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Archive for the ‘War’ Category

A guest post by London Historians Member Martin Thompson.

150_portrait_lee millerElizabeth (Lee) Miller was one of the most remarkable women of the 20th Century; Vogue fashion model; fashion photographer of note with her own studio; artist’s muse; an accredited war correspondent during the Second World War, covering events such as the London Blitz, the liberation of Paris, and the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau; friend of luminaries such as Man Ray and Pablo Picasso; and in later life becoming a gourmet cook. She was admired as much for her free-spirit, creativity and intelligence as for her classical beauty. Known as ‘Lee’ Miller, she married the artist Sir Roland Penrose in 1947 and thereafter was also known as Lady Penrose.

Lee Miller was born on 23 April, 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York. The name derives from a word in the local tribal Wappinger language, meaning “the reed-covered lodge by the little-water place,” referring to a spring or stream feeding into the Hudson River south of the present downtown. She was the second child of Theodore, an Engineer, Businessman and Inventor and his wife Florence, a Nurse. Always a tomboy, she grew up on a farm and was always trying to outdo her brothers, Tom and Erik. Her father, who was also an amateur photographer, was a strong influence on the young Lee and introduced all three of his children to photography at an early age often using Lee and her young friends as models.

At the age of seven she was raped by the son of a family friend. This was kept quiet, as such things often were in those days; so quiet in fact that no one knew about the event except her immediate family. It was only after her death that that this became known, her son Anthony having spoken to his Uncle Erik. It might be argued that it affected her personality as she was always restless and somewhat rebellious, finding it difficult to find love and settle down with anyone.

Aged 19 she was nearly killed when she walked in front of a truck on a Manhattan street but was saved by a passerby who managed to pull her away just in time. Her rescuer was Conde Nast, the founder of Vogue magazine. He effectively launched her modelling career on the cover of American Vogue. She was photographed by the greatest talents of the day, becoming one of the most sought after models in New York. However, unbeknown to Lee, one photograph of her was used in an advert for Kotex and work began to dry up.

Having become interested in the work behind the camera as well as in front as a model, she moved to Paris in 1929, becoming apprenticed to the surrealist painter and photographer Man Ray as well as becoming his lover and muse. It was here that she started her career as a photographer. She was an active participant in the surrealist movement, making friends with, among others, Pablo Picasso, who immortalised her in a number of his famous works; and the artist and film maker Jean Cocteau. In 1932 she returned to New York and opened a portrait and commercial photography studio with her brother Erik as her darkroom assistant. This was not to last. In 1934, almost on a whim, she married Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey who had gone to New York to buy equipment for the Egyptian Railways. They moved to Cairo. But by 1937 she had become bored with her life in Egypt and once more moved back to Paris where she divorced Aziz and met the surrealist painter Roland Penrose (later Sir Roland), who was to become her second husband in 1947 and father of her only son, Anthony.

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With Pablo Picasso.

Early in World War 2, Lee was living at 21 Downshire Hill, Hampstead, with Roland Penrose when the bombing of London began. Ignoring pleas from friends and family to return to the United States, she embarked on a new career in photojournalism as the official war photographer for Vogue, documenting the Blitz. Roland was called upon to work as a lecturer on camouflage and used a picture of the naked Lee covered with camouflage netting. He said that his lectures were very well attended after that with some participants coming back to his lectures two or three times. He was also required to do duty as an air raid warden; Lee would sometimes join him on his rounds. From Hampstead Heath the criss-crossing searchlights, bursting flak and glow of the fires at London docks would present an awesome panorama, one that she found exciting. She also recounted that one night a barrage balloon collapsed on the house. She and the operators spent the whole night getting the thing under control, rolled up, down into the garden, through the house and through the front door. Their house in Downshire Hill played host to a variety of colourful characters, including the ‘Cambridge spies’ Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean although, of course, they were not known as such at the time.

Lee was accredited into the U.S. Army as a war correspondent for Conde Nast Publications from December 1942. She travelled to France less than a month after D-Day and teaming up with Life photojournalist David E. Scherman, recorded the battle of Saint-Malo, field hospitals in Normandy, the liberation of Paris, the battle for Alsace, and the horror of the Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. Her photographs, some of the first photographic evidence of the Holocaust, were a horrifying glimpse of the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the camps. From Dachau she and Scherman went directly to Hitler’s private apartment in Munich. She had Scherman photograph her washing herself in Hitler’s bathtub, her boots still with the mud of Dachau on them on the bathmat. Immediately after the war, Lee travelled throughout Eastern Europe to see and photograph the devastating aftermath of the war. She photographed dying children in a Vienna Hospital, peasant life in post-war Hungary, and the execution of the fascist ex-Prime Minister Laszlo Bardossy of Hungary. After that, she continued to work for Vogue for a further two years, covering fashion and celebrities.

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In uniform.

In 1949 Roland and Lee bought Farley Farm House in East Sussex which became a sort of artistic Mecca for visiting artists such as Picasso, Man Ray, Henry Moore, Eileen Agar, Jean Dubuffet, Dorothea Tanning, and Max Ernst. Having witnessed so much pain and pointless destruction during the war, she fell into a long period of depression and alcohol abuse but reinvented herself as a gourmet cook in the 1960s having completed the cordon blue course in Paris, as featured in several magazines. She hosted Surrealist dinner parties and made wildly experimental dishes, serving her guests food such as green chicken or blue fish, the latter said to have been inspired by the Spanish Surrealist painter and sculptor Miró.

Lee Miller died from cancer at Farley Farm House in Chiddingly, East Sussex, in 1977, aged 70. She was cremated, and her ashes were spread through her herb garden at Farley Farm House. Farley Farm has now, through the work of Anthony Penrose, become a museum featuring the work, life and times of Lee Miller.

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Image: London Remembers.

The house at 21 Downshire Hill, Hampstead was awarded an English Heritage blue plaque in 2003. Unveiled by the playwright Sir David Hare, it reads simply: Lee Miller (1907-1977), Photographer, and Sir Roland Penrose (1900-1984), Surrealist, lived here. For historians of 20th-century photography, the plaque marks the rightful rehabilitation of a remarkable artist and character that had been all but forgotten since her death.

 

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A guest post by London Historians member Martin Thompson. 

Lying slightly behind the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead lies a remarkable block of flats. Remarkable for two reasons. The first being for the architecture which was ahead of its time and secondly for the people who lived there and those who visited it.

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The Lawn Road flats in Hampstead opened in July 1934 and were the product of Molly and Jack Pritchard, who put up the money, and their architect Wells Coates. The three had similar views on the problems of city living and wanted to apply Modernist principles in solving them. This meant that the flats would follow Le Corbusier’s mantra that the home was ‘a machine for living in’. It was the first block ever to be built mainly using reinforced concrete. Intended to be the last word in contemporary modernist living, the block of flats was minimalist with built in furniture and communal facilities such as a laundry. They were aimed at the market of new young professionals of the 1930s. They contained 22 single flats, four double flats, three studio flats, staff quarters, kitchens and a large garage. In 1937 a club, ‘The Isobar’ was added to the complex.

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Walter Gropius

The first ‘Controller of Design’ was the internationally-renowned architect Walter Gropius who was appointed in 1934. With the rise of Hitler and National Socialism in 1933, Gropius, then the Director of the internationally renowned Bauhaus School, believed that there was little future for him or the institution. In this he was proved correct as Hitler closed the Bauhaus shortly after coming to power. Gropius and his second wife, Ise Frank, whom he had married in 1923, secretly fled Germany and arrived in England on 18 October 1934. However, in March 1937, Gropius left for the USA to become professor of Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. A month before he left, Gropius recommended Marcel Breuer, as his replacement for Controller of Design.

Marcel Breuer, otherwise known as Lajkó, was a Hungarian born designer who became world famous for his furniture designs in the early part of the 20th Century. After Gropius had left the Bauhaus, Breuer followed suit. He initially moved to Switzerland where he concentrated on furniture design. The tubular steel and aluminium pieces which he produced won universal praise but still left him with little or no money. By the time he left in 1935 to join Gropius in the pioneering modernist Lawn Road Isokon Flats in Hampstead, Breuer was one of the best-known designers in Europe. During the two years he spent in Hampstead, Breuer was employed by Jack Pritchard at the Isokon Company, which became one of the earliest proponents of modern design in the United Kingdom. The innovative furniture Breuer designed whilst at Isokon in Hampstead were highly influential pieces of modern design and included chairs, tables and the famous ‘Long Chair’. He not only designed furniture, however, as between the years 1935 and 1937 he worked in practice with the English architect F. R. S. Yorke with whom he designed a number of houses in and around Hampstead and further afield.

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Marcel Breuer in one of his trade mark chairs.

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Agatha Christie

The flats – and particularly the bar – became famous as a centre for intellectual life in North London. Notable residents included Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the authors Nicholas Monsarrat, Agatha Christie and her husband Max Mallowan as well as Gropius and Breuer. Agatha Christie lived at 22 Isokon, throughout the Second World War, from 1940 until 1946, suffering all the fears and privations of the bombing. She did voluntary war work at the University College Hospital as a hospital dispenser as she had done in the First World War. Sometimes she walked home to Belsize Park when the Tube trains were not running properly, and her evenings were spent writing. She was at the height of her powers and fame as an author, and her war-time years at Lawn Road were extremely productive. Not only did she write several of her well known crime novels but she was also very involved in writing for the stage, which she loved. When her daily life became too stressful she would take refuge in her flat and in her own words, “lie back in that funny chair here which looks so peculiar and is really very comfortable”. An original 1930s Isokon ‘funny chair’ can be found in the Hampstead Museum at Burgh House. She left Lawn Road in 1946 when she was able to reclaim her home in Devon which had been requisitioned by the navy.

Regulars at the Isobar included Henry Moore, who made a series of remarkable sketches of people sheltering from the German bombing in the nearby Belsize Park underground station. Others included the artists Piet Mondrian, Paul Nash, Roland Penrose and his wife the war photographer Lee Miller, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, all of whom were at one time resident in Hampstead. The chef at the Isokon building later became the first British celebrity TV Chef – Philip Harben.

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Henry Moore sketch of Londoners sheltering from the Blitz.

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Henry Moore in the Underground, by Lee Miller.

The building fell into disrepair in later years but in 2003 it was sympathetically refurbished. During the restoration the services were completely renewed and a later overcoat of render removed from the exterior The Isokon is now occupied by key workers under a shared ownership scheme whilst the larger flats were sold outright on leases.

As part of the refurbishment, an exhibition space was created in the former garage. Run since 2014 and staffed wholly by volunteers, it tells the story of the building, as well as the social and artistic life of the residents. It is usually open on weekends from March to October from 11:00 to 16:00.

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Book Review: The First Blitz in 100 Objects by Ian Castle.

first-blitz-in-100-objectsI took the below picture a few days ago. it’s an unremarkable terraced house in Whitestile Road, Brentford, not 150 yards from my own home of three decades. I’ve walked past it hundreds of times without having a clue as to its significance. Notice the different style from its neigbours either side. That’s because it’s a rebuild following the total destruction of its predecessor by a German bomb on 29 January 1918. The wife, four children and niece of George Kerley were all killed along with their elderly lodger. At seven, this was the second largest casualty count for a single family through the entire war. Poor Kerley, a sergeant-major in the Middlesex Regiment, wasn’t home at the time.

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The Kerley’s family gravestone in nearby South Ealing Cemetery is one of the 100 objects featured in this new book by Ian Castle. Germany’s vicious bombing campaign against Britain during WW1 has been very largely overshadowed by the Blitz of WW2. Understandably, perhaps. Nonetheless, it was a terrifying business which Castle has made it his business to bring to our attention. This is his third book on the subject in recent years.

This time, he has written 100 short chapters featuring a diverse collection of objects, large and small. As you would expect, the book is richly and beautifully illustrated, as these random spreads demonstrate.
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Although this book covers the whole of Britain, having taken the brunt of the raids, the London content is the most prominent. First there are the more well-known sites with which most London historians would be familiar and can be viewed today: the pitted plinth of Cleopatra’s Needle; the plaque in Queen Square marking the spot of the first Zeppelin bombs. Noted historic buildings were hit, among them Lincoln’s Inn and the Royal Hospital, Chelsea.

Severndroog Castle in Shooters Hill – where London Historians had a group visit last year –  was used as a Zeppelin look-out post.

The author has here assembled an impressive array and variety of objects, from aircraft, bombs and weapons – both intact or fragments – to personal items and ephemera: matchbox holders, commemorative napkins, postcards, ‘in memoriam‘ cards, a mawkish survivor from the Victorian age.

We have the damaged registration plate of the No 68 bus which was hit by shrapnel near at Aldwych; air raid insurance documents; and one of my favourites: the Dolphin Tavern clock, frozen in time at twenty to eleven – you can see it in that pub to this day.

The most poignant reminders of the WW1 Blitz are gravestones and memorials, which are probably the most common feature here. My favourite – if that’s the right word – is the grave of Reginald Warneford, VC, the first pilot successfully to destroy a Zeppelin in flight, LZ 37 on 7 June 1915. Unfortunately, the 23 year old was killed in a flying accident just 10 days later. A lovely monument, it features a relief portrait of a smiling Warneford above a carved image of a fatally listing Zeppelin in flames and smoke while the young pilot’s plane veers away almost vertically. You can find it in Brompton Cemetery.

The first Zeppelin raid actually to drop bombs on London was on 31 May 1915. Thereafter, raids were continuous, first by Zeppelins and later by Gotha bombers and ‘Giants’ (enormous bi-plane bombers with three or more engines). Casualties were almost always substantial, usually in the dozens and sometimes over a hundred. The largest raid of the conflict on London involved 41 bombers on 19 May 1918.

This lovely book is the perfect introduction to the topic which will – if you haven’t already read them – lead you to the author’s other books on this subject. You might like also to look out for Jerry White’s Zeppelin Nights (2014).


The First Blitz in 100 Objects by Ian Castle (268pp) is published by Frontline Books with a cover price of £25 but available for less.

Ian Castles’s previous books on related topics are:
The First Blitz: Bombing London in the First World War (2015).
and
Zeppelin Onslaught: The Forgotten Blitz 1914 1915 (2018)

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This article, by journalist, author and academic Brian Cathcart, was first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from April 2015.


June 18th this year is the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and it will be marked in many events and ceremonies. Of course, on that Sunday in 1815 no one in London had any idea what was happening in Belgium. They didn’t even know that hostilities had broken out. News of the battle did not reach the capital in reliable form until late on Wednesday, but it did so in the most dramatic manner.

The battle was won by the Sunday evening, but the Duke of Wellington did not hurry to inform his government and so his famous Waterloo Dispatch did not leave Brussels until early the following afternoon. Travelling over drenched and battered roads, and no doubt stopping frequently on his way to share his news, the messenger, Major Henry Percy, made slow progress to the coast. Then, embarked upon the sloop HMS Peruvian, he was becalmed at sea. By the time the Kent coast finally came into sight it was late on Wednesday morning and so desperate was Percy to complete his mission that he abandoned ship, stepping into a rowing boat with four sailors who rowed him the last twenty miles to Broadstairs.

In the meantime, London went a little mad. Monday’s evening papers brought word that fighting had begun in Belgium and then early on Tuesday came a report of a great victory for Wellington. A scoop for the Morning Post newspaper, this briefly electrified the population – but it was all a mistake, a distorted and exaggerated account of an indecisive encounter two days before Waterloo.

A ferment of confusion and debate followed, captured vividly by the Morning Herald:

The evening of yesterday [Tuesday 20th] having been fine, and the placards of the many-edition papers having been very profuse of various, if not contradictory, intelligence, groups of people remained to a late hour in the Strand, some arguing for one, some arguing for another construction of the news from Flanders. About the Horse Guards the crowd was greater, and the Park [St James’s] was thronged, all the evening, with people waiting for the dispatches. The feeling was evidently and strongly British, notwithstanding the laborious arts of the Bonapartian journals to produce a contrary spirit.

Wednesday, as the Observer newspaper would recall later, was ‘an interval of painful suspense’. It dawned with London expecting to find the official messenger in town, but Percy was then still a hundred miles off and the unaccountable absence of news deepened fears that the battle must have been lost. Soon unofficial reports of a victory began to trickle in, but people would not trust them, especially as counter-rumours of a defeat were also circulating. (Claims that the banker Nathan Rothschild was the first to know, by the way, are not supported by the evidence.)

Tension mounted as the hours passed. On Wednesday evening the streets were again filled with expectant Londoners, while War Department officials manned their desks for a second night running. At the theatres and the society parties across the West End, one topic dominated. Meanwhile Major Percy was at last making swift progress in his post-chaise and four. Changing horses at Canterbury, Sittingbourne, Rochester and Dartford, he crested Shooters Hill in time to see London in the fading light of dusk. Then soon after 11pm his yellow carriage, with two captured French eagle standards thrusting from its windows, crossed Westminster Bridge into a delirious crowd.

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Major Percy sets out, with Napoleon’s eagles.

With this happy throng in tow, Percy made his way to Downing Street, where he was told that the Cabinet was dining at Lord Harrowby’s in Grosvenor Square. These unfortunate ministers had thus far passed an evening of all but unbearable tension. One account goes:

They dined, they sat. No dispatch came. At length, when the night was far advanced, they broke up. Yet, delayed by a lingering hope that the expected messenger might appear, they stood awhile in a knot conversing on the pavement when suddenly was heard a faint and distant shout. It was the shout of victory! Hurrah! Escorted by a running and vociferous multitude, the Major drove up. He was taken into the house and the dispatch was opened.

Sixteen pages long and written in the most sober terms, the dispatch took time to digest, but eventually delighted ministers were able to announce the news to the crowd outside, who greeted it, according to the Morning Post, with ‘universal and ecstatic cheering’. Now Percy had to report to the Prince Regent, who that night was the dinner guest of a banking family, the Boehms. Carriages were summoned and most of the Cabinet followed Percy’s chaise through the streets, once again trailing a crowd behind. Dorothy Boehm, the hostess, describes their arrival at 16 St James’s Square:

The first quadrille was in the act cf forming and the Prince was walking up to the dais on which his seat was placed, when I saw every one without the slightest sense of decorum rushing to the windows, which had been left wide open because of the excessive sultriness of the weather. The music ceased and the dance was stopped; for we heard nothing but the vociferous shouts of an enormous mob, who had just entered the Square and were running by the side of a post-chaise and four, out of whose windows were hanging three nasty French eagles. In a second the door of the carriage was flung open and, without waiting for the steps to be let down, out sprang Henry Percy – such a dusty figure! – with a flag in each hand, pushing aside everyone who happened to be in his way, darting up stairs, into the ball-room, stepping hastily up to the Regent, dropping on one knee, laying the flags at his feet, and pronouncing the words ‘Victory, Sir! Victory!’

The jubilation was mixed with shock at the casualties, but for the next three days London partied. Some never made it to bed that night and were present next morning to witness the spectacular military display staged in St James’s Park by the Duke of York. Both Houses of Parliament cheered themselves hoarse, while perhaps the most vivid personal recollection comes from the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon:

Sammons, my model and corporal of the Life Guards, came, and we tried to do our duty, but Sammons was in such a fidget about his regiment charging and I myself was in such a heat, I was obliged to let him go. Away he went, and I never saw him till late next day, and he then came drunk with talking. I read the Gazette the last thing before going to bed. I dreamt of it and was fighting all night. I got up in a steam of feeling and read the Gazette again, ordered a Courier for a month, called a confectioner’s, and read all the papers till I was faint.

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Chelsea pensioners reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo. Detail, engraving by Burnett after Wilkie.

On Friday and Saturday came the illuminations, with spectacular lantern and candle shows at all the big houses, public buildings and businesses. The St James’s Chronicle wrote:

The streets were thronged with people beyond conception. The whole was one moving crowd, carriages going slowly and forcing their way through the populace. The fair sex were equally numerous with the male. Bands of music paraded the streets until two o’clock. Dustmen, with their bells, kept up a perpetual din. Many persons lost their shoes opposite the Admiralty and Horse Guards. The pickpockets were very busy.


Brian Cathcart is the author of The News from Waterloo: The Race to Tell Britain of Wellington’s Victory, published in 2015.

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Gunpowder & Geometry: The Life of Charles Hutton, Pit Boy, Mathematician and Scientific Rebel by Benjamin Wardhaugh. This book review is a guest post by London Historians Member Laurence Scales. 

gngThis is the biography of Charles Hutton (1737-1823). Charles Who? To those in the know he was a Georgian mathematician. For those of you who might just possibly have overlooked him, he was the first person to draw a mountain using contour lines – for a grand project we will come to shortly.

To paint Hutton quickly with a few contour lines, he was a significant figure in publishing, gunnery and scientific politics. His is a story of a snakes and ladders career in the long 18th century for someone with few advantages of birth, but with wits and ambition. Social mobility at that time is something we usually think uncommon and remarkable though the exceptions are numerous: Humphry Davy from Penzance, George Stephenson from Tyneside and Thomas Telford from Scotland, for example. Some of them may have lived their whole life being regarded by nobility as oiks. But they were respected oiks, and able to afford comforts that many would envy. Hutton came from hewing coal to taking a plate of oysters with Sir John Pringle, the President of the Royal Society. Pringle’s successor, Sir Joseph Banks, was a snob and, as a plant collector, had no time for mathematics. The Royal Society came close to disintegrating. Hutton’s rift with the Royal Society gives the biography an edge.

Hutton was from Tyneside, but it was a home he quitted permanently for London when, as a young man, he was appointed a professor at the Woolwich Royal Military Academy then turning out cadets for the Royal Artillery and later Royal Engineers. The appalling behavior of cadets (and fellow staff) is typical of the colourful detail that makes his story enjoyable.

Within a few years Hutton was working on one of the greatest practical experiments of the age, nothing less than the weighing (more properly, calculating the density) of the Earth. The delicate measurements, hundreds of them, were taken in Scotland by the Astronomer Royal, and not in a nice comfortable Edinburgh observatory, but on a mountainside in the dreich. But the number crunching, requiring contour lines to size the mountain, was done by Hutton longhand in Woolwich.

Hutton was a glutton in that he had an extraordinary appetite for long, tedious and repetitive calculations, the details of which we are spared while still gaining insight into the vital but unrecognised toil behind the mathematical tables for astronomers, navigators, surveyors and financial houses. As you might expect from this period and our distance from it, individual women do not play a large part in this story, but a few, and many unknown women, are tantalisingly glimpsed.

An insight I have gained is that Hutton was, I might say, only an artisan mathematician – a virtuoso problem solver and a great teacher playing by all the known rules. But he did not change the game. Although Hutton read several languages it took Cambridge mathematicians such as mechanical computer pioneer Charles Babbage and others to challenge the staid British mathematical community by hailing continental brilliance.
The author, Benjamin Wardhaugh, is an Oxford academic spanning mathematics, history and music. He has slogged to tease out the differences in hundreds of pages in each of umpteen different editions of Hutton’s works to try and read his mind. We can appreciate his effort and, as a result, we are relieved of it. Wardhaugh has published academic papers on Hutton. This biography, nevertheless, comes to us with a light and engaging style while carrying the authority of an academic writer. Recommended.


Gunpowder & Geometry (312 pp, illustrated) by Benjamin Wardhaugh is published in hardback by Harper Collins.


Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in the history of science and technology in London, a volunteer in the archives of the Royal Institution and Royal Society of Arts, and is working on an alternative history of engineering.

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Review: Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson, by Margarette Lincoln. 

What is the opposite of a spoiler, I wonder? Some six months late, I am able to announce our Book of the Year for 2018. It is this one.  I had already established this at the time but felt a bit daft to broadcast the fact having failed to publish a review. I have therefore now read it twice – no hardship, I can assure you.

This book describes the unsung heroes, heroines – and villains too – who rarely felt the bite of salt water whip across their cheek, but nonetheless played a vital role in keeping Britain’s fleets afloat in the vital period when this country gained hegemony of the oceans.

As the title suggests, this era is characterised by almost constant warfare by both land and sea, but particularly the latter. Great Britain’s only significant reverse was the loss of the American colonies while enjoying great gains in the sub-continent and further afield. War ran in parallel with massive gains in exploration and trade. The end of our period, covered in the final chapter, sees the arrival of steam and the construction of London’s first deep water docks, changing fundamentally East London’s relationship with large shipping until the arrival of containerisation in the 1980s ended it forever.

Trading in War puts the spotlight on the maritime parishes of London, upriver of the City: Wapping, Rotherhithe, Bermondsey, Deptford, Greenwich. These communities built, maintained, provisioned and indeed broke up the ships of both the Royal Navy, mainly stationed in Deptford, and the nation’s merchant fleet (increasingly dominated at this time by the East India Company).

The conditions and well-being of these communities, as the author demonstrates, were affected to a huge extent by war, hence the title. The two main wars in our period were, of course, war against the American colonies and various wars against France after the Revolution to 1815. Through the chapters, the author closely examines the lives of all strata of maritime society on the Thames, men and women, rich and poor. These societies were by definition, largely artisnal: shipwrights, carpenters, rope makers, sail makers, caulkers and so on.

The busiest shipyards in the biggest port in the world offered a myriad opportunity for all. Wealth for the owners; employment for the local populace; and rich pickings for smugglers, pilferers and fences, particularly on high-duty goods. Stakes were high and criminals bold: customs men often met with extreme violence and even death. The author has used the wonderful Old Bailey Online to shed light on this criminality. It is interesting to note that women played a significant part.

Indeed, Margarette Lincoln has taken particular care to address the lives of women in these districts. A huge number, as you might expect in maritime communities, had to cope without their husbands. But it wasn’t just sailors’ wives. Many were widows, whose knowledge of their late  husbands’ work enabled them to keep family businesses not only running, but thriving. The Navy Board, in particular, increasingly recognised the inherent value of these women and wisely let them get on with it. But also, there was a supporting community spirit and, in at least one case, even from a rival shipyard. The imperative to churn out ships in time of constant national emergency was paramount.

I’m sure, like me, you will enjoy in particular, the pen-portraits of various individuals in this story. Benjamin Slade, the Navy Board’s purveyor in Deptford. His job was to procure every piece of material that went into a ship, from the anchor to the topsail. The best quality for the best cost he had to do a balancing act between shipwright and Navy. Mary and Elizabeth Slade, spinster sisters who ran a habidashery business in Deptford and lived to a great age. Some of their properties have survived to this day. Betsy Bligh, the wife of the famous sea captain, whose sensible management of his affairs at home underpinned his success such as it was and hedged against his tribulations. Her efforts at last remembered here. Frances Barnard, widow of the shipbuilder William Barnard. Following his death in 1795, she continued to run his business just as he had done: for the Navy Board, seamless continuity was the first priority.

I can but scratch the surface here. The author explores many other important areas: the rise of organised labour and the use of strike action, in effect proto-trade unionism; theatres, boxing and other entertainment in the maritime communities, including debating societies (the Government wasn’t keen!).

Then there are the interesting snippets. Did you know? Many ships were 499 tons or less to avoid the obligation by law of carrying a surgeon and priest; an average East Indiaman was only good for up to four voyages before being scrapped (this surprised me) – copper bottoming could extend a ship’s life by 50%; a ship’s owner or manager was known as its ‘husband’; a large ship would typically take three to four years to build. There is much more.

This book paints a detailed and very human picture of London’s maritime communities over a couple of generations at a time when Great Britain became the dominating world power. In sprite of the nation’s success and growing wealth and self-confidence, it highlights, in particular, the hard and precarious existence of all levels of society in the maritime parishes. It is a beautifully well-rounded work of history and deservedly our Book of the Year for 2018. I trust that is some compensation for not scooping the Woolfson Prize a few weeks ago!

 


Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson (292pp), by Margarette Lincoln, is published by Yale University Press, 2018.

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This guest post by Gareth Edwards was first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of January 2015.

A longer version of this article, with more images, is here.

Look around Endell Street today and you could be forgiven for thinking it just an average London street. But one hundred years ago it was home to an important, and now near-forgotten, part of British history – the Endell Street Military Hospital, the first British Army hospital officially staffed, and managed, entirely by women.

That the hospital existed at all was largely thanks to the efforts of two remarkable women – Dr Flora Murray and Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson. Both women had trained at the London School of Medicine for Women. They became firm friends and founded the Women’s Hospital for Children together on Harrow Road in 1912. Both were also heavily involved in the women’s suffrage movement – not surprising, given their own experiences at the hands of the misogynistic British medical establishment.

On the outbreak of war in 1914 the pair wanted to serve in a medical capacity, but realised that any direct approach to the War Office would likely end in them being dismissed out of hand. Casting about, they soon discovered that the French Army were desperate for medical staff so approached the French Red Cross with the offer of equipping and staffing a hospital. The French quickly accepted.

Within just two weeks the Women’s Hospital Corps (WHC) had begun to take shape. Within three Murray, Garett Anderson and their new organisation were boarding a train for the continent. The 80 year old Elizabeth Garrett Anderson – Louisa’s mother and the first Englishwoman to qualify as a physician and surgeon – watched on from the platform.

“Are you not proud, Mrs Anderson?” A friend asked.

“Yes.” She answered. “Twenty years younger I would have taken them myself.”

Their first hospital, established in the disused Hotel Claridge in Paris and known to everyone as “Claridges” was soon taking wounded soldiers and quickly established a reputation as one of the foremost military hospitals in Paris. This was in no small part thanks to Murray and Garrett Anderson’s deft handling of the many military and civilian visitors the hospital attracted. A succession of critical Generals and administrators passed through Claridges and each received a comprehensive tour, their questions patiently answered, however insulting. More often than not they left with a higher opinion of the WHC than when they arrived.

In November as fighting worsened, Murray and Garrett Anderson journeyed to Boulogne to meet a hard-pressed Lieutenant Colonel from the Army Medical Service who had previously visited Claridges and been impressed. If they moved the WHC nearer the front, they asked him, would he use them?

“Yes.” He replied. “To the fullest extent.”

Acknowledgement of their services at the front did not automatically translate to recognition with the War Office back home, however. The new hospital at Wimereux soon built up its own impressive reputation though and the ability of the WHC to run an effective military hospital became increasingly impossible to ignore.

Finally, in February 1915 Murray and Garrett Anderson were invited to London to meet Sir Alfred Keogh, Director General of Army Medical Services. In Keogh they found an unexpected ally. He had read the reports on the WHC coming from those in the field in France and he offered them the chance to make history – he asked them to establish an RAMC military hospital of at least 500 beds at Endell Street in London, staffed solely by women. They agreed and on the 18th February Keogh publicly praised the two doctors and announced the plans to the press.

“He had asked them to take charge of a hospital of 500 beds.” The Times reported with some astonishment the next day. “And if they pleased, of a hospital with 1,000 beds.”

Setting up the hospital at Endell Street was a whole new challenge for the women of the WHC as much of the British army medical establishment was still actively hostile to their efforts. The location chosen for the hospital was an old work house and getting it ready required significant work. Somehow, with little assistance from the rest of the RAMC, they had the hospital ready in time for its opening.

The general expectation amongst those opposed to their work was that the Endell Street experiment would fail within 6 months. Under Murray’s capable supervision and thanks to the efforts of all of its staff it instead quickly became one of the foremost military hospitals in London. With this the hostility gradually began to decrease, replaced with a sort of lukewarm tolerance and gentle neglect.

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Francis Dodd, chalk drawing, 1917. Image: Wellcome Images.

Indeed over time the staff would turn this situation to something of an advantage as it allowed them to ignore certain standard British Army practices in favour of new ideas. Murray believed psychological wellbeing was as important as physical when it came to recovery and wards were bright with many activities laid on for the men. Garrett Anderson meanwhile, along with a brilliant pathologist called Helen Chambers, was able to carry out extensive clinical research. Together they trialled, then deployed, a new compound “Bipp” paste that dramatically reduced the frequency with which surgical dressings needed to be changed.

The quality of care delivered at Endell Street and the development of Bipp paste made their achievements impossible to ignore. In January 1917 Queen Alexandra visited. Later that year both Murray and Garrett Anderson were awarded the CBE for their war work.

“I knew you could do it.” Keogh confided to Garrett Anderson towards the war’s end. “We were watched, but you have silenced all critics.”

By that time the war ended their success was indeed there for all to see. When Parliament granted the first limited voting rights to women in 1918, Murray ordered their only ever overt political act – a suffragist flag was hoisted in the hospital courtyard, to the cheers of staff and patients alike.

Endell Street Military Hospital finally closed in 1919. To say that it changed things instantly would be an overstatement but, thanks to efforts of those who worked there, it represented a huge step in the right direction. Some of the women at Endell Street moved on to great things. One of the younger members of staff there, Hazel Cuthbert, became the first female physician appointed at the Royal Free. Many more however still found their careers limited by prejudice – despite performing over 7000 operations, for example, none of the female surgeons from Endell Street would perform major surgery again.

Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson meanwhile returned together to the small children’s hospital they had founded on the Harrow Road. Both remained active in politics until the ends of their lives. Neither woman ever married, and they are buried together near the home they shared in Penn, Buckinghamshire. The inscription on their shared tombstone reads “We have been gloriously happy.”

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Memorial Plaque. Image courtesy London Remembers.com.

On Endell Street itself, little evidence of their achievement remains. The old building that contained the hospital is long gone – replaced by Dudley Court, a red brick housing block. Look around a bit though and you’ll find a blue plaque marking the spot where it stood. It is worth hunting out – a few words to commemorate some awfully mighty deeds.


London Reconnections.
Wellcome Images.
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