having only managed to finish seven whole books (It can take me a while to finish a book as I don’t get an awful lot of time to read) but nevertheless, whilst the quantity falls short, the quality certainly does not.
  • The World for a Shilling  (Michael Leapman)
  • The Dead Mans Message (Florence Marryat)
  • Tom all Alones  (Lynn Shepherd)
  • Twice Round the Clock  (George Augustus Sala)
  • The Somnambulist  (Essie Fox)
  • Three Men in a Boat  (Jerome K Jerome)
  • People of the Abyss  (Jack London)
  • Devoured (DE Meredith)
  • Bleak House (Charles Dickens)
As I write this I am still reading Bleak House and after an apprehensive start, enjoying it immensely. I can recommend thoroughly all the books above, although ‘The Dead Man’s Message’ was a little moralistic, being a kind of ‘A Christmas Carol’ meets ‘The Divine Comedy’ tale about living an honest and true life, and ‘Twice Round The Clock’ seemed terribly long-winded to me; a little like listening to a drunk old uncle talk about the good old days.

That said, the former was fairly short, and the latter contained a lot of interesting information, so I would still recommend them, albeit with the above advice offered.

I'm more than happy to talk about and discuss any of these books, so feel free to leave comments below or chat to me on Twitter about them. You'll find me on there under the name @Amateur_Casual

Thursday, 17 January 2013

"With Regard to Cyclists and the General Traffic... We Can’t go on in the Present way Much Longer." Or: George R. Sims on Cycling in London in the 1890's:

2012 was a huge year for cycling in Britain, and in fact, with the London cycle hire scheme now a piece of the city furniture, cycling in the UK and the capital has never been more popular, and bicycles never more widely used.

This popularity, however, has thrown up a few problems. We are led to believe that since this boom in the popularity of two-wheeled motivation that there is a so-called war being raged between motorists and cyclists, with one camp claiming the other is a danger to their safety and vice versa. Other arguments exist claiming that London is an old city of tiny streets and alleys which are not big or wide enough to accommodate both bicycles and vehicles.

These arguments, however, are nothing new. In fact, they go back over a hundred years. Bicycles first became popular in the UK in the middle of the nineteenth century, but the humble bike as we know it can trace its roots back to the Draisienne – or ‘Dandyhorse’ of 1818. This was a wood and iron contraption which looked exactly like a bike, but had no pedals. Instead the user sat on the frame and pushed along the ground with their feet in a running or walking motion.
The Draisienne
In the 1840’s the world saw the first mechanically propelled bicycle, which was supposedly invented in Scotland, but this fact is much disputed. By the 1860’s there was a bit of a cycling mania, and indeed it was this era that saw the many forms of bicycle taking to the streets, from velocipedes with umbrellas and writing tables attached to them, to the familiar and typically Victorian Penny Farthing of the 1870’s.

With the popularity of these contraptions inevitably came naysayers who thought – just as people think today – that cyclists were a nuisance.
George R. Sims, in an interview with Cycle and Motor World magazine, gives his opinions on the problems with cyclists and cycling, and offers some ingenious and eccentric solutions:

"I won't keep you long." Said the CYCLE AND MOTOR WORLD interviewer.
"I wish you would," said Mr. Sims, "at present I have to keep myself. You must be careful as to what you make me say about cycling. I've no wish to smash up Dunlops, and puncture the whole trade, you know."
"Well, to begin with, there's the subject of cyclists and the general traffic of the streets. Then one is always hearing arguments on the questions of lights and -"
"You can't expect me to know anything about that," said Mr. Sims; the liver is my speciality, you know. With regard to cyclists and the general traffic - well, I think something will have to happen soon. We can't go on in the present way much longer. I have an idea that a system of little light bridges is the kind of thing we want in London. If they were built properly the general effect would be very pretty - something after the style of the willow pattern plate, you know. Then, when London was illuminated, it would be like fairy land, and the bridges would be of immense service, too."
Mr. Sims

"Everyone knows that you prefer driving to cycling,
Mr. Sims; don't you find cyclists rather a nuisance on the road?"
"No; they're much better than they used to be, and they're improving every day. I can't say that I like to see ladies riding through the City and hanging on to the sides of 'buses when there's a block; but then, they don't hurt me because I never drive in the City if I can possibly avoid it. There is one matter at least in which I am quite at one with the cyclists, and that is the careless way in which pedestrians use the roads. I scarcely ever go for a drive without having to pull up suddenly because someone has stepped off the pavement right under my horse's nose. The people who do that sort of thing never look where they are going or whether anything is coming along the road. It's simply ghastly the way they try to get smashed up... You were asking me about lights just now. Of course, every cart ought to carry a light, though there isn't so much danger in their not doing so as there is in a cyclist going about lampless in the dark. The ordinary brewers dray, for instance, can be heard a good distance off, and if it can't be heard it can at least be smelt. Well, I suppose the average cyclist is careful to avoid running into a brewer's dray. Still, I should like to see a light on every kind of conveyance after dark. I know that cyclists find the lighting regulations an awful nuisance sometimes: lamps get jogged out - and the usual consequences happen. Well, I have a new idea for a bicycle that shall not require a lamp at all. What about luminous paint? Paint your bicycle with luminous paint, and then the darker the night the brighter the light. And look how pretty they'd all be!"

Then we got onto the subject of cycling and journalism. Mr. Sims has a theory that no journalist, unless he be a cycling journalist, should ever think of riding a bicycle regularly.
"The ordinary working journalist hasn't time for what is called 'healthy excercise,'" said Mr. 
Sims. "I should say that cycling is more suitable for a man who writes three-volume novels, or one that turns out about two books a year and has plenty of time on his hands. The better our health is, the less we care to work our brains. All imagination is a disease, and it follows that the right way to cultivate the imagination is to make one's self as ill as possible. I have done no end of work when I have been absolutely unwell. If I took to cycling, I should probably not want to do anything else, and my body would get so well that my brain would suffer. I had a bicycle presented to me anonymously, but I don't ride it about here - only when I'm away and enjoying myself."

Cycling in Hyde Park
"Don't you think a ride in the morning helps to clear the brain?"
"Nothing of the sort. If a man wants to write, the best thing he can do is to go out and eat a heavy meal of underdone pork chops. Then, after he has smoked a clay pipe in a bad atmosphere, he ought to be able to turn out something good. The life of a literary man is more or less of a sacrifice. The great thing is to avoid the last straw."

"To come back to cycling, Mr. Sims, do you like to see dogs accompanying cyclists?"
"Certainly not in a crowded thoroughfare, and not on a country road unless the dog is physically capable of following a bicycle easily and has been trained to do so. A dog that runs with a cycle should be taught never to get in front of it. My Dalmatians are all trained to run behind my trap when I'm out - at least, they were before I had to muzzle them. I can't take them out now; they only sit down in the road and try to scratch their muzzles off. It's positively cruel to make a dog follow a bicycle in London. I know that up in the circle here (in Regent's Park), where everybody learns to ride, there is always some poor unfortunate dog who gets in the way - I hate to see it; in fact, I can't go near the place in consequence."

And then we fell to talking about all sorts of things, from bulldogs to "local colour," and Mr. Sims showed me a number of curios he possesses. Just as I was leaving, I discovered that although Mr. Sims is not a very enthusiastic cyclist, yet he has solved the great drink question. Cyclists are always wanting to know what is the best thing to drink. Mr. Sims can tell them, for his usual daily allowance of liquid refreshment is one cup of tea, drunk early in the morning.
                     - The Cycle and Motor World, January 1897

If the Mayor of London is reading this, perhaps the system of ‘little light bridges’ for cyclists is something that could be looked at today to end these so called road wars.

Perhaps not.

For more on George R. Sims, see a post I wrote on him and his poem ‘In the Workhouse, Christmas Day’ a few years ago here:

Thursday, 10 January 2013

“To Promote the Health and Cleanliness of the Working Classes…” Or: Victorian Public Baths and Liverpool’s “Saint of the Slums”:

As you can well imagine, health, hygiene and cleanliness in the nineteenth century city was far below the standards we are used to today. This lack of public sanitation led to outbreaks of disease – particularly amongst the poor in their crammed slums – in Britain’s Victorian cities.

In an attempt to combat these conditions of squalor and filth, parishes opened public baths, which were exactly as you’d expect; buildings in poor neighbourhoods where poor people could wash themselves and their clothes. The first of these appeared in Liverpool in 1828, when the Corporation of Liverpool opened a salt-water bath at St. George’s Pier Head, but it wasn’t until the 1840’s that public baths and wash-houses really took off in earnest, with the first fresh, warm water public bath being opened on Frederick Street in Liverpool in 1842.

Two years later the Association for Promoting Cleanliness Among the Poor was founded, and set about establishing bath and laundry houses in London. The first appeared in Glass House Yard, East Smithfield, and for the price of a penny each the poor could bathe and wash themselves. Cleanliness at home was also encouraged and to help with this the APCA handed out whitewash (an extremely cheap and mildly antibacterial white paint containing lime) and paintbrushes so the poor could paint the walls of their tenements, rooms or filthy garrets clean.

The East Smithfield bath proved a success, with over 85,000 people utilizing the facility in the space of a year. This triumph lead to the passing of the Public Baths and Wash Houses Act in 1846, which promised “To promote the health and cleanliness of the working classes, and as a necessary consequence, improve their social condition and raise their moral tone, thereby, tendering them more accessible to and better fitted to receive religious and secular training.” The act also – perhaps more importantly – gave parishes the power to raise money to provide more public wash houses, and so inevitably, following on from the success of the Smithfield bath, more quickly followed in London.

The first “model” baths opened in 1847 in Goulston Square, Whitechapel, and by 1851 seven parishes had raised enough money through ratepayers to open public baths, including St. Pancras, Marylebone and St. Martin-in-the-Fields. In 1850 the Whitechapel, St. Martin-in-the-Fields and Marylebone baths were used by a combined total of half a million people.

Of course, public baths and whitewashing alone could not stop the spread of diseases, and it was one such outbreak that sowed the seed for the public bath and wash house movement to be born in Liverpool. An 1832 cholera epidemic in the city saw one plucky citizen rise to prominence in the war on slum diseases. 

Kitty Wilkinson was born Catherine Seaward in Ireland in 1786 but at the age of nine left the emerald isle with her parents and sister and set sail for a new life in Liverpool. As they approached the city their boat capsized. Kitty and her mother made it to Liverpool, but her father and sister were swept out to sea, never to be seen again. They were alone and destitute.

At twelve she made her way to Lancashire and found work in a cotton mill as an apprentice- notoriously hard and dangerous work – before returning to her mother in Liverpool eight years later in 1806, at which time they both went into domestic service. In 1812 Kitty, then aged twenty six, married French sailor Emanuel Demontee. They had two children, but before the second was born the sea once again cruelly struck Kitty’s life; taking her husband whilst he was on duty aboard a ship and leaving her widowed and her children without a father. The incident must have brought back painful memories. Following Emanuel’s death she returned to domestic service, but this did not last long.
Kitty Wilkinson

She had acquired a mangle as a gift and soon put it to good use, setting herself up as a laundress to support her two children, as well as her mother with whom she still lived. She married again in 1823, this time to warehouse porter Tom Wilkinson (from whom she takes her now familiar name), and lead an otherwise uneventful life. 

For nine years at least.

And so the cholera epidemic struck Liverpool in 1832, and Kitty – being the only person in her neighbourhood with a boiler – quickly took matters into her own hands by inviting people from her street to use it to wash their clothes and linen. She also showed them how to use chloride of lime (bleach powder) to clean them. Effectively this was the first example of a public wash house, and Kitty’s actions saved who-knows-how-many lives during the outbreak.

After seeing the success of her wash house, and how effective her methods of combating disease had been, Kitty began to campaign for the opening of public baths in the city so the poor could continue to wash themselves. Her deeds had been noticed by Liverpool councilor and future mayor of the city, William Rathbone, who supported her initiative, which was ultimately successful, leading as it did to the aforementioned Frederick Street baths, of which Kitty was appointed superintendent.

Kitty, whose work earned her the nickname ‘The Saint of the Slums’ died in 1860 at the age of seventy four, and is buried in St. James Cemetery.

In September 2012 a statue of Kitty Wilkinson was unveiled in Liverpool’s St. George’s Hall, where the working class former cotton mill worker and domestic servant sits alongside fellow eminent Liverpudlians such as William Roscoe, Robert Peel, George Stephenson and Gladstone. Kitty’s statue is the first in the hall of a female.

In 1910 a memoir of Kitty’s life was published entitled ‘The Life of Kitty Wilkinson, a Lancashire Heroine’ written by Winifred Rathbone, and in 1927, Herbert Rathbone, the great nephew of councilor William Rathbone published ‘A Memoir of Kitty Wilkinson of Liverpool, 1786-1860: with a short account of Thomas Wilkinson, her husband

Any Kindle owners interested in knowing more about Kitty may be interested in Michael Kelly's eBook, 'The Life of Kitty Wilkinson' available on Amazon here at a very reasonable price.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

“Trow at Once ran to the Canal and Jumped in to the Rescue…” Or: The Heroics of a Victorian Tram Conductor:

In the 1700’s, at the height of the industrial revolution, canals cut across the green and pleasant land of Britain. They were to the 1760’s what railways were to the 1860’s; the veins of commerce pumping life from city to city, keeping the heart of industry pumping. Canals were densely packed virtually all the way from Liverpool to London via all the big manufacturing centres such as Birmingham and Sheffield in order to transport large materials or items in a mass and speed that was unachievable on roads at the time, especially for large freight such as coal (the price of which dropped dramatically once it could be transported in bulk by canal, as opposed to the more costly, time consuming and inefficient transport by road) When the railways came, however, the efficacy of the canal was trumped. Trains were much faster and could carry even more freight. In time, transport of goods via train became cheaper, too, and use of the canals declined.

Throughout England’s history, 56 canals have been abandoned, either reclaimed by nature, left as water-less ditches or filled in and urbanized. One such abandoned canal was the Newcastle-under-Lyme canal in Staffordshire. But why have I decided to write about a canal that was opened in 1800 and officially closed in 1935? What on earth is Victorian about that? Well, sometimes I find it can be more fun researching 19th century events that are a little lesser known to the greater world. I find it can add fine detail and almost ‘humanize’ the behemoth that is the Victorian period if a little story like this is examined rather than a big story, such as, say, a war.

So, why am I writing about a now-disused canal in Staffordshire?

Well, in April 1894 the canal witnessed an act of Victorian heroism that is still commemorated in the area to this day.

The Newcastle-under-Lyme canal ran alongside London Road in Hanley, Staffordshire (although now there is no trace of it) and this road was served by a tram. On 13th April 1894, the conductor of the tram was twenty-two year old local man Timothy Trow, and as his tram approached London road, four-year-old Jane Ridgeway was playing on the towpath…

Richard H. Weir, in his 1980’s Staffordshire-themed book ‘Six of the Best: A Potteries Companion’ describes the events that took place next:

‘Imagine the scene in 1894. In those days London Road was a cobbled highway, resounding to the screech of steam-trams as they slowed to a halt near this spot. Between pavement and water's edge were iron railings and a row of tall trees. As a tram drew close at 4 o'clock, one April afternoon, its young conductor heard screams coming from the canal. He looked up and, seeing a little girl, terrified and flailing desperately to stay afloat, wasted no time in vaulting the railings and plunging into the chill water to her rescue. By fate's intervention, he was tragically seized by a violent cramp and sank like a stone to the bottom. The child was later pulled out alive.’

A more detailed – if less pleasing to the imagination – version of the incident was reported in a midlands newspaper three days later following the coroner’s inquest:

The Sad Death of a Tramway Conductor.
On Saturday Mr. J. Booth (coroner) held an inquest on the body of Timothy Trow (22), a conductor in the employ of the North Staffordshire Tramways Company, who met with his death while attempting to save a child from drowning. The previous afternoon deceased was in charge of the car working on the London Road section of the tramways. About a Quarter past four o'clock, just as the car was about to start from the West End terminus, attention was attracted by the sound of a splash in the adjoining canal, and on observing that a little girl had fallen into the water, Trow at once ran to the canal and jumped in to the rescue. He walked part of the way across, until be was up to the waist, when he suddenly sank very much deeper, and called out to his fellow workman, the engine driver, that he had the cramp. He appeared to become helpless, and a Mr. Henry Lloyd, of Berresford Street, Shelton, entered the canal to his assistance.
Deceased got hold of and struggled with to Lloyd, who was ultimately obliged to leave him to ensure his own safety, and Lloyd, being also seized with cramp, had to he assisted on to the towing-path. In the meantime the child had been rescued by John Forrester, of Wellesley Street, Shelton, who also made an attempt to reach the deceased, but without avail. Everything, in fact, was done to rescue Trow, but the efforts proved futile, and the body of the deceased was not recovered until about half an hour later.
The Coroner said that there could be no doubt that Trow lost his life in an heroic attempt to save that of the child, and appeared equally clear that the conduct of the other persons present when this distressing fatality occurred was very laudable.
The Jury returned a verdict of “Accidental Death.”
            - Birmingham Daily Post, April 16th 1894

Such was the empathy of local people for Trow’s actions they collected money for a memorial to be erected to remember him. The obelisk is still standing today, as can be seen below, sitting next to where the towpath of the canal would have been until 1935.

The Obelisk on London Road Today
 So there we have a tiny piece of the nineteenth century jigsaw to add to the whole wonderful patchwork puzzle. Old newspapers can be an excellent source to find stories such as these, and even lesser stories, long forgotten by everyone, but which deeply affected people at the time they happened. I know its something I keep saying, but if you like history and enjoy researching, then I do recommend you try and get hold of an old newspaper and scan through the pages, it’s a great way to pass an hour or two!