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St Margaret's Curch, Bodelwyddan. Photo from Wiki

St Margaret’s Church (and Canadian Graves) Bodelwyddan. Photo from Wiki

“Someday, sometime, we will understand”

I had always assumed that when the First World War ended the troops quickly returned to their homes and families and began the difficult process of re-building their lives and relationships. That’s certainly the picture you get from TV dramas like “Downton Abbey.” In fact, at the end of the war thousands of troops went straight into demobilisation camps and stayed there for months or even years. They had been promised an immediate return to civilian life, but the rules for demobilisation depended on them being able to prove that they had a job, and they also needed their commanding officer’s agreement  to leave the army. Naturally, the longer a man had served, the less likely they would have a job to return to, and the proof of having a job was mired in a bureaucratic nightmare of form-filling and Ministry of Labour approvals.

The reason for keeping them in the army it seems, was that many senior politicians in the British Government, even in 1919, did not consider that the war was really over. Many wanted to maintain a large standing army. Some wanted to send troops to Russia to fight the Bolshevic Revolution, to Ireland to suppress Nationalism, to the Rhineland as an army of occupation. Others were concerned at growing dissatifaction and unrest in the country and the potential need to suppress any signs of rebellion. So the promises of homes fit for heroes and rapid demobilisation were quickly forgotten.

The demobilisation camps where the troops were kept were not pleasant places. They were over-crowded, poorly supplied and subject to rigorous discipline. No one knew from one day to the next where they might be sent, or when they might be able to return to their families. The men were “kept busy” with meaningless drills and exercises. After years of suffering in the trenches, and watching their friends die, this was what they had come home to. To many it must have felt like prison – scant reward for the sacrifices they had been asked to make.

On January 3rd 1919 rumours were rife among the British troops that men were to be sent back to France. The troops in Folkestone picketed the docks. They were joined by others on their way to France and “Colonial” troops on their way home. 10,000 troops marched through the city supported by the people of Folkestone. At the same time, 4,000 troops demonstrated in Dover and 1500 members of the Army Service Corps seized lorries and drove them into Whitehall. In the next few days there were mutinies in several places including Bristol, Kempton Park, and Aldershot.

On February 8th 1919 three thousand troops who were being sent back to France after returning from leave, refused to board their ships. A few hours later they marched into Whitehall. They were surrounded by a reserve battalion of Grenadiers and two troops of the Household Cavalry with bayonets drawn and machine guns trained on the demonstrators. Fearing a blood-bath the protestors eventually surrendered.

No incident is perhaps more tragic though, than the mutiny at Kinmel Park in North Wales where 14,000 canadian troops were stationed. No monument is more fitting to the way the way the heroes of the First World War were treated, than the graveyard at St Margaret’s Church in Bodelwyddan (pictured above). In that churchyard are the graves of 80  soldiers who died – after the war was over. Altogether 208 Canadian soldiers died in the Kinmel Bay camp. The majority died in the influenza epidemic of 1919, weakened by the cramped and insanitary conditions in the camp, the terrible winter weather and the poor rations they were fed.

Hearing the rumour that ships due to take them home had been re-allocated to the repatriation of American soldiers, proved the final straw and a thousand Canadian troops rioted in the camp. During the suppression of the rebellion five soldiers were killed and 28 wounded – 51 were later brought before a court martial and 27 were convicted and sentenced to terms between 3 months and 10 years.

Four of those who were killed in the Kinmel Park Riots are buried in St Margaret’s churchyard. The inscription on the gravestone of Corporal Joseph Young simply says –

“Someday, sometime, we will understand”

It’s years since I first saw the churchyard in North Wales. I was driving to a meeting on a beautiful sunny day and the sight of the rows of white graves, lit by the sun, took me by surprise. The image stayed with me, yet it wasn’t until years later that I began looking online to find out who they were. Many never fought in the War. I don’t know if that makes their deaths any less tragic or heroic. What did emerge from looking into their deaths was the disgraceful way that the troops were treated – not just in the war – but afterwards.

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“War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides. It has made it, I think, impossible that ever again, at all events in the lifetime of the present generation, there should be a revival of the old class feeling which was responsible for so much, and, among other things, for the exclusion for a period, of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise.”

These were the words of the Home Secretary, George Cave (Conservative) in introducing the “Representation of the People Act” in 1918. Millions of those who had fought and died during the First World War did not have the right to vote for the government that had sent them to fight – neither did any of the women who had kept the country running for the last four years, while mourning lost loves, husbands, brothers and sons. This Act, at last, gave the vote to all men over the age of 21, though only to women aged over 30.

2014 was the centenary of the beginning of World War I and was rightfully commemorated. Yet we were told by a Government Cabinet Minister, Michael Gove that:-

“Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect, at best, an ambiguous attitude to this country  and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage … Historians have skilfully demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order.”

I can’t think of anyone who doubts for a moment that these men and women fought, and worked, and died for “king and country,” nor that they demonstrated “patriotism, honour and courage.” Mr. Gove says they were fighting for a “Noble Cause” and that “the conflict has, for many been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh, What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer, and Blackadder as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.”

Yet there is every reason to believe that the ruling “elite” were out-of-touch. We need only to remember the historic context, the words of the Home Secretary (above) – the “freedom” that people had fought for was a freedom they did not enjoy in their own country. The “western liberal order” had seen fit to withhold from them for generations the right to elect their own government. It had resisted at every turn the struggle for what we now take as basic human rights. Every movement, every rebellion, every attempt at uniting to seek universal suffrage, or better living and working conditions had been ruthlessly suppressed by the “western liberal order” in Great Britain – The Luddites, the Chartists, the Suffragettes – all ignored and victimised.

We are so quick to honour the handful of politicians who swam against the tide and helped secure universal suffrage, rights to basic sanitation, education and healthcare; yet we seem to forget that the vast majority of politicians (of all parties) had opposed such progress at every step. We extol those good old “Victorian Values,” and the age of innovation, while forgetting its dependence on the use of child-labour, the disempowerment of women, the terrible slums, and the dangerous working conditions that the majority of people endured for much of the 19th century. We remember the names of those who fought for the abolition of the slave trade, but forget the names of those whose wealth was built upon it, and who were compensated for its loss, or the many who treated their employees, “free” or not, as slaves.

Our democracy is something to be proud of, something to cherish. Many of the rights we may often take for granted are denied to millions around the world. Yet those freedoms were not a gift from enlightened politicians, but were hard-won by generations of “ordinary” people in the face of often bloody resistance from governments they had no part in electing. To my mind it’s that “honour and courage” we should remember – It’s that history we should be proud of. As George Orwell said,

“The most effective way to destroy a people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

Don’t let the politicians change our history, it’s part of who we are – Lest we forget.

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Ever been called a “Luddite?” It’s an insult nowadays, but in the 19th Century they were considered heroes by most of the population. The Luddite Rebellion began in 1811, in Nottingham and gradually spread to Yorkshire, Lancashire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire. They opposed the new machinery which had led to the growth of factory production methods. The cause attracted thousands of followers under the banner of “Luddites” though Ned Ludd, was in fact a mythical invention based on the character of Robin Hood.

The growth of factories  using the new textile and power generation technology took away the need for skilled artisans who worked largely at home. They were rapidly replaced by unskilled workers employed in factories. These textile workers, faced with increasing unemployment, falling wages and hunger, attacked the factories and smashed machines in the vain hope that they could change what was happening, or as history has interpreted it, halt “progress.”

In questioning why the Luddites opposed progress it’s important to consider how that “progress” was affecting people’s lives. The new machines did not require skilled operators. They were easy enough for a child to operate. In fact children from the age of five upwards made up between two thirds and three quarters of the workers in the average textile factory. This naturally increased adult unemployment and depressed wages. The children worked the same 13 hour day (from 6am to 7pm) as the adults, but they were considerably cheaper to employ. While adults might be paid 7 shillings per week, a child under 11 was more likely to be paid 1 shilling, if they were paid at all.

With levels of unemployment as they were, many families were dependent on the money their children earned. But factory work was hard, the hours long, the machinery dangerous and the air thick with tiny fibres and pollutants that got into the lungs. Many parents would not allow their children to work in factories even if it meant “going without.”

Faced with the difficulties of recruiting sufficient cheap child labour the factory owners commonly resorted to buying children from orphanages and workhouses. In some cases they were even paid to take the children who were known as pauper apprentices. The children were made to sign contracts that made them virtually the property of the factory owner. Pauper apprentices were also cheaper to house than adult workers. While it might cost, a £100 to build a cottage for a family, an apprentice house for 100 children could be built for £300.

As the Luddite Rebellion grew, the attacks on factories and the destruction of machinery increased and grew in ferocity. Thousands of machines were destroyed. The Government responded with the “Frame Breaking Act” in February 1812, making the breaking of machines a capital offence which carryied the death penalty. They also deployed twelve thousand troops to the areas where the Luddites were active, to protect the factories and to apprehend offenders.

To add to the problems of the textile workers, in 1811 the wheat harvests failed, driving up the price of bread, the staple diet of the poor. Unable to feed their families, there were food riots in Manchester, Oldham, Ashton, Rochdale, Stockport and Macclesfield in 1812. These people did not have the vote, but they nevertheless petitioned the Government for help. This was the response of the Parliamentary Committee which considered their petition:-

“While the Committee fully acknowledge and most deeply lament the great distress of numbers of persons engaged in the cotton manufacture, they are of opinion that no interference of the legislature with the freedom of trade, or with the perfect liberty of every individual to dispose of his time and of his labour in the way and on the terms which he may judge most conducive to his own interest, can take place without violating general principles of the first importance to the prosperity and happiness of the community, without establishing the most pernicious precedent, or without aggravating, after a very short time, the pressure of the general distress, and imposing obstacles against that distress ever being removed.”

In other words the Government refused to intervene, preferring to do nothing, adopting a “laissez-faire” approach, or in modern parlance opting to – “Let the Market decide.”

The Luddite Rebellion as an organised movement was largely over by 1813, but in 1816 (again following a bad harvest and increase in bread prices) the Luddites attacked Heathcote and Boden’s mill in Loughborough. They smashed 53 weaving frames which had cost £6,000. Troops eventually quelled the riot and arrested some of the rioters. For their crimes, six men were executed and another three were transported.

Some historians believe that the Luddite Rebellion was the closest Britain had come to a full scale revolution since the Civil War in 1642, yet it achieved very little, if anything,  in terms of change. It was not until 1833 that the government passed the “Factory Act” prohibiting children under 9 from working. The use of child labour became commonplace in the factories of the Industrial Revolution.  It took until 1888 for Parliament to pass the “Factory and Workshops Act” preventing children under 10 from working.

The Luddites  are now predominantly remembered as “technophobes” and opponents of progress. The word “Luddite” is commonly used as a term of abuse. But before judging the Luddites it’s worth remembering that thousands of men and women were willing to risk their lives for the Luddite cause and that the “progress” they opposed, adversely affected their lives and the lives of their children, and their children’s children. Surely it is the way that technological advancement is implemented that determines whether or not it represents progress?

Perhaps what being a Luddite was really about is best summed up by the journalist, William Cobbett, who wrote at the time:-  

“Society ought not to exist, if not for the benefit of the whole. It is and must be against the law of nature, if it exists for the benefit of the few and for the misery of the many. I say, then, distinctly, that a society, in which the common labourer . . . cannot secure a sufficiency of food and raiment, is a society which ought not to exist; a society contrary to the law of nature; a society whose compact is dissolved.”

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Rowlandson, The Comforts of Bath, The Pump Room. Wikimedia image.

Rowlandson, The Comforts of Bath, The Pump Room. Wikimedia image.

Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” opens with the sentence, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It is one of the best written and best known opening lines of any novel. It is also one of the best examples of “comic irony” because, as Austen makes clear throughout the novel, it is primarily the women (or more particularly their mothers) who are desperately in search of a rich single man as husband-material.

Historically Bath was undoubtedly one of the most favoured locations for such match-making, both in fact and in fiction. Though the city is relatively small today, it had grown faster than almost any other in Britain during the 17 th Century.  In 1801, when Jane moved to the city it was the ninth largest conurbation in England with a population of 35,000. Its spa facilities and entertainments were renowned throughout Europe and visitors flocked to the city for “The Season” (roughly from the beginning of May to mid-September). This was the ideal time for husband-hunting.

There were balls and gatherings, concerts and card games in the Upper and Lower Assembly Rooms. Each day people met in The Pump Rooms (see Rowlanson’s image above – Wikimedia) to see who was newly arrived in the city, to make introductions (and to be introduced) and perhaps most importantly to exchange gossip, and arrange social events. The theatre too, was well attended with a continually changing programme of popular contemporary productions, drawing some of the finest actors and performers of the age.

People also entertained at home, and yet one of the most favoured social events (weather permitting) was simply “promenading” in the popular shopping areas like Milsom Street, or the many purpose-built, Parades and Parks, like Jane’s favourite, Sydney Gardens. These were the places to see and be seen, the places where accidental meetings might be expected, or could be contrived. As Catherine Morland remarks in “Northanger Abbey”

a fine Sunday in Bath empties every house of its inhabitants, and all the world appears on such an occasion to walk about and tell their acquaintance what a charming day it is.

It would be easy to be swept away by images of “beautiful people” in a social whirl of high society events, set against a back-drop of some of the finest Georgian architecture in the world. Indeed that is the world that Jane Austen seems to present in her novels, yet that was not the whole truth, at least for Jane. The notorious British weather certainly often made promenading, or even attending events or visiting friends, difficult. As Jane said in a letter to her sister, Cassandra,

“We stopped in Paragon (a prestigious address where her wealthy uncle lived) as we came along, but it was too wet and dirty for us to get out.”

 It must also be remembered that Jane lived in Bath continuously (throughout the years) from 1801 to 1805, and the city was a very different place, out of Season. Being primarily a Spa, many of the resident population of Bath were of retirement age and not always in the best of health. As for eligible young men, only 39% of Bath’s population were male in 1801, and it is safe to assume that relatively few of these were eligible, and that even fewer were young. As Sir Walter Elliot observes in “Persuasion” –

“There certainly were a dreadful multitude of ugly women in Bath; and as for the men! they were infinitely worse. Such scarecrows as the streets were full of! It was evident how little the women were used to the sight of anything tolerable, by the effect which a man of decent appearance produced.”

Many of the eligible young men were of course in the army or navy and away fighting the Napoleonic Wars for much of the time that Jane was living in Bath. And while officers in the services were expected to be at least literate, they came from vary varied educational and social backgrounds. Contrary to popular opinion, although an officer was supposed also to be a “gentleman”, this usually referred to an expectation rather than a predisposition. And often officers fell short of those expectations, which perhaps accounts for Jane’s portrayal of characters like George Wickham, the ne’er-do-well seducer in “Pride and Prejudice.

I’m sure there were lots of George Wickhams in Bath. It was, and still is, the perfect setting for a novel. It was a place where, given enough money or access to credit, all the trappings of wealth and position could be rented or hired or borrowed for The Season, and where people were often not who they appeared to be. As Jane observed in “Persuasion

“Sir Walter had at first thought more of London; but Mr Shepherd felt that he could not be trusted in London, and had been skillful enough to dissuade him from it, and make Bath preferred. It was a much safer place for a gentleman in his predicament: he might there be important at comparatively little expense.”

Very few of Jane’s letters survive from her time in Bath and some say that she wrote very little while she was there. Yet it’s well known that Jane was a consummate editor; writing and re-writing, polishing and refining her work until she was satisfied it was good enough. She may well have been working on drafts of her later novels even then. She was certainly observing and remembering what she saw.

We do know that Jane wrote the beginning of her unfinished novel, “The Watsons” while in Bath. Some say it remained unfinished because it was a time of upheaval in her life (with the death of her father). Others believe it so clearly mirrored her own experience (particularly the financial precariousness of the family) at the time that she found it too painful to continue. And perhaps the chapters that she did complete lack some of the refinement and polish of her later novels, yet I find them very poignant and touching. I can’t help thinking that someone of Jane’s intelligence and sensitivity must at times have been hurt by a Society where people were judged so much in terms of title, wealth and appearance; as opposed to their true nature and accomplishments.

In my novel, “AVON STREET” I have tried to explore aspects of the City of Bath that lay hidden and forgotten behind its romantic Georgian image. Jane Austen recognised that all was not always as it seemed in the City. Perhaps it’s little wonder then that she makes such good use of comic irony.

This piece was kindly hosted on the Jane Austen’s World blog on May 11th 2013.

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"A View of Pulteney Bridge" by William Noble Hardwick from the Victoria Art Gallery  (Bath) Collection

“A View of Pulteney Bridge” by William Noble Hardwick from the Victoria Art Gallery (Bath) Collection

Any author owes a big debt to their readers. Not just because they’ve chosen their book amongst so many others, but because they have spent time reading it. There are so many competing forms of more “instant” entertainment now, and time is precious.  The cover and blurb and opening page may be what initially appeals, but a writer has to earn their readers’  time by creating characters that they will care about and by devising a plot that will make them want to keep turning the pages.

But the historical novel, perhaps like science fiction, demands something more. It requires the reader to suspend their disbelief, to ignore everything around them, and to imagine that they are living in another place, another time. For a writer that’s where the research comes in. A writer has to understand what life was like in another time – fashions, transport, medicine, work, education, politics, crime and a host of other things. But as a novelist they also have to ensure that they include just the right amount of historical detail in the novel – Too little and it doesn’t feel real – Too much and it becomes a history lecture. It’s a difficult balance, particularly as reader-tastes differ.

What I love about historical novels is that they can help us challenge perceptions of the past, to better understand the lives of “ordinary” people and what it might have been like to have lived in another time. History often, seems to emphasise how different people were to us in the past, as in the famous opening line from L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, “The Go Between”

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Yet it’s a poor traveller who visits a foreign country and has no interest in their culture. In historical novels you have to acknowledge those differences of culture, science, technology, education, religion, economics and all the other external influences that make us different. But while those “differences” cannot be ignored, neither should they be allowed to make caricatures out of characters. The author needs to make the culture of the past understandable and believable if the reader is to engage with it in their imagination.

The Victorian era particularly appeals to me because we know so much about it and because, perhaps more than any other era it mirrors our modern world. It was an era of great change and the first age of consumerism. The Industrial Revolution was in some ways the forerunner of our own Technological Revolution. New discoveries and inventions revolutionised manufacturing processes. Railways and steamships made travel faster and cheaper, rapidly shrinking the world. And it was the age of popular novels, which allow us, perhaps for the first time a real glimpse into the lives of “ordinary” people.

Perhaps more importantly the Victorian Era was the time when the struggle really began for democracy and basic human rights. Universal suffrage, equality under the law, safe working conditions, decent housing, education , basic sanitation and clean drinking water were not granted through the benevolence of governments – each was fought for over many years and usually stubbornly resisted by the powers to be. It is a struggle which is just beginning in many parts of the world as the process of  industrialision takes hold. It is a struggle which never seems to end. These things which many now take for granted, shape who we are, yet they were each fought for by people who we sometimes imagine to be very different to ourselves. It’s perhaps strange to think that the very changes they fought for and brought about now make them seem so very different to us.

My novel, “Avon Street” is set in Bath in 1850.  It’s a city whose image is defined even today by the novels of Jane Austen, and one of the reasons I wrote the book was to challenge (much as I love Austen’s writing) the romanticisation of the past.  I wanted to explore the darker side of the city that Jane Austen only ever hinted at – to go behind the Georgian facades – to show the streets of a city, where wealth and elegance were never far from poverty and squalor. To me, history is like a detective story. We have to sweep aside the images and pre-conceptions to truly understand the people of the past. And perhaps then we can better understand this foreign country, that we all came from.

(This piece is based on a post originally written for, and kindly hosted by Carol Hedges on her blog  on 5th April 2013.)

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‘And the Union workhouses.’ demanded Scrooge. ‘Are  they still in operation?’ 

Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol

BathMap1902-2500

Layout of Bath Workhouse in 1848

 

Workhouses are thought to date back as far as the fourteenth century and the aftermath of the “Black Death.” The plague was merciless in Britain and outbreaks recurred at intervals throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As a result, the working population was decimated and the shortage of labour pushed up wages. To try and halt this, several Acts of Parliament were passed aimed at forcing all able-bodied men to work and to keep wages at their old levels, but their main effect was to create itinerant labourers who travelled around the country looking for areas where they could earn more.

The Poor Law Act of 1388 tried to stop this by introducing regulations restricting the movements of all labourers and itinerant beggars. No one could leave their own parish to seek work elsewhere without the written permission of the local Justice of the Peace, and the poor were prohibited from begging and could only receive help from the Parish in which they were born. Alms houses were built for the destitute but the earliest known reference to the term “Workhouse” dates back to 1631, when the mayor of Abingdon (near Oxford) records:-

“wee haue erected wthn our borough, a workehouse to sett poore people to worke”

A further Poor Law Act in 1597 governed the care of the destitute right up until the 19th Century. This law required the local justices of the peace to appoint, annually, “Overseers of the Poor” to find work for those in need, to apprentice children, and to provide,

“the necessary relief of the lame, impotent, old, blind and such other being poor and not able to work”.

This Poor Law required poor rates to be charged as a local tax, replacing voluntary charitable funding. The rate of charge and arrangements for distribution were to be decided by the Overseers. Though most parishes had houses set aside for the old, infirm and destitute these were more like alms-houses than workhouses and most support was given in the form of subsistence payments known as “out relief.”

The real growth in workhouses took place in the nineteenth century, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Hundreds of thousands of troops returned home to find there was no work for them. Most had been agricultural workers before the war and the new technology in farming had reduced the need for labour. At the same time a series of poor harvests had pushed up food prices and the Importation Act of 1815 had prohibited the importation of cheaper cereals from abroad. For most people, bread was the main part of their diet and yet they could no longer even afford bread.  So many had become destitute and were starving by the early 1830s that the system could not support them. The Government sought a cheaper alternative to “out relief.”

Its response was the Poor Law of 1834 which set up local Poor Law Unions with a view to actively discouraging the provision of relief to anyone who refused to enter a workhouse – and workhouses were intended to be harsh, to deter the able-bodied poor and to ensure that only the truly destitute would apply. They were often designed, like prisons of that time, in blocks which extended out like the spokes of a wheel from a central core (see illustrations of Bath Workhouse). Families were separated, with husbands, wives and children all sleeping in separate dormitories. During the day they all worked on breaking stones for roads, crushing bones for fertiliser, or picking oakum for packing the joints of timbers in ships. To pick oakum they used a large metal nail known as a “spike,” which may be how the workhouse earned its nickname of “The Spike“.

The City of Bath, though often associated with the wealth and elegance of the Georgian romantic novel, also had a workhouse. Bath Poor Law Union was formed in 1836 and the workhouse was  built between 1836 and 1838 (later to become St Martin’s Hospital). By the 1830s the city had a resident population of about 50,000, yet at times the population swelled by up to a further 20,000 itinerant people looking for work. In 1842, “The Report of the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain” cited Bath as an example to illustrate its thesis that a large part of the burden of Poor Relief was caused by the premature deaths of husbands leaving widows and orphans who struggled to survive.

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Aerial photo of Former Bath Workhouse taken in early 20th Century

In practice the Poor Law Unions sometimes came into conflict with local magistrates. Such was the case with Anne Perry in Bath. She was old and increasingly infirm, and a friend, Mary Price, applied for “out-relief” on her behalf, so that she could stay at home. She was offered only admission to the workhouse. On appealing, the Magistrates made an order for “out relief,” but the Commissioner from London supported the Board’s decision. The case rumbled on for 3 months, until Ann Perry was eventually awarded “out relief.” Sadly she died 3 weeks later.

In 1848 an attempt was made to limit those classified as “beggars and tramps” from entering the Bath Workhouse. Many of these so called “tramps” were labourers who had worked on building the railways. The fact that there was no work for them now, and no other form of assistance was largely ignored. Their exclusion from the workhouse prompted a riot and the smashing of windows. The Bath Chronicle responded with an appeal to the public not to give alms to beggars or tramps:-

“The Magistrates and Guardians are still determined to prevent such an abuse of the public funds, attended as it is by no real kindness, but offering a premium to pauperism and vice, and encouraging a highly dangerous set of persons to travel over the country, passing their nights at workhouses and their days in begging, stealing and drunkenness. There is, however, a duty which the inhabitants of Bath have to perform. It is for them to exercise discretion in the disposing of such sums as they devote to the purpose of benevolence. It is for them to remember that so long as such persons receive encouragement the evil will continue, and may again return, in all its force.”

In “A Christmas Carol” the Spirit of Christmas Present reveals two children hidden under his robes. Scrooge asks him if they are his children and the Spirit replies that they are the children of Man – “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.

Have they no refuge or resource.‘ asks Scrooge.

Are there no prisons.‘ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses.‘”

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Up until the Victorian era the population of Britain was widely spread throughout the country. Most people lived in rural settlements or small towns and villages. Food was prepared and preserved either by the family themselves or if they were wealthy by their domestic staff. The ingredients were for the most part grown and bought locally. Meat came from local farms or estates, and farmers and landowners had reputations to maintain, as did the local mill for flour, and the local shopkeepers for all that they sold. Richer households had their own ovens, while poorer people would pay a small sum to use the ovens of the local baker.

Yet as the Industrial Revolution took hold, so the population in towns and cities grew. Britain became more dependent on imported foods. People were also acquiring expensive tastes for tea, coffee, sugar, cocoa, and sauces and spices from around the world. To make them more affordable the “adulteration” of food and drink (additives) became increasingly commonplace. This “adulteration” might be to improve appearance or improve taste, but it’s usual aim was to decrease costs and increase profits. It became so common that books on housekeeping routinely carried warnings and tests for detecting added chemicals like plaster of Paris in flour. Mrs Beeton in prefacing a recipe for a popular anchovy paste warned against shop-bought pastes,

 “In six cases out of ten, the only portion of those preserved delicacies, that contains anything indicative of anchovies, is the paper label pasted on the bottle or pot, on which the word itself is printed.”

The wealthier residents of towns and cities could of course afford a “better” diet, but there was no refrigeration at the time and little concept of hygiene.  Meat was killed locally, but then it had to be stored, sold and transported to the home. As late as 1862 the government estimated that one-fifth of butcher’s meat in England and Wales came from animals which had died of disease or were carrying considerable disease – Meat that should never have been allowed to enter the food-chain. And at the start of the nineteenth century butcher’s boys would deliver meat to the wealthier homes, carried on their heads, in baskets or trays, open to the heat and dirt of the day.

If food was dangerous for the wealthy, it was positively deadly for the poor.  They bought mainly from itinerant  “costermongers” selling from barrows, and their reputation depended more on cheapness than it did on quality. Most of the poor lived in rented rooms, often shared and usually without access to cooking facilities. Any hot food they consumed was street-food, like baked potatoes or pies. Most though subsisted on a diet largely consisting of bread. They lived from hand-to-mouth and bought food in “pennyworths” or even “half-pennyworths.”  Buying in these smaller quantities (enough for the day) meant goods often cost four or five times more than they would have cost had they been bought in regular quantities. Bread itself could be bought as “quarter” or “half” loaves, but even then, bakers used chalk to make the bread whiter, and alum to enable the use of inferior flour, and while alum was not poisonous it inhibited the digestion and decreased the nutritional value of anything else their customers ate.

Producers, importers, merchants and sellers all began adding more and more ingredients to increase bulk or “improve” appearance or reduce costs. Of course none of them knew what had been added by the others in the chain, so they each had a cumulative effect. in the end, by the time products were bought, no one really knew what was in them. Milk was often watered down, sometimes by as much as 50%, and so too was beer. Indeed, the making of beer had more to do with chemistry than the brewing process.  As Dr Richard Wetherby says, in my novel, “Avon Street”:-

 “Have you any idea of how they adulterate the beer in the ale houses around Avon Street? It is full of foxglove, henbane, opium and God knows what other concoctions. They use chemicals so that they can water down the beer, keep its taste and appearance, but make it stronger, and still sell it cheaply.”

Indian Berry, Henbane, Nux Vomica and Opium were used to increase the intoxicating proper­ties of the watered down beer. Foxglove, Jalap and Potash were used to keep the bitter taste and to stop it from turning sour. Most of these ingredients were of course poisonous and carried severe side-effects.

In 1851 “The Lancet,” (medical journal) commissioned a doctor from the London Royal Free Hospital to examine the adulteration of thirty common foods in Britain. The study revealed that:-

Rat and mice droppings, insects and faecal contamination were found in many foods. Tea imported from China contained 45% sand and dirt together with traces of sulphate of iron; lard contained carbonate of soda and caustic lime; coffee included chicory, mangel wurzel, sawdust, and acorns; cocoa and chocolate were coloured with earth and included arrowroot and Venetian lead; sweets (candy) were found to contain chromate of lead, sulphate of mercury and various other noxious flavourings and colourings. Red lead and other chemical colourings were found to be routinely used in foodstuffs such as “Red Leicester Cheese.”

Even after the study by “The Lancet” was published, the merchants, tradespeople and government were slow to respond. Thankfully though, technology and innovation helped in the interim. In 1857 a process for the mass production of ice was patented allowing foods to be better preserved and transported. The availability of canned goods also increased. The army had been supplied with canned foods since 1820, but the cans had to be opened with a chisel or a bayonet, until the can-opener was invented in 1858. As technology improved, mass-produced processed foods like soups, sauces, biscuits, chocolate, pickles and egg-powder became more popular and were prepared to more rigorous standards. Finally, in 1860 that the Adulteration Act was passed, and though it was largely resisted, in 1872 official inspectors were created with the power to test food and impose substantial fines. Quality and safety of food “magically” began to  improve.

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