At the going down of the sun

World War One has been jogged back into the UK’s collective consciousness once more with the Third Battle of Ypres,aka Passchendaele getting its own Royal Command Performance on British TV.

Two thoughts; one pretty much universal and the other pretty much local.

The local first. There is a tiny village in Suffolk named Bildeston. A few weekends ago I went there for an antiques fair held in its little square, surrounded on three sides by Georgian houses. In the square is an obelisk war memorial upon which are inscribed the names of the dead of two wars. Two dead men from from the Great War with the same name caught the eye. Their last names were so evocative of the England of yore that I have to share.

They were the Squirells, Alfred Squirell and the second, so as not to be mistaken for Alfred, Fred Squirrell.

Bildeston is not alone. Across Britain and in similar hamlets in France or Germany within their lists of the dead many hold those with the same surname. Brothers, cousins, father and son; who now knows? But you can be sure that everyone was recalling them in Bildeston that mournful Saturday afternoon in late March 1920 when the village assembled around the square to see the monument unveiled.

Carved on the Portland stone spire 17 and a half feet high are 15 names in all of locals from the village among what is often referred to as the “fallen”. The word itself is a euphemism, by suggesting as it does that they had tripped up and lost their footing on life, rather than the uglier reality of having it ripped from them as a two foot square red hot piece of cast iron shell shrapnel travelling at the speed of a bullet detaching a limb or ripping open a belly in a way that makes Game of Thrones look tame. But let that pass.

The village had itself subscribed for the memorial.  Remember that the war had finished just 18 months before and so emotions and memories had not been dulled by time. Around its base that Saturday and for many years to come were laid wreaths of flowers from close relatives.bildeston

Local worthies and churchmen made speeches, the scouts and guides marched and tea was taken.

I know nothing further of the Squirells’ lives, save that one of them was just coming up to his 19th birthday when he died, three months before the war ended.

It is worth thinking of folk like the Squirrells all the time, not just when prompted by the BBC when there is an anniversary with a zero at the end. Imagine that day when old Mrs Squirell was told of her son’s death, or visualise the father and brothers Squirell’s stoic faces in their family pew that following Sunday, while the village either awkwardly avoided the family completely or commiserated in that understated English Edwardian manner about the lad doing his duty for ‘King and country’ etc.

The second thought is something of a throwaway musing about what the people wish for and what the people get in life. It’s as true today as it was in 1914 to 1918. It is a truism that at the outset the British populace “voted” for the war against Germany. It had been coming for years.

Yes, I realise there was no referendum where the men (voting was not “a woman’s place” in 1914) cast a vote, but just glance at the enthusiastic papers of the time; remember the patriotic songs and posters; see those silent films of men “flocking to the colours” at recruiting halls across the country. Were they voting for The Somme, Passchendaele, and the rest of the nightmare? You know they weren’t. So when the public is asked for an opinion it is likely that they ‘vote’ for a vague strategic intent not the means to that end… It was Beat the Hun! not a vote for those on the Home Front to have to witness through their lace curtains a telegraph boy open the gate and walk up their neighbour’s  path  to deliver that terrible telegram “We regret to inform you…” to a million Mrs Squirrells.

This is a fact that poignantly echoes on a more tragic plane down to today’s maundering gibberish uttered by those in Britain who want to remain in the undeniably faltering EU.

The remoaners are often heard to say “The British people did not vote to…” and then they add the words “…leave the Single Market” or “…leave the Customs Union” or “…fall off a cliff edge”.

Sadly for the dissenters and the Squirells, yes, in effect they did.

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Have our Romans already departed?

Ah, the Dark Ages. That period in British history after the Romans went away where everything just stopped, or seemingly so.

It didn’t of course. The record petered out. The accepted wisdom is that because people built in wood, drank from horn and worked in leather our archaeological tools to discover their civilisation become useless.

Yes and no — and it’s a complex subjective pool of evidence before us. Jewellery such as the Sutton Hoo treasure signify sophistication and a high order of civilisation. And yet time after time what must have been substantial and beautiful buildings of the Roman period, those farmhouses to palaces that are dubbed “villas”, are found trashed or left to decay. So often beautiful mosaic floors are ruined, torn apart for a kiln or hearth, presumably done at a time the building still had a roof on it.

And for a generation or two after the Roman armies went home there must have been Romanised locals born into a Latin speaking, literate, letter writing class who seemed to have seen no value in trying to nurture their heritage. Neither did they seek to defend it.

So civilisation, whatever that may mean, is not a steady upward curve. This period — if there had been statisticians to measure — would have seen increases in lawlessness, falling life expectancy, falling literacy and numeracy, greater propensity for hunger, sickness, low intensity local warring.

And here we are in 2017. The question to ask ourselves is this: Have our Romans already departed?

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The piratical eyes of the magnetic healer

Leamington is a quiet little spa town in Warwickshire near Stratford upon Avon. In the late 1880s it is not difficult to envisage how very Jane Austen it still must have been, with its Pump Room and all, though visitor numbers “taking the waters” had declined drastically.

Nearby big city newspaper the Birmingham Post really loved this yarn it could publish at the town’s expense when it came across a newspaper report  from America of domestic disharmony.

Hard to believe, Jealous Leamingtonians, wife swapping, pistols on the stoup, and private “magnetic” sessions in a wife’s bedroom from a chap who was not her husband.

You are already as shocked as the good folk of Leamington must have been in 1888.



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I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled

Here’s a note of despair from, of all places, the Grauniad, that is to say an English Liberal newspaper, The Guardian, (once famed for its consistently poor proof reading hence the epithet). It ran a story yesterday that proves Western civilization is indeed collapsing.

For the Romans it was lead in the water; for the fall of the Elizabethans it was fat in the (semi) colon…  As Shelley so presciently said: “Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair”.

I had to check the full quote from Ozymandias and it’s even more accurate about the hand cart to hell-ness of the colossal wreck that used to be civilization. Last scene of Planet of the Apes and all, when Charlton Heston encounters the Statue of Liberty…charlton

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
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The modern economy of time

You know nothing of progress until you know the 19th century.

This was written in 1864. (‘Quicksilver on glass’ by the way is mirroring):-


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The cad’s brother


In a Berlin art museum there is a portrait of a family assembled around a rotund, modest-looking little German man.

He is uncomfortably seated, apparently shifting his weight. Standing about him is are his English wife, his sons, daughters and even the family dogs. He could be a successful local burgher, but no, he is der Eisenbahnkönig — the railway king of the Fatherland. The palatial modern town house in which they sat to be painted he had built for his family in one of Berlin’s highest class streets, Wilhelmstrasse, opposite the Brandenburg Gate. Just one of its claims was that it was the first private house in Germany that had its own indoor swimming pool. The Berlin mansion was so imposing that in 1877 it fell into the hands of the British government which made it into the Embassy. It is just one of many palaces and estates he owns. He was that wealthy.

It is 1870. That balding, tubby gentleman in the picture employs 100,000 people — and though he does not show it, save for the gold watch and chain, he must be among the richest in all Germany. Hold that thought for a minute and travel back 25 years.

At 7 am on July 10th 1847 a new-built American paddle steamer Washington was towed into Southampton Water for its return voyage from England to New York. The Washington was, to use the words of The Times‘ shipping correspondent who observed her, “about as ugly a specimen of steam-ship building as ever went through this anchorage”.

At 4pm, with the last mail on board, she departed. By late that night she was 100 miles away down the English Channel when a problem arose. Stokers discovered that the English anthracite coal was burning so hot that it was melting the grates. With engine trouble and facing a journey of 3,000 miles, that signaled a return to port. It was to be the undoing of one of its passengers. That young man must have been feeling pretty comfortable that Saturday evening as the Washington paddle wheels thrashed further and further along the southern coast of England, soon to leave sight of any land behind. That man had been in something of a hurry to reach a country where the living would be easy and extradition back to the UK was hard.

He was named Bethel Henry Strousberg. Yes, he was indeed the brother of Ferdinand Philip and he was on the run. The week before he paid £30 for a ticket to New York in the name of Bartholde, but it was he who boarded the ship.

It was so out of character. Young Strousberg had worked incredibly diligently since he arrived in Britain, aged 16, some eight years before. Baruch, as he was then named, a fourth child, had been left impoverished when the meagre family inheritance back in Prussian controlled Poland was divided  after the sudden death of his father. Baruch was shipped off to stay in England with his three uncles who ran a successful importing business. He got his first sight of London when he disembarked from the Sirene on September 27th 1839. He lodged with his uncle Peter in Newgate Street. There he was persuaded to take his new name Bethel and learn all he could about finance, markets and moneymaking. He stayed there until Bethel did the unthinkable act that severed the connection forever.

At least that must have been the way that his uncle, Peter-Moyses, saw it. Bethel repaid all the hospitality he received from his close family with a kick in the tukus. What Bethel did was to abandon the Jewish religion of his ancestors. Bethel converted to Christianity. And on March 13 1845 he married a scandalously young 16 year old named Mary Ann Swan, the daughter of a linen draper – in St Bride’s Church in Fleet St.

As far as the older generation of the family were concerned Bethel was dead. They were religious, part of the growing reform movement. Their late father, Bethel’s maternal grandfather, had been a rabbi back in Prussia and “lived a life dedicated to God alone”; so much so that when the old man died in his nineties it was on his daily journey back from the synagogue. The black cloths over the mirrors in Newgate Street would have marked the seven days of shiva for the dead – or in this case the otherwise departed forever from their lives.

Three months after his marriage in July 1845 Bethel suffered his first financial reverse, when he was made an insolvent debtor. Under the harsh regime of the day, that accident of dropping the ball while financial juggling meant spending a couple of weeks in prison while Strousberg waited for the seedy insolvency court where the London School of Economics now stands to hand his debt over to an assignee who would sell any assets Strousberg could lay hands on. That seemed to have worked for by the next year, 1846, the year before his attempted escape on board the Washington, Strousberg was discharged from insolvency.

Within that year he progressed from a somewhat lowly and disreputable job as commission agent, a money lender cum debt collector. Now relying on his salesmanship and ways with money he was fronting the launch of a number of embryo building societies. Known as building clubs, they were a cross between a lottery and investment and loan company. They catered for working people for them to get to buy their own houses or to invest their small savings in order to get a return.

The Times Building and Investment company was one such and the Fifty Pound Building Club was another. When the Times took out a launch advertisement the society was proud to announce that Strousberg was the man who had calculated the actuarial table on which the society would rely. You’re ahead of me if you think there is a whiff of embezzlement coming up in this story. But against some of the earlier tales of gross and cynical corruption, Bethel’s embezzlement was both tiny and inexplicable.

We do not now all the facts, but it seems Strousberg went missing at work, though it is not clear how anyone was able to find out that he was leaving the country and for that matter by which port or which ship, but you have to suspect that his wife may have known something of his plans. For though he was leaving her, he was not abandoning her. In any event a senior man from the Building Society went down from London to Southampton on the train to have him arrested. When he got to the port he first thought he was too late — but you can imagine his glee as the ugly Washington trundled back into port. Strousberg was hauled off the ship to face criminal charges for not banking £7 and 17 shillings for the Times Building Society that a member gave to him on July 6.

The officious, ludicrously named magistrate, Hughes Hughes, sat at London’s Guildhall magistrates because he was an alderman of the City of London. He had previously been an MP, but was it was noted in his obituary that in the unofficial directory of the House of Commons his name was mentioned in a passage devoted to ‘Unpopular Members’.
Strousberg had a defence, though it was a subtle one — too subtle for Hughes Hughes. Strousberg protested that the building society was only allowed under the regulations to have just one paying-in day a month. Until that day came around he was just holding the money, not on behalf of the society, but on behalf of the man who gave it to him.
“Aha” said Hughes Hughes, “you were sailing to New York and so you could not have been able to pay it in when the time came due”. He was remanded until later that week, as the Fifty Pound society had chimed in saying that £19 was missing from their accounts too. By the end of July when he was back in the dock again, things at first looked up. Both building societies had decided not to press charges, principally for the lawyer costs involved. Unfortunately though for Strousberg, both building societies had taken a precaution to re-insure any losses with an insurer, The General Guarantee Company. Rather than see Strousberg’s release prompt a string of copycat cases, General Guarantee wanted to see Strousberg made an example of. So did Hughes Hughes.

The charge carried a penalty of repayment of twice the amount owed, or three months in jail. Strousberg’s solicitor pleaded for more time for the defendant to find the cash to pay back the fine. No-one in England was able to go surety for him but he had reached out to family and friends back in Germany. The newspapers reported that he got the fine and as he could not pay was committed to jail.

Here the reporting goes cold. Did he break rocks for three months in 1847? Did the money come through from Germany and satisfy the court so that he did not have to spend endless hours hooded and climbing steps in a silent prison treadmill? We don’t know. However it says something about the Victorian idyll of redemption that a one-time bankrupt such as he should have been given a second chance to manage financial organisations. And on the face of it he repaid the offer of forgiveness with embezzlement.

But a third chance? Let’s put it this way. There must have been something magnetically charming about this young man and for that matter his brother too;  that and the fact that Bethel appears to have been something of a mathematical genius. Six years go by and when he next surfaces on the record, he has become a business magazine owner/editor and so much of an actuarial whizz that he is listed as consultant actuary and manager to at least two life assurance companies. He published a highly commended pamphlet remonstrating with government, warning it of the near monopoly of old-established firms in the life assurance business which aiming to squeeze out new entrants. So popular was the document that by October 1852 it was in its second edition.

And though a convicted felon he was unafraid to do the almost unthinkable — call the law an ass in general and especially berate one particular magistrate — to his face. Not that he was a defendant or even a witness in any case, he was so angry in March 1854 over what a judge had said that he just turned up at Bow St Magistrate’s Court asked for and was granted a public forum to tell the judge his opinion was biased and wrong. He got his day in court because on the previous Saturday his Honour Justice Jardine — or ‘In-justice’ Jardine as he was widely known, for dispensing very much softer sentences to the rich than the poor — had been giving his own advice from the bench.

The previous week Jardine had let two “decently dressed Irishwomen” come to court in what appears to be a put-up job to discredit Strousberg’s Oak Life Assurance. They complained that the poor and illiterate were being seduced into buying life assurance policies. There was no case but they were allowed to ask his advice in a pointed question about this state of affairs. This allowed the judge to make a speech in which he roundly condemned new building societies, especially the Oak. Jardine looked over the papers they brought and hurrumphed that while the Oak appeared to be genuine, he did not know the names of any of the directors. Jardine was of the opinion that “the practice of sending agents among these poor ignorant people… was a very extraordinary one, to say the least of it.”

The following week Strousberg demanded that Jardine retract his comments, for what he had said had a “very injurious effect upon the society” and claimed that 100 people had turned up at the Oak offices, asking for their money back. His Oak Assurance had simply replaced the unofficial and unregulated ‘Burial Clubs’. His directors were “among the first merchants in the City”.

The judge was not about to back down in his own court. “I still adhere to the opinions I expressed.” Using all the understatement available to the reporter, Strousberg’s reply to Jardine was said to be deliver “with warmth”. The angry Strousberg told the judge: “With every desire to be respectful, I wish it to go forth that I think a magistrate’s function is to decided upon facts, and not to give opinions.”
Not getting, or not waiting for an answer. Strousberg walked out.

And Henry Bethel?  He went back to Germany  to become that comfortably tubby, multi-millionaire family man in the portrait.

In Germany he went on to launch companies worth £100 million, employ upwards of 100,000 people making the steel and building the rails that carpeted Eastern Europe in a network of railways. He invented for himself the Trust, the vertically integrated industrial system that garnered profits from owning all the means of production in his industry. He owned the mines that provided the coal for the steelworks that made the rails and raw materials for his engines to run on his railways. He owned the railroads and even ran the vegetable markets and abbatoirs that relied on his lines.

But his was a journey to monopoly based on necessity. He started his railway engine works to ease his company from price gouging from Germany’s sole engine maker. In doing so he brought efficiency such that he introduced the production line concept to manufacturing some 50 years before Henry Ford re-invented it. Sadly the “European Railway King” had a final descent almost as precipitate as his fall from grace in 1847, but that’s another story…

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Lock Up Your Daughters

I’d like to introduce you to Thomas Napper and his nemesis, Ferdinand Philip Fischel Strousberg. Their story is at the creepier end of plots labelled ‘psychological drama,’ but it was real life and publicly played out in England during the years Americans were tearing themselves to pieces in the Civil War.

It’s not just a ménage à trois. No, make that a ménage à cinq. It’s a tale of an alpha male and inveterate liar on the one hand, whose behaviour included everything from driving dangerously to fraud, embezzlement, bigamy, seduction, paedophilia and possibly running a brothel. On the other side is a retired surgeon from the leafy English town of Dorking, in the most beautiful part of the county of Surrey. Between them are the doctor’s wife and two of his daughters, threats of murder, some bribes and criminal charges a plenty.

First the alpha male. Strousberg was a man for whom the epithet ‘cad’ was invented. He was German by birth, but had lived here so long he spoke English “as fluently as a native”. He dressed flashily and was rich on other people’s money. He rode his horse like a sports car, once nearly knocking a woman down in New Street, Birmingham. He was convicted at the Old Bailey after he sold the freehold of a house he did not own. He was in and out of courts most of his life. It was highly likely this victim of the story which unfolds was not the first high-born woman he had ruined.

Napper was “a member of a well-known Sussex family of respectability and position”, so when in early 1863 he brought a charge against Strousberg for “running off with a young lady” that is to say one of Napper’s daughters, you sort of know whose side the reading public would be on when they saw the case advertised. To their disappointment though, on Valentine’s Day it was reported that all charges had been dropped as family and friends approved when the pair agreed to marry.

Which is interesting in itself as Strousberg was indeed married already and it was pretty much certain that Napper knew this.

What happened through the rest of the year we don’t yet know, until December that is. Now the shoe was on Strousberg’s fashionably expensively shod foot. Strousberg took out a prosecution against Napper for assault after a fight in a London street. Napper had come to the house in Ebury St, Pimlico late in the evening, a place where Strousberg was living “in infamy” with Napper’s daughter. Seeing Napper lurking there on his return home, Strousberg had gone to the local police station and returned with a police sergeant, who witnessed Napper demand his daughter back, brandish a small club and chase Strousberg around his phaeton, eventually to knock his hat off.

At first Strousberg did not show up for his own trial as a number of shifty looking men in the court were bailiffs waiting to nab Strousberg for all his previous dodgy dealing with the Mitre Assurance company, but that is another story. Further confusions were that the magistrate had been himself a victim of Strousberg’s colourful financial past of white collar crime though he didn’t recuse himself — and just for good measure a “respectable looking middle aged woman”, Strousberg’s wife, turned up to see if there was a case for bigamy against her husband.

The story Napper told the court was way more sinister than just a family robbed of a daughter by the seducing Strousberg. No, according to Napper, Strousberg had somehow taken his place and stolen his entire family away. He had persuaded Napper’s wife and his younger daughter as well to move out of the family home and live with him at his country farm near to the Nappers’ Dorking household.

The story that Strousberg gave, when he did show up, adds Pinteresque detail. For a start he showed a propensity for lying and then glibly un-lying. Was he involved in the Mitre Assurance fraud? “No, that was my brother.” (It wasn’t).The judge knew that it was Philip of course. Had Strousberg been convicted of fraud 12 years before at the Old Bailey? Yes, but he served no sentence and the judge commended him. Was he married? “Yes”, but only once to the Napper daughter.

Aha, thought Napper’s lawyer. He pressed Strousberg about his other wife, the one that had turned up in court at the  hearing. “Is she dead?” he asked. You can imagine the pause while cunning Strousberg thought over his answer to the impossible question. To say she was dead or indeed that he was not married to the Napper girl would be perjury and to say she was not dead and maintaining that he was married would be admitting bigamy. Like many before and since Strousberg uttered the words of the phrase “I decline to answer on the grounds that it may criminate me.” Though he avoided confirming they were married he did agree that he was living with a Napper daughter.

Then the judge turned to Mrs Napper. This drama gets even better for though she came in with her husband, she appealed to the court for protection from the brutality of her husband who had threatened her with a stick and she was in fear that he would murder her.

So when she was asked whether her daughter was living with Strousberg and she answered “no, she is living with me”, Strousberg looked as if she had made a liar of him once more. So he interrupted the judge to explain that there were two daughters.

Just when it is coming to a head, the hearing against Napper is suddenly called off. Strousberg the complainant does not come to court once more (probably for fear of arrest for debt), so the judge throws out the case. That is not what Napper wants though. He wants the world to know what the serial seducer has done and so he goes about bringing it back to court. This time he becomes the complainant and Strousberg is the defendant.

It’s the New Year 1864. Strousberg has surrendered himself at the Westminster Police Court to face charges of child abduction and bigamy brought by Napper. However Napper’s testimony muddies the waters of injured innocence.

He told how it all began in 1860 when Strousberg came to live nearby the Nappers. They became acquainted when Napper went to buy a carriage from Strousberg. From June 1862 the then just turned 18-year old Napper daughter Frances and Strousberg became an item. From the witness box Napper told the court under oath that he knew Strousberg was married from October 18 1862. He said that after knowing that he locked up his daughter, but Strousberg came and took her by force while he was out. And so that was the point that Napper took out his first case against Strousberg.

But now we know that Napper knew that Strousberg was married when in that Spring of 1863 he ceased that case. Napper said that it happened after a meeting with Strousberg. During that meeting in the Cadogan Hotel, London, Strousberg gave him the news that he had married Frances in Boulogne. So it’s a strange father who was happy to know that his daughter had just married a bigamist. The next twist was the revelation from Napper that at this very same time his next youngest daughter Grace also ran away to live with Strousberg and Frances.

Napper went to Strousberg’s farm to get his daughters but, as he told the court “he laughed at me and behaved to me in a very offensive and insolent manner, as he usually did.”

Thereafter Napper said that he “sent” his wife repeatedly to get the girls, without success. In September he turned up once more telling Grace to get her things. Strousberg restrained him. Brave after the event, Napper told the court “I could not resist. I had the gout very bad, or I should have given him a good sound thrashing”.

When cross-examined a letter in Napper’s handwriting was put in front of him. In it he was asking Strousberg to give him £800. Why? Because Strousberg had dishonoured his daughter. Napper said he had only accepted £200 and used it “to pay expenses”, including private detectives.

So you would imagine that there existed a state of hostilities between the two families; but no. Back in Dorking now two of the younger daughters and even the Napper’s wife were staying with the “Strousbergs”. Napper himself was planning to rent a cottage on Strousberg’s estate and even though Napper felt that Strousberg had eyes for Grace as well as Frances, he did nothing. He told the judge: “I could willingly have removed Grace from the house while Strousberg was absent in London and I suppose I ought to have done so.”

Maybe it was the fact that he was asking for shooting rights, a horse to ride and a whole lot more from Strousberg by way of blackmail that kept him from pinching back his daughter.

In any event he did not have to wait long before his wife too deserted him for the usurping Strousberg. On November 4 1864 she packed her bags. In summing up the judge asked two simple questions of Napper to solve the charges of abduction of a child under 16 and bigamy. Letting the air out of the balloon, Napper said Grace was definitely over her 16th birthday when she left and that he did not now believe that Strousberg had married his daughter.

And so Strousberg was free to go — and he did. He took to his heels out of a side entrance and across the garden, pursued by bailiffs with writs of judgement against him. They intercepted him and ‘escorted’ him by taxicab to Whitecross St debtors’ prison… but that’s another story.

Suffice it to say that Strousberg lived on to the age of 70 and just kept on playing the system. He was a cad till the end. In 1892, eight years before his death, when he was bankrupted for the umpteenth time, one of his partners bilked in one of his many deals came along to the bankruptcy court and asked the chairman’s permission to kick the debtor.

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‘No profit grows where is no pleasure taken’

It is not a rose glow view of history that holds as fact that during the 19th century the world’s financier was, without doubt, Britain; that is to say London; that is to say The City; that is to say The Stock


This is a contemporary take on that topic. When it was written it was about seven years after one worldwide crash and though the author did not know it, presaged the very beginning of another. This extract is from a much, much longer article on The Stock Exchange by John Pebody, published in The Gentleman’s Magazine (now that’s a title, n’est-ce pas?)  in 1873. The magazine has been digitised almost in its entirety and it’s a mix of fiction (often novels such as Clytie published in parts), travelogues, current affairs and gossip. So that when you have tired of reading ersatz historically inaccurate novels such as Spufford and the like, you can get a real passport to that foreign country called the past, rather than a trip to an historical Disneyland, or perhaps more accurately a misplaced 21st century Westworld transmutation of the way it was.


stock exchange

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To set the whole world ‘a-gadding’

You know nothing of progress if you do not know the 19th century.

Let us think for a moment about railroads. Before they came, most rural Europeans lived and died within 20 miles of where they were born. Not because there weren’t adventurous souls among them, but would you want to walk from the back end of nowhere in France to Paris, England to London, or the Italian states to Rome? And you would be making that journey without the slightest idea of what to expect when you got there. News traveled to those tiny villages as haphazardly and tardily as it had in medieval times. At fault was the road system. Without mechanization, making roads fit for the peasant to travel was hard and expensive — so it did not happen. King’s ‘high’ ways and turnpikes improved commercial movements and rich folks’ travelling plans, but all of this required travelers either owning or paying for passage by some form of horse transportation. Even then road networks did not venture far outside major cities. In Britain for example most freight across most of the wilder parts of the country was still being moved by trains of pack horses right up to the start of the 19th century.

And of course for the farmer’s boy or girl there was no cheap nor speedy means of getting about, other than putting one foot in front of the other.

The year Queen Victoria was enthroned, the roads had become good enough that (again for rich folks only) average speeds had crept up to around 11 miles an hour. The 22,000 miles of commercially-funded turnpike roads were then noisy with jingling and trumpeting of more than 3,000 mail coach lines each holding a government contract for delivering letters between two points, but also moving passengers.

Then came the railway. And boy did it change things — and fast.

This was a world which ran on one energy source alone — coal. The fire in the hearth; coal. The gas light in the street; coal. The coke in blast furnaces; coal. The thousands of stationary steam engines powering looms and lathes, pumping water out of mines and sewage out of sewers; coal. Unlike today’s energies, electricity or gas that come down wires or pipes, the tons of black rock had to be physically moved to where it was needed each day, each week to keep towns and cities working. The city of Manchester was using 1,000 tons of the stuff each day. Though there were two canals between where the coal was, near Liverpool and where it was needed in Manchester, a railway line’s shorter distance and greater carrying capacity would save coal customers £100,000 each year in carriage alone — a sum calculated in the billions in today’s money.

The Liverpool to Manchester rail line opened in 1830. Work began in June 1826, just one year after the Stockton and Darlington became the world’s first steam locomotive passenger railway in the world.

Imagine shifting 720 million cubic yards of spoil by hand just for the cuttings alone. Imagine building embankments of 277,000 cubic yards. Imagine building a railway line across four and a half miles of Chat Moss, a bog so soft that a pedestrian could not walk over it unless it had been an unusually dry summer and an iron bar would sink under its own weight. After tons of ballast dumped to consolidate the swamp disappeared without trace an ingenious solution was to use a raft of the moss itself with copious drains and culverts, upon which to lay the ballast to hold the rails.

Add to the construction tasks a 70 foot high brick-built viaduct, a stone bridge across the river Irwell and a tunnel through just over a mile of wet earth, sand and sandstone, and you begin to appreciate the scale of complexity to build just one 31-mile long railway.

If a statistic were needed to illustrate the speed of change, consider the number of stagecoach drivers and guards made redundant in the following decade. Already just a few years into rail travel in 1842 the number had fallen to only 2107. The following year and contemporary source says it was then just 146.Think about whether the 21st century could come close to matching this for the rapid introduction of a novel infrastructure that would overturn accepted reality quite as fast.

The prospect of free movement for poor people previously enslaved by geography was not welcomed by all, even by some Americans, though this comment comes from a canal owner. Canals, like stage coaches, were surpassed by the speed, cost and security advantages of trains.

This man predicted (rightly as it happened) that railroads would set the whole world ‘a-gadding’. “Twenty miles an hour, sir! Why you will not be able to keep an apprentice-boy at his work; every Saturday evening he must take a trip to Ohio, to spend the Sabbath with his sweetheart. Grave plodding citizens will be flying about like comets. All local attachments must be at an end. It will encourage flightiness of intellect. It will upset all the gravity of the nation. Upon the whole, sir, it is a pestilential, topsy-turvy, harum-scarum whirligig.”

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They walked on water

You know nothing about progress if you do not know the 19th century.

In 1818 the first tiny 90 ton steam powered vessel, The Rob Roy, began using its 30 horse power engine on regular trips from Greenock in Scotland to Belfast in Ireland. Subsequently it became the first international non-sailing ship when it went from Dover to Calais.

Not to be outdone, the very next year America bested this by launching the 350 ton Savannah, setting a seemingly impossible jump to inter-ocean travel. After 26 days at sea out of the port whose name she bore, the ship arrived in Liverpool. It wasn’t easy nor an economic proposition — yet. The 90-horse paddle wheel, sail-assisted steamer consumed ten tons of coal each day so all her holds were crammed with the stuff. So strange a sight was a steamer that she was reported as a “ship on fire”, though the sailing cutter from Cork, Ireland sent out to ‘rescue’ her could not keep up with the bare poled vessel.

What these momentous voyages signaled to the age was certainty. The passage would be no less dangerous in the future, but in the age of sail it had never been a sure thing that you would actually arrive — even if the ship did not sink. There are many stories of voyages to America thwarted by the wind and taking 70 days, that’s more than two months. In 1838 a sailing vessel from Ireland had taken 55 days to come within 100 miles of the coast at New Brunswick before being forced back all the way across the Atlantic by the fierce easterly winds. In 1837 after a voyage of 100 days, one of the 180 passengers on board the Diamond from Liverpool to New York offered a gold sovereign for one of the last potatoes on board and was turned down. Seventeen passengers died of starvation. So think yourself lucky when the low-cost airline charges for a rubber cheese sandwich.

It is easy to forget too that, because of the speed and reliability of commercial shipping after steam, the information age was kick-started. While the as-yet ‘unknown unknown’ of international telegraph would improve worldwide communication to become almost instantaneous by the 1860s, before that date a piece of paper that was physically transported across the sea was all the world had to keep in touch with itself.

By the mid century mail went to France from Britain twice a day.

It seems incredible to us today. Friends and relations died, presidents and kings rose and fell, wars started and ended, all without the rest of the world knowing of such events. Demonstrating how amazingly different the fabric of existence was before and had become after steam power — and how far progress had yet to go — is this proud acknowledgement from 1852: “from every important port in the world we receive intelligence in London within two months — excepting the Australia. Newspapers have arrived in October last from California, only seven weeks after publication.”

By the late 1840s, that is to say the same timescale which comparably for us goes back as far as Prozac, The Simpsons, Michael Jackson’s Bad and George Michael’s Faith, steam-ship travel had become routine. Journey times across the Atlantic were measured in a just a couple of weeks — or ten days if you were lucky. And there was already a clamour to build the Suez and Panama Canals.

Can you honestly conceive that Snapchat, Siri or a phone with a camera attached has achieved in as short a time as much for human kind?


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