Sunday, 17 June 2018

The ironic history of Empire Windrush

On 21st June 1948 a ship arrived at Tilbury Docks, near London, that was to enter history. On board Empire Windrush were 1027 passengers from the West Indies (most were from Jamaica and Trinidad) who were about to start a new life in Britain.

They were not the first West Indian migrants to make the journey across the Atlantic – two other ships had brought immigrants in 1947 – but Empire Windrush was destined to enter the public imagination and lead to the creation of what has become known as the “Windrush Generation”.

What is perhaps less generally appreciated is that there was a supreme irony in the fact that this particular ship was to achieve fame by this means. Empire Windrush had a past that few would have known even at the time, let alone now.

The ship was built in Hamburg in 1930, as MV Monte Rosa, and was owned by Nazi Germany. It was originally a cruise ship that – between 1933 and 1939 – took German families on holiday cruises as part of the Nazi “Strength Through Joy” programme. All the people who went on festive jaunts aboard the ship would have been sympathetic to the Nazi cause, and preference would have given to party members.

One can be absolutely certain that none of MV Monte Rosa’s early passengers were Jewish or black, and the flag that fluttered proudly above them was the Nazi swastika.

When the Second World War broke out in September 1939 MV Monte Rosa was requisitioned as a troopship, and it was used to ferry German soldiers to Norway for the Nazi invasion of that country. On return trips from Norway the ship did carry Jews – who were on their way to the Auschwitz extermination camp.

Efforts were made by the British to sink MV Monte Rosa but they failed. However, the ship was captured by the British in 1945 and became a troopship for the British instead of the Germans, and with a new name.

The famous voyage in 1948 was not originally intended to carry the passengers that it did. Empire Windrush was en route from Australia to England and called at Kingston, Jamaica, to pick up British servicemen who were due to take home leave. There was still plenty of space on board, so advertisements were placed to see if any local people wanted to take advantage of the recently passed British Nationality Act that granted all citizens of the British Empire the right to settle in Great Britain. The rest, as they say, is history.

Empire Windrush continued in government service until March 1954, when it sank in the Mediterranean Sea after an explosion and fire in the engine room. Four crew members were killed in the explosion, but all the remaining crew and passengers (soldiers and their families) were rescued.

It was therefore a combination of chance factors that led to the irony of a ship built to further bizarre notions of white racial purity becoming a symbol of Britain’s post-war transformation into a multiracial, multicultural society.
©John Welford

Disneyland's first day, 1955

Walt Disney opened Disneyland, at Anaheim, California, on Sunday 17th July 1955. Despite the fact that it has been a mega-success ever since and welcomed more than 650 million visitors, the first day was a disaster.

For one thing, far more people turned up than had been anticipated. 11,000 tickets had been sold, but many fake ones had been printed and pirated, and security was so lax that thousands of people just walked in by climbing over the fences.

July in California is often hot, but the day in question was exceptionally so, with temperatures exceeding 100°F (38°C). The asphalt melted in the park and on surrounding streets, with the result that high heels sank into the surface and traffic jams formed in all directions.

Some of the rides broke down, there were gas leaks, food and drink sold out, and the water fountains ran dry due to a plumbers’ strike.

The TV coverage was terrible, caused in part by the incompetence of one of the presenters, a certain Ronald Reagan.

One might have imagined that “Black Sunday” would have been enough to condemn the venture to an early grave, but that was not the case. Disney had invested millions of dollars in the project, which had been developing ever since 1948, and public interest had grown throughout this period. It was simply too big to fail, and it clearly did not do so. Disney theme parks – in California, Florida and France – have continued to be major international attractions that show no sign of ceasing to be so.
© John Welford

Saturday, 16 June 2018

The myth of Sir Walter Raleigh's potatoes

The “common knowledge” story is that Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the potato to England, and presented specimens of it to Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, on returning from Virginia. Not only did Sir Walter give her a new American colony but a portion of spuds to celebrate the occasion.

There is a lot that is wrong with this story. For one thing, people at the top of society, such Sir Walter and Queen Elizabeth, had absolutely no interest in vegetables – that was what poor people ate.

For another, potatoes did not grow in North America. They had sweet potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes, but not spuds.

So maybe it was Sir Francis Drake who brought potatoes home with him? He did, after all, visit South America, which is where potatoes originated. It is known that he was given potatoes in Chile in 1577, but these would not have survived to 1580, which is when he returned to England.

Efforts to link famous people to the potato are doomed to failure. It is known that Europeans knew about potatoes as early as 1537, having found them in what is now Colombia. Specimens had reached Spain by 1570 and they reached England in the 1590s.

It cannot be said that the potato was originally welcomed with open arms, despite its current popularity. The problem was that strict Protestants refused to eat anything that was not mentioned in the Bible, so anything not grown in the “Holy Land” and surrounding areas was off limits.

Catholics – ever practical – found a neat way round the problem. If seed potatoes were sprinkled with holy water and planted on Good Friday, that was enough to prevent divine wrath descending on any consumers of the humble spud!
© John Welford

Thursday, 14 June 2018

The Battle of Solferino, 1859

The Battle of Solferino was fought on 24th June 1859 between imperial Austria and a combined force of French and Piedmontese troops. It was an exceptionally bloody affair but one from which a lasting and unexpected benefit accrued.

In March of that year King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia/Piedmont saw an opportunity to renew the campaign for Italian independence from Austria. He had been promised French support and this was forthcoming as soon as Austria demanded that Piedmont back down and the latter refused to do so.

The Battle of Solferino was the third clash between the opposing forces and by far the most serious. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria took personal command of an army of about 160,000 men, and was met by a comparable force, led by King Victor Emmanuel and Emperor Napoleon III of France. The battle took place near Lake Garda in northern Italy.

The emperors did not prove to be particularly good as generals and soon lost control of their forces, which continued to pummel each other all day in a series of engagements strung out along the Mincio River.

The end result was victory for the French-Piedmontese army, but at huge cost in terms of casualties. It is estimated that both sides had around 15,000 men killed or wounded.

Politically, the battle was a step closer towards Italian reunification and independence, and France gained control of Nice and Savoy.

One of the stretcher-bearers with the unpleasant task of retrieving broken bodies from the battlefield was a Swiss man named Henri Dunant. He was deeply affected by the horrors he had witnessed and later wrote a book that described them. More than that, he went on to found an organization devoted to the task of helping the victims of war and conflict. This became the International Red Cross, which continues this work – and more - to the present day.
© John Welford

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

The wreck of the Torrey Canyon, 1967

The wreck of the Torrey Canyon on 18th March 1967, off the coast of Cornwall, brought home to the British public the risks that are involved in the transport of huge quantities of oil by sea in giant supertankers.


The Torrey Canyon


Although the Torrey Canyon, at 120,000 tonnes capacity, was one of the largest crude oil carriers afloat at the time, it would be dwarfed by some of the monsters around today. Nonetheless, in 1967 it was the largest ship ever to be wrecked, and the loss of its cargo led to a serious environmental disaster that stretched the resources of the UK authorities and gave rise to lessons that have proved beneficial in later similar incidents.


Fully laden, the Torrey Canyon had set sail from Kuwait on 19th February, her destination being the massive oil refinery at Milford Haven, South Wales. However, a navigational error (not helped by the ship’s cook being the man on watch at the time) led to her running aground on the Seven Stones Reef, ten miles to the north-east of the Scilly Isles. Attempts to refloat the ship failed, and a member of the Dutch salvage team that made the attempt was killed.


Dealing with the cargo


With the oil tanks ruptured, huge amounts of oil began to pour into the sea and a major pollution threat was unleashed. Not only was wildlife at risk, so were the valuable fisheries of the area and the tourist beaches of Cornwall (and, as it turned out, Brittany in France and Guernsey in the Channel Islands).


Great Britain was unprepared for such an event and plans to counter such a threat were rudimentary. The first idea was to use huge quantities of detergent to break up the oil. Some 10,000 tons were sprayed from Royal Navy vessels and more were used on the coast when the oil slick reached land. They were clearly ineffective in containing the spillage and their toxic effects proved to be just as harmful to marine life as the oil.


As more tanks ruptured and the spill increased in volume, the decision was taken to use the Royal Air Force to bomb the ship with a view to setting fire to the oil before it could leak out. In all, 62,000 pounds of bombs were dropped, plus thousands of gallons of petrol that it was hoped would be ignited by the bombs. Napalm was also used. However, when fires were started they were soon put out as the sea washed over the wreck. Many of the bombs missed their target and those that did hit the ship had the effect of sinking it, thus taking the remaining oil below the surface where it was out of reach but still liable to leak as the ship broke up.


The effect on Cornwall


Nothing could stop much of the oil reaching the coast of Cornwall a few days later, and that of Guernsey (the most westerly of the Channel Islands) 19 days after the wreck. In Cornwall, the cliffs and beaches affected by the oil turned black and up to 25,000 seabirds perished. The smell of the oil drifted inland until it was noticeable far inland throughout the county.


As mentioned above, the use of chemical detergents to clean the beaches was widespread but unwise. The Cornish coast is subject to storms and high seas that constantly batter the rocks and beaches, and six months after the spill many of the places that had not been treated were clear of oil. However, the treated beaches had become a disaster area of their own, with all signs of life wiped out.


The effect on Guernsey


On Guernsey, where tourism is the major industry, efforts to clean the beaches were given the highest priority. Teams of people scraped up the oil which was then dumped in a disused quarry. This saved the beaches but created another pollution hazard in the quarry, which could not be dredged clear because of the presence of unexploded World War II bombs. Much of the oil is still there, although modern methods that use oil-eating bacteria are currently proving effective.


The lessons learned


Divers to the wreck of the Torrey Canyon 44 years later reported that there was no sign of the oil and that marine life in the vicinity had returned to normal.


Many lessons were learned from the Torrey Canyon incident, not least concerning the proper course to follow in such events. Panic measures are clearly not the answer, neither is the use of toxic industrial-strength detergents that do more harm than good. Appreciating the risks posed by supertankers, which must approach British shores in order to discharge their cargoes and therefore be subject to the forces of nature, the government now has proper plans in place to deal with any future emergency of this kind.


Likewise, progress has been made on devising methods that avoid the worst environmental consequences when major oil spills occur. Of these, the most hopeful involve the use of biological remedies, as mentioned above in the Guernsey context, and the ability of natural forces to provide their own clean-up operations.


Although the Torrey Canyon wreck was indeed a pollution disaster, it did have some positive outcomes that have proved helpful down to the present day.

© John Welford

The treasure of Loch Arkaig

Some people believe that there is a hoard of gold that was buried somewhere near Loch Arkaig in the Scottish Highlands in 1746. However, the chances are that it disappeared a very long time ago!

The background

This is a story that begins with the Jacobite uprising of 1745, when the “Young Pretender” Charles Edward Stuart (otherwise known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”) tried to topple the government of King George II by invading England with an army of Scottish clansmen.

Charles, aged 25 at the time, arrived in Scotland having been ferried there in a French ship. Although he had the blessing of the Catholic French King, Louis XIV, in his ambition to topple the Protestant Hanoverian monarchy of Great Britain, he was very much on his own, having little more than promises of French troops and money to follow in due course.

Charles therefore had to get on with the job of raising an army from the clans of the Scottish Highlands, which he did with some success. He was eventually able to seize control of Edinburgh before advancing into England. He only turned back when he was persuaded that he had no chance of victory, although it is now thought that this was false advice. He had already reached Derby by this time, which was only 125 miles from London.

The end of the “45” was bloody defeat at the Battle of Culloden, near Inverness, after which Charles was lucky to be able to escape back to France. 

French gold

But what about those promises of French troops and cash? The French ships that carried the promised soldiers were caught in a storm and forced to turn back, but shipments of gold did materialize. 

The first consignment of gold ended up in the wrong hands when it was delivered to Scotsmen who were loyal to King George rather than “Prince” Charles. However, two treasure ships, “Le Mars” and “La Bellone” did reach the Scottish coast in 1746. Unfortunately for Charles they arrived too late to be of any use, given that he had already been defeated at Culloden. However, the French sailors did not know this and they proceeded to unload the cargo of 40,000 “louis d-or”. 
Where did the gold end up?

That is the 40,000 louis d’or question. It is believed that the gold was buried near Loch Arkaig, a beautiful but remote place some 15 miles north of Fort William on the west coast of Scotland. The person responsible for this was a clan chief named Cluny Macpherson who, as a loyal Jacobite, was as much on the run as Charles himself. Macpherson clearly believed that his hiding place, known only to certain members of the Macpherson clan, would be safe enough to enable the gold to be recovered at a later date.

In 1753, while wandering around Europe (he had been kicked out of France in 1748), Charles sent his envoy Archibald Cameron to try to recover the gold, but Cameron was arrested as a rebel and was executed. Getting hold of the gold, when the area was firmly under English control, was clearly not going to be easy.

Charles, who was always desperately short of funds, came to suspect that Cluny Macpherson had spirited the gold away, and he may well have been right. Clearly there were people who knew where it was and who also knew that there was nothing at all that Charles could do about it. The chances of another Jacobite rising were vanishingly small, so the gold was never going to be used for its intended purpose. So what was to stop the local clansmen from helping themselves?

No treasure to find

There are still some people who think that the Loch Arkaig gold is where it always was and is just waiting to be found, but this is surely a forlorn hope. Tantalisingly enough, a few gold louis were discovered in the area in 1850, but these did not lead anyone to find the whole hoard. Maybe these were merely a few coins that had been dropped when some enterprising Macphersons had been helping themselves a century previously. As it is, the final whereabouts of Charlie’s gold remains a mystery!
© John Welford

Monday, 4 June 2018

The cult of St Thomas Becket

The story of the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December 1170 is well known, as is the knowledge that the event gave rise to pilgrimages for centuries afterwards, the most famous being the fictional one that formed the basis of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales more than 200 years later. However, some of the details of how the murder led to the pilgrimages may not be as well known.

Thomas Becket had been a good friend of King Henry II and he had served as the king’s chancellor before being appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. It had been Henry’s intention to have a placeman as archbishop who would keep the troublesome monks and priests under control, but Thomas took his duties as a churchman much more seriously than Henry had expected. When it came to the issue of whether men in holy orders should be subject to civil courts or ecclesiastical ones, Becket took the side of the Church, and this was what caused the rift between the two men that would eventually lead to Becket’s death.

Proof that Becket was in no way the king’s man, but a true churchman, came after his murder when his body was stripped of his bloodied vestments. It was found that Becket had been wearing a rough hair shirt that would have caused him considerable discomfort, as would irritation from the lice and maggots that infested the shirt. It was also revealed that Becket subjected himself to whipping up to three times a day, not for any masochistic pleasure but as a form of monastic mortification that was designed to focus the mind on spiritual matters.

The monks immediately felt that they were in the presence of a saint, and they took the precaution of gathering up as much of his spilled blood as they could.

Although news of the murder spread far and wide, the cult of Thomas did not really get going until after King Henry had made his own way to Canterbury to do penance. This did not happen until 1174, more than three years after the murder. This suggests that Henry’s remorse was by no means immediate and was only sparked by his conviction that the revolt of his sons Henry, Geoffrey and Richard was God’s judgment on him for his angry words that inspired Becket’s murderers. 

Canterbury water
As part of his penance, Henry wore a hair shirt similar to that worn by Becket (though presumably without the maggots). He demanded that he be whipped by every bishop and monk who was present and he then rode back to London with a phial of water round his neck to which a drop of Becket’s blood had been added.

Thus was created “Canterbury water”. If the king could have his body and soul purged by a drop of the martyr’s blood, then why not ordinary people? Miraculous cures were claimed for Canterbury water, and everyone with a disability or ailment that confounded the doctors (which probably covered most things) believed that a journey to Canterbury to buy some of this holy relic would be a good investment of their time and money.

As might be supposed, the genuine article probably ran out of supply at a very early date, even supposing that any Canterbury water had been genuine in the first place. However, that did not stop the faithful from believing in the power of what they were given, and there were plenty of people around to sell them not only Canterbury water but all sorts of other trinkets that supposedly had a direct relationship to Thomas Becket.

One of the more colourful characters on Chaucer’s 14th century pilgrimage was a pardoner, this being a man who made his living from selling pardons from sin (signed by the Pope of course) and “holy relics”. Chaucer’s character is fictional, but the author knew that his contemporary readers would recognise him as just the sort of person they were likely to come across as he made his way to Canterbury to do some good business by fleecing gullible pilgrims.

The Becket shrine

The Becket shrine at Canterbury Cathedral became one of the best attended in Europe. The Pope declared Becket to be a saint in double-quick time (even before King Henry did his penance) and it became fashionable to make a pilgrimage to Canterbury. King Henry’s three daughters were all married to European royalty and they helped to spread the word.

England now had a home-grown saint, with royal approval, and was determined to cash in. As a result the shrine brought huge amounts of money to Canterbury, not to mention many gifts of precious stones that adorned the chapel where the shrine was placed. The income from the pilgrims allowed the cathedral to undertake a series of building repairs and extensions over the coming centuries that would transform it into one of Europe’s best cathedrals, albeit somewhat mixed in style.

The end for Becket’s shrine came in 1538 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII. It needed 26 carts to carry away all the treasure that had been left there by pilgrims during the preceding three and a half centuries.
©  John Welford