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Archive for March, 2011

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William Page: The Vanishing Highwayman

Posted in Famous crimes on Wednesday, 30 March 2011

This edited article about William Page originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 928 published on 3 November 1979.

The highwayman had taken off his crêpe mask and the old, dishevelled black wig that he habitually used for robberies, and safely hidden them in his saddle bag. The robbery, just south of Sevenoaks, Kent, had been most successful. The traveller, Lord Ferrers, had been carrying a goodly sum and had handed it over to the highwayman without causing any difficulties. The highwayman would now have to ride through the town of Sevenoaks, but that should pose no problem – there was nothing about him to arouse suspicion.

After each of his hold-ups William Page seemed able to spirit himself away - until the next of his daring escapades. His run of success was halted in an attempted robbery on the Great North Road. Illustration by C L Doughty

After each of his hold-ups William Page seemed able to spirit himself away – until the next of his daring escapades. His run of success was halted in an attempted robbery on the Great North Road. Illustration by C L Doughty

Scarcely, however, had the highwayman passed through the town, riding at a quiet, steady pace, than he heard the sound of galloping hooves behind him. Turning in his saddle, he was alarmed to see five well-mounted men bearing down on him. Were they after him? Had Lord Ferrers raised the alarm? All such questions faded from his mind as the men began firing their pistols at him.

Fortunately for the highwayman, his pursuers’ shots went wide and, after firing two shots over their heads as a warning, the robber set spurs to his horse and rode off at such a pace that they soon gave up the chase. Once again, William Page, known as the “Master of the Road”, had had a narrow escape from “Jack Ketch” (the nickname the highwayman fraternity habitually gave to the hangman).

No highwayman understood better all the techniques needed to be successful on the High Toby, as the highroads were popularly called. No highwayman possessed greater courage or more steadfast determination. No highwayman was more of a “gentleman of the road”, always courteous towards those he robbed – and certainly no highwayman had more hair-breadth escapes.

William Page was born at Hampton, Middlesex, in 1730, the son of a bargeman who worked on the Thames. The family was poor, living in such utter squalor that, during the Great Frost of 1740, they pitched a tent, alongside countless other Londoners, on the ice-bound River Thames. When the thaw came, many people drowned – including Page’s father. At ten years old, William had to find his own way, and began work.

After various jobs – working at a tavern, apprenticed to an apothecary and then working in a printing house – he became an under-footman to the Earl of Glencairn. It was then that he saw, at first hand, the lavish luxury of the aristocracy, which contrasted so greatly with the dire poverty his family had experienced and which, he felt, had indirectly led to his father’s death.

In his teens, William became personal valet to a wealthy army officer and began to emulate him, often dressing in the captain’s own clothes. The officer took exception to this and James decided it was time to set up on his own. It was just after his 16th birthday that William Page resolved to become a highwayman.

Unfortunately for his plans, Page had no horse and no pistols. Then he heard that a fellow servant was selling a brace of pistols for his master. Page told the servant he knew of a likely purchaser and persuaded him to part with the pistols on a day’s approval. Page then hired a horse from a livery stables and set out for Highgate.

His first robbery was of the Highgate coach itself and, with the money he obtained from the passengers, he bought the pistols. With the proceeds of his next few robberies, he bought a superb mount for himself. William Page was now a fully-fledged highwayman and he set himself to master all the necessary skills.

Page drew up a detailed map of every road within 30 miles of London and with its help was able, seemingly, to vanish after his robberies, foiling all pursuit. As well as a crêpe mask, he would wear an old black wig to further disguise himself. And, later in his long career on the road, he adopted a most novel means of avoiding suspicion. He would drive out from London in a phaeton and pair. When he reached his destination, he would conceal the vehicle and one of the horses, change into riding clothes, don his wig and mask and be ready for the fray.

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Kemal Atatürk: ‘Father Turk’

Posted in History, Politics on Wednesday, 30 March 2011

This edited article about Kemal Atatürk originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 928 published on 3 November 1979.

Among Kemal Ataturk's plans to modernise his country was the replacing of the traditional fez with western-style headwear. Illustration by John Keay

Among Kemal Ataturk’s plans to modernise his country was the replacing of the traditional fez with western-style headwear. Illustration by John Keay

While still at school, Mustapha stood out among his fellows for his ability and energy. It was a teacher who gave him the name Kemal, meaning “perfection”, and it stayed with him for the rest of his life.

The Turkey in which Mustapha had been born in 1880 was a mere shadow of the power it had once been. The Ottoman Empire which had dominated the Mediterranean world was tottering under the feeble and corrupt government of its sultans.

After he left school Mustapha was sent to a military academy in Constantinople. There, and as an officer in the Army, he brilliantly fulfilled the early promise he had shown.

These were restless times, and many in Turkey were campaigning for reforms and national revival. Discontent was especially rife among students and young professional men, among whom was formed the association known as the Young Turks.

Mustapha Kemal was a member of this movement, but only for a time. His patriotism, and his desire for reform, were intense; but he had no taste for intrigue. He was a man of action – and was only at his best as a leader.

His great chance came at the end of the First World War. Turkey, which had fought on the losing side, had lost the last remains of her empire. When the Greeks, whom the Turks hated and despised, were allowed to land troops on the coast of Turkey’s mainland, indignation boiled over.

Kemal, who had served with outstanding distinction in the war, now acted. In defiance of the Sultan, Mehmed VI, who had accepted the Allies’ humiliating peace terms, Kemal gathered an army and set up a rebel government at Ankara.

By extraordinary feats of organisation and leadership, he knit his rebel movement into an irresistible force. He defeated the Greeks and drove them from the country, deposed the sultan and forced the Allies to recognise his nationalist government and revise the peace terms.

In October, 1923, Kemal’s government proclaimed Ankara as the new capital, replacing Constantinople. On the 29th of that month the national assembly declared Turkey a republic; and on the next day elected its first president, Mustapha Kemal.

Until his death 15 years later, he retained the presidency, being duly re-elected every four years. Throughout his rule, his constant aim was to “westernise” Turkey; to modernise its institutions, and its people’s way of life.

One of his innovations, introduced in 1934, was the rule that everyone should have a “surname”, which had not been the practice previously. The one he himself adopted was Atatürk, which means “Father Turk”. For the man who was indeed the father of modern Turkey Kemal Atatürk was a most appropriate name.

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Akershus Castle – Once a vital defence in Norway

Posted in Castles, History on Wednesday, 30 March 2011

This edited article about Akershus Castle originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 927 published on 7 October 1979.

The harbour of the Norwegian capital city of Oslo is today, as it has been for hundreds of years, dominated by the old castle of Akershus. This has in the past guarded the city from its impregnable position on the top of a steep cliff.

Akershus Castle, Oslo, Norway. Illustration by Harry Green

Akershus Castle, Oslo, Norway. Illustration by Harry Green

Today, however, this castle, which the Norwegians call Akershus Slott, no longer defends the city from foreigners. Instead, it welcomes them as tourists and introduces them to Norway’s history, which goes back hundreds of years.

This strongly built castle, with its many turrets, towers and solid walls, has played a very important part in the story of Oslo. It is still used when guns from its defences boom on royal birthdays. And the great halls of the castle are still used for ceremonial banquets, especially when there are state visits from abroad.

The first king of Norway to own this castle was Haakon Magnusson. When he was at sea with his fleet south of Oslo, he sent important messages back to the royal household, which lived at his newly erected castle called, at that time, Akersnes.

He had planned the castle well. The fortifications were excellent. There was an almost perpendicular drop from the west side to protect the castle from Norway’s enemies. A sharp, prow-like cliff on the south side protected its walls, whilst marshy ground to the north and east made it virtually impossible for attackers to reach the fortification from those directions. The only way that the walls could be reached from land was from the north-east. To guard these walls, a moat had been made, overlooked by a strongly-fortified gate-house called the Maiden Tower.

To admit friends to the castle, a drawbridge would be lowered across the moat. Enemies who managed to cross the moat were confronted by an ingenious mode of defence – the Morkegangen or “Dark Passage”. This was a narrow, torch-lit passage which led steeply upwards. Forcing one’s way through this passage was enough to daunt the courage of even the bravest and most determined of foes.

The castle was also defended by its main tower, called the Vagehalsen or Daredevil. With its walls three metres thick and 17 metres high, it would severely test the strength of invading soldiers.

Many foreign armies besieged Akershus Castle throughout the centuries, without success. The Swedes in particular tried to force the castle defenders to surrender many times, but each time they were defied and driven away.

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Caernarvon: A Brief History

Posted in Architecture, British Towns, Castles, History on Wednesday, 30 March 2011

This edited article about Caernarvon originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 927 published on 7 October 1979.

Standing on the site of an early Roman settlement, Caervarvon is just inside the western entrance to the Menai Strait, at the mouth of the River Seiont, in North Wales. Its name was formerly Caer-yn-Arfon, which means “the fortress in Arvon”.

Caernarvon Castle in the time of King Edward the First. Illustration by Michael Godfrey

Caernarvon Castle in the time of King Edward the First. Illustration by Michael Godfrey

The town certainly was a stronghold, being the chief town in the mountainous Eryri region. Two important military bases figure in its history, the British fortress Caer Seiont, and the Roman station Segontium.

Founded by the Romans in AD 80, Segontium was occupied until about 380. Some of its remains are still standing on the hill slopes outside the famous Caernarvon castle, where Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales in 1969.

The choice of the monarch’s eldest son as Prince of Wales began when the future Edward II was born at Caernarvon in 1284. His father, King Edward I, presented him as the Prince of Wales – “one who could speak neither English or Welsh.”

The castle was started in 1283 by Edward I and completed by his son. Some believe that the Emperor Constantine was born at Caernarvon, and it seems that Edward I tried to preserve some feeling of this, when building the castle, as the walls bear a great resemblance to the walls of Constantinople (Istanbul) itself.

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Posh: Curious Words

Posted in Interesting Words, Ships on Wednesday, 30 March 2011

This edited article about the word ‘posh’ originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 927 published on 7 October 1979.

If you have seen the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, you may remember Lionel Jefferies singing the lines, “Port Out, Starboard Home, Posh with a capital P”.

Steam ship in harbour

Steam ship in harbour

The character he was playing was a retired sailor, and in the song he was referring to the days when many people travelled between England and India by steamship. The word posh was used for first class passengers who could afford to travel “Port Outward, Starboard Home”.

This was the most desirable position of cabins in the days before air-conditioning, and was the part of the ship away from the sun when the vessel crossed the Indian Ocean. Passengers used to book POSH, and the name was soon applied to them.

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Daniel Webster: Famous Last Words

Posted in Famous Last Words on Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Daniel Webster was a leading American statesman and senator  who rose to prominence through his defense of New England shipping interests. A leading lawyer, he also served as the Senator for Massachusetts and was appointed Secretary of State twice between 1841-43 and 1850-52. He tried and failed three times to become President.

picture, Daniel Webster, United States of America, senator, secretary of state

US Senator and Secretary of State Daniel Webster

Webster died at his home in Massachusetts in 1852 after falling from his horse. The blow to his head caused a cerebral hemorrhage. Knowing he was dying he dictated his own epitaph for his tombstone:

“Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief”

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The Banana goes on display

Posted in Anniversary, History on Wednesday, 30 March 2011

10 April marks the anniversary of the first ever display of bananas in a London store window in 1633.

picture, monkey, chimpanzee, banana

The banana… little known in Europe even in Victorian times

The fruit was a native to tropical South and Southeast Asia where they were cultivated at least as early as 5,000 BC; it is likely that they were also widely cultivated in Africa from around the 5th century AD. The name “banana” is of West African origin and passed into English via Spanish and Portuguese who first bought the banana to the west, although they were not widely known in Europe even during the Victorian era. Jules Verne introduced the banana as an exotic fruit in his novel Around the World in Eighty Days (1872).

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The Battle of Toulouse

Posted in Anniversary, Famous battles on Wednesday, 30 March 2011

10 April marks the anniversary of the defeat of the Allies by Napoleon’s army under Marshal Soult at the Battle of Toulouse in 1814.

picture, Marshal Soult, General, France, French, Marshal of the Emire

Marshal Soult, Marshal of the Empire under Napoleon

Nicholas Jean-de-Dieu Soult, was a French general and statesman under Napoleon and was named Marshal of the Empire in 1804. He also served as Prime Minister of France on three occasions. Soult had a long military career which culminated in his victories during the Peninsular War against the Allies under the Duke of Wellington. Eventually Soult was driven out of Spain and pursued into France.

Napoleon had already surrendered his Empire when Soult reached Toulouse, which he defended valiantly, holding the town all day as he organised an escape plan for his entire army. The Allies entered the city two days later and only learned that afternoon that Napoleon had abdicated.

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Chartists meet at Kennington Common

Posted in Anniversary, Politics on Wednesday, 30 March 2011

10 April marks the anniversary of  the Chartist Demonstration at Kennington Common in 1848.

picture, Chartist, Kennington Common, demonstration, politics, right to vote

Chartist demonstrators at Kennington Common

The Chartists – probably the first working class labour movement – took their name from the People’s Charter of 1838 and fought for voting reform. Certain middle class males had been given the right to vote in 1832 prompting radicals to speak out. The People’s Charter stipulated that every man over 21 could vote, but Parliament would not be pressured into making it law. Even a petition with over 3 million signatures submitted in 1842 was ignored.

A mass meeting was organised at Kennington Common, attendance estimates varying from the government’s figure of 15,000 to Feargus O’Connor’s figure of 300,000.  The demonstration was peaceful and O’Connor presented another petition to Parliament, claiming it had over 5,700,000 signatures – it proved to have far less, 1,957,496. This was certainly enough for Parliament to rush legislation through to ban public meetings and introduce new laws of sedition and treason. However, within a few years Parliament passed the Reform Act 1867 which gave the vote to working classes.

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Saint Barbara

Posted in Religion, Saints on Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Saint Barbara is of doubtful authenticity for a number of reasons, and never featured in Saint Jerome’s martyrology. Origins of her veneration can be traced back to the seventh century, and according to hagiographers she seems to have lived in the third century, the daughter of a devoted pagan father, Dioscorus, who to preserve her purity keeps her away from the outside world, safely locked in a tower and forbidden any contact with other people.

Saint Barbara, picture, image, illustrations

Saint Barbara

He has to go away on a journey and builds a special bath-house for her private use, attached to the tower and secure like her domestic prison. She has secretly converted to Christianity, and in his absence has a third window added to the new chamber, the three windows thus intended to symbolise the Trinity. On his return her father realises the import of this change, and fearing for her life after confessing her conversion, she flees to the hills. He pursues in order to kill her, but she is guarded by two shepherds and believes herself safe. Sadly the second shepherd betrays her, for which sin he is turned to stone and his flock of sheep to locusts. The father returns with Barbara and she is brought before the prefect of the province who has her tortured without success. She proclaims her faith despite intense suffering, and the burns inflicted by her tormentors heal each night. The prefect realises that the only way to kill this young woman is to behead her, and it is thus that she is martyred. Her cruel father gets his just rewards, when he is struck by lightning after handing his daughter over to the authorities. This last explains why she is the Patron Saint of artillerymen and military engineers.

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