Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Help sought

I received the following query and am posting it in the hope that the person who wrote the initial comment might follow up on it and contact Tony Gee.

Bruce Rosen

I am desirous of contacting 'Anonymous', who posted a comment about needing information on the black prize fighter called "Jem Wharton", following your 25th May 2010 blog, 'The Manly Art of Self Defence'. I am a prize ring historian and wish to inform him that there is a short chapter on Wharton in my recently republished book on the London prize ring, Up to Scratch. In addition I have information from newspapers which may interest him, and would also like to know more about the painting he mentioned.
Tony Geelezah@uwclub.net

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Victoria on the Rails

The Royal Saloon, 1869
Although other members of the Royal family had travelled by rail, especially Prince Albert, it was not until 1842 that Queen Victoria recorded her first experience aboard a train.  This was quite a bold step for the reigning monarch considering the poor safety record of this form of transportation.  Hardly a week went by without some reference in the newspapers describing a railway accident and the death or injury of passengers.

Having been at Windsor, the Royal Party left the castle at 11:30 on 13 June 1842, driving to Slough where the Royal carriage was in preparation. Describing the experience in her journal, the Queen wrote
The saloon we travelled in, on the train was very large & beautifully fitted up.  It took us exactly 30 minutes going to Paddington, & the motion was very slight, & much easier than a carriage, also no dust or great heat, -- in fact, it was delightful, & so quick.  We were at Buckingham Palace by 20 m. to 1.
The train consisted of seven coaches, one of which was the Royal saloon. The locomotive  was driven by Daniel Gooch, the chief mechanical engineer of the Great Western Railway, who was accompanied by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the company's chief engineer. By 1842, Brunel had already designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Great Western, the first steamship to engage in transatlantic service and which had been launched five years earlier.

In a letter to her Uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, dated 14 June, Victoria described her feelings about the new experience of travel by train, concluding that she was "quite charmed with it."

As they left Windsor Castle, the Queen and Prince Albert were met by two boys from Eton College who presented the Queen with a congratulatory address  on surviving the attempt on her life by John Francis at the end of the previous month. As the Royal couple then headed for the station, the Eton boys ran alongside the carriage back to their school.

Only ten days later, the Queen and Prince Albert were once again on their way to the railway station at Paddington.  Here they boarded the same saloon carriage.  Both were happy to leave London where the weather had been uncomfortably hot and dry although the Queen did express some regret at having to forego "the privacy & convenience" of the Buckingham Palace garden.

The Royal Train, as would be expected, was carefully monitored and cared for.  Even so, it was not immune to mishap.  In the first week of September of 1855 it was on its way from London to Edinburgh when it developed a series of inexplicable problems. Notwithstanding the extraordinary precautions taken to prevent even the slightest casualty, it would seem that shortly after the Royal train left the metropolis it was found that some of the axles of the carriages, especially one of the last break-van, were not in a satisfactory state.

Running repairs were unable to solve the problem.  In the end a man was stationed on the footboards in order to grease the axles as the train was running.  As the train approached Darlington, one of the men stationed on the footboards was knocked off by a girder at a culvert bridge.  "Badly crushed and mutilated" he died soon after.  The situation was considered serious enough for the Queen and Prince Albert to be moved to another carriage, one used by other members of the Royal entourage.

The Royals took to train travel like ducks to water.  Initially, it was a particularly fast, comfortable and efficient means of commuting between Buckingham Palace in London and Windsor Castle.  When, for example, Prince Albert needed to return to London on 5 November 1843, he took a special train from Slough to London. Royal visitors were among those who were ferried from London to Windsor by these special trains.

According to W. M. Acworth in The Railways of England, whenever the Queen travelled by train, special precautions were taken.  All work along the line was stopped, the points were locked, trains going in the opposite direction were halted and level crossings were closed and guarded.

Within 18 months of the Queen's first trip, the use of the Royal train by the monarch had become so common an event that it was being used for longer trips. The Times reported in detail on Her Majesty's  visit to Drayton, Chatsworth and Belvoir castle  in December of 1843, a visit that involved a train trip of approximately 100 miles each way. The Royal carriage was, according to Victoria, "most comfortable ... all lined & furnished in light blue satin." On the same trip, they travelled by train from Chesterfield to Nottingham via Derby.

Less than a year later, the Queen was on her way to visit the Marquis and Marchioness of Exeter at Burghley House, a distance of about 100 miles.  Approximately half the distance was to be covered in a special Royal carriage. By now the various rail companies were vying with one-another to present the most splendid facilities. In this instance the Queen was travelling with the Birmingham Railway Company and departing from Euston station.  An elegant suite had been constructed for the use of the Royal travellers, and, according to The Times, "everything was prepared to afford the greatest degree of comfort to Her Majesty."

The carriage in which she and Prince Albert were to travel had been "built and fitted up expressly for her use on this railway in the most splendid and tasteful manner." In fact, there were, over the years, numerous carriages built for members of the Royal family.

In 1848, the Royal family went by the Royal Yacht to Scotland where they spent a delightful holiday and fell in love with Balmoral castle.  However, when it came time to return to London the weather was so bad the decision was made to return South by train. Part of the trip back involved travelling on a Sunday.  The Queen clearly had strong opinions about this, writing in her journal,
...it being Sunday we had decided to start at 6, in order to arrive in London before the Service as people are so very particular about travelling on a Sunday in England, in my opinion it is overdone.
Almost sixty years after her first trip by train the Queen was to ride, for the final time, in the Royal Train. She was being returned to Windsor from where she had departed on that first trip. Only this time it was for her interment.

Victoria's Funeral Train, 1901
In the last few years there has been speculation that the maintenance, refurbishment and continued operation of the Royal train is no longer economical.  That it makes more sense for members of the Royal family to travel by air.  While there are strong arguments, not to mention sentimental reasons, for continuing to have the Royal train available, it seems likely that before long it will, like Royal yacht, Britannia, be put into mothballs.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Full English Breakfast - Myth or Reality

The first time I went to England, in 1967, there were still many reminders of the great Victorian Era.  I remember the rag and bone man coming round and the milkman who still used a horse-drawn float.  But because I was staying in a flat, I was not to know the joy and comfort of that great Victorian institution, the Full English Breakfast.  I did not discover that until 1985 when, en-route to Enschede in Holland, I stopped for a week in London to do some research.

The hotel in which I stayed was a converted multi-storied private home.  My room was on the sixth floor and just under the roof.  Small and cramped though it was, it was comfortable and homey and I struggled up and down the narrow flights of stairs several times a day.  Breakfast was served from 7:00 in the morning, and I was usually down in the basement dining room early.

The first time I came down for breakfast I was greeted with “Good Morning, full English?”  Not quite sure at the time just what this implied, I agreed and it was thus that I was introduced to that amazing institution, The Full English Breakfast.  I capitalise the words purposely as the title of something of such importance should be. Heather Arndt Anderson, in Breakfast: A History, refers to it as “Britain’s greatest . . . culinary achievement.”

There are many different interpretations and opinions about what constitutes this gift to the civilized early diner.  For me, it will always consist of one or two eggs cooked so the yolk remained runny, bacon (less well done than Americans like it – not crisp), sausage (I later discovered Wall’s sausages – pink, bland and absolutely unbeatable when dipped into the yolk of your egg before popping it into your mouth), cooked tomato, baked beans, mushrooms and fried bread. 

According to Jamie Oliver, “Some things are too good to mess about with,” and he is right!1This is one of the great English culinary triumphs, ranked right up there with Fish and Chips.

Back in 1985 British food could well have won awards for its unpalatable awfulness.  Now, of course, all that has changed and foodies and celebrity chefs abound on that small island. But what is the connection between the Victorian Era and the Full English Breakfast? More to the point, perhaps, is the question “is there a connection?”

According to the English Breakfast Society,
The full English breakfast is a centuries old British tradition which dates back to the early 1800's, when the Victorians first perfected the art of eating breakfast and elevated the most important meal of the day into an art form.
The Society goes on to argue that the notion of the English Breakfast as we know it today was developed by the “gentry” and was later taken up by the emergent middle-class.

Even a cursory glance at the many cookbooks of the Victorian period suggest that the English breakfast was not what we know it to be today.  A far greater variety of comestibles were likely to find their way to the table or the sideboard in private homes. Although bacon and eggs were always popular, they were certainly not a prerequisite for an English breakfast in the nineteenth century.2

Mrs Beeton, in her Book of Household Management (1861), despite noting that it was unnecessary to provide her readers with "a long bill of fare of cold joints, &c., which may be placed on the side-board, and do duty at the breakfast-table," goes on to suggest garnished cold meat and "collared and potted meats or fish, cold game or poultry, veal-and-ham pies, game-and-Rump-steak pies" as food appropriate to the breakfast table as well as "cold ham, tongue, &c. &c."

She then turns her attention to hot dishes "for the comfortable meal called breakfast." 

Broiled fish, such as mackerel, whiting, herrings, dried haddocks, &c.; mutton chops and rump-steaks, broiled sheep’s kidneys, kidneys à la maître d’hôtel, sausages, plain rashers of bacon, bacon and poached eggs, ham and poached eggs, omelets, plain boiled eggs, oeufs-au-plat, poached eggs on toast, muffins, toast, marmalade, butter, &c. &c.

In her list one can find at least some of the elements that make up the Full English Breakfast, but clearly there is a much greater variety and a number of elements are still missing. Perhaps what distinguishes the British breakfast is that it has traditionally offered hot dishes.  Its centrepiece has been and remains, bacon and eggs.

George Sala, in Twice Round the Clock (1859)3 talks of fried and poached eggs, bread and butter and bacon.  But in addition he mentions smoked haddock and bloaters as items that "grace our morning repast."  Preserved tongue, and anchovy paste, both from Crosse and Blackwell are included in Sala's list of breakfast foods.

It can be argued that in this passage, Sala is describing the breakfast of the better working and middle class.  Mrs Beeton is, of course, writing for the middle-class. The kind of breakfast she suggests (or at least the comestibles she lists) are appropriate to both that class and its betters.  What then of the lower and labouring classes?  What did their breakfasts consist of?

Sala describes the breakfast available to the workers in Covent Garden, a breakfast that would have been replicated at any of the great markets in London.
There are public-houses in the market itself, where they give you hot shoulder of mutton for breakfast at seven o'clock in the morning! Hot coffee and gigantic piles of bread-and-butter disappear with astounding rapidity. Foaming tankards are quaffed, "nips" of alcohol "to keep the cold out" (though it is May) are tossed off...
Clearly, bacon, eggs and bread were mainstays of the breakfast that many consumed in England.  But the variety was far greater and it seems unlikely that there was anything in the nineteenth century that truly resembled the Full English Breakfast as we now know it.
1To see Jamie Oliver’s Full English Breakfast, click here 

2A number of nineteenth century British cookbooks can be downloaded (or read online) by clicking on the following links:

Breakfast and Lunch Dishes(1904) 

3To read or download George Sala, Twice Round the Clock, click here.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Victorian Vision, London and Manchester at the End of the Era

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, who can decide the value of a moving picture?  In this blog, I want to look at some moving images from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Some of these are definitely Victorian (in the sense that they were made before the death of the Queen), while others are a few years later.  But, even those made before and immediately after the Great War are images of a long gone time and there is little to differentiate those that are truly Victorian from those that are Edwardian.

The first piece of film consists of street scenes recorded around 1903. Most of it is simply traffic, but as one watches a second or third time, there are things, too easily missed, that warrant thought.  Consider , for example, the horse-drawn omnibuses. Just the number of them is overwhelming.  And, in the Victorian Era they often drove without due care, even, from time to time, racing through the London streets.  In 1853, the driver of the Chelsea and Islington Omnibus, driving too quickly and trying to overtake another bus from the inside, killed an elderly oyster-stall owner in Mortimer Street. The driver was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six months confinement.

Another interesting thing to look out for is the advertising on the horse-drawn vehicles, particularly the omnibuses.  Many of the names are still very familiar more than a hundred years later.  There are Liptons, Pears, Nestles, Bovril, and even American products like Kodak and Quaker Oats.

Watch, too, for the faces of people staring at the camera, sometimes with interest and occasionally with suspicion or hostility.

Click here to see the film.

Manchester in the nineteenth century was the key part of the industrial heartland of Great Britain.  At the beginning of the century it had a population of 89,000, a nine-fold increase over what it had been at the beginning of the eighteenth century. By the middle of the nineteenth century the population had increased to 400,000 and at the end of that century, Britain's second city had a population of 700,000.

William Wylde, Manchester from Kersal Moor (1857)
Manchester's growth relied on cotton.  The great factories and mills stood in the foreground of this rapidly expanding city, so dependent on that fibre that it was sometimes referred to as "Cottonopolis.".

By the end of the nineteenth century, the city had a vibrant cultural life and the newly created Manchester Ship Canal made Salford, a metropolitan borough of Greater Manchester, the third busiest port in Britain.

Click here to see life in the centre of Manchester in the year of Queen Victoria's death.

 The following piece of film is a general compilation of late Victorian and early Edwardian footage. It is interesting because of the quality which is unusually good.  The film includes images of an automobile leaving a garage and scenes of mills and factories. I found the faces of the people quite fascinating with expressions ranging from joy to boredom and distress. It is worth looking at the clothing of the time.  Seeing it on people leading their lives gives a much better sense of it than seeing it in museums on dummies or in still images.

Click here to see the footage.

The final footage in this blog is a compilation. Much of the film is drawn from the other pieces to which this blog has linked.  The strength of this particular video is that many of the scenes are juxtaposed with modern scenes of the same locations.  There are also maps which indicate where in London the filming took place.  While you may find the sound intrusive, it is worth listening to it if only to hear the first recording ever made of Big Ben from 16 July 1890.

Click here for the more detailed film.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Faster, Lower, Deeper - The First Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cable

Map of the 1858 trans-Atlantic cable route

On the 16th of August, 1858, Queen Victoria sent a telegram to the President of the United States, James Buchanan.  For more than a week the telegraphic cable across the Atlantic had been undergoing tests but this was the first official message.  Prior to the laying of the cable, messages from the United Kingdom to the United States were limited by the speed at which a ship could cross the ocean. This would routinely take ten days (presuming a clear run in good weather), but now the speed with which a message could be sent was reduced to minutes -- or was it?

There had, of course, been earlier attempts to lay a trans-Atlantic cable. The first cable was laid across the floor of the Atlantic from Telegraph Field, Foilhommerum Bay, Valentia Island in western Ireland to Heart's Content in eastern Newfoundland. But the laying of the cable met with problem after problem.  On the American side, an attempt to lay cable across the Cabot Strait in 1855 failed when a gale forced the cutting of the cable to avoid the sinking of the boat laying it. In the following year, in better weather, a steamboat completed the link from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia.

Finally though, by August of 1858, everything was in place.

The first official message (from Queen Victoria) read,


The Queen desires to congratulate the President upon the successful completion of this great international work, in which the Queen has taken the deepest interest.

The Queen is convinced that the President will join with her in fervently hoping that the electric cable, which now connects Great Britain with the United States, will prove an additional link between the nations, whose friendship is founded upon their common interest and reciprocal esteem.

The Queen has much pleasure in thus communicating with the President, and renewing to him her wishes for the prosperity of the United States.

The message was, of course, sent in Morse code, but because of the primitive nature of the cable, lacking, as it did, repeaters to strengthen the signal, reception was bad and it could take as much as two minutes to transmit a single character. This equates to one word every ten minutes! The Queen's entire message took over 16 hours to transmit and, even as late as 1866 with a new cable laid in that year, transmission speed was only eight words per minute - 80 times faster than Victoria's message, but still painfully slow by today's standards; even at the higher speed it would have taken more than ten minutes to convey the Queen’s message.

Responding to QueenVictoria, President Buchanan declared the cable “a triumph more glorious, because far more useful to mankind, than was ever won by conqueror on the field of battle.” He then went on to invoke “Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world.” 
In this view will not all nations of Christendom spontaneously unite in the declaration that it shall be for ever neutral, and that its communications shall be held sacred in passing to the places of their destination, even in the midst of hostilities.
Clearly, news of the success of the cable and the exchange of messages between the Queen and the President seemed to offer hope of a bright future.  A week after the messages were exchanged The Times waxed rhapsodic (or at least as rhapsodic as the staid old Thunderer could wax). "We fully believe" it pronounced in an editorial,
that the effect of bringing the three Kingdoms and the United States into instantaneous communication with each other will be to render hostilities between the two nations almost impossible for the future.
"The two great Anglo-Saxon States," it went on, "remain firmly united--fused together ..."

Speed, that's what it was about.  Speed and more speed.  How fast could one get from A to B by train, how fast could a letter be sent and now, how fast could a message be sent across the Atlantic Ocean.  It was the era of steam and the Great Clipper ships were reaching the end of their days.  Now the question became not "if" a message could be transmitted by telegraph over the Atlantic, but "how quickly."

The New York Tribune exultantly proclaimed, in mid-1855, "there can ... be no difficulty in sending electricity across the Atlantic." Two years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, John Watkins Brett was telling the Royal Institute,

The ultimate union of America with Europe by electricity may now be considered a certainty. Providence has placed this object within our reach; there are no practical impossibilities in the way of its accomplishment; and those united with us in the undertaking do not regard the means required in comparison to the good to be accomplished.

Such optimism was misplaced. The first successful telegraph cable, despite the Queen's optimism, survived for a period of only three weeks.  In the following nine years, five separate attempts were made to establish a telegraphic link between Great Britain and the United States but it was not until 1866 that telegraphic communication between the two countries was established on a reliable basis.

The Great Eastern

 Even the achievement of laying a successful cable started with less than propitious omens.  The Great Eastern, the largest ship ever built, a record she was to hold until 1899, was chartered to lay the new cable in 1865.  Because of its great size and speed, it was planned that only the one ship would be used.  This would solve the problem of two ships meeting at sea, splicing the cable, and then dropping it into the depths of the Atlantic. Once again the project met with failure when the cable snapped after 1,200 miles had been laid. 

Interior of The Great Eastern with Cable

But with bulldog tenacity, the project went ahead.   In 1866 The Great Eastern succeeded, not only in laying a new cable across the Atlantic Ocean, but in repairing the snapped cable from the previous year.  Two working cables now spanned the Atlantic Ocean.

And what an amazing advance it was. Barely more than a quarter of a century had elapsed since the first working telegraph had been introduced and only ten years since the first attempt to lay a transatlantic telegraph cable had been undertaken. But the telegraph system, in its earliest years was far too expensive for anything other than commercial and governmental use.  In 1866 it would have cost ten dollars a word or $US 100 to send the minimum of ten words.  In today’s terms, this would be about US$1,340.

By the death of Queen Victoria, there were more than half-a-dozen cables linking the old world and the new. Progress continued with the establishment in 1955/56, ninety years after the first successful trans-Atlantic telegraph lines, of a telephone cable from Scotland to Newfoundland. Today's trans-Atlantic cables use fibre optic transmission. Because of their low cost, high capacity and speed they have increasingly replaced satellite communication and with the use of modern technology it is now possible to place calls around the world for a few cents a minute and even, from computer to computer, free of charge.
A free copy of W. H. Russell, The Atlantic Telegraph  (1865) is available via Amazon Kindle (without illustrations) or with black and white illustrations for $.99. A free copy with illustrations can be found here