Saturday, 31 December 2016

The Hull rail crash, 1927

This is an account of a fatal rail accident in Hull, England, in 1927. Despite all the fail-safes built into the signalling system, one sequence of events allowed disaster to occur.

The crash at Hull Paragon station in 1927

The rail crash that occurred at Hull on 14th February 1927 was one that really should not have happened. That might be said of most accidents, of course, but in this case it would appear that all the systems were in place to prevent two trains meeting head-on on the same track, but there was one small chink in the armour of railway safety and that was enough to lead to the deaths of twelve passengers.

Hull Paragon is a terminus station, from which the lines run westward for about half a mile before branches lead west and north. There are fewer routes from Hull now than there were in 1927, and one of the lines no longer in existence led to Withernsea on the east coast. A train from Withernsea was running into Hull on the morning of 14th February, the engine being driven by Robert Dixon.

Meanwhile, Sam Atkinson was leaving Hull in charge of a Scarborough service. The two trains should have passed each other without incident.

However, as Driver Atkinson ran under the signal gantry at Park Street, still within sight of the station, he had the strange feeling that his train had been switched on to the wrong track. He checked on both sides of the footplate and, once he was certain that this was so, he slammed on his brakes. However, this was not enough to prevent a collision with Driver Dixon’s approaching train.

Once Driver Atkinson had picked himself up and taken stock of the situation, he ran up the steps of the nearby signal box and demanded to know what had happened.

There were three signalmen on duty, and their aim that morning had been not to allow the approaching Withernsea train to delay the departure of the Scarborough train. They therefore set their signals and points in conjunction so that everything should run as smoothly as possible.

What clearly happened at some stage was that a set of slip points was activated that allowed the Scarborough train to get on to the wrong line. These were controlled by lever 95 in the signal box. The systems in place made it impossible for the lever to be moved unless lever 171, which controlled the signal faced by the Scarborough train, was also moved.

While one signalman was dealing with the Scarborough departure, another was controlling the Withernsea arrival. The levers he needed to operate were 96 and 97.

Lever 171 should not have been returned to danger until the whole train had passed it, by which time it would have cleared the slip points, but, in his hurry to speed things up, the signalman in question moved the lever after only the engine and the first few carriages had passed it.

The other signalman then moved what he thought were levers 96 and 97 but must have been 95 and 96. The slip points controlled by lever 95 were therefore moved during the few seconds between lever 171 being moved and the train reaching the points. Disaster was then inevitable.

Both signalmen were therefore to blame, one for moving lever 171 too soon and the other for moving lever 95 in error. This was therefore a classic case of being too hasty, such that the correct procedure was not followed. Had the signalmen taken more care, even if that meant a train being held at a signal, the accident would not have happened.

© John Welford

Monday, 12 December 2016

The Elliot Junction rail crash, 1906

1906 was a bad year for railway accidents in Great Britain, with derailments at Salisbury and Grantham followed by a serious collision at Elliot Junction, in Scotland, on Friday 28th December.
Elliot Junction

Elliot Junction was a station that no longer exists, as the branch line that it served was closed in 1929. The station lay about one mile south of Arbroath, on the line from Dundee (to the south) to Aberdeen (to the north), which is very much open and running at present. In the photo, the station platform was where the car park is now, and the branch line went in the direction of the distant woods.

The weather at the time of the accident was appalling, with winter having set in hard on the east coast of Scotland. Temperatures were well below freezing and ice hung thick on the telegraph wires. Snow-laden winds blew in from the North Sea where the track ran close to the shore. Thick snow lay on the ground.

The accident

On the morning of the accident there had been another mishap south of Elliot Junction when some goods wagons had become derailed, resulting in one of the two tracks being blocked. Single-line working was therefore in operation for this stretch. However, because of problems with the telegraph line this information was not passed to the signal-box at Arbroath, the next main station to the north.

The 07:35 northbound express service from Edinburgh to Aberdeen was driven by Driver Gourlay, who was highly experienced. He was driving locomotive 324, a 4-4-0 of the 317 class. He was an hour late reaching Arbroath, which he did at 10:41, but that was as far as he was able to go as the lines further north were blocked by snow. The train waited for four hours, in the hope of things improving, but it was eventually decided that it would have to return to Edinburgh.

Normal practice would be for the locomotive to be turned on a turntable so that it could be coupled to the other end of the train and run funnel first, as it had on its northward journey. However, this was not done, and 324 was coupled to run tender first, thus giving the driver and fireman no protection from the elements in their open cab.

Another train needed to head south, this being a local train that was returning to Dundee from Arbroath. This was given a sixteen minute start over the returning express, with Driver Gourlay being warned to take special care.

At Elliot Junction the local train was held at the station while waiting for clearance to proceed through the temporary single-track section, about which the driver had not been told before leaving Arbroath. With the telegraph lines being down the only way to ensure that the track was clear was for a man to walk up and back through the affected section, a total distance of three miles.

The stationmaster at Elliot Junction had just decided to allow the passengers off the train to wait in the comfort of a warm waiting room when the express hurtled out of the snowstorm and hit the local train at about thirty miles an hour.

Three coaches of the local train were wrecked as was the leading coach of the express. Engine 324 fell on its side with the wheels still racing until the driver of the local train could crawl into the cab and close the regulator. Driver Gourlay was pulled out from underneath a pile of coal that had fallen on top of him but he was otherwise uninjured. However, his fireman was dead, as were 21 passengers from the two trains.

The cause of the crash

The blame for the crash lay firmly with Driver Gourlay, whose behaviour had clearly been reckless. For one thing, he was travelling “all stations”, which meant that he should have been preparing to stop at Elliot Junction and not proceeding at speed as he approached the platform. Furthermore, he had been instructed to drive under “caution” conditions which meant that the signalling system was not to be relied upon (due to the snow conditions) and safety was ensured by sending trains off at timed intervals and travelling at similar speeds, with drivers keeping a sharp lookout for obstacles on the line.

In any case, the driver’s visibility was severely curtailed by the conditions under which he was driving, with snow and coal dust blowing straight into his face with the engine running in reverse. This should have made him take extra care, not less.

Another question is why, having passed the obstruction of the blocked line on his way up the line earlier that day, he did not think to mention it to the station staff at Arbroath or the driver of the local train. After all, he did have four hours to kill before starting off back down the line.

Driver Gourlay defended himself at the subsequent enquiry by saying that he thought he had an all-clear signal as he approached Elliot Junction. However, the reason for the signal being slightly depressed (it should have been at a 45 degree angle for the all-clear) was that snow on the controlling wire was weighing it down. On the other hand, when driving under caution conditions, as mentioned above, a signal purporting to show all-clear should itself have been an indication that all was not well, given that all signals should have been in the “stop” position.

He also complained that there was no fog warning at the outer signal. In this he was probably correct, because this was standard practice in poor weather conditions, but it was pointed out that it was hardly reasonable to expect a fogman to stand in a blizzard with a warning lamp when there had been no trains between 09:00 and 15:30.

However, what pointed the finger of blame straight at Driver Gourlay was the fact that, while waiting at Arbroath, he had been “entertained” by a friendly passenger at the Victoria Bar on the station platform. He said that he had only had a single “nip” of whisky and had refused other offers from passengers, but Inspector Pringle, who conducted the enquiry, did not believe this. His conclusion included the words:

“The lack of intelligence, or of caution and alertness, displayed by Driver Gourlay were, in part at all events, induced by drink, the effects of which may possibly have been accentuated after he left Arbroath by exposure to the weather.”

Following the inquiry, Driver Gourlay stood trial and was found guilty by a majority verdict. He was sentenced to five years in prison but this was later remitted.

The inspector also had criticisms to make of the practices employed on the railway at the time, which had become slack under the joint ownership of the Caledonian and North British railway companies, who did not get on well together. The accident would have been avoided had the blockage on the line south of Elliot Junction not occurred, and this was due to an avoidable act of folly by a railway employee.

Under modern signalling and communications conditions, as well as Automatic Train Control, an accident such as that at Elliot Junction is extremely unlikely these days. However, outbreaks of human error and stupidity are always possible, so drivers still need to be aware of their responsibilities, one of which is staying well clear of the station bar!

© John Welford

Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Tsarina who moved a comma and saved a life

Students are often told to be careful how they use punctuation when writing, but this story - which is supposedly true - is an example of how a comma in the wrong place can make a huge difference to a person’s life.

Tsar Alexander III of Russia

Tsar Alexander III ruled Russia from 1881 until his death in 1894 when he was succeeded by the last tsar, Nicholas II. Alexander came to the throne when his father, Tsar Alexander II, was assassinated. Alexander III ruled as an absolute monarch and was constantly aware of the threats he faced from real or imagined opponents. He was determined not to give an inch in terms of social or political reform.

Given the fate of his father, it is hardly surprising that he sought to clamp down hard on the various protest movements that bedevilled Russia at the time. Punishments were harsh; those anarchists who were not executed were exiled to Siberia, from which only a handful of them ever returned.

Among those executed for an attempt on his life was Alexander Ulyanov, whose younger brother, Vladimir, would in later life take his revenge on the Russian monarchy under his nom-de-guerre of Lenin.

Tsarina Maria Feodorovna

The Tsarina, however, was a very different type of person.

She only became Alexander’s wife by default, in that she had been “bequeathed” to him by his elder brother Nicholas. Nicholas died in 1865 at the age of 21, when he was engaged to be married to Maria, who was a Danish princess (originally named Dagmar). On his deathbed (he appears to have died from meningitis) he expressed his wish that Maria should marry Alexander instead, which she duly did. She therefore became Tsarina, as originally intended, but as the wife of the “wrong” Tsar.

Maria clearly had much more humanity in her than did her husband, who was noted for his dour and cold personality. The episode of the comma would seem to show just how different she was.

The changed comma

The famous event occurred when Maria happened across a document that Alexander had signed. This was a list of supposed traitors and criminals whose fate lay in Alexander’s hands. Against one of the names Alexander had written “Pardon impossible, to send to Siberia”. Maria saw her opportunity to save the life of an unknown prisoner and quickly scratched out and re-inserted the comma. The line now read: “Pardon, impossible to send to Siberia”.

But is it true?

This story is often told, mainly as an object lesson in correct punctuation, but is it really true?

To my mind there are several problems with it. For one thing, who told the story? The change of the comma would have been done in secret, with only the Tsarina knowing that it had happened. She would hardly have let slip at the time that a prisoner had been freed by her action and against the will of her husband. So at what point would she have told the story, and to what end? Granted, she lived a long life (she died in her native Denmark in 1928 at the age of 80), so there might have been other opportunities for telling the tale, but what purpose would she have had in so doing?

Another factor is that the document would have been written in Russian and not English. I have no idea whether a change of comma in the equivalent Russian sentence would work as neatly as in does in English, so that is another question mark against the story.

My own feeling is that it all sounds a bit too contrived, as though somebody had realised that this was a sentence that would illustrate the grammatical point at issue, and the story was written around it as one that would fit the known facts and be believable as it stood.

That said, it is a good story. Whether true or not, it does make very clear that a misplaced comma, whether the error is the result of carelessness or deliberate action, can make a huge difference to somebody’s life!

© John Welford

Monday, 21 November 2016

Domesday Book

Domesday Book (pronounced “Doomsday”) is one of the most remarkable documents ever compiled. It is a detailed survey of a conquered land, namely England after the Norman Conquest of 1066. No other country in the world, at this point in history or for centuries afterwards, had been described as fully. Domesday Book therefore offers a unique portrait of a medieval society and economy.

The original document survives to this day, comprising 888 leaves of parchment that are held in the National Archives at Kew (London). They were all written by one man, a native Englishman who took a year to transcribe and organise all the notes that were produced by the King’s commissioners. He was assisted by a second scribe, who filled in some of the gaps and made corrections.

The job was done remarkably well, such that the entries are consistently presented and easy to read. Other versions and translations have been produced over the centuries, the original having been compiled in Latin, which was the “lingua franca” of the time.

There are in fact two Domesday Books, “Little Domesday” and “Great Domesday”. Little Domesday comprises a survey of the eastern counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk, in much greater detail than is found in Great Domesday, which covers the rest of England. It was probably the case that more detailed records were made for the whole country and summarised in Great Domesday, but the work of incorporating the Little Domesday material was never done, hence it survives as a separate document.

The name “Domesday” was only given to the book in the 12th century, the intention being to indicate that its contents were just as certain and unanswerable as the Day of Judgment.

There was a threefold purpose behind the Domesday survey, which was only undertaken after William I had been in charge of England for twenty years. Indeed, William did not live to see its completion, and the benefits of the survey were enjoyed by his sons, who succeeded him as William II and Henry I. William I is justly termed “The Conqueror” because he had little real interest in his new kingdom other than as a source of wealth; he was still Duke of Normandy, and that was where his true interest lay.

The first reason why William needed all this detail was that he wanted to levy taxes on the English and he could only do this effectively if he knew what the people owned and what a tax levy would furnish. Immediately after the Conquest, the Normans were able to make use of the extremely efficient Anglo-Saxon system of land division into “hides” (a unit of land that could, in theory, support a single family), “hundreds” (originally 100 hides) and shires, which were managed by a well-organised local civil service. A tax demand could be sent to a shire and then divided between the hundreds and hides based on local knowledge of what each would bear.

William’s approach was somewhat different. Knowing how many hides there were, he could simply demand a certain amount per hide and expect a total sum to accrue. However, his demands caused considerable distress and even starvation in many areas, and refusal to pay led to strong-arm tactics, severe punishments and the laying waste of huge areas of land.

During the 20 years between the Conquest and the Domesday survey, England had been taken over by a coterie of powerful Norman barons who owed loyalty to William but were also keen to establish their own power bases and exploit their new possessions for personal gain. They also had to defend their lands against constant uprisings from the native English and, at times, from each other. There had been much devastation caused by armies moving across the country, and also by crop failures and plagues. The pattern of ownership and wealth-gathering had therefore changed considerably, and William needed to know how things stood in terms of who owned what.

There is evidence that the Domesday survey was coupled with an immediate demand for taxes, which were extortionate in nature. The King’s officials were able to perform two jobs at once, namely to establish what the taxation base was and make use of that information there and then.

The second motivating factor for Domesday was William’s need to billet his army on his vassal lords, so he needed to know how many troops each could be expected to support, based on what their lands produced. Indeed, the immediate inspiration for the Domesday survey had been a crisis in 1085 when William had needed to billet a huge Norman army in England to counter a threat from Denmark. Without knowing exactly how many men could be supported, and where, William was open to being taken by surprise, and that was not something that he was willing to tolerate.

The third factor was a legal one, namely a desire to establish if land was held lawfully or had been seized unjustly, which had indeed happened on a vast scale since the Conquest. Domesday therefore drew a line under who owned England and its riches. Once written in the Book, the legal status was established and any later disputes referred back to the particular entry that concerned a hundred or other land division.

The Domesday survey was conducted at the level of the shire courts. The King’s commissioners would arrive at a shire court and local juries would testify as to who owned which hundreds and then give detailed information for each one. This included how many hides were under the plough, or were pastureland, woodland, etc, and how many animals were kept. The commissioners wanted to know how many people held and worked the land and their status, such as whether they were freemen or bonded in some way. Although they were only interested in knowing how many heads of household there were, these figures are useful for working out the total population of Norman England (about two million).

The juries were asked for three sets of facts and figures, namely as they were before the Conquest (i.e. January 1066), at the time that the present (usually Norman) owner took over, and at the time of the survey. This sometimes meant referring to older records but more often to reliance on memory and estimation.

After the commissioners had left, a second group of officials would arrive to check that the information was correct, going into the villages to see if any frauds had been committed. The fact that this double-checking took place helps to ensure the accuracy of the picture that Domesday provides of England in 1086.

Domesday Book, despite its thoroughness, is not complete. For one thing, it does not cover the lawless lands north of the River Tees. It does not include London or several other towns, such as Winchester. It is also known that many villages known to have existed at the time are missing from the account. The reasons for these omissions can only be guessed at; were some villages “hidden” from the commissioners in the hope of escaping the King’s taxes? On the other hand, Domesday records many villages that have since disappeared, for whatever reason.

What has survived is a wonderful picture of medieval society, frozen at a date more than 900 years ago when:

 “Modbert holds Eggbeer from Baldwin. Leofgar held it in King Edward’s time. There is land there for 6 ploughs. On the lord’s farm 2 ploughs; 2 slaves; 4 villeins and 4 bordars. 30 acres of pasture; 6 acres of woodland. 3 cattle, 4 pigs, 36 sheep, 4 goats. Formerly worth 15 shillings, now 20 shillings.”

When comparisons are made between communities, either close together or in different parts of the country, all sorts of information can be gleaned about how this society worked.

We can also get valuable information about such things as place names, because modern names can be compared with how they were written in Domesday Book and their origin then determined. For example, my own village of Barlestone in Leicestershire is recorded in Domesday as Berulvestone, meaning the “tun” or farmstead of Berwolf, who would have been of Danish extraction. This very fact shows how, at this meeting point of Danes and Anglo-Saxons in the East Midlands, Danish-descended farmers worked alongside Anglo-Saxons and possibly spoke their language, “tun” being an Anglo-Saxon word.

There are also many personal interest stories hidden among the otherwise dusty lists of facts and figures. One example concerns a female landowner in Yorkshire who “held her land separately and free from the domination and control of her husband Beornwulf”, a situation that clearly shocked the commissioners to the extent that it needed to be fully documented.

Domesday is therefore a portrait of a past world, but it also gives the reader a strange sense of continuity. The pattern of villages on the modern map, in many parts of England, can be traced in the pages of Domesday Book. These villages were there 900 years ago, and some of them do not seem to have grown much in the meantime. We can ask questions about how our predecessors lived on the very spots that we now occupy, and find the answers in Domesday Book. It is indeed a very remarkable record of immense value.

© John Welford

Sunday, 20 November 2016

The Ditton Junction rail crash, 1912

On 17th September 1912, a late afternoon express train, packed with holidaymakers returning to Liverpool from Chester, left the rails just to the east of Ditton Junction railway station and crashed into the brickwork of the bridge that carried Hale Road over the railway. Thirteen passengers were killed, although a horse had a very lucky escape.

Ditton Junction

Ditton Junction (near Widnes, Cheshire) no longer exists as a station, although the lines from Crewe and Warrington to Liverpool still run past the abandoned and overgrown platforms that were witness to the accident.

The problem at Ditton Junction was that three double tracks approached from the east, to be squeezed into two double tracks before opening again into three doubles as they passed through the station, these being a fast line, a slow line and a goods line. Trains approaching from Crewe, having recently crossed the Runcorn Bridge, would normally proceed along the fast line to Liverpool, but could be switched to the slow line via one of two crossovers that were placed within a hundred yards of each other.

Drivers would be warned that they were about to be crossed by means of signals as they approached the station. There were two distant signals, placed side by side, one for the fast line and the other for the second crossover (crossover B), but nothing for the first crossover (crossover A). Just before crossover A was a gantry with three home signals, for the fast line on the right, the crossover to the slow line (via crossover B) in the middle, and the goods line via crossover A on the left. The confusion for a driver who was unfamiliar with the signalling arrangement was that he could assume, being on the central track of the three as he approached the station, that the central signal applied to him. If it was clear, he might think he was clear to proceed along the fast line at speed if he was not stopping at the station. This was the error that Driver Hughes seems to have made.

The accident

Railway rules stipulated that drivers must be familiar with the route they were using, which included knowledge of all the signalling arrangements they would encounter. However, that cannot be said of Driver Hughes, who had been called in specially to drive this extra holiday express. He told the “arranger of engines” at his home shed that he was “all right for Liverpool”, but that was stretching a point. Most of his runs along this line had been as a fireman, and he had only driven a train through Ditton Junction on ten occasions in four years, and had never been switched to the slow line when doing so.

The train in question consisted of seven coaches headed by “Cook”, a somewhat elderly 2-4-0 Precedent class locomotive with a rigid 15-foot wheelbase that allowed no play in the leading wheels. There were also two horseboxes on the train, between the loco and the first passenger carriage, each carrying one horse and its groom.

Driver Hughes therefore had no suspicion that anything was amiss as he approached Ditton Junction at about 60 miles an hour. However, his train was being switched to the slow line to allow a London express to take the fast line. The first awareness he would have had that anything was amiss was when his locomotive was thrust violently to one side as it reached the crossover at a speed far greater than it could have been expected to negotiate safely.

“Cook” left the rails and slid on its side into the side of the bridge, with the cab and firebox torn completely away from the boiler. Driver Hughes was killed instantly and his fireman died later in hospital. One of the horseboxes was projected all the way over the bridge and landed on the station platform beyond. The horse jumped out, completely unscathed. However, the other horse was not so lucky as its box was cut in half, although the groom survived.

The leading carriages piled up under the bridge and against the station buildings. Nobody survived in the first two carriages, although the passengers in the rest of the train were much more fortunate. In total, thirteen passengers were killed and fifty were injured. Fire broke out in the wreckage, caused by the gas lighting system, and the blaze could not be extinguished for two hours. The dead bodies were therefore burned beyond recognition, but the victims had died as a result of the initial impact.

Who was to blame?

The enquiry was conducted by Lt-Col Yorke, who criticised the signalling arrangement which was inconsistent in having a distant signal for one crossover but not the other, followed by home signals for both crossovers. He also recommended that there should be a speed restriction sign for the fast-to-slow crossover.

The inspector was also critical of the decision to allow an inexperienced driver (of the route) to drive the train. He should have taken on a pilot at Chester.

Such an accident would have been far less likely in later years, partly because of improved signalling and also because the crossover was rebuilt with a much gentler curve. Later steam locomotives would have been better able to survive a sudden lurch to the side, especially those built with a bogie for the leading wheels.

The human cost of the accident, which brought a fun day out for many to such a traumatic end, was summed up by a newspaper reporter who commented: 

“The charred luggage lay in heaps, together with hats, caps, fur boas, luncheon baskets, fruit, sweets and holiday literature”.

© John Welford

Friday, 11 November 2016

The deaths of the Romanovs

The details of how the Russian royal family met its end in 1918 are reasonably well known. However, the mystery of what happened after the event has only been resolved relatively recently.

The end of the Romanovs

The beginning of the end of the Romanov dynasty came on 1st March 1917, when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne. Shortly afterwards he was placed under house arrest, together with his entire family, by the Provisional Government led firstly by Prince Lvov and later by Alexander Kerensky.

Plans were considered to send the Romanovs into exile, the most obvious destination country being Great Britain because of the close relationship between the two royal families. An offer of asylum was made by the British government, but King George V feared for his own popularity if this came about, and he persuaded the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, to withdraw the offer. Had the King known what was about to happen in Russia, he may not have made the same decision.

The Romanovs were first held at the Alexander Palace at Tsarkoye Selo, and from August 1917 at Tobolsk to the east of the Urals, where they were still able to live in comfort despite the approach of a Siberian winter. Here, some 1,400 miles from the events in St Petersburg, they were in relative safety and could have no influence on the developments that brought Lenin to power in the October revolution (which actually took place in November, according to the western calendar).

However, the civil war that broke out in the succeeding months affected Russia well beyond St Petersburg (now renamed Petrograd), and, as an army of the counter-revolutionary White Army approached Tobolsk, the Bolsheviks decided to move the royal family to Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains. They were held at a building that is always referred to as the Ipatiev house. Ipatiev was an engineer who used the building as both his home and his office, but he was ordered to vacate it to make room for the prisoners.

The Romanovs arrived on 30th April, the family comprising the Tsar (aged 50 at the time of his death, his wife the Tsarina Alexandra (46), their son the Tsarevich Alexei (13) and their four daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga (22), Tatiana (21), Maria (19) and Anastasia (17). They also had a few servants and their personal doctor with them.

On the night of 16th/17th July the family and their entourage were woken and told to prepare themselves for another move. They were prepared for this, and always hopeful that one day they would be exiled to another country. For this reason, the women and Alexei had sewn a considerable number of jewels into their clothes, to give them a measure of financial security in exile, or possibly for use as bribes to gain them their freedom.

They were escorted to the cellar, ostensibly to wait for transport, or they may have been told that a group photograph would be taken. At any rate, they were soon greeted by an execution squad who performed their task with little delay, shooting some and bayoneting the others.

Disposing of the bodies

Attempts were made to dispose of the bodies by burning them and dissolving them in acid, but these methods were only partly successful. The Bolsheviks were determined that nothing should remain that could be the focus of a shrine to the Tsar and his family, so the remains were dumped down the deepest well they could find.

It was not until 1991 that some of the remains were dug up. Their whereabouts had actually been known about since 1978 but it was not politic at the time to make this knowledge public. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 interest in Russia’s Tsarist past was rekindled.

In the years since 1918 there had been much speculation about whether some of the family might have survived the massacre in the basement – in particular it was thought that Anastasia might have escaped and fled to the West – so the opportunity to test the bones for DNA was taken to set all doubts at rest.

However, despite extensive work to identify all the bones, not least so that they could be given proper burials, two members of the family were missing. It was not until 2007 that the bones of Alexei and Maria were recovered. They had been buried separately a short distance from the others.

It seems as though the people charged with disposing of the bodies did so in a considerable hurry – presumably they wanted to leave the site as soon as possible given the knowledge that counter-revolutionary troops were not far away – and the job was botched.
One can imagine that the small unit of soldiers who were sent to perform the operation were not too worried about the task of killing the “enemies of the people” but were less happy with that of removing all trace of a room full of dead bodies. One can almost sympathise.

John Welford

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Curiosity cabinets

The idea of the curiosity cabinet goes back to the 15th century, when collectors of (mostly) small objects, whether botanical specimens, religious relics, precious objects, or whatever, would store them in drawers in small- to medium-sized wooden cabinets, which could even be transported with them if needed. They can therefore be regarded as mini-museums. Because the items to be stored would vary in size and shape, cabinet-makers designed them with drawers and shelves of different dimensions.

Cabinets were kept by all sorts of people. Physicians collected anatomical specimens, merchants acquired samples of merchandise from their trading partners, travellers to distant lands used them to store the weird and wonderful things that they brought back with them, amateur fossil-hunters kept their finds in them, and royalty used larger cabinets to make collections of weapons and armour. It is highly probable that many of the “curiosities” were faked objects, such as two-headed toads and the like, made and sold to gullible travellers by local traders who could spot a market opportunity a mile off!

These were private collections, but a collector would often be happy to show off the contents of his cabinet to guests who called at his home. This function developed especially during the 17th and 18th centuries, when wealthier families tended to send their sons off on the “Grand Tour”, and they would return with objects that needed to be preserved and shown off. The curiosity cabinet was ideal for the smaller objects, and the talents of cabinet-makers such as Sheraton, Chippendale and Hepplewhite sometimes turned to producing fine pieces of craftsmanship for this purpose, which would stand in the libraries of the grand houses of wealthy people.

The curiosity cabinet was a European invention, and it was especially popular in Germany, where the term “Wunderkammern” or “cabinet of wonders” was coined. A true Wunderkammern was, therefore, a repository of the unusual and strange, and needs to be distinguished from a simple set of drawers for keeping everyday things neat and tidy.

One important aspect of a curiosity cabinet is that it enabled items to be sorted by type, with the drawers labelled appropriately. This was therefore a form of classification. Much as a scholar’s books would be sorted by subject on his shelves, his collection of artefacts would be sorted according to the drawers in his cabinet. The curiosity cabinet was therefore part of a much larger development that connects with the Age of Enlightenment and the advent of scientific method, according to which phenomena were seen in connection with each other as opposed to discrete items that were there solely as the result of divine creation.

Many notable scholars were avid collectors, and kept huge numbers of items in their cabinets. One such was Ulisse Aldrovandi, a 16th century Renaissance man whose cabinets eventually contained more than 18,000 natural history specimens.

King Frederick III of Denmark (reigned 1648-70) was a royal collector whose “Kunstkammer” consisted of cabinets devoted to a wide range of subjects, including stuffed animals, shells, silver, ivory, weapons, models, and much more. This private collection was broken up around 1825 to form the nucleus of several specialist museums.

The link between these private collections of curiosities, kept in cabinets, and publicly accessible museums, with objects on display, is a strong one. Two owners of substantial curiosity cabinet collections were the Englishmen John Tradescant, father and son (c.1575-1638 and 1608-62), who were botanists and inveterate collectors. They welcomed visitors to view their collections and charged a fee for so doing. On the death of the younger John Tradescant the collection passed to Elias Ashmole (1617-92), and he presented it to the University of Oxford, in 1677, as a major resource for scientific study. In 1683 the University made it available to view by the general public as well as students. It thus became the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum, one of the world’s first public museums, which still exists.  

Early museums were places where objects were kept and preserved first, and displayed second. The idea of placing exhibits in glass-fronted display cases, with subdued lighting, temperature and humidity controls, and explanatory labels, is a relatively recent one. Even late in the 20th century you could still find museums, especially smaller ones, where the visitor was expected to open drawers in cabinets to see the exhibits. Their origin as a set of cabinets of curiosities was not hard to divine.

John Welford

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Bonfire Night

One reason why British people have never been quite as keen on Halloween as our American cousins is that we already have a good excuse for a party at this time of the year, namely “Bonfire Night”.

The origins of Bonfire Night

“Remember, remember, the Fifth of November; gunpowder, treason and plot. I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot”. So runs the old rhyme that celebrates the events of November the fifth 1605, when a plot to blow up King James I and his Parliament, by igniting a stash of gunpowder in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament (the present-day Westminster Hall), was foiled.

The actual story of the plot by disenchanted Catholics to assassinate a Protestant King has been investigated very closely over the years, and there are some elements of mystery about it to this day. For example, it has long been debated whether the gunpowder in question would actually have done the job, as it could well have been too old to do more than fizzle gently.

However, it has been the excuse for a party down to the present day. That said, there is some evidence that the event was not greatly celebrated as a national festival until some considerable time after 1605. Despite the passing of a “Thanksgiving Act” in 1606, which required churches to mark the event every year, the popularity of Bonfire Night has probably got more to do with the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, when William of Orange landed at Brixham in Devon, also on November the fifth, as a Protestant who was about to overthrow a Catholic monarch, namely James II.

This was an event that the English people wanted to celebrate, out of conviction rather than duty, as it marked the end of an unpopular reign and fresh hope for the future. The “Revolution” itself had little to mark it out as an event worthy of recall, as there was scarcely any resistance to William as he made his way to London and James fled to France. However, the story of 1605 had much more to commend itself as a popular image, and so that is what became the heart of the annual festival.

How we celebrate

The tradition in England has long involved two elements, namely bonfires and fireworks. November was a good month for lighting bonfires anyway, with lots of material having been cleared out from the fields and woods during the Autumn and which needed to be burned.

The idea of burning an effigy of the unfortunate Guido Fawkes (the sentry who was arrested while guarding the gunpowder) emerged in the 18th century and has continued intermittently to the present day. One tradition that is seen less often these days is that of young children making a “guy” and parading it round the town or village in the days before 5th November, asking for “a penny for the guy”. They would use the money to buy fireworks that would be let off on Bonfire Night. The custom has now been largely superseded by Halloween, which coincides with the time when guys would traditionally have been made and paraded.

Fireworks were made and lit in England to celebrate important events from around the mid-16th century, and would certainly have formed part of the early Bonfire Night celebrations. However, their manufacture would have been quite crude and doubtless there were many accidents. Fireworks have become more sophisticated over the years, with colours, bangs and aerial displays gradually being introduced throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Food has long been associated with Bonfire Night celebrations, with the tradition being to bake apples, potatoes and chestnuts in the embers of a dying bonfire. Modern Bonfire Night parties often incorporate a barbecue to increase the variety of food on offer, as well to allow people to eat before the fire is nearly out! On the drinks side, a hot punch is usually offered, highly spiced and often deceptively alcoholic!
Bonfire Night has, in recent years in the UK, become a more public event. People were formerly inclined to celebrate as a family, building a bonfire in their back garden and buying fireworks from a local shop. However, not so many families have suitable gardens these days, and there are also safety problems associated with lighting fireworks in confined spaces. It has now become common for village and local communities to organise large-scale bonfire parties that are properly organised with safety firmly in mind. These are often fundraising occasions for deserving causes.

Some less familiar customs

There are plenty of local variations on the theme, with Bonfire Night being celebrated in different parts of the country according to regional traditions. For example, in the Devon town of Ottery St Mary the custom is for barrels of tar to be lit and carried through the town.

Perhaps one of the strangest Bonfire Night traditions was that of the students of Bangor University, who, from the 1950s until at least the 1970s (when I was personally involved!), marked an unfortunate error on the part of a hall warden, who mispronounced the Latin grace “Benedicimus” as “Benny Diceymus”, thus instituting a ritual that incorporated a funeral service for “Benny”, whose coffin was then burned on a bonfire. This generally led to a punch-up between the students of Neuadd Reichel (who “owned” Benny) and those of the neighbouring halls of residence, especially if the latters’ bonfire had been hijacked as the funeral pyre!

However it is celebrated, Bonfire Night in Great Britain is seen by most people as an excuse for a good time, for socialising, for giving the children some wonderful “wow” moments, and, these days, for doing something worthwhile for the community. Unfortunately, there are still accidents from time to time, and it is never the favourite night of the country’s Fire Services!

© John Welford

Friday, 14 October 2016

The Battle of Stirling Bridge, 1297

The Battle of Stirling Bridge was fought on 11th September 1297. It was the first of the two major battles fought by an army led by Sir William Wallace, who has gone down in history and legend as “Braveheart”. The 1995 movie starring Mel Gibson presented some of the facts correctly but by no means all, and it is not safe to rely on the Hollywood version as a true account of what really happened.

William Wallace’s revolt

In 1297 William Wallace rose in rebellion against the overlordship of Scotland by King Edward I of England. Edward had taken advantage of a power vacuum in Scotland that had existed ever since the death of King Alexander III in March 1286. Edward had demanded the fealty of all the claimants to the Scottish throne (there were 13 of them) in exchange for his help in sorting out the succession, but had been greatly angered when the Scots made alliance with the King of France. Edward’s response had been to invade Scotland, showing no mercy to the towns and people in his way.

Of those who sought to fight back against the English, William Wallace was certainly the most effective. His origins are obscure, although it would appear that he was from Elderslie (west of Glasgow). However, this is not certain, and he could have been from Ellerslie in Ayrshire, depending on which Wallace family he belonged to. However, either way it is clear that he was not a Highlander as depicted in “Braveheart”. It is also not disputed that he had a relatively modest background, his father being a local landowner at best and not a member of the Scottish nobility.

Wallace was able to draw many followers to his side, based on his unshakeable conviction that he could defeat the English, which nobody else seemed able to do. He also seems to have had a considerable personal presence, being over 6 foot 6 inches in height and strongly built, so that when he told people that he could lead them to victory, they tended to believe him. Where his military know-how came from is a mystery, but he was able to train and discipline an effective fighting force, particularly in the deployment of “schiltrons”, which were formations of tightly-packed soldiers armed with spears which thus resembled giant hedgehogs.

Wallace was not the only general at Stirling Bridge, as he fought alongside Andrew Murray, a nobleman’s son with more conventional credentials as a soldier, whose troops had already captured a number of English-held strongholds further north in Scotland.

King Edward’s response

King Edward was at first dismissive of Wallace and his citizen army, and he dispatched an army, led by two trusted lieutenants, to deal with this minor inconvenience. These were John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, and Hugh de Cressingham. After Edward’s conquest of much of Scotland he had headed south late in 1296 to deal with more pressing matters, leaving Warenne as governor and Cressingham as treasurer, although neither saw any need to actually stay north of the border.

When it became clear that a sizable force was being massed against the English, Warenne and Cressingham led an army northwards, reaching the safety of Stirling Castle on the south side of the River Forth, while the Scottish forces were arrayed on the northern side on top of Abbey Craig, which is a rocky prominence that is now the site of the impressive Wallace Monument. From there, Wallace and Murray had an excellent view of the English manoeuvres.

Manoeuvres prior to the battle

The problem faced by the English was that there was only one bridge across the river, this being a narrow wooden structure that could only take three horses abreast. Warenne therefore first tried diplomacy, liaising with two Scottish noblemen whose loyalty was more with the English but who might be able to strike a deal with Wallace and Murray.

On the morning of 11th September Warenne got off to a bad start by oversleeping. By the time he had got out of bed and had some breakfast he found that some of his troops had already crossed the bridge but then returned on realising that he was not there. When Warenne was ready they crossed a second time, but then the two intended go-betweens turned up and Warenne supposed that they had come back with a deal agreed with the Scots, so the men were recalled once more.

However, Warenne was mistaken, and no deal had been struck. Instead, he sent over a couple of Dominican friars to try to arrange a settlement, but Wallace was in no mood to make peace, sending them back with a message that left Warenne and Cressingham in no doubt that there was no alternative to doing battle.

The English were quietly confident that their forces were superior to those of the Scots. Although the opposing forces were similar in number, the English were far better armed and trained. It should however be made clear that many of the “English” troops were in fact Welsh, having being forced to fight for King Edward after their own country had been conquered. It was, indeed, partly fear of the prospect of ending up fighting Edward’s foreign wars that had convinced the Scots that they must fight back against the invaders and succeed where the Welsh had failed.

Warenne’s confidence in victory was so strong that he ignored advice that there was a safe crossing point a mile or so upriver that the cavalry could use to outflank the Scots. Had he taken this advice, the outcome might have been very different. However, he gave orders to advance across the bridge.

With the bridge being so narrow, it would have taken half the day to get all the army across. As it was, the horsemen could only cross in such small numbers that they would always be vulnerable to a sudden attack. Added to this difficulty was the fact that the land on the northern side of the river was boggy and totally unsuitable for mounting a cavalry charge. Even worse, the river swung about in huge meanders, and the bridge led straight into one of these.

The first horsemen to cross were led by Cressingham, who was a very fat man, not built for speed, and who was recognisable at a considerable distance. He soon realised that any plans for deploying the cavalry would have to be revised. This would only be possible if they advanced on to drier land, which was only reachable via a narrow bottleneck between two sweeps of the river. There was no way back, because of the press of troops still coming across the bridge.

Battle is joined

Wallace and Murray advanced when they saw that about half the English army was now trapped between the bottleneck and the bridge, surrounded by a deep and wide river.

The result was butchery. The horses panicked and threw their riders, and other horsemen were pulled down and despatched. These included Cressingham himself, whose body was later skinned, the skin being used to make a sword belt for William Wallace. Some of the English troops tried to swim the river but many drowned in the attempt.

Warenne did not cross the bridge but made good his escape together with that part of the army that been lucky enough not to be involved in the slaughter. In all, some 100 English mounted knights and 1000 foot soldiers were killed, with very few Scottish casualties. It was an overwhelming victory. However, although William Wallace survived unscathed, and was knighted for his efforts, Andrew Murray did not. Although it is not clear exactly what happened to him, it would seem that he died of his wounds within a few weeks of the battle.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge had several consequences. One was that it angered King Edward to such an extent that he was determined to have his revenge on Wallace, which he eventually did. Another was that the Scots were given a new self-belief that convinced them that they could resist the English and regain their independence. Although Edward was able to reverse this defeat by victory at Falkirk the following year, he then lost interest in what he now knew would be a difficult cause to win. The defeat of King Edward II at Bannockburn in 1314 was made possible by the spirit engendered in the Scots at Stirling Bridge in 1297.

John Welford

The Battle of Crecy,1346

The Battle of Crecy was fought on 26th August 1346, when King Edward III of England, with an army of 11,000 men, took on the might of France. The size of the French army is variously estimated at anything from 35,000 to 60,000.

The Battle of Crecy

The result was an overwhelming victory for the English side. One reason for this was that the English fought as a unified force under central command, whereas the knights who lined up on the French side had different motives in mind. Their basic plan was to capture as many English noblemen as possible and hold them for ransom. Patriotism took second place to pure greed!

Crossbows versus longbows

Another major difference between the assembled forces was that the English relied on their longbowmen, who numbered about 7,000, whereas the French bowmen, although greater in number at around 8,000, were armed with crossbows.

The medieval crossbow was a formidable weapon in that a crossbow bolt could pierce anything that it hit. However, it needed both hands to pull the cord back to its locking point before the bolt was loaded. The fastest rate of fire was no more than two shots per minute.

The English longbow, despite needing a strong arm to pull the string back, could be fired much more rapidly. A trained and experienced bowman could send five or more shots per minute. This immediately meant that 7,000 longbows were superior to 8,000 crossbows.

The course of the battle

The French opened proceedings by sending their crossbowmen (who were mostly Genoese mercenaries) forward to get within range of the English. However, they were immediately met by a hail of English arrows which reduced their numbers considerably.

The French mounted knights were impatient to get to work on their English counterparts, so they charged forward, riding over the crossbowmen on their way. They were in turn met by a hail of arrows and those who were unhorsed were despatched by English foot soldiers armed with swords and maces.

As each wave of knights charged forward, fresh fusillades of arrows rained down on them. Any knight who got close to the English lines found that progress was impeded by sharpened stakes that the bowmen had thrust into the ground as protection.

It has been estimated that about half a million arrows were fired by the English during the battle.

The aftermath

The French defeat was total. They lost 15,000 French and Genoese soldiers, with a further 1,500 French knights killed or captured. English losses were no more than 100.

One lasting outcome of the battle came from the capture of the crest of King John of Bohemia, who, despite being blind, had fought bravely before being killed. The crest, consisting of three ostrich feathers and the motto “Ich dien” (I serve), was presented to King Edward’s son, Edward the Black Prince. He adopted the crest and motto as his own, and the Princes of Wales have used it ever since.

Crecy was one of the earliest engagements of the long drawn-out series of hostilities that was later given the title of the Hundred Years’ War (which was always an approximation). Despite the crushing nature of the victory it settled very little, given that the War was to last for another 107 years.

© John Welford

The background to Magna Carta

The background to the Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215, lay in England having been poorly governed for many years, going back to the reign of John’s father, King Henry II.

Kings and barons

Henry’s great-grandfather, William the Conqueror, had brought an entirely new ruling class to England in the shape of aristocratic knights who had been well rewarded for their efforts by being given huge swathes of land from which they could extract vast fortunes. They were the ancestors of the barons who forced John’s hand at Runnymede.

However, although the barons were happy to live the good life in their English castles and sit almost at the top of the pyramid that became known as the feudal system, the person to whom they owed allegiance, namely the king, was a remote figure whose influence came to be seen as oppressive.

The Norman kings ruled over an empire that stretched well beyond the shores of England. By marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry Plantagenet became the ruler of lands that stretched from the Pyrenees to the north of France, to which England was added with the death of King Stephen in 1154 when Henry was only 21 years old. He therefore had divided loyalties.

One of Henry’s first problems was to exercise control over the barons, who had become virtual kings in their own fiefdoms during Stephen’s chaotic reign. Over a thousand castles had been erected illegally, and Henry ordered the destruction of many of them, which did not endear him to their owners.

Henry spent much of his reign outside England, leaving the day-to-day governing to his able chancellor, Thomas Becket. Indeed, it was when he was at his court in Normandy that he made the intemperate remark that led to the death of Becket, then Archbishop of Canterbury. After that, Henry was never as powerful again, being weakened in the sight of the Church, the people, and the barons.

This unpopularity was made worse when Henry, in an effort to mend fences with Rome, supported the Crusade to rescue Jerusalem from the Muslim forces that had occupied it and prevented Christians from accessing the “holy places”. In order to finance the venture, a ten per cent tax was levied in England, and taxes are always least popular with the people who have most to pay, in this case the rich landowning barons.

More problems under King Richard

Henry’s son Richard was even more of an absentee than his father, making only two visits to England during his entire reign from 1189 to 1199. The Crusades occupied his whole attention, and it was the barons of England who were expected to pay for them. As well as the taxes, Richard sold public offices and even pieces of territory (to the Scots) to raise money.

When Richard was captured and held for a “king’s ransom”, the situation became even worse, with a tax of 25 per cent being levied, as well as the silver crosses from churches and cathedrals being melted down. It was no wonder that the country was virtually bankrupt when Richard eventually returned home for a brief visit before leaving again, never to return.

Richard’s brother John had been looking after England for virtually the whole of Richard’s reign, and had therefore been at the forefront of the tax-gathering operations. However, it was hardly in John’s interest for Richard to make a speedy return, and it is almost certain that much of the raised money did not go towards the ransom payment.

How much was King John to blame?

Given all the circumstances, it is somewhat unfair to see John as the wicked brother in contrast to the nobility of good King Richard, as portrayed in the Robin Hood legends. Had it not been for the fecklessness of Richard, sparked originally by the unwise actions of their father, the country would not have been in the dire straits that it was when John became king, although it is certainly the case that John was in large part responsible for the rebellion that came about.

John certainly had none of the military skills of his brother, and he became known as “John Lackland” when various parts of the Angevin Empire fell away during his reign.

However, by alienating the Church he gave himself a powerful enemy, to whom the vast majority of the nobles and people were loyal. In order to raise money, John seized Church lands, and the Pope’s response was to excommunicate John and close all the churches for five years. This meant that no weddings, baptisms or funerals could take place, so many children would have been born as bastards and could not, in the people’s eyes, go to Heaven if they died young, being unbaptised and buried in unconsecrated ground.

In desperation, John acted with no sense of respect for property or person by imprisoning people at will, many of whom starved to death, and taking their property.

Another contributory factor to Magna Carta was rampant inflation, caused by coin-clipping, whereby the weight of the gold in the coins was less than it should be, thus devaluing the currency. Many of the clauses in Magna Carta had to do with economic and commercial matters.

Well, quite a lot actually!

In short, the background to Magna Carta was that John had been dealt a bad hand, and he did not have the skills to rescue the situation. Everything he tried only made things worse, although he was also visited by bad luck, such as when the crown jewels were accidentally lost in transit when the carts carrying them fell into quicksand.  

As an absolute monarch, the recourse to oppression was clearly a great temptation, and that was the course John chose. However, the moral high ground was clearly forfeited by his actions, although it should also be remembered that the barons who opposed him were concerned largely with their own private interests rather than the wellbeing of mankind in general.

The presentation of Magna Carta to King John for his signature was the action of the most powerful people in the land, namely the barons, imposing their will on someone who had less power, namely the king. During the reign of John’s son and successor, Henry III, the process was to move another step down the same path, with the nobles making their voice heard when they established the country’s first Parliament.

© John Welford

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Apartheid in South Africa

The year 1950 marked a step backwards in the path to global racial equality. On 27th April the government of South Africa passed the Group Areas Act into law, thus institutionalising the policy of Apartheid that was advocated by the National Party that had formed the government since 1948.

What is meant by Apartheid?

Apartheid is an Afrikaans word that can be translated as “separate-hood”, by which was meant that the different races that constituted the population of South Africa would be forced to integrate as little as possible. The whites who ran the National Party preferred the term “separate development”, but there was little intention that any race other than the white one would do much developing.

Instituting Apartheid

Under the direction of Prime Minister Daniel Malan, the three racial groups of Whites, Blacks and Coloureds (meaning people of mixed race) would be forced to live in separate areas, with neighbourhoods reserved for each racial group. As might be imagined, this soon meant that the rich whites would have the best houses and facilities, with the blacks and coloureds consigned to sub-standard housing on the margins of the cities.

A second act, the Separate Amenities Act, was passed in 1953 to make the division even more pronounced. This required all sorts of services to be reserved for the sole use of whites, including shops, transport, beaches, and even park benches. Again, the minority white population was always accorded the best facilities with the majority blacks always being made aware of their inferior status.

Another Act, the 1956 Separate Representation of Voters Act, virtually disenfranchised all non-whites and ensured that their only purpose in society was to work as servants of white people and as the manual workforce in the farms and factories owned by their white masters.

The struggle for freedom

The opposition to Apartheid took a long time to bear fruit in South Africa. The protest movements of black activists were met with savage repression, most notably at Sharpeville on 21st March 1960 when 69 people, including women and children, were killed by armed police officers.
Underground opposition movements were founded, including the African National Congress and the Black Consciousness Movement, but activists were regularly arrested and imprisoned. However, prisoners such as Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo made plans for how they would eventually defeat Apartheid and form a government that had room for all the racial groups in South Africa.

Support for the cause grew rapidly during the 1960s and 70s in western countries, with the National Party coming under increasing scrutiny and various sanctions being imposed on South Africa.

Particularly noteworthy were bans on South African sports teams from international competition unless they were racially integrated. The country was not allowed to compete at the Olympic Games from 1964 to 1988, for example, but some international sporting bodies were ambivalent and more accepting of South African participation during the Apartheid era.

One event that drew close attention to Apartheid in sport was the “D’Oliveira affair” of 1968. Basil D’Oliveira (1931-2011) was a mixed-race cricketer who was born in South Africa but emigrated to the United Kingdom and became a British citizen in 1964. He was selected to play for the England tour to South Africa in 1968-9 despite it being made known by the South Africans (led by Prime Minister John Vorster) that he would not be welcome. The affair escalated into a worldwide boycott of South African cricket that lasted until 1991.

The end of Apartheid

Worldwide pressure, coupled with largely peaceful internal demonstrations, eventually persuaded white South Africans that Apartheid could not be maintained and that majority rule would have to be conceded.

Credit for the peaceful transfer of power is due to two men in particular, namely President F W de Klerk and the leader of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela. De Klerk realised that Apartheid was a thing of the past, and that it could not be justified morally or in any other way.

The move that caught the world’s attention as marking the beginning of the end of Apartheid was the release from prison in 1990 of Nelson Mandela after 27 years in captivity. He was immediately recognised as the leader of the black community and he was clearly the person most suited to conduct the negotiations that culminated in the 1994 election of a new government. More than 20 million black South Africans cast their votes, which swept Mandela into power as the country’s first black President.

The stain of Apartheid has therefore been lifted from South Africa which, although it still has many problems to solve, has now been restored to the world community of nations.

© John Welford