“This melancholy London – I sometimes imagine that the souls of the lost are compelled to walk through its streets perpetually. One feels them passing like a whiff of air.”
The Plague and The Frost Fair
It was last winter that we looked up to the cosmic arena and watched as a great fireball crossed the skies, lighting up the heavens over London; bringing with it both wonderment and terror. The scholarly debated the nature of the comets; and the relationship between celestial bodies and terrestrial matter, and the fabric of the wider universe. To the ordinary folk, it was an apparition of impending catastrophe, the likes of which London had become all too familiar with; but in what form would this omen of impending disaster manifest itself?
England had –for many decades- been in turmoil; wars with the Dutch, civil war in England, and the dissolution and restoration of the monarchy, had left England in a state of war-weariness, political and economic crisis, and the desperate need for order.
I remember as a child living in London, the winters had been bitter. The cold had been cruel enough to bite two of my fingers away, and three of my toes. The winds carried the frost through the meandering streets of London, creeping upon the slums by night and claiming the sick and elderly in their sleep.
As I watched that great fireball charging across the heavens last winter, I dreaded the winter ahead. And yet, it was not the winter, nor the war with the Dutch, or any of the many political factions which that celestial omen had been forewarning us about. It was the recurring nightmare which had struck London many times over the last three centuries; that invisible enemy that came like a thief in the night, bringing with it pestilence and death; the bubonic plague.
It was the winter that claimed my father, and the plague that claimed my mother. To die by cold was a somewhat merciful death; usually, you’d simply fall in to a deep sleep from which you could never be roused. The plague however, was a far crueller way to leave this world. It usually began with feverish symptoms; the feeling of chills, though the skin was warm to the touch, aching of the joints, cramping of the muscles, and seizures. Soon after, thick bubos would appear in the armpits, neck, or groin. Swollen with pus, the bubos were extremely painful. Some believed that lancing the bubo and excising the secretions was the best way to treat them; others believed that such practice could spread the disease further. I remember watching my mother, thrashing and throwing in her bed, her fingertips, lips and nose necrotic and black; she writhed in agony for hours as death crept closer to our door. Her breathing –heavy and laboured- ached with every inhale. When she had the strength, she’d tip her head to the pot at the side of her bed and vomit blood and whatever meagre foods she’d been able to consume as I tried in vain to ease her pain. In the end, I fed her Laudanum until her writhing and moaning abated, and I held her hand –blackened with necrosis- and guided her through her final journey from this world into the next.
The plague struck in the summer; many blamed the Dutch population, speculating that they were responsible for bringing the disease to London. The wars with the Dutch had a profound impact on the economic stability of England; but it made little difference to me. I’d been born in a London slum –just like my mother and father- and I’d most likely die in one; just like my mother and father.
At the peak of summer, many had fled the city, fleeing the plague and the poverty of the inner walls of London, which seemed to me to be a strainer in which the poorest of the empire ended up trapped. It was at the end of summer that my mother passed away. Afterwards, I sat by the Thames, amongst the beggars and thieves. I watched the murky water flow and the small boats bob about at the mercy of the current and wondered which would take me first; the pestilence or the advancing winter.
December had come about all too soon, bringing with it a furious, hostile winter, the likes of which I had never seen before. I sat at the edge of the Thames, in that same spot, but instead of boats bobbing about with the ebb and flow of the river; I looked out at a frozen landscape, reaching all the way across the breadth of the river, and as far as London Bridge.
Across the Thames, people were skating across the ice, tents had been erected selling foodstuffs and merchandise of all kinds. People gathered in their groups, sitting upon leather or woollen sheets, playing card games or football. Fires had been kindled around which many crowded, across from London Bridge –where the ice was at its thickest- a spit rotated above a fire, cooking an entire pig, and meals of roasted ox.
Wrapped tightly in wool –and with great trepidation- I made my way out onto the ice. I looked down as my feet clumsily trod upon the icy river, expecting cracks to form or for my feet to give way to the slipperiness of the ice. After a few minutes of clumsy walking, I found that the ice was actually far stronger and firmer to the foot than I had previously anticipated, and began to walk with more confidence.
As I walked to the centre of the Thames, I looked across from London Bridge, between the arches, timber seemed to have caught drifting blocks of ice, trapping them and slowing the flow of the river, causing the accumulation of ice, and gradually freezing the river to the point that it was comparable in strength to the land that surrounded it.
I looked down at the ice beneath my feet, and around at the smiling faces of those who had come to revel in the frost fair; the first truly jubilant faces that I had seen in the months since the plague had struck. The icy river beneath me was pure and white, glittering and clean; a far departure from the grimy, rodent-infested streets of London; the streets which had grown thick with the viscous human effluence from many a slop-bucket cast into the street.
The winter, though far more severe than any I’d seen in my lifetime; including the ones that had claimed my fingers and my toes, had brought with it a beautiful road, meandering through the centre of London; far away from the pestilence and the poverty. It is said that the harsh winter had stemmed the tide of the plague; and for the first time since mother died -as I looked out across the pure white road at the revellers- even in the bitter cold, I felt welcome and warm.
The crowds were chaotic; a maelstrom of excited voices, cheers and applause. The crowds swelled, each person piling upon another to catch a glimpse of the infamous gentleman thief Jack Sheppard. There could have been one third of London’s inhabitants here, not just to watch the execution of London’s most revered criminal out of morbid curiosity, but to celebrate his life; a life which I had the privilege of sharing with him.
The cart led him along Holborn and Oxford street, the swirling crowds which followed kept at bay by a mounted city marshal, and a small company of Javelin men. The procession stopped at a tavern on Oxford street abruptly. A collective gasp arose from the hundreds of thousands who had come to witness what many hoped would be his final escape, as Jack emerged from the cart, escorted by the Javelin men. His arms and legs bound tightly with thick rope.
At the tavern on Oxford street, a bar tender emerged, wading through the crowds clasping a pint of sack; a cheap Sherry that would numb the senses. As the bar tender poured the pint of sack into Jack’s eager mouth, he gulped it down hungrily. He was only a small man, but it was his small stature and deceptive strength that afforded him the ability to escape almost any situation with tact and cunning.
Though his small and wiry frame meant that –for a criminal- he was less than intimidating, I knew that he was stronger than most in courage and heart. His incomparable cunning and sharp wit was his strength, and he used his strengths wisely.
When Jack was born, his mother feared that as a small and frail infant, he might die young, as his brother had before him. He was baptised the day after his birth, for fear that his soul might not ascend to heaven, should the fates have led him to die in infancy.
But Jack was not one to accept his fate; perhaps even in his infancy, he’d refused to succumb to his ailments, and survived against all odds. I watched as he took a few more gulps from the pint of sack, smiling and grinning at the crowds, uttering some words to those who had gathered close enough to hear them, and wiping the remaining sack from his chin on his shoulder.
Maybe the sweet intoxicating effects of the alcohol would allow him to finally accept his fate; though if I knew Jack, he would refuse to be guided by the hands of others right until the very end.
I met Jack in Hayne’s tavern several years ago. Back then, they called me ‘Edgeworth Bess’. I’d been working as a prostitute at the time, and Jack had found gainful employment as an apprentice carpenter. His jovial mannerisms, sharp wit and ability to make jest out of any situation made him immediately popular with the locals at Hayne’s tavern. The moment he walked in through the door, the mood lifted palpably. Even for a short man, he stood with confidence, unabashed and unafraid to talk to anybody and everybody.
We talked for hours in Hayne’s; at first, he would make jokes and edgy comments, grinning wickedly with each word spoken, but over time, he began to confide in me more and more. He began to tell me of the drudgery of his work, the repetitive monotony of his life as a carpenter, and his grumbling resignation that he would be a carpenter from now until the day he died. Anyone else would have called him mad; with a promising trade ahead of him and a talent for carpentry, why such a man would turn to a life of crime. But that was Jack; he did not want to accept his fate. He did not want to go down in the annals of history as yet another arbitrary, forgotten life.
Over time, we began to grow closer; Jack and I began to frequent Hayne’s tavern more and more often, and as his drinks became stronger –and with each drink- his insubordination became stronger too. He rejected a life of piety and servitude, and decided to forge his own legacy; to live his own life.
He started off small, petty shoplifting of silver spoons and other valuables; he did not aspire to be a wealthy man, but rather sought to supplement his life of hedonistic pleasures. With less than one year left before he completed his apprenticeship, his drinking and epicurean lifestyle led his carpentry to suffer, and with it his wages. Perhaps as the end of his apprenticeship drew closer, he saw the future, and he rejected it entirely.
Soon he threw himself wholeheartedly into a life of crime; though he was never one for violence or intimidation. He began to associate with Johnathon Wild, the notorious criminal and gang leader. With Wild’s resources and men and Jack’s cunning and confidence, they formed a profitable partnership.
Jack and I moved to Parsons Green in Fulham and then on to Piccadilly. Jack was still working part-time as a journeyman carpenter at the time of my arrest. When I was locked away at St Giles’s Roundhouse, Jack tried to visit me, but was turned away. He could not bear to be without me, and –never a man to accept his fate- he broke into the prison and set me free himself.
I remember looking up at him as he lowered me through the cell window on a rope made of bedsheets -that look upon his face of mischief and rebellion- and thinking that if I don’t fall from the rope, I would still fall for that face every time.
I watched as he finished the pint of sack, that expression still on his face. I wondered if that expression would stay with him as the trapdoor opened and Jack fell to the hangman’s noose. As a man of small stature, the rope would not break his neck, and so it seemed he would die slowly from strangulation.
His final attempt to escape had been thwarted when the prison guard had found the penknife he planned to cut his ropes with. He had escaped from prison so many times that it seemed they were taking no more chances.
His first escape came when Jack was imprisoned on the top floor of St Giles’s roundhouse, pending a trial. Jack made a mockery of the prison, escaping within hours by simply breaking through the weathered timber ceiling and lowering himself to freedom using a rope he’d fashioned out of his bedsheets. The commotion drew a crowd; but far from deterring him, Jack simply joined the crowd, pointing and shouting that he could see the escapee on the other side of the roof; before deftly slipping away.
St Ann’s roundhouse was the second of His Majesty’s Hotels which Jack and I managed to find ourselves unwilling residents of. Shortly after his arrest, I went to visit him, only to be recognised as his wife, and imprisoned alongside him. We were sent to New Prison in Clerkenwell, but managed to escape within days. We filed away our manacles, removed one of the bars from the window, and once again forged a rope from knotted bedsheets to make our escape. We then proceeded to scale the 22 foot high prison gate; no small feat for a man of Jack’s stature, and a woman with a Rubenesque figure such as mine. Still, the escape made us heroes amongst the working class of London.
Jack’s third escape was during his internment at Newgate prison. Once again, I took a personal role in aiding his escape. By this point, Jack had fallen foul of Jonathan Wild and his men. They provided evidence against him, which led to Jack being sentenced to death. The day the warrant was signed, Jack escaped.
During a visit, myself and an associate distracted the guards long enough for Jack to loosen and remove one of the bars of his cell. His slender frame allowed him to slide deftly out of the window and escape dressed in women’s clothing which we had smuggled into the prison.
This was not the only time he escaped from Newgate. Jack found himself interred there during the trial of Jonathon Wild and the infamous highwayman Joseph ‘Blueskin’ Blake, which was in progress next door. During the trial, Blueskin attacked Wild with a pocket knife, slashing his throat open. The commotion allowed Jack to use a thumb nail to unlock his handcuffs, and escape through the chimney, with his leg irons still attached.
His final capture saw him taken back to Newgate; this time, they took no chances. Placing Jack in the centre of the prison where he was under constant surveillance; they loaded him with iron weights more than four times his own weight. By this point, he was so well known –and so popular- that the guards began charging four shillings an hour just to visit him. James Thornhill –an artist who’d personally painted King George himself- painted his portrait right there in the cell.
The people petitioned for Jack’s sentence to be commuted to transportation; it was then that Jack was made an offer: provide information on the whereabouts and crimes of his associates, and his sentence would be reduced. Always a master of his own fate; Jack rejected the offer vehemently.
So here I am, watching as Jack is led back into the cart and escorted to the platform. I push my way to the front as he is escorted up the steps, and the noose hung around his neck. I look up at him, he looks back at me; that same rebellious grin upon his face. The bag is thrust upon his head, and after some words from the executioner, the trapdoor opens and Jack falls, slowly choking. His legs flail lightly, still tied together with rope. The flailing stops after about three minutes, and Jack’s body hangs there, swinging lightly in the breeze. The crowds stand in collective silence; barely a word is uttered as the obligatory fifteen minutes passes, and the body is released.
The crowd lurches forwards, grabbing at his body and pulling it into the surging crowds. We push forward, trying to get to the body first; as a small man, his neck didn’t break on the noose, which means there is a chance we could revive him; but I can’t get to him. His fate is sealed, as the hands of the masses carry his body away into the crowds.
The opening of the Thames Tunnel
The crowds bustled in their masses; tens of thousands of Londoners –and people from all across the world- turned out to see what they’re calling “The Eighth Wonder of the World”, the Thames Tunnel; the crowning achievement of the brilliant architect Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Never before had such an ambitious tunnel been created; one which ran straight under the mighty and ancient Thames river. As a child I remember hearing about it; back then they were simply preparing the tunnel. Now –eighteen years later- the job was complete, and history had been created.
The crowds shuffled excitedly towards the entrance, paying a penny each for entry, and descending the stairs into the tunnel. I watched from the side as they made their way down the steps; old folk, young folk, rich folk, poor folk, Englishmen and foreigners from all corners of the globe. They bustled about the tunnel, marvelling at the brickwork and the unique curvature of the tunnel. In the arches, small shops had sprung up selling food, drinks, trinkets and curios of every kind. The tunnel was so much more than just a passage from one side of the Thames to another; it was a veritable cacophony of joyous voices, amusements, and merriment.
As an apprentice miner, I’d been granted free entry to the tunnel I’d helped to create. The sheer effort that had been put into creating this architectural marvel was back breaking. As a miner, I’d witnessed it first-hand.
During construction, we would only work in shifts of four hours at a time. This was significantly shorter than shifts a miner would normally be expected to work, but this was no mine, and this was no ordinary excavation.
Many other architects had attempted –and failed- to build an underground tunnel. A group of Cornish miners had attempted previously to build a tunnel, but –accustomed to digging through hard rock- had not adapted their mining strategies to accommodate for quicksand, soft clay and the dripping sewage and effluence from the Thames river above them.
Looking down at the tunnel now, it looked sturdy, robust and dry, almost as if it had always been there. But construction was backbreaking and messy. The toxic exudations which came from above gave out flammable and noxious fumes which caused our oil lamps to flare up against the mesh which surrounded them. We’d been using the recently created Davy Lamps; a quite revolutionary invention for the mining industry. The mesh of the Davy Lamp prevented the flames from igniting the fumes which often filled the mines. Without the Davy Lamp, I’m certain that an explosion might have ripped through the tunnel, causing catastrophic damage.
After four hours, poor air quality, along with the exhausting labour meant that some of the miners and bricklayers began to collapse. As the horses pulled away the silt and clay which we tunnelled through, we were pulled along with them, and new labourers brought in.
It wasn’t just the fumes and the moisture that made the construction of the tunnel so difficult; a certain anxiety gripped us at all times; the fear of the tunnel flooding. In the eighteen years it took to build the Thames Tunnel, it had flooded six times. On one occasion, six men perished, and Brunel himself almost died. When the water came pouring in, he’d headed for the emergency exit but found it to be locked. The foreman; a monster of a man by the name of Beamish heard his cries and bashed the door down. Grabbing Brunel by the collar, he pulled him to safety. After that, the tunnel was sealed up and construction abandoned for seven years. They said the delay was due to financial problems, but I believe that as Brunel was recovering in Brislington, the fear for his life, and the remorse he felt for the loss of six of his labourers, left him feeling too guilty to continue.
The people of London joked about the Thames tunnel; and even poetically described the projects ability to ‘hold water’.
Good Monsieur Brunel
Let misanthropy tell
That your work, half complete, is begun ill;
Heed them not, bore away
Through gravel and clay,
Nor doubt the success of your Tunnel.
That very mishap,
When the Thames forced a gap,
And made it fit haunt for an otter,
Has proved that your scheme
Is no catchpenny dream;—
They can’t say “’twill never hold water.”
I’d wager that half the people who made that joke were in the tunnel right now, buying food and drinks from the archway shops.
After 7 years, the project continued. Part of Brunel’s genius –and that of his father before him- was the use of the innovative Tunnelling Shield. When digging through soft clay and silt, often the walls were not stable enough to reinforce with bricks and mortar. The tunnelling shield was essentially a device which bored through the clay, allowing miners like myself to scrape away the residual clay and remove it from the mine. We moved the tunnelling shield just four inches at a time, digging away at the clay with nothing more than hand held spades, whilst bricklayers reinforced the walls. Progress was unbearably slow; despite this, the tunnelling shield -and the determination of Brunel- along with the arduous work of countless miners and bricklayers had created this architectural marvel.
Towards the end of the project, the money had dried up, and we’d been unable to build the ramps required for horse-drawn carts. Pedestrian access via the stairwell was the only way the tunnel could be used. Despite this; looking around at the merriment of the revellers -who celebrated the tunnel and its development- I knew that we’d changed the history of London, and indeed the world.
Adler’s Yiddish theatre in Whitechapel
“Only dipped in blood and lit with tears of a living witness can the world understand how, with our blood, with our nerves, with the tears of our sleepless nights, we built the theatre that stands today as a testament to our people.”
I watched as the mesmeric Jacob “The great eagle” Adler strode confidently across the stage. His performance was spellbinding, captivating audiences from all across London. Since his arrival in Whitechapel, he’d revolutionised Yiddish theatre, not just for his engaging performances, but his enigmatic charisma, which drew people to follow him.
This night, he played the role of Karl Moor, the leader of a band of thieves in a performance of Freidrich Schiller’s The Robbers. Adler truly brought the character to life; the anguish etched into his face during the scene in which Karl Moor’s father dies tells a tale of its own about Adler and the trouble he has seen. To me, that look of genuine anguish, pain and terror was not born of imitation, but of profound and palpable pain that stemmed from Adler’s life.
Adler’s life seemed in some ways to parallel the life of Karl Moor; not in circumstance, but in the emotions portrayed and the character arc upon which both had evolved. Karl Moor led a rebellious band of thieves; Adler as a youngster living in Odessa had lived many lives; both recalcitrant and scholarly. He’d been a boxer, a dancer, a peddler and a hoodlum; all of which contributed to the realisation of his true love: Classical theatre.
As the scene played out, and Karl’s anguish at the death of his father becomes too much to bear, I think about the horrors and tragedies that Adler faced throughout his life. Forced from his homeland by war and the bubbling pot of antisemitism in Russia; he’d moved to Whitechapel, where despite his popularity and brilliance as a performer, he still lived a meagre lifestyle, and was no stranger to hunger.
As a child born and raised in Odessa, Adler was a product of two worlds –and indeed- two different ideologies; one which stemmed from traditional, Orthodox Judaism, and the other which stemmed from the ever-changing culture of Europe. Odessa had been a hard place to grow up Jewish; faced with many hardships and persecutions, coupled with a general collective attitude of antisemitism; Adler had personally experienced horrors which would make a grown man cry. It is of little surprise to me that he turned to classical theatre as an outlet for his pain.
He knew –just as I did- that only through artistic expression can we immortalise our culture and the struggles of our people; for when a culture dies, its people die with it. For this reason, Adler created a Yiddish theatre troupe in Odessa. Something in Adler’s performances appealed to the people, reaching them on a personal level. When he performed, it was as if you were on stage with him, walking in the shoes of the characters he represented, and feeling the pain of Adler himself. His first productions in Odessa met with ground-breaking success, drawing attention to Yiddish theatre, and the plight of the Jewish people in Russia. This all came to an end in August 1883, when that bubbling pot of antisemitism reached tipping point, and Yiddish theatre was banned entirely.
It was then that Adler left Odessa and made his way to Whitechapel. Often considered to be the Jewish Capital of London, Whitechapel had a few amateur theatrical clubs. It was with the arrival of Adler and his Russian counterparts, that Yiddish theatre went stratospheric in its popularity. Despite the extreme poverty in which Adler lived –and continued to live in- after just two years, Adler founded the Princes Street Club.
I watched from the sidelines as Adler’s performance captivated the audience. My eyes scanned across the audience, who sat with wide-eyes and open mouths at the incomparably brilliant acting talent to which they bore witness. It seemed as if each performance was unique; and each one grew exponentially more potent in its depth of emotion and range. The way I saw it, Yiddish theatre had its birthplace in Odessa; with Adler as its parent. Now that it had moved to Whitechapel, Yiddish theatre was in its adolescence, growing and expanding in popularity. As I heard Adler’s anguished cries echo across the acoustic chambers of the theatre, I could hear his performances echoing throughout the ages.
The night that followed left nothing but tragedy in its wake. Perhaps it was the authenticity with which Adler performed –or the realistic glow of the theatrical flames- that caused the mass of panicked faces, screams of horror and the crushing stampede of desperate people. The scene involved using theatrical props to create a realistic fire upon the stage; perhaps Adler’s reaction to the flames was too strong, and the captivated audiences believed that the danger had broken the fourth wall, and was coming for them. Soon, the entire audience of three-hundred were rushing for the exits, pushing each other, stumbling to the floor, climbing over one another, desperate to escape the illusory inferno. That was the night that over a dozen people were crushed to death. Oh what horror Adler must have felt; his own performance had inadvertently caused the deaths of the very people he yearned to tell his story to.
Now I sit alone in this empty theatre, watching the shadows dancing upon the stage, as if the darkness itself is imitating the rhythmic and hypnotic movements of Adler; a phantom of his great legacy.
Adler left for New York, taking with him all of that charisma and talent. Perhaps Yiddish theatre has come out of its adolescence in Whitechapel, and will truly prosper in New York. But in its wake, I will stay in Whitechapel, with nothing but this empty theatre for comfort. If I listen hard enough, perhaps I’ll still be able to hear that remnant echo of Adler’s powerful performances.
There was nowhere in London quite like Rosemary Lane. Upon its crowded streets one could find almost any article of clothing. The ‘rag fairs’ they called them; where the needy and the greedy gathered in their droves, buying and selling stolen cloths, rags, laces, ropes and every textile one could imagine. Naturally, both robbers and the robbed gravitated towards Rosemary lane, selling their stolen textiles, or searching the many stalls for that which had been taken from them.
As I meandered down past the Iron Gate which sat parallel to the Tower of London, I heard the growl of a tiger as it paced about in its captivity at the Royal Menagerie. I often wondered what chaos and panic it would cause if one of the resident beasts escaped and charged towards the afternoon rag fair. I continued my journey towards Rosemary lane; the booming sound of people advertising their wares growing ever closer, each one trying to drown out the other, until all of their bellowing became incomprehensible.
After making my way up Little Tower Hill, I looked down upon the Rag Fair. Despite living on Rosemary lane for many years, I had never become accustomed to the smell of damp cloth and mildew which seemed to exude from the Rag Fair, carried on the wind which cut through the lane, picking up every foul scent from every foul person who inhabited the Rag Fair.
The City Alderman had employed Marshalls to try to break apart the Rag Fair, dispersing its patrons, demanding stalls be taken down, pasting warnings to the walls and seizing wares they believed to be stolen. But their efforts were futile; the patrons of the rag fair and residents of Rosemary lane were huge in number, and were well aware of the local laws and would not shy away from manipulating local juridical boundaries in order to complicate the penal system and avoid punishment. The rag fair was especially difficult to police, owing to the fact that half of Rosemary Lane came under the jurisdiction of the City, and the other half can under the jurisdiction of Middlesex; half of the street was based in St Botolph Aldgate with the other half in St Mary Whitechapel; a small part of Rosemary Lane belonged to the Liberties of the Tower, whom had very little bite to their powers of prosecution.
But it was not just the confusing legal boundaries which made the rag fair so difficult to police; it was a collective feeling amongst the patrons of the rag fair -and the residents of Rosemary lane- that they were a breed of their own; though nobody trusted anybody else, there was a feeling of solidarity amongst us; that we were not simply poorfolk who could be trampled on, but scrappy, diligent and tenacious, who had created our own system through which we could better our lives.
It was truly a cacophony of criminals in which the dregs of the empire seemed to always find themselves –and yet- the residents of Rosemary Lane -such as myself- had a talent for resourcefulness and cunning the likes of which no other resident of any of the many winding streets of London possessed.
Dorothy Carter; now there was a cunning thief. As a patron of the ragfair, and fellow resident of Rosemary Lane, I hadn’t cared much for her as a person; however I did respect her tenacity and resilience -her sheer recalcitrance in the face of the law. She would frequently challenge the Marshalls sent out to police the rag fair, tearing down their pasted signs as soon as they were put up and refusing to comply whenever she was apprehended.
She would frequent Tower Wharf; her husband was a soldier at the tower, and she knew the juridical complications of Tower Wharf. Many crossed the tower with tuppence in hand to pay the boatman; Dorothy would often called out something like ‘Stop! Pocketpicker!’, which would cause all of those in the immediate vicinity to reach into the pockets in which they kept their money or other valuables, to check that they had not been the victim of theft. Dorothy would take note of which pockets contained what, and would then pick the pockets of the ones she considered most valuable.
One night, Dorothy took it upon herself to steal twenty two yards of lace from the coat pocket of one of the many people crossing tower wharf. Upon her arrest, she cried out ‘Damn you and your Warrant too! This ground is the King’s, and is my own’.
She was right in her proclamations; Tower Wharf fell under jurisdiction of The Liberties, and so she was not tried before a Middlesex jury at the Old Bailey, but before a London Jury, claiming that the man had lain with her -and upon refusal to pay- she had taken it upon herself to steal from him that which she was owed.
Unfortunately for Dorothy, her luck –much like the rope and cloth she had stolen- had all but run out; she was found guilty of theft and sentenced to be hung from the neck until dead.
As I made my way through Rosemary Lane, I clutched tightly to my chest the old clothes I intended to sell; the old rags, cloths and garments of Dorothy Carter. I’d decided that she wouldn’t need them anymore; not after her legs stopped twitching and the London winds gently swayed her body from left to right.
For Dorothy Carter, all the lace in the world is worthless to her now, no textile of sack, cloth, string, silk or rope has any value to her, for the most costly rope in the entire world is in the eight knots of the Hangman’s noose.
Iberian Moor Catalina de Cardones
I remember the day we set sail for England; from the fertile coastal surrounding Motril at the Southernmost point of the Iberian Peninsula we crossed the arid, dusty planes –crossing the daunting mountains- until, upon the horizon we could see the port of Coruna, and the shimmering sea which would take us to England.
I looked back at the journey we’d taken; mountains fierce and intimidating, windswept plains dotted with rock and, fissured with fractured, dried mud. That was the last time I’d see the Moorish architecture of Granada, or feel the heat of the sun bearing down upon me with such intensity.
The ship would carry us across the ocean. I’d never travelled by ship before, and so it took me a while to steady my movements against the bobbing of the tide. The vast expanse of endless ocean was daunting; at first I could not understand from whence one could navigate when the oceans appeared the same in every direction. Soon I realised that the position of the sun, the stars and various instruments were used to determine our distance and location.
Despite this, the journey was a turbulent one; fierce storms in the Bay of Biscay left our vessel at the mercy of the elements; seething waves crashed against the side, spilling surf over onto the deck as the ship rocked violently against it. Off the coast of Brittany, cracks of thunder echoed through the air, as the sky lit up with forks of lightning. The tempestuous seas slowed our journey significantly, blowing us off course. After four months of travelling, I looked out at the approaching English coast in awe.
I’d first entered Catherine’s service after the conquest of Granada. The royal family of Aragon had led mighty armies through the Andalusian territories of our Moorish neighbours; murdering and enslaving our people. Some cities resisted the invaders, but though their efforts were valiant, they fell to the armies and were enslaved. Our traditions, beliefs, customs and culture were suppressed, and eventually destroyed.
As one of the enslaved, I was to tend to Catherine; the daughter of the invading monarch. My duties were to tend to her personal needs; helping her to dress and undress, and serving her in any way she saw fit. Though I believed that my enslavement within the royal household was more than just that; I was a symbol of the unquestionable imperial control that the royal family had over Granada.
Through my intimate knowledge of Catherine, we had become something more than slave and slaver; we had come to see one another as friends. She told me how –even in her infancy- she had been promised to a Welsh Prince by the name of Arthur, in order to cement an alliance between their two powerful families.
When the ship arrived in Plymouth, the noblemen of Devon and Cornwall hastily formed an escort to escort us to Exeter. The winds were chilly as I stepped on English soil for the first time.
Two weeks passed before a delegation arrived in Exeter, bidding welcome to Catherine and arranging an escort to London. During our escort to London, a horse approached the delegation; upon it was none other than the young Prince Arthur himself. Anxious and jubilant to see his bride, he met with the delegation and laid eyes on Catherine for the first time.
Though both spoke Latin, their pronunciations varied, making communication between the royal couple difficult; despite this, the young couple seemed to relish one another’s company.
The wedding ceremony was a grand affair, with both Arthur and Catherine dressed in white satin. The great Cathedral seemed to be echoing with uproarious excitement at the union between the two. After the wedding, we made our way to a nearby castle where a choir of the most sweetly voiced children of the King’s chapel sang with quaint harmony.
The wedding was spectacularly grand, but the marriage was cut short by the untimely death of Arthur. I was with the couple when they moved to Ludlow castle. Having been left uninhabited for almost twenty years, it took some effort to make the castle warm and comfortable. Cleaning, dusting and repairs had to be made, and new furniture brought in. Chimneys had to be cleared, floors polished and bricks repaired.
It was after two months at Ludlow castle that the inhabitants began to succumb to a horrific illness, the likes of which I’d never seen previously. They called it ‘Sweating sickness’, though it began not with sweating but with a sudden and inexplicable feeling of dread. Feverishness would soon follow, which usually meant violent shivering, throbbing headaches, severe pains in the neck, shoulders, legs and arms; followed by extreme exhaustion. The sickness could kill within less than a day, making treatment –or even just the comfort of the infected- nigh on impossible.
After the fevers faded, extreme heat and sweating from all pores followed. The victims would become delirious, their hearts beating rapidly in their chest as they complained of extreme thirst.
In the final stages, the victims –in their great exhaustion- would feel the overwhelming desire to sleep. It was believed that if you could resist the temptation to succumb to sleep, you might survive the illness. Catherine resisted; Arthur did not.
When Catherine finally recovered from her illness, we travelled –dressed in black- to London. Though she mourned the death of her husband, she had been unable to attend his funeral as a result of the illness. I kept close by her for the following months, making sure she recovered to full health.
After a few months, she spoke of her parents negotiating another marriage to Arthur’s younger brother Henry to maintain the established alliance. She was to marry her brother’s widow, Henry –breaking with Catholic canon- and bear him a son and heir. If she could not, the union might be fractured, and the allegiance between the two kingdoms irreparably broken.
The Witch of Wapping
I’d stood amongst the jostling crowds of Tyburn. As she ascended to the platform, the Ordinary spoke with her. I watched the movements of his lips, then watched as hers moved in response. She stood, meek and yet proud, as the visibly angered Ordinary was approached and shooed away by the hangman, who had deliberately woven thirteen knots into the noose; a sign of foreboding, guaranteeing a death of slow strangulation.
The Witch of Wapping; that’s what they were calling her. Some in the crowd jeered and shouted obscenities; others looked on in silent reverence. Not far from where I stood, a gluttonous man stood wearing a flat cap, bellowing slurred vulgarities about witchcraft and devils.
The noose was placed around her neck. The trapdoor opened, and she dropped suddenly, her legs kicking involuntarily. The noise of the crowd rose substantially, her detractors damning her to hell, and others shouting injustice.
After a few moments, the crowds surged forwards, searching the body for the legendary ‘teat which the devil sucked’. I moved against the crowds, making my way towards the nearest tavern. Sitting at a table by myself, I sipped my pint of ale silently, thinking about the travesty of justice which I had just witnessed.
Jolting me from my thoughts, a man stumbled into the tavern, his flat cap nearly falling from his head as he did so. It was the man I’d seen at the hanging, yelling all manner of insult at the condemned.
After ordering a pint, he spied me drinking alone and stumbled towards me.
“Room for a little one?” He asked, pulling up a chair and taking a seat.
I nodded, reluctantly accepting his company.
“Did you see the hanging?” He asked, taking a gulp of his pint.
“I did,” I answered, “Poor woman.”
“Poor woman?!” He asked incredulously, “They should have burned her for what she did, that’s the only way you can kill a witch for sure.”
“And how can you identify a witch, exactly?” I asked.
The man let out a burp, “There are lots of ways.” He spoke.
“That’s convenient.” I replied.
“The Devil’s Teat,” He said raising a finger, “That’s one. When they cut her down, they found a teat under her breast, black as ink and long as a finger.”
“Joan Peterson was no witch.” I state firmly, “She was innocent. The real witches were the ones who incriminated her in that courtroom.”
“Joan Peterson killed an old woman!” He bellowed, “Killed her with a potion to try to steal her money.”
“Doesn’t it strike you as odd,” I began, “that Joan Peterson would kill Lady Powell –an elderly woman of great wealth, who suffered from scurvy, the dropsie and the yellow jaundies- despite not having been written into her will?”
“Yeah,” The man said, “makes it less suspicious.”
“And far less profitable.” I continued.
“Joan Peterson bewitched a child,” He said, furrowing his brows, “Rocked the cradle in the likeness of a black cat. She brewed potions and poisons; she learned to make these concoctions at the tutelage of the devil.”
“She made simple potions to cure headaches and anxiety,” I said, brushing off his words, “None of which she even gave to Lady Powell. She’d never even heard of her.”
“You’ve got it wrong,” The man spoke, “Her potion making skills were made use of by Mistress Levingston –Lady Powell’s primary caregiver. Joan Peterson made a concoction of strong waters, designed to kill Lady Powell within three weeks of her consuming it.”
“Well,” I retort, “It must have been a potion of the most ingenious and the most insidious if it was able to fool Lady Powell’s many physicians to record the cause of death as natural causes, by way of examination and autopsy.” I explained, “She was eighty years old!”
“Witches are master of deception,” the man said, raising a finger, “Even now, she lives. A hangman’s knot alone cannot kill her. Her body must be burned.”
“When Lady Powell died,” I continued, “A great deal of her wealth went to her primary caregiver- Mistress Levingston.”
The man looked at me sceptically, “What’s your point.”
“Many people felt that they had been cheated out of their share of her wealth,” I continued, “A great many of those same people were in that courtroom today, giving worthless testimony against Joan.” I explained, “I even witnessed a man outside the courtroom offering monetary rewards for testifying against the witch.”
I sipped my pint, locking eyes with the man.
“If witches are masters of deception,” I said, “How then do you explain the number of people who witnessed her in her acts of witchcraft?”
The man took a gulp of his pint, seemingly unable to answer my question.
“The body of people who felt cheated out of Lady Powell’s fortune believed that if their intended target –Mistress Levingston- were to be tried and executed, the fortune would be disseminated amongst them.” I explained, “To this end, they spoke to Joan Peterson, asking her to give false testimony against Mistress Levingston. They wanted her to stand up in court and tell the jury that Mistress Levingston approached her, requesting a poison that would kill Mrs Powell.”
“Joan’s potions,” He spoke, “Made people get sicker.”
“What they did not expect however,” I continued, “Was for Joan to reject their offer.” I continued.
The man grunted, “And where’s your evidence for this?”
“It is a far more realistic deduction,” I said, “Than pressing guilt based on a non-existent devil’s teat.”
The man scoffed at me, “I saw it with my own eyes.”
“Did you really?” I asked, “I imagine half of the people in half of the taverns of London will be making the same claim soon enough.” I said finishing my pint of ale.
I rose from the table, leaving the flat-capped man alone, and exiting the tavern.
Even through the bellowing of the crowd, I could just about make out the words Joan said to the ordinary moments before her death by reading the movements of her lips.
The ordinary had pleaded with her to confess her sins, to implicate Mistress Levingston in order to be at peace with her sins before death. Joan Peterson -defiant to the end- told him simply that she had confessed everything she was guilty of at the bar, and could not implicate Mistress Levingston as there was simply not truth to her involvement. She was ready to be judged before God, and depart this world.
I looked around at the revellers in Tyburn square who had watched an innocent woman die with dignity and humility.
You didn’t need to hunt for devil’s and witches in London; they were all around.
The Grand Theatre in Woolwich
The first night in 1900 that the Grand Theatre in Woolwich opened was a spectacular one. The performance was ‘A Greek Slave’, which -by all accounts- was a play of many merits and a catchy and engaging musical score, with lyrics full of wit and wisdom. Unfortunately, ‘A Greek Slave’ had limited success, much of which had been largely eclipsed by the more popular ‘The Geisha’, which had been performed at the same time. Still, on that first opening night, the actors threw their hearts and souls into each character; and brought each song to life in booming tenor or uplifting soprano.
The plot was simple enough; largely based around the complicated love lives of a Greek household, but the musical scores were what really brought the play to life.
I watched as the players on stage revelled in their incarnations of each character. Heliodorus; Greek for ‘Gift of the Sun’, the Persian soothsayer and head of the family, accurately predicts the tumultuous love lives of wealthy Roman matrons. His daughter Maria begins to take advantage of her father’s clairvoyant abilities, claiming to have such gifts herself and using them to her advantage; uttering nonsensical tongues claiming that they are divinely inspired.
When Maria falls for one of the slaves –Diomed- her father disapproves immensely, and arranges to trick the pair of them into falling for other people. Despite all the trickery and scheming of each party -by the end of the play- true love conquers all, and the lovers end up together.
We had waited a long time to open a large theatre in Woolwich. With its rising population of the gainfully employed –along with a substantial population of soldiers from the Royal Artillery barracks- the demand for entertainment was huge. Since the industrial revolution took hold, and swathes of workers flooded into the cities to work in the factories, the demand for theatre had increased quite substantially; the cities with the facilities in place to satiate this demand for entertainment often prospered economically.
I remembered my grandfather telling me of his involvement in the price riots of 1809. I’d inherited my love of theatre from him, and though he had never performed himself, he told me of how he considered himself one of the main players in the riots. They’d begun after the Covent Garden theatre burned down, and the theatre owners increased the prices of the tickets from six shillings to seven shillings for the boxes and three and six to four shillings for the pit and the third tier.
The gallery price remained the same, but the new gallery was so far up and the rake so steep that the audience -crammed into so called ‘pigeon holes’- could only see the legs of the performers.
My grandfather told me of how –after the singing of the National Anthem- they would chant in unison for the prices to be restored to their previous prices. People would release pigeons into the theatre, cat-call during performances, hold up banners and placards, or dress up with false noses or women’s clothing. My grandfather told me that –after some time- people came to the Covent Garden theatre not for the plays, but for the spectacle of the rioters. After three months of rioting, a public apology was made, and the old prices were restored.
At The Grand Theatre in Woolwich, we made sure that everyone could see the stage; no matter where you were sitting or what price you’d paid, you’d never have a rake so steep that you could only see the actor’s legs. This was part of what made the Grand Theatre so appealing; never before had such luxury and comfort been offered in a theatre.
For the first few years, the theatre swelled in popularity. With grandiose presentations of drama, opera and musical comedy; the Grand Theatre in Woolwich rang with the booming voice and shrill high-pitched songs of comedy and tragedy.
With such a large population of soldiers residing in Woolwich, it seemed as though many of the soldiers found a great outlet for their troubles, hardships and loneliness in the performances held at the Grand Woolwich Theatre. Something within the fictionalised tales or love and war appealed to both the working class of the area and the soldiers in their barracks. The acoustics and design of the theatre meant that rich men and poor men alike could all see and hear the performances with a great degree of depth and accuracy. No matter where you sat, the performances could captivate you and the songs echo in your head for many days to come.
When a new play or musical was due to be performed at the Grand Theatre, you could feel a tangible excitement spreading across Woolwich, as the poor and the wealthy alike anticipated indulging their culture aspirations when the date for the newest performance drew closer.
Each night, the theatre hummed with excitement as the locals –and those from the surrounding towns- made their way to their seats; each performance generating as much buzz and joviality as that first opening night, and that first performance of ‘A Greek Slave.’
The burial of Thomas Rainsborough
“For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under…”.
-Thomas Rainsborough, Putney Debates, 1647
The scent of Rosemary clung rebelliously to the nostrils; as the large crowds of Levellers turned out for the funeral of their spiritual leader, Thomas Rainsborough. With ribbons of sea-green affixed to their arms, and bunches of Rosemary in their hats; the Leveller’s made their way through Wapping in a slow and heavy-hearted procession. Three thousand strong, winding all the way through Wapping, large crowds gathered at St John’s Churchyard to witness the burial of Thomas Rainsborough -and with it- the burial of the strongest propagator of their ideologies.
I remember him telling me about his father William; an impressive man who balanced both a sharp military mind with the grace of diplomacy. He was a Vice-Admiral in command of his own vessel in the Royal Navy; a Member of Parliament and the King’s Ambassador to Morocco, where he battled white slavery. For his actions in Morocco, he was offered a knighthood, but turned it down.
Thomas’ father’s influence could be seen in the way he carried himself; a passionate orator and sharp commander, he was held in high esteem by the Leveller’s movement -and upon his death- it seemed that the movement had lost one of its greatest figureheads.
With Charles I captured, and the rising power of the Roundheads; this was a time when history was about to change. For nearly eight hundred years, the subjects of the realm had accepted Monarchy as the base form of government; a feudal system with a supreme ruler at the top. Now, after hundreds of years of kings, the power of parliament was rising exponentially. The tyranny of Charles I had gone on for too long, resentment towards him and his autocratic ways bubbled over into civil war. Those who supported the Parliamentarians –the Roundheads– warred with the Royalist Cavaliers. But even after the capture of the King and the diminishing power of the Cavaliers, the Roundheads were not united under one simple ideology, with internal disputes amongst the Parliamentarians leading to factionalism.
One of the factions –the one that I had followed Thomas Rainsborough into battle for- was The Levellers. Our credo was simple, popular sovereignty through elected governments, extended suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance; we wanted everyone to be level.
Some within the Parliamentarians believed this gave too much power to the people; and wanted suffrage to be extended only to landowners. This was not what I had fought for, this is not what I’d killed for.
When the Civil War broke out in 1642, he had joined the fledgling Parliamentarian fleet, and was made Captain of a 34-gun frigate called the swallow. I joined him as a crew man upon this ship and -after a year of plundering Royalist supply ships- we received word that Hull was under siege by the Royalist army, who had cornered one of the key Parliamentarian generals there, Lord Fairfax. Thomas Rainsborough led the Swallow to their rescue, leading a raid with a small force of musketeers and sailors. Though we were few in number, we were able to capture several Royalist siege guns, forcing the Royalists to surrender the siege.
As I watched the Levellers cast sprigs of Rosemary into Thomas Rainsborough’s grave, I wondered what would become of the Levellers’ movement. We had deposed a monarch, but whenever one system is ousted, another must be ready to take its place; without another system in place ready to be implemented, we had created a power vacuum.
During the second civil war, Thomas Rainsborough –having won some decisive victories against the cavaliers- was sent north to besiege Pontefract. Upon his arrival, he was murdered when a group of four Royalists stormed his quarters, running him through with a sword.
It seemed to me a little too coincidental that these Royalists had been able to so freely infiltrate his quarters. The man I’d known had the military cunning and strategy to avoid exposing himself to such vulnerabilities. Many suspected Cromwell had orchestrated the attack from within; eliminating one of his most popular rivals in a bid to seize power for himself. Though he claimed to be anti-royalist, I suspect he desired to be considered king, all but in name.
I left St John’s churchyard and made my way through the remaining Leveller’s. Without their leader, it would not be long before Cromwell cast his eyes on them, mopping up any pockets of internal dissent that might have the potential to break his grip on power. I left Wapping that day, and did not rest until I’d reached a port and booked passage on a ship to the New World.
Everything we’d fought for, the freedom of the people, universal suffrage, the freedom to govern ourselves; was lost. In place of the tyrant we had once called King, we would soon have a tyrant we called ‘Lord Protector’. England had failed me. I wondered what opportunities the New World had in store.
As I sat on the deck of the ship, and the coast of England began to fade into the horizon, I pulled the sprig of Rosemary from my hat and cast it into the waters below, whereupon the seething tide swallowed it up, never to resurface.
The Gunpowder Explosion at Temple Mills
I’d been lucky to leave Temple Mills that night; though at the time I wouldn’t have guessed it. As the water mill ground the charcoal, saltpetre and sulphur, I would run it through a sieve, ensuring the proportions were perfect, and the powder, smooth and even, allowing for a more consistent burn. After a clog had formed close to one of the millstones, and I’d gone to break it up, I’d injured my finger. I cursed and swore, holding my injured finger up to Peter Pain to show him the damage. He dismissed me, letting me leave early, on the promise that I’d be back as soon as I’d recovered. I promised that I would.
When I heard the explosion tear through Temple Mills, I realised I wouldn’t be able to keep that promise.
Perhaps it was the deployment of the early English Ribauldequin Cannon that led an outnumbered force of English, Welsh and Allied troops from the Holy Roman Empire to victory at Crécy in 1346; the battle was –without a doubt- a turning point in the history of warfare.
I remember hearing in my youth about the Byzantine navy using ‘Greek Fire’; a strange liquid flame, which they would propel onto and around other ships, burning away the wood, and floating on the water aflame; it was the use of Greek Fire that led the Byzantine navy to victory in many battles; the secret to their flammable concoction a closely guarded secret. But the use of fire in any form of warfare was a double edged sword; fire is indomitable and chaotic, with no regard for its intended use. I heard the stories of Byzantine ships burning up in their efforts to deploy Greek fire against the advancing enemy.
As far back as the 7th century, the Chinese used similar pyrotechnic weaponry. Ballistic rockets were deployed in land and naval warfare, earning those with the ability to create and use ‘Black powder’ –as they called it then- the same distinction as talented military generals. The discovery of black powder -and its refinement and use in cannons and muskets as a propellant- had changed the face of warfare entirely.
Far easier to control than anything the Byzantine empire ever developed; many thought of it as an explosive, but in reality, gunpowder simply burned. It only exploded when pressured in the form of a barrel, cannon or musket.
I’d been producing gunpowder for most of my life; the process had changed over the last 300 years, but the recipe is more-or-less the same. A simple mixture of sulphur and charcoal -which act as little more than burning fuels- and saltpetre, which causes the explosive exudation of gas, propelling cannon and musket balls over a great distance. The proportions of the mixture could be changed to suit different guns, the aim being to muster enough explosive power to propel the ammunition with speed, force and range, but without so much power as to damage the barrel itself.
I heard stories of Miners in the north -whom used blasting powder to clear section of rock- sneaking off a small amount of the powder, wrapping it tightly in paper and placing it in the chimney of their home. They called these miniature explosives ‘Squibs’.
When the squib was lit, it would send a powerful explosion up the chimney, clearing the flue of any excess ash, soot and blockages. From these Squibs, a certain form of entertainment had been developed; small explosive fireworks which shot into the night sky and exploded, creating great dragons in the sky. The practice of using fireworks became so popular that King Henry VII celebrated his wedding in 1486 with a great display of fireworks.
It had been over 80 years since the gunpowder treason and plot, when Guido Fawkes was found underneath the House of Lords guarding 36 barrels of decayed gunpowder, with intent to detonate it. Though the explosion was averted, it is without a doubt that –even though the powder was beginning to decay and separate- the explosion would have levelled the building.
When gunpowder was realised for its military potential, the Crown began using the Temple Mills –former grain mills of the Knights Templar- to produce and mix gunpowder; storing it in powderhouses close to the Tower of London. It was here that I’d begun working as an apprentice of Peter Pain and his family.
We worked primarily for the Crown, who imported saltpetre from the East India Company; in order to maintain its control on the production of gunpowder -and in order preventing it falling into the wrong hands as it had 85 year previously- the crown agreed to buy all of the saltpetre imported by the East India Company. The powder mills were all located on the Thames estuary, which not only provided us with a source of kinetic energy with which to create the powder, but also a safe and convenient means of transportation by boat when moving the powder to the government stores, and the proof yards at the Tower of London and Greenwich.
Though there were rumours of other illegal powder mills in production across the country. I’d heard of some in production at Bristol and Southwark; but nobody produced gunpowder to a degree as fine as the Pain family. The grains were as small as sand, and the proportions of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal just right. This minimised the chance of the gunpowder decaying, the mixture separating, or the powder taking on moisture.
After the powder was produced, we’d pack it into barrels, which were taken to the powderhouses for storage. The barrels were sealed with oils to prevent air and water from getting in. Perhaps it was this measure to keep the gunpowder safe from decay that led to the explosion in Temple Mills; loose stashes of gunpowder in the illegal powderhouses across the country were less likely to explode than powder compressed and packed into barrels.
As I’d made my way home that evening, cradling my bleeding finger; I’d felt the explosion as it tore from Temple Mill, the sound of thunder magnified hundreds of times over, tearing through London. Great fiery plumes of smoke and soot licked the sky as I looked back at the explosion that killed Peter Pain and his family.
Wapping Coal Riots
I’d heard of the Bow Street Runners; thief-takers that were funded and sanctioned by the state, but this was something entirely different. The Planters Marine Police Institute and the officers of the West India Merchants patrolled through the crowded boat traffic of the Thames from their headquarters at Wapping New Stairs; on the lookout for boats carrying coal.
The force was made up of watermen, surveyors, lumpers and a handful of constables; they’d formed after it had become clear from the open-markets of dubiously acquired coal, that many of the lumpers who made a living from unloading cargoes of coal from ships would often take a portion of coal for themselves, selling it privately, at a reduced price, to supplement their income.
For residents of Wapping, these open markets were a cheap way to keep our houses warm and our meals warm, whilst also providing the lumbers with a bit of extra income. To the West India Merchants, these thefts were a drain on their profits.
The Planters Marine Police Institute –quite cleverly- identified the honest lumpers, and offered them additional payment if they worked for them; deducing that if these men could remain honest when unloading the coal, they would make a useful asset in reducing the coal thefts and maintaining the integrity of those under their supervision.
Despite these efforts to reduce coal thefts, the open-marketing of stolen coal continued. The Planters Marine Police Institute arrested three people on charges of selling stolen coal; two of the arrested were the brothers Charles and James Eyers.
On the evening of the 16th of October 1798, the three men stood trial at the Thames Magistrates Court; a building which was joined directly to the Planters Marine Police Office. When each one was convicted of the theft of coal, a fine was levied against each of them of forty shillings; an exorbitant fine used to make an example of the three men, and deter future thieves.
After leaving the court, Charles approached his brother James, demanding to know if he’d paid the fine, as friends and locals began to crowd around the building. James replied stating that he had indeed paid the fine. Perhaps spurred on by the growing crowd, Charles grabbed his brother roughly and led him to the door, insisting that they will take his money back, or tear the building down.
No sooner had Charles said the words than a flurry of stones and rocks began to bombard the windows of the Thames Magistrates Court and the Planters Marine Police Office. The hostile crowds seethed, turning their attention to the officers within, shouting threats and curses at them; each one of them feeling cheated out of the cheap coal they’d once been able to purchase.
I watched from the back of the crowd as one of the bigger rioters lifted up a huge rock and hurled it straight through the window of the Marine Police Office, shattering the window. At once, one of the officers aimed a pistol through the broken window, and fired, killing the rioter immediately. The crowds receded in fear, before regrouping and preparing to continue their assault on the building.
At once, one of the officers emerged from the building, addressing the crowd and reading the Riot Act aloud, ordering them to disperse. The orders fell on deaf ears.
It was then that I decided to flee from the crowd, heading straight for the Rose and Crown public house nearby in hopes of garnering additional support for the rioters. When I arrived at the Rose and Crown, one of the Master Lumpers –Gabriel Franks- sat at the table, surrounded by a group of friends. I quietened myself, slipping into a corner, knowing Franks was under the employ of the Marine Police Office.
Hearing the commotion outside, Franks left the Rose and Crown with two other men in toe. I followed discreetly as the three men made their way to the office, asking to be admitted. I watched as they were informed that nobody was allowed in or out of the office, for fear that the rioters might force their way in. Franks returned to the main street with his men, but his actions had drawn the attention of the rioters. As he attempted to observe the rioters, a shot rang out from Dung Wharf, and the distressed cries of Franks followed.
The two men who had accompanied Franks dragged him to safety, away from the tumultuous rioters.
In the following days, Gabriel Franks died in hospital, unaware of the identity of the man who shot him. It could be that he was shot in an act of revenge for the fallen rioter, or perhaps he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Either way, Gabriel Franks will forever hold the distinction of the first Police Officer to die in the line of duty.
It was James Eyers who took the blame in the end. The court –unable to identify Franks’ assassin- arrested and charged James, reasoning that his behaviour had sparked the unrest which led to his death. James was sentenced to death by hanging on the morning of the following Monday. A woman of dubious character –Elizabeth Forester- tried to claim that it was the first officer who fired on the rioters that killed Franks, stating that the bullet had travelled through the rioter and struck Franks. Her version of events contradicted the eye witness accounts of everybody there, including Franks’ own testimony from his hospital bed.
Mutiny on the Bounty
I watched his face twitch as he endeavoured to disguise the humiliation, anger and fear that was coursing through his body, as the boat drifted away from the HMS Bounty. I looked back at the ship for brief moment, fearing for a second that Captain Bligh –if he was indeed still to be called Captain– might take it as some sort of slight against him; as if I regretted my decision to remain loyal to him throughout the mutiny, and be set adrift with him and the rest.
The boat bobbed on the water precariously, with little more than seven inches of freeboard. I feared the choppy waters and storms which could easily send us to a briny grave. Bligh’s face stopped, he raised his head and ordered that the sail be raised. We did so without a second thought, relieved at having our minds occupied on something other than the treacherous voyage ahead of us; although I could not escape my thoughts, and no amount of rowing would change that.
Captain Bligh was an expert sailor and navigator, with talents and experience that eclipsed those of many around him. He was a determined pragmatist, who chased his goals in a ruthless and utilitarian manner. He’s even sailed with the enigmatic Captain James Cook on his final expedition, and I expect he considered himself –or at least aspired to be- revered on the same level.
But he was not Captain Cook, nor could ever be. Captain Bligh’s ruthless determination and charisma –combined with his navigational skills- earned him a degree of respect amongst sailors; but it was this same determination that isolated him from his crew. He only saw the end goal, and he pursued it vigorously, often without regard for the people whom would help him achieve it. As a Captain, he was often firm but fair, but on occasion he had a tendency to lash out, make threats or humiliate one of his crew members with derogatory and belittling comments. The crew were at the mercy of his mood swings, and for many that was too much to bear.
When Captain Bligh asked me personally to join him on an expedition on the HMS Bounty to collect breadfruits, I relished the opportunity. Bligh hand-picked most of his crew, and the remainder were recommended to him by others for their talents. I believe however, that his own selection criteria was based primarily upon the talents and experience of each crew member, rather than their character as a whole. He had little regard for how such a mixture of people might interact, and consequently, he had no idea they would mutiny. Sometimes it seemed that whilst he had a keen eye for navigating the globe, he was blind when it came to reading people.
Because of the limited number of warrant officers on the bounty, Bligh acted as both Captain and Purser; both stressful jobs in their own right. I often wondered if it was this added stress which led Bligh to lash out so frequently at his crew.
It was the young Fletcher Christian who led the mutiny. He’d sailed with Bligh a couple of times to the West Indies, and Bligh had come to see him as something of an apprentice, imparting to him navigational skills. Despite the fact that Christian was willing to serve on the Bounty without pay, Bligh gave him the salaried position of Master’s mate.
With a youthful crew; upon arrival in Tahiti, they’d taken great pleasure in the liberal lifestyle of Tahiti. It’s tropical climate was a far departure from the cold and drizzle of England. From our first arrival, we’d been greeted with the most gracious hospitality and goodwill. After ten solid months of sailing, the welcome was greatly received by the crew; many of whom remembered England for its squalid harbours, cold and dirty cobblestone roads, and dark, empty moors. Here before us lay a tropical paradise that overwhelmed the senses with awe; emerald lagoons, white sandy beaches, and glorious hills, along with fresh and delicious food. Frequently we feasted on fish, suckling pig, and a variety of sweet exotic fruits. But most enticing of all where the beautiful Tahitian women, who were worshipped and freely loved by the men; the crew eagerly embraced the sexual licence that Tahiti offered, which was so far departed from the repressive and prudish attitudes towards sexuality that England propagated.
As The Bounty left Tahiti -and with heavy hearts- we watched the tropical paradise fade into the distance, Captain Bligh’s strict discipline became too much, and resentment towards him bubbled over. In the middle of the night on the 28 April, Christian took actions, rallying the crew to arms to seize the ship. They seized the muskets and distributed them to his fellow mutineers before making their way to Bligh’s cabin, where they seized him and bound him with rope, threatening to kill him if he made a sound.
Christian held Bligh at Bayonet point, rounding up those loyal to Bligh and those who were not. Curses were shouted, as Bligh demanded to be set free, calling upon those loyal to him to attack Christian and quash the mutiny.
Christian cried out to the loyalists;
“I have been in hell for weeks past. Captain Bligh has brought this on himself.”
His bitter, desperate words echoing the resentment that had built up towards his former mentor, as he tugged at the weight strung around his neck, which he’d hung there in order to drown himself should the mutiny fail.
I looked across to the horizon as the sun began to rise. A plume of smoke in the distance could be seen from the volcano on the island of Tofua. This was our closest destination, and would be our first stop on a long journey.
On Tofua, we set about gathering food and searching for fresh water. We then planned to make our way to the nearby island of Tongatapu, hoping to seek assistance from King Poulaho, whom Bligh had met during one of his expeditions with Captain Cook. Initially our meeting with the natives was friendly and hospitable, but –unaccountably- things began to turn sour. On the 2nd of May, just four days after our arrival, it became clear that we were unwanted visitors. As we made our way back to the boat with what little supplies we’d gathered, a group of furious Tofuans chased us to the boat, gripping the stern rope and pulling the boat back towards the island to seize it for themselves.
It was at this point that John Norton –the quartermaster- jumped into the water with the intent of untying the rope and freeing the boat. As he tried to free the knots, the Tofuans set upon his with rocks, pelting him savagely until his body lay face down in the water, blood leaking from the back of his head, spreading out across the water before us.
The brutality of Norton’s death had visibly affected the crew, and Bligh himself. As we escaped to open sea, he re-evaluated the plan. Fearing that a visit to Tongatapu might bring about similar brutality –and unwilling to risk any more of his men to a violent death- he decided to sail directly to the Dutch settlement of Coupang in Timor.
With a journey of 3500 nautical miles, slim rations, and nothing more than a sextant and a pocket watch to guide us, we feared that this journey would be our last. Despite this, when we thought of the cruelty with which Norton had been killed, we agreed to make the journey.
The journey was a brutal one; with no protection from the elements, the boat was hammered with rain and storms, so much so that bailing had to be done constantly in order to keep the boat afloat. On the occasions when the sun broke out, we basked in it with great enjoyment; a brief respite from the bitter rain.
As we travelled, Bligh encouraged us to sing, pray or tell stories in order to keep the crew in good form, in spite of the cruel weather and our minimal rations of one ounce of bread and a quarter pint of water each day.
After many days of torturous sailing, we heard the sweet song of birds in the sky, indicating that land was nearby. On the 28th of May, we arrived at the Great Barrier Reef; with his deft navigation skills, he navigated through the reef and happened upon a small island which we named ‘Restoration Island’; here we ravenously ate the plentiful oysters and berries. After we’d eaten enough to restore our health, we traversed from island to island, acutely aware that the natives were watching us. Apprehensive about approaching the natives for fear of hostility, tensions within the crew began to rise. At one point, Bligh brandished a cutlass and began to threaten anybody who challenged his authority.
On the 2nd of June, we navigated our way through the Prince of Wales Channel and into the Arafua sea to complete the final leg of our journey; 1100 nautical miles to Coupang. It took eight days to make the journey.
Throughout the journey, we feared starvation and dehydration as rations began to run thin. Many of the crew began to succumb to their weakness and exhaustion; when we approached Timor, we were close to collapse. Still, we managed to fashion a makeshift Union Jack, which we hoisted as we sailed into the harbour.
The Blitz and the Isle of Dogs
I watched as Alastair held his pint, sipping it slowly, peering out at the new décor and fresh paint.
“It’s done well this place, “he commented, “Never stopped serving, not once.”
I glanced around the pub, “Luckiest pub in the Isle.”
“Do you remember the first time we met Julie?” He asked.
“Do you think I could forget?” I asked incredulously, “Sunday September the 8th, 1940. Half five in the morning. You bought me a pint.”
“I thought you deserved one,” Alastair nodded, “Hellish night.”
I nodded, my memory drifted back to the afternoon before I met Alastair. The summer had come around quite late that year, which blessed us with an unexpectedly sunny Saturday afternoon.
“What were you doing before they came?” I asked, “Sitting right where you are now I’ll bet!”
“Not at all!” Alastair said in his defence, “I’d just finished work and I was on my way to the Old Den to watch the Millwall game.”
I remember the buzz of that game; for the men living on the Isle, the match –and the pub afterwards- would be the highlight of their day. It wasn’t until half past four –when the sirens whirred and the aircraft moved in formation across the skies of London- that we realised that everyone there would remember this day forever.
I was working in the Auxillary Fire Service at the time. I remember looking up in awe at the vapour trails of the aircraft in the sky; hundreds of enormous black monstrosities with four engines, flying at low altitude. They flew in formation towards London’s docks, West Ham power station, Beckton gasworks and Woolwich arsenal.
Scrambling to the station, we prepared as we had done before, for an aerial bombardment. The sirens had gone off a few times before, but nothing came of it. It was only when we could actually see the Luftwaffe flying over our heads that a feeling of collective dread took hold of the Isle.
At 5:30pm, the first bombs began to fall. Each one preceded by a high pitched whistling sound, followed by a tremendous crash that lit up the sky. The crackling sound of the Ack Ack guns tore through the Isle as the gunners desperately tried to repel the attack. For each whistle and crash, a burst of fire from the Ack Ack guns would rip through the sky from Mudchute.
“Where were you when the lights went out?” I asked.
Alastair set his pint down, “I was working to try to get them back on!”
Alastair had worked as mechanic during the war; unfit for military service, he’d elected to help the war effort in other ways. I’d joined the Auxiliary Fire Service as soon as the first jettisoned bombs fell on London.
In the Auxillary Fire Service we’d huddled around clusters of candles, hurriedly scribbling down the times of the endless calls we were receiving and the locations of the fires. Each time a call came in, we’d put a red pin in a map on the wall to show the location of the fire, and a blue pin to show the location of our units.
The phone rang incessantly, as more bombs fell and more fires erupted. The Isle of Dogs was a prime bombing target; with its many timber yards, pant works, boiler making and engineering factories –along with factories producing jams, pickles and confectionary- the location had drawn the attention of the Luftwaffe.
Originally, Hitler had never planned to bomb London for fear of reprisals; but after one bomber jettisoned his remaining bombs onto a London street, the RAF bombed Berlin. The Blitz of the Isle of Dogs was just the beginning of a bombing campaign in which London would be the central target.
At the top of the Isle, there were three large West India Dock, and through the centre lay the Millwall docks. At the end of the Millwall docks you could see the tall silos of the MacDougalls flour mills; as the bombs dropped, oil seeped into the river, turning it black and viscous.
At once, a whistling in the air -followed by a loud crash not far from us- knocked out the phone lines, cutting us off from the incessant ringing. We began to relay messages on motorbike and on foot. The sub-officer split us into groups, one group was to go out and tackle a fire at the Wharf, the other group were to stay behind and liaise with the messengers. I went with the group to wharf. As we departed, the sun had gone down, but the Isle of Dogs was as bright as day, lit by the advancing flames; we’d done many fire drills to prepare us for the bombing raids, but nothing had prepared me for what I was about to see. The red pins on the map –which had steadily grown and spread- were great plumes of fire. We strapped our ‘battle bowler’ hats to our heads, and make our way to the wharf. I remember seeing children futilely trying to combat the flames by throwing sand on them.
As we arrived at the Wharf, the heat from the flames prickled the skin as thick smoke stung the eyes and clogged the lungs. Luckily our hose was compatible with the size of the hydrants -and with great trepidation- we tackled the flames.
I spent the rest of the night going from post to post, tackling fires and assisting with the evacuation. We worked throughout the night to extinguish the fires that had sprung up, and to assist with the evacuation. I worried for a moment that –surrounded by the Thames on all sides- we might end up trapped on the burning Isle, unable to escape.
At five in the morning, exhausted and covered in soot, I wandered wearily through the smouldering streets. On the corner, a pub with a heavily damaged ceiling and not a single window in sight had drawn in some custom. I peeked in to enquire, and found that –despite the bombing- the landlord was serving beer to the weary faces of those who had elected to stay and battle the blaze. Among them were the fire fighters, the mechanics, the messengers, medical staff, and other residents who had elected to remain on the Isle to help in any way they could.
Amongst those broken, weary and blackened faces –Alastair appeared- walking through the shell of the bombed out pub and handing me a pint.
I drank it hastily, and for a brief moment we sat in silence; mourning the destruction of our homes, and the death of our neighbours, and yet grateful that we had lived through it.
The man in the iron mask
My bones were heavy with a deep ache, as the fever raged through my body without remorse. Sometimes, I’d sleep for what felt like days; other times, my body temperature caused me to sweat profusely, or shiver for hours.
My breathing was laboured, my throat sore, and my eyes heavy and tired. At seventy nine years old, I knew that I was not getting better. This was the last time I would be sick, the last time I’d be bedridden.
The door crept open slowly, and a young man entered. I lifted my neck; despite my illness, I still possessed a strong neck.
As my eyes focussed on the young man, I realised that he looked almost exactly like me, only much younger.
I remembered hearing in old folklore tales, how people at the end of their lives would see an image of their doppelganger; a younger version of yourself. As you headed towards death, they were walking backwards towards birth, reflecting upon your life and everyone you’d touched. Somewhere -between the planes of the living and the dead- you’d meet.
“Who are you?” I croaked, looking at my doppelganger as he stood at the foot of my bed.
He looked upon me with a warm smile, “My name is Jim Beasley.” He said, “Though on my birth certificate, you can clearly see that the ‘A’ was originally an ‘N’.”
My jaw hung askew for a moment, “You’re Mabel’s boy…” I said in awe, “You’re…my son.”
I closed my eyes briefly. All at once, it came back to me. The wager, the war, the mask. It all seemed so long ago.
“Why have you come here?” I asked.
Jim smiled, “I’ve come here to hear your story…”
I closed my eyes once more, recounting the tale of how he’d come to be.
It all began one evening in 1907 at The National Sporting Club, London. I sat at a table with two men of repute; John Pierpoint Morgan, wealthy entrepreneur, and Hugh Cecil Lowther, the 5th Earl of Lonsdale.
I was known back then as Harry Bensley. After spending so many years concealing my identity, it seemed almost alien to me now. Now I was the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’; the man who walked the world.
On this evening in 1907, Morgan and Lowther had made a bet; a drunken and arbitrary argument that had gotten out of hand, swept away in the one-upmanship that wealthy men had a propensity for.
Lowther stipulated that the methods of transportation had become so vast and numerous now, that one could feasibly travel the world without ever revealing his identity. Morgan found this idea entirely preposterous, offering 100,000 dollars to anybody who could prove him wrong.
I stepped forwards, eager to take him up on the offer. At the time, I was known amongst the gentry and wealthy men who frequented The National Sporting Club for my £5000 a year income from my investments in Russia; but more so, I was known for my playboy lifestyle, my womanising, charm and charisma.
For me, this was more than a decade of income; and I knew I had the silver-tongue required to do this. How could I refuse such an offer?
The conditions of the bet were strict; I could not reveal my identity, nor allow it to be discovered. I could not use my wealth to finance myself or bribe the right people to allow me to cross borders in secrecy. I would begin my journey with no more than £1 in my pocket, and would have to finance myself by selling picture postcards.
I had to wear an iron mask on my head during the day, which could be substituted for a black silk mask in the evenings. The mask came from an old suit of armour and weighed four pounds, carrying that old thing on my head for days on end gave me the strong neck which –even in my old age- never fails me.
I had to take with me a spindly wheeled pram weighing 200 pounds, which displayed the postcards I was to sell. The pram also contained my one change of underclothes that I was allowed to bring.
At the time, it was the largest bet placed in recorded history. To ensure that I stayed true to the conditions of my bet, a Minder –Mr.Allen- an American man hired by Morgan was sent to accompany me on my journey.
A route was planned which covered every county in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, along with 125 cities spanning 18 countries across the world. The countries went out to the furthest reaches of the empire and beyond; including Canada, the US, South America, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, China, India, Egypt, Italy, France, Persia, Turkey and the Balkans.
Attached to my iron mask was a placard reading “Walking around the world.”
As can be expected, I began my journey in the UK; travelling throughout the southern counties, selling postcards to fund my travel.
It was in Bexleyheath, Kent where I had my first run in with the law; an overzealous police officer arrested me for selling postcards without a Hawker’s licence, and for refusing to identify myself. When I arrived at my trial wearing the iron mask, the magistrate ordered me to remove it immediately. Luckily, I was able to explain the wager and get away with a small fine. They tried me under the name ‘The man in the iron mask’.
At Newmarket races, I came across none other than Edward VII; whom purchased a postcard from me for the princely sum of five pounds. We each requested one another’s autographs, only to mutually decline. Mr Allen informed me that doing so might breach the terms of the bet, in which I could not be identified; the King refused on the grounds that it was improper for royalty to do such things.
As news of my journey spread, I received numerous offers of marriage; some from noble ladies of England, Australia and many countries across Europe; and whilst I took full advantage of my fame to secure as much female company as I could without compromising my identity, I declined all proposals of marriage.
My journey took me overseas, whereupon a newspaper heard of the journey; offering 1000 pounds to anybody who could discover my identity. With such a bounty on my head, it became exceedingly difficult to keep my identity concealed. On one occasion, I entered the room I was staying in, only to find an ambitious chamber maid hiding under my bed. Luckily, I was wearing my black silk mask at the time I discovered her.
After a few years of travelling around Europe, I met a woman by the name of Mabel Reed. Unlike many of the women I’d met on my travels, she was not interested in claiming the prize for uncovering my identity. Together, we travelled many countries. After a few years, she fell pregnant, and nine months later gave birth to our first child. We named him James. In order to secure my fortune without breaching the terms of the bet, I altered the name on his birth certificate to read Beasley, rather than Bensley.
Shortly afterwards, Mabel left to find a secure place to raise James alone.
After six years of travelling, I’d made my way through 12 countries and countless cities, including Montreal, New York and Sydney. I’d also spent some time in India, where I’d witnessed the cruellest poverty and destitution.
It was in my travels that I witnessed the troubles and strife which would eventually culminate in the outbreak of the biggest global conflict the world had ever experienced.
I was in Genoa, Italy in August of 1914, when the Great War broke out. By this point, I’d covered thirty thousand miles, and had only six countries left to visit. It was then that I received a telegram from Morgan.
Fearing he would lose his steel empire, he had elected to call off the bet. I was overcome with grief; after so many years of travelling and walking with such unusual and cumbersome baggage, I was to return home emptyhanded.
I returned to England, enlisting to fight in the war for Europe. Dispatched to fight on foreign turf, this time, I had a battle bowler instead of an iron mask. During my first tour of duty, shrapnel from a mortar blast had me sent home as an invalid.
Soon after, tensions in Russia threatened to render my investments worthless. As the White Army fought the Red Army, with the former losing, my fortune was gone. Morgan, taking pity upon me, awarded me £4000 for my achievement.
I had never been a generous man; my entire life I’d been something of a rogue, a trickster and a scoundrel. I’d used my silver-tongue to bed women, rub elbows with the wealthy, and parley my way out of trouble. All I’d really sought was freedom from a life of hard-labour and servitude; I wanted to live as the wealthy folks did at The National Sporting Club.
Travelling across the world -seeing the faces of the poor and downtrodden light up as the mysterious man in the iron mask walked into their town- had humbled me; if I had provided just a moment of joy to those people, then my journey had not been in vain.
I’d lied about my investments in Russia; I had no such income. I’d spent most of my life with nothing, and now, with £4000 in my purse, I saw that I had not truly earned it. I had evaded a life of labour, and I did not deserve this money.
I gave it all to charity, and began working as a warden for the YMCA. It was meagre work, for an even more meagre pay packet, but it was honest work nonetheless.
I never heard from Mabel; and never expected to. She had no way of finding me; nor I her. My wife Kate –whom I’d married before the bet- had little knowledge of my infidelities.
I breathed heavily; the effort of keeping my head propped up in my bed had begun to ache even my neck.
“That’s the story,” I told my son, “that’s how you came to be.”
He looked at me, through young fresh eyes; eyes which had not seen the world from within the darkness of a mask; eyes which were hopeful and full of life.
Eyes which were once mine.
I remember the war like it was yesterday; it’s hard to forget. The evacuation of Dunkirk, the invasion of the Channel Islands; the whirring of air raid siren as the blitz raged over London.
Messages from the high command were disseminated in code which could only be translated using an Enigma machine; an electro-mechanical rotor machine which worked on a system of rotating cogs which contained wires; as the buttons containing letters on the machine were depressed, the cogs would rotate, connecting a series of interchangeable wires which would cause another letter to light up. By the time war broke out, the Enigma machines were nearly 20 years old, and had developed into sophisticated machines, capable of encrypting and encrypting complex codes, based on the pre-determined settings of the machine.
Far removed from simple polyalphabetic substitution, the enigma machine utilised changing electrical pathways from the keyboard to the lampboard in order to change letters as the code was deciphered, meaning when a letter was repeated in a code, it would not show up as the same letter twice. With each depression of the key, the rotors would shift; causing the code to change as the coded messages was relayed.
The enigma machine was consummately complex, but it possessed one key flaw; owing to the repeated changes of the electrical pathway, a letter would never be substituted for itself. This meant that if an ‘E’ appeared in the code, you could be sure that the letter it represented was not an ‘E’.
Though this seemed to give scant information as to what the correct letter was, it essentially represented the Achilles’ heel of the entire device. When transmissions were intercepted, codebreakers could locate a word likely to appear, and then begin to isolate the individual letters of the word and what each letter had meant in its sequence.
In 1926, thirteen years before the war, I joined the telecommunications branch of the General Post Office. During my time working on telephone exchanges, the connections were put through manually. I realised early on that a fully automated system was possible; when this was realised, it meant that a great deal more information could be processed, minimising labour time and mistakes. The system relied on a system of tubes in order to transmit information. Vacuum tubes –at the time- were considered unreliable; this was due to their propensity to break, burn out or malfunction; however, these malfunctions often resulted from the tubes being turned off when not in use. In the same way that flicking a light bulb on and off repeatedly may cause it to break. At the telecommunications branch, the systems were in constant use, resulting in far fewer failures.
It was not until February of 1941 that I was recruited to assist with the codebreaking effort in the Bletchley Park codebreaking establishment with Alan Turing. At that time, coded messages were being laboriously decoded by the Bombe machine; a machine which attempted to replicate the Enigma Machine.
An electromechanical device; the Bombe machine used a system of three drums wired to produce a similar encryption to the Enigma machine. It worked by using a huge bank of cogs driven by a motor. The machine was largely mechanical, and would sound an alert when a match was made. Each set of three cogs was a correlator that stepped through messages using a particular setting, hoping to identify a pattern match between the intercepted text and a suspected typical word which was used commonly in such encrypted messages. Once a match was found, the Bombe machine would know the setting that the enigma machine –which interpreted the code-, was set to, and this could be applied to rest of the message. The cogs would run through the sequences, starting with AAA, and then cycling through all the possibilities, hoping to find a match.
I was brought on board in order to streamline the system; to ensure that codes could be deciphered quickly and efficiently. Time taken to translate the code was crucial, as every minute in which the code remained a mystery was another minute in which the message could not be acted upon.
Our project met with little success, but Alan Turing had great faith in my abilities; that was when I was introduced to Max Newman; whose mathematical skill bordered on the prodigious. Newman was convinced that the work which was being conducted by hand could be mechanised, streamlining the process and saving valuable time.
We developed a new machine, which was nicknamed ‘Heath Robinson’; unfortunately, the machine kept breaking down and was not as reliable as we’d initially expected. That was when I proposed that instead of relying on mechanics, we could develop an entirely electronic system; a programmable supercomputer requiring 1800 vacuum tubes, fed using a single tape of paper.
The idea –which we nicknamed ‘Colossus’- was wildly ambitious, and baulked by our superiors. Considering that the most state-of-the-art machines at the time used no more than 150 vacuum tubes, there was a great deal of scepticism regarding the cost-efficiency of the proposed machine. Many still feared that –with so many vacuum tubes in synchronised operation- the likelihood of failure was amplified.
I went on to argue that the Telephony systems With which I had a wealth of experience working with operated constantly, and this significantly reduced their propensity to fail. Creating a stable operating environment –I believed- could lead to the creation of an entirely electronic, reliable machine. However, with such a high investment, Bletchley Park were dubious as to the potential success of Colossus. That was when I started working on the project on my own, funding it from my own pocket.
It took eleven months to complete, and in that time I invested a great deal of money, time and resources to overseeing the project. After its completion, we gain the full support of Bletchley Park. Colossus was fully-programmable and was five times more efficient than Heath Robinson.
By 1944, we’d successfully created the Colossus Mark II, using a gargantuan 2400 vacuum tubes, and went to work decoding messages in preparation for the imminent attacks on the beaches of Normandy.
The codebreaking abilities of the Colossus Mark II could decode transmissions so quickly, that even the president of the USA –Dwight D. Eisenhower- received one of the decoded messages. A message of vital importance: Hitler had no intention to move additional troops to Normandy; convinced that the preparations that his reconnaissance aircrafts had seen were nothing more than a bluff. He believed that the allies planned to attack Calais.
The invasion was confirmed for the following day.
Colossus even decoded a report from the infamous Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, revealing one of the proposed drop zones for a US parachute division was in fact occupied by a German tank division, which –had the original plans gone ahead- resulted in an unpitied massacre.
It was through the efforts of my small team that the war was won successfully; some say, by up to two years. The lives which would have been committed to fighting the war in these years would have numbered the tens of thousands.
After the war was won, I was granted £1000; a somewhat paltry sum which was less than what I’d invested from my own pocket. Despite this, I disseminated the grant amongst the staff who had worked tirelessly to help create the world’s first programmable computer; the creation which had helped to undermine the Enigma machine, and win the war.
Having two children of my own, I’d always believed that any action taken in the service of making the world a safer place for them to grow up in was its own reward.
Lord George Gordon & Gordon Riots
The American revolutionary war raged on overseas; as they had done for five years. We believed that the war would never scorch British soil –and yet- indirectly, the fires that raged through London, the smoke that carried itself through the air, and the angered decrees of His Majesty, King Mob, were a result of the war in America.
In England, public opinion was swaying against the war; many were in favour of American independence, and thought of the war as a fruitless endeavour. The French and the Spanish had begun to recognise the United States as an independent territory, and were supporting them in their struggle, no doubt in the hopes of pursuing their own rewards from the conflict.
In order to increase the number of soldiers that were fighting overseas, something had to be done. It was decided that some elements of the Popery Act of 1698 would be repealed.
The Popery act was designed to limit the growth of Roman Catholicism by ensuring that existing anti-Catholic legislation was given more bite. Essentially, it put a bounty on the heads of Bishops, Priests and Jesuits by offering a reward of £100 to anyone who reported a priest for saying Mass or exercising any other part of the Office or Function of a Popish Bishop or Priest. It prevented any Catholic clergy or layperson from running a school, on the threat of perpetual imprisonment; and prevented Catholics from joining the army.
However, with manpower needed in the war for America, the Papists Act of 1778 was drawn up to exempt those taking the oath under that act from some of the provisions of the Popery Act.
Many people feared the ramifications of the act; even some Catholics believed that the Papists Act might create unnecessary and unwarranted backlash against Catholics. Some saw the act as having the potential to restore the power of absolute monarchy.
Many Catholics who were already serving in the army came forward, displaying that the Popery Act has been largely ignored anyway, and the Papists Act would only service to increase anti-Catholic sentiment.
The biggest reaction came in 1980, in the form of Lord George Gordon. I remember the day the mob marched through London towards parliament. With over 40,000 people, it was impossible not to be excited by the commotion. I walked out of my house, following an almost trancelike herd mentality, and joined them on their march.
As we marched -many with blue cockades affixed to their hats or breasts- we made our way to the houses of parliament. In our swirling –but mostly peaceful- horde, we tried to enter the Houses of Parliament, but found that such a task was unfeasible.
Gordon entered the House of Commons alone, presenting a petition for the repeal of the Papists Act. The petition was voted upon and dismissed by a huge majority of 192 to 6. That was when the peaceful protest turned violent.
What had been a relatively civilised march quickly descended into chaos, as members of the House of Lords arrived in their carriages and were attacked; their carriages upturned, smashed up and burned.
Shortly after, news of the fracas reached a local detachment of soldiers, who came to quell the ensuing violence of the mob. I watched as the soldiers arrived, calmly requesting groups to disperse. The mob dispersed without much resistance, spreading out throughout London.
Some believed that the soldiers had successfully prevented further recalcitrance; others believed that dispersing the crowds had only caused the potential disorder to be spread out over a broader area.
As night fell, the mobs regrouped, launching a full scale attack upon the Roman Catholic Sardinian Embassy Chapel in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. As the fires raged, the fury of the mob turned their attention to the chapel of the Bavarian Embassy on Warwick Street in Soho, tearing the chapel down and setting it ablaze. Pockets of the mob splintered off to attack the houses in the area which housed rich catholic families; but it was not just the rich who were targeted.
The following day, Moorfields –one of the most impoverished parts of the city- was attacked en masse. With its large open spaces, the mobs could easily gather in great hordes, wreaking havoc on the houses of the Irish population that lived there. Many houses were sacked and raised; the inferior housing causing the houses to catch fire quickly.
Each night, thousands of us turned out to join the riots. It seemed that no amount of police, bow street runners or soldiers could stop us. Our sheer energy alone would propel us forward to success. What we would eventually manage to achieve was for the benefit of hindsight.
When we charged Newgate Prison, they likened it to the storming of the Bastille during the French revolution. We freed the prisoners -many of whom were never recaptured- then set the place ablaze. I remember being present as we attacked a distillery; the reserves of unprocessed alcohol burned brightly in the sky, as liquor ran through the streets, being scooped up by jubilant rioters by the pail. Many who consumed the raw alcohol were overcome with inebriation, stumbling and choking in the smoke, or falling into burning wreckage and being consumed by the flames.
After five days of rioting, we’d attacked, burned, and ransacked countless Catholic churches, homes, chapels, and embassies, along with two prisons and many embassies. We even attacked the Bank of England. That was when the army came to quash the seemingly endless rioting.
I watched the soldiers with their guns, calling orders for groups of four or more to disperse. Those who failed to comply were fired upon or arrested.
By the time the rioting had ceased, much of London had fallen to flames and vandalism. With over 280 rioters shot dead, and another 200 wounded, and more than 400 arrested. The real damage however was inflicted upon the reputation of England on the world stage. At a time when England was desperately searching allies in its mission to supress the revolution in America, the riots were an embarrassment. How could England hope to hold onto the colonies from thousands of miles away, whilst failing to maintain order in the heart of its capital?
Soon afterwards, the Spanish broke off peace negotiations with England, hoping to capitalise on the fractious tensions and disorder that the riots had caused. England’s hope of being victorious in the American war for independence was waning
17th Century Coffee Houses
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but seeing that Royal Proclamation affixed to the coffee house, with the coat of arms emblazoned upon, left us all speechless.
For a few minutes, we simply stood there, staring at it in disbelief. With all of the problems that had been occurring of late, what about the existence of coffee houses could have given rise to such a proclamation.
Not nine years after the great fire of London, the great fire of Northampton left over 700 people homeless. What could possibly provoke such hasty action against the patrons and business owners, many of whom would be destitute without coffee?
Inside, the situation was no different. Aside from the hasty ordering of coffee, there was almost no discussion of what we’d just seen. Normally the coffee house was a melting pot of intelligentsia; a place in which the working class could convene to discuss matters which affected them directly and indirectly, ranging from the trivial to the socio-political.
I finally broke the silence, taking a sip of my coffee, and simply stating “Why?”
“That’s why.” One of my fellow patrons stated, joining me at my table.
I looked around to see if I’d missed something, as he sipped his coffee.
“Why is why.” He said, shuffling in his seat, “You’re asking questions.”
I stewed on this for a moment, “Asking questions about what?”
“The King.” He said.
“I am not asking questions about the king.” I affirmed.
“But you are, if indirectly.” He stated, “That was a Royal proclamation on the door, was it not?”
I nodded, “It was. But what purpose does it serve?”
“Suppression.” He said.
“Suppression of what?”
“Suppression of subversion.” He said, setting his coffee at the table, “The King has only held his tenuous reign for fifteen years.”
“That’s untrue.” I said, “He has reigned since 1649, and now –I’m sure you’ll agree- it is 1675.”
“And for eleven of those years, we were under the yolk of the late Oliver Cromwell,” He said, “A republic. The first that England has ever seen as far as recorded memory has it.”
I looked into the swirling black of my coffee cup.
“The King,” He said, “This proclamation, is a pre-emptive attack on any potential suggestion that the Monarchy is not the only system under which England can be successfully, peacefully and fortuitously governed.”
I squinted, “You would advocate a return to the republic?”
“My avocations are irrelevant.” He said, “It is the very fact that we are discussing it which is threatening the powers that be. Had you and I not come to this coffee shop today, to whom would we have discussed such matters?”
There was some truth to what he was saying.
“But surely,” I countered, “There is a marked difference between those who speak and those who act. The patrons of this coffee shop simply converse amongst themselves before returning to their tenements. They are not criminals, revolutionaries or insurgents.”
“Have you ever known a revolutionary who was not first spurred into action by the ideas of change?” He asked, “People only act when they become aware that the system in place is not necessarily the most suitable for them, their families or their fellow countrymen.”
I adjusted myself in my seat, finding it had become uncomfortable.
“You are saying then that free assembly, open forum and discussion of political events are a direct challenge to the power of absolute monarchy?”
“Potentially.” The man said, “When ideas begin to spread amongst the common folk, the elite must do everything they can to disperse them before they begin to band together. You see, as soon as people begin to combine, the ripple effects spread exponentially, snowballing into something powerful and hazardous to the established order. Soon, an insurgency forms, and when an insurgency begins to organise itself into factions, with elected leaders and representatives, they are able to coordinate plans to subvert the system.”
“Then how does one fight an insurgency?” I asked.
“In the same way one fights a rodent infestation,” The man stated, “Deprive them of their food source, deprive them of their living space, poison their environment, identify and kill the matriarchs and patriarchs.” He said, “But most importantly, you must set traps which they cannot identify.”
I looked at the man curiously, “Traps?”
“Yes.” He said, “Anything to sow disorder and mistrust amongst the masses as they combine. If you believe that shutting down the coffee shops is the start, you are utterly mistaken. The crown has had its claws in coffeehouse culture for years.”
“In what way?” I asked, “I have seen no arrests.”
“Spies are everywhere.” The man whispered, “Provocateurs, joining the ranks of the recalcitrant, the intelligentsia, building trust and confidence amongst the working class, identifying the potential ringleaders and reporting back on the subversive activities and sentiments of those who frequent the coffee houses of England.”
I shook my head, “Preposterous and outlandish.” I said.
“Explain to me then,” He said, “Have you ever seen a nobleman or a member of the King’s Counsel enter the coffeehouse?”
I let this sink in for a moment. Coffeehouses were usually only frequented by the working class, and some of the more educated among us.
“Even now,” The man stated, “They are calling us ‘the Whigs’”
I nodded, I had heard this term before.
“Now that they have found a label with which to identify us,” He said, “They can identify us as licentious, deceptive, dangerous… whatever they see fit.”
I looked the man in the eye, “Do you think the coffeehouses will close?” I asked.
The man shook his head, “No.” He said, taking a sip of his coffee, “I think it will only serve to further the support for anti-monarchists.”
I nodded, “Perhaps you’re right.” I said, “Perhaps you’re right.”
As I left the coffeehouse, taking one last chance to look at the sign and sighing. Before heading down the street and taking a corner. I headed towards the Thames, pulling my jacket tightly around myself to protect myself from the chill.
I looked either side of me; nobody was around. I stepped under bridge, where a man waited for me. He was wrapped in a thick jacket, with a scarf and bowler hat concealing his identity.
“What did you find out?” He asked.
“There was another one in there today.” I said, “He talked about insurgency, rebelling against the crown, dissolving the monarchy.”
The man nodded, “Would you consider him dangerous?” he said, handing me a coin.
I tipped my hat forwards, “Extremely.”
Thomas John Barnardo
In 1867 they called me Jim Jarvis; the spry orphan with no place to go. I spent my evenings in Hope Place, one of the Ragged Schools which had recently opened up to provide education to the hordes of underprivileged children in London. Hope place was based in a converted donkey stable in the East End.
In those days, about one third of the population of London were under fifteen years old. The industrial revolution had brought mass migration and overpopulation to London’s east end. Far removed from the rural lifestyles that generations before us had been accustomed to, London’s east end was a melting pot of wayward children, some who worked in factories, and others who begged and stole to survive.
With families unable to provide for the progeny, many were abandoned and left to their own devices, eking out an existence on the street.
Hope Place was somewhere we could learn reading, writing and arithmetic; a place where we could change our ragged, worn out and flea-ridden clothes for fresh garments. For many of us, an evening next to a warm hearth was a great relief from the cold and unforgiving streets of London.
Ours was a tough life; during the day we would beg on the street corners, alongside those who had been maimed or crippled working in the factories that had sprung up across the city. Sometimes, we were recruited by professional criminals, to steal food and other goods from stallholders. Without any carers or guardians to protect us, we were the forgotten children of the 19th century.
In those days, poverty was attributed to laziness; and those who lived in such conditions were considered to be the architects of their own misfortune by the more fortuitous. To me, it was merely a means for the wealthy to emancipate themselves from the responsibility of caring for those whom had been failed by the system.
Hope Place was run by the kindly Thomas Barnardo; an Irish philanthropist who was deeply involved in the Ragged School movement.
One evening, as the children cleared out of Hope Place, I asked Mr Barnardo if I could sleep on the floor of Hope Place. The hearth was warm, and the thought of heading back out on to the street was more than I could bear.
“It’s time for you to return home.” Barnardo said, “Your parents must be worried about you.”
I looked up at him, as I crouched by the fire, “I have no home to return to.” I said, “I have no parents to worry about me.”
Barnardo shook his head, looking down at me in my tatty long trousers, checked shirt and worn out boots –which were two sizes too big for me.
“Come on,” He said, “You must go home. Class is over. You can come back tomorrow.”
“My home is a hay cart.” I said, “That is where I sleep each night.”
Barnardo squinted at me in disbelief, “And the other boys?”
I stood up, reaching my hand out to his, “Let me show you.”
Midnight was approaching as I led Mr Barnardo down to the market in Houndsditch.
“Here.” I said, pointing to a brick wall, “Follow me.”
I leapt up, pulling myself up against the loose bricks, climbing to the top of the wall.
Barnardo followed, scaling the wall and sitting at the top beside me.
“This is where we sleep.”
I pointed down at eleven boys, their ages ranging between 9 and 14, huddled together like penguins.
“My God…” Barnardo said, as he looked down at the shivering mass of young boys, “Where are their families?”
I shook my head, “We have no families.”
Barnardo sat on the wall, looking down at the boys with a sombre face which began to fill with humility and despair. After a few minutes, he made a proclamation.
“Boys!” He said, “Come with me,” he said, gesturing to them, “tonight you will stay at Hope Place.”
I walked alongside Mr Barnardo as he led the boys back towards Hope Place. As we led the boys into the old Donkey Stable, he poked at the hearth until a roaring fire took the chill off the air. He laid out piles of old clothing to provide the boys with makeshift beds. In moments, the boys slept soundly, away from the cold and the rain.
The following night, Barnardo found lodgings for me to stay at, which he paid for out of his own pocket. Each night, I’d meet with Barnardo, and lead him through the East End. Each night, I’d show him the market stalls under which children huddled together for warmth, shelter and protection from the elements. I’d show him the rooftops and barrels in which children hid, anywhere to protect themselves from the bitter London winter. Soon enough, Barnardo had found homes for 15 children.
Barnardo told me of how he wanted to train as a doctor and travel to China to work as a missionary, but had been swayed by the plight of the children in London’s East End. At a Missionary Conference, he spoke of what he’d seen –what I’d shown him- to the astonishment of the conference. A young servant girl came forward, donating what little money she had to help him fund the development of a home for orphaned and abandoned children.
The story was reported in the press, and caught the attention of Lord Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury asked Barnardo to lead him through the East End, as I had, and show him the state of the homeless children in London. Much like Barnardo, Shaftesbury was mortified by what he saw. Throughout the night, they discovered over 70 boys sleeping rough on rooftops, in back alleys, and under market stalls.
In 1870, with the backing of Lord Shaftesbury and other financial backers, Barnardo opened up a home for destitute boys known as Stepney Causeway. This would be the first of many homes which would be established in his lifetime.
One night an 11 year old boy was turned away, because home was full, two days later found dead. From then the home’s motto was ‘No destitute child ever refused admission’.
In these homes, children were trained in skills, taught reading, writing and arithmetic, and given lodgings, to ensure their survival, and to make sure that they had employable skills for the future. At the time of his death, Barnardo has housed as many as 60,000 destitute children, and went on to become one of the biggest children’s charities that England ever saw.
Joyce Green Hospital
We fled our homes in Russia, fearing the escalating tensions that were escalating into a maelstrom of political upheaval, revolution and terror. The Tsar was hopelessly out of touch with his people, fighting a war which many saw as unnecessary.
In those days, it seemed that no matter which side you supported, your life was in danger. In England we sought refuge from the war at home and abroad. The Great War raged on in the trenches and the dugouts across the continent; a hopeless stalemate in which shells and artillery fire rocked the fractured earth, bullets whizzed across no-man’s land, and grenades and mustard gas sprayed death onto anyone within range.
Things would get worse before they got better; some fled fearing the consequences of staying put; others were forcibly displaced from their homes, leaving for foreign lands, never to return.
In England, an entirely different war was being fought, against the invisible enemy of disease and pestilence. Rubella, scarlet fever, chicken pox, small pox, diphtheria and influenza were common, particularly amongst children.
In the melting pot of paranoia that war and disease had cultivated, many blamed the influx of Russian immigrants such as us for their ills. It seemed everyone was looking for an outlet for their frustrations, the toil that war had put on their bodies and minds; and as had been done for hundreds of years, the easy scapegoat was put on those who were at the bottom rung of the social ladder; the Russian émigré.
When I first arrived in England, I spent my first night packed into a railway station, alongside many other refugees. Any place with a ceiling was deemed adequate, whether it was an old factory, a school, a synagogue, or even a prison. With millions of us to house, sympathy for our plight quickly ran dry as it became apparent that we could offer little to no money to pay for accommodation.
Whilst many young men were being sent to the front to fight in the trenches, refugees were treated like pests; a virulent swarm of locusts plaguing the empire. In the press we were demonised both as cowards, parasites and carriers of disease.
The loss of life in the trenches was enormous; never before had there been a conflict of this magnitude in Europe, or anywhere else on the planet. And yet, it was not mortar shells, machine guns and rifles that caused the most devastation, but epidemics of flu which caused a greater loss of life; no doubt precipitated by the minimal resources which were stretched across the frontlines.
In those days, little could be done to prevent or cure such disease. Isolation was the only pragmatic solution to the outbreaks of invisible death which could strike at any moment. Though many of us remained healthy, we were quarantined in a place called the Joyce Green Hospital.
Joyce Green was a large isolation hospital; with large grounds and long houses on green grass; from the outside, it looked almost idyllic. On the inside however, it was a mass of bewildered immigrants. The sound of coughing and wheezing was almost constant. Patients –though many of us felt like inmates- carried themselves about the place with drab, blank faces and sloping shoulders.
The nursing staff scuttled about with busy feet and tired brows, scurrying from one ward to another hastily. I found myself interned in one of the outer buildings. I had been one of the fortunate few not to contract any sought of disease on the journey from Russia. For days I tried to keep myself isolated from contact with any of the other patients, trying to keep myself as clean as possible by swabbing myself frequently with alcohol; but it was no use. Many of the diseases that spread throughout the hospital were airborne, and catching them was an inevitability. The nursing staff were at particular risk, as they moved from ward to ward and patient to patient.
After a few weeks, I was diagnosed with diphtheria. As I lay in my bed, my mind wandered to my homeland; with little to no contact from the outside world, it was almost impossible to keep track of current events. I often wondered whether the political situation had escalated or simmered down.
Dr Cameron often patrolled the wards, administering treatments for scarlet fever and diphtheria. His method was considered quite ingenious for the time. He’d syringe the throat with a strong disinfectant solution. Sulphur was then forcibly blown into the body cavity and the diphtheritic membrane –the layer of skin surrounding the infected area- was then removed. Afterwards, he’d apply antiseptic oil over the area, which would prevent the skin from shedding in flakes; and in turn, sterilise the remaining infection.
As Diphtheria ravaged my body, rattling me with a contemptible fever and swollen glands, I began to lose hope. After travelling so many miles to escape the dangers at home, I wondered if I might die here, a stranger in a strange land, never knowing if bloody stalemate would come to an end.
Dr Cameron performed the procedure; with minimal resources at his disposal, the entire operation felt crude. As he administered the disinfectant solution into my throat, I felt a sensation of suffocation, as though I was drowning from within. The pain was excruciating, not just during the operation, but throughout my recovery.
After many days, the fever began to fade, and slowly I could feel my strength returning to me. Though many around me –including the staff- had succumbed to the virus, I could see that those who had survived began to change. Despite enduring all manner of horrors, a tangible feeling of fragile hope pervaded Joyce Green Hospital.
The dedication and selflessness of the nursing staff, and the diligence of Dr Cameron had given us a small area; a space in which our sense of humanity and compassion could germinate once more.
In 1923, through the dedicated efforts of a few good men and women, the epidemic faded away, and Joyce Green Hospital was once empty once again.
As the last refugee left the hospital, we collected together what little money we had, and put it together to present Dr Cameron with a silver epergne; a small token of appreciation for the hard work, selflessness and compassion under such unenviable circumstances –all the while facing the imminent threat of contagion- that he and the nursing staff had shown us.
After receiving the epergne, he was quoted as saying ‘It was unfortunate that I was quite unaware of their intentions. Otherwise I should have taken steps to divert their intentions into a more suitable channel in the form of something in which the staff generally might have shared’.
I looked around at the fort, with its large wooden walls, buried into the ground forming a triangular shape. The location for the fort was chosen based on its proximity to the water, which was deep enough to anchor ships allowing for speedy escape should catastrophe strike.
This area was chosen, as it provided ample view of the river, allowing us to prepare for any ambush from the natives –which could be hostile- or from the nearby Spanish, which patrolled the coast. We’d settled on an area far enough inland that it would not draw attention from either. The natives did not have a strong presence in the area, and the Spanish preferred to patrol the areas close to the coast line, where they would be strengthened by their ships.
However, it soon became apparent that there was a good reason that the natives had little interest in the area; the river was salty and unfit for drinking. Saltwater flowed from the coast into the river, and those that drank from it frequently became sick from salt poisoning. The land was marshy; a dead swamp which was effectively inarable, and in which few animals inhabited.
Many years previously, Christopher Columbus successfully returned from a voyage to what they referred to as ‘the new world’, a place which could provide living space for the vastly overpopulated England, and expand the British Empire’s territories abroad.
But aside from conquest and settlement, the real reason behind the settlement of Jamestown was simple; profit. Settlers came here with the intention of making a profit from their endeavours.
On Saturday December 30, 1606, 150 settlers left Blackwall, east London, in three London Company ships; the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery. With a combined crew of 39 men, the ships travelled west towards the new world.
With them, they’d brought materials for digging and testing gold, in the hopes of making a quick fortune in the new world. Had they known the conditions in which they would settle, I’d imagine they’d have brought materials and livestock for farming.
The London Company’s expedition was neither an individual venture, nor an imperial one, but one designed purely for profit. Hoping to capitalise on the untouched fruits of the new world; those fruits came in the form of tobacco, spices, gold and other goods.
Inclement weather and harsh winds left the three ships at the coast of England for nearly two months before setting sail to Puerto Rico. After stopping at the Spanish settlement to resupply, the ships moved onwards to Virginia, arriving in April 1607, immediately setting to work felling trees with which to build an outpost. We named the settlement after the reigning monarch, King James I.
The journey was unseasonably, and one of the settlers perished to sickness on the journey. As we approached the Canary Islands, one of the fleet’s leaders, Captain John Smith was taken into custody, accused of concealing a potential mutiny. He was clapped in irons and imprisoned; upon arrival, he was to be executed by hanging.
When we arrived in Jamestown, sealed orders were opened which designated Smith as a member of the governing council. Consequently, he was released from the prison, and a suitable site for the construction of a fort was found.
It soon became apparent why the Virginia Indians did not occupy the site we had chosen. The peninsula’s isolation -which afforded us protection from competing colonial powers- made it difficult to hunt, and the infestation of mosquitos spread diseases such as dysentery, malaria and other fevers. Soon enough, settlers began dying at a rate of one per day.
After travelling on the open ocean for several months, our food stores were so low that each person had to survive on one cup of grain meal per day, whilst still working to establish a colony. By September, more than half of the settlers had died from disease and malnutrition; but the mosquitos and the inarable environment were not the only threats we faced. The natives were hostile to our presence, and within two weeks of settling, an attack left one of us dead and eleven injured.
The threat of the Powhatan confederacy was a constant danger, one which left many of us in a state of perpetual fear; this fear prevented us from venturing too far from the fort in search of arable lands.
At the beginning of the following year, nearly one hundred settlers arrived with new supplies; despite the new supplies, the extra population meant more mouths to feed. By this point, we’d hunted the area of all game, killed and eaten the horses, and had even began to eat shoes, coats, and anything leather. One man was burned at the stake for cannibalism.
Sometime after the new settlers arrived, a fire broke out in the village, and shortly afterwards, the river froze over. I remember the bitter winter, sleeping under the cold night sky amongst the burnt ruins of the fort, wondering whether we’d freeze, starve or succumb to disease.
The London Company sent with them a letter conveying their concerns that the expedition so far had seen no profits, and investor interest was decreasing rapidly. For the next three months, we spent much of our time loading what we had believed to be gold in to the ship.
Smith negotiated with the natives, and managed to arrange trade deals which secured us a small amount of food, however, over half of the settlers died during this time.
By October, a second shipment arrived, bringing minimal supplies, and craftsmen from Slovakia, Poland and Germany; with such unskilled workers living in the colony, their skills were in high demand. Along with the craftsmen, the first women arrived in Jamestown.
Though the new settlers were welcomed initially, it quickly became apparent that –even with their new skills- there would be far more mouths to feed now.
In his desperation, John Smith took to threatening the Natives with force if they did not provide food. This alarmed the Powhatan emperor, who saw this new influx of foreign settlers as a threat to his established territory.
It was rumoured that the Native Americans were planning to kill John Smith; a sentiment that was shared by some of those in the colony. John Smith, angered by what he perceived to be laziness amongst the settlers, decreed that those who do not work shall not eat.
Whilst searching for food along the Chickahominy River, on a cold December, John Smith was accosted by a group of natives, who captured him to be presented before the chief Powhatan. He was transported fifteen miles to Werowocomoco, where he was prepared for execution.
It was said that he was placed in a position with his head against a rock, ready to be bludgeoned to death. However, the daughter of the Powhatan chief –who went by the name Pocahontas-, put herself in Smith’s place, holding his head in her own in order to protect him from a gruesome death. Shortly afterwards, he was escorted back to Jamestown. Many of us were unsure as to whether such a fantastical story was indeed true; I suspected myself that Smith –looking to forge trade relations with the Powhatans- wanted the settlers to see them not as savages, but as human beings capable of compassion.
By April of 1609, Jamestown began to flourish, with a great many buildings constructed and large areas of land cleared for farming. However, an infestation of rats, along with many other problems decimated the food supplies. Soon enough, they were trading guns and tools for fruits from the natives; a short-term solution which had the potential to turn dangerous.
Though John Smith sought to trade with the Powhatan Confederacy, many of the natives saw us as hostile invaders determined to incur on their territory. Some of the settlers, fearing invasion, disease or starvation wanted to abandon the settlement, but John Smith forbade it.
In the night, some settlers would sneak off and try to assimilate within the native villages; however, they found that whilst the Natives had a greater proficiency when it came to living off the land, they too enforced strict rules about contributing to the maintenance of the tribe. Some who could not contribute effectively, were forced to return to the settlement.
At some point, a great panic broke out as food supplies ran thin. Deciding to abandon the settlement, we took what little we had and put it into the ship. Partway down the river, a European ship appeared unexpectedly. Returning to Jamestown, it was revealed that the ship contained stores of food and wine, and further supplies and settlers were on their way.
The following month seven ships arrived with over 300 settlers. It seemed that settlers were being sent with little preparation for how Jamestown would accommodate such an influx of people.
Shortly after the new influx, Smith was severely injured in a gunpowder blast which occurred in his canoe. Deciding to return to England to receive treatment, he returned with his stories, imparting experienced and informed information to the London Company, as they continued to send more and more settlers to the colony.
For the rest of us left in Virginia, disease swept through the colony like a scourge, wiping out over one-hundred and fifty of the new colonists. Despite this, more and more arrivals came each year, as the London Company desperately tried to capitalise on their investment.
I was the only one of his children to outlive him; but his life was marred with tragedy and triumph. Thirteen days before his birth on October 18th 1616, his father died. He was raised in Isfield, Sussex, primarily by his mother in her family home, though his grandfather -the Reverend William Atersole- had a big impact on his upbringing.
Throughout his life, he held a disdain for the crown; this was perhaps instilled in him by his grandfather, whom also taught him Latin and Greek, raising him to be puritanical.
He told me that as a young boy, he had a profound fascination with the stars, and his grandfather’s collection of clocks. He found it fascinating that –through monitoring the movements of celestial bodies- we had found ways to measure time, and had mechanised this process. He talked about afternoons he spent watching the sundial on the southernmost wall of St Margaret’s church, relating it’s movements to the activities and moods of the villagers.
It was his grandmother however, that first taught him about what would later become his life’s work; the use of medicinal plants. Eager to learn, he began reading astrological and medical texts from his grandfather’s library. In those days, they were almost exclusively written in Latin and Greek.
By his early teens, he was intimately familiar with all the species of herbs that grew around Sussex, however, his grandfather only really approved of him reading the bible, hoping for him to become a minister like his father before him.
He told me how he found a copy of ‘Anatomy of Man’s body’, a book by Thomas Vicary –the barber surgeon to Henry VIII- and would read this book in secret in a hayloft above a nearby barn. Years later, this text would influence his ‘Directory for Midwives’. Perhaps it was his fascination with the reproductive organs -which were described in intimate detail- that worried his grandfather.
As directed by his grandfather, at sixteen years old, he was enrolled in Cambridge University to study theology; however, in his spare time he would study the Materia Medica of Galen and Hippocrates, and never took theology seriously. His interest lay in medicine, and he often lamented that he could not study this instead.
Archbishop Laud hoped to enforce strict codes of moral conduct and catholic ritual at the university, but my father had other ideas; spending much of his time playing tennis, bowls, and swimming in the River Cam. Without any passion for theology, he dropped out and never completed his degree.
It was around this time that he planned to marry a girl he’d known since childhood; Judith Rivers. Their relationship was unknown to their respective families, and knowing that neither party would consent, they planned to elope and marry in secret; spending some time in the Netherlands until the union was accepted by each family.
On the night they planned to elope, tragedy struck as Judith’s coach was struck by lightning, killing Judith and sending my father into an intense depression.
For a long time, he lived reclusively, shunning any human contact; but from this seed of tragedy, a great change was affected in him, and soon he decided to invest his skills in helping the sick and the poor.
His grandfather was unsympathetic to the tragedy, angered by the fact that he did not complete his theological training. Soon after, he was disinherited from his mother’s family. There was no chance of returning to Cambridge to study medicine or theology, and so he decided to become an apothecary.
On Threadneedle Street in Bishopsgate, he was apprenticed under Francis Drake. In exchange for his apprenticeship, he taught Drake both Latin and Greek.
As part of his training, he was sent out to collect and identify medicinal herbs, which he studied in great detail. After the death of his employer, he had the opportunity to carry on the business, moving to London to further his astrological knowledge.
In November 1635, he visited the famous astrologer William Lilly in the Strand. Lilly took kindly to my father, and showed him his collection of astrological apparatus to him, showing him how to monitor the stars and the movements of the planets. The pair developed a mutual respect for one another, and their respective works. Lilly went on to teach my father the ‘art of astrology’, which he used in his later work ‘Astrological Judgement of Diseases’.
At the age of twenty-four, he married my mother, Alice Field, who was fifteen at the time and had recently inherited a large fortune. The pair met when he treated my grandfather for gouty arthritis. Using her fortune, he constructed a house on Red Lion Street, next to the Red Lion Inn in Spitalfields, setting himself up as an astrologer and herbalist. During this time, he saw up to forty patients a day for little or no money.
“Many a times I find my patients disturbed by trouble of Conscience or Sorrow, and I have to act the Divine before I can be the Physician. In fact our greatest skill lies in the infusion of Hopes, to induce confidence and peace of mind”
Mainly treating the poor, and those who could ill-afford healthcare, he strived to make treatment cheap and easily available, hoping to break the monopoly on healthcare that existed in those time, shifting emphasis away from expensive and ineffective treatments, and moving more towards what he called “English herbs for English bodies”.
His success earned him the chagrin of the Royal College of Physicians. He spoke of their usurious practices, stating: “They are bloodsuckers, true vampires, have learned little since Hippocrates; use blood-letting for ailments above the midriff and purging for those below. They evacuate and revulse their patients until they faint. Black Hellebor, this poisonous stuff, is a favourite laxative. It is surprising that they are so popular and that some patients recover. My own poor patients would not endure this taxing and costly treatment. The victims of physicians only survive since they are from the rich and robust stock, the plethoric, red-skinned residents of Cheapside, Westminster and St James.”
In 1642, Civil war broke out. His anti-royalist attitudes which he had learned from his grandfather aligned him with the parliamentarian cause. Later that year, he responded to a call-to-arms and fought for Cromwell at Edgehill. He volunteered to fight on the front line, however, when his skills were recognised, he ended up working as a field surgeon instead. On the way to the battlefield, he collected medicinal herbs and rigorously studied surgical texts.
After the battle for Edgehill ended with no clear victor, he was asked to captain a troop of infantry. Raising a company of around sixty men, they fought at the siege of Reading. It was here that he sustained an injury that would affect him for the rest of his life.
During the battle, a stray bullet struck him in the left shoulder, and he was carried back to London by carriage.
After the Civil War ended, the legal authority of the king was removed through the abolition of the Star-Chamber; this led to the suspension of official censorship by the Company of Stationers. This was a major turning point, as censorship of texts had been in place since 1603. The company’s monopoly over censorship of publications was removed. All printed material was brought under their scrutiny, meaning that anything that contravened the authority of the Church was banned.
-The printing, selling or owning of books which had not been revised by the ecclesiastical authorities was punishable by death.
This meant much of my father’s work was censored. However, in 1641, the collapse of censorship gave free reign for him to publish material freely; this was coupled with a change in political climate, and great social change.
My father sought to make herbal medicine available to everyone, especially the poor, who could not afford to visit a physician; eight years later in 1649, he published an English translation of the Pharmacopoeia Londonesis of the Royal College of Physicians, writing: “I am writing for the Press a translation of the Physicians’ medicine book from Latin into English so that all my fellow countrymen and apothecaries can understand what the Doctors write on their bills. Hitherto they made medicine a secret conspiracy, writing prescriptions in mysterious Latin to hide ignorance and to impress upon the patient. They want to keep their book a secret, not for everybody to know. Not long ago parsons, like the predecessors of grand-father, used to preach and prey in Latin, whether he or his parishioners understood anything of this language or not. This practice, though sacred in the eyes of our ancestors, appears ridiculous to us. Now everyone enjoys the gospel in plain English. I am convinced the same must happen with medicine and prescriptions.”
This was a bold move towards breaking the medical monopoly which held sway in England at the time; making these texts freely available and readable by the common man presented many dangers, and his own uncle Anthony Parris warned him that this may lead to him being brought before the Star-Chamber.
He responded thusly: “The Star-Chamber has been abolished, thank God, and I am not afraid of punishment. Imagine the doctors saying, that laying medicine more open to mankind would lessen their patients’ faith in it. The truth is that opening the book shows what jumble of obscure and costly ingredients the prescriber intends to burden our stomachs with.”
The Royal College of Physicians took exception to this translation, releasing a scathing statement condemning my father: “The Pharmacopoeia was done very filthily into English by one Nicholas Culpeper, who commenced the several degrees of Independency, Brownisme, Anabaptisme; admitted himself of John Goodwin’s school (of all ungodliness) in Coleman Street; after that he turned Seeker, Manifestarian, and now has arrived at the battlement of an absolute Atheist, and by two years’ drunken labour hath Gallimawfred the Apothecaries book into nonsense, mixing every receipt therein with some scruples at least of rebellion or atheism, besides the danger of poysoning mens’ bodies. And (to supply his drunkenness and lechery with a 30-shilling reward) endeavoured to bring into obloquy the famous Societies of Apothecaries and Chyrurgeons.”
They claimed brashly, that the translation –which was near exact- was sloppily done, and could not be relied upon. The college’s monopoly and legal status over the practice of medicine had been granted by Royal Charter, but they were unable to prosecute due to the abolition of the Star-Chamber; secondly, as an outspoken supporter of the Commonwealth, to try him in the new political climate would have met with little support. The execution of Charles I right before the publication was an enormous blow to the authority of the Royal College of Physicians, and consequently, they could do little to prevent my father’s efforts to frustrate their power.
In later years, tuberculosis brought about by the bullet wound he had sustained years earlier led to his health rapidly deteriorating. However, in his life he published seventy-nine books, many of his own making or translated.
He helped to break apart the monopoly on medicine, and make cheaper, alternative medicines available to the common man. No longer were texts written just in Latin and Greek, making them the sole property of the educated class. As years passed, many physicians from poor backgrounds began to emerge, helping to make healthcare available to the poor and the downtrodden.
Down the narrowed buildings and foggy London streets, you could find a place to emancipate oneself from the prudishness and rigid manners of Victorian Britain; to those willing to find it, it was called Limehouse.
Originally named for its lime kilns, Limehouse had garnered itself a reputation as a place of inequity, decadence and hedonism. In those decaying sordid streets, you could find brothels, pubs selling cheap liquor and ale, and opium dens in abundance.
The slum -known as London’s Chinatown- was a place my husband and I had called home for many years. Amongst those streets, many Orientals and seafarers made their home. Many were there simply because they had no other place to go; stranded in the capital city of the empire -working on the London docks unloading tea for a pittance- they made a more comfortable living supplying and preparing opium at the Oriental quarters beside the River Thames at Shadwell.
Women such as myself –those who could speak Mandarin and other Oriental languages- were given names such as Chinese Emma or Canton Kitty. I myself was known as Mrs Ah Sing, or more commonly, Mrs Johnson.
My husband and I would run boarding houses and opium dens, hosting card games on the first floor, whilst on the floors above, makeshift benches and beds played host to opium smokers, whom would sit with their long opium pipes above oil lamps.
For many years, we lived on the fat of the addicted, who would spend their days smoking opium and living in the boarding house my husband and I provided; the dregs of the empire who wound up stuck in London with no possibility of return to the far east.
Ah Sing had come across from China many years earlier, plagued by a perennial cough which made it hard to sleep; he seemed to be permanently wrestling with his heaving chest. He too wrestled with his addiction, turning to the bible to find benediction and salvation from his affliction, though never quite succeeding.
It seems quite sad that –as we buried him in Bow Cemetery- he had only five days previously managed to free himself from his compulsion. At least now his troubles are over, and that blessed cough of his will afflict him no more.
At his funeral, no more than five were in attendance; myself, our neighbour, and her three daughters. It was an unexpectedly small turn out, for everybody in the area knew him for his generosity and trusting nature. Perhaps it was the latter that finally led him to the grave.
Ah Sing was born in the Orient; a Christian who studied the bible ardently. For one reason or another, he took particular inspiration from the third chapter of the gospel of John, which I’m confident he could recite by heart.
Our opium dens had been visited by rich folk, poor folk, and everyone in between. Even the novelist Charles Dickens had briefly visited. My late husband had such an impression on Dickens, that he and his opium den had been immortalised in the first chapter of ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’; something which my husband was extremely proud of.
Despite the neighbours and boarders referring to him as the ‘dear old boy’, it seemed his generous nature had been somewhat exploited. Ever Christian in his ideals, he was very hesitant to evict anybody, though most of the boarders in the area were strongly addicted to opium. Frequently, this left them penniless when the rent came to be collected.
I suspect that Ah Sing sympathised somewhat with the struggles of the addicted; he too had tried his entire life to put the pipe behind him, but never met with any success. Many spoke of opium’s ability to relieve one of a cough, and Ah Sing was –throughout his life- plagued by an unholy wheezing cough. He would spend many nights coughing and wheezing until his face turned red, and chunks of black phlegm ejected from his throat.
When one of the boarders who was overdue on his rent, arranged to take a berth on an outgoing ship, Ah Sing permitted him to go, believing that on his return he would pay his share of the rent. The boarder never returned.
Shortly afterwards, he was cruelly put out of business as the powers that be removed him from the area. Accommodation for the boarders was gone, and Ah Sing estimated that he had lost over £700 from uncollected debts.
Facing poverty, he finally had the courage to put the pipe behind him. It seemed that, after a lifetime of smoking opium, his body simply couldn’t handle the withdrawal. Five days afterwards, he died in his sleep.
As we buried him in Bow Cemetery, I looked down at the casket as the dirt slowly began to eclipse it.
At least now, his ungodly cough would trouble him no more.
Top Hats in London
It was a curious sight to behold, one which drew in crowds from all around. Strange how such a simple –and soon to be quite popular- head garment could cause such a fracas. Perhaps it was in the intimidating stature and glossy colouring which drew such revelry from the crowds on a timid January afternoon.
John Hetherington stood before the Lord Mayor on the 15th of January, 1797. His crime was not treason, not murder, nor theft, but the simple act of wearing a hat of his own design; as he claimed, was a right not denied to any Englishman.
A haberdasher, selling needles, buttons and other small goods; John Hetherington fashioned the hat from silk of a shiny lustre, which –it was claimed- was designed to intimidate and frighten people. At the sight of the silk hat, which was long and seemed to resemble a stove pipe, many women fainted at the strange and grotesque sight. The streets were filled with the sounds of screaming children and yelping dogs, alarmed by such a sight; the crowds heaved a surged, causing a great commotion.
In the surging of the crowds, the young son of Cordwainer Thomas –who was returning from a chandler’s shop- was thrown to the mercy of the trampling feet of the crowds, and was left with a broken right arm.
Perhaps it was this act, and the resulting distress and fracas which led to the top hat being adopted throughout London and the wider world shortly afterwards. Known by many names; the top hat, the beaver hat, the high hat, the silk hat, the cylinder hat, the chimney pot hat or the stove pipe hat, soon the hat was adopted by academics, freemasons, and bankers the world over.
Mostly worn amongst the upper class as a symbol of status, the top hat gradually became more popular, and was even worn amongst the working class. Perhaps it was John Hetherington’s design that such a fashionably abrasive, unconventional and obscure hat would cause some level of controversy, and in turn, Hetherington and his hat would cement their place in textile history.
The Royal Exchange
“Not in my life; yet I have been in Venice… In the Rialto there, called Saint Mark’s; ’tis but a bauble, if compared to this. The nearest, that which most resembles this, is the great Burse in Antwerp, yet no comparable either in height or wideness, the fair cellarage, or goodly shops above. Oh my Lord Mayor, this Gresham hath much graced your City of London; his fame will long outlive him.” – Thomas Heywood
The year was 1565; London was a city swelling in population and size. Hastily crafted buildings sprung up to accommodate the influx of new people, stretching the city limits ever outward. It was a time when the wealth of the empire was expanding in time with its population, as the Empire’s ventures abroad brought great wealth to the capital.
The traffic on the Thames River was increasing every day, as trade ships bringing their goods from the continent and further abroad competed for the quays, which could scarcely accommodate the cargo being brought into London.
In those days, trading practices were primitive compared with our European counterparts; merchants relied largely on word-of-mouth to sell or trade their goods, and many were drawn to places such as Antwerp, where the system was far more streamlined.
The Bourse in Antwerp was effectively a trading capital in which merchants could meet; buying and selling their goods in an efficient and timely manner. This not only helped to ensure that goods which might perish were sold quickly, reducing spoilage, but also meant that a constant influx of goods from all across the world, were being brought into Antwerp, stimulating the Belgian economy. Since 1531, the Bourse had been trading in promissory notes, bonds and commodities. The idea for the Bourse had originated in Bruges in a family-run inn, where merchants would meet to converse and trade. The idea of trading without exhibiting, paying for or delivering tangible goods was –at the time- a revolutionary idea.
The success of the Antwerp Bourse was noticed by Thomas Gresham, whom had spent some time in Antwerp. Recognising that the crude London system was pickpocketing itself of valuable trade, he set about creating a similar system in London to stimulate and streamline London’s financial development activities.
Thomas Gresham’s financial services to the crown were incomparable; he’d served as an agent for both King Edward VI and Queen Mary, providing them with sound financial advice which had renewed the fortunes of the crown many times. His father too had been responsible for negotiating cheap and flexible loans with foreign kingdoms, and for his services had been knighted by King Henry VIII.
After being impressed with the Bourse in Antwerp, in 1565 he put forward a proposal to the City’s Court of Aldermen to build the Royal Exchange, which he agreed to fund, on the condition that they provided a suitable location close to the docklands.
The location was designated; a between Cornhill and Threadneedle street. On the upper floors of the building he was allowed to charge a rent of £700 to allow city merchants to operate from them; covering his investment many times over.
Six years later in mid-January 1571, the Royal Exchange was formally opened by Queen Elizabeth I. It was given a licence to sell alcohol, and a royal title. Somewhat controversially, stockbrokers were not allowed to enter the Royal Exchange owing to their reputation for impertinent behaviour and rude manners. Those looking to trade in stock operated from Jonathan’s coffee house.
Within five years, the Spanish sacked Antwerp. This meant that the Bourse was taken out of operation, and London –and the Royal Exchange- quickly became the financial capital of Europe.
None could compare to the reach of the empire; whether merchants, pirates, slave traders or explorers, goods were brought in from all corners of the world. Goods were brought in from Persia, Goa, North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Commodities were also brought in from Spanish territories in South America and the Philippines.
Though the transit of such goods was treacherous, the potential for profit was great. Pirates, warring nations, and the natural dangers of the sea meant that investing in the safe transport of goods could make or ruin a man. In order to mitigate this risk, joint stock companies began to form, which allowed people to join together to invest in the transport of goods, without such high risk.
Located on the Victoria Embankment, at nearly 70 feet tall, and weighing over 200 tons, I looked up at the great obelisk with awe. Muhammad Ali, the ruler of Egypt and Sudan had presented Cleopatra’s needle to the British as a gift in tribute to Lord Nelson’s great victories at the battle of the Nile.
Despite gratefully accepting the gesture, the cumbersome task of transportation was nigh on impossible, and the government simply couldn’t afford to have the structure brought to England.
Inscribed with enigmatic Egyptian hieroglyphs, the obelisk stood out as an entirely alien structure, far departed from its original location in Heliopolis. Forged of red granite cut from the quarries of Aswan, one could picture this great monument sat upon the side of the Nile, towering in glory over the land around it; a testament to the greatest empire of the time, and the military victories of Ramesses II.
At the base of the monument there was a time capsule; inside there sat a number of interesting and valuable artefacts; a tribute to London in its contemporary form. The time capsule had been filled with photographs of a dozen beautiful English women; various pieces of small merchandise, including a box of hairpins, tobacco pipes, cigars, children’s toys, a set of British coins, a Rupee, a shilling razor, a baby’s bottle, and a set of imperial weights. There were also some lengths of cable which had been used to erect the monument, and other tributes to the monument, including a transcription of the translated hieroglyphs, a hydraulic jack and a 3 foot bronze model of the monument, along with a written history of the transport of the monument, nestled in next to several copies of the bible, and a portrait of Queen Victoria.
Most interesting of all, in my opinion, and the item which would prove most interesting when the time capsule is uncovered, is the history of the transportation of the monument.
Transporting such a monstrous cargo was no easy task. Far too expensive to transport by land, the brilliant and innovative engineer John Dixon decided that the most efficient way to transport the behemoth was to design a cylinder around the monument, which could –on its own- serve as a seaworthy vessel.
It was Sir William James Erasmus who –at a cost of £10,000- sponsored the transportation of the needle from Alexandria.
John Dixon’s cylinder was 92 feet long, and 16 feet in diameter; itself effectively functioning as a ship. The creation was in itself an oddity and a testament to the industriousness of the Empire. Cigarlike in shape, the steel cylinder seemed to resemble an unusually warped Ironclad. Atop the cylinder was a set of sails, masts and a deck house. Fittingly, the cylinder was named The Cleopatra.
Captain Henry Carter and John Dixon transported the vessel in parts to Alexandria, where it was reassembled upon the beach. Captain Henry Carter was to commandeer the cylinder; an unusual task even for such an experienced sailor.
The Cleopatra was then tethered to the steamship Olga, and so began its journey to England.
The journey was uneventful, until the 14th October 1877, when heavy winds in the Bay of Biscay -followed by a violent storm- caused the Cleopatra to begin rolling; twisting and straining against it’s tethers.
Captain Carter and five crew members aboard the Cleopatra were thrown to the sea, where a rescue boat was sent out to rescue them. In the tumultuous waters, the rescue boat capsized, and the rescue crew were consumed by the waves.
With great fortune, Captain Carter and the men who had commandeered the Cleopatra were rescued, however, the cylinder itself –which had torn itself free of its tethers- was believed to be lost to the ocean.
Sometime later, a Spanish ship passing by encountered the Cleopatra bobbing on the waves; tethering a rope to the unusual construction, they towed it to Ferrol in Spain. After parting with another £2000 to pay for the costs of salvage, Sir William James Erasmus arranged for the paddle tug Anglia to sail out from Millwall to Ferrol, and tow the cylinder into the Thames.
On the 21st January, 1878, the Cleopatra, and its monumental cargo was brought to the side of the Thames and with great precision, erected on the Victoria embankment.
I look up with great admiration at the needle, as it stands tall and imbued with the strength of the centuries over London; a tribute to the hardiness and perseverance of empires old and new.
“Go, go tell the king of England, go tell him this from me, if he reign king of all the land, I will reign at sea.”
His origins were humble; raised in a poor family, performing a profession that many would consider beneath them. John Ward spent his youth working as a fisherman. The hours were long, the work was dangerous, and the wages were low. Still, I know now that –as he sits in his mansion in Tunis- those were the days when he learned the skills essential for a life at sea; hardiness, resourcefulness and above all, tenacity.
Supplementing his income –as many fishermen do- through smuggling, collecting debris and whatever flotsam or jetsam he came across, he quickly learned that the fruits of the sea were in more than just the fish that inhabited them.
From an early age, even before I knew him, his reputation for bravery exceeded him; working on little wooden fishing boats in those days was a dangerous and difficult profession, still, he wrestled against the incessant battering of the waves to bring back a profitable cargo each time.
As he grew older, he realised that his seafaring abilities could be better invested in the service of the crown. Shortly thereafter, he began working as a privateer for Queen Elizabeth I. During the war with Spain, privateers were essential on both sides. Used as a way of harassing their ships, disrupting their trade, and creating a climate of fear upon the seas, the privateers were responsible for capturing Spanish ships, and returning the loot to the crown.
John’s rise was meteoric, and quickly he had accumulated enough wealth to captain his own vessel; however, the laws stated that Captains could not steal any loot for themselves. John, with no real loyalty to the crown, took this rule with flagrant disregard, capitalizing on his position as captain.
Soon enough, he was caught and sent to prison for stealing what the crown considered to be their own spoils. After he was released, he had lost his only source of income, and was quickly reduced to poverty.
In 1603, knowing no other profession, he began working for the Royal Navy; to descend to such a rank with such low wages, when previously he’d been a commended captain, he began to consider his options.
A plot was hatched, in which John and thirty loyal men would seize a ship which was rumoured to be loaded with treasure. However, his ever-fluctuating fortunes meant that the plan was uncovered, and the treasure moved to a different location. Two men were left to guard the ship.
When the two guards fell asleep, John and his crew seized the ship, taking with them the two guards who’d been entrusted with the ship’s safety as hostages.
Upon finding no treasure aboard the ship, the men decided to set sail anyway. Soon enough, they came into contact with a French ship, which they looted, sending the crew along with the two guards back to shore. After months of sailing, John’s crew captured two more boats, and began to sail as a fleet. At this point, he was officially declared a pirate and a criminal back in England.
As stolen loot is only worth that which is paid for it, John and his men stopped in Algiers to find somebody to whom they could sell their loot. Whilst ashore, the entire crew was apprehended, captured and brought before the Pasha of Algiers.
Known for his sharp tongue and witty banter, John Ward kept his calm when brought before the Pasha; the legendary Mohammad Ali, a fearsome man who had once brought the Mamluks before him for a celebration, before having them locked in and slaughtered.
John Ward negotiated with the Pasha; he put to him an offer: if he allowed him and his men to go free, he would work for him and bring loot back to him. The Pasha agreed to allow John Ward and his crew to continue to plunder for him, on the condition that the Pasha could put his own men on the boat to ensure that they did not try to abscond.
John often fearlessly took on ships much larger than his own; he did this through a quite ingenious tactic of firing a high cannon against the rigging, effectively paralyzing the ship, before raining upon the crew with gunshots, rocks and other assorted shrapnel.
After many years of plundering, by 1605, his debt to the Pasha was paid off, and he was allowed to sail freely once more. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Tunis where he became a privateer for the Pasha of Tunis. With no sense of nationalistic pride for Britain, he changed his citizenship to Ottoman
Whilst he took no pride in being British, he had a very high regard for the welfare of his crew, always putting them before anything else. For a long time, this meant that recruiting new crew members was not difficult, as many wished to serve under him. But a pirate’s life is seldom simple, and fortunes can change with the ebb and flow of the tide.
With a fleet of ships at his disposal, he built a mansion in Tunis, and lived a life of luxury, intending to use his fortune to buy a Royal Pardon from King James so that he might return to England. This seemed like a logical step, as it would help to fill the royal coffers, whilst eliminating the threat of John and his pirate fleet. However, despite spending almost all of his fortune, his pardon was not granted.
Soon after, a heavily modified ship -which had been fitted with heavy guns which were unsuitable for the size of the ship- sunk, killing 350 men, whilst John remained safe on another ship. This incident caused a great deal of resentment towards John.
Over the following years, he would go on to lose 23 ships; a number which seafarers see as a bad omen. Many believed him cursed, and refused to sail with him for the misfortune he seemed to exude.
By 1609, King James I declared war against piracy, and put out a bounty on his head. He called for the death penalty of anybody who had sailed with him. Three days before Christmas day, he hung 19 men for piracy, all of whom were associated with John.
Deciding that his luck was unlikely to change, he returned to his mansion in Tunis, and lived out the rest of his life on the land; forever remembered as the pirate prince of the high seas.
© JC Axe 2016