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Archive for February, 2014

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Sir Walter Scott invented the great historical novel

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Scotland on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about Walter Scott first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 573 published on 6 January 1973.

Walter Scott,  picture, image, illustration

Walter Scott by Sir Edwin Landseer

The small boy sat in an inglenook by his grandfather’s hearth, hardly daring to move a muscle lest anyone realised he should long since have been in bed. Every now and then a booted figure would kick the logs into a sudden, blazing flurry of sparks and fire, the dogs would yawn and stretch and Walter Scott would be certain he would be discovered. But as so often happened the talk was so enthralling that no one noticed the spellbound boy in the corner. He was drinking in every word, and one day he would tell it all again, to a much wider audience.

Most nights, particularly when there was company, the talk would turn to the feuds and friendships of the Border country. This was where the Scott family had their roots and tales of their own ancestors and neighbouring clans would continue until the embers glowed dimly and the wine was finished. Walter Scott had been born in Edinburgh but a paralysis when very young had left him partly lame and he had been sent here to his grandparents in the Cheviot Hills to recover.

Not only did the wind-blown countryside restore him to health, but it also gave him a love of its history that he never forgot. The desolate Border country had a troubled and a lawless past. For 300 years the English and Scottish fought each other intermittently in this area, and in quieter times local Lords pursued feuds, cattle and sheep rustling were common and the peal of bells was as much a warning as an invitation to church.

Reminders of these grim times still abound. Ruined castles, and solid stone built towers used as strongholds can still be seen everywhere, while barns with eight-foot walls were a necessity if animals and supplies were to be kept safe. All too often a dark night, with the moon shining fitfully through windswept clouds, would find a small raiding party choosing an isolated target. Old scores could be settled, animals stolen, and the morning would see grim-faced defenders swearing revenge as they, too, planned an attack.

Yet there was another side to Border life. The courage and hardiness of the clansmen was matched by their love of poetry and music, and their skill at both. In addition to the stories of daring there were ballads in which love and adventure were nicely mixed. These, too, were remembered by Walter Scott. More than anything else, these childhood experiences shaped the man who was to become the most famous novelist and poet that Scotland has produced.

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Ex-King Richard II was brutally murdered at Pontefract Castle

Posted in Castles, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about Richard II first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 573 published on 6 January 1973.

Richard II at Pontefract,  picture, image, illustration

Richard II is surprised by his murderers at Pontefract Castle

Parliament was assembled in Westminster Hall. The most important Lords in the land gravely presented a long list of charges against the King, Richard the Second. Then Henry, Duke of Hereford and first cousin to the King, stepped forward. “The King is not fit to rule,” he said. “I claim the throne. It is mine by right of succession and popular demand.” At the same time, a mob of people who had been waiting outside, swept into the Hall, shouting their hatred for Richard. The Duke of Hereford was quickly proclaimed King Henry the Fourth of England.

A deputation went to the Tower of London where Richard lay in prison. The deputation informed him that Henry was now King and that Richard was to be imprisoned for the remainder of his life. Richard shrugged. It was as if he had lost all interest in what was happening.

A few days later, Richard was moved from the Tower of London. Because of the anger of the people against him, he was disguised as a forester. After days of weary travelling up through England, Richard and his armed guard came at last to the grim walls of Pontefract Castle in the West Riding of Yorkshire.

Here Richard was put into the custody of Sir Thomas Swinford who took him down to the castle dungeons. Richard was put into one of these and the door slammed shut behind him.

England was never to see its ex-King alive again,

Richard was the grandson of Edward the Third and came to the English throne when he was only eleven years old. During these early years England was in reality ruled by Richard’s uncles, and in particular by the Duke of Lancaster. The other Earls often quarrelled amongst themselves and with the King, but the Duke of Lancaster managed to act as a buffer between them. However, most of Richard’s reign was to be one long struggle for power between himself and his uncles.

England was at this time at war with France. The cost of this could only be met by taxing the people heavily. This was not popular, and eventually they rose in angry rebellion. A large number of them, led by Wat Tyler, marched on London. Lusting for blood, they pillaged and murdered, sweeping their way into London where they set fire to houses and put many eminent people to death.

It was time for Richard to show himself a true King. He realised this and rode out together with the Mayor of London to meet the rebels. At Smithfield he came face to face with the shouting mob. Wat Tyler quietened them and then rode up to meet the King. Angrily he started making demands. The King listened patiently. Eventually Wat Tyler started to become insolent and abusive. Immediately, the Lord Mayor, fearing for Richard’s life, pulled out his dagger and stabbed Wat Tyler to death. The crowd saw their leader fall and started to surge forward menacingly, but Richard rode his horse up to them and without any sign of fear said firmly: “I am your captain and your King! Would you shoot me, then?”

The crowd marvelled at his bravery and soon dispersed. The peasant revolt was all but over.

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In 1919 German sailors struck one final blow for the Fatherland

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships, World War 1 on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about World War One first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 573 published on 6 January 1973.

Scapa Flow 1919,  picture, image, illustration

The German sailors at Scapa Flow opened the sea-cocks and scuttled the entire German Fleet on the instructions of Rear-Admiral Reuter, by Graham Coton

Seven months had passed since the guns had ceased firing on the Western Front. The soldiers had come home, and the politicians were just about to sign The Treaty of Versailles. The war to end all wars was over, and the British people were preparing to go on a gigantic spree which was to last well into the twenties.

It was the month of June, 1919, and for the British, at least, the horrors of the past four years were beginning to recede. But for the German people it was a very different matter. The twin spectres of poverty and hunger stalked the land, and inflation was around the corner. But worse still, perhaps, was the hopeless sense of defeat that pervaded the whole nation which was also all too conscious that The Treaty of Versailles was about to heap further humiliations upon them. If any people needed something to boost their morale, they were the Germans at this point in their history. As it happened, something was about to occur which was to cheer them up immeasurably.

Towards the end of 1918, when the terms of the armistice were still under discussion, the question of the internment of the German Fleet had been thoroughly examined, and it had finally been decided that the Fleet should be interned at Scapa Flow, a landlocked anchorage in the Orkney Islands. In due course the German Fleet, consisting of 74 ships and valued at £60,000,000 had arrived. And there it had stayed, while the Powers wrangled among themselves as to what should be done with them. France asked that they should be divided among the victorious nations, America suggested that they should be sold as scrap, and Britain put forward the idea that they should all be sunk. Six months later, they were still arguing among themselves.

Meanwhile, the German sailors at Scapa Flow were understandably growing more and more weary of the life they were being forced to lead. Technically, they were free German citizens, but in reality they were little better than prisoners of war. Condemned to be caretakers until the Powers decided what was to be done with the ships, they spent their days cleaning and polishing, or wandering aimlessly around the decks under the constant surveillance of the British drifters patrolling the waters of the Scapa Flow. It was a situation which was not helped by the instructions which the Admiralty had given the drifters. Any boat leaving a ship and attempting to land was to be fired upon, and, if necessary, sunk.

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Fashionable Beau Brummel died in a madhouse in Calais

Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Royalty on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about Beau Brummel first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 573 published on 6 January 1973.

Beau Brummell,  picture, image, illustration

Beau Brummell

The First Gentleman in Europe was blubbering! Even his warmest admirers could never have claimed he was a perfect man, but not for nothing had the Prince Regent gained his nickname. He had a certain style, he was, indeed, a gentleman – outwardly at least.

Yet now his greatest friend, George “Beau” Brummell, had actually said that he did not like the cut of his coat. It was enough to make any man weep!

Who was this Brummell, that he could be so bold with his future sovereign, a Prince who was already virtually Britain’s king because his poor father, George III, was so ill? Brummell was not a Duke, nor an Earl, nor even a knight, but he was more powerful than any mere nobleman. Quite simply, he was the leading figure in London society for 20 years.

The ultimate tribute to him came from the poet, Lord Byron. “I would rather be Brummell than Napoleon!” said he, with his tongue not more than half in his cheek.

Of course, there was far more to the “Beau” than his famous flair for clothes. Everything about him – dress, personality and conversation – had that indefinable thing, style.

Brummell broke the rules of fashion by leading a revolution in taste. This superman, born in 1778, was the grandson of a valet and the son of a private secretary of Lord North, the man who helped lose the American Colonies. The secretary made a modest fortune.

This helped Brummell to go to Eton, where he became known as “Buck” Brummell, and was very popular. He attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales – who was not Regent until 1810 – and his princely patron got him a commission in the army. But soldiering was not to Brummell’s taste, though his handsome frame looked splendid in uniform. He left the army, and, when he came into money, set himself up at No. 4, Chesterfield Street, Mayfair in London, where his revolution, aided by the Prince, was planned.

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William Phips the treasure hunter was knighted for his success

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Ships on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about William Phips first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 573 published on 6 January 1973.

William Phips,  picture, image, illustration

William Phips in search of wrecked Caribbean treasure ships by Roger Payne

The treasure hunt was going badly and the crew of the British ship Rose of Argier had changed from being simply bad-tempered to openly mutinous. It had all seemed so different six months before – King Charles II of England had loaned the ship in return for a share of any treasure found and the crew had scrambled for places alongside their confident Commander, William Phips. They had come to the coast of Florida, sure that Phips knew the exact location of a great Spanish treasure ship and eagerly looking forward to the prospect of riches to come.

The only thing they could not have known was that William Phips had bluffed his way to the command of this expedition. He had no special knowledge, only guesswork, a large share of determination and the hopes and ambitions which now looked as if they were lost for ever. It was an ugly situation on the Rose of Argier. The men had gathered on the poop deck and their ring leaders, four sturdy seamen, were facing Phips with their demands.

Since the treasure was lost, and they could not stomach a return to England empty handed, the ring leaders were demanding that they turn pirate. Despite the fact that England was not at war there were plenty of Spanish ships for the taking and if they all risked their necks, why, the prospect of riches more than made up for it.

Phips listened impassively at first, arms folded, then argued more and more fiercely as the men refused to take his advice. He was being out-manoeuvred and he knew it. In a few minutes he would lose command if he took no action. Suddenly, he took the only course of action he could think of. Striding forward, he gripped two of the men by their shirt fronts and flung them back over the poop rail with tremendous force. Then he turned on the others, fists raised and in less than a minute the other two had been knocked senseless on the deck. There was no more talk of piracy, and William Phips had lived to fight another day. There were many who had good cause to thank him for this swift action for although his hints and promises were usually no more than bluffing he eventually found his fortune. In fact, taking into account the rise in values over the centuries he may still claim to be perhaps the most successful treasure hunter of them all.

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Henry Segrave broke the speed record in his Sunbeam ‘Slug’

Posted in Cars, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Thursday, 27 February 2014

This edited article about motor racing first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 573 published on 6 January 1973.

Henry Segrave,  picture, image, illustration

Henry Segrave was the first man to break the 200mph barrier

“No car will ever reach 200 mph!”

That was a widely held belief in 1927. It was quite clear to so-called experts that wind resistance at that speed would make it impossible, even supposing tyres could stand up to the terrific strain imposed on them.

Two men at least thought differently, the Sunbeam’s chief designer, Louis Herve Coatalen, a mechanical genius who was also a great craftsman, and Henry Segrave – Henry O’Neal de Hane Segrave – an American-born adventurer, whose parents were Irish, and who had served Britain in the 1914-18 War, reaching the rank of major.

As Segrave sailed the Atlantic to race at Daytona Beach, Florida, his mind was doubtless on the job in hand, yet it must have also strayed to a very recent tragedy, the horrible death of another racing champion, J. G. Parry Thomas, a Briton like Segrave.

Thomas had got the land speed record up to 171.02 mph in April 1926, but the following March his car skidded at high speed and burst into flames. The off-side driving chain – not unlike a bicycle chain – had snapped and literally cut his head off. Only the valiant take up motor racing. It has always been so and it will always be so.

The Segrave racing story, which was to reach its climax in a knighthood for the driver, then a tragic death after winning a water, not a land, record, had begun seven years before that voyage to America in early 1927. Born in 1896, he was driving a 4 ½ litre Opel in 1920 on the famous Brooklands track, winning several times in his first racing season, and the next year his career really began when he became a member of the Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq racing team. He had the right blend of dare devilry and technical knowhow without which a racing driver cannot succeed. And, on top of everything, he had the will to win.

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The house spider’s cobwebs can last for decades

Posted in Nature, Wildlife on Thursday, 27 February 2014

This edited article about spiders first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 572 published on 30 December 1972.

Sleeping Beauty,  picture, image, illustration

House spiders had free rein in Sleeping Beauty's castle by Jesus Blasco

In the corners of a damp, dark attic which has been almost untouched by sunlight over the years, huge cobwebs stretch from the ceiling over old wooden chairs and chests, veiling them in a shroud of silken threads.

These tangled masses of threads are the work of the house spider, who sits day after day, weaving and spinning his intricate webs of silk. Inside the spider’s body are silk glands which produce a kind of glue made from the food it has eaten. The liquid glue is forced out of its body through hundreds of tiny holes and as soon as it enters the air it immediately turns to silk. As more glue comes out of the spider’s body the strand of silk grows and grows and then floats off into the air.

As the spider spins its magical web it lies in wait for its prey. As soon as an unsuspecting insect flies by and gets entangled in the web the spider pounces on it with great ferocity and bites it with its poison fangs which instantly paralyse the unfortunate victim. Then the spider drags the limp, numb body of its prey into the web tunnel and promptly starts to feast off it.

For its size, the house spider can consume an enormous quantity of food. Any surplus food which is not needed for immediate use can be stored in tubes which open out from the intestine and this enables the spider to survive for very long periods when food is scarce.

There are a few so-called spiders which are not spiders at all. One of them is the harvestman which lives in houses. Like the house spider, it has eight legs, but it has only two eyes, while the house spider has six.

Unlike the house spider, the harvestman is not a very efficient killer. It spins no webs in which to trap its prey and has no poison fangs with which to paralyse them. So it feeds mainly on dead insects which it tears apart with its jaws.

The bleak Yorkshire moors inspired the unique Bronte sisters

Posted in British Countryside, English Literature, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 27 February 2014

This edited article about the Bronte sisters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 572 published on 30 December 1972.

The Bronte family,  picture, image, illustration

The Bronte family grew up well educated by their father, Patrick Bronte

The journey from Keighley in Yorkshire to the village of Haworth is four tough, steep scrambling miles with the road winding along between wave-like hills with bleak and desolate moorlands on either side. On a fresh, blustery morning in April 1820 a little convoy of seven heavily laden carts moved slowly towards Haworth village. The new parson was arriving, with all his household goods, his books and bedding and his six children, five of whom could now and then be seen peeping round the canvas covers as they stole a quick glance at their new home. The sixth child, Anne, was a babe-in-arms.

Haworth was a long and straggling community, with one narrow street which was so steep that the cobblestones were placed on end so that the horses’ feet did not slip. But the carts drew into the grounds of the Parsonage at last and the children tumbled out to look over the solid grey stone house that was to be their home. The Bronte children had arrived at the scene of the tragedies and triumphs which so marked their short lives. Their extra-ordinary range of talents had yet to be discovered but the effect of the bleak and barren moors which surrounded Haworth was already starting to take place and would soon find expression in their books.

They were certainly no ordinary family. Their father, Patrick, was born in a large and poverty-stricken Irish family. Though his own parents were illiterate they did own three or four books and from these Patrick taught himself to read. Eventually he found the key to a wider world and by effort and determination he got to Cambridge University and was ordained. He held several curacies and then moved on to Haworth at the age of forty three.

Unfortunately, the first of many tragedies occurred only just over a year after the Brontes moved into the Parsonage at Haworth, Mrs Bronte died and although her sister came to look after the children they began to find themselves increasingly on their own. To pass the time they made up plays, wrote poems and books and imagined little kingdoms which they would plan for hours. In the gloom of the late winter afternoons, with the light fading and the mist rising from the moors, the children would gather round a blazing kitchen fire, light a solitary candle and talk of revolutions, feuds, battles and the exploits and loves of their heroes in the imaginary kingdoms of Angria and Gondal.

Many of these stirring tales were written in minute writing on the tiny pages (sometimes only one and a half or two inches long) of books which they stitched together and covered themselves. Over a hundred of these little volumes still exist, many in the Parsonage Museum at Haworth.

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Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick was England’s supreme Kingmaker

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Royalty, War on Thursday, 27 February 2014

This edited article about the Wars of the Roses first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 572 published on 30 December 1972.

Battle of Barnet,  picture, image, illustration

The Earl of Warwick is cornered at the Battle of Barnet

During that tangled web of history known as the Wars of the Roses, England boasted two kings at the same time. They were Edward the Fourth of York and Henry the Sixth of Lancaster.

Two more different men no one could imagine. Edward was gay, handsome, fond only of pleasure and amusement. Henry was shy, bookish, pious and gaunt-faced.

Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, knew both kings well. He liked to think that both were like putty in his hands, to be turned and twisted, throned and dethroned at his will. He was the greatest baron in England, and men called him the Kingmaker.

After the Lancastrians’ bloody victory over the Yorkists at Wakefield, near York, where Edward’s father, the Duke of York, was killed, the position of Henry the Sixth of Lancaster on the throne seemed secure for a time.

The studious Henry had his aggressive wife, Margaret of Anjou, to thank for this. It was she who had triumphed at Wakefield; she who crowned the beheaded Duke of York with a paper crown and set it upon the walls of York.

The future Edward the Fourth, York’s eldest son, was then 19, and known as Edward of March. Looking first upon the pious King Henry, then the frivolous Edward of March, the Earl of Warwick devised a scheme. He decided that if he could make Edward king, he would be able to rule the kingdom himself and have everything his own way.

In London, a great meeting of the people was held at which they were asked if they would have Edward for king. “Yea, yea, King Edward!” they shouted back, and the ambitious Warwick smiled to himself. Edward of March was as good as crowned Edward the Fourth.

First, though, there were many Lancastrians to be crushed in the field, and Warwick and Edward boldly led the Yorkists out to meet them. The two armies came face to face at Towton, near York. Here, young and amiable though he was, Edward showed that he had no mercy in his heart, for he ordered his men to take no prisoners but to kill every one.

On the battlefield, it snowed and soon the snow was red with the blood of the slain and, as it melted, it ran down the furrows in crimson streams. Twenty-eight thousand men were counted dead on the field.

At last, the Lancastrians began to flee. Henry the Sixth escaped to Northumberland with his Queen, but Warwick pursued them. Margaret managed to slip the Yorkists and got away to France, but Henry was captured when a monk betrayed his hiding-place.

Warwick must have observed his royal prisoner with glowing satisfaction. He had two kings now, but since he had set up the new one, he must make the people understand that they must revere the old one no more.

“No-one,” declared Warwick,” is to show the deposed King Henry the Sixth any respect.” So saying, he ordered Henry’s feet to be tied to his stirrups while he was led to the Tower as a prisoner.

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The Dreyfus Affair shamed the entire French nation

Posted in Famous crimes, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, News on Thursday, 27 February 2014

This edited article about Alfred Dreyfus first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 572 published on 30 December 1972.

Dreyfus being publicly humiliated,  picture, image, illustration

Dreyfus being publicly humiliated

It was a cold, grey January morning in 1895. On a Paris parade ground troops were drawn up to form a hollow square. Behind them, a huge crowd stood and watched.

In the centre of the square, in full dress uniform, stood the lone figure of Captain Dreyfus.

The drums rolled. A General stepped forward and faced Dreyfus. The drums stopped rolling and there was complete silence. Then the General quickly ripped the badges of rank from Dreyfus’s shoulders. Next the gleaming uniform buttons were savagely torn off one by one. Finally the General took Dreyfus’s sword, broke it across his knee, and threw it to the ground. Dreyfus’s face drained of all colour, was set in rigid lines that betrayed no emotion.

Two guards moved forward to stand on either side of Dreyfus. They took a firm hold of his arms and started to march him slowly round the square. It was the final act of degradation. The crowd hurled abuse and derision at the man who had now been publicly branded a traitor to his country. Dreyfus lowered his head, unable to face the looks of contempt on the faces of his colleagues.

Next day Dreyfus, under close custody, started the long journey to the penal colony of Cayenne in French Guiana, South America. He remained in Cayenne a month while huts were built for him and his guards on a tiny island out in the bay. Its name was Devil’s Island. A fitting place perhaps for a traitor to spend the remainder of his life.

Except that Dreyfus was not a traitor. He was an innocent man.

It had been towards the end of summer the previous year that a long document, unsigned and unaddressed, fell into the hands of French Intelligence. It had been found in the room of the German Military Attache and gave a long list of plans and papers that the writer was in a position to be able to sell to the Germans.

Investigations were put in hand. The suspects were narrowed down to just a few. Captain Dreyfus was one of these – and he was Jewish. It seemed impossible that a true Frenchman could have been responsible for the document. But a Jew – well, that was a different matter. And so, even at this early stage, it was decided that Dreyfus was the guilty one.

Captain Dreyfus was summoned before Major Henry of Military Intelligence who told him: “You are under arrest charged with high treason.” Dreyfus stared at Major Henry in blank amazement. “I am innocent!” he shouted as he was taken away. He was put in solitary confinement for nearly two months. He was permitted no visitors, not even his wife. And although he was interrogated again and again he still did not know what the evidence was against him.

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