Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Scripting Hampton Court by Imogen Robertson

I wrote this:

OK - I know that statement needs a bit of unpacking. You see, what this photograph of Base Court at Hampton Court doesn’t show is a series of speakers cunningly hidden under the cobbles alongside the central path and in the wine fountain (out of the picture). It also doesn’t show what they are playing: a rich soundscape of passing carts and horses, the yapping of a lap-dog and the conversations of courtiers, ladies and servants going about their business one morning in 1536.

Eustace Chapuys is extracting gossip from Elizabeth Somerset by the fountain, and later locking horns with the Duke of Norfolk over the refusal of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles the Fifth to recognise Anne Boleyn as Queen. Thomas Cromwell is interrogating the kitchen boys about the fancies to be served later that day, and the Lord Chamberlain is assigning rooms and chivvying the servants to get on with the unloading of their master’s goods. 

When the team at Hampton Court decided they wanted to recreate in sound the bustle and business of Base Court they turned to design agency Chomko & Rosier, who have already come up with some technologically advanced and sympathetically imagined ways of engaging the public with the context of a particular place, including work for Historic Royal Palaces. They've won awards. So Matt Rosier found a brilliant sound artist called James Bulley, and me.

Readers of this blog will know that I am not a sixteenth century specialist, at all, but before I was a full-time writer I was a TV, film and radio director working on such classics as The Shiny Show and The Numberjacks. Hang on ‘Numberjacks Seaside Adventure’ which I directed between getting the deal for Instruments of Darkness and publication has had 15 MILLION views. Please stand by while I hyperventilate for a bit. 

Just imagine if one in ten of those viewers grew up and bought one of my novels. I’d be J.K. Rowling.

....and I’m back in the room. 

Anyway, I’m still on a number of mailing lists from my TV days, so I saw Matt’s search for potential writers and sold him on my experience working in production to get myself the gig writing for the Base Court project. 

It’s been fascinating. This is a continuous loop of action where visitors might pause for a few seconds, just absorb the atmosphere as they wander by in search of an audio guide, or spend time seeking out bits of gossip and conversation. That means that any conventional ideas of storytelling are out of the window. On the other hand, it all needs to make sense as a coherent whole as invisible characters (Norfolk, Cromwell, the lap-dog) move around the space over the twenty minutes or so the piece runs. 

One of the speaker trenches. Glad I'm not involved in that bit.
Or the specifications for the speakers which I hear were very complicated.

In the end I thought of it like the staging of a ball scene in an opera on a grand stage. Lots of characters and individual members of the chorus have their own sequence of actions around the space, all happening at once, and the viewer decides which bits to focus on, or they let the whole thing wash over them.  In this case what they get to focus on will depend on where they are.

Because the scene is set at a particularly gossipy time (everyone is waiting to see if Anne will produce a son and wondering about Henry’s wandering eye), coming up with the conversations was relatively straight forward. I plunged into the notes from Hampton Court and, of course into the works of some great historians, such as the lovely Alison Weir. I also freely admit that my ideas of the personalities are deeply influenced by Hilary Mantel. Interestingly, I would find that a problem were I writing a novel about the Court, but not on this project. This project is nothing to do with what I think of the period, so it’s wonderfully ego-less compared with the business of writing novels. Also I know Mantel really, really does her research. 

I had, of course, the usual fears about accuracy, but not too badly, because everything I wrote was checked by Tracey Borman. (God, I wish I could get Amanda Vickery to go through my Crowther and Westerman novels. Or maybe not.).

The real joy of the process comes after the writing though. Working with actors again is such a pleasure, they bring so much to the text and convey with an inflection, a breath what would take you forever to get across on the page.

Then there's the edit. The sound I’ve been involved with in the past is designed to come out as a stereo mix from your TV while you sit and watch the pictures. This is a world you can walk around in, and which will sound completely different depending on where you are in the space and when.

Mixing on the move
James did most of the work of putting the piece together, and creating the underlying atmosphere, then we gathered to listen, discuss, move things about, add space, swap lines, find lute music and decide what a goblet being chucked on the cobbles sounds like. The back and forth is great. With novels, after months working in isolation, the whole process of waiting for comments, responding to them, working out the ramifications of changes through a text of 120K words is slow and painstaking. Here decisions are quick, the effects immediate, and the ownership shared. It’s…enlivening.

As with novel editing though, a lot depends on the relationships you have with the people you are working with and at the moment I’ve lucked into working with people I thoroughly like and admire. Which is nice. 

I'm sure I just said something really useful to James about the mix here.
By the way, this is a corner of Hampton Court, not James's studio which is much more comfortable.

I don’t seem to have put them off with my helpful comments yet either. Since recording Base Court, we’ve also been working on both sound and vision elements for the Tudor Kitchens. 

The research and writing has been more of a challenge this time, as it involves delving deep into the specifics and practicalities of this huge operation rather than the skim of gossip, but the same pleasures pertain - having the experts on hand to consult throughout including Richard Fitch and his team, the collaboration with Matt, James and now Kyle Waters on images, and the practical, hands on elements of filming. 

I still love the megalomaniac’s paradise of world-building in novels, but it is a great and particular pleasure to get out into the world and be part of a team.

Oh and as I have a longstanding and almost Trumpain tendency to try and rope family members into things wherever possible, I just thought I’d point out that the cute little voice of ‘0’ and ‘1’ in that Numberjacks video is now one of the teenaged servant boys being quizzed by Cromwell in Hampton Court. Thank you, Dylan.   

If you want to see what we’ve been up to, the Base Court soundscape is now live, and the Tudor Kitchens should be ready for inspection by early May.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Heavy industry on the River Meon: Iron by Carolyn Hughes

We are accustomed to thinking of the Meon Valley as a peaceful, very rural place, where cows graze in the meadows, sheep crop the short turf on the hills, and grain and rape and watercress are harvested from the fields and paddies that border the river.
I have said before that, from early times, there were many mills along the banks of the meandering Meon. They were mostly used for grinding grain for flour but also for a number of manufacturing processes, including iron working, cloth processing, paper making and tanning – quite heavy industries. 
Today I’m going to look at iron working, and next time I will consider brick making. Both industries were centred around the lower reaches of the Meon, at Titchfield and a little further upstream at Funtley, and both have been very important to the economy of the area and the country.
Greenwood’s map from 1826 showing the Titchfield Hundred.
The white arrows and circles show, from the south, “Brick Kilns” next to the River Meon,
and to the east, the “Fareham Kilns”; “Iron Mill”; “Funtley Mill”.

Iron making

Iron smelting had been going on in the Meon Valley since Roman times. Evidence of a Roman “bloomery”, a type of furnace, was found during excavations for one of the Forest of Bere’s car parks in Soberton Heath. This method was used from the Iron Age to mediaeval times, and used charcoal and iron ore. The charcoal would have been made from local timber, in this case trees from the Bere Forest, and the iron ore would presumably have come from the Wealden sandstones, found to the east in Sussex and Kent. Once extracted from the ground, the ore was “roasted” before being smelted with the charcoal in the bloomery furnace, which initially was just a hole in the ground, but later was built above ground out of clay, or stone with a clay lining. The bellows used to increase the heat inside the furnace were operated by hand or foot. The result of the smelting was a spongy mass of iron and slag, which needed to be heated again and hammered, as many times as necessary, to remove the slag and produce iron suitable for making plough-shares, cart fittings, weapons and so on.
A "bloomery" furnace
Later on, iron smelting became increasingly located where water power could be exploited to speed the process.
From the 15th century, “finery” forges used pig iron to produce bar iron. Charcoal was again used to burn the carbon off the pig iron, and the resulting “bloom” was beaten with a hammer to remove the impurities and then draw the iron out into a bar for working.
A finery forge
A slitting mill, invented in the 16th century, was basically a watermill for slitting bars of iron into rods. It consisted of two pairs of rollers turned by water wheels. 
A slitting mill
The first blast furnace in Britain was recorded in 1496, and they spread across the country during the 1550s. The blast furnaces made pig iron from iron ore, and the basic principle was similar to that of the bloomery, using charcoal, but the smelting temperature was higher. Water was used to drive the bellows to create the draught. Later, in 1709, Abraham Darby used coal/coke as a fuel at his Coalbrookdale (the Midlands) furnaces and, within 100 years, the use of coke was almost universal in iron working.
So what do we know about the Funtley iron mill?
As I have mentioned in a previous post (History Girls, August 2017), until the seventeenth century, the Meon was navigable as far as Titchfield, which at that time was a significant port. Eventually, silting restricted the passage of ships and the busy life of Titchfield as a port began its decline in 1611, when the 3rd Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, took the decision to block off the estuary of the River Meon from the sea. He built a canal adjacent to the river, one of the very first canals to be built in England, and a sea lock was built across the estuary. However, several years before he blocked off the estuary, the Earl had established an iron mill a little upstream at Funtley, powered by the River Meon, which might suggest that he expected (or hoped) his actions over the port to support, even boost, Titchfield’s prosperity (though in many ways it did decline). Over time, the Funtley iron mill produced a huge quantity of iron.
The iron mill seems to have been built on a virgin site by the Earl in 1603-5. As already suggested, its establishment seemed to be part of the Earl’s attempt to restore Titchfield’s economic health but also his own fortunes after his release from the Tower of London. Wriothesley had been deeply involved in the Earl of Essex’s 1601 rebellion against Elizabeth I. He was sentenced to death, but it was commuted to life imprisonment through the intervention of Sir Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State. However, on the accession of James I in 1603, Wriothesley was released and resumed his place at court. And he built his iron mill.
A tin mill was apparently also established in the vicinity in 1623, producing utensils for London and perhaps also Portsmouth, although the origin of the tin itself is not clear but was probably Cornwall. However, in the ensuing decades, the iron mill produced an annual total of c.200 tonnes of iron, so clearly the Earl’s strategy worked, and industry in Titchfield did not slump entirely following the closing of the port. The productivity of the mills was already great enough before 1611 to have seriously depleted the local region’s wood resources, used to make charcoal to fuel the furnaces. 
From the 1770s until 1789, the Iron Mill at Funtley was owned by Henry Cort, the inventor of the rolling mill and the puddling furnace, important for the production of iron during the Napoleonic Wars.
As a young man, Cort was a supplier of naval provisions and by the 1770s he had built himself a small fortune. In 1768, he married Elizabeth Heysham, whose uncle William had inherited the family ironmongery business in Gosport, which supplied the navy with mooring chains, anchors and hundreds of different items of ironmongery. Henry took over the business and, after years of experimenting with improved methods for wrought-iron production, in 1775 he bought a forge and slitting mill at Funtley. He wanted continue his experiments, hoping to find an easier way to turn cast iron into wrought iron without the need for hammering.
In 1780, the Royal Navy hired him to re-roll the iron hoops for their barrels. Henry wanted to install new equipment at Funtley, and he turned to Adam Jellicoe, chief clerk in the navy’s pay office, to help finance the venture to the tune of nearly £30,000. (It was apparently normal for pay office clerks to use surplus funds temporarily for their own benefit, though this would later prove Henry’s undoing.) As part of the deal, Samuel, Jellicoe’s son, became a partner in the Funtley works. Jellicoe lived at Fontley House, situated close by the mill, a house that still survives.
In 1783 and 1784 Henry took out patents for new processes, which represented major technological advances in the production of wrought iron. First came the process called “rolling”. In this, the red hot iron was passed through grooved rollers (the design of which he patented) rather than using a hammer to draw the iron out into a bar. The bars of iron were reprocessed several times to produce wrought iron of the desired quality. Rolling replaced hammering for consolidating wrought iron and was 15 times faster.
A rolling mill
He also invented a new process for fining iron, removing the impurities to enable it to be forged. The earlier method of fining used a hearth fuelled with charcoal, but the wood needed for making charcoal had become too scarce to enable the iron industry to expand. Newer blast furnaces were using with coal/coke instead of charcoal. Henry devised a method of “puddling” iron in a coal-burning “reverbatory” furnace, in which the molten iron was stirred with a long rod before being consolidated, and then rolled into bars with the grooved rollers. The new method produced rolled iron of such quality that the navy soon insisted that all iron produced for their use had to meet the same standard.
Because the puddling method used coal/coke instead of expensive charcoal, and because the system could be mechanised, eventually iron production became much cheaper and faster. It also became essential once blast furnaces were used. Before Henry developed his processes, England imported large quantities of wrought iron from abroad, but within a decade of his patents, the country became a major iron exporter.
However, everything was about to go wrong for Henry Cort. For, in 1789, Adam Jellicoe died, and it was discovered that he had indeed used navy money – public funds – to finance Henry’s business, but he hadn’t paid it back and he died with large public debts. His liabilities passed to Henry, who also didn’t have the money to repay the debts. A court requisitioned the works at Funtley and another one at Gosport. Henry was financially ruined. His partnership with Samuel Jellicoe was dissolved, although Samuel was later able to clear the debt. The Crown later gave Samuel possession of the works at Funtley where he remained for the next thirty years.
As an acknowledgment of the value of the patents, the government did grant Henry a small pension in 1794. But despite his inventiveness and the contribution he had made to British industry, Henry Cort died a poor man in 1800.
There is very little left of the iron works at Funtley, apart from some sections of brickwork surrounding the millstream and a plaque.

However, in modern day Fareham, Henry Cort’s work is celebrated in the Henry Cort Millennium Project, a permanent exhibition of the work of twelve blacksmith artists from throughout Europe.

Monday, 19 February 2018

A Very Palace Family by L.J. Trafford

On the 24th January 41AD Emperor Caligula was stabbed 32 times in a conspiracy that involved his personal secretary Callistus.

27 years later in 68 AD Caligula’s nephew, Nero, awoke to find his palace deserted. His Praetorian Prefect Nymphidius Sabinus had convinced the Guards to abandon their posts and lend their support to his rival, Galba.
Nero fled the city with a few trusted aids and committed suicide aged only 30.

Two Imperial deaths with one surprising thing in common. The secretary Callistus, a key part of the plot to assassinate Caligula, was the grandfather of Nymphidius Sabinus, the Prefect who convinced the Guards to desert Nero.
Removing unsuitable emperors was a family business. 

"So great was his wealth and the dread which he inspired that his power
 verged on the despotic." Josephus, The Jewish War.

Callistus was a palace freedman, that is a former Imperial slave. However, he did not start his life in Imperial service. He was sold by his previous master to the palace, “along with other rejects from the household staff” ,as Seneca puts it neatly.

It is tempting to think of the slaves and ex-slaves (freedmen and women) as a sort of civil service. Yes, they ran the bureaucracy that managed the rule of a vast empire, but this was a court. The nearer you were to the emperor the more powerful you were. Impress him and you could find yourself rapidly promoted.

Evidently Callistus impressed Caligula for he was freed by him and bestowed the names Gaius Julius, the emperor’s own. He’d also built up quite a fortune. Pliny the Elder name checks him as one of three imperial freedman who were wealthier than Marcus Crassus. Crassus, who lived in the first century BC, had boasted that only a man who could maintain a legion of soldiers on his yearly income was wealthy.
Callistus could evidently maintain two legions on the fortune he'd acquired. 

As Caligula’s secretary he was also at the centre of influence. "Such a power, indeed, as was in a manner equal to the power of the tyrant himself" So says Josephus.
Callistus used his position to gain a gleeful revenge on his former master, turning him away from his own door as unworthy. This was a very Roman humiliation, to be forced to pay court to one's former property and then to be turned away in front of all.  "The master sold Callistus, but how much has Callistus made his master pay for!"says Seneca.

So why did this former slave at the height of his influence involve himself in a plot to kill the man who had made it all possible, Caligula?
You didn’t get from the auctioneers block to one of the most powerful men in the empire without a dose of savvy self preservation. Callistus owned this in spades.

Despite having only reigned 4 years Caligula was fast running out of money. He’d ploughed through the healthy treasury left to him by his predecessor, Tiberius. Desperate for money the emperor had undertaken some novel ways to raise funds. He’d raised new taxes, insisted he was made a beneficiary in wills, set up a brothel in the palace and sold his sisters’ freedmen. 
The dripping with coinage Callistus must have watched this with increasing alarm.
Yes he was a trusted confident to the emperor, but how long would that last?

Caligula's erratic behaviour had led to the death of many high ranking Romans and even the emperor's sisters weren't safe; they'd both been exiled and their possessions sold.

The key mover in the plot was the Praetorian Prefect Cassius Chaera and his motivation for murdering the emperor was very, very personal: Caligula had made fun of his high pitched voice.

Though the plot did not originate with Callistus, he did nothing to prevent it and is named by multiple sources as having been involved.

On the 24th January 41AD at the seventh hour Caligula was convinced by friends to walk off the effects of a satisfactory banquet. In a covered walkway he stopped to watch a group of boys performing a dance. As he spoke to the boys Chaera came up behind him and stabbed him in the neck. Others then joined in. The emperor fell down to the ground and was repeatedly thrust at.
Caligula was dead.

Chaera and the other assassins were slain instantly by the emperor's German bodyguard. Caligula's wife and infant daughter were both brutally killed. In the confusion and chaos that followed the Praetorian Guard discovered Caligula's uncle Claudius cowering behind a curtain. They declared him emperor.

Claudius trod a delicate path. He did execute those involved in his nephew's murder, but not Callistus. Callistus amazingly managed to persuade the new emperor that many times Caligula had ordered Claudius' death and only he, Callistus had been managed to prevent this murder. For this he was allowed to live and he work alongside two other notable palace freedmen, Narcissus and Pallas. 

Callistus continued to balance on the tricky tightrope that was palace politics. When Empress Messalina's extra marital dalliances resulted in a marriage whilst Claudius was out of town, Callistus opted not to inform the emperor."Callistus had learnt from his experience dating from the previous reign that power was better safeguarded by diplomatic than by vigorous means", as Tacitus puts it.

That diplomacy served him well. His colleagues Narcissus and Pallas both dramatically fell from favour and were executed.

And Callistus? We don't know the ending of that ultimate palace survivor and the fact that we don't, unlike his two contemporaries, suggests it was a peaceful, natural end. In the deadly world of palace politics Callitus had triumphed.

"I must dwell on him for a moment 
for he was intimately involved in Rome's imminent calamities. 
Tacitus, The Annals.

Callistus' grandson, Nymphidius Sabinus was cut from a very different cloth to his grandfather. His story is the very opposite of the canny, silver tongued freedman who survived through two reigns with his fortune intact. In 68AD Nymphidius Sabinus committed two very vigorous, extraordinary acts. One of which borders on the insane in its bold audaciousness.

Callistus had a daughter Nymphidia by one of the Imperial seamstresses. Nymphidia had a very particular role in the Imperial household, she was a prostitute. According to Tacitus she'd distributed her charms around the slaves and freedmen of the palace. She’d even seduced the young Caligula as a means of currying favour for her father. Some said her son was the product of that dalliance. Others that he was the son of a gladiator named Martinus.
We have very little information on Sabinus' early life. Possibly he served in the legions, possibly in Pannonia. Possibly is a much utilised word in ancient history.

What we do know is that in 65AD the Praetorian Prefect, Faenius Rufus, was executed for his part in a conspiracy to murder emperor Nero and Sabinus was appointed to this suddenly vacant role. To emphasis the importance of a Praetorian Prefect it is worth noting that the later emperor Vespasian appointed his son and heir, Titus, Prefect.  How had Sabinus gained such a prominent role? From slave on an auctioneers block to the emperor's praetorian prefect in three generations is quite some social progress.

I think we are looking at the workings of a court again. Sabinus was the third generation of a palace family, he must have inherited some of his grandfather's wealth and clients. Also his mother had generated much goodwill amongst the powerful palace freedmen, possibly that worked to his advantage. 

Bust of Nero. 
Shortly after Sabinus' appointment Nero left Rome on a tour of Greece. The emperor returned in 68AD. He would commit suicide on the 9th June of that year and he did so because of the actions of Nymphidius Sabinus.

In 68AD a Roman Governor of a Gallic province, Julius Vindex, began a revolt against the emperor. Surprisingly he was not putting himself forward as a replacement. Instead he threw his support behind the Spanish Governor, Galba. Though Vindex's revolt was crushed other provinces began to fall behind Galba's claim.

Faced with this developing situation Sabinus weighed up his options; remain loyal to the emperor who had promoted him or throw his lot behind Galba?
Either pathway was fraught with danger. Nobody knew whether Nero was done for, he maintained strong support with the eastern legions even as the western sided with Galba. Chose the wrong emperor than the new one was unlikely to forget that stand.

Sabinus considered, then he acted, offering his guards a monetary incentive for their loyalty to this course.

"On the morning of the 9th June emperor Nero awoke at around midnight. Finding that the guard of soldiers had left, he sprang from his bed and sent for all his friends. Since no reply came back from anyone, he went himself to their rooms with a few followers. But finding that all the doors were closed and that no one replied to him, he returned to his own chamber, from which now the very caretakers had fled, taking with them even the bed-clothing." Suetonius. 

With no personal bodyguard Nero made a dangerous flight out of the city. At the home of one of his freedmen he killed himself.
The political instinct of Callistus had been inherited by his grandson. Sabinus had chosen well.

And there Sabinus' story might have ended. He might have served as Prefect in Galba's reign and beyond. Perhaps he might have generated as much influence, wealth and notoriety as his grandfather.
But that is not what happened. Plutarch has the fullest account of what did and it is not a cheering story. 

When Nero died, Galba was in Spain. He remained in the provinces until October 68AD. With the new emperor absent this left Rome under the control of Sabinus. Whilst Callistus had wielded vast power behind the closed doors of the palace Sabinus openly enacted his. One of his very first actions was to force his fellow Praetorian Prefect, Tigellinus, to step aside.
This was just the start of Sabinus asserting himself.

He gave huge banquets to the high born of the city, insisted that the Senators and consuls pay court to him, fell into a fury when official documents were sent out without his seal on them and took upon the title 'benefactor'
He even decided Nero's favourite, the cross dressing eunuch Sporus, should be his consort.
Sabinus was getting above himself.

Inevitably word of Sabinus' grandiosity in Rome reached Galba. He was not pleased. He was so displeased he decided to appoint his own man, Cornelius Laco as Prefect.
Sabinus was out of Imperial favour and out of a job. All the power and prestige he'd acquired in the last few months looked set to melt away. One can't help think that his grandfather, that arch diplomat, would never have played his cards so obviously.

Sabinus acted again and it was a bold move yet again. He decided to declare himself emperor.
His claim to the purple was dubious in the extreme and based solely on his claim he was the natural son of Caligula. Yes, it was true Nymphidia had dallianced with that emperor but Sabinus was illegitimate, the son of a prostitute.

What an earth made him do it? Fear of what Galba might do to him when he reached Rome? Humiliation that he'd been so easily discarded by the emperor he felt he'd created?
Insanity brought on by stress?
Either way it was a plan doomed to fail. Rome was not about to accept the son of a slave prostitute as emperor. Callistus had known how to execute power from the positions open to him as an ex slave, he knew where the line was. Sabinus did not and he leaped straight over that line to his doom.

As he wrote a speech to his troops explaining this plan, one of his own tribunes, Antonius Honoratus, was making a speech of his own to the Guards. Honoratus pointed out that given the Guards had only deposed Nero two months previously might it look ever so slightly venal to remove another emperor quite so quickly? They had sworn their loyalty to Galba, their honour. That meant something, didn't it? The guards were swayed by Honoartus's reasoning. 

The Praetorian Guard.
Sabinus was ignorant of these events .When he turned up at the Praetorian Camp ready to make his coronation speech, he had no idea he was facing a hostile audience. He soon was.

Opening the gates he was confronted with his Guards. They shouted allegiance to Galba.
Sabinus ran. He was pursued and felled by a spear. On the ground the Guards hacked at him repeatedly.
When he was dead his body was dragged through the streets and put on public display.

Such was the gruesome end of Callistus' grandson.

Yet for all his gross mistakes Sabinus ended up having the greater impact on history than his grandfather. 
That bounty he'd promised his Guards for deposing Nero was never paid by Galba. The stern emperor declaring, "He levied his troops , he did not buy them." It was a fatal mistake for it left the guards open to bribery by another source. Enter Marcus Salvius Otho and enter 69AD: The Year of the Four Emperors. A year of calamity, treason, battles and carnage. A year made possible by the actions of the grandson of a slave once plucked off the auctioneers block for a few sesterces. 

For those interested in Nymphidius Sabinus, my first book Palatine covers his extraordinary actions in bringing about the fall of Nero.

L.J. Trafford

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Ghostly Re-Union on World Book Day - Celia Rees

March 1st is World Book Day, as I'm sure you all know. Like many other authors, I will be visiting a school, Coundon Court School in Coventry. For a writer, visiting a place that provided direct inspiration for a novel evokes a particular kind of nostalgia and Coundon Court did that for me.. 

Coundon Court School - The 0ld House
Before I was A History  Girl, I was a bit of a Goth Girl. I wrote a few titles for Scholastic's Point Horror Unleashed series, beginning with Blood Sinister. Scholastic like my vampire story and wanted another book from me, something to add to the growing list of home grown horror that was the Unleashed, so I had to think of New Idea.

At this time, I was working in a College in Coventry. My students knew I was a writer and liked to hear about what I was writing. We got to talking about spooky stories, scary stories. Two of them had been pupils at Coundon Court School and they told me that there were stories about the school being haunted. Along with the rest of the class, I was all ears. Although most of the school was modern, it was based in and around a Victorian Gothic mansion which had once been owned by a local industrialist, George Singer, a manufacturer of bicycles and later motor cars.  After his death in 1909, the house passed into other hands, eventually being acquired by Coventry City Council. It opened as Coundon Court High School in 1953.

The house might have moved on but George has not.  Over the years, several members of staff have seen him in the Old  House. After one Parents' Evening, Janet Powell, an English teacher, glimpsed a middle aged man with greying hair and moustaches going into the library. At first, she thought it was a stray parent but when she followed him, he had disappeared. It was only afterwards that she realised that the figure she'd seen bore a remarkable resemblance to George Singer.

George Singer
 George Singer is not the only ghost to haunt the school. In 1907, a maid plunged to her death down the central stairwell. She has since been seen on the landing, a fleeting grey presence outside rooms that used to be the nursery and where children have been seen playing on a rocking horse...

A Haunted School! By the end of the ghost story session. I had my book. Not long after this, I  was asked to accompany a different group of students to - Coundon Court School. Writers don't believe in coincidence. It was meant to be. I began to recall other stories told to me by other students. As a teacher, I was naturally interested in oral history, story telling and ghost stories often figured prominently in these sessions.  The ones that intrigued me most were the stories that the children told to each other, the ones that had to be coxed out of them. Every school has ghost stories, even if it's only haunted toilets, but some are more - unusual. The first school I taught at in Coventry was a new school, no spooky history, but all the children believed that the sports hall was haunted by a girl who had been killed after coming off a trampoline. At exam time when assemblies were held in there, a certain spot on the floor was always left clear, no matter how often pupils were told to move along.

The next school I taught at was a modern school built on an old site. There had once been a monastery there and later a mansion, rather like Coundon Court. All trace of both had disappeared, except for landscaped grounds and an ornamental lake. The children had stories to tell of monks and nuns, cowled figures, women in white, but the most intriguing story of all centred around the woodlands that spread from the school grounds to a nearby common. In there, were nine steps, so the legend said (or five, or seven - depending on who was doing the telling). If you found the steps and went down them and  failed to jump the last one, you would go straight to Hell... Like the girl coming off the trampoline, this would not be found in any collection of Ghosts and Legends. It was their story. 

I had plenty of material for my haunted school story and more if I chose to expand it out into the city itself. Coventry has a long history and as M. R. James observed, history is never far from the ghost story.

Celia Rees

Saturday, 17 February 2018


Recently I started helping with Story-times for Under-Fives at my local Carnegie library. My role, at the moment, involves greeting parents & grandparents, giving out musical instruments and then collecting them back into the box. In addition, I have begun singing lots of once- familiar rhymes, hoping to encourage the grown-ups to join in by my cheery enthusiasm, if not the beauty of my voice. 
Image result for Harrogate Library picture

Coming across these songs once more, still being sung to two and three year olds, I noticed how the words echo events, practices and customs that aren't central to the lives of these 21st Century children. We wind the bobbin up and back again, watch the mouse climbing the non-digital grandfather clock and march up and down the hill - loudly -with that long ago Duke of York. Moreover,  in our songs, we are still living an agricultural life: we go bumping up and down on a big red tractor (bringing in the hay - Hey! ) while - staring out at Yorkshire's largely arable uni-crop fields, MacDonald's Farm seems an unusually mixed enterprise.  
In addition, even though the audience walks or drives into town, the songs tell us that the mummies on the bus chatter and the daddies say "Don't do that!".  I haven't yet worked out how to ease that gender issue when I start leading Story-times myself. 
Nevertheless, the History Girl part of me is rather pleased to find that this past world and rural dependency is still being celebrated. As my earlier post, shown below, suggested, these old rhymes and songs can create a child's sense of history.
“When were you first interested in history?” is a question often asked of History Girls, so I’ve been thinking about my own interest and some of the places it came from. 

On reflection, my answer would be that History came riding in on the back of words and poems and rhymes, all bringing questions and objects from the past that needed explaining.

What were curds and whey and would I like them?
 Why did that pair go to fetch a pail of water when we had a tap?
Could I entice the King of Spain’s daughter with a silver nutmeg and a golden pear, assuming I had a tree that was better than the overgrown lilac in our tiny garden? 

Could you actually have blackbirds in a pie?
Why did the words "gunpowder, treason and plot" sound so deliciously rebellious and doom-laden? 
And why did fat and fair Bobby wear silver buckles on his knee? And what about those rings on her fingers and bells on her toes? Nobody I saw ever dressed so grandly, or rode on such fine horses. It was bikes, buses and the occasional motor-car.
The rhymes read like codes, offering glimpses of life in the past. Those pretty lines didn’t stop me noticing that many carried poverty and cruelty in their pockets. I was quietly sad about poor Piggy on the railroad picking up stones. and although I went along with dipping our heads in the deep blue sea, I knew that big ship sailing on the alley-alley-o had met some kind of tragedy.
The love of such antique rhymes came years before I learned about the Opies and their collections and commentaries of traditional rhymes, or found the lamented Sendak’s clever illustrations for “I Saw Esau.”  I added to my own rag-bag concept of Time Past with a Book of Story Poems, dressed in a faded green Everyman binding, discovered on a shelf at home: each page full of exploits that took place in historical or legendary settings.  Who could resist those heroics and laments?

I met gude Sir Patrick Spens, wi’ the Scots Lords at his feet. 

I heard the bells ringing out the Brides of Enderby as the seething wave swept in from the Lincolnshire coast. 

I wept for mad Cuchulain warring against the tide, for the Forsaken Mermaid and for the Lady of Shalott singing her last song, as she drifted towards Camelot. 
Many of the poems I found in that book, and in other collections at that time, looked backwards rather than forwards. Anthologies now seem different: glancing through some contemporary children’s anthologies, I note that few now have that strong sense of the sea and a maritime nation. Did that go, along with the ports and the docks? Let alone the horses that "the gentlemen" no longer ride by at night?
I know the poems I loved back then were romantic, legendary stuff and not strictly proper history, yet those rhymes and ballads and verses held enough glamour to make the past a living breathing presence for me and create a living sense of time gone by. Soon enough, life brought along proper stories and novels and non-fiction books and school history lessons along with films and tv programmes and museums, but when I look back,  poetry and word of mouth were where I met History first.
Penny Dolan
These two illustrations come from Jackie Morris’s truly wonderful collection of nursery rhymes “ The Cat and the Fiddle” published by Frances Lincoln.  
Image result for THE LOST WORDS book cover
PS & NB: More recently, Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane created a wonderful picture book, THE LOST WORDS, (above) celebrating the once-familiar vocabulary of the British natural world and which modern children could easily losing to the technological terms now crowding school dictionaries. 

Friday, 16 February 2018

Pictures and Plums for Fingers and Thumbs - by Sue Purkiss

I'm indebted to a friend of mine for this month's post. She was having a clear-out, and decided that a pile of books which had belonged to her grandfather finally had to go. Most of them went to Glastonbury Rural Life Museum - but I managed to divert a few of them my way. Here's one of them.

You should just about be able to say that the inscription inside the book is dated 1905, and says: 

Rowland Edgar Weston
From his Mother
on his sixth Birthday.

The publishers are EP Dutton & Co New York, and Ernest Nister London. It's a collection of verses, short stories and nursery rhymes: a few are credited to the author, but many aren't - and I can't see any credits to the illustrator.

Of course, they are very clearly from a bygone age. But the illustrations are charming, I think. Here's a poem about curly hair.

This - below - is not the kind of story you'd find in a modern book. I think you should just about be able to read it - it's about Jessie, whose twin brother Philip catches measles, leaving her bored and with nothing to do. But Mother reproaches her, saying: "I would not cry so much, or you will melt away like the sugar princess on the cake." Suitably chastened, she trots off for a walk and comes back with a huge bunch of daisies and grass, which she puts into a pink mug and takes to Philip, who is "so pleased." (Really?) And that's it. Nothing like a nice little moral message.

But this is the one I know you're all going to love. It predicts our girl's future. Just in case you can't read it, here are the last two verses:

When I'm in the twenties,
  I'll be like Sister Joe;
I'll wear the sweetest dresses
  (and maybe, have a beau!).
I'll go out in the evening,
  and wear my hair up high
And not a girl in all the town
  shall be as good as I

When I'm in the thirties,
  I'll be just like Mamma;
And, maybe, I'll be married
  to a splendid big Papa.
I'll cook, and bake, and mend,
  and mind, and grow a little fat
But Mother is so sweet and nice, 
  I'll not object to that.

Isn't it sweet? I think Dickens would have approved. It looks as if young Rowland enjoyed it: it's well-used, and he's coloured in some of the pictures and even drawn one of his own at the back, of a house with a hedge beside it with a gate. I love it!