Tuesday, 17 July 2018

The defeat of the Spanish Armada

The defeat of the Spanish Armada was one of the great turning points of English history. Before, there was a real possibility that England could suffer another “1066” and be conquered by a foreign power. Afterwards, Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed security on her throne and England was set to become a major world power and the champion of Protestantism in Europe.

The Armada was a fleet of 132 ships sent by the Spanish king, Philip II, to invade England and seize the throne from Elizabeth. He had been the husband of Elizabeth’s half-sister, Queen Mary I, who had died childless in 1558. Mary had sought to return England to Roman Catholicism, and Philip had the same end in view.

The gap of 30 years between Mary’s death and the sending of the Armada is evidence of the political power game, played by the European nations, which had given Philip some hope that England might return to Rome by other means (including a proposal of marriage to Elizabeth!). Elizabeth was a consummate politician and the mistress of delay and indecision when it suited her. She was thus able to keep Philip at arms’ length for many years.

Philip also had other things on his mind, not least the struggle to retain control of the Spanish Netherlands (modern day Netherlands and Belgium).

However, Philip’s patience was sorely tried by the activities of sea captains such as Francis Drake who behaved virtually as pirates in their attacking of Spanish ships and colonies. Spain was the major colonial power in the Americas, and Spanish ships, laden with gold and other treasure and produce, were easy targets for seamen who were not easily controlled by their home government, even had that been intended. The fact that Elizabeth was happy to accept captured Spanish booty, and the honours bestowed on Drake and other “pirates”, suggests that little such control was to be expected!

England also began to have colonial ambitions. In 1584, for example, Walter Raleigh had founded the colony of Virginia, named in honour of Elizabeth, the “Virgin Queen”. England and Spain were therefore brought into conflict as colonial as well as religious rivals.

Preparations on both sides

The construction of the Armada began as early as 1585, but there were many delays and setbacks to its completion. Not the least of these was the action by Francis Drake in 1587 of sailing into the port of Cadiz and destroying much of the Spanish fleet. The action was described by Drake as “singeing the King of Spain’s beard”.

One thing the Spanish did not have was the element of surprise. The English knew all about the invasion plans and were well prepared for it when it came, which was in 1588. The story of Drake insisting on finishing his game of bowls before taking on the Spanish is probably apocryphal, but it summarises the relaxed approach that the English were able to take.

The idea behind the Armada was not to defeat the English at sea, but to carry troops, some of whom were to travel from Spain but the bulk of whom were to be transported from the Spanish Netherlands across the English Channel to the Thames Estuary, where they would be landed and then make a direct assault on London. Only 22 ships in the Armada fleet were purpose-built warships, the rest comprising adapted merchant ships of various types.

The English fleet that confronted the Spanish Armada was similar in composition to that of the Armada, in that the bulk of the ships were armed merchant vessels rather than purpose-built warships. These warships were similar in design to the Spanish galleons but smaller and therefore more manoeuvrable, although having similar armaments.

One huge advantage that the English had from the outset was that their commanders knew what they were doing but the Spanish did not. The English Lord High Admiral, Howard of Effingham, was both a seaman and a politician, as well as being a first cousin of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s late mother. He was ably assisted by Francis Drake, who was a consummate seaman (he had sailed round the world and been knighted on his return in 1581) who also knew the Spanish inside out from his frequent skirmishes with them.

On the other hand, the Spanish fleet was led by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who had no experience of fighting, either on land or sea, and was probably appointed (as a late substitute for the Marquis of Santa Cruz who died in February 1588) because Philip knew that Medina Sidonia would follow his orders to the letter, and the last thing Philip wanted was a commander who would show any initiative of his own.

Medina Sidonia knew all along that he was the wrong man for the job, and pleaded with Philip to be relieved from the responsibility. Apart from anything else, he suffered badly from sea-sickness! However, his pleas were turned down, and it is even possible that his letter to Philip was never shown to the King, because his courtiers knew exactly what his response would be.

Indeed, Philip’s main fault was his desire to micro-manage the whole affair. The plan was Philip’s from the outset, namely to use the Armada to collect the 30,000 strong army of the Duke of Parma and sail it across the channel to England. Parma had already suggested to Philip that he could do this without naval support, relying instead on surprise, a fleet of lightly armed barges, and an expected uprising by English Catholics, but he was overruled. He had no choice but to wait for the Armada to arrive.

The progress of the Armada

As the Armada reached sight of England on 19th July, beacons were lit that conveyed the news to London faster than any messenger could achieve; as the hill-top watchers saw the distant light from a burning beacon they would light their own so that it would be seen by the next in the chain.

As it happened, Drake’s response was delayed not so much by an unfinished game of bowls as by an unfavourable tide. Most of the English fleet was holed up in Plymouth Harbour, ready to pounce on the Armada as it came into sight, but the low tide prevented this. The Spanish had an opportunity to take advantage by blockading the harbour and attacking the English ships when they emerged, but this idea was turned down because it did not accord with Philip’s orders.

Instead, the Armada was allowed to continue up the English Channel with the English fleet, once the tide had turned, in pursuit. Several small engagements took place, notably at Eddystone near Plymouth, and off Portland Bill, but little damage was suffered by either side.

Two Spanish ships managed to collide with each other and Drake, ever the opportunist, decided to raid the crippled ships at night for whatever they might have on board. However, this move led to other ships of the fleet not knowing where he had gone and, when dawn broke, the fleet was completely out of formation. It took a day for the ships to regroup, by which time the Armada was out of sight. However, the greater speed of the English ships allowed them to catch up.

The most significant engagement on the way up the Channel occurred off the Isle of Wight, when the English fleet divided into four squadrons and sailed towards the Armada ready for battle. However, Medina Sidonia was afraid that his larger ships might be driven on to sand banks close to shore and ordered them to escape to the open sea. He now had no choice but to sail straight for the French coast at Dunkirk, where he hoped that Parma’s army was waiting.

However, the Duke of Parma had problems of his own, and his army was far from ready to embark and be escorted to England. Apart from anything else, the 30,000 troops had been reduced to 16,000 by disease, and Dutch vessels were blockading the port of Dunkirk.

The Armada therefore had to wait offshore near Calais, anchored in a crescent formation. Medina Sidonia now had a dilemma. Parma wanted him to send part of his fleet along the coast to deal with the Dutch blockaders, thus enabling the troops to make their way to the waiting Armada, but Medina Sidonia was wary of weakening his fleet as the English approached. It was a marine version of rock versus hard place.

As it happened, the initiative now lay with the English, who used a trick that had been used in similar situations in the past. This was to sacrifice eight of the fleet’s ships as fireships, setting fire to them and letting them drift towards the enemy at night. The effect of this tactic was mainly psychological, because the Spanish had no idea whether the burning ships might not contain large charges of gunpowder that would explode with devastating consequences. They did not know that the English did not have that much gunpowder to spare.

The result of the fireship attack was exactly what Howard and Drake intended, namely that a number of Spanish ships cut their anchor chains and broke formation to escape. No ships were actually set alight by the fireships, but that did not matter. The Spanish now had no choice but to engage in direct battle with the English.

The Battle of Gravelines

The Battle of Gravelines, on 29th July, was the decisive action of the campaign, and was fought very much on English terms. The Spanish ships were not prepared for a full-scale naval engagement but for an invasion, and this was what led to their defeat. As it happened, they had plenty of ammunition for their cannons, but were in little position to use it. For one thing, the gun decks were so cluttered with stores that the guns could only be fired once, there being no space to run them back far enough to reload. For another, the Armada had more Catholic priests on board (for the expected forced conversion of England) than trained gunners.

The Spanish tactic was for the cannon to be fired once and the gunners then to man the rigging in preparation for boarding the crippled English ships. However, this would only be possible if the English ships got close enough, and the English captains made sure that this did not happen.

Instead, once the Spanish guns had fired their single shots, the English closed to a range that enabled their guns to have maximum impact on the thick oak timbers of the Spanish ships, especially when the ships heeled over and timbers were exposed that were normally below the waterline.

Given the tactics employed by each side, the Battle of Gravelines could only have one winner, although it was the English who were forced to disengage when they ran out of ammunition.

In terms of ships lost, the number of Spanish casualties was not all that great, given that only five ships were rendered unserviceable. However, many others had been badly damaged and had to withdraw from the battle. Apart from the fireships, no English vessels were lost. More than 600 Spanish sailors and soldiers died, to fewer than 100 on the English side.

The Armada escapes

With the wind blowing from the south, the Armada had no choice but to escape northwards, into the North Sea. There was now no chance of Philip’s plan being put into action and, for the Spanish fleet, there was only one way home.

The English chased the Spanish ships northwards as far as the Firth of Forth, so that any thoughts of returning to the Spanish Netherlands were made impossible. The English army force at Tilbury was reinforced in case any further attempts were made at an incursion up the Thames Estuary, and it was therefore at Tilbury that Queen Elizabeth made her famous victory speech on 8th August.

The Armada limped home, suffering far more losses than it had done during the battle. Due to a navigational error it sailed much closer to the western coasts of Scotland and Ireland than it should have done, and those ships that had jettisoned their anchors in panic during the fireships attack were unable to find shelter when the weather turned bad, instead being driven ashore and wrecked on the rocks.

September 1588 was a particularly bad month for Atlantic storms which, combined with the weak condition of many of the sailors due to disease and lack of food and water, led to many of the Armada ships, particularly the smaller and lighter ones, being lost. A number of Armada wrecks have been discovered in recent years, with the contents giving evidence not only of the daily lives of Spanish sailors and soldiers but of the supplies that were intended to support an invasion force.

Some Spaniards who were driven ashore did survive, and there are stories of “Spanish-Irish” children being born during the following years. Only about 10,000 of the men who set out from Spain, and half the ships, returned there.

The aftermath

Despite this massive setback for Philip of Spain, the balance of power on the high seas was little changed, with Spanish hegemony being scarcely dented. Most of the 22 galleons survived the battle and the Atlantic storms, and, after repair, remained perfectly serviceable.

However, English confidence was greatly boosted, as was the position of Protestantism in England. Above all, the role of the weather in deciding the issue was seen by many as divine confirmation of the rightness of Elizabeth’s rule and of the English Reformation. The phrase “He blew with his winds and they were scattered” was inscribed on a victory medal and the storm was also given the name of “the Protestant wind”.

Even without the intervention of the elements, there is little chance that the Armada could have succeeded, simply because the English people would surely never have allowed themselves to be ruled by an autocratic (and Catholic) Spanish monarch. Even if Queen Elizabeth had been overthrown and executed, it is surely inconceivable that “King Philip of England” would have lasted very long.

Why the Spanish Armada was defeated

The traditional view held by the British as to why the Spanish Armada failed in its objectives was that the Spanish were out-fought and out-manoeuvred by Sir Francis Drake and Lord Howard of Effingham, aided in no small measure by the vagaries of the British weather. There is much to support this opinion, but it is not the whole story.


Philip had also deluded himself into believing that England was longing to return to being a Catholic country, which it had not been since the death of Queen Mary I (who was married to Philip) in 1558. However, that was 30 years ago, and the bulk of the English population saw no reason to change. Those with long memories had no desire for a savage regime similar to that of “Bloody Mary” with anti-Catholics being burned at the stake.

England under Elizabeth was entering a golden age, partly thanks to the overseas enterprises of men like Drake and Raleigh, the latter of whom was trying to establish a colony on the coast of North America, and which was to evolve into the state of Virginia. The English (later British) Empire was in its infancy and the future looked good. This gave the English pride and a sense of independence that they had no intention of surrendering by making a backward step. Philip had not taken this on board.

In other words, the plan for the Armada was never going to work. Had the Armada been able to collect the Duke of Parma’s troops and sail up the Thames with them it would have been met with the full might of the English army, then assembling at Tilbury, as well as being trapped by the English fleet that would have followed them closely. Without any chance of reinforcement, the Spanish soldiers would have stood no chance of victory.

Philip knew all about Drake’s cleverness and ability to think quickly and decisively, but he took no steps to counteract the threat. When given the opportunity to blockade Drake’s fleet at Plymouth, Medina Sidonia did not take it because Philip’s orders had been to race up the Channel as quickly as possible, thus ensuring that Drake would be hard on his heels. Why did Philip not have a Plan B to deal with such an eventuality? With part of the Spanish fleet preventing Drake from leaving Plymouth, the rest of the Armada might have had a chance of reaching their objective.

So, what the Spanish had was a poor plan, poorly executed by inadequate leaders, with their orders coming from a king in Spain who had no idea of what was happening at the “sharp end”. 

© John Welford

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Pocket boroughs in British politics

The term “pocket borough” was used by 19th-century reformers in Great Britain to describe the situation whereby democracy was held to ransom by the rich and powerful, such that the election of some Members of Parliament was “in the pocket” of certain people. Perhaps the concept still applies today.


The development of Britain’s Parliamentary system


The House of Commons was instituted in 1265 when Simon de Montfort, the rebellious Earl of Leicester, called for an assembly to be elected that constituted “two knights from every (English) shire and two burgesses from every borough”. The procedure for electing the shire members was clear enough, and consistent across the country, but the boroughs were given much more freedom to decide for themselves how their representatives should be chosen.

Over time, the number of boroughs entitled to send members to Parliament grew, but the expense of so doing fell upon local councils, and many declined to do so. Others set such severe restrictions on who could vote, based mainly on property qualifications, that the number of voters was reduced to a handful. When this happened, the possibility of manipulating the election, so that the result fell into someone’s pocket, was greatly increased.

Among the more extreme cases of limited franchise were those boroughs that limited the vote to members of the borough council, and others where it was only the owners or tenants of certain pieces of land within the borough who could vote.


Pocket and rotten boroughs


A distinction needs to be made between “pocket” and “rotten” boroughs, because although they were often one and the same, this was not necessarily the case. A rotten borough was one in which the original population had all but disappeared, leaving very few voters behind. For example, when the city of Sarum in Wiltshire abandoned its windswept hilltop site and moved to the valley below to build the new Salisbury, the old city retained the right to send members to Parliament even though there was no-one there (see photo).


Even more bizarre was the borough of Dunwich in Suffolk, which had fallen victim to coastal erosion and was mostly under the waters of the North Sea by the time of the 1832 Reform Act.


However, a borough did not need to be rotten to be in a pocket. Even some quite large and thriving boroughs could be pocket boroughs, depending on local circumstances.


One factor that helped to create pocket boroughs was the lack of a secret ballot, which did not enter British politics until the Ballot Act of 1872. Under the previous system, electors had to declare their voting choice to a clerk who sat in a public place, such as a temporary stand in a market place, in full view and hearing of anyone who wished to witness the voting. What this meant was that voters could be intimidated or bribed into voting one way or the other, and the candidate with the deepest pockets could easily buy his seat in the Commons.


The owners of the pockets were often rich and wealthy landowners who, if peers of the realm, had a permanent seat in Parliament’s House of Lords and wished to ensure that their tenants were represented by their “placemen” in the House of Commons. It was an excellent way of maintaining the status quo.


In effect, what often happened was that elections at a local level were uncontested, because there was little point in standing for a seat which one had absolutely no hope of winning because all the votes had been bought in advance.


The 1832 Reform Act ended some of the abuses but by no means all. It is true that the rotten boroughs were removed from the system, and the more bizarre franchise qualifications disappeared, but many pocket boroughs remained for various reasons, including the lack of secret ballots noted above.


Are there still pocket boroughs today?


Indeed, a strong argument could be made to the effect that pocket boroughs (or their equivalent) are still part of the British political system.


It is still the case that many constituencies in the United Kingdom never change hands at election time because the majorities for a particular political party are so large that they can never be overturned. For example, the seat of Hemsworth in West Yorkshire was such a safe one for Labour throughout the 20th century that the joke ran that the votes were weighed rather than counted. Likewise, there are Conservative seats in south-east England and elsewhere where it is impossible to imagine anyone other than a Conservative having any chance of winning.


Under these circumstances, the choice of who becomes the MP depends not on the electors but the party machine that selects the candidate. Traditionally this is the local party committee, which can easily be swayed by a few powerful people, but increasingly the central offices of the main parties influence who the local party will choose. Candidates are known to have been “parachuted” into safe seats, often against local wishes but with it being made very clear that the constituency committee has to do what it is told. In other words, these seats are in the pockets of the political parties.


Sometimes a local party can resist the central diktat because of the sponsorship it gets from an outside organisation such as a trade union or large business. Many Labour MPs are union sponsored, and many Conservative MPs have the backing of powerful businessmen who have put large sums of money into local party coffers. It would be difficult to imagine the respective parties, either locally or nationally, turning down these contributions, even though they must appreciate that the interests in question hope to gain some political advantage from their efforts.


One must therefore wonder whether pocket boroughs ever went away, or if they are still alive and well in the British political system in the 21st century.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

The Quintinshill rail crash, 1915

The worst rail crash ever to occur in Great Britain, in terms of loss of life, took place early on the morning of 22nd May 1915, nearly a year after the outbreak of World War I. The site of the crash was Quintinshill signal box, a mile and a half north of Gretna Green, on the border between England and Scotland and on the main west coast line that connects London to Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Events leading to the crash

Express trains travelling the whole length of the line could easily suffer delays, and that was the case with the train that had left London Euston shortly before midnight. It was half an hour late when it reached Carlisle and so the decision was made to allow a local train to run ahead of it, rather than behind, and to stop in the loop at Quintinshill to allow the express to pass. Quintinshill had two such loops, on the up and down lines, which were in full view of the signal box.

This procedure was quite common, and it presented an opportunity for the signalman who should have started work at Quintinshill at 6.00am to delay his start until 6.30am. Instead of walking from his home at Gretna he could wait for the local train which he knew was going to stop right outside the signal box as opposed to running on to the next station.

This was an unofficial and unauthorised arrangement and it meant that the outgoing signalman (George Meakin) had to write down all the train movements that took place after 6.00am on a slip of paper so that the incoming signalman (James Tinsley) could write them into the train register when he arrived. The register would therefore have entries for the relevant times in the expected handwriting.

One movement that had taken place during that half hour was that a down (i.e. northbound) goods train had been shunted into the down loop, which meant that the passenger train on which Tinsley had travelled had to reverse across on to the up (southbound) main line to clear the down main  for the express.

Shortly after this, and at the time when Tinsley was climbing the steps to the signal box, a train of empty coal wagons arrived on the up line. This could not be sent on to Carlisle, so Meakin turned it into the up loop.

At the time of the changeover between signalmen there were therefore three trains standing outside the signal box, with only the down main being clear.

Mistakes that led to disaster

George Meakin (the signalman who was about to end his shift) made a mistake by not protecting the up main line by placing a collar on the relevant signal lever. This would have made it impossible for the lever to be pulled and the line therefore cleared. 

The signal box was now occupied by the two signalmen and the brakemen from the two goods trains that were waiting in the loops. Meakin read the newspaper that Tinsley had brought with him and Tinsley started to copy the entries from Meakin’s piece of paper into the train register. Clearly, nobody was giving proper attention to the job in hand as they chatted about this and that.

Next to arrive was George Hutchinson, the fireman of the local train that was waiting on the up main line. Under “Rule 55” it was his task to remind the signalman in person that his train was stopped and thus to ensure that it was duly protected. Meakin handed him a pencil so that he could sign the book that registered his compliance with the rule, but Hutchinson left the box without noticing that the relevant signal lever did not have a collar on it.

James Tinsley meanwhile got on with business by accepting the delayed down express, and he also, inexplicably, accepted an up troop train and set the signals for it. This was only possible because one of the signalmen (and it was disputed who this was) must have indicated to the Kirkpatrick box (the next one up the line) that the line was clear after the coal wagons train had been parked in the up loop. The Kirkpatrick signalman would not have offered the troop train if he had been aware that the line was not clear.

The crash

As it was, the troop train duly arrived at speed and crashed into the stationary local train. The force of the impact was such that a train of 15 carriages that was more than 200 yards long was instantly reduced to one of less than 70 yards in length.

The down express, which weighed more than 600 tons, then arrived and crashed into the wreckage that had spread across all the tracks. Fire broke out and raged furiously, fuelled by the high pressure gas used to provide light and heat on the troop train. The fire burned for more than 24 hours, leaving very little behind.

The troop train had been taking 500 soldiers belonging to the 7th Battalion of the Royal Scots to Liverpool, where they were due to embark for the Gallipoli campaign. It is not known exactly how many were killed because the battalion roll was lost in the crash, but it is estimated that at least 215 officers and men died and at least as many were injured. None of the survivors were deemed fit to carry on to their destination.

Casualties on the other trains were much lower, with eight deaths on the express and two on the local train. One reason for the huge toll on the troop train was that wartime conditions meant that old railway stock was pressed into service, this being constructed mainly from wood and with old-fashioned gas lighting.

The aftermath

 As this was wartime, news of the disaster was hushed up as much as possible and it was not until after the war was over that the general public got to hear about it. Knowledge of a disaster of this kind on the home front would hardly have helped to boost morale.

The blame for the crash clearly belonged to the two signalmen, both of whom served jail sentences after a criminal trial. George Hutchinson was also charged with negligence for leaving the signal box without ensuring the safety of his train, but he was acquitted.

There have been many serious accidents on Britain’s railways in the years since Quintinshill, but fortunately none that have had such devastating consequences. The technology to prevent such an accident occurring (i.e. the electric block system) already existed in 1915 but the war had prevented it from being adopted universally across the network. Needless to say, that is not the case today.
© John Welford

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