He dreamed a dream in time gone by

John Williams (no, not that one), died in April 1841. He was a miner. No, not that kind of miner. He was the Georgian epitome of success. It was said he employed 10,000 people in the tin and copper industry of Cornwall, in the south western tip of Britain. When he died in April of that year, aged 89, his obituarists could only heap praise on the character of the man. He was someone who had not let wealth taint his “simplicity of manners and the mild unassuming dignity with which he bore the honours of fortune.”

So far, so unremarkable, you may say. What the death notices did not mention was Mr Williams’ well-documented brush some three decades before with an unexplained, some might say downright spooky supernatural, event.

That takes us back to of the night of May 11th, 1812. It was the night when Mr Williams had a dream.

Far away, in London, the afternoon had gone very badly for two men. A deranged merchant who had been jailed in Russia and who felt the British government owed him compensation had been fobbed off by bureaucrats once too often. Taking matters – and a couple of loaded pistols – in hand, he hid behind a door in the lobby of the old House of Commons. When the slender wispy figure of the Prime Minister of the day, Spencer Perceval, came in at 5:15pm, the merchant, John Bellingham, shot the Prime Minister, killing him. So, that day which ended badly for Perceval already, was soon enough to do the same for Bellingham, who was eventually hanged for the murder.

Bad news like that travelled fast, but fast in 1812 meant days to reach Redruth in Cornwall. No tearful Walter Cronkite for them. It would be carried by the Mail Coach from London to Exeter and probably by a horseman along the atrocious roads the rest of the way. So the Williams were blissfully ignorant of what had happened a few hours previously when Mr and Mrs Williams went to bed that night.

During the night Williams dreamed the murder. He dreamt it in cinematic detail. He had never seen Perceval in his life and so he did not recognise at first what he was seeing, but nevertheless he could afterwards, but crucially before he could possibly hear reports describe it vividly and accurately to various people none of whom knew either about the murder.

Williams described exactly what he saw. He saw the colour of the clothes people wore. The appearance and demeanour of the people He saw precisely where the bullet hit. He saw the splash and stain of the blood pumping from Perceval’s chest. He saw the way in which Perceval fell. He saw the gentlemen restraining Perceval’s killer who did not try to run away.

He described in detail what he had seen to his wife. He repeated the story to others in the morning and all that day, before the news could possibly have reached Redruth.

Here’s how The Times reported the story a few years later. Let’s take it up from the moment Williams awoke (and yes indeed The Times chose to spell Perceval as Percival):-

Mrs. Williams very naturally told him it was only a dream, and recommended him to be composed, and go to sleep as soon as he could. He did so, and shortly after, again awoke her, and said that he had the second time had the same dream; whereupon she observed he had been so much agitated by his former dream, that she supposed it had dwelt on his mind, and begged of him to try to compose himself and go to sleep, which he did. A third time the vision was repeated; on which, notwithstanding her entreaties that he would be quiet, and endeavour to forget it, he arose, it being then between one and two o’clock, and dressed himself.

At breakfast the dreams were the sole subject of conversation: and in the forenoon Mr. Williams went to Falmouth, where he related the particulars of them to all of his acquaintance that he met.

On the following day, Mr. Tucker, of Tremanton Castle, accompanied by his wife, a daughter of Mr. Williams, went to Scorrier House about dusk. Immediately after the first salutations, on their entering the parlour, where were Mr. Mrs. and Miss Williams.

Mr. Williams began to relate to Mr. Tucker the circumstances of his dream: and Mrs Williams observed to her daughter, Mrs Tucker, laughingly, that her father could not even suffer Mr. Tucker to be seated before he told him of his nocturnal visitation: on the statement of which, Mr. Tucker observed that it would do very well for a dream to have the Chancellor in the lobby of the House of Commons, but he could not be found there in reality; and Mr. Tucker then asked what sort of a man he appeared to be, when Mr. Williams minutely described him; to which Mr. Tucker replied, “Your description is not that of the Chancellor, but it is certainly that of Mr. Percival, the Chancellor of the Exchequer; and although he has been to me the greatest enemy I ever met with through life, for a supposed cause which had no foundation in truth. (or words to that effect), I should be exceedingly sorry, indeed, to hear of his being assassinated, or of injury of the kind happening to him.”

Mr. Tucker then inquired of Mr. Williams if he had ever seen Mr. Percival, and was told that he had never seen him; nor had ever even written to him, either on public or private business; in short, that he never had any-thing to do with him, nor had he ever been in the lobby of the House of Commons in his life. Whilst Mr. Williams and Mr. Tucker were still standing, they heard a horse gallop to the door of the house, and immediately after Mr. Michael Williams, of Treviner, (son of Mr. Williams, of Scorrier), entered the room, and said that he had galloped out from Truro (from which Scorrier is distant seven miles), having seen a gentleman there who had come by that evening’s mail from London, who said that ho had been in the lobby of the House of Commons on the evening of the 11th, when a man called Bellingham had shot Mr. Percival; and that, as it might occasion some great ministerial changes, and might affect Mr. Tucker’s political friends, he had come as fast as he could to make him acquainted with it, having heard at Truro that he had passed through that place on his way to Scorrier.

After the astonishment which this intelligence created had a little subsided, Mr. Williams described most particularly the appearance and dress of the man that he saw in his dream fire the pistol, as he had before done of Mr. Percival.

‘About six weeks after, Mr. Williams, having business in town, went, accompanied by a friend, to the House of Commons, where, as has been already observed, he had never before been. Immediately that he came to the steps at the entrance of the lobby, he said, “This place is as distinctly within my recollection in my dream as any in my house,” and he made the same observation when he entered the lobby. He then pointed out the exact spot where Bellingham stood when he fired, and which Mr. Percival had reached when he was struck by the ball, and when and how he fell. The dress both of Mr. Percival and Bellingham agreed with the description given by Mr. Williams, even to the most minute particulars.’


There is no rational explanation for what occurred. Williams telling the story as he did appears to have secured enough independent witnesses to make it certain that he did have such a dream. Maybe that’s coincidence. Maybe not.





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While you’ve a lucifer

The usual suspect book awards are lining up to give accolades to a novel about 18th century colonial New York entitled Golden Hill, by a British author, Francis Spufford. I cannot see why. Half-way through the book, I put down Golden Hill for a week or two – about the time I discovered the hero of the book, a man called Smith, was evidently a time traveller who foolishly violated what in Star Trek they refer to as the Prime Directive.

What I mean is this; the author chose to bestow on his narrator a manner of speaking contemporaneous with the time of the action in 1746 — all Richardson and Smollett. Yet he had put a jarringly factual error at the end of his narrator’s pen. Sadly for readers, Spufford, the son of not one but two history professors, had not done his historical homework

The Lucifer Paradox.

Wikipedia has comprehensive and it is to be believed accurate coverage of the history of the match. Extracted from that document is this passage…

In 1829, Scots inventor Sir Isaac Holden invented an improved version of Walker’s match and demonstrated it to his class at Castle Academy in Reading, Berkshire. Holden did not patent his invention and claimed that one of his pupils wrote to his father Samuel Jones, a chemist in London who commercialised his process. A version of Holden’s match was patented by Samuel Jones, and these were sold as lucifer matches. These early matches had a number of problems – an initial violent reaction, an unsteady flame and unpleasant odor and fumes. Lucifers could ignite explosively, sometimes throwing sparks a considerable distance. Lucifers were manufactured in the United States by Ezekial Byam. The term “lucifer” persisted as slang in the 20th century (for example in the First World War song Pack Up Your Troubles) and matches are still called lucifers in Dutch.

And yet, and yet… our authorial futurologist in Golden Hill can predict into the future not only the outlandish concept of the match in a world of tinder boxes, but even to give it a name and describe its packaging in bundles. Bravo, Spuffurdamus!

Here is the reference below and by the by it’s a long sentence that would have pleased another, given his propensity for such phraseology and of course the ability of his readers to read such sentences in the candle-lit hours, for none other than Charles Dickens would have enjoyed this ramble through the byways of bad writing and would, if confused and jumbled clauses float, have sought to raise the Titanic had it been prepared to do the right thing like Lucifer and to sink before he died or it was built, using nothing save those very clauses’ shared desire to remove the full point from the English language to raise it (Thank-you).

As he tried to penetrate it, the stamping feet fell without malice on his shoes, and he would have reeled back had the rank behind not repelled him just as effectually, so he must stay bruised and upright, as tight packed as a lucifer match amidst a bundle.

One forgiveable Swallow doesn’t deter a Costa Coffee Book Award shortlister to call this book a summer. However it is just littered with similar anachronisms.

Nevertheless I finished it, though I read with pencil in hand, circling anachronisms and verbal modernisms that the editors let slip through, while Pudd’nhead Spufford tried so hard to be writing in 18th century vein.

I could list all the other gaffs but that would seem harsh and pedantic. The bigger sin is of the book is the Downtonisation of history. It continues apace, with dialogue in the tome ripped in places from old scripts of The Sopranos rather than Congreve.

One coda to writers of fiction who read this. You would be embarrassed in front of the creative writing class if you wrote a paragraph where your protagonist sees the un-seeable, or in this case hears the un-hearable through a closed door:-

“After an instant’s silence, there came through the door the sound of furious swearing, of clothes being frantically pulled on”

I’ll allow him to hear the swearing – or at least indecipherable raised voices. But what-the, who-the? What is this man, a bat? A superhero? How noisy can a shirt and a pair of kecks be, FFS?


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Jemmy Wood the banker’s banker

He was not what you’d call a looker. In profile Jemmy Wood bore a passing resemblance to Mr Punch following a good lunch – but James Wood esq, ‘the eccentric banker, merchant and draper’ of the city of Gloucester, England who died aged 80 on this day in 1836,  in his old house above the shop in Westgate Street – died very rich indeed.


His is a story of ‘not quites’. He was not quite the millionaire that the speculations claimed, but pretty close – at a time when to die with a couple of thousand made you rich indeed, £781,107 ten shillings and fourpence made you spectacularly so. His bank was not quite the oldest in the land, but it was pretty darn close. His grandfather started Wood & Co or Gloucester Old Bank in 1716, making it the fourth oldest.

Strolling down his street you could easily miss the bank. It was in a jettied Jacobean or Elizabethan house and shop and through the bullseye glass of the shop windows  were displayed buttons, ribbons and threads – it doubled as a drapers and haberdashery.jemmy 2

In one  corner of the shop was a tiny wooden counter with scales. You could tell it was a bank and you could ascertain what kind of a banker was Wood, by the counterfeit coins that had been nailed to the counter top to warn any future fraudsters. As a practical man Jemmy decided early on that it was not in his interest to give interest on any deposits shorter than a year — even by a day. Jemmy Wood was mean.

In fact he was a miser. He dressed cheaply, he spent little. He was said to have hung around the local docks to gather coal that was dropped as the collier ships were unloaded. Once he went to one of his local farm properties in his shabby tramp like coat and while he was there decided to pick some of his own turnips for himself – only to be beaten by a farm labourer, once for stealing and once more for claiming to be the owner of the field.

He was self-aware though. When journeying by coach to London for his amusement he bet a fellow passenger who had made fun of his cheap old suit that he could do something the other could not. The challenge he set seemed outrageous. The poorly dressed Wood challenged his fellow passenger that when they reached the capital they should each see if they could persuade a bank to advance them a cheque for £100,000. Naturally Jemmy won his £5 bet.

After selling yards of ribbon and a thousand sewing needles and thimbles, interspersed with high finance, all his long life, the renowned banker expired. Unmarried and with no living relatives, it was inevitable that flies began to gather about the jam pot that was old Jemmy’s loot.

He had made a will though,  leaving everything to four executors – or so it seemed. In the battle over the will that lasted years and sapped about half the money it turned out that the lawyer who drew up the will and appeared to be getting a quarter of the money had fiddled with the paperwork. On hearing the old miser was sick he had made a mercy dash from London to Gloucester while Wood lay morphine-adled and dying. The lawyer took papers from Wood’s bureau, stitched together sheets that had been signed and those that had not, using Wood’s own seal. He then burnt inconvenient codocils that gave away some of the money to the city of Gloucester and some other people. Triumphantly he ‘discovered’ the convenient version of the will. His downfall was that one of the servants had rescued from the grate a bit of the bonfire of inconvenient truth and anonymously sent it to one of those cut out from the will.

Despite a reward of £10,000 advertised for information as to who did save the codocil, no-one came forward. Like some early episode of CSI Gloucester, lawyers pored forensically over the handwriting and the spelling comparing it with Wood’s day book and accounts. In the end the foursome did get the money — less the cost of getting it, but the judgement concluded that the lawyer had indeed massaged the document.

When he was found out, he did the right thing and hanged himself – lawyers, eh?

Jemmy 3

Jemmy as a mantelpiece ornament. You could be certain you’d made it when the potters of Staffordshire modelled you in clay





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The final act in Drama

Here’s one you may have missed. Firstly, it might make you smile that there is a town of 44,000 people in north eastern Greece where it meets Bulgaria called Drama.

The story is a poignant Easter/Passover one of loss, isolation and a hint that maybe all religions are simply, at the end of it, one religion.

It’s  a story written by Stavros Tzimas and published in the Greek English language newspaper Ekathimerini about this man, Jacob Cohen. The last Jew in Drama.


Read it here:-


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Off with his ankle!

If you recently ate a meal that you’d rather not see back again, look away now. I say that because we are about to closely examine the festering old wound of Italian resistance partisan Giuseppe Garibaldi. The look-see at what this poor man went through says a lot about the stoicism of our forebears facing the dire risks that any infection brought with it. It says much of the state of treatment one could expect if you suffered an injury in Civil War times. It says most about the lack of decorum and privacy of public figures when the people felt it had need to know about their designated hitters.

The battle beside an Italian mountain known as Aspromonte took place on August 29 1862. It barely lasted 15 minutes. It came to an end after just a few volleys, as neither side really wanted a fight. In the end around 12-15 died. On one side was a regiment of General Giuseppe Garibaldi’s red shirt volunteers heading north up the Calabrian boot of Italy from Sicily, metaphorically clutching to their collective bosom the slogan Roma o morte (Rome or death) and the intention to kick the Pope out of his very temporal domination of the capital. Opposing them was the black feather-hatted Bersaglieri corps of the Royal Army of King Victor Emmanuel.

However, as the Italian nursery rhyme about the indecisive little skirmish goes, Garibaldi fu ferito; Garibaldi was wounded. And he was. While running along in front of his men ordering them not to fire on brother Italians, he was hit, twice.

If like me you thought that “If it bleeds, it leads” was a maxim descriptive of TV newsrooms since the Vietnam War, think again. Yes I know there are some Civil War corpse photographs, though by the tightness of their shirts, the dead in them have been that way for a day or so. The darling of Europe’s intelligentsia and the hero of the common man, Garibaldi, was shot twice; once in the thigh and the again in the notoriously slow-to-heal heel, but for the readers of the world’s newspapers, simply knowing that was not enough. Papers from as far away as Australia spent months reporting the will-he, won’t he die accounts of his recuperation.

As the battle was brief and the partisans surrendered, Garibaldi got prompt medical treatment from an army surgeon for a laceration to his left thigh and a more serious hole in the right ankle. The heel wound was no better by September and people gloomily began to hint at amputation or worse, that it may have “fatal issue”.  He was by now weak, feverish and in pain. The biggest question was whether the bullet – and we are talking of one of those conical Minié type rounds weighing more than an ounce – was still buried inside the joint where the leg bones meet the foot. X-Rays are a wonderful thing, but it would be nearly 40 years before they were discovered and just a few years after used in hospitals. So finding out was going to be done the old fashioned way, as we shall see.

Garibaldi was almost a Nelson Mandela figure to armchair champions of liberty, so every sawbones wanted a piece of the surgical action. Foreigners joined doctors from all parts of Italy and congregated where Garibaldi rested in a first floor room with taped up windows. The British entrant in the European Find the Bullet competition was Professor Richard Partridge. Though an A lister, he had no experience of gunshot wounds. Still he was big in the medical establishment and destined to become president of the British Royal College of Surgeons in a few years.

gari partridge

Partridge’s career was ruined by the Garibaldi debacle

With Godlike conviction Partridge told the world that there was no bullet in Garibaldi’s ankle. With that scientific arrogance — certainty delivered in the absence of knowledge — he pronounced that Garibaldi would make a full recovery. He collected his fee from British well-wishers and went home.

By late October though, the humbled Partridge was forced to retrace his steps across Europe. Those ‘inferior’ Italian doctors claimed the leg was plainly not healing because there really was a bullet embedded deep against the bone.

So an international surgical seminar was called in the sick room.  They came from as far away as Russia, though at least Russian Professor Pirogov’s pioneering work with injured men during the recent Crimean War gave his some real experience of bullet wounds.

Pirogov (left) said there was a bullet, as did a French surgeon named Auguste Nélaton (right). Partridge was adamant that he was correct first time. Altogether 17 doctors at various times gathered at Garibaldi’s bedside and opinions were, shall we say divided. What Garibaldi made of all this goes unreported, but it is worth a glance, wincing for him from behind the couch, at what he endured for them to come to this inconclusion:-Gari report

Nélaton thought about the problem of locating a hard object (the bullet) hidden among the crevices of the shattered bones of Garibaldi’s ankle and in a moment worth celebrating he devised an instrument that was cheap, easy to use, portable and which worked to determine where a bullet was. It was so simple. On the end of a probe he put an unglazed ceramic ball. Pushed against bone, no mark. Pushed against a soft lead slug it left a discernable grey smear.

Gari probe

The rest, as they say, is history.

Gari doctor

Garibaldi and Nélaton both looking relieved. Inset shows the white mark in Garibaldi’s boot where the slug entered

Three years later, in the early morning of April 15 1865 a world away, the Nélaton probe was pursuing its path through another famous wound, but this time the patient was already beyond saving. That patient? President Abraham Lincoln.





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This takes all the biscotti

From a British daily that once was listed in the realm of ‘quality newspapers’ but has descended the slippery slope of clickbait, The Daily Telegraph, today comes this howl-at-the-moon mad piece of over-interpretation of archaeology based on an agenda. We have previously ventured into noting that everything that ended up in a river or a ditch must have had ‘religious significance’ according to today’s archaeologists, but this takes the concept ‘…it must be so cos I want it to be so’ to a new depth. Note to self: when sheltering under a tarpaulin with my nextdoor neighbour from an erupting volcano and about to die, I will make sure that our proximity will not allow the suggestions. Worth reading the comments section in confirmation that there are still folks like us out there who do not fall for this guff…

Embracing figures at Pompeii ‘could have been gay lovers’, after scan reveals they are both men

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“She rode to town on her own horse”

Just a further thought on the “scandalous practice of wife selling” from the previous story. This idea of an auction was not any brutalising suttee of a marriage where women were subjugated by gnarly unreconstructed men who had tired of the old model. In case there was any doubt of the amicable and liberated relationship between the man and woman who conducted those auctions, here is another tale of the sale, this time from Plymouth. The year is 1822 and it is the week before Christmas. Worth noting that she deserted him and that she had been living with someone else for some long time. What made her a bit of a catch was that she “had her own horse”. My kinda gal:-


a wife 3

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The end of an un-civil partnership

A note of a dubious anniversary from Robert Chambers, writing in his 1869 Book of Days, though history is full of these quasi-divorces throughout the 19th century. Usually they were surprisingly amicable affairs based on village common sense when a marriage had failed and separation in law was only for the rich…

The Annual Register for 1832 gave an account of a singular wife-sale which took place on the 7th of April in that year. Joseph Thomson, a farmer, had been married for three years without finding his happiness advanced, and he and his wife at length agreed to separate. It is a prevalent notion amongst the rude and ignorant in England that a man, by setting his wife up to public auction, and so parting with her, legally dissolves the marriage tie, and escapes from all its obligations.

Thomson, under this belief, came into Carlisle with his wife, and by the bellman announced that he was about to sell her. At twelve o’clock at noon the sale commenced, in the presence of a large number of persons. Thomson placed his wife on a large oak chair, with a rope or halter of straw round her neck. He then spoke as follows:

‘Gentlemen, I have to offer to your notice my wife, Mary Anne Thomson, otherwise Williams, whom I mean to sell to the highest and fairest bidder. Gentlemen, it is her wish as well as mine to part for ever. She has been to me only a born serpent. I took her for my comfort, and the good of my home; but she became my tormentor, a domestic curse, a night invasion, and a daily devil. Gentlemen, I speak truth from my heart when I say—may God deliver us from troublesome wives and frolicsome women! Avoid them as you would a mad dog, a roaring lion, a loaded pistol, cholera morbus, Mount Etna, or any other pestilential thing in nature. Now I have shewn you the dark side of my wife, and told you her faults and failings, I will intro-duce the bright and sunny side of her, and explain her qualifications and goodness. She can read novels and milk cows; she can laugh and weep with the same ease that you could take a glass of ale when thirsty. Indeed, gentlemen, she reminds me of what the poet says of women in general:

“Heaven gave to women the peculiar grace,
To laugh, to weep, to cheat the human race.”

She can make butter and scold the maid; she can sing Moore’s melodies, and plait her frills and caps; she cannot make rum, gin, or whisky, but she is a good judge of the quality from long experience in tasting them. I therefore offer her with all her perfections and imperfections, for the suns of fifty shillings.’

If this speech is correctly reported, the man must have been a humorist in addition to his other qualities. The account concludes with the statement that, after waiting about an hour, Thomson knocked down the lot to one Henry Mears, for twenty shillings and a Newfoundland dog; they then parted in perfect good temper—Mears and the woman going one way, Thomson and the dog another.a wife -Rowlandson,_Thomas_-_Selling_a_Wife_-_1812-14



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Sanderson at the Langham Hotel

The Civil War was a memory. In the first five years after the war’s end many of carpetbaggers and scalawags had been found out by resentful losers reposed in the Southern States and so some of those northern infiltrators and Southern turncoats, high on quick riches and low on moral self worth redirected their attention to Europe.

A posse of shady Americans wishing to hoodwink the British with the title deeds to exotically distant worn-out mines or cattle ranches replete with lush grass and sweet natured neighbours arrived en masse in London to set up base. For their home away from home they chose the Langham Hotel.Langham_hotel

These Americans had to stick together as many of them were not widely welcome in polite society.  The Wall Street Journal attacked this guild of speculators in 1871 and The Times the following year called them “mere western adventurers with nothing to spare of either capital or character, who could not find a respectable banker in New York to co-operate with them.”

When it opened the summer the war ended in 1865, the Langham Hotel had much to offer American expatriates — and not just the con tricksters. From the day it opened, it was run on ‘American lines’. That meant its suites had their own private bathrooms and even for the less opulent, just taking a room, there were more shared bathrooms than was the norm in London. The hotel had its own artesian well to supply its own in-house laundry and more importantly to those that knew London’s reputation (‘don’t drink the water or eat a salad’) to provide pure drinking water from which the risk of disease had been removed. And with 38,000 gallons of water pumped up to tanks in the roof, fire was less of a risk than with some older London hotels. It even boasted lifts for people and for their luggage – six people at a time could travel in the hotel’s guest elevator or ‘rising room’ to use a name destined not to catch on.

Above all in the damp and dreary winter climate, the American plan meant heat. This point was made by an American traveller so world weary and such a moaner about things foreign that you’d almost take him to be English. He was John Weiss Forney, journalist, editor and minor politician. By his photographs he has something about him that reminds one of the contemplativeness of mid-life John Wayne, and in a way his stance on America’s supremacy among nations reminds one too.



This is Forney writing in his Colonel Forney s Letters from Europe some three years after the Langham opened:-

“I am stopping at the Langham Hotel, at the southern extremity of Portland Place, which is regarded as the healthiest site in London, overlooking the noblest thorough- fares in the metropolis and commanding a view of the broad walk of Regent’s Park, and, on a clear day, of the beautiful heights of Hampstead and Highgate. As this establishment is now in charge of an American, Colonel James M. Sanderson (formerly of Philadelphia), and is partially conducted upon American principles, being in this respect an experiment in the British metropolis, a few words in regard to it may not be uninteresting.

The difference between the English and American hotels is, in my opinion, largely in favor of the latter, and the success which promises to crown Colonel Sanderson’s effort strengthens this conviction. While there are undoubtedly many ideas which the American hotel-keepers might get from their English associates, nothing is clearer than that the system so successful in our country will, when fairly tried, supersede many of the English habitudes. Colonel Sanderson has adopted a plan which unites the best points of the three systems, English, French, and American the comfort of the first, the elegance of the second, and the discipline and organization of the third. You cannot enter an English hotel without being instantly chilled.

Even the Langham, with its American guests and kindly English faces, is cold in comparison to such establishments as the Continental in Philadelphia; the Brevoort in New York; and Barnum’s, in Baltimore. The English people are undoubtedly more home-like than the French, and therefore more like our own; but their hotels are, to my sensibilities, exceedingly repulsive. Of course, much of this results from the fact that every thing is strange to me; but no Englishman that I have met, especially of those who are enjoying the comforts of the Langham, refuses to admit that in many respects our hotels are superior.”

So who was this American, Colonel James Monroe Sanderson, that Ferney praises?

langham sanderson face


How he got the Langham job harked back to 1860 when the callow young Prince of Wales was sent to North America to polish his diplomatic skills, pat the locals on the head and sow a wild oat or three. Much to the chagrin of the Canadians, the American Sanderson was seconded to organise the catering on the royal progress and occasionally to act as chef. Queen Victoria’s son and heir remembered Sanderson and so when the Langham went through a bad patch, HRH put in the word with the chairman – and you did not turn away a recommendation from the next king of England.

Sanderson’s was a back-story that reminds us all that there was once adversity out there the kind of which we no longer suffer.

Sanderson was born in 1817 and grew up in Philadelphia. You could say that hospitality was in the blood as his father was a hotelkeeper too. Together they ran the best hotel in Philadelphia, The Merchant’s Hotel on 4th St and young Sanderson added a resort hotel, the Brandywine Springs near Wilmington to the list in 1839.

langham brandywine

Sanderson’s Brandywine Hotel

By the mid forties Messrs Sandersons had a chain of hotels and franchises. They were a notable success. Then came the war and the need to provide huge numbers of men with food and the means to cook it. Sanderson was commissioned to the vital role of commissary management, some said without taking any pay. By 1863 he had been promoted to lieutenant colonel.

He wasn’t a stay-at-home soldier though and while reconnoitring a stream crossing he was caught and incarcerated in a warehouse turned into the notorious Libby prison.  Bars instead of glass at the window and gross overcrowding meant that conditions were primitive and disease spread rapidly. Sanderson, whose role had previously been to give practical advice to the average soldier on how to feed himself  took similar charge inside Libby.

langham libby

Libby Prison, Richmond in 1865.

Before he arrived the prison had already divided into factions. Very soon Sanderson fell out with a man who had taken over much of the top floor accommodation for himself and his cronies. Lt Colonel Abel Streight and Sanderson became the sort of enemies that only close proximity in a school or prison can sustain.

langham streight

Abel Streight; does he look like a man you’d want to do jail time with?

When Streight, Sanderson and 107 other officers escaped the jail through a tunnel on the night of February 9 1864, Sanderson was shocked to find that when he got back to the Union side he was arrested on the say-so of Streight. Sanderson’s alleged crimes were many. He kept food from the others, he even stole the egg nog destined for the hospital and most importantly he provided information to the guards.

When a trial failed, Sanderson was ignominiously dismissed the service by June of that year. After a fight he and his friends got him re-admitted to the army by August and then honourably mustered out.

Enough must have been enough for Sanderson among the East Coast establishment so that when he got the call from the Langham he packed his trunk and said farewell to fractious New York and his enemies.

But on Thursday morning of November 16 1871, just after he had given staff instructions about the wedding breakfast that was take place in the coffee room later, Sanderson felt faint and collapsed on this way from the cellar to his office. He was taken to the boardroom where, though he was conscious for a half hour, he died. Within the week his body was heading for Liverpool and a ship to take him home.

Nevertheless, he got a good write up:-

langham Sanderson

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Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble

Rome, that is to say ancient Rome “fell”. Every schoolkid knows that. But a thought occurs to me. Was it the hordes of heathens knocking at the gate that told Romans, in a manner not unlike Nicholson in The Shining that “Here’s Gothy…!” as they chopped their way through that gate? Or were there subtler tides that crept unceasingly over the togas on the beach?

I bet ‘austerity’ is how the Roman Empire began to crumble; first the roads, then social services and the ability to defend themselves come what may. We nowadays think decline’s a temporary, partisan and fixable thing when it’s almost certainly the whimper preceding the bang.

“Ancient footprints are everywhere. You can almost think that you’re seeing double.”


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