Spencer Perceval – The only British Prime Minister to be killed in office

It is said that the more things change, the more they say the same.  This is perhaps never more true than in May 1812. Britain was in turmoil. Social and political unrest spread had spread across the country, as old economic models clash with new technologies, and the spectre of global trade tariffs loom large. The country was locked in a bitter war with Europe, while in Downing Street an unpopular Tory prime minister, given the job after being judged a “safe pair of hands”, battles an intransigent parliament and back-stabbing from vainglorious colleagues who refuse to serve in the government. But this isn’t 2018. This is May 1812. And the prime minister is Spencer Perceval.

History is replete with glorious, infamous and outright waste-of-spaces in the office of 10 Downing Street and Spencer Perceval has long been forgotten about despite his unique claim to fame.

To be honest, Spencer was a pretty mediocre prime minister. He never did anything particular noteworthy as leader, he was a classic late Regency period Conservative whose archaic world of rotten boroughs and landed gentry would be swept away by the Victorian age and the Great Reform Act.

Spencer’s rise to prime minister was unremarkably normal for the time, a “riches to riches” story, posh white guy easily becomes the most powerful person in the land. Like it or not, the story of Spencer Perceval is rather like our Hamilton. But he does have one claim to fame. Spencer Perceval is the only British leader ever to be killed in office.

At around 5 o’clock on the afternoon of May 11 1812 the Tory Prime Minister Spencer Perceval walked into the lobby of the Palace of Westminster for what would be the last time.

His family – he had six sons and six daughters with his wife, Jane – had begged him not to go to Parliament that day. Perhaps they had had some premonition of the horror to come.

But Perceval who if nothing else was a conscientious and deeply honourable man, felt that he had a duty to attend a debate being held in the House of Commons into the conduct of the government.

As he entered the lobby on his way to the chamber, his colleague Lord Osborne walking a few steps behind him, a man who had been sitting quietly next to a fireplace nearby suddenly stood up and approached Perceval.

When he neared him, the man reached into a pocket of his overcoat and whipped out a pistol. Before the startled Perceval had time to react, the man had shot him through the heart at point-blank range.

 

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The assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perc

 

According to eyewitness accounts Perceval, a tiny man of five feet four inches, lurched forward a few steps, uttering ‘Murder’ or ‘I am murdered’ in a barely audible gasp. He then fell flat on his face at the feet of William Smith, the MP for Norwich, who had been speaking to a colleague nearby.

Smith later admitted that he did not recognise Perceval until he knelt down to help him. As the stricken prime minister lay there, a few convulsive sobs escaping from his mouth, blood seeped through his clothing and on to the floor. Seeing how seriously Perceval was hurt, Smith and another man picked him up and carried him to the Speaker’s apartments.

Smith recalled at the inquest into Perceval’s death: ‘We set him on a table, he resting on our arms. I think he was not only speechless, but perfectly senseless, and blood came from his mouth. His pulse in a few minutes ceased and he soon died.’

Someone had sent for a surgeon, Mr Lynn of neighbouring Great George Street, but by the time he arrived it was too late. It is highly unlikely he could have done anything for Perceval in any case. The musket ball was so large it had passed completely through Perceval’s heart, making him the only premier in British history to be assassinated in office.

Downstairs in the lobby, meanwhile, about 30 or 40 people had gathered at the scene having heard the pistol’s report. All of Parliament’s doors had been locked to prevent the gunman escaping. But there was no need. The assassin, having discharged his shot, had walked calmly back to the fireplace and sat down again.

As the contemporary journalist Edward Baines noted: ‘When a spectator at last exclaimed “Where is the villain who fired?” a person, who had remained unobserved, stepped forward, and coolly said “I am the unfortunate man.”’ He was seized and his pistol was taken.  Another pistol was also found on him, primed and loaded, presumably in case the first had misfired.

The man who pulled the trigger had handed himself and in a typically British way, immediately apoligised for his actions but who was really behind it? The luddites? The radicals? A shadowy conspiracy of wealthy businessmen? Within an hour a mob has descended upon parliament to cheer the killing, troops are deployed on the streets, and the Prince Regent has fled to Brighton.

The Rt Hon Spencer Perceval, painted by Sir William Beechey in 1830 (Getty)

This was Britain’s first great national newspaper story – a tabloid whodunnit. But that same evening the carriages carrying tomorrow’s editions are halted on their way out of London, as the government cracks down on the disorder. The revolution has been stopped in its tracks. The government breathes a sigh of relief.

Except there was no revolution to begin with. The “criminal mastermind” at the centre of it all was a failed businessman named Henry Bellingham, who blamed the prime minister for the £7,000 he had lost as the result of a debt dispute in Russia. There was no grand conspiracy, no higher motive, no grassy knoll, no second shooter, just an unhinged individual who believed he had been wronged and that the prime minister, as representative of the British state, should bear ultimate responsibility.

At his trial at the Old Bailey just a few days after the crime, 35-year-old Bellingham revealed that he had harboured a grievance against the British government because, while working in the city of Archangel in Russia, in 1804 he was imprisoned for around four years as a result of his involvement in a shipping dispute.

The British ambassador in Russia, Lord Granville Leveson-Gower, failed to come to his aid, although the charges were almost certainly trumped up.  Bellingham was a British subject, falsely imprisoned, his life in danger. Yet the British embassy ignored his plight, leaving him to rot for nearly six years in a rat-infested cell, surviving on bread and water.

Unsurprisingly, when he was finally released in 1809, Bellingham was imbued with bitterness against the Foreign Office, and the government as a whole, who had abandoned him to his fate. During his time in prison his business had collapsed and he became bankrupt. For more than two years he petitioned the Foreign Office, demanding financial compensation from the government for failing to support or repatriate him. But his pleas were ignored or rejected . In desperation he visited the House of Commons and hung about the lobby where he would accost MPs and ask for their help, but few bothered to listen to him, let alone help him. He is thought to have approached Spencer Perceval several times but Perceval, a busy man, did not stop to listen to him.

Snubbed, frustrated, desperate and obsessed at what he saw as his betrayal by the highest in the land, Bellingham began to harbour thoughts of revenge.

In March 1812 he told police magistrates that, if he was again refused help by the government, he would ‘feel justified in executing justice myself’. They ignored him. After petitioning the Foreign Office for a final time in April 1812, Bellingham began to plot Perceval’s murder. He acquired the pair of pistols and asked a London tailor to make a secret nine inch-deep pocket in his overcoat where he could conceal them.

Then he went to Parliament and lay in wait.

Straight after the murder Bellingham was arrested and held in the parliament prison cell. Within a few hours he was transferred to Newgate Prison.

His trial, on May 15, was a swift affair. The jury took just over ten minutes to find him guilty. He was sentenced to death by hanging, and executed publicly in London on May 18, only a week after the crime.

While Perceval’s family had seen justice done, his death left them almost destitute. Although Perceval was the younger son of the Earl of Egmont he had not been a wealthy man. On his death it was discovered that the 49-year-old had only £106 5s 1d in the bank, so parliament voted to award his 12 surviving children, a grant of £50,000 and an annual sum of £2,000 to his widow. His eldest son, also called Spencer, was given £1,000 yearly.

Perceval’s official title was First Lord of the Treasury – the title of Prime Minister was not then in use – and although not an outstanding premier, he was a competent, decent man who had steered the country through the upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars abroad and social instability at home brought on by the Industrial Revolution.

After his murder public monuments to him were erected in Northampton, his parliamentary seat; at Lincoln’s Inn, where he was called to the bar in 1786; and in Westminster Abbey.

His friends – among them William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner – wanted to erect a monument to him in the House of Commons, but some members of the Whig party opposed it and in the end nothing was done.

Indeed, Spencer Perceval’s story has been more or less erased from British history. There’s no grand memorial to him. There’s a statue of him in Northampton, and they’ve turned four floor tiles the opposite way at the spot he fell in Parliament. And that’s about it. We know more about the murders of JFK or Abraham Lincoln than we do about our own prime minister. Why has Spencer’s story been so readily forgotten?

Perhaps it is because as a people, we British don’t really go in for political killings. Spencer Perceval is the only leader ever to be murdered in office. Haiti has had two, the USA four. Columbia has nine which all seems very incomphrensible to us.  We’re more likely to complain and put up with everything that is wrong or inefficient at least to a certain extent people or issues are left ignored for too long and then we end up with things like the Peasants Revolt, the Peterloo massacre, the poll tax riots and Brexit.

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I’m not sure he or Spencer Perceval would be very impressed 200 years later to find people respecting opposing points of view less than ever rather than flailing around terms such as ‘Nazi’, ‘Racist’ or ‘Traitor around.

 

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Petrichor – The sweet smell of falling rain.

It’s a sensation most of us familiar with though if you’re living in much of the Northern Hemisphere then like me, it might not be one you’ve been familiar with recently.  The sweet smell of rain or Petrichor.    The name was first coined by two Australian scientists Isabel Joy Bear and Richard Thomas in their 1964 article “Nature of Argillaceous Odour”, published in the journal Nature.

The word was coined from Greek petros, meaning “stone”, and ichor, meaning “the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods”.

It turns out it’s not just gratitude that makes rain smell so appealing after a long period of dry weather.  There’s actually some chemistry involved too.

Bacteria, plants and even lightning can all play a role in the pleasant smell we experience after a thunderstorm; that of clean air and wet earth.

“These critters are abundant in soil,” explained Prof Mark Buttner, head of molecular microbiology at the John Innes Centre.

“So when you’re saying you smell damp soil, actually what you’re smelling is a molecule being made by a certain type of bacteria. That molecule, geosmin, is produced by Streptomyces.  Present in most healthy soils, these bacteria are also used to create commercial antibiotics.  Drops of water hitting the ground cause geosmin to be released into the air, making it much more abundant after a rain shower.”

Whilst we as humans are used to our senses being much less powerful compared to many other creatures in the world of nature, it turns out that though plenty of animals are sensitive to Petrichor, human beings are extremely sensitive to it.

Now, geosmin is becoming more common as a perfume ingredient.  There is something in our nature so that even when it is diluted down to the parts per billion range, we humans can detect it,

Yet we also have an odd relationship with geosmin – while we are drawn to its scent, many of us dislike its taste.

Even though it is not toxic to humans, the tiniest amount can put people off mineral water or wine when it is present.

According to Prof Nielsen, research also indicates that geosmin could be related to terpenes – the source of scent in many plants.

Rain could bring these fragrances out, says Prof Philip Stevenson, a research leader at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

“Often the plant chemicals that smell pleasant are produced in leaf hairs… and the rain may damage these, releasing the compounds. Rain may also break dry plant material releasing chemicals in a similar way to when you crush dried herbs – the smell becomes stronger, very dry periods may also slow down plant metabolism, with renewed rainfall giving it a kick start and causing plants to release a pleasant scent.  Thunderstorms have their role to play too, creating the clean, sharp scent of ozone – caused by lightning and other electrical discharges in the atmosphere.

Prof Maribeth Stolzenburg of the University of Mississippi explains: “Besides the lightning, the thunderstorm and especially the rain will improve the air quality. Much of the dust, aerosols, and other particulates are rained out and the air clears.”

If you enjoyed this post then why not check out my writings on Apricity, the word given to the feeling of the warmth of winter sun.

 

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Amiens and The Hundred Days Offensive

This week marks the centenary of one of the pivotal but less known battle of the Western Front in WW1, Amiens and the more broadly labelled 100 Days Offensive.

The Western Front is often categorised as being a static war with little or no progress made by either side despite major attempts costing too many lives. However, the generals on both sides did eventually adapt to the times.

More importantly advances in technology, especially the invention of the tank made things a lot more flexible during 1917 and with the imminent arrival of the Americans, Kaiser Wilhelm decided to make a big push in the spring of 1918 utilising the almost 50 additional divisions freed up by the treaty with Russia. The hope was that Germany could overwhelm the Allies before their reinforcements arrived from across the Atlantic and involved outflanking the British and defeating them before forcing France to sue for peace.  It was known on both sides that having secured American entry into the war, once their large and fresh forces arrived that Germany may still not lose the war, they would never be able to win.

On 21st March 1918, Germany opened Operation Michael. The Germans made some major advances as the British concentrated their forces around vital areas such as the Channel Ports and Amiens leaving other areas lightly defended. The Germans made such progress that they had problems supplying their advancing army and their storm- troopers who for the sake of mobility could only carry a few days supplies and so couldn’t sustain themselves resulting in the advances faltering. The Germans had captured large amounts of tactically worthless land and suffered so many casualties that it wouldn’t be easy for them to hold it in the event of a counter-attack.

Using new tactics and weaponry in August 1918, the Allies began what is known as the Hundred Day Offensive when the Allies repeatedly pushed the Germans back all the way out of France. Some of the German positions had been weakened even more by the Australian tactic of “Peaceful Penetration” wherein they would raid across no-mans land and capture German outposts, taking the German soldiers prisoners.

The Battle of Amiens on the 8th August involved 10 divisions of troops supported with 500 tanks. Having achieved complete surprise, the British Fourth Army broke through the German lines with tanks reaching even their rear positions. It created a 15 mile gap in the German lines south of the Somme and German General Ludendorff labelled it the “Black Day of the German Army” due to 30,000 being killed and 17,000 being taken prisoner not to mention all of the heavy equipment that was captured by the Allies. Having lost about 12 miles of territory, the Germans withdrew from many of the positions they won in the spring offensive.

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Triumphant British soldiers for once having something to smile about.

Despite French urging, General Haig paused before launching another fresh offensive on 21st August with the Battle of Albert which captured the town and pushed the Germans back another 34 miles. The British widened their scope of attack as did the French and gains were made over a large area of the front. East of Amiens, the British continued the fight and along with the French pushed the Germans back to the Hindenburg Line by mid-September.

The Hindenburg Line was a long chain of German defensive fortifications and on 26th September, French General Foch launched his ‘Grand Offensive’ with the support of the American Expeditionary Forces. Two days later a Belgian- backed British offensive saw the Fifth Battle of Ypres take place in Flanders. Despite the deteriorating morale and conditions of the Germans, it still took until early October until the Hindenburg Line was broken.

 

The Battle of Cambrai saw 3 British Armies and Canadians troops utilise tanks and air-support to quickly overwhelm the Germans with relatively low losses themselves. This collapse forced the German High Command to realise that the war had to end and quickly. The Allies also realised that rather than prepare for a big push into Germany in 1919, the war could end a great deal sooner.

The first day of the offsensive was labelled by German commander Erich Ludendorff as being a ‘Black Day For The German Army’.  For the first real time signicant territory was being taken by the Allies and with the German military being emasculated through casualties and large numbers of men being captured along side growing unrest and near starvation at home, the being of the end of the war to end all wars was just possibly on the horizon.

 

 

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Just a few of the thousands of capture German prisoners.

 

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.  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

My easy to understand but comprehensive history of WW1 in Kindle and Paperback.

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.

 

 

 

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Imprisoned childen, phone zombies… do you ever feel like you’re living on another planet?

Whilst walking to the cinema this week in the never-ending heatwave, it occurred to me that something wasn’t quite right.  The weather was perfect, the schools are on holiday and yet I didn’t see a single person as I walked the 15 minutes to the cinema at 10.30am on a weekday morning.

I couldn’t and a few days on, really can’t understand why.  In the 1980’s I would be out in the holidays from around 8am until it got dark.  Whilst I would spend the occassional wet day playing computer games or watching videos, what I and indeed all the children I knew wanted to do was to go out.  Rather than go to expensive and professional activities paid for by perhaps guilty or over indulgent parents,  we would be out riding bikes, falling off skate boards, climbing trees, playing football, cricket, hide and seek, Bulldog, Robin Hood, Army games… whatever it took to get outside the house.  And it wasn’t a summer thing, except for our clothing, not much changed between August and January.

People often say the world is a much more dangerous place now than it used to be but the official murder rates in Britain don’t back this up and I remember in the 1980’s and 90’s and there were definitely more high-profile child abductions and murders back then than in recent years.  Of course that may be as no-one plays out any more but the rate back then was tiny and now is miniscule and back then there were few of the hi-tech advances that police and society at large take for granted now.

 

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Homicide rates for the UK in the 1990’s.  it’s interesting how low even then the rates are compared to a range of nations and no-one thinks any of them to be violent or unsafe.

 

 

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Homicide rates per 100,000 in the 2010’s

 

It also got me thinking of how detached I feel from society today.  I don’t really feel a part of it at all.  For instance, I walked to the cinema.  How many people do that?  Everyone is always in such a hurry or are too lazy that they use motor vehicles for journeys that are well within easy walking range.  I don’t know where all these people are driving to in such a hurry.  Are their lives infinitely more complex and busy than mine?  What are they doing?  I spend much of my time walking from place to place, I often have the music to Kung-Fu in my head as I walk Grasshopper style from place to place.

Perhaps another reason for children being absent from the outdoors and the speedy life-style some people seem to be in is due to technology.  A survey last week revealed that in the UK a total of 78% of all adults now own a smartphone.

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On average, people check them once every 12 minutes during their waking hours, the study claims.

Two in five adults look at their phone within five minutes of waking, while a third check their phones just before falling asleep, according to the report.

A high percentage (71%) say they never turn off their phones and 78% say they could not live without it.

While three-quarters of the British public still regard voice calling as an important function of their phones, more (92%) say web browsing is crucial.

I find all of this astonising as I don’t own a smart phone.  I check my phone maybe once a day or sometimes once a week.  I couldn’t live without oxygen or water but I seem to be doing perfectly fine without a smart phone.  I can easily not put my phone for a week or more and only then for business reasons.  I just can’t imagine being so addicted to my phone that I check it in bed, there are so many better things to do there!

The average daily time spent on a smartphone is two hours 28 minutes, rising to three hours 14 minutes for 18 to 24-year-olds, the report indicates.  I can only think to myself that this is such a waste of time.

Most people expect a constant internet connection, with the majority of adults saying the internet is an essential part of their lives, and one in five spending more than 40 hours a week online.  The average is a more modest 24 hours a week online, with more than half of that time spent on mobile phones.

For the first time, women spent more time online than men, particularly in the age group 18 to 34 where females spent an average half an hour longer online than men.

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Seven in 10 commuters use their smartphones on their journey to work, with nearly a half saying they use it to complete “essential tasks”.

Whilst I can see why smartphones are useful to while away the commute, I’m still surprised at how sometimes 99% of my fellow commuters are either talking, reading or watching content through their phones.  Me, I just like a bit of peace and quiet and to watch the world go by through the window.    I’d love to know what exactly their “essential tasks” are.  I run my own business and I don’t seem to have any essential tasks to do when i am out and about… and I’m away from my computer from about 6.30am-6pm.

As a business owner, again, I have never ever heard what I would count as being an important conversation on their mobile (cell) phone.  It’s all nonsense and just innane noise which needn’t be said at all or at the very least could wait until people got off the trai, bus or whatever.  I remember when mobile phones were initially advertised, they were marketed just for making or receiving ’emergency’ calls.

It is also reported that the average household spends £124 on communication services each month compared to my £11.

So I guess that is why no-one is out playing on the streets and everyone is glued to their phones or zooming round their cars.  I still can’t see what everyone is doing on their devices and can’t help but thing that some-one, somewhere has conned everyone into thinking that this is a better way to live whilst they actually miss communicating people sat right next to them on the bus or experiencing real life outside the bubble of their car and home.

No wonder I don’t feel part of society, there barely is one.  Just people getting more and more isolated and highly in whatever political and social bubble they become engrossed in and not actually talking to real people from across society.

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The Gumball 3000 London to Tokyo 2018

Yesterday when I was giving one of my tours round London, I stumbled across an unexpected sight.  A collection of over 100 souped up cars all ready to take place in the Gumball 3000.

It wasn’t a total surprise as I seem to come across this event every summer in London, even though the startingn point does move around somewhat.

The Gumball 3000 is an annual British 3,000-mile (4,800 km) international celebrity motor rally which takes place on public roads. It was started in 1999 by Maximillion Cooper, with the idea to combine cars, music, fashion and entertainment. The event takes its name from the 1976 film The Gumball Rally.

The Gumball 3000 has received criticism. Two non-participant pensioners died in an accident in Macedonia in 2007 after their car was hit by a Gumball rally driver. Participants have been stopped for speeding, have had their driving licences taken by police, and had their cars confiscated.

However for passersby like my tourists and I and much more so for the hardcore fans, the event gives people the chance to see a fine collection of highpowered and supremely decorated cars all in one place… as opposed to around Knightsbridge and Kensington as they so often are!

 

As a small change from my usual blog posts, I thought you might like to see some of the cars that were attracting attention in a very hot and sunny London.

I took some of the photos below but a few came from the Twitterverse.  There was a limit to how many photos I could take whilst working even if the family I was with were doing likewise.

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Washington Old Hall – The Ancestral Home of George Washington

A few weeks ago when I was walking along Hadrians Wall, I took the opportunity to make a few deviations along the way.  One such side-trip was to the ancestral home of George Washington in the aptly named old village of Washington.

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Washington lies between the large cities of Newcastle Upon Tyne and Sunderland and whilst story of George Washington himself is well-known, less people are aware that like many other leading prominent Americans,their origins come from the North East of England.

If history had chosen a different path he could have been named George Hertburn.

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In what was the ancient County Palatine of Durham and dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, the name – now synonymous with the first President of the United States – has been spelt Wessynton, Whessingtun and Wassington.

It is now commonly known and spelt as Washington – even if some local people pronounce it Weshintun.

The origins of the ‘Washington’ name

Around 1180, William de Hertburn, a tenant of the Bishop of Durham Hugh le Puiset exchanged his holding near Stockton for that of Washington.

The Bishop was reorganising his estates and needed Hertburn to consolidate his lands in that part of the Bishopric, or district.

Washington, other than for the land belonging to the church, was untenanted and, therefore, available to William. With Washington now his new home and as custom dictated, William assumed “de Wessyngton” as his new surname.

 

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The entrance to Washington Old Hall

 

The house, or Washington Old Hall, incorporates a large portion of a medieval manor which was home to the Washington family.

Whether William built himself a new manor house or moved into an existing one is unknown.

The earliest parts of this building date back to the mid-13th century – a time when there was relative peace on the Anglo-Scottish border and funds were available from the marriages of successive Washingtons to wealthy widows.

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Putting the hall into Washington Old Hall

 

Parts of it remain. The most obvious being the pointed arches at the west end of the Great Hall, which could have been part of a screen passage arrangement connecting the hall with the kitchens.

The branch that produced George Washington came from the marriage in 1292 of Robert Washington, great, great grandson of the first Washington, to Joan de Strickland of Sizergh Castle in Cumbria.

 

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The Old Kitchens

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The Washingtons were real meat eaters!

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In September 1304, Edward I visited Washington on a return journey from Scotland cementing the family’s status during the medieval period.

Soon after, the family adopted a new coat of arms which was in use by 1346.

The arms featured two bars (stripes) and three mullets (stars) in red against a white background and remains of this appear to be carved in stone on the west front of Hylton Castle, three miles from Washington Old Hall.

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The senior branch of the Washington family continued to live at Washington until the death of William in 1399.

His heir was his only child, Eleanor, who before 1402 had married Sir William Tempest of Studley Royal in Yorkshire.

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Through the marriage of their daughter Dionisia, Washington came into the hands of the Mallory family.   The house continued in private hands well into the 20th century though by then it had become a building of multiple occupation with entire families living in much more than a room each.

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These photos above and below give an idea of what it was like in Washington Old Hall before it was restored by the National Trust.  Am I the only person who still dries clothes on a clothes horse like the one above?

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Outside, the Old Hall is situated in a beautiful old village with stone buildings and mature oaks everywhere and the area around Washington Old Hall itself has a modest (by stately home standards) garden.

 

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I had my lunch on one of those tables overlooking the Parterre

 

 

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Incredible topiary 

 

As well as formal areas of the garden they have a nuttery and a large area which is a haven for wildlife with a beehive or two full of activity when I was there.

 

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The wildlife garden

 

 

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In the old garden from the Middle-Ages with the church in the background.

 

The building and gardens have been well restored over recent years though parts of the gardens are still slightly at a work-in-progress stage.  I had the opportunity to talk to two of the gardeners who were hugely knowledgable and enthusiastic.

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Washington Old Hall is quite hard to get to without a car and no-one else I had talked to in the area had ever been there and neither have any American tourist I have ever met.  But if you make the effort, then it is a great place to while away a few hours and you might be surprised at what you’ll find.

 

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A fan that belonged to Martha Washington.

 

Posted in Heritage, history, Life, Northumberland and Durham, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Alice Ayres – A Victorian Heroine

A few weeks ago I wrote on Postmans Park – The Memorial To Heroic Self-Sacrifice and I’d taken it upon myself to look some of the names whose valour has been memorialised her.  At random I picked the unassuming sounding Alice Ayres.

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I picked Alice in particular because I’m familiar with Union Street in Borough, it being one of the roads that Crossbones Cemetery is bounded by.  It is also very close to another of my favourite places in Red Cross Gardens and is in the very heart of Dickensian London and the terrible squalor that was found all around .

Alice Ayres was one of the first to be commemorated at Postmans Park.   She was a “gentle and quiet-spoke” nursemaid who lived in Southwark, London, looking after the young children of her older sister Mary Ann when in April 1885 Victorian England had been gripped by descriptions of the 25-year-old’s heroism after fire broke out at the property.

The events of this calimoutous event was recorded in terrible detail by such publications as the Illustrated Police News which carried the report below in its edition of Saturday 2nd May 1885:-

EXCITING SCENE AT A FIRE IN SOUTHWARK
HEROIC CONDUCT OF A SERVANT GIRL
FIVE LIVES LOST

On Friday morning South London was the scene of a calamitous fire, which resulted in the loss of five lives, and more or less serious injury to a woman and three children.

The fire occurred at the corner 0f Gravel-lane and Union-street, Borough.

A few minutes after two o’clock the house and shop, 191, Union-street tenant by Mr. H. Chandler, an oil and colourman was seen in flames.

Mr. Chandler lived with his wife, four children, and a servant named Alice Ayres, and before twelve o’clock at night the whole family retired to bed.

The servant would appear to have been the first to be awakened by the crackling of the flames, for almost simultaneously with the raising of the alarm by the police, Ayres appeared at the front window screaming for help.

 

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Messengers had been dispatched to fetch the fire-escapes and to call the firemen, but although the neared escape station was only as far distant as the Blackfriars-road, outside the Surrey Chapel, and there was not the slightest delay, the rapidity with which the fire spread rendered it necessary for desperate measures to be taken if the inmates were to be saved.

Some people in the street shouted to the girl to jump, and held out come wearing apparel to break her fall.

With marvellous presence of mind Ayres disappeared from the window for a few seconds, and it was then seen that she was pushing feather bed through the window.

Directly those below caught the bed it was stretched out by a dozen willing hands, and in a short time Ayres was seen at the window with a girl three years old in her arms.

She was shouted to that “all was right,” and without hesitation, but with great care, she through the child well onto the bed.

Twice again she appeared at the window with girls of four or five, and threw them out of  the window; but it was evident that the suffocating fumes of the smoke and the heat were affecting her, for her aim in the last two cases was less steady, and those below had difficulty in catching the children, but they reached the ground with little injury.

Then the brave girl herself was implored to jump, and she sprang out, but evidently in a state of extreme nervousness.

The crowd gave a cry of horror when it was seen that the poor young woman had missed the bed, and had fallen with a terrible thud upon the ground. She was picked up insensible, and placed in a cab for removal to Guy’s Hospital. It was found that her spine was injured and no hope was entertained of her recovery.

The whole of this scene was enacted in about five minutes, and in the meantime engines from Waterloo-road, Kennigton-lane, and Southwark Bridge-road had arrived, while, directly afterwards the escape made its appearance.

Ere this, however, the whole building was a mass of flame, and it was obvious that any attempt to enter it would be certain death.

The firemen were informed by the neighbours that Mr. and Mrs. Chandler and their little boy were still inside, but the only answer which could be returned was that if anyone was there they could not be alive, and that it would be madness to enter.

The fierceness with which the fire burst out of the house would not even allow of the escape being pitched against the upper windows, and the firemen had to content themselves with pouring water upon the flames until the fire was extinguished.

This task was accomplished about three o’clock, and then, as soon as the place had cooled sufficiently, the firemen entered and searched for the dead bodies.

The charred remains of the woman and her child were found near a window, and it was evident that they were endeavouring to make their escape when the fumes from the burning shop overcame them.

The body of Mr Chandler was found upon the stairs, and it would seem that in the earlier part of the outbreak he must have been aroused and gone down stairs to save his valuables, for his cash-box was found close to him.

THE OFFICIAL REPORT

The official report of the occurrence, drawn up by Captain Shaw C.B. is as follows:-

“Call at 2.10 am (Friday), to 191, Union-street, Borough, to the premises tenanted by H. Chandler oil and colourman and owned by the Charity Commissioners.

Cause of fire and insurance effected unknown.

Damages, a shop and house of six rooms and contents very severely damaged by fire and water, and a part of the roof destroyed.

Henry Chandler, Mary Ann Chandler, and Henry Chandler, aged respectively thirty-six, thirty eight, and seven years, burnt to death; Alice Ayres, aged twenty-six years, severely injured by jumping from second-floor window; Elizabeth Chandler, aged three years, burnt on legs and taken to hospital; Edith Harriet Chandler, aged five years, and Ellen Atholl Chandler, aged four years, slightly injured; 192, ditto G. Parish, lodger, front of building and front room on second floor and contents damaged by fire and water rest of building slightly by smoke and water; No’s 221, occupied by R. D. H. Gaunt, druggist, and 223,  Hand and Flower public-house, owned and occupied by R. H. Donegan, licensed victualler, fronts scorched and window glass damaged by breakage; 77, Gravel-lane lane, ditto, G. H. Hall, undertaker, building an contents damaged by heat, smoke, and water.”

The child, Elizabeth Chandler, died in the early hours of Saturday morning.

The young woman, Alice Ayres whose conspicuous deeds of bravery in connection with the fatal fire were recorded, died on Sunday morning in the ward of Guy’s Hospital.

Captain Shaw, a few hours previously, had had reported to him the death at St. Thomas Hospital, of Elizabeth Chandler, the child three years old, who, with two others, was thrown out of the window.

Five deaths have thus resulted from this fire.

The other children are progressing favourably.”

It is thought that by the time Alice decided to save herself that she was so overcome by the smoke that she slipped half-conscious from the window, hitting a shop sign on the way down and slamming into the pavement.

Despite Queen Victoria herself sending a lady-in-waiting to get updates on the young woman’s condition, she died days later of her injuries, with her last words being reported as “I tried my best and could try no more”.

“Not one woman in a thousand would have shown the silent abnegation and practical pluck of Alice Ayres,” recorded one typically sentimental Victorian newspaper account. “When the moment arrived, the lofty, brave soul in her which had done its simple duties rose to heroic heights.

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Alice Ayres

 

THE FUNERAL OF ALICE AYRES

The St James’s Gazette reported as follows on the funeral of Alice Ayres on the 5th May 1885:-

“The funeral of the late Alice Ayres, who distinguished herself so nobly and lost her own life at the fatal fire in Union-street, Borough, last Friday week, took place yesterday afternoon at Isleworth Cemetery.

Miss Ayres, it will be remembered, died in Guy’s Hospital, whence her body was conveyed to the home of her parents at Magdala-terrace, Isleworth.

At 2.30 P.M. the cortege started on foot for the cemetery at that place. The coffin was carried from the house to the grave by sixteen firemen, who relieved each other in sets of four.

On reaching the church at the cemetery a very impressive service was held, and a noticeable feature was the presence of twenty girls in white from the village school which the deceased herself had attended as a girl.

It had been arranged that these young people should have followed the coffin and sung at the graveside; but this was unfortunately prevented by a severe hail-storm which came on just as the service in the church was concluding.

A large assemblage of persons from the village and from London, however, saw the coffin lowered to its last resting-place.

The coffin was covered with wreaths of flowers, and bore the inscription—” Alice Ayres, died April 26, aged twenty-six.”

A public subscription was set up and very quickly reached the princley sum of over £100 which in current money would be £10,000.  Inspired by the recent installation of Cleopatra’s Needle on the banks of the River Thames, an Egyptian styled oblesisk was commissioned to stand on her grave at Isleworth Cemetery and 140 years later it is the grandest memorial in the entire graveyard.

 

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The grave of Alice Ayres in Isleworth Cemetery.  Photo by Iridescent on Wikipedia.

 

The text on the memorial reads:

Sacred to the memory of ALICE AYRES, aged 26 years, who met her death through a fire which occurred in Union Street, Borough, the 24th of April, 1885 A.D.
Amidst the sudden terrors of the conflagration, with true courage and judgement, she heroically rescued the children committed to her charge. To save them, she three times braved the flames; at last, leaping from the burning house, she sustained injuries from the effects of which she died on April 26th 1885.
This memorial was erected by public subscription to commemorate a noble act of unselfish courage.
“Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”

Along with figures such as Grace Darling, Alice Ayres was part of a trend in society of recognising the achievements and value of working class figures and their plight was part of the ongoing recognition that it wasn’t just the Establishment that had worth as society and modern moral values evolved to create what we might call the beginnings of the Welfare State under the administration of Prime Minister David Lloyd George a decade or so later.

The bravery of Alice Ayres was cherised by Victorians for many decades and was the subject of literature and poetry.   In 1936, the newly elected Labour run London County Council changed the name of White Cross Street to Ayres Street in memory of Alice.

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Bizarelly, the 2004 film Closer which stars Natalie Portmans, features a character that uses the name of Alice Ayres having seen her memorial at Postmans Park.

The building which was the scene of the fire is understandably no more but has been rebuilt on the same spot.  Fittingly, the building over the road from the site is now a major building for the London Fire Brigade.

 

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The site of the terrible fire… 194 Union Street.

 

I didn’t expect the research to be so rewarding.  It’s fascinating how subjects in two of my favourite walks come together in this way and how though the events are largely forgotten through the centuries, we can still get a glimpse of the past in our every day lives if we look hard enough.

If you enjoyed this post then you might want to check my older post on my favourite Victorian Heroine, Grace Darlimg or indeed on another groundbreaking Victorian lady, Mary Seacole: The Greatest Black Briton To Ever Live.

Posted in Heritage, history, Life, London | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments