Friday, 18 December 2009

American gangsters, part 2: conditions

American gangsters, part 2

(In this section of the essay, I shall attempt to define organised crime, and describe what conditions allow it to flourish)

Organised crime is an operation to make money. It is thus different from the aimless violence of street-level hooliganism. Almost all successful gangsters began as juvenile delinquents, with petty thefts and muggings, battles over territory and punch-ups in dance-halls, but then moved on to something much larger-scale. A top gangster in a capitalist entrepreneur who uses methods abnormal in a law-abiding society. Bertrand Russell once pointed out that free-market capitalism as we understand it is actually heavily circumscribed in its activities: you are allowed to bankrupt your competitor by undercutting his prices, but you aren't allowed to shoot him. The Mafia, if you like, doesn't recognise this last restriction! But for a serious criminal, the violence is only incidental to the main activity, which is moneymaking.

There are various ways the criminal can make money; the simplest being theft. But theft is not only heavily punished by law, it is also unpopular in the community. If thieves wish to stay in business, they must be careful only to rob outsiders, or those perceived as the enemy. In primitive societies, where almost all people are poverty-stricken peasants, becoming a bandit is almost a rational career-choice, and bandits may even acquire romantic and heroic status (the Robin Hood image). But in reality, they are unlikely to stay in business for long.

Slightly more sophisticated is extortion, going under the names of blackmail, "protection", or "rackets": demanding money for alleged services with the threat of violence for non-payment. (The word "blackmail" is actually Scottish in origin, meaning the "black" (illegal) "mail" (tax) which Lowland farmers had to pay to the Highland clans to preserve their cattle from being raided) Rackets depend on the state authorities being too weak to enforce the law, usually because the victims do not inform the police. They work best where the businesses under threat are themselves are not legal: dealers in smuggled goods or banned substances, or such typical slum operations as brothels, unlicensed moneylending, drinking and gambling dens. Such businesses may escape the attentions of policemen, or simply bribe them to look away, but they can hardly avoid the demands of local thugs out for a quick buck. Even legitimate concerns in the ghetto may not escape, because their businesses are usually precarious, and the whole ethos of the ghetto is to see the police as an enemy, not to be trusted. The only way to escape the attentions of the extortionists is to be stronger yourself: to have patrons powerful enough to scare off the thugs, or to hire your own thugs in self-defence. An intelligent hoodlum could easily double his career as a strong-arm man: demanding protection money on the one hand, or fighting off the racketeers for a reward; or indeed both. Many top gangsters began their careers this way. The overall effect of rackets is of course to raise prices for the consumer, to cover the cost of paying off the gangsters. In some ways the extortionist is thus comparable to the role played by the capitalist in simplified forms of Marxist doctrine: someone who skims money off the top of the operation without contributing anything useful to it.

The best method of making money is buying and selling; crime as trade: dealing in contraband or illegal commodities. Smuggling was the earliest form of this, and still persists. The best goods to trade are things that people want to buy, but are illegal; or better still, on the borderline - illegal without necessarily being seen as morally wrong. Examples would be pornography, prostitution, gambling, drugs, illegal immigration, and in 1920s America, alcohol. There are several advantages here for the criminal. Firstly, it avoids the obloquy attached to robbery or protection rackets. Secondly, it drags within the criminal orbit people not normally associated with crime (the consumers) who will have nothing to gain by driving their supplier out of business by having him prosecuted, and may indeed be a fruitful target for blackmail. It all presents a conundrum for Free Trade theory: if person X wants to sell an item to person Z, who is willing to buy if the price is right, what justification does the state have for intervening to prevent the deal? There will be certain inevitable results of intervention: the price will fluctuate wildly, all possibility of quality control will be lost, and sooner or later the trade will fall under the control of the men of violence. The reasons for this are plain. Criminals have their overheads too, but also tend to destroy a free market by using violence to put competitors out of business. Supplies can seldom be guaranteed. Neither side has the normal legal safeguards against being swindled: if the purchaser is sold inferior goods or the vendor does not receive payment, the defrauded party cannot bring the defaulter to court; all he can do is threaten violent retribution. The vendor may evade the attentions of the police, but his only defence against the violent extortionist is to command greater violence himself. Trade in illegal substances always ultimately puts money into the pockets of the men of violence. (My personal view is that almost anything is preferable to this outcome)

Before organised crime can really take off, certain social and poltical conditions are needed. The most important is that there should be a population who see the police as the enemy. This condition is found amongst minority groups subjected to racial or religious discrimination, are confined to ghettoes, can't get decent jobs, and view the forces of law and order as instruments of oppression. The American cities of the early 20th century, with their teeming immigrant communities, were like this. The Lower East Side of Manhattan was said to be the most densely inhabited area on the planet. But why did the early gangsters tend to be Irish, and the later ones Sicilians or Jews from the Russian Empire, rather than, say, Germans or Swedes? The answer surely is that the Irish, Sicilians and Jews came from homelands that regarded themselves as living under foreign occupation, with the police seen as alien oppressors rather than as protectors of citizens' rights. Even law-abiding ghetto inhabitants might identify with the gangsters rather than with the police. Crime is the normal state of ghetto society. Often the police may prefer simply to leave the ghetto alone. Furthermore, for an able and ambitious ghetto youngster, facing an impenetrable wall of poverty and discrimination, crime may be the only way to make money. Traditionally, in a society without a proper system of free education to enable social mobility for those with talent, the only routes out of the slum were music and professional sport. But there can be a third route: organised crime.

The other main condition for successful organised crime is the existence of a corrupt political system, where the men in power prefer to take bribes from the gangsters rather than fighting them. Indeed, without such venality, extending from officialdom down to the rank and file policeman, no criminal can last very long. The American cities at the turn of the century were extremely corrupt. They were of very recent growth, without any traditions of disinterested public service, amd officials used their positions to acquire great wealth; for instance by taking backhanders on public building contracts. (It is characteristic of primitive societies that the quickest way to become rich is to get into government and then divert public money into your own pocket: in England it only became unacceptable in the 19th century) So in Chicago Capone estimated that payoffs to police and politicians ran at $30 million a year; police captain Michael Ryan was dubbed "the world's richest policeman" through his bribes, and when Mayor "Big Bill" Thomson died his house was found to contain $1.3/4 million in used banknotes. At ward level, Chicago politics was run by sordid characters like "Bathhouse John" Coughlin and Alderman "Hinky Dink" Kenna: they took a cut from all the brothels and gaming-houses in their districts and gave political protection to the gangsters, who in return would help to keep their political allies in office by organising the immigrant vote (often fraudulently) and intimidating opponents, even to the level of firebombing their offices. The 1928 Chicago campaign saw so many firebombs thrown that it was nicknamed the "Pineapple Primary"! Judge Lyle in his memoirs wrote of Chicago politics, "Each ward committee-man of the ruling party was a dictator in his own district, able to remove unco-operative police chiefs". A serious defect of the American federal structure was that the central government had very little power to intervene to prevent local corruption. County sheriffs, and local judges like Lyle, were elected, not centrally appointed; which sounds democratic, but which in practice made them mere hirelings of the party machines.

Dion O'Banion, founder of the North Side gang, was an influential figure in Chicago politics. The saying went, "Who carries 42nd and 43rd wards? Dion O'Banion, in his pistol pocket". In 1924, shortly before he was shot, O'Banion was given a dinner by the Chicago Democratic party, attended by the County Clerk, a nominee for the Senate, the candidate for Mayor, and deputy police chief Hughes, who explained to the press that when he recognised some of the notorious hoodlums present at the dinner, he left "almost immediately". O'Banion was presented with a platinum watch for his services to the party - but then switched to the Republicans anyway!

The gangsters frequently escaped justice not because they intimidated witnesses, or even because, having plenty of money, they were able to hire the very best lawyers who could run rings round the prosecution, but because they had important contacts with top police and politicians, who could pull strings on their behalf. In Chicago the links were very close. Al Capone was a deputy sherrif, and his chief bodyguard Philip D'Andrea a county court bailiff! And what are we to make of "Big Tim" Murphy, who ran the Gasworkers' Union and the Building Trades Council, served a term in the State legislature as well as a term in the penitentiary for robbery, and coined the phrase, "Take him for a ride!"? He was eventually murdered in 1928. If all else failed, the Illinois State Governor, Lester Small, could often be relied on to issue pardons for notorious gangsters.

Sometimes things got very grotesque. In June 1925 two professional gunmen, John Scalise and Albert Anselmi (the killers of O'Banion the year before) shot down two policemen in broad daylight on a Chicago street. Their lawyer successfully argued that it was a matter of self-defence, since the police were attempting an illegal arrest, and they were convicted of manslaughter only. They were released on bail in 1926, and their conviction overturned a year later. It comes as a relief to learn that they were both murdered by Capone in May 1929.

Capone could not have flourished without Big Bill Thomson as Mayor of Chicago. In general it can be said that corrupt politicians always steal more than criminals, just as soldiers kill far more people than do terrorists.

The third factor in helping the rise of organised crime wasthe state of labour relations. It was law of the jungle, especially in the New York clothing business; an industry with cut-throat competition and starvation wages for immigrant workers. In strikes, employers would hire thugs to beat up picket lines, and trades unions would hire other thugs to beat up blacklegs. This kind of activity, where the favoured weapon was a lead pipe wrapped in newspaper, was known as "schlamming", and could provide even the stupidest thug with a living. These low-level hoodlums were known as "goons" (Spike Milligan learnt the word from American soldiers during the war, and thought it had comic possibilities). From here it was an easy progression for ambitious gangsters to take over the unions and extort money from employers under threat of strikes. The leading lights in New York were Jake "Gurrah" Shapiro and Louis Buchalter, "Lepke the Leopard", working in partnership. By 1927 they had control of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers' Union, and then moved in on the Furriers and the Bakers. A Mafia hitman, Albert Anastasia, "The Mad Hatter" was powerful in the New York docks, and a psychopathic killer, Arthur Flegenheimer, better known as "Dutch Schultz", controlled both the Waiters' Union and the Restaurant Proprietors' Association, through which he tried to dominate the New York catering trade by operating a two-way "closed shop". A little later, Willy Bioff put the squeeze on Hollywood by his control of the Scenery Erectors' Union. The main impact of all this extortion on the general public was, of course, to raise prices.

By the First World War, the foundations for large-scale organised crime were already in place. The typical future gangster was a Sicilian or a Russian Jew, born around the turn of the century, perhaps American by birth, perhaps having entered the country as a small child. He would be brought up in a slum in a big city, where he would see his parents, who perhaps never learnt to speak English properly, earn pitiful wages by sweated labour. Such submissiveness was not for him: he grew up in the turbulent violence of the streets, knew that the police and the politicians were corrupt, that official morality was a sham, and that only money and power really mattered. By his late teens he would already have a string of convictions for minor offences, but also a reputation for toughness and cunning in the seamy underworld of drinking dens, brothels and labour goonery. All he needed was an opportunity to make it really big.

And then came Prohibition!

(This essay will be continued later)

Friday, 11 December 2009

American Gangsters, part 1

American gangsters and organised crime, 1919-41
An essay in several parts. Part One

Let's begin with the most famous single incident in gangster history. The place is the garage of the S.M.C. Cartage Company at 2122 North Clark Street on the north side of Chicago; the time, soon after 9 a.m. on February 14th, 1929. A Cadillac pulls up, from which four uniformed police officers and a plainclothesman enter the building. Inside they find six members of Bugs Moran's North Side gang: the brothers Frank and Pete Gusenberg, Adam Heyer, James Kashellek, Al Weinshank and Jack May; plus Reinhart Schwimmer, a doctor who liked hanging around with gangsters (It will be noticed that none of these are Italians: this is a Jewish-Polish-Irish gang). The men have gathered to receive a shipment of bootleg whisky arranged over the phone. When they see the police, they do not resist (major gangsters seldom fought the police, expecting that if arrested they would soon be released on bail); instead they allow themselves to be disarmed and stood against the wall. Doubtless much to their surprise, they are then blasted with shotguns and Thomson submachine guns. The attackers then leave. When the real police arrive, alerted by reports of gunfire, they find Frank Gusenberg still alive with fourteen bullets in him. In answer to the obvious question, he replies, "Nobody shot me. I ain't tellin' no copper", and then dies. But soon afterwards, Bugs Moran, leader of the North Siders, who has avoided the slaughter by the good fortune of turning up late for the meeting, is more forthcoming. "Only Capone kills like that!" he announces.

Moran and all Chicago knew exactly what this was: yet another battle in the great Chicago gang war that had been waged for the last five years. Dion O'Banion, the founder of the North Side gang, had been gunned down in his flower shop in November 1924. In revenge, Johnny Torrio, Al Capone's mentor, had been shot and seriously wounded in January 1925 and had gone into retirement, handing over his organisation to Capone. Five chiefs of the Unione Siciliana, the local Mafia umbrella organisation, had died in as many years. Three of the five Genna brothers, the booze-bosses of the "bloody 19th" ward, were killed, and the others fled the city. There were regular public gun-fights, given suitably military names by the press: "the State Street ambush", "the siege of the Hawthorne Inn", "the battle of the Holy Name Cathedral", "the battle of the Standard Oil Building". "Slaughter Week" was still to come, in 1930. In 1924 Cook County, which includes Chicago, witnessed 350 murders, rising to 399 in 1928. Few gangland killings were ever solved by the police, and insurance rates were three times higher than in Milwaukee. Chicago was gaining a worldwide repuation for gangland violence, which it retains in legend to this day. "Hell, folks are crazy there!" said Lucky Luciano, chief of the Mafia in New York, "It ain't safe to walk the streets!"

So Al Capone was the obvious suspect for the St. Valentine's Day massacre. However, he had an alibi: not only was he in Florida that day, but at the very moment of the killings he was being interviewed in Miami by County Solicitor Robert Taylor. A reward of $100,000 was offered for information on the killings, but without effect. A leading Capone gunman, Jack McGurn ("Machine-gun Jack") was arrested on February 27th, but also had an alibi and was eventually released in December and never brought to trial. The guns were traced to the shop of an arms dealer called Peter von Franzius, but the trail was then lost in a tangle of false names. At the end of the year, police searching the home of a bank robber called Fred "Killer" Burke, from the "Egan's Rats" gang of St. Louis, found two Tommy guns which were declared to have fired some of the bullets used in the massacre. But Burke was never charged with the crime: soon afterwards he was sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder in Michigan, and eventually died in prison. Many people in Chicago thought the killers might have been real policemen, and the State's Attorney ordered ballistic tests to police firearms, just to be sure.

So technically speaking there is no hard evidence linking Capone to the crime at all. Neither he nor anyone in his gang was ever charged. But Jack McGurn was shot down in a bowling alley on February 14th 1936, the anniversary of the massacre, and a comic Valentine card was left on his body. Many years later a retired gunman named Alvin Karpis, after serving 33 years in prison, named five contract killers; Burke, Maddox, Ziegler, Winkler and Nugent, all long since dead, as the murder-squad; but a Chicago magistrate, Judge Lyle, named in his memoirs Burke, Scalise, Anselmi, Goetz and Lolordo. So the St. Valentine's Day massacre remains an unsolved crime.

In later chapters of this essay I shall attempt to show how this deplorable state of affairs came about; but I shall also argue that the massacre was not really typical of the higher reaches of organised crime, actually represented not the epitome of gangsterism but its failure, and for Capone personally led to his doom.

Stories: Winterwood

Winterwood

Jinna scrambled over the stones of what had once been a wall and looked down the slope to the snow-covered wood below. Not a single print of any kind disturbed the whiteness, and only a gap like a low archway through the trees showed her where the path ran. The light was lowering and gloomy beneath the leaden sky and the prospect filled her with deep uneasiness. But she patted her coat and felt the slight bulge from the inner pocket. There it lay, the great jewel. She must carry it safely through the wood to the other side, and whatever her fears she could not turn back now. Setting her face in determination, she half walked, half slithered downwards, and ducking under the laden branches, entered the Winterwood.

Inside it was very quiet. The trees were packed so densely that there was little snow underfoot, but the darkness was greater. She could trace where the path wound about, and there were dimples in it, as if feet had already passed that way: feet too small for humans, but making patterns unlike any animal Jinna had ever seen. She continued downhill until she reached the bottom of a valley, and saw there was a frozen stream that she must cross. She listened carefully for the sound of trickling water, which would mean thin ice that might break under her weight. If she got her feet wet, they would freeze. But there was no sound. Jinna realised that since she had eneterd the Winterwood, the silence had been broken only by the sound of her boots and her own breathing. Somehow this was more even more oppressive than any noises of living things moving around her. She sensed that here in the wood it was always winter, and nothing that she would recognise as a living creature ever came there. Fighting back her mounting fear, she crept across the ice and up the bank on the far side.

The path now climbed until she came to the summit of a low ridge where the trees opened out. There was nothing in the clearing except an immense log, the remains of some tree fallen long ago, looking like the body of a frozen dinosaur beneath its covering of snow. The light was better here, and Jinna paused for a rest. For reassurance she patted the lump in her coat, and then acting on sudden impulse reached into the pocket and pulled out the great jewel. She held it up, and even in this dimness it burned and sparkled with its internal radiance. Never had she seen anything so dazzlingly beautiful. She must save it, at all costs! But its glory only made her surroundings seem more threatening. The trees appeared to close in on her. She sensed that the Winterwood hated and feared the jewel; would smother its light if it could. Over to her left came a sound, and then another: the first she had heard since entering the wood. Maybe it was only the soft thump of snow falling from overburdened branches, but Jinna feared it might be ....... she knew not what, but something immeasurably threatening. She realised she had made a serious blunder. Quickly she returned the jewel to her pocket and pressed on.

The path twisted right, then left. Fear stalked behind her, and she walked faster and faster, panting with weariness and mounting anxiety, never daring to glance back. Then after an age, up ahead, amidst a thicket of smaller trees, she glimpsed another archway and knew that this was the end of the wood at last. With her escape in sight, panic finally overcame her. She ran. Through the archway she ran: branches clawed at her face and snow cascaded over her head and back, but she escaped, freed from the Winterwood for ever, out onto the grassland beyond.

For a while she simply stod there, panting with relief, and then once again she felt for the little bulge in her pocket. There was nothing. She tore open her coat and plunged her hand into the pocket. It was empty. In mounting desperation and terror she searched every pocket; every inch of her clothing, uselessly; once, twice, many times. Nothing. There could be no doubt: the jewel was gone.

Gradually she managed to subdue her terror, and steeled herself. She knew what she must do. Somewhere, somehow, she had dropped the jewel, and she must find it again. Trembling with fear and reluctance, she forced herself back to the archway between the trees and re-entered the Winterwood; retracing her steps, examining the snow on each side, stumbling with weariness and terror, tears frozen on her cheeks, until at last her strength gave out and she fell forward on the snow and she died.

But then the clouds rolled away and the snow melted. Flowers blossomed in the grass. Jinna felt warm sunlight on her face, and looked up in wonder to see birds playing on the budding branches. Then a Voice, so enormous that it filled the horizons but was at the same time gentle, spoke to her.
"You have done well", said the voice.
"But I failed", said Jinna. "I lost the jewel in the Winterwood".
"No. You were victorious. There never was a jewel. There never was a Winterwood. But you fought on till the very end. You have triumphed. We can now proceed to the next test".

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Memories: "The Bus"

The Bus

When i was teaching at the High School, someone in authority decided that, rather than always having to shell out good money to the local coach hire firm every time we had a school outing or sports fixture, it would make sense to buy our own transport; and so we obtained THE BUS. It was a truly awe-inspiring vehicle: the year's latest model - the year in question being somewhere around 1948. Truly it would have graced a museum of transport history, but this did not make it any easier to drive. There was no power-assisted steering or synchromesh on the gears, which led to one of the geography teachers acquiring the nickname of "Captain Crunch" for his efforts behind the wheel. Max, my head of department, who was a keen motorist, described changing gear as resembling trying to stir a cricket stump in a bucket of marbles. He was a little chap, and sometimes had to employ both hands in wrestling with the gear-stick. "Christ! Bloody Hell!" he would exclaim as he did battle with it in heavy traffic going through Stoke. Once, when he was having a particularly torrid time on the way back from the Gladstone pottery museum, a boy foolishly made some sarcastic comment about his driving. "If you think you can do any better, you come and have a go!" snarled Max as he sweated to find third gear. The boy was rash enough to reply, "Okay then!" Max was so enraged that he stopped the bus and charged down the central aisle with every intention of thumping the wretched youth, but before any blow could land the handbrake started to slip, and Max had to race back to the controls. By the time we arrived back at school, Max was far too preoccupied with the tricky problem of parking the bus in the quad (which could only be done in reverse, after first edging the bonnet up the drive of the house opposite, at the risk of doing irreparable damage to the flowering cherry) to take any further action.

The most memorable journey I experienced came near the end of one summer term, when we took the first formers on the annual history trip into Shropshire. The first stop was Ludlow, which we reached without mishap; but when we stopped in front of the castle we were approached by a policeman. "You can't park here", he told us, "You'll have to go to the coach park". Mark, who was driving, pleaded with him: we'd come a long way and we wouldn't be there for more than an hour. The policeman eyed the bus narrowly. "I wouldn't like to have to give a full roadworthiness check to this vehicle, sir", he said meaningfully. We went to the coach park. The stop for lunch at Stokesay castle passed without mishap, though Nick, our youngest teacher, had with typical lack of organisation neglected to bring any sandwiches and was reduced to begging for contributions from the pupils (fortunately one boy had been provided by his mother with no less than nine chicken legs, and was able to come to the rescue). But then there was an untoward incident in the grounds of Buildwas Abbey, where one of the boys had his shoe subjected to a sexual assault by a randy little puppy. "Sir, it's weed on me!" he said, inaccurately. The crowning moment came as we drove back through Hodnet. One of the boys complained that he felt sick. We were travelling along narrow, twisty roads unsuitable for stopping, and were in any case behind schedule, so I passed him a plastic waste-bucket already half full of bent Coke tins and screwed-up crisps bags. He chundered voluminously into this receptacle, and then a little later approached me again in some distress. "Sir!" he said, "The brace from my teeth fell in!" I told him that if he imagined I was going to go fishing for it, he was mistaken. "But the dentist will be mad at me, sir!" he moaned. When we finally arrived back at school, I made him and another boy who had annoyed me empty the foul bucket into one of the huge grunions by the gate. During this operation, I observed that they contrived to get it all over both their jackets, but I decided I had done quite enough for the day and went home.

The old bus was still there when I left the school and I never found out what happened to it. Presumably it has long since departed this life for that great multi-storey car park in the sky - assuming, of course, that it was allowed to enter.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Admiral Anson: part 2


Admiral Lord Anson (part 2)

After his return from his voyage round the world in 1744, Anson was not only a national hero and a very rich man, he also became a figure of political importance. Walpole's government had fallen in 1742, but after a period of political confusion the Whigs remained in power. The new Prime Minister was Henry Pelham, with his brother the Duke of Newcastle as Secretary of State and their close friend Lord Hardwicke as Lord Chancellor. Anson was quick to identify himself with the new regime. He was appointed Vice-Admiral and a member of the Admiralty Board, with administrative responsibilities, and was also elected member of Parliament for Hedon in Yorkshire, a constituency controlled by newcastle and his friends. (In the 18th century it was quite common for senior military officers to be elected as M.P.s: in Parliament they would naturally be expected to give their support to the government)

The War of Jenkins' Ear had been forgotten, subsumed in a far greater conflict now raging: the War of the Austrian Succession. In those days, the Austrian Empire was a vast but vulnerable state, whose territories included not only the modern Austria, Hungary and the Czech lands, but also Milan and Belgium, and it was for control of these territories that Britain supported the Austrians against France, with Frederick the Great of Prussia a maverick, changing sides more than once to suit his own advantage. It can be seen as a world war, with fighting not just in Europe but also between the British and French bases in India and America too. It was as part of this war that Charles Edward Stuart, "Bonnie Prince Charlie", staged his rebellion in Scotlabd in 1745 and marched his little army of Highland clansmen down through manchester and as far as Derby before turning back and suffering defeat at Culloden the next year. Thomas Anson remained at Shugborough throughout, and sent his brother details of the revolt. Like many other contemporaries, he grossly overestimated the size of the rebel forces.

Meanwhile George Anson was given command of a fleet of 14 warships in the Channel: his flagship the "Prince George", with 90 guns and a crew of 770. For weeks he kept his ships at sea off Britanny, occupying them by practising manoeuvres while they waited for the French to venture out of the great port of Brest. Eventually in May 1747 De la Jonquiere's fleet did emerge, and Anson scattered them and hunted them down in the Battle of Cape Finisterre; capturing 10,000 troops and immense amouts of money intended for the French wars in the colonies.

Anson's reward, apart from his share of the plunder, was to be promoted to full Admiral and given a peerage and a coat of arms. Next year he cemented his alliance with the government by marrying Elizabeth Yorke, the daughter of Lord Chancellor Hardwicke; and when in 1751 Henry Pelham reshuffled his cabinet Anson was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty; the minister responsible for the navy. He modernised the "fighting instructions" to captains, created the first permanent Corps of Marines, devised the first proper naval uniforms and began the process of sheathing ships' bottoms with copper, thus safeguarding the timbers against the ravages of shipworms, a menace in tropical waters.

Anson was now a great man, and to befit his status he bought himself a suitably grand house: Moor Park in Hertfordshire (now a golf club and not normally open to the public). He is said to have spent £80,000 improving the estate: an immense sum. But much of his wealth went back to Shugborough in Staffordshire, where his brother Thomas began to rebuild the house, shifting a village of his tenants across the river Trent to make space for a romantic parkland. We can still see at Shugborough the Chinese pavilion, designed by Piercy Brett, a future Admiral who had been with Anson in Canton.




Thomas was also elected M.P. for Lichfied in the general election of 1747: naturally he supported the Whig government, which otherwise did badly in Staffordshire.

In 1754 Henry Pelham died in office, and his brother the Duke of Newcastle succeeded to the Premiership. It all looked plain sailing for Anson and his Whig friends, but it was not to be. The War of the Austrian Succession had effectively ended in a draw, and many issues had been left unresolved both in Europe and the colonies. A replay of the war looked imminent. Suddenly in 1756 Newcastle's complex diplomatic schemes collapsed in ruins; France, Austria and Russia signed an alliance, leaving Frederick of Prussia as Britain's only friend. Then Britain's navy unexpectedly failed, with Admiral Boscawen unable to prevent the French from sending reinforcements to their bases in North America. But the blow which brought down the government could be linked directlt to Anson.

Britain had been granted the island of Minorca back in 1713. In April 1756 the French launched an attack, without any declaration of war. Admiral Byng was sent to relieve the island, but failed to bring the French fleet to battle, and Minorca fell. The unhappy Byng was made a scapegoat for the disaster: on his return home he was courtmartialled and sentenced to death for cowardice and disobeying orders. (We should remember that Byng was not only an Admiral; he was also a Member of Parliament and came from a proud naval family: indeed, his father was none other than Sir George Byng, who had commanded the fleet at the battle of Cape Passaro back in 1718, when Anson had his first experience of action) Anson cannot escape his share of the blame for the Minorca fiasco, and was upset by Byng's sentence, but made no effort to save him, and the unhappy Admiral was executed by firing squad on his own quarter-deck in March 1757.

By this time Anson was out of office. With Britain humiliated by the French and apparently facing ruin, the popular demand was for William Pitt to take power and save the country. In October 1756 Newcastle resigned and Pitt formed a government; Anson was sacked along with the rest of the ministers and replaced at the Admiralty by Earl Temple, Pitt's brother-in-law. But this arrangement could not last long; Pitt lacked sufficientfollowing in Parliament and the king, George II, did not like him. In April 1757 Pitt was forced out, and for a whole month britain had no effective government at all, until Lord Hardwicke was able to negaotiate the formation of a wartime coalition ministry. Newcastle returned as nominal Prime Minister, but direction of the war was firmly in the hands of Pitt as Secretary of State, and Anson returned to the Admiralty.

The navy was central to Pitt's plans. In Europe, British money, raised with loans borrowed through the Bank of England, would pay Frederick and other German princes to fight the French on land, while the superior British fleet would first of all neutralise French sea power and then take out the French bases in Canada, the West Indies and India one by one.

1759 was the turning point of the war. The final result was still in doubt, and Choiseul the French Prime Minister pinned his hopes on an invasion of England. A large flotilla of barges was assembled in the French Channel ports, by which an army of at least 50,000 would be convoyed across by the french navy. It should be remembered that at this time the population of France was at least four times that of Britain, and her army very much larger; and that under Pitt's grand strategy two thirds of the navy and almost all the regular troops were fighting overseas: Britain lacked modern coastal fortifications and was defended only by the part-time soldiers of the militia. Choiseul could hardly have expected an invasion would lead to the seizure of London, but a more rea;istic and equally useful result could be that a successful landing would cause a run on the Bank and a collapse of Britain's financial structure. At the very least, the mere threat of an invasion might force an abandonment of Pitt's colonial strategy and the withdrawal of forces to defend the homeland. Lord Lyytleton wrote, "We talk of nothing here but the french invasion; they are certainly making such preparations as have never been made to invade this island since the Spanish Armada, but I trust in God and Lord Anson".

Lyttleton's trust was justified. Pitt and Anson kept their nerve and refused o modify their plans. French success would depend upon the two fighting fleets,at Brest in Britanny and Toulon in the Mediterranean, somehow uniting and seizing control of the channel. Anson created a "Western Squadron" to protect home waters and blockade French ports, but in the days of sail no blockade could ever be total. Bad weather, or the need for restocking with fresh water and food, would force a withdrawal and provide the French with an opportunity to break out.

As it happened, 1759 became the great "Year of Victories" for Britain.In summer of that year, the French Toulon fleet managed to sneak past the blockade and out of the Mediterranean, but Boscawen caught them off Lagos, on the coast of Portugal. In November, ferocious storms forced Hawke’s fleet, which was keeping a watch on the great harbour of Brest, in Brittany, to take refuge back in Torbay. The French admiral, Conflans, rashly assumed the coast was clear for the rest of winter, and set out, but Hawke pursued him and destroyed his fleet in a savagely-fought battle at Quiberon Bay.



Meanwhile Rodney had attacked and smashed the French barges at Le Havre. The colonial struggle remained unaffected. Already in India, Robert Clive had gained control of Bengal. In Canada, Saunders sailed his ships up the St. Laurence to take part in Wolfe’s capture of Quebec; the French West Indian islands, such as Martinique and Guardaloupe, fell one by one; and when Spain belatedly entered the war on the French side, British expeditions took Manila in the Philippines and Havanna in Cuba in the summer and autumn of 1762.
It was as comprehensive a victory as could have been imagined, and the superiority of the British navy was the chief contributor. It was to honour the navy that the famous actor and impressario David Garrick (another Staffordshire man!) celebrated the year of victories by writing the great patriotic ballad, “Hearts of Oak”. Anson’s contribution, apart from planning these expeditions, was to organise an enormous expansion of the navy, now up to 70,000 men (from a population barely one tenth of what it is today), with many new warships being built: most famously HMS “Victory“, whose keel was laid in 1759, but the ship not launched until after the war had finished. All this, naturally, proved extremely expensive; the National Debt increased 50% to pay for the war, and the country was faced with interest payable on the debt absorbing 33% of all taxation revenue.

Anson did not live to see the seizure of the Spanish bases, or the final end of the war in 1763. In 1760 King George II died and was succeeded by his young grandson, George III. The new king chose as his bride Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in Germany, and Anson was given the honour of escorting her to England, in a ship specially renamed the “Royal Charlotte” in August 1761. But next year he caught a cold, never recovered his health, and died that June at Moor Park. He is commemorated locally only by a simple plaque in Colwich church.
    Anson had no children, his wife having predeceased him in 1760, and so his property devolved on his brother Thomas, who used it for further elaborations at Shugborough. Amongst other things, he erected a replica of the Arch of Hadrian from Athens as a monument to his brother, containing effigies of the admiral and his wife. But Thomas never married, and when he died it all passed to the brothers’ nephew, the son of their sister Jeanette. This man, George Adams, changed his name to Anson, and inherited not only the property but also the parliamentary seat at Lichfield; and the Anson peerage was later revived for his son. But the true founder of the family’s fortunes was their greatest member, Admiral George Anson.

Not everyone liked Anson. Dr Johnson always belittled his achievements; for although Johnson was a Lichfield man, he was also a diehard Tory and a Jacobite sympathiser and despised all Whigs. Horace Walpole thought Anson reserved and proud, and recorded a wisecrack that “He was so ignorant of the world that though he had been round it, he had never been in it”. But William Pitt, who was best placed to know Anson’s qualities in government, said, “To his wisdom, to his experience and care, the nation owes the glorious success of the war”.


Ansons of Shugborough

Thomas Anson, 1695-1773 (unmarried)
M.P. for Lichfield 1747-70

George Anson, 1697-1762 (brother, childless): the Admiral
M.P. for Hedon 1744-47
Created Baron Anson, 1747
First Lord of the Admiralty 1751-56 & 1757-62


George Adams, 1731-89 (nephew: changed name to Anson when inherited)
M.P. for Saltash 1761-68, & for Lichfield 1770-89

Thomas Anson, 1767-1818 (son)
M.P. for Lichfield 1789-1806
Created Viscount Anson, 1806: the ancestor of the later Earls of Lichfield