A Rose in Wigan–Part 2

Between mines and mills and factories, there are more steam engines per person in Wigan than in London, Pittsburgh, Essen or anywhere else. It happens to fit nicely that the palm oil we import from Africa lubricates those engines. The world runs on coal, and Wigan leads it. As long as we have coal we will continue to do so.’

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve just finished reading Rose, a novel by the American thriller writer Martin Cruz Smith set in Wigan in the 1870’s. It tells the story of one Jonathan Blair, an American mining engineer who, on returning from Africa in disgrace is employed, reluctantly, to visit the town to investigate the disappearance of a curate who was engaged to his patron’s daughter.

The author had certainly done his research and weaves details about working class life in Wigan 19th-century into his story. He visited the town and met with local historian and some former pit brow women. Here’s a cutting from the local paper

Pit Brow lasses meeting Martin Cruz Smith

In an interview in 1996 he reveals that he was a fan of George Orwell and had read The Road to Wigan Pier. and I’m sure that it’s no coincidence that his hero is called Blair, the real name of Orwell was Eric Blair.

Wigan, a working class town built on coal and cotton, wasn’t a pretty place during Victorian times and I’m sure his description of Wallgate is accurate

The thought occurred to Blair that if Hell had a flourishing main street it would look like this.

I found it fascinating to read the names of places I knew in the book. His hero stayed in the Minorca Hotel on the corner of Wallgate and King Street. It’s still there, but has gone through several name changes over the years – it’s now called the Berkeley and at one time was known as Blair’s. Here’s how it looked in about 1900

Minorca Hotel.

The Minorca Hotel on Wallgate (from Wigan World website)

Various pubs are mentioned, there were a large number in Wigan, including the one nearest to where I live, the Balcares (now renamed the Crawford Arms) on Scholes – the name of both a thoroughfare and a district of the town just west of the town centre. In fact much of the novel is set in Scholes, which at the time was populated by miners and other workers packed in back to backs and houses built off dark, narrow courtyards.

Scholes, Wigan, 1890’s (from Wigan World website)

The slums were cleared in the 1960’s and I lived there for a few years in a Council flat. And now I’m only a few minutes walk away from the district. So it was rather odd to be reading about the same streets and Scholes bridge, which I still cross regularly, in a novel by an International renowned author.

His descriptions of working in the mines are excellent, and really bring the experience of going down a mine to life

The cage started slowly, down through the round, brick-lined upper mouth of the shaft, past round garlands of Yorkshire iron, good as steel, into a cross-hatched well of stone and timber and then simply down. Down into an unlit abyss. Down at twenty, thirty, forty miles per hour. Down faster than any men anywhere else on earth could travel. So fast that breath flew from the lungs and pressed against the ears. So fast that nothing could be seen at the open end of the cage except a blur that could whip away an inattentive hand or leg. Down seemingly for ever.

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Mains Colliery, Bamfurlong 14th Dec 1892 (from Wigan World website)

Blair crawled out into a narrow tunnel, the length of which was populated by shadowy figures wearing only trousers and clogs, some only clogs, covered by a film of dust and glitter, swinging short, double-pointed picks. The men had the pinched waists of whippets and the banded, muscular shoulders of horses, but shining in the upcast light of their lamps what they most resembled was machinery, automatons tirelessly hacking at the pillars of coal that supported the black roof above them. Coal split with a sound nearly like chimes. Where the coal seam dipped, men worked on knees wrapped in rags. Other men loaded tubs or pushed them, leaning into them with their backs. A fog of condensation and coal dust rose from them.

Miner hewing coal.

Miner hewing coal (from Wigan World website)

Given my line of work, I was particularly interested to read his descriptions of the dangers posed by firedamp and the way that miners could “read” the danger using their Davy Lamps

From the German Dampf. Meaning vapour. Explosive gas.’ ‘Oh,’ said Leveret. ‘Methane. It likes to hide in cracks and along the roof. The point of a safety lamp is that the gauze dissipates enough of the heat so that you won’t set the gas off. Still, the best way to find it is with a flame.’ Battie lifted the lamp by a rough column of rock and studied the light wavering behind the screen of the gauze. ‘See how it’s a little longer, a little bluer? That’s methane that’s burning.’

And there were other “damps” too

When firedamp explodes it turns to afterdamp. Carbon monoxide. The strongest man in the world could be running through here at top speed, but two breaths of that and he’ll drop to the floor. Unless you drag him out, he’ll die. In fact, I’ve seen rescue attempts where one, two, three men will drop trying to pull one man out.

The Davy Lamp (By Scan made by Kogo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In designing his lamp, Humphry Davy was largely motivated by a desire to save lives (although the search for glory was a factor too, it has to be said) and he refused to take out a patent, even though strongly encouraged to do so. He wanted his lamp to be freely available. Sadly, although the lamp was intended to save lives it has been said that it actually caused the death of more men because the mine owners used the lamp as an excuse to send their workers into more dangerous workings.

The novel was well written, and not just the details about Wigan and life as a miner. It was a gripping story, if a little far fetched. The ending certainly was. But a good read nevertheless.

A Rose in Wigan – Part 1

I’ve just finished reading Rose, a novel by the American thriller writer Martin Cruz Smith. Best known probably for his books set in Russia during the Cold War, one of which Gorky Park was turned into a film starring William Hurt that I watched quite a few years ago. This book, however, is set somewhere equally exotic – Wigan in the 1870’s.

It tells the story of one Jonathan Blair, an American mining engineer who, on returning from Africa in disgrace is employed, reluctantly, to visit the town to investigate the disappearance of a curate who was engaged to his patron’s daughter.

Rose, of the title, is a “Pit Brow Lass” – a young woman employed in a local coal mine. The Wigan Pit Brow Lasses were somewhat notorious. They worked on the surface (women being forbidden to work underground by the Mines and Collieries Act 1842) at the coal screens on the pit bank (or brow) picking stones from the coal after it was hauled to the surface or loading wagons.

They wore distinctive attire– in particular, trousers covered with a skirt and apron, old flannel jackets and shawls or headscarves to protect their hair from the coal dust.  Although practical, their clothing was not considered to be feminine and this provided some with an excuse to object to women working in the mines. Underlying this, of course, were the real reasons, economic and social and there were attempts made to ban the women working. But they fought back with spirit and there were women still working at the pit brow in Wigan right into the mid 20th century. Not now, of course, there aren’t any pits left.

For whatever reasons (some probably not so savoury) there was a public fascination with the women and the way they dressed and portraits and postcards of them in working clothes were produced commercially. We saw this rather romanticised small statue of a Wigan Pit Brow Lass on display at the Hepworth in Wakefield (another mining area) a few years ago.

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A number of photographic studios in Wigan produced postcards showing posed images of local women. Here some examples from the Wigan World website.

Wigan Pit Brow Lass card.

4 Pit Brow Lasses

A Wigan Colliery Girl. 1909.

Colliery Girls, Wigan.

The Plague Village

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October 2016 is reputedly 350 years since the end of the Plague in Eyam, so I reckoned it would be safe to pay a visit!

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Eyam (pronounced Eem) is an attractive village in the Derbyshire Peak District which is renowned for an act of unselfishness when, in 1665 the community decided to go into voluntary quarantine when the bubonic plague struck.

The disease arrived with a bale of cloth from London which was infected with plague carrying fleas. George Viccars, the assistant to Alexander Hadfield, the tailor who had ordered the cloth, was the first victim. This bench on the village green is a reminder of the bale of cloth that triggered the plague.

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The story goes that as the plague began to spread, the local vicar, William Mompesson persuaded the villagers to voluntarily impose a quarantine, cutting themselves off from the surrounding villages to minimise the spread of the disease. Food was left at specific points on the boundary of the village, the villagers leaving payment in coins that had been washed in water or vinegar.

Today the village makes the most of its history. There are plaques on the walls of houses listing the victims of the plague who lived there. One row of houses are even known as the “Plague Houses”. It is here where the first victims, including George Viccars, died.

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There are similar houses throughout the village.

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This St Andrew’s church where Mompesson was the minister.

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Plague victims were forbidden burial as there was concern that this would spread the plague so families had to bury their own dead.

These are the “Lydgate Graves” a small graveyard where the Derby family were buried by the wife / mother who survived.

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We didn’t have time, however, to visit another small cemetery “the Riley Graves” which are the outskirts of the village and where Elizabeth Hancock buried six children and her husband in eight days.

Carrying on down the track at the end of Lydgate we reached the “Boundary Stone”, one of the locations where food was left. The holes in the top were for the money that was left in pools of water or vinegar.

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There is, however, one plague victim buried in the churchyard, Mompesson’s wife, who was one of the last to die of the disease.

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It isn’t clear how many villagers died from the plague in Eyam. A figure of 260 deaths out of a population of around 800 is suggested on the Village website. But other sources give different numbers both for the numbers of dead and the village population.

The story of the “Plague Village” has become an enduring myth that attracts many visitors (including us!) to this small village. But just how true is it? Digging deeper many aspects of the story don’t seem quite as certain as portrayed.

The decision to isolate the village wasn’t taken immediately when the plague first appeared in August 1665. The numbers of deaths fell during the winter but rose again during the following Spring. It was only in June 1666 that the decision mas made to impose the quarantine – eight months after the epidemic began. By then the wealthy had packed up and scarpered leaving only the poorer residents who probably didn’t have the means or opportunity to leave the village. Those that fled included Mompesson’s children – he packed them off to Sheffield when the plague broke out.

The conventional story also has Mompesson as the clear “hero” of the story – the clergyman who persuaded the villagers to take the drastic course of action. But he was a relative newcomer and more recent accounts suggest that one of his predecessors, Thomas Stanley. He was rector of Eyam from 1664 to 1660, but, as a devout Puritan, he’d been sacked following the Restoration of the monarchy. Although he was meant to be exiled from the village, he was living there when the plague broke out and probably played a major role in the community and in persuading the villagers.

Although I think that there is a large element of truth in the story, it seems likely that during the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:

a tradition was established, manipulated, and reshaped to fit changing literary and historical fashions.  (LSE thesis by Patrick Wallis)

Still, it’s good to have myths that demonstrate that people do not always act as selfish individuals but can act together and take decisions and actions to the benefit of the wider community and that there is such a thing as Society!

A short, hot visit to Lincoln

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I hardly had time to draw breath after my break at the beginning of July. The first day back I had to drive over to east Lincolnshire as I was delivering some training Tuesday and Wednesday. I then had to drive over to Coventry on Wednesday afternoon, where I was staying overnight before a breakfast meeting the next day. No rest for the wicked as they say!

I set off early afternoon on the hottest day of the year so far (32 C). It’s not a great drive, M61, M60, M62 then a long run down the A1 which was only two lanes for most of the way. I had to cut across country past Lincoln and as I had never visited this historic city decided to stop for a couple of hours to look round. The core of the old city is on the top of a hill, but I managed to find a space on the car park on Westgate, avoiding the need for a steep climb in the sweltering heat.

A short walk and I was in the main square at the top of Castle Hill facing the Tourist Office which is located on the ground floor of this rather grand, well restored 16th century townhouse

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and facing the castle entrance

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and the cathedral

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The streets around the centre, many of them climbing up steeply to the top of the hill, are lined with old buildings – build from the Medieval through to the Georgian period. Most are converted into shops and places to eat and drink to serve the visitors from across the world (including Wigan!).

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The castle was originally built by the Normans after the conquest, occupying the site of a pre-existing Roman fortress. There’s a complete circuit of walls on which, for a fee,  visitors can promenade. Access to the main area within the walls, where there is a large, pleasant lawn, is free, though.

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It was late in the day, though and I had to make a choice between walking round he walls in the harsh sunlight or to have a look round inside the massive Gothic cathedral. So after exploring the castle grounds I decided to tour the cathedral. 

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It’s a massive Gothic structure with some Norman features, particularly the main west entrance. There are three massive towers. Two at the front behind the entrance screen, and a central tower (the largest of the three). At one time these towers were surmounted with steeples and the cathedral was reputably the tallest building in the known world for a time in the Middle Ages

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Given the limited time I had, I only got a taste of the city. You could certainly fill a couple of days looking around, exploring and visiting the sights. I guess I’ll have to go back one day. It’s a pity it’s such a pain of a journey!

1916 – Proclaiming a Republic

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Easter Monday 1916. The First World War was raging on mainland Europe. But, believing “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”, in Dublin a small group of rebels occupied strategic buildings around the city. These included the General Post Office on Sackville Street (now known as O’Connell street, the main thoroughfare north of the Liffey in the city centre), where they established their headquarters. The Republican flag was hoisted and at 12:45 p.m., Pádraig Pearse read out the Proclamation of the Republic.

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Pádraig Pearse (source: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1528408)

The rebels included Catholic Nationalists and Revolutionary Socialists. The majority were Irish Volunteers, the military wing of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, led by schoolmaster and Irish language activist Patrick Pearse. They were joined by the smaller Irish Citizen Army of James Connolly, which had originally been formed to protect strikes from attacks from police and blacklegs. There were also 200 women from Cumann na mBan a women’s paramilitary organisation affiliated to the Irish Volunteers.

James Connolly

James Connolly

There followed several days of fighting between the rebels and British troops. There were casualties on both sides and amongst Dubliners who weren’t involved (“collateral damage”) and buildings were destroyed by British bombardment including shells fired from a gunboat, the Aurora, moored on the Liffey. The rebels didn’t really stand a chance and they eventually surrendered on the following Saturday.

Most historians reckon that there was little support for the rising amongst ordinary Dubliners. In fact, the leadership of the IRB were opposed to it – Pearse went ahead despite being ordered to cancel his plans. The British authorities however ordered the execution of the leaders which turned the tide of opinion. So although the Rising failed to achieve power, it set in motion a series of events that eventually led to Irish independence.

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So this year is the centenary of the Uprising and it’s being celebrated in Ireland with a series of events, activities and exhibitions. These included a parade in Dublin city centre on Easter Monday. This was not the true centenary as Easter was early this year (at the end of March) while in 1916 it was late and the uprising actually took place on 24 April.

As part of the celebrations, a new exhibition, Proclaiming a Republic: The 1916 Rising opened on 3rd March at the Museum of Decorative Arts & History, Collins Barracks, in Dublin. I’m working in Ireland this week and, as I often do, I’d travelled over on an early boat on Sunday so I could spend the afternoon doing something. So I decided to take a look.

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The museum’s website tells us

The exhibition explores the background to the 1916 Rising. It introduces the visitor to the nuances of contemporary political events; the rise of the Catholic élite; the push for Home Rule along with the counter-moves of unionism; the increasing ‘Irish-Ireland’ aspects of the arts and cultural movements of the period and the growth of republican nationalism. The visitor will be presented with accounts of the individuals and the organisations which featured in the political arena of 1916, as it became increasingly militaristic in nature. However, Proclaiming a Republic: The 1916 Rising also offers visitors the unique experience of physical proximity to the people and events of Easter Week through the everyday, intimate and personal belongings of the participants.

One of the first exhibits I saw was a copy of the Proclamation. 2,500 copies were printed on an old and poorly maintained Wharfedale Stop Cylinder Press at Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) and also of the Irish Citizen Army.

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Exhibits included the Republican flag that was flown from the GPO

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and a flag featuring the Starry Plough, the symbol of James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army.

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These exhibits were objects from the GPO

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Examples of weapons used by the rebels.

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They were very much “make do and mend” obtained from a wide variety of sources. The best available guns they had were probably the antiquated  German Mauser rifles brought in to Ireland just before the War broke out in 1914.

This is an example of the uniform worn by members of the Irish Citizen’s Army

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There were documents too, including hand written notes by Padraig Pearse and James Connelly.

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There was certainly plenty to see and although I already knew quite a lot about the history of the uprising, it was interesting to see the items that had belonged to or had been used by the people involved. It brought history to life. However, I do agree with this view expressed in the Irish Times

space is a little cramped, some elements are too text heavy and the dull lighting does none of the displays any great favour.

The Galway Hooker

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The Galway Hooker is a traditional type of shallow bottomed boat that used to be widely used in the Bay of Galway for fishing and transporting goods. Their use inevitably died out by the late 20th Century, but there has been a revival since the 1980’s. Today they are mainly used for pleasure purposes and there’s an annual gathering, the Cruinniú na mBád , every summer. The above photograph was taken  of Hookers in Galway Bay by my friend V last summer.

There’s a very good exhibition about the Hooker in the Galway City Museum, a good place to visit on a drenching wet afternoon like when I arrived last Tuesday.

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The exhibition includes an actual Hooker the Máirtín Oliver, named after a former King of the Claddagh and the last person to have owned and sailed a working Hooker. It was made for the Museum by traditional craftsmen Pat Ó Cualáin and Micheál MacDonncha from An Cheathrú Rua and was installed, hanging dramatically in the atrium of the museum, in 2008.

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The displays explained the history of the Hooker with well designed displays including historic photographs and a 3D model of the Bay.

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The name “Hooker” derived from their use for hook and line fishing, although the Gallic speakers of the region never referred to the boats as such, using specific names for the four types of boat

  • The Bád Mór (big boats) 10.5 to 13.5 metres long
  • The Leathbhád (half boat) about 10 metres long
  • The Gleoiteog 7 to 9 metres long, and
  • The Púcán

But as the Bellman in Lewis Carroll’s poem, The Hunting of the Snark tells us

What i tell you three times is true

The Anglicised name has been repeated so often that it has stuck.

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Except for the Púcán, the boats had three sails – mainsail, foresail and jib – made from calico weatherproofed with a solution of tree bark or a mixture of tar and butter, giving them a distinctive dusky red or brown colour.

At one time the harbour in Galway would be filled with Hookers, but, alas, not today. However, I spied one, sails down, moored alongside the quay of the Long Walk.

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