Tuesday, 31 July 2012

A great pick-me-up!

This is my mother's remedy for anyone feeling slightly under the weather.

A glass of cold orange juice
One uncooked fresh egg
Two teaspoons of brown sugar

Whisk together until the egg and sugar are completely stirred into the orange juice, and drink immediately.

Some might object that it's not fully vegetarian. It's certainly not vegan, but it's highly nutritious (practically a complete meal in itself) and guaranteed to make you feel better!

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Bridgewater: The Canal Duke

Francis Egerton was born in 1736 and as the result of heavy mortality within his family inherited vast wealth and the title of 3rd Duke of Bridgewater at the age of just twelve. He attracted little attention as a youth: indeed, some of his relatives thought he was feeble-minded. It seems he was disappointed in love as a teenager: certainly he never married. When he came of age at 21 he was thus extremely rich and entirely free. What was he to do with his life?
He could, if he wished, follow the example of other young aristocrats and embark on a career of dissipation, expending his fortune on wine and women, racehorses and cards. On a more positive level, he could build himself a lavish mansion in the latest style and collect works of art. Or he could go into politics, and spend his money on the costly business of electioneering. But Bridgewater did none of these: instead, he decided to build a canal.

The advantages of water transport had been well-known for centuries. A horse could only pull a cartload of half a ton on the bad roads of the time, but could manage 25 tons towing a barge. Adam Smith was to calculate that “6 or 8 men, on a boat, can carry, in the same time, the same quantity of goods from London to Edinburgh as 50 wagons, attended by 100 men and drawn by 400 horses”.
Amongst the duke’s many sources of wealth were coalmines at Worsley, near Manchester; but there were problems. Not only was the cost of transporting the coal into the city prohibitively high, but the mines were liable to flooding, . The Duke and John Gilbert, his agent (effectively the CEO of the vast Bridgewater estates) decided to resolve the problems by building a canal, ten miles long. They obtained a private Act of Parliament authorising them to do this (which, amongst its provisions imposed maximum charges for carriage on the canal) and employed a near-illiterate engineering genius called James Brindley for the work. Brindley devised an ingenious system using the water pumped from the mines to help fill the canal, and built Barton Bridge, an aqueduct to carry the canal over the river Irwell. Nothing like this had been attempted since Roman times, and the project was dismissed by critics as "a castle in the air", but after initial difficulties it worked, and soon became one of the wonders of the age.

(This contemporary picture shows the Duke proudly posing by Barton Bridge, his famous aqueduct. Sadly, the bridge was demolished in 1894)

The costs were enormous; over a thousand pounds a mile (and to put all such figures in context, we should remember that most families in England at that time were having to survive on no more than £25 a year), which was met by the Duke taking out loans, but even before it was opened in 1761 his ambitions were extending. His new scheme was a branch from the Worsley canal to run 25 miles to reach the Mersey estuary at Runcorn. A new Act of Parliament would be needed, and the Duke, Gilbert and Brindley travelled down to London to lobby support. In February 1762 Brindley was able to record, in his inimitable spelling, the final success of their bill in the House of Lords:-

“ad a grate Division of 127 fort Duk
98 noes
for te Duke 29 Me Jorete”

Brindley had drawn chalk diagrams on the floor to explain the workings of his lock-gates to their lordships; but the Duke’s expenses for the trip included a mysterious payment of £300 to a certain “Mr Bill”, so we may deduce that a certain amount of bribery was also involved.
This new venture, to be known as the Bridgewater canal, proved to be more difficult and expensive to build than had been envisaged, and once again the Duke covered the costs largely by borrowing. The canal was partially opened, and making a profit, by 1771, but determined campaigns of obstruction from local landowners delayed final completion until 1776. By this time money was extremely short; Gilbert’s salary was over £5,000 in arrears and the Duke’s debts had risen to £300,000, incurring interest payments of £11,000 a year. But with the true spirit of a fanatic, he became involved in even grander projects.

For many years people had contemplated a canal to open up the heart of England to water transport. The Duke had personal connections with the midlands: his sister had married Earl Gower, the richest landowner in north Staffordshire, and Gilbert’s brother Thomas was Gower’s agent; important and trusted enough for Gower to have him elected to parliament for the nearby borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme. In December 1765 a public meeting was held at Wolseley Bridge, just south of Stafford, with Gower in the chair and influential local landowners like Bagot, Anson and Grey in attendance. Also present was Josiah Wedgwood, the master potter, who needed the means to bring in china clay from Cornwall to his works near Stoke-on-Trent and then to transport his high-quality wares down to London for sale. It was resolved to build a canal to link the rivers Trent and Mersey, and thus allow a direct link by water between the west and east coasts. It would connect with the Bridgewater canal at Preston Brook and run south to Stoke, then follow the line of the Trent until the river became navigable. It would be 93 miles long, with 76 locks, 160 aqueducts and 213 road bridges, with its most spectacular feature being be the Harecastle tunnel, 2880 yards in length, through the hills north of Stoke. An Act of Parliament for this was passed in 1766, and a company set up, with Wedgwood as Treasurer and Brindley as Surveyor-General on a salary of £200 a year. £150,000 was to be raised from shareholders, who included Bridgewater, Gower, Wedgwood and Gilbert, though as is the way of such projects even in those days, it ended up costing twice this sum!

(This is the northern entrance to the Harecastle tunnel, at Kidsgrove, north Staffordshire. Brindley's tunnel is the one on the right, and is now too dangerous to be opened. The larger tunnel on the left, built a generation later by Thomas Telford, is still in use)

Brindley saw the Trent-Mersey canal as a “Grand Trunk”, with branches that would link with England’s two other principal rivers, the Severn and the Thames, so at the same time he was involved in other projects to link this canal with a Staffordshire-Worcestershire canal running south-west to join the Severn at Stourport, another to Birmingham, to Coventry and Oxford. Brindley acted as consultant to all these schemes. The “canal age” had taken off! The Trent-Mersey was partially opened and running by 1773, and completed by 1777. The Duke of Bridgewater’s debts reached a peak of £364,000 in 1786, equivalent to tens of millions today,, but by this time his profits were almost covering the annual interest payments of £17,258 and he was confident of eventual success.

Brindley died of diabetes, complicated by a chill caught whilst surveying the course for the Caldon canal near Stoke, in 1772, and thus did not survive to see most of his great projects completed. Gilbert, whose share of the work was at least as important as Brindley’s, died in 1795. The Duke of Bridgewater lived until 1803, by which time his canals were immensely profitable, and the value of his shares in the Trent-Mersey company had multiplied 15 times, though most of the earnings were still being used to pay the debts. He was increasingly eccentric in his later years, accused by his fellow-peers of bad language, irreligion and a generally dirty appearance. Right till the end of his life he was engaged a new project: the Lea Navigation to run from London to Hertford. He never married, so at his death his dukedom became extinct, and the huge returns on his projects went to swell the already extensive wealth of his sister’s family, the Gowers of Trentham. Certainly Bridgewater must be regarded as an obsessive, even a fanatic; but without his obsession, without his enormous resources and vital social and political connections, the industries of the Midlands could hardly have taken off. When Friedrich Engels commented that England had a “bourgeois aristocracy”, he might have had in his mind the likes of the Duke of Bridgewater.

(This grandiose building is the "Duke of Bridgewater" inn, beside the Trent-Mersey canal at Longport, Stoke-on-Trent. Alas, when I was there last year it was empty and seeking a new landlord)

Monday, 23 July 2012

A comment for the Olympic Games

I was told this story many years ago by a British national coach who had been at the Montreal Games in 1976. One of the Russian coaches had had a drop too much to drink and launched into a diatribe.
"Those East Germans!" he grumbled, "They're ruining the Olympics! They get these kids when they're six years old, and they stuff them full of drugs and train them eight hours a day, and then they come here and win medals! That's not sport!"
To which our guy, by his own account, retorted, "Steady on, man! You do exactly the same thing yourself!"
"Yes, I know", said the Russian, "But the East Germans do it much better than us!"

I once told this story to another sports coach, who put a sinister twist on the drugs issue. He said, "Let's assume those kids are on drugs. Now, the sports authorities in those countries aren't going to feed untested drugs into their young stars, are they? They'll try them out first to see if there are any nasty side-effects. So what are we looking at for that? Well, there's prisons, there's orphanages ...."
I must say this aspect hadn't occurred to me. What if he was right?

Some light may be cast on this issue by a remark from the late Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union, who said, back in the late 1970s, that "sport was just one of the ways in which the socialist world showed its superiority to the capitalist world". This illustrates perfectly why governments are prepared to pump money into top-level sport, or, if really unscrupulous, tolerate or even encourage a program of drug-abuse. Sporting success makes the people feel proud and patriotic, and may even make governments more popular!

The final word must therefore go to the Roman satirist Juvenal (A.D. 60-130), who famously wrote that the Roman Emperors maintained their position by providing their people with "Panem et circenses" - "Bread and circuses".

Thursday, 5 July 2012

The Staffordshire election of 1747

In summer 1745, Charles Edward Stuart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie” landed in Scotland with the aim of regaining the throne of Great Britain for his father, James Edward Stuart, “the Old Pretender”, the son of the late exiled King James II. He soon captured Edinburgh and headed south, through Lancashire and towards the midlands. His supporters were known as Jacobites (from Jacobus, the Latin version of James)
This was not without preparation. France was at war with England, and Charles was hopeful that a French army would soon land on the south coast. He also expected that he would receive local support. A French spy in 1743 reported that Staffordshire was “unanimously attached to the legitimate king” (i.e. to James), and named four of the greatest landowners of the county, Gower, Bagot, Chetwynd and Wolseley, as likely rebels. All were strong supporters of the opposition Tory party against the Whig government. It was noted how they gathered every year at Lichfield races. Over the previous 30 years the county had witnessed many anti-government demonstrations, which often took the form of violent attacks on Non-conformist chapels.

On December 3rd Charles’s little army of Highlanders reached Macclesfield and sent scouts forward through Congleton as far as Talke. They surely would have preferred to continue south through Birmingham and Oxford, but they found government troops under the Duke of Cumberland and Lord Ligonier in force in north Staffordshire, so instead they moved eastwards through Leek and the moor lands to Derby. There they halted and, two days later, turned back. Charles had promised the clan chiefs that reinforcements would come, but there was no sign of the French landing, and not one prominent local potential rebel had made a move: not Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, a notorious Jacobite who owned most of north Wales, not Bagot, not Chetwynd and especially not Gower. He had committed the ultimate treachery: he had changed sides at the end of 1744 and joined the Whig government! He raised a regiment to fight against the rebels, with himself as Colonel, and was rewarded with an Earldom and a seat in the Cabinet. Charles, bitterly disappointed, withdrew into Scotland, to be defeated at Culloden the next spring. Meanwhile in January 1746 fourteen men and one woman were held in Stafford gaol on suspicion of high treason. With the failure of Jacobitism, Tory fury turned particularly against Gower, and this made itself felt in the general election of 1747.

The Staffordshire election of 1747 was held with the memories of the late revolt still fresh in the minds. It was the first contested election for the county since 1715, and would be the last before the 1830s. The county, like all the others in England, returned two M.P.s to Parliament. Earl Gower accordingly put up two candidates: his brother William Gower and his son-in-law Sir Richard Wrottesley, aged just 26. They were opposed by the old Tory Sir Walter Wagstaffe Bagot of Blithfield and by John Crewe of Crewe Hall in Cheshire. Polling began on July 9th and continued until the 14th.
The system to be followed was that five polling booths were erected in the town square, one for each of the five “hundreds” into which Staffordshire had been divided since Saxon times: Pirehill, Totmonslow, Cuttlestone, Offlow and Seisdon. These booths were manned by polling clerks, who were paid one guinea a day - good money for the time! The franchise for county elections was limited to landowners whose property had a value of at least £2 a year: the famous “Forty-shilling freeholders”. It was estimated there were at least five thousand qualified voters in the county. Any prospective voters had to come to Stafford to register their votes, and check in at the relevant booth. The sheriff of the county had had the onerous duty of drawing up a list of all the freeholds in the county, at his own expense, which he would then sell to the candidates at 2/6d (13 p.) a time (this helps us to understand why the office of sheriff was so unpopular: like all jobs in local government, it was unpaid, and the local gentry were supposed to take it in turns to fill the post). In the booths, voters would have to take an oath that they were valid freeholders, and then declare their preferences: each man having two votes, though they could not both be cast for the same candidate. The candidates and their agents kept a close eye on things to make sure there was no fraud. There was, of course, no secrecy in voting.
In the 1747 election the polling clerks achieved the impressive feat of processing an average of 200 voters a day at each booth, and so after five days the queues had ended and the poll was declared closed (In some constituencies voting might drag on for over a month). The result was then announced:-
Bagot 2,654 votes
Gower 2,602
Crewe 2,433
Wrottesley 2,421
and so Bagot and Gower were declared elected. The Gower interest had retained one seat, but the Tory Bagot had topped the poll, reflecting the county’s Tory-Jacobite tendencies. This was not necessarily the end of the matter, because Wrottesley then demanded a scrutiny; meaning that the qualifications of every suspect voter would have to be examined, and bring the sheriff documentary evidence of his freehold; and as a last resort a losing candidate could even petition Parliament to have the result overturned on the grounds of fraud and corruption. Wrottesley brought together witnesses to challenge the validity of several hundred voters, but in the end he gave up. Realistically he could only ever hope to replace Crewe for third place; a somewhat meaningless triumph. In any case, the extensive electoral influence of Earl Gower soon led to his being compensated by being returned as M.P. for Tavistock in Devon. In August the Staffordshire result was declared valid.

As well as the two M.P.s for Staffordshire, four towns in the county also elected two M.P.s each: Stafford itself, Lichfield, Newcastle and Tamworth. There was no poll in the election of the two M.P.s for the borough of Stafford. William Chetwynd and a lawyer, John Robins, were put up as candidates, and no-one cared to undertake the trouble and expense of standing against them. But this did not mean there was peace in the town; quite the contrary. On election day a hostile mob of about 150 people, led by a certain Mr Loxdale, in the words of the “Morning Advertiser”, “Broke into, defaced and demolished Mr Chetwynd’s house” and beat up supporters of the Whig government. 18 people were arrested for this outrage, but rioters threatened to pull down the town gaol if any of their people were locked up! The rioters were eventually sent for trial at the Old Bailey, but, in the words of the writer, “Mr Chetwynd forgave them, which was probably wise”. There were disturbances elsewhere in the county. In Lichfield, Gower found the voters “insolent to a degree you cannot conceive”, and appealed to the government to send in troops. In Burton, twelve men beat up a soldier, but were acquitted at their trial. Huge riotous demonstrations by Jacobite supporters marked the Lichfield races that year, with many wearing tartan to show sympathy with the Scots rebels: Gower’s son was beaten up, and the Duke of Bedford was attacked with a horse-whip. Great play was made of having a fox, dressed in a miniature army coat, hunted by hounds in tartan. Trouble continued in Stafford: locals jeered at the soldiers, calling them “monkeys”, and in June 1749, soldiers in the town attacked people wearing the Jacobite badge of a white rose; swords were drawn and shots fired. One local man badly beat up a government excise officer: he was arrested, but acquitted at his trial.
Lichfield’s most famous son, Dr Johnson, was a Tory and a Jacobite. When, many years after these events, James Boswell expressed his surprise at meeting a Whig in Staffordshire, Johnson replied, “Sir, there are rogues in every county”. Discussing his great dictionary, where he defined the word “renegade” as “one who deserts to the enemy”, Johnson said, “I added, “Sometimes we say a Gower”, but the printer struck it out!”

Tough Jews, by Rich Cohen

This is the best book I have ever read on the history of organised crime in America between the wars. As the title implies, Cohen is telling the story of the notorious Jewish gangsters of New York, and wondering why they have been so widely forgotten. People who think about the gangsters today always think only of the Mafia, and do not realise that many of the most violent and successful mobsters were in fact Jews.

The main part of Cohen's story is set in Brownsville, a poor district of Brooklyn (which, as he explains, is where his father grew up) and focuses on the rise and fall of "Murder Incorporated"; a squad of professional contract killers that featured such luminaries as Abraham "Kid Twist" Reles, Martin Goldstein, Pep Strauss and Allie Tannenbaum, who in the 1930s efficiently carried out large numbers of assassinations on behalf of the top men of the New York crime syndicate. Linked with this, Cohen tells us of the rise of Arnold Rothstein, whom he calls "the Moses of the underworld": the man who first saw the possibilities of exploiting Prohibition to make enormous sums of money. The other featured characters are the duo of Louis Buchalter ("Lepke the leopard") and Jake "Gurrah" Shapiro, who began with extortion rackets in the garment industry and then moved on to heroin smuggling, and who had their own team of Jewish hitmen. There are brief references to others: Arthur Flegenheimer (better known as Dutch Schultz), Abner Zwillman of New Jersey, and the biggest of the lot; Benny Siegel and Meyer Lansky of the Broadway Mob. Cohen shows how all these gangs in the 1930s worked in partnership with the new generation of Mafia leaders like Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello. He goes on to tell us how "Murder Incorporated" was broken by the authorities when Reles and Tannenbaum lost their nerve and gave evidence, how Lepke became the only major gang leader ever to be sentenced to death and executed, and how Reles then mysteriously fell out of a top-storey window whilst under police guard.

Cohen wonders why there was only one generation of Jewish gangsters, and why they have been forgotten nowadays. He attributes it to the Jewish commitment to education. Like his own father, who rose from humble beginnings in Brooklyn to become rich and successful, only one generation of Jews lived in the slums and were drawn into organised crime: the next generation became lawyers and doctors and businessmen and moved out to the opulent suburbs. The Jewish gangsters were also determined to succeed, albeit in unorthodox ways.

This is the classic press photograph of the shooting of Dutch Schultz in a restaurant in Newark, New Jersey in 1935. Note the stains on the tablecloth and the cop reflected in the broken mirror. The other gang bosses had decided Schultz was a dangerous loose cannon and must be eliminated. Two of Lepke's Jewish gunmen, Mendy Weiss and Charlie Workman, were later convicted of the murder.

Footnote: For a more detailed and academic survey of the subject I can recommend Albert Fried: "The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America". This is probably the source of much of Cohen's information.

The Rythms of 19th Century History

That great British historian A.J.P. Taylor once pointed out that the history of Europe in the post-Napoleonic 19th century divided very neatly into three periods, each three decades in length.

The system established at the Congress of Vienna 1n 1815 endured till 1848. During this time the continent was dominated by intensely conservative forces, and there were no major wars between the Great Powers.

1848 was the Year of Revolutions. In state after state, governments lost control of their capital cities to the crowds on the streets, and fled. There was intense excitement and turmoil for a while, but then in almost every case the revolutions failed after a few months and the old regimes were restored. (The words "socialism" and "communism" first came into common use around this time) However, there was no peace internationally, because the next thirty years witnessed a whole sequence of wars involving almost all the nations of Europe. The Crimean War was followed by the Franco-Austrian War in northern Italy, followed by the Austro-Prussian War and the Franco-Prussian War, and then in the later 1870s the Russo-Turkish War in the Balkans. In the midst of all this, Garibaldi's campaigns produced a unified Italian state for the first time since the days of ancient Rome, and Bismarck welded together the petty German states into a new German Empire which rapidly supplanted France as the military and economic powerhouse of Europe. New states were also created in the ever-troublesome Balkans: Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria; poverty-stricken little states, suspicious of each other and always likely to be used as pawns in the rivalry between the Russian and Austrian Empires. Possibly coincidentally, the period also saw two exceptionally bloody conflicts outside Europe: the Indian Mutiny and the American Civil War.

The decades of violent conflict came to and end with the Congress of Berlin in 1878, which established a status quo in Europe that endured for a generation. For the next 30 years there were no wars in Europe, leaving the Great Powers free to expand their overseas empires. Africa was carved up between the European states during this period, with even new countries like Germany and Italy contriving to muscle in on the deal. The penetration of China went on apace, the French established themselves in Vietnam and the Russians were able to complete their conquest of Central Asia.

Thirty years brings us neatly to 1908, when the Austrian occupation of Bosnia provoked a new wave of Austro-Russian hostility and rivalry in the Balkans. The final collapse of Turkish control over the region led to small but brutal wars between the young Balkan states. The unstable personality and unpredictable behaviour of the Kaiser William II led to Britain abandoning its foreign policy of "splendid isolation" and allying with France and Russia against Germany, and the stage was all set for the cataclysm of 1914.

So Taylor points to three contrasting periods. His interpretation seems to be supported by the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm in his massive three-volume history of the century. Hobsbawm entitled his volume covering 1875-1914 "The Age of Empire", and his volume 1848-1875 "The Age of Capital"; though this book could equally well have been "The Age of Conflict". Similarly, Norman Stone entitles his volume of the 'Fontana History of Europe' as "Europe Transformed: 1878-1919", and James Joll's international history begins in 1870. All these books tactitly recognise a major transformation beginning in the 1870s.

Why history should have followed this rhythm has been hotly disputed. Taylor was always opposed to any broad ideological interpretations, and once said that, although one could argue that capitalism was the underlying cause of the coming of war in 1914, then surely capitalism was equally the cause of the generation of peace after 1878. Certainly the 19th century witnessed unprecedented economic and social changes. Industrialisation, and particularly its most spectacular aspect, the building of the railway networks, was under way before 1848 and proceeded at great pace in all the states of Europe in the middle period. The years after 1878 were marked by the "Great Depression", another phenomenon much debated by historians. Society was transformed utterly in the most advanced states, like Britain, after 1848: for the first time in human history, more people lived in towns than in the countryside. After 1878 living standards rose, and states began directly intervening in the economy, providing universal education and the first attempts at social security. In almost every European state there were moves towards democratically-elected Parliaments. Spectator sports made their sudden appearance, culminating in the first modern Olympic Games. Political philosophy also reflected the rhythms: Karl Marx, for instance, born in 1818, formulated his ideas in the first of our three periods, did almost all his writings in the second period, and died in 1883. By 1900, with Marx's expectations of revolution looking nowhere likely to come true in the immediate future, his followers were locked in hot debate as to the continued relevance of his ideas in the light of subsequent social and economic developments; the "revisionism" of Bernstein being violently opposed by the continued hard-line revolutionary commitment of Lenin. In retrospect, both could have been held to be either right, or wrong!

Sunday, 1 July 2012


I suspect that, of all European languages, English is the one where the pronunciation of a word gives the least certainty about the spelling; and, of course, the opposite also applies: the pronunciation cannot always be assumed from the spelling. Consider the following rhyme, or rather non-rhyme, guaranteed to perplex anyone who isn't a native speaker of the language; and, for that matter, many who are:-

There once was a baker of Slough
Who brought all his bread to the Borough
But alas for the dough!
Through being too tough
It gave all the people bad coughs.

I remember as a boy reading how a snake "sloughed its skin", and making the unwarranted assumption that the word was pronounced as in the town of Slough. And indeed, how was I supposed to know any better?