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Archive for May, 2011

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A Catholic custom at Tyburn

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, London, Religion on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about Tyburn originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 953 published on 26 April 1980.

Tyburn, picture, image, illustration

The execution of Lord Ferrers at Tyburn

Tyburn – the site of London’s present-day Marble Arch – was a place of execution from the 12th century until 1783.

During the religious persecutions of the 16th and 17th centuries, many of the gallow’s victims were Catholics. To commemorate their deaths, and those of others executed on Tower Hill, in St Paul’s Churchyard and in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a pilgrimage, usually headed by a prelate of the Roman Catholic Church, is made on the last Sunday in April.

The procession starts from the site of the old Newgate Prison and follows the route along which the martyrs were dragged, on wooden hurdles, to their fate on the gallows.

Stops are made at churches on the way, and a benediction is given upon the site of Tyburn Convent in Bayswater.

Inventions: the traffic light

Posted in Famous Inventors, Inventions, Technology, Transport on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about traffic lights originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 953 published on 26 April 1980.

traffic, picture, image, illustration

A workman cleaning traffic lights

A traffic signal, invented by J. P. Knight, a railway signalling engineer, was installed outside the Houses of Parliament at Westminster as long ago as 1868. It looked like a railway signal of the time, with semaphore arms and red and green gas lamps for night use. After a short period of operation, it blew up. This incident discouraged any further experiments.

The modern traffic light is an American invention. The first red-green lights were set up in Cleveland in 1914. Three-colour signals were installed in New York in 1918, worked manually from a “crow’s nest” tower lookout in the middle of the street.

Traffic lights came to London in 1926. The first were put up at the junction of St. James’s street and Piccadilly. A policeman operated them from a hut in the middle of the road, decked out in the style of a railway signal box with a switchboard display.

In the following year, automatic signals, working on a time interval, were installed at a junction in Wolverhampton. Today, there are automatic traffic lights throughout the world, using different systems and fulfilling different functions – in Venice, for instance, they control aquatic junctions.

The Eel

Posted in Fish, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about the eel originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 953 published on 26 April 1980.

eel, picture, image, illustration

The Eel

The eel is a snake-like fish with a small mouth and red eyes. It is a fascinating creature in many ways and can live for quite some time out of water.

The British rod-caught record for eel stands at 5.046 kg, set in 1978 at Kingfisher Lake, Hampshire: but anyone who has landed even a small eel will know why I recommend a line of 10 lb breaking strain. They are very strong fish and can cause as much trouble after being landed as in the water.

For smaller eels, worm is a good bait. The larger fish will take fry, especially if injured, but live-baiting, as well as being cruel, is absolutely unnecessary: a legered dead-bait will be just as effective.

The zander, a cross between a pike and a perch, is another predator. It was introduced as an experiment almost 20 years ago, and many anglers regard it as an enemy to established fish and responsible for the depletion of stocks of coarse fish.

The fish is believed recently to have infiltrated the River Nene, and anglers are afraid that this could signal the end of angling in the river.

Rupert Brooke, England’s romantic war poet

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature, War, World War 1 on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about Rupert Brooke originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 953 published on 26 April 1980.

WW1, picture, image, illustration

The Trenches. Picture by Andrew Howat

As the hot Aegean day drew to a close, a group of British soldiers sweated up the rocky slopes of the island of Skiros. They came to a grove of olive trees, and there they set down their burden by a freshly dug grave.

The coffin they had been carrying held the body of a young infantry officer, Sub-Lieutenant Rupert Brooke. And there, as a trumpeter played the Last Post, a legend was born.

Rupert Brooke was only 27 when he died on a hospital ship during the First World War. He had hardly seen action, but the poems he had written about the war captured perfectly the spirit of the young people of the time. He came to represent the hopes of a whole generation. The flower of British youth had marched off to war in a blaze of glory and patriotism, only to die horribly amid fields of mud, mustard gas and barbed wire.

Brooke’s sonnets on the war were a romantic reaction to the vast military conflagration. Along with men like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon – both of whom saw far more atrocious sights, and for a lot longer – he was compelled to put down his feelings in what was to become some of the 20th century’s most famous poetry.

Brooke had everything to live for. At his school he had captained both the rugby and the cricket teams. From there he had gone on to Cambridge, where he began writing verse in earnest. By 1911, he had published a volume of 50 poems and his work had been published in magazines. He had come to know some of the most important people in England – it was Winston Churchill who had obtained him his commission in the infantry.

In addition, Brooke was almost ludicrously beautiful. Tall, golden-haired, with blue eyes and a soft voice, he had been described by his fellow poet W. B. Yeats as “the handsomest young man in England”. A well-known photograph shows him in a classical pose, with this thick locks tumbling on to his bare shoulders, looking like a Greek god who had somehow wandered into an English garden. It was no wonder a legend grew up around him.

But in 1914 the first rumblings of war were heard on the horizon. The assassination of an archduke in far-off Sarajevo had suddenly plunged all Europe into conflict. The Germans launched an attack on Belgium and Holland, and Britain leapt to their aid.

All over England, young men flocked to the recruiting stations. Troops were needed and young men volunteered in their thousands. The air buzzed with patriotic songs as the volunteers lined up to “tame the Hun”.

But when these brave young people actually reached the battlefields, they found a scene very different from their romantic imaginings. Times had changed. There were no bright uniforms, no gentlemanly tactics and little glory.

What they saw when they arrived at the front lines was an enormous network of trenches, waterlogged in winter and filled with the stench of gas and the dead. Between these and the enemy trenches lay a short stretch of open ground known as “no man’s land”. Blasted into a sticky morass of mud by high-explosive shells, the area was a living hell, festooned with coils of barbed wire and sprayed with bullets from machine guns.

Once deadlock had been reached, each side would expend enormous numbers of lives in a vain attempt to dislodge the other. At the Battle of the Somme, in 1916, more than 60,000 British troops were killed in one day, purely for the sake of a few metres of now unrecognisable land.

In such terrible conditions, it was to be expected that any poetry to emerge should be, filled with intensity and feeling. What was surprising was that so much of it should retain a cheerfulness and optimism in the face of the worst.

But it was Brooke, with the direct appeal of his poetry, the beauty of his appearance and the romance of his brief life, who caught the imagination of the public. The death of one who had so much to live for became the symbol of a nation’s sacrifice in times of warfare.

Soon the myth of Rupert Brooke sprang into existence – the idea of the beautiful young poet dying barbarically in the trenches.

The fact that he died of blood-poisoning from a mosquito bite on his lip before he could see any serious action seemed, to his many readers, irrelevant, when weighed against his willingness to lay down his life for his country.

This was the spirit that moved him to write what was to become his own epitaph, among the most quoted pieces of verse in the English language – The Soldier.

Dr. Johnson: Famous Last Words

Posted in Famous Last Words on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Doctor Samuel Johnson was an English author and lexicographer, born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, on 18 September 1709.

picture, Samuel Johnson, Dr Johnson, James Boswell, coffee shop

Dr Samuel Johnson takes coffee while his close friend James Boswell takes notes

He attended Pembridge College, Oxford, but dropped out after a year due to lack of funds. After working as a teacher, he moved to London, where he began writing for various magazines. His early work included the biography The Life of Richard Savage, the poems London and The Vanity of Human Wishes, and the play Irene.

After nine years work, his Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755 and was, until the Oxford English Dictionary appeared 155 years later, the preeminent British dictionary. His later work included an annotated edition of Shakespeare’s plays, the travel book A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland and a collection of biographical essays, Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets.

Johnson died after a series of illnesses on 13 December 1784, aged 75. His imminent death was confirmed by his doctor when Johnson asked him directly “Can I recover?” He then refused to take any further medication and Francesco Sastres recorded his final words as “Iam Moriturus”:

“I who am about to die.”

Many more pictures relating to English literature can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

George II becomes King

Posted in Anniversary, History, Royalty on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

11 June marks the anniversary of the succession of George II, the last of the great fighting kings, to the throne in 1727 following the death of George I.

picture, King George II, Battle of Dettingen, battlefield, horse

King George II leads his troops to victory at the Battle of Dettingen. Illustration by C. L. Doughty

Born in Hanover (the last British monarch born abroad), his father became king following the death of Queen Anne, who died with no surviving children. It was declared that Sophia of Hanover – George I’s mother – was the closest Protestant blood relative and her heirs should take over the throne. George I reigned between 1714-1727.

His son was given the title of Prince of Wales but quarreled with his father and did all that he could to undermine and oppose his father’s policies. He did not attend his father’s funeral. George II also had a fractious relationship with his own son.

The War of Austrian Succession broke out during George’s reign and George led his troops in Europe, the last British monarch to do so, notably at the Battle of Dettingen.

George II reigned until his death on 25 October 1760, after 33 years on the throne.

Many more pictures relating to royalty and the monarchy can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Henry VIII marries Catherine of Aragon

Posted in Anniversary, History, Royalty on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

11 June marks the anniversary of the marriage in 1509 between King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.

picture, King Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, royalty, monarchy, trial

The trial of Catherine of Aragon. Illustration by Robert Smirke

Henry had married Catherine after the death of her first husband, Arthur, Prince of Wales, in 1502. A well educated, widely admired and attractive woman, she was queen for 24 years following her marriage to Henry in 1509. Although she bore Henry 6 children, only one daughter lived to adulthood, Mary (later Mary I).

Henry, desiring male heirs for the throne, decided to annul their marriage and marry again, which he did in 1533, to Anne Boleyn. Thomas Cranmer sat in judgement of a special court at Dunstable Priory to rule of the validity of the marriage and declared it illegal on the grounds that Catherine had consummated her previous marriage.

The annulment set in motion a chain of events that would lead to England’s break with the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Clement VII refused to annul the marriage but Henry continued his course of action anyway, establishing himself as head of the Church of England.

Many more pictures relating to royalty and the monarchy can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Birth of Hablot Browne (Phiz)

Posted in Anniversary, Art, Artist on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

11 June marks the anniversary of the birth in 1815 of Hablot Browne, better known as an artist and illustrator under the name Phiz.

picture, Hablot Browne, Phiz, Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities, Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield

An illustration by Phiz for Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities

Hablot Knight Browne was born in Lambeth, the fourteenth of fifteen children. Some question remains about his date of birth, with various sources offering a number of dates: 11 June (Encyclopedia Britannica), 15 June (Dictionary of National Biography), 12 July (in Phiz! by his great-great-granddaughter, Valerie Browne Lester).

Browne was apprenticed to an engraver after his father abandoned the family, but proved unsuited to engraving; he was, however, an excellent artist and won a Society of Arts prize which prompted him to give up engraving and concentrate on illustration.

He met Charles Dickens in 1836 and was invited to illustrate Pickwick Papers following the death of Robert Seymour. Browne signed two pieces ‘Nemo’ before settling on the name ‘Phiz’, chosen to match Dickens’ pen-name, Boz.

Phiz went on to illustrate David Copperfield, Dombey and Son, Martin Chuzzlewit, Bleak House and four others; he also illustrated books for many other authors and magazines. Following an illness in 1867, which caused some permanent paralysis, he continued to work, although often for the lower end of the magazine market. In 1878 he was awarded an annuity by the Royal Academy.

His health gradually worsened until he died on 8 July 1882.

Many more examples of the art of Hablot Browne can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Robert Clive and the East India company

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Trade, War on Monday, 30 May 2011

This edited article about the East India company originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 953 published on 26 April 1980.

Plassey, picture, image, illustration

The Battle of Plassey, 1757, was Clive’s greatest victory. Picture by Severino Baraldi

The rich profits to be made from the muslins, silks and spices of the Orient first brought the English to the shores of India. On the last day of the year 1600, Queen Elizabeth granted a charter to an association of London merchants, giving them sole trading rights with the East.

Under the name of the English East India company the merchants dispatched ships carrying silver and gold for the purchase of Indian products. To store the goods obtained by trade, they built warehouses in towns and trading stations along the west coast of India. These English merchants were, however, comparatively new arrivals in the East: their presence was far from welcomed, either by the Portuguese, who had been trading there for over a century, or by the Dutch, who took advantage of every opportunity to harm the English newcomers. It soon became clear to the directors of the East India company that soldiers as well as warships would be needed to protect their growing commercial interests.

At first the company established very small garrisons, often consisting of no more than one officer and perhaps 30 men. In 1640 they did, however, take the wise precaution of beginning the construction of Fort St George at Madras. The troops needed to man its walls were recruited partly in Britain and partly from the European population in India: garrisons were often cosmopolitan, and included a number of Indian Christians of Portuguese descent who were known as topasses.

The physical and moral qualities of the men who were recruited often left a great deal to be desired. The men offering themselves for service in India frequently did so as a way of escaping from the workings of justice or to evade family or business responsibilities. The voyage to India gave a greater chance of concealment from pursuit than would service in the British Army and it even held out the possibility of building a new life under a false identity, with the chance of rich rewards.

The British Houses of Parliament found it difficult to accept that a company of merchants should be allowed to form its own private army and did all they could to hinder the work of the company’s recruiting officers. Finding sufficient men could therefore be a problem and anyone coming forward as a recruit was usually gladly accepted with no questions asked – whether he was from Newgate Prison, a lunatic asylum, or the gutter.

If the quality of the men seemed poor, that of the officers employed in the company’s army was at first little better. On the foundation of the company the directors had decided not to employ gentlemen, so they were forced to seek their officers from the poorer classes of society. The fact that the pay was extremely low did not help their search and they were forced to commission many unlikely characters – one officer came direct from a travelling circus, while others had been stewards and barbers.

Once in India the officers found that their duties during peacetime occupied only a small proportion of their duty hours and they filled in the remainder of the day as best they could – by interfering in the running of the company, carrying out their own unauthorised moneymaking schemes, or simply by getting drunk.

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The Channel Islands

Posted in Geography, Historical articles, History, Invasions, War, World War 2 on Monday, 30 May 2011

This edited article about the Channel Islands originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 953 published on 26 April 1980.

islands, picture, image, illustration

The German occupiers followed the Romans, the Vikings and the Normans;
inset (left) William the Conqueror, (right) King John. Picture by Harry Green

Half an hour by air from London Airport, in the sunny Gulf of St. Malo off the west coast of Normandy, lies a group of islands familiar to holidaymakers. These are the Channel Islands which, although British, reveal the strong influence of their continental neighbours. They are distinguished by being the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by the Germans in the Second World War.

On this occasion, the occupation was a fairly peaceful one. However, in the past, the islands were often in the middle of a power struggle between the kings of England and the dukes of Normandy and were, metaphorically, tossed back and forth between the two, until they finally remained in England’s control.

Administratively, the islands are divided into the two bailiwicks – areas under the control of a bailiff – of Jersey and Guernsey. The bailiwick of Jersey comprises the island of Jersey and two small rocky reefs, known respectively as the Ecrehous and the Minquiers. Guernsey’s bailiwick consists of Guernsey, Lihou, Alderney, Sark (with Little Sark), Brecqhou, Herm, Jethou and many tiny islets.

Each bailiwick possesses its own constitution and legal system. Alderney and Sark, although they are within the bailiwick of Guernsey, have their own subsidiary constitutions. The ruling bodies of the bailiwicks are among the most ancient legislatures in the Commonwealth. Known as States, they are presided over by a bailiff.

For countless centuries, men have lived in the Channel Islands. In all of them there is ample evidence of prehistoric occupation, dating back to the Middle Paleolithic period.

During the time of the Romans, the islands came under the rule of Gaul, which is now France. When Gaul was conquered by Rome, the islands were incorporated in the Roman Empire. With the fall of Rome, they probably fell under Breton influence. In the 9th century, the Vikings raided the islands and established many settlements there. They were integrated with the French mainland when William I, the second Duke of Normandy, added them to his domain in 933. The islands’ feudal system dates from this period.

The dukes firmly established themselves in the Channel Islands, developing large personal estates and encouraging other Norman settlers, and a number of religious houses, to follow their example.

This was the situation when William of Normandy gained the English crown in 1066. On the death of William in 1087, his eldest son, Robert, became Duke of Normandy, and another son, William Rufus, King of England. Thus, for a short period, the Channel Islands became separated from the English Crown.

However, in 1100, Henry I secured the throne. He defeated Robert at Tinchebrai in 1106 and captured the Duchy, including the Channel Islands. This reunion with the English Crown was short-lived for, in 1135, when Stephen came to the English throne, Normandy passed to Geoffrey of Anjou, who ruled it in the name of his little son, who was also Henry I’s grandson. On the accession of Geoffrey’s son as Henry II in 1154, Normandy and England were again united.

John, the youngest son of Henry II, was appointed lord of the islands in around 1196. He succeeded to the English throne in 1199. During 1204, King John lost continental Normandy to Philip of France, but kept the Channel Islands. According to some historians, before he finally secured them, they had changed hands more than once. Although the islands were reasonably loyal to him, to secure the allegiance of the remaining islanders, he took several hostages and did not allow them to return until 1214. Tradition has it that John granted Jersey its constitution and that he actually visited the island, although there are no written records to confirm this.

It is a curious fact that, although the Gallic influence must have been strongly pronounced at this time, the majority of islanders had already begun to show their preference for the English crown over the Norman dukedom.

Some families with property in continental Normandy felt the financial influence so strong that they were induced to favour the French king. Others remained loyal to England, regardless of any land that they might lose in Normandy as a result.

Probably because the islands were so small, class divisions like those found elsewhere did not materialise. And the Norman settlers were on friendly terms with the islanders, who would naturally regard the Normans as oppressors and the English as their fellow-oppressed.

Such was the situation in the Channel Islands when King John died in 1216. The English Crown was in an unshakeable position. John’s son, Henry III, confirmed that the Channel Islands should continue to enjoy their traditional liberties; and on 2nd May, 1230, Henry landed in Jersey on his way to St. Malo, on a rocky peninsula off north-west France. This is the first recorded visit of an English sovereign to the Channel Islands.

The island of Sark had few inhabitants in these early times. As early as the 6th century, so legend says, St Magloire established on Sark a monastery, which remained until about 1413. William the Conqueror had given Sark and Alderney to St Michael’s Abbey in about 1040. Ultimately, this island became the haunt of pirates until it was colonised by Helier de Carteret, acting for Elizabeth I, in 1565.

Perhaps the most turbulent reign inflicted upon these islands was that of King John, during which the islands changed hands many times. Attention paid to their defences at this time led to the building of some formidable castles. These included Mont Orgueil Castle at Gorey. There is also Elizabeth Castle at St. Helier. Built in this period was Castle Cornet, which lies off Guernsey on a little islet of its own. From their rocky strongholds, they were to be the witnesses to an exciting panorama of history, as we shall see later in this series.