The Anglo-Saxon exhibition at the British Library

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to get to visit an incredible new exhibition at the British Library all about the Anglo-Saxons.  Despite going past the building almost every day for 25 years, I’ve never been in it before (I avidly visited the old building) and it is one of if not the largest book repository in the world with over 150 million books and  manuscripts in English, Latin and related languages.  It even holds some of my books too!

Much more interesting than these though are the treasures that I went to see.  The period after the Romans has long been characterised as the Dark Ages and though I personally knew this was not the case, even I was shocked at just what an educated, cultured and sophisticated lot my ancestors were.

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This exhibition is here until February 2019 and houses 200 of the finest books and book-related treasures from Anglo-Saxon England.  It’s not often that I get overwhelmed by history.  I can only remember it happening twice, once in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo where years of pent-up enthusiasm gradually waned, hour after hour of looking at Egyptian treasures.  Any one of which would be a work of such fantastic standing it would demand to be studied for hours but as part of a huge museum, eventually came just another treasure.

Similarly when visiting the WW1 cemeteries in France and Belgium and seeing hundreds of thousands of graves.  All incredibly special and important and in many ways unique but when taken together, incredibly powerful and overwhelming.

This exhibition wisely restricted itself to 180 treasures covering the broad period of Anglo-Saxon England which culminated with the Norman Conquest of 1066 which was dreadful in so many ways.

Nevertheless the feeling when visiting the exhibition was one of being incredibly taken-aback, of outright wonder and amazement as well as increasingly a feeling of incredulity that anyone might have thought the Anglo-Saxons to be anything other than amongst the most enlightened of people.  Obviously the Norman propaganda machine has a lot to answer for but the fight back starts here!

Photos aren’t allowed in the exhibition so here are just some of the treasures which you can see and whose photos are available in the public domain.

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The Alfred Jewel

In the photo above you have The Alfred Jewel.  It is an æstel which is inlaid enamel with gold and depicts King Alfred The Great.  Alfred is the only king denoted as being ‘Great’ and was a great believer in ‘books’ and education for the common people.  An æstel is a long rod with which you might point at the text of a book such as The Holy Bible to avoid touching the script.  Similar to a Yad which Jewish people use when reading The Torah.

The piece dates to about 880AD and was found in a  Somerset field in 1693.  As well as being a great man of words, King Alfred was a man of action and was pivotal in finally freeing our lands from the Vikings.

This item also gives me an unexpected chance to link to my post on the letter æ 

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The Spong Man

This ceramic item is known as The Spong Man. It was found in Norfolk in the largest Anglo-Saxon cemetery yet unearthed and dates from the 6th Century. It is 14cm in height (about 5.5 inches) and is actually the top of a large ceramic urn. One can spend forever contemplating what it is the character is thinking about.   These days we have simple corks or screw lids but those wrongly labelled as being in the Dark Ages had these instead.

What makes it even more interesting is that it highlights how people of the time were happy to cremate their dead which earlier Roman Christians clearly were against and demonstrates the new ideas of  our Jute, Angles and Saxons forebears; originally brought in by the Romans in the 3rd century to strengthen defences and yet like many other places, gradually took over their new homes… one way or the other.

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Belt Buckle

The incredible item above is a gold belt-buckle, found in the famous Sutton Hoo hoard in Suffolk in the 1930s.  Its beautiful and ornate decorations can’t be truly appreciated unless seen in person.

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The Lindisfarne Illuminated Manuscripts

The Illuminated Manuscripts were the one thing I was hoping to see.  They are from the island of Lindisfarne or Hply Island, just off the coast of Northumberland near the Scottish border and were a long-time hotbed for early Christians until famously being the scene of the very first Viking attack.

The manuscript is breathtakingly beautiful and I could have spent all day looking at it. Apart from its intrinsic value as a remarkable survival of an ancient and astonishingly beautiful work of art, the manuscript displays a unique combination of artistic styles that reflects a crucial period in England’s history.

Christianity first came to Britain under the Romans, but subsequent waves of invasion by non-Christian Saxons, Angles, and Vikings drove the faith to the fringes of the British Isles. The country was gradually re-converted from 597, after St Augustine arrived from Rome to convert the pagan ‘Angles into angels’.

Religious differences between the indigenous ‘Celtic’ Church and the new ‘Roman’ Church were settled at the Synod of Whitby in 664. In the manuscript, native Celtic and Anglo-Saxon elements blend with Roman, Coptic and Eastern traditions to create a sublimely unified artistic vision of the cultural melting pot of Northumbria in the seventh and eighth centuries.

The Lindisfarne Gospels, and others like it, helped define the growing sense of ‘Englishness’ which was strong enough to survive the Norman Conquest of 1066 and forge the nation that exists today.

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The Domesday Book

The Domesday Book, often known as the Doomsday Book is one of the most famous books in the world.  It is a complete record from 1086 that William The Conqueror used to catalogue everything the two-thirds of England that he had firm control over.  Of course it is a Norman book but the reason it is here is that England was the only country sophisticated enough to have an administration to keep such incredible details and the administration was an aspect Anglo-Saxon civilisation, again showing how wrong it is to label these people as somehow backwards or ignorant.  There are still countries in the world today that don’t have such accurate records and this book is 950 years old.

The Domesday book is a treasure for historians but also gives some insight as to why England was such a desirable target for invasion for more than a millennia as well as indicating that as our reputation today still says, we are sticklers for doing things properly and by the book!

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The Codex Amiatinus

Written in the monastic scriptorium in the 7th Century, the Codex Amiatinus was one of three single volume Bibles made at Wearmouth-Jarrow.

Made by monks under the direction of Abbot Ceolfrith, they started the project in AD692.

The oldest complete Latin Bible in existence, it was rare to make a single volume Bible as they usually contained a small number of books like the four gospels.

“It is one of the most important copies of the Bible in the world and one of the most important manuscripts made in the British Isles and associated with Venerable Bede and Wearmouth-Jarrow.

“Bible means library and the Codex Amiatinus was making a statement.  Three copies of the Codex Amiatinus were produced in Latin calligraphy at the monastery.

Two stayed at Wearmouth and Jarrow and in AD716, the third left for Rome with Abbot Ceolfrith and his followers where it was intended to be given to Pope Gregory II as a gift.

Abbot Ceolfrith died on route in France, but his dream was fulfilled and the book was taken by some of his followers on to Rome.

Some years later, it was rediscovered in the monastery of San Salvatore in Italy before being moved to the Laurential Library in Florence where it can be found today.

The other two copies have been lost and for a millennia it was assumed that due to the fabulous sophistication and beauty of the book that it had to be Italian.   Then in the 19th century it was found out the dedication page had been altered and it was in fact from Northumbria.  It was a conscious effort to show the world that whatever Rome could do, Northumbria could do it bigger and better.

The Codex Amiatinus weighs more than 34kg (75lbs) and each page is made from vellum which would have came from hundreds of calf hides.

You might remember in July when I went to walk Hadrians Wall that I visited the wonderful St Pauls Monastery in Jarrow, home of the oldest stained glass window in the world and home of amongst many other people, the famous Venerable Bede.  Bede is no doubt behind the Codex Amiatinus and I never dreamed that I would ever see not just one but several of his great and ancient works.

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The Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Well, I’ve gone 6 years with this blog and only mentioned the Venerable Bede sparingly and here I am mentioning him twice in the same post.  I’m sure that someone, somewhere has a whole blog on Bede.  This book is another incredibly valuable treasure and was completed in 731 AD. The work tells the story of the conversion of the English people to Christianity.

Bede’s account is the chief source of information about English history from the arrival of St Augustine in Kent in 597 until 731. But Bede begins his history much earlier, with Julius Caesar’s invasion of England in 55 BCE. Bede used several other sources in compiling his own account, each of which he acknowledged.

After briefly summarising Christianity in Roman Britain, Bede describes St Augustine’s mission, which brought Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons. The work describes the subsequent attempts to convert the different kingdoms of Britain, including Mercia, Sussex and Northumbria.

Bede (b. c. 672, d. 735) was born in Northumbria, and at the age of seven entered the monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow near Newcastle, where he spent all of his adult life. He was also famous for the works he wrote on the interpretation of Scripture, on the natural world and on how to calculate the date of Easter.

 

 

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The first page of Beowulf

Before I end up writing a guide to the entire collection, I will finish with the epic of Beowulf.  It is said by many to be the oldest story in the English language.  It is certainly the longest epic poem in Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest. More than 3,000 lines long, Beowulf relates the exploits of its eponymous hero, and his successive battles with a monster named Grendel, with Grendel’s revengeful mother, and with a dragon which was guarding a hoard of treasure.

Beowulf survives in a single medieval manuscript. The manuscript bears no date, and so its age has to be calculated by analysing the scribes’ handwriting. Some scholars have suggested that the manuscript was made at the end of the 10th century, others in the early decades of the 11th, perhaps as late as the reign of King Cnut, who ruled England from 1016 until 1035.

Nobody knows for certain when the poem was first composed but it seems this copy is at least 1,000 years old.

One of the wonderful things about this exhibition was being able to see the incredible books on which our civilisation is based upon and spend time reading, if not usually comprehending the texts upon the pages.  Certainly even if you can’t read Latin (which I can’t) or aren’t very good at working out Old English (which I am if I can read the writing), then you can still appreciate the beauty and magnificence of the books and the other treasures.

I will definitely have to revisit the exhibition again before it closes in February for it was too much to take in and appreciate.  I’m ever so glad and surprised to have the opportunity to have seen these great objects once but I don’t think to see them twice in a  life-time would be overkill.

I hope you enjoyed this rather special blog-post and might encourage people to see the Anglo-Saxons lived in anything but the Dark Ages.

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The Great Stink of 1858

If like me, you suffered through the blazing London summer of 2018 with seemingly wall to wall sunshine heat and humidity from Easter to the end of September, squashed on your commute in airless tube trains and wondering how you’d ever get to sleep in a bedroom that rarely fell under 30 degrees (90 F) at night then spare a thought for our Victorian forebears.  They had to endure something very similar but with an added toxic bonus of  the Great Stink.

That year, the London Standard reported temperatures of over 30C by the middle of June and the weather stayed hot for several weeks.  Like today there was no air-conditioning but they also had no modern refrigeration which meant food was fresh for a matter of hours at best and the old Roman sewerage system was not just 1800 years old but built for a population several million less than what it had to cope with.

Everything you threw away back then ended up in the River Thames. From the contents of people’s chamber pots and the new-fangled flush lavatories, to dead dogs, decomposing food and industrial waste, including animal parts from abattoirs and chemicals from leather tanning factories along the river.

The Thames embankment had not yet been built, accidental drownings and river suicides were common and bodies were rarely recovered from the water.   It is said that the stench from the Thames could be smelt from 7 or 8 miles away.

On top of this because everything was horse-drawn, the streets were full of massive piles of manure.  Flies were swarming down on this and of course transmitting disease such as diarrhoea and typhoid.

It was a nauseating mix  at the best of times and the heat in 1858 made it worse.  Standing close to the river was enough to make you retch.  It was dubbed the Great Stink but it was no joke.

By the 1850s, London was the largest city on the planet, with a rapidly growing population that had already topped 2.5 million – but it was struggling to provide its citizens with clean water and sanitation.

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In Little Dorrit, written that decade, Charles Dickens described the Thames: “Through the heart of the town a deadly sewer ebbed and flowed, in the place of a fine fresh river.”

Worse, Londoners drew their drinking water from the Thames and its tributary rivers, which were often just as polluted.  A condition called summer diarrhoea was common, as was typhoid, while cholera killed thousands in a series of epidemics.   Conditions for those who lived in London was absolutely horrific.

As the river runs throughout London. It’s quite difficult to avoid and if you went anywhere near the riverbanks, you would really be hit with this terrible smell that was referred to as a miasma.

There are many accounts of Londoners saying that they were being sick if they went anywhere near because of the smell and they were trying to cover their faces with masks or cloths.

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A Victorian effort to protect against Miasma.

In the newly built House of Commons, MPs found it impossible to use rooms overlooking the river.  The curtains were doused with a product called chloride of lime.

Its manufacturers made extravagant claims for its disease-preventing properties – but really it was little more than air freshener, which had little impact on the appalling pong.     In a city that was once the worst affected by the Black Death and with science still relatively simple, the smell, or miasma, was thought to carry disease.  If you could smell the stink then your life was on the line, or so it was thought.  That some diseases were waterborne was only beginning to be accepted.

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A ghastly cartoon from the satirical Punch magazine 

Satirical magazines depicted Old Father Thames as a filthy old man and his offspring as deformed and diseased.   At the height of the British Empire, the river which was assumed by those around the world to be responsible for the vast amount of trade and wealth coming into London was just as effectively becoming a river of death for Londoners.

The Great Stink wasn’t entirely a new phenomena, it had been a crisis that had been building for a few years but this was a tipping point especially as Parliament was not able to function during the summer months.

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Benjamin Disraeli, to proposed a bill, which MPs debated and passed within 18 days.   On the 15th of July, Disraeli told MPs:

“That noble river, so long the pride and joy of Englishmen, which has hitherto been associated with the noblest feats of our commerce and the most beautiful passages of our poetry, has really become a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors. The public health is at stake; almost all living things that existed in the waters of the Thames have disappeared or been destroyed; a very natural fear has arisen that living beings upon its banks may share the same fate; there is a pervading apprehension of pestilence in this great city.”

It became law on 2 August 1858, giving the Metropolitan Board of Works the authority and cash to embark on the biggest civil engineering project of the century the following year, with Joseph Bazalgette in charge.

Bazalgette’s design was for a system of interconnecting sewers, to capture London’s waste before it could reach the Thames, and new embankments with sewers inside them.  And so the river was narrowed meaning that today the buildings can be at times out of sight of the river and giving us the broad avenues and parklands along the Thames.

The sewage was piped out to elaborately designed pumping stations, including Crossness and Abbey Mills.

It still went into the river but in less populated areas so it was very much an- “out of sight out of mind” project.  It was a start to solve the problem and Sir Joseph Bazalgette is something of a hero for his huge improvement in the public health of London.  No longer was there 45cm/18inches of sewage on top of the vast river. His pumping stations continued for nearly 100 years when it became unacceptable to pump raw sewage into the environment.

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The Crossness Pumping Stattion

His sewage pipes are still working perfectly though the system is currently being upgraded due to Londons ever increasing population.  Victorians were renowned for doing things properly, to the best that science and engineering allowed and with little regards for money.  You can see that from the photos of how they remain today.

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Photo by Christine Matthews

 

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A long farewell to Rick, a bitter-sweet scene with Hershel…. The Walking Dead.

Its not often I write a third blog post in a week.  I’m writing this on Tuesday, having just watched the latest instalment of The Walking Dead.

I’ve been a long time fan of the Walking Dead television show.  It’s quality has waned somewhat in the last 2 or 3 years.  Previously known for gripping drama and even horror but unbeknownst to non-fans, some of the best writing, characterisation and acting too.

This fell by the way-side with the overly long feud with the admittedly coolest bad-guy ever in the shape of Negan and his trusted barbed wire encased baseball bat, Lucille.  Never ending battles, scripts and stories that made little sense, confusing fights and the loss of many beloved characters for seemingly gratuitous and pointless reasons.

Happily with the terrible producer booted upstairs, The Walking Dead has improved dramatically this year.  The stories are back to being gripping, slower paced with thrilling moments and the eternal battle for survival both against Walkers, other humans and to rebuild civilisation.

One thing that has been ever present in life has been the leading character Rick Grimes.  The police officer around whom the series has been built and whose ups and downs have had us all gripped.

I’m a big fan of Rick and of British actor Andrew Lincoln who so ably plays him.  Rick is such a heroic character, he reminds me of Captain James T. Kirk.  Upholding the law, protecting the weak and the good against the bad and the dead no matter what the cost.

I’m sure Andrew Lincoln didn’t expect the show to still be running 9 years on and his understandable needs to return to Blighty to spend more time with his family have necessitated the end of Rick Grimes on The Walking Dead, for now at least.  I’m really glad that he didn’t end up as a zombie though and also that his final season has returned to good quality and so his last appearance or death wasn’t like those of many of his compatriots in recent years.

Having been impaled on a steel rod and at deaths door, Rick spent much of the hour walking slowly on horseback just a few feet from one of the larger hoard of Walkers we have seen for a year or two.  What was always going to be a memorable episode was made more so by the re-appearance in a dazed state by some of the other characters we have lost.

First up was his ‘brother’ Shane.  Taking the show right back to the beginning and the police incident that saw Rick end in hospital where it all began.  It was great to see Shane again and a little amusing that Shane reminds Rick that the family Rick has been fighting for, is likely his.  Shane forgives him for his death and the pair natter on with some of the banter that made the first year or two so enjoyable.  Shane was a nice guy, before he had his way, with Ricks wife Lori, undermind Ricks authority and then tried to kill him.  Interestingly in all of these dream sequences, the characters strongly urge Rick to return to reality whilst depicting the sides of Ricks personality.  Shane presenting that tough, go-get them approach.

Towards the end of the episode, Rick finds himself in a large expanse of dead bodies.  One of which is presumably the lovely Beth who was so tragically killed some years ago.  Here Rick comes face to face with Sasha who re-assures Rick that he always did his best and did what he had to do to help his friends and family and hold on to some semblance of humanity.

There is another similar scene where Rick dreams he has been saved by his friends and Michonne which shows us the part of him that feels at home and belonging.

My favourite scene of the week though and one of my favourite in any television episode ever is the one with Hershel.  Hershel is one of my favourite characters I’ve had the pleasure of stumbling across in life.  An elderly farmer in the state of Georgia.  He is full of love and heart, something which is sorely missing in the world Rick finds himself in.  Rick and friends come across his farm in season 2, a refuge from the death outside.  Except of course for the barn which houses several Walkers as Hershel is so full of love that he hopes they can be restored to humanity.

I love Hershel so much, partly for the character and partly for the actor, Scott Wilson.  Hershel died too soon at the hands of The Governor and sadly in October this year, so too did Scott Wilson after a battle against Leukaemia.   However, Scott was always hugely supportive of The Walking Dead and somehow after several years, came back to film one last scene.

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Rick and Hershel on the farm in years gone by.

Here Rick finds love, happiness and home and Hershel assures him he has nothing to apologise for despite the terrible carnage that Rick inadvertently inflicted on Hershel and his family.

Apparently it was quite emotional for nearly every fan who watched it and I don’t think you have to know who either character is to see what a touching scene it is.

Surprisingly to non-fans, these scenes are really what The Walking Dead are about as much as any gore. Beautiful, raw and touching.

Hershel reminds me of Red in Shawshank Redemption, I guess I just like kindly, wise and gentle male characters in a world where there are so few.  Maybe I see a bit of myself in the future, albeit hopefully without the 40 years in prison or a apocalyptic world.

And finally we get to the end of the Rick Grimes, or at least almost the end for now.   All year Rick has been obsessed about building the bridge to facilitate better trade and communication between his various communities.  With a large army of Walkers on his tail and heading to peaceful and unready Hill Top, Rick does what he always does.  Finds a way to save his friends and family, one last time.

It’s incredibly cinematic and again does what Walking Dead should do, bring these epic horrific moments and intwine them in emotion and characters as can be seen by one of the toughest characters on television in the shape of Darryl, walking away in tears.

I hope Rick and Darryl will re-unite one day and with Rick being whisked away by that mysterious helicopter it seems that there is a good chance this might happen one day.

Interestingly, the terrible Negan who killed so many either directly or indirectly including Ricks son Carl, avoided death in prison.  Maggie, eldest daughter of Hershel who has gone from gentle farm-girl to a warrior and leader went to kill Negan… and actually put in place the events that had Rick in trouble.  Seeing Negan crying pitifully as all he wanted to do was die so he could be with his family was the one thing that stopped Maggie from killing him against Ricks wishes.  For death would be easy and Negan needs to suffer.  Quite how his character can ever be redeemed is beyond me.  I’m guessing only some sort of martyrdom in a similar manner to Darryl’s hillbilly and rather evil brother Merle will be his future.

Or perhaps Negan will be the new leader.  For the the episode finishes with a jump 6 years into the future when a small group of humans about to be overcome by Walkers are saved by the unflinching shots of a young girl wearing a distinctive Sheriff hat of Rick and carrying the sword of Michonne.  Judith Grimes has grown up a little and is every bit in the footsteps of Carl, Michonne, Rick and even her blood father Shane.

I’ll miss Rick Grimes a lot but he leaves a lot of memories.  Rick of course can come back but sadly Hershel never can.  So long friends.

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The Armistice – The end of The Great War, WW1.

The Great War ended much differently than the never-say- die desperation of the Nazis in WW2. In 1918, there was no likely imminent collapse of Germany though the deprivation and starvation of many in the country was startling. Even though there were mutinies in the ranks of the French, order was generally maintained and despite the most bloody and devastating defeats, Britain maintained is discipline and low rates of mutiny or desertion. This wasn’t the case for the German army where there were increased rates of surrender and desertion. This is most likely because no matter how bad things were, the British and French never had any doubts that they wouldn’t lose the war but since American entry into the war this was obviously not the case to any German soldier with any sense.

It was well known that should the war continue into 1919 that the Allies would mount a massive attack with the millions of additional American soldiers that had entered the fray, it was clear that the end was coming for the Kaiser and that it would be better to try and negotiate some sort of surrender rather than be occupied.

Additionally there was widespread civil unrest within Germany itself due to the effects of the Royal Navy blockade and so Germany decided to enter into high level discussions with the Allies for 3 days. Unknown to the Allies the German delegation had been ordered to agree to any terms put before them and this is what happened on the 11th November.

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Just after 5 o’clock in the morning of 11th November 1918, British, French and German officials gathered in a railway carriage to the north of Paris and signed a document which would in effect bring to an end World War 1. It took only a few minutes before news of the Armistice flashes around the world. However, the cease-fire was set at 11am that morning to make sure all soldiers on all sides would get the news and avoid any unnecessary deaths. However, that last day of the war still saw over 10,000 casualties which is actually more than on D-Day except here many of them were pointless and entirely avoidable as their commanders already new of the impending cease-fire.

Faring particularly badly on Armistice Day were the Americans. Led by General Pershing, he seemingly learnt little from the experience of their Allies, many American commanders made the most bull-headed decisions regardless of the well-being of their men or the known fact that the war was coming to an end. Some still had the enthusiasm for fighting that the British and French had long since lost and believed they had to exact maximum punishment on Germany believing the Armistice was a mistake whilst others had far less understandable reasons.

A good example of this is that case of General William Wright of the 89th American Division. Knowing that the Armistice was just hours away but learning that the nearby town of Stenay still had washing facilities he decided to take the town so that he could enjoy the next few days in relative comfort. His idiotic decision cost 365 American casualties alone.

The final British soldier to die was that of Private George Edwin Ellison, aged 40 who was a regular in the army even before the war. He was killed whilst scouting on the edge of Mons, just a short walk from where the first casualty of the war had fallen 4 years earlier. Almost a million British deaths later and just an hour or so from being told he could return home to his wife Hannah and 4 year old son James, he was shot dead. In fact, cemeteries in Mons have graves to people killed in both the first and last days of the war and by chance, both the first British soldier killed and the last are buried opposite each other just a few feet apart.

 

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A million British soldiers died between the death of the first soldier and last.  There bodies by chance lay opposite and demonstrate how little the front-line moved and just what as waste of life it all was.

At 10.45am a French soldier by the name of Augustin Trebuchon was taking a message to his comrades that soup would be served a few minutes after peace fell when he was killed. Like many French soldiers killed on the last day, his gravestone records his death as occurring on the 10th November mostly likely to ensure that his widow would have no problems receiving a war pension.

A few minutes later, again near Mons, 25-year-old George Lawrence Price, a Canadian Private was chasing retreating soldiers through the streets. He entered a cottage from the front street as German soldiers fled through the back door, as he emerged outside he was shot and killed at 10.58am.

Perhaps most tragically of all was the case of the final death before the Armistice that of German descended American soldier Henry Gunther who was involved in a last minute charge against a German machine gun position. The Germans were well aware it was  just before the Armistice and they shouted for the attack to stop and to go back but as a matter of self-preservation they were forced to open fire and shot Henry dead at 10.59am. Even his official Divisional records state “Almost as he fell, the gunfire died away and an appalling silence prevailed.”

At 11am a young German office called Tomas approached a group of Americans to inform them that they could have the house they had been defending as the German soldiers were leaving it. These Americans didn’t know of the Armistice and killed the German. All these people and many more were killed whilst people in London, Paris and even New York were already celebrating.

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Crowds assemble outside The Bank of England and the Royal Stock Exchange 

At least the war to end all wars was over and despite the millions of deaths, the world partied like it never had before and nowhere more than London when Prime Minister David Lloyd George announced to the press that the war was over.  Crowds assembled outside Buckingham Palace and for several days up to 7 million people thronged the wide spaces around the Palace, lined Whitehall and celebrated in Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly.  It was a small break after 4 years of death and misery and before a life-time of mourning would get underway.

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Armistice Day 1918 London, crowds assemble in Trafalgar Square

 

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Waiting for King George V outside Buckingham Palace

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Celebrating on a London Double-Decker bus.

 

If you enjoyed this post there are plenty others like it on my blog which are edited extracts of my WW1 history book, Lest We Forget.  Lest We Forget is an easy to read guide to WW1 and is only 122 pages long.  Those 122 pages, however, cover pretty much the entire war as you can see from the chapter titles below.

1    Introduction
2    The Road to War
3    Over By Christmas
4    The Pals Battalions
5    The Race To The Sea
6    The Christmas Truce
7    Life In The Trenches
8    WW1 Literature & Poetry
9    Verdun
10    Battle Of The Somme
11    The War At Sea
12    The Home Front
13    Women And The War
14    New Weapons Of War
15    Desert Campaigns
16    War In The Air
17    Gallipoli
18    World War One Legends
19    They Called It Passchendaele
20    The War Around The World
21    Armenia
22    The Russian Revolution
23    The Americans Are Coming!
24    The Hundred Day Offensive
25    The Armistice
26    Aftermath
27    Remembering The Great War
28    Maps and Photographs

 

Lest We Forget

Lest We Forget is available in Kindle and Paperback formats in all good on-line outlets and literary stores too.  The Kindle version is published by Endeavour Press of London, one of the world’s leading digital publishers.  The paperback version is available too for those folk like me who prefer an excellent book and the paperback includes a number of maps and archive photos as well as some personal photos of my family members who like millions of others, fought for our freedom only never to return home.

You can order Lest We Forget: A Concise Companion to the First World War from Amazon.com in Kindle for $4.58and paperback for $9.99 and Amazon.co.uk in Kindle for £2.99 and paperback for £6.99 and other Amazons around the world.

In The Footsteps of Heroes comes about as a result of on-site research into Lest We Forget and provides a casual photo guide to the main British and Commonwealth locations of the Western Front.

In The Footsteps of Heroes on Kindle and paperback.

In The Footsteps of Heroes on Kindle and paperback.

My Tour Company, Ye Olde England Tours can provide personal private guided tours to the region but for those who prefer to sightsee from the comfort of home then this book is for you.  Please note that though every effort was made to provide the highest quality photos, that I am not a professional photographer, and this book is much more a casual photo guidebook and not a photography book.

In The Footsteps of Heroes can be purchased from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk in Kindle and Paperback.

My books are also available direct from their respective publishers and also through Barnes and NobleKoboSmashwords and Createspace.  You can also purchase this book through Apple iBooks store by clicking on the logo below.

In The Footsteps of Heroes

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Flora Sandes, the only British woman to fight in WW1

As we approach Armistice Day in 2018 and the centenary of the end of WW1, I thought I would write a post or to related to the subject as I have done for the last four years.  Whilst I have written a lot on WW1 and indeed on women in WW1 and figures such as Edith Cavell these have mostly concentrated on non-front line roles of women.  Understandably really considering that only comparatively recently have women been allowed to actively fight in the Armed Forces.

However there is one notable exception to this, her name is Flora Sandes and she not only served in WW1 but fought with bravery and distinction and indeed got promoted.  If you have never heard of Flora Sandes then this will be an incredible tale.

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Flora Sandes was born on 22 January 1876 in Nether Poppleton, Yorkshire, the youngest daughter of an Irish family. Her father was Samuel Dickson Sandes (1822–1914), the former rector of Whitchurch, County Cork, and her mother was Sophia Julia (née Besnard).When she was nine years old, the family moved to Marlesford, Suffolk; and later to Thornton Heath, near Croydon, Surrey. As a child she was educated by governesses. She enjoyed riding and shooting and said that she wished she had been born a boy. She learned to drive, and drove an old French racing car

Flora Sandes was 38 when the Great War broke out, and she wanted to serve. She was highly educated, fluent in French and German, and independently wealthy. She loved the outdoors, hiking and camping in all weathers. Usefully she could also ride and shoot.

She volunteered as a nurse but was rejected by the British because she was insufficiently qualified in the medical field. The War Office was dismissive of women who wanted to contribute to the war effort, though of course many found ways to do so.  More often than not however like they were told by the War Office to “go home and sit still” as was the case with Elsie Inglis, the Edinburgh-educated doctor who founded the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.

Like Elsie Inglis, Flora Sandes did neither. She left England almost immediately and went to Serbia where the war had flared up in August 1914 with a women’s volunteer ambulance unit.

More than 600,000 allied servicemen came to the Macedonia front between 1915 and 1918 – French, British, Italian, Greek, and Russian. Their job was to help the Serbs in the war against Austria. But by the time the first troops landed at Salonica they had been overtaken by events. The Serbs were already suffering a catastrophic defeat.

Serbia and Bulgaria had been allies in the Balkan wars of 1911 and 1912, fighting to end centuries of Ottoman rule in south-eastern Europe. But as the Ottoman Empire receded, Serbs and Bulgarians turned on each other.

Serbia had ended the Balkan war of 1913 in possession of the land which corresponds roughly to the modern-day independent state of Macedonia. The Serbs called it South Serbia, refusing to recognise a distinct Macedonian identity. But to the Bulgarians it was Western Bulgaria, and the Macedonian “language” was not a separate tongue at all but simply “Bulgarian written on a Serbian typewriter”.

The outbreak of war between Serbia and Austria in 1914 – the opening of World War One – was to give the Bulgarians the perfect opportunity.

The population of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was twelve times that of Serbia, a kingdom of just four and a half million people. Even so, the Serbs managed to push back Austria’s first attempt at invasion in the summer of 1914 – the first Allied victory over the Central Powers of World War One.

The Austrians invaded again, and occupied Belgrade in December 1914. The Serbs fought back and recaptured the city.

By the end of the year, the Serbs had lost an estimated 170,000 men. That winter, a typhus epidemic swept through the civilian population, killing hundreds of thousands more. The Serbian government declared that its war aim was now not only the liberation of Serbia itself, but the liberation, from Austria, of all the Slavic speaking territories of the empire, including Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia.

There was further disaster for Serbia in 1915. Bulgaria entered the war in September and invaded in October, just days after Austria and Germany launched new offensives into Serbia.

The Serbian army collapsed and began a long, defeated trek across the mountains of Albania in the brutal cold of a Balkan winter.   When in late 1915 the Serbs were in full retreat, making their trek across the mountains, Flora refused repeated orders to abandon the forces she’d been assigned to and withdraw to safety. Eventually she was the only woman left.

Thousands died of hunger, cold and disease. By February 1916, the last of the survivors had reached the Adriatic coast and were evacuated by allied ships and put ashore, finally, at Salonica to rejoin the allies.

Her biographer, Louise Miller, says she had long wanted to be a soldier. She’d been raised on the stories of Kipling and had read and re-read the Charge of the Light Brigade.
“To be in the thick of battle was something that Flora had long dreamt of… and [she] had spent hours imagining herself as the central character in Kipling’s tales of heroism and adventure. She had high hopes for the climax of the Bulgarian attack.“By now there was little point pretending she could be useful as a nurse in such conditions. Desperate not to be sent back to Salonica, she rested all her hopes on being accepted into the ranks of the Serbian army as a soldier.”She expected rejection. Instead, Milos Vasic, the Serb commander whose men she had served, welcomed her. “If you remain with the army,” he told her, “you will have to go with them through Albania. The trip will be terrible, like nothing you have ever experienced.”Flora asked: “Will I be a burden?”
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“Quite the reverse,” Vasic said. “It will be better for us as your presence will encourage the soldiers. You represent the whole of England to them”.That night, Flora Sandes became a private in the Serbian Army and as was the case for any man in WW1, it was to be a precarious existence.
In November 1916. Sandes was among tens of thousands of Serbian troops fighting, from their base in northern Greece, to try to re-enter their own country, which had been occupied by Bulgarian forces a year earlier Sgt Sandes, an infantry soldier in the Serbian Army, lay semi-conscious on the snowy hillside after taking the full blast of a Bulgarian grenade, and would later recall being wrapped up and bundled away like a rabbit in a poacher’s sack.“I could see nothing,” the Sandes wrote. “It was exactly as though I had gone suddenly blind; but I felt the tail of an overcoat sweep across my face. Instinctively I clutched it with my left hand, and must have held on for two or three yards before I fainted.

 

“The Serbs have a theory that you must not give water to a wounded man because they say it chills him, so they poured fully half a bottle of brandy down my throat and put a cigarette in my mouth.

“I caught the little sergeant who had helped carry me watching me with his eyes full of tears. I assured him that it took a lot to kill me, and that I should be back again in about ten days”.

It took Sandes not ten days but six months to recover sufficiently to rejoin the ranks and to return to the front line. By the end of the war, Sandes would be awarded Serbia’s highest military honour, the Order of the Karadjordje Star.

No nation lost more than Serbia. Sixty per cent of its army of 450,000 died by the end of 1918 – 25% of its entire population were killed in combat or died from disease, including more than half of its entire male population.Few visit the old war graves in SE Europe but  the cemeteries are there, maintained in perpetuity by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It has been said that they stand between the men of that unremembered conflict and the cold indifference of posterity.
At the end of the war she was commissioned as an officer, making her simultaneously the Serbian army’s first female and first foreign officer and now promoted to Captain, but she found life “dull and irksome” and pined for a war she had clearly relished.  She was finally demobilised in October 1922. Flora lived for a time in Paris, then South Africa. She married a Russian emigre a dozen years her junior, returned to Belgrade and tried to re-enlist, at the age of 65, when Belgrade was bombed by the Germans in 1941.
However the German invasion was over before they could take up any military duties. They were briefly interned by the Germans, before being released on parole. Yudenitch fell ill, was removed to hospital, and died there in September 1941.
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She returned to England in old age, and died at the age of 80 in a Suffolk village. In Britain she is largely unknown. There was a pub named the Flora Sandes in Thornton Heath in South London, but it closed down earlier this year. The building was boarded up and her name removed from over the front door.But in Serbia she remains celebrated. As recently as 2009, the Belgrade authorities named a street after her. In 2015 her face appeared on a special issue of Serbian postage stamps.She died in Bury St Edmunds at the West Suffolk Hospital on 24 November 1956.
If you enjoyed this post there are plenty others like it on my blog which are edited ectracts of my WW1 history book, Lest We Forget.  Lest We Forget is an easy to read guide to WW1 and is only 122 pages long.
Lest We Forget

Lest We Forget is available in Kindle and Paperback formats in all good on-line outlets and literary stores too.  The Kindle version is published by Endeavour Press of London, one of the world’s leading digital publishers.  The paperback version is available too for those folk like me who prefer an excellent book and the paperback includes a number of maps and archive photos as well as some personal photos of my family members who like millions of others, fought for our freedom only never to return home.

You can order Lest We Forget: A Concise Companion to the First World War from Amazon.com in Kindle for $4.58and paperback for $9.99 and Amazon.co.uk in Kindle for £2.99 and paperback for £6.99 and other Amazons around the world.

Posted in history, Life, WW1 | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

An eerie old mortuary from Jack The Ripper and the world’s oldest Police.

Whilst out on one of my walks and whilst taking some photos for Mondays post on The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, I made it my business to hunt out a new (for me) location related to Jack The Ripper.

Hidden away in the corner of St George in The East Church, I found this.

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The derelict old building above gave me the creeps for this is the very place where Elizabeth Stride had her post-mortem after her death at the hands of Jack The Ripper on the 30th September 1888, the Double Event.  I won’t post it here, as the photo isn’t very pleasant but you can read about poor Long Liz on Wikipedia.

The building is in an interesting state and their plans to restore it in some fashion as in the early 20th century it went from being a mortuary to a place of learning for children to study nature and the environment!

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Just to the side of the building are stacks of old gravestones.  The bodies of course remain under the beautiful ‘parkland’ in front of the church.

You can see another Watchhouse where bodies were brought to in my blog from last year The Rotherhithe Watch House Cafe.  Rotherhithe is almost directly across the river on the photo below, just to the right of the church spire.

I also made mention in the post on The Ratcliffe Highway Murders the Thames River Police, they are the oldest dedicated police service in the world.  Whilst wondering around the banks of the Thames finding ‘treasures’,   I came across the old and still fully functioning River Police.

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The photo above shows the River Police Jetty, patrol and speed boats are always to be seen though happily bodies in the Thames are less of an issue than in the old days.

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There is always something to discover in London and next year I will have a new tour for this part of London; for people who like their history a bit more gritty than the bright lights and mass-tourism of the West End.

 

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The Ratcliffe Highway Murders

It’s Halloween and I’ve done a number of related posts on the origins of Halloween, hauntings, the modern day Enfield Poltergeist and of course the infamous Jack The Ripper.  Real life figures such as the Victorian poisoner Mary Cotton and figures that merge myth and reality such as Springheeled Jack.

Perhaps more horrendous than any of the above were the events that terrified East London a life-time before the dreaded Jack The Ripper, they happened just a mile away

The Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811 were the most notorious of their day. In the space of 12 days two families were butchered in their homes in such a terrible fashion that for weeks afterwards ‘terror was on every face’ as people barricaded their doors, bought guns and rattles and eyed every stranger they met with suspicion.

Not only that, but the failure to quickly catch the killers brought into question the entire system of policing the capital and contributed to the eventual formation of the Metropolitan Police force 18 years later.  It must have been something even for the times and yet today few people have heard of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders.

The name Ratfcliffe is a corruption on RedCliffe which described the local geographical feature that ran a little inland from the broad expanse of the Thames.  Over the centuries, the name has changed again to simply The Highway, an old Roman road.

It all began shortly after midnight on Sunday, December 8, at Timothy Marr’s linen shop at number 29 on the Ratcliffe Highway.

Timothy Marr, 24, and his 14 year-old servant boy James Gowen had been clearing up after a day’s trading as they did at the end of each day.  His wife Celia, also 24, was probably tending to their three month-old son Timothy Jnr.

At some point before 12.30am, all four were beaten about the head with a carpenter’s maul or mallet. The baby’s throat was also cut to the bone.

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Newspaper sketch of the murder weapon.

When servant girl Margaret Jewell returned from her unsuccessful errand to buy some oysters she found the door locked. Nobody answered the bell but she heard footsteps on the stairs and a baby’s cry. Then all was silent. It was not until 1am that she alerted a passing watchman.

Neighbour John Murray gained entrance through the back door only to find the body of James Gowen, his head caved in, surrounded by spattered blood and brains.  Celia Marr was lying face down near the front door. Her husband was dead behind the counter. The child was the last to be found, dead in his cradle in the basement.

What few clues could be found at the scene included the bloodstained maul left resting against a chair in the Marr’s bedroom, marked with the initials JP.  Interestingly for such an impoverished area, £152 was left untouched in a nearby drawer, a ripping chisel, not stained with blood, resting on the shop counter, and two sets of footprints leading from the back of the house.

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Who would investigate in the times before the modern-era police? Those involved in the hunt for the killer included the River Thames Police and the unpaid constables and paid watchmen retained by the parish of St George’s-in-the-East, who offered a £50 reward. One of their first leads was a sighting of three men outside the shop that night, one described as tall and wearing a light-coloured coat. However the only significant arrest was of the carpenter employed by Marr to carry out improvements at the shop. His alibi bore out and he was released.

The first newspaper reports of the crime led to crowds of spectators attempting to visit the scene. By the time an even bigger crowd gathered the following Sunday for the funeral at nearby St George’s church, the Home Secretary Richard Ryder was taking an interest in the case and the rewards on offer had been increased to a total of £600.

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Inquiries were still continuing when a second household was attacked in an equally brutal fashion. Some time after 11pm on December 19th the lodger at the King’s Arms at 81 New Gravel Lane was seen climbing down knotted sheets from a second-floor window. He was screaming “Murder, murder”.

Inside the pub, John Williamson, 56, was found lying on his back in the cellar, his head beaten in, his throat cut, his right leg fractured. Next to his body lay an iron bar. Injuries to his hand indicated he had tried to fend off blows before being overcome.

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In the kitchen lay his 60 year-old wife Elizabeth and maidservant Bridget Harrington, her age somewhere between 50 and 60.  Both their skulls were fractured and their throats slashed. Mercifully the couple’s 14 year-old granddaughter Kitty Stillwell was unharmed, asleep in her bed.

The lodger, John Turner, was to tell how he fled out the window after seeing a tall man in a long coat standing over Mrs Williamson’s body at the bottom of the stairs.

I went to bed about five minutes before eleven o’clock; I had not been in bed more than five or ten minutes before I heard the cry of “We shall all be murdered,” which, I suppose, was the cry of the woman servant. I went downstairs, and I saw one of the villains cutting Mrs Williamson’s throat, and rifling her pockets.

I immediately ran upstairs; I took up the sheets from my bed and fastened them together, and lashed them to the bed-posts, I called to the watchman to give the alarm; I was hanging out of the front window by the sheets; the watchman received me in his arms, naked as I was: a great mob had then assembled opposite the door: as soon as I got upon my legs, the door was forced open; I entered, and found the bodies lying as described.

Examination of the scene revealed Mr Williamson’s watch was missing, and blood on the windowsill by an open window at the back of the pub.

While a footprint was found at the back of the house, witnesses also saw two men running up Ratcliffe Highway. The shorter one appeared lame while the taller one was heard to say something like ‘Come along Mahoney.’

These murders fell to the parish of St Paul’s in Shadwell to investigate, and a handbill offering a 100 guinea reward was posted less than an hour later. As panic rippled through London, other constables from Whitechapel and Wapping became involved in the hunt, as well as members of the Bow Street Runners and the River Thames Police.

Their efforts bore fruit with the arrest of John Williams on the same day the Williamson household was buried at St Paul’s Church, December 22, 1811. Williams, 27, had sailed with Marr in the ship the Dover Castle three years earlier and was lodging at the Pear Tree in Old Wapping. He had been seen at the King’s Arms a few hours before the murders but claimed to have been drinking elsewhere at the time they took place.

Two days later it emerged that the maul had previously been kept in a locker at the Pear Tree, having been left by a German sailor by the name of ‘John Peterson’ when he returned to sea. A laundress also claimed to have seen blood on two of Williams’ shirts, one before the Marr murders and the other four or five days afterwards.

St George In The East Church , it was somewhere in front of us where the Marr family were buried.

St George In The East Church , it was somewhere in front of us where the Marr family were buried.

The examination of the case by the Shadwell Magistrates was still in progress when Williams was found hanging by a handkerchief in his cell on December 27 at Coldbath Fields Prison in Clerkenwell (now the site of the Royal Mail sorting office at Mount Pleasant). He had not yet been committed for trial but his suicide was taken as an indication of his guilt.

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John Williams after his suicide.

Such was the outpouring of rage and fear in east London, that the Home Secretary ordered Williams’ body be paraded through the streets (a common practice at the time; in fact Williams was one of the last to receive such a dubious ‘honour’).On New Years Eve, Williams was placed on a tilted cart, the maul, chisel and iron crowbar placed above his head, and carried in public view down the Ratcliffe Highway. Crowds watched in silence as he was taken past Marr’s shop to the Pear Tree and then up to the King’s Arms before heading back down Ratcliffe Highway.

Whilst we might think this a little gory, it allowed people to vent their anger and more importantly, give some re-assurance that the monster who perpetuated the crimes was dead and so could no longer hurt them.

The body was eventually deposited into a hole in the ground at the junction of what is now Cable Street and Cannon Hill Road with a stake driven through the heart.

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The body of John Williams being paraded through East London

A century later during road improvement works, the corpse was disinterred and the skull was placed behind the bar at the Crown & Dolphin pub on the corner though in recent years it has since disappeared.

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The body of the presumer murderer, John Williams, was buried in a pit at this junction, the old pub sat on the corner.

Although Williams was seen by some as the sole perpetrator, investigations into other possible suspects continued. Then on January 14, 1812, a full search was made of the Pear Tree. Blood was found in the inside pocket of a blue jacket said to belong to Williams. In a closet a bloodstained clasp knife was found concealed in a mousehole.

Even with this new evidence, it was still felt the investigation had failed to catch all the culprits. Four days later a motion was made in parliament that a committee should examine the system of the Night Watch. As reported in Hansard, The Home Secretary “felt himself justified in stating, that if the expediency of the measure rested upon the late horrible murders alone, by which two whole families had been completely exterminated, the atrocity of those crimes would in themselves have afforded a sufficient ground. It was true that no system of police could prevent the commission of such murders, while there were persons vile and abandoned enough to commit them, under such circumstances of dextrous depravity; but as a better regulation of the Nightly Watch must have a tendency to diminish the chances, it was right that it should be resorted to.” Other speakers in the debate took the view the committee should go further and look into the ‘state of the police’ as a whole.

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A Night Watchman of the time

The investigation came to an end in early February with the release of two other suspects – the tall and possibly lame William Ablass, who was said to have been involved in a mutiny aboard the Roxburgh Castle along with John Williams, and the carpenter who had worked at Marr’s shop, Cornelius Hart.

Three months later focus turned from the ‘horrible murders’ to a new atrocity – the assassination of the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, at the House of Commons itself.

It took another 17 years, and the reports of three further committees, before the Metropolitan Police was set up by Robert Peel in 1829. But while the Ratcliffe Highway murders did not directly lead to reform of the state system of policing, they convinced many that it was necessary. They also ushered in a new, more insecure era in which crime appeared to be increasing year upon year and no one was truly safe, not even in their own homes. This attitude remains prevalent today.

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Although the prime suspect committed suicide before facing trial, his name was immortalised in print and inspired the English writer Thomas De Quincey’s essay ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.’

Foreshadowing the modern exploitation of murder for entertainment in book, theatre and film, De Quincey wrote: ‘Mr Williams made his debut on the stage of Ratcliffe Highway and executed those unparalleled murders which have procured for him such a brilliant and undying reputation. On which murders, by the way, I must observe, that in one respect they have had an ill respect, by making the connoisseur in murder very fastidious in his taste, and dissatisfied with anything that has been since done in that line. All other murders look pale by the crimson of his.’

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The village of Ratcliffe and the old Ratcliffe Highway has almost vanished with the old Ratcliffe Cross Stairs which I visited in this recent post being one of the few reminders.

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