Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Pilgrimage of Grace, 1536

It may sound like a peaceful procession of holy people, but the event of 1536 that became known as the “Pilgrimage of Grace” was more like a revolution than a pilgrimage, and the consequences for its participants were far from peaceful, with many of them ending up swinging from gibbets.

A reaction to the Dissolution of the Monasteries

The “Pilgrimage” was a direct response to the process instituted in 1535 that is generally referred to as the “Dissolution of the Monasteries”. As part of the English reformation of the Church, which began when King Henry VIII reacted to the Pope’s refusal to allow him to divorce Queen Katherine by assuming the headship of the Church in England, orders were given for all the religious houses to be closed down and for all their lands and property to be forfeited.

The King’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, set about the task with enthusiasm as he stripped some 800 monasteries and nunneries of their treasures and, in the process, dismantled the country’s main source of education, employment and social welfare. It was undoubtedly true that many of the 7,000 monks, friars and nuns had become corrupt and venal – the situation had not improved in the century and a half since Geoffrey Chaucer had pointed this out in his Canterbury Tales – but the monasteries exerted such influence on local communities that their sudden removal was bound to have a devastating effect on the villages and towns round about.

Nearly a revolution

However, the Dissolution did not take place without protest. In October 1536 people across the north of England rose in revolt, with 40,000 rallying behind banners and marching to the aid of the monasteries. They succeeded in reinstating the monks and nuns in sixteen of the institutions that had already been suppressed and the “Pilgrimage” soon emerged as a major challenge to the authority of King Henry.

The central demand of the Pilgrims was that the reformation of the church should be reversed, including suppression of the Bible translation by William Tyndale and reinstatement of the traditional practices of the Catholic Church. They also demanded that Queen Katherine’s Catholic daughter, Princess Mary, should regain her legitimacy and thus her place as the heir to Henry’s throne. Their basic conviction was that King Henry had been pushed into taking actions that went beyond his beliefs and he had therefore been betrayed by arch-reformers such as Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

They actually had a point, because Henry’s personal beliefs were not far removed from those of his Catholic parents or first wife, Katherine of Aragon. He never ceased to believe, for example, in the doctrine of transubstantiation that held that the wine and bread of the mass were literally changed into the blood and flesh of Jesus Christ. This was a fundamental point of divergence from Luther and the other Protestant reformers.

Reaction to the Pilgrimage

However, even though King Henry might have had some sympathy with the religious views of the Pilgrims his greater need was to seize control of the wealth of the monasteries, and he could not allow anything to stand in the way of Cromwell’s progress towards full dissolution. The Pilgrimage had to be suppressed.

Although he appeared at first to be conciliatory towards the Pilgrims, for example by inviting their leader, Robert Aske, to London to present his grievances, he soon changed his tactics in favour of outright suppression. Orders were given to his army general, the Duke of Norfolk, to “cause dreadful execution” upon any town or village that had offended him by taking part in the Pilgrimage.

The Duke took his instructions seriously and was ruthless in his actions. At one monastery where the monks had been reinstated, the inmates were hanged on poles projecting from the steeple, and other protestors were hanged on trees in their gardens while their families watched. Robert Aske was hanged in public.

As so often, money talked. The sale of monastic land raised vast amounts of money, and the landed classes who bought the land from the king did very well from their enlarged estates. Many of the great aristocratic families of later centuries (down to the present day) owed their wealth and status to the bargains that they picked up as a result of Thomas Cromwell’s despoliations and the suppression of the Pilgrimage of Grace.

© John Welford

Thursday, 14 April 2016

The end of the Hundred Years War, 1453

The conflict between England and France that is generally called the Hundred Years War finally came to an end on 17th July 1453 when France defeated England at the Battle of Castillon.

There are two main misconceptions about the war, one of which is that it lasted for a hundred years. If it is reckoned to have begun when King Edward III laid claim to the throne of France in 1337, then the actual length was 116 years.

The other problem is that the term ‘Hundred Years War’ was an invention of later historians – it was not the case that Edward III declared war on France in 1337 and Henry VI signed a peace treaty in 1453. What actually happened was that invasions were made and battles were fought at various times, but there were also long periods during which there were no hostilities at all.

The War was notable for the battles of Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415) and the resistance offered by Joan of Arc (burned at the stake in 1431). Another important development was that of the English longbow which proved to be the dominant weapon of the time, especially during the early battles.

However, by the end of the war all the gains made by England had been lost, with Calais left as England’s sole possession in mainland France.

Unfortunately for England, the end of hostilities did not usher in a period of prolonged peace. England was already involved in a series of internal dynastic conflicts that were also given a later title, namely ‘The Wars of the Roses’.  Indeed, the struggle between Henry VI and his distant cousin Edward, who was to rule as Edward IV, was about to enter a violent phase.

Just to confuse matters even further, in 1475 Edward IV revived the old claim to France and launched another invasion, only withdrawing when he was bought off by the French king. So did the Hundred Years War really last even longer than 116 years?

© John Welford

Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Hawes Junction rail crash, 1910

The Settle and Carlisle railway is one of the most dramatic and scenic rail routes in the United Kingdom, as it proceeds from south to north along the spine of northern England, namely the Pennine Hills. The Victorian builders of the line had many difficulties to overcome in keeping the route as level as possible, with long tunnels and high viaducts, but the gradients that trains must tackle are still considerable.

Hawes Junction no longer exists, because the line from Northallerton via Hawes that joined the Settle and Carlisle near Garsdale Station was closed many years ago. However, the Settle and Carlisle still operates, and the scene of the Hawes Junction disaster can still be traced.

This is the highest point of the line, and during the days of steam traction was therefore the point at which banker engines which had assisted trains up to this height from either direction could be released from duty. The normal practice was to turn the locomotives round on a turntable and send them back the way they had come, either towards Carlisle to the north or Leeds to the south.

The disaster unfolds

On the night of 24th December 1910 there were five light locos waiting to be turned, the operations being overseen by Signalman Sutton from his nearby box. The weather that night was awful, with wind and rain lashing the signal-box and making visibility difficult. Two of the engines needed to head north and the other three south. All the movements were witnessed by George Tempest, the driver of one of the locos that was waiting to be turned in order to head back to Leeds.

As Driver Tempest waited he saw the two Carlisle-bound engines, coupled together, move out on to the main line and wait at the signal. By the time that the other Leeds engines had been turned and departed, and Tempest’s own engine had been turned, at least ten more minutes had passed, but the Carlisle engines were still waiting.

When the signal eventually moved to “go” the two engines whistled and started off, but Driver Tempest noticed that the signal did not return to danger. Instead, a few moments later, the night express from London to Glasgow swept through at speed. Tempest knew that this spelled trouble and he went straight to the signal-box to ask Signalman Sutton what was going on.

Sutton was convinced that he had sent the two Carlisle engines much earlier, but Tempest was able to confirm that they had only just gone, with an express train hard on their heels. Despite the terrible weather the two men could see an ominous red glow in the sky in the direction that the engines and the express had gone.

The two engines were not going at any great speed as they passed through Moorcock Tunnel, only a short distance down the line, and on to the Lunds Viaduct. Driver Bath was on the second engine and happened to glance behind him when he saw to his horror the lights of the express emerging from the tunnel. He blew his whistle to alert the other driver and both opened their regulators to increase their speed, but there was no way of avoiding a collision with the express going forty miles an hour faster than they were.

The locomotives remained fairly intact, but the passenger carriages were piled against the side of a cutting and caught fire when their pressurised gas canisters exploded. Driver Bath, despite a badly injured leg, struggled down the line for more than a mile to fetch help, which he got from another driver on a light engine which took him back to the wreck. They did their best to rescue people from the carriages but there were nine fatalities.

Who was to blame?

There was no doubt where the main blame lay, namely with Signalman Sutton who had forgotten about the presence of the light engines that were waiting at the signal, which Sutton cleared only because he was allowing the express through. However, Drivers Scott and Bath were also at fault because they should have followed Rule 55, which requires drivers who are held at a signal for an unexpected length of time to inform the signalman of their presence. According to the inspector who carried out the accident enquiry, the light locos must have been waiting for at least thirteen minutes. It could be that the awful weather made the drivers reluctant to leave their cabs while they hoped that the signal would change “any moment now”.

This was an accident made worse by the use of gas lighting in old rolling stock. Some of the carriages on the express were lit with electricity, and had that been the case throughout the train it is possible that fewer passengers would have died.

Another innovation that would have saved the day was electrical track circuiting which tells signalmen which sections of track are occupied and which are not, thus ensuring that two trains cannot be in a section at the same time. The technology existed in 1910, but it would be some time yet before it was available across the network.

© John Welford

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Chartism in 19th century Britain

Chartism was a working-class protest movement that was active in Great Britain during the 1830s and 1840s, with varying degrees of intensity. Its focus was on political reform as a way of addressing economic grievances, its premise being that with a fairer political system the victims of rampant capitalism would be able to escape their grinding poverty.

The name given to the movement came from the instrument with which they hoped to make the change, namely the “People’s Charter” to which millions of signatures would be affixed as a petition to Parliament. The petition was presented on three occasions, in 1839, 1842 and 1848, but without success. The House of Commons saw no need to accept it, and did not do so.

The People’s Charter

The Charter contained six demands, which were seen as the necessary elements of a Magna Carta for modern times. These were:

  1. Universal manhood suffrage. The Chartists had originally considered including “votes for women”, but this demand was soon dropped.
  2. No property qualifications for voting. The 1832 Reform Act, which had given the vote to many more people than formerly, still required voters to own property worth at least ten pounds, which was a considerable sum at the time and effectively disenfranchised the urban and rural working class.
  3. Annual Parliaments. The Chartists believed that Parliament would only be representative if it had to be re-elected every year and thus reflect the political mood of the moment.
  4. Members of Parliament to be paid. At the time there was no salary for being an MP, which meant that only men with private wealth could afford to be elected.
  5. Secret ballots. Elections were carried out by voters declaring their choice to a clerk who then wrote it down. Anyone within earshot would thus know how someone had voted and could pass this on, meaning that, for example, an employer could influence how his employees cast their votes.
  6. Equal electoral districts. Even after the 1832 Act had swept away the “rotten boroughs”, where there were hardly any voters, the big cities were still grossly under-represented.

It is notable that, despite the failure of the People’s Charter, all but one of its six clauses were subsequently incorporated into law at later times, the exception being the unworkable demand for annual parliaments.

The causes of Chartism

Chartism grew out of the desperate conditions suffered by the workers in the big industrial cities, many of whom had moved to escape rural poverty only to find things to be far worse when they worked in the vast, dangerous and unhealthy factories created by middle-class industrialists whose only concern was how much money they could make. Wages were therefore as low as they could be pushed, even when food prices rose and workers and their families faced starvation.

One reason why Chartism concentrated on political reform was that it was the actions of Parliament that were blamed for making the condition of the people far worse.

The Poor Law of 1834 had, in effect, blocked a route for destitute people to gain relief from parish funds, by declaring that help would only be available to those who were prepared to enter workhouses which were deliberately made as terrible as possible to dissuade people from taking this course.

Another factor was the price of food, kept high by the Corn Laws that regulated the price of corn (by preventing the import of cheaper grain), so as to benefit wealthy farmers. The campaign to repeal the Corn Laws was generally a middle-class one, and many working-class leaders feared that, were food prices to fall as a result of their repeal, the factory owners would only see this as an excuse to cut wages even further.

The nature of Chartism

The early Chartist movement, despite its focus on the People’s Charter, was not a unified, centrally-organised campaign. People in different regions used the Chartist banner as a cover for their own protests, and they pursued their aims in different ways.

There was therefore an early split between those who sought to win via purely peaceful means and those who were not afraid to use force, and violence if necessary. This split is typified as being between “moral force” and “physical force” Chartists. The moral force Chartists were active in producing huge numbers of tracts and newspaper articles to back their case, as well as gathering signatures on the petition. However, others were prepared to arm themselves and confront the forces of law and order.

The early years of Chartism

In November 1839, following the rejection of the first petition to Parliament, thousands of Chartists marched on Newport and Ebbw Vale in South Wales, ending with a battle in Newport which resulted in at least 15 deaths. The Chartists’ leader, John Frost, was sentenced to be hanged but this was later commuted to transportation to Australia. The government had no wish to create martyrs.

However, the spectre of armed insurrection was a potent one, and the Government was determined not to give way to what it now regarded as a dangerous threat to public order and national security.

A new leader

By 1842 the Chartists had an effective leader in Feargus O’Connor, an Irishman who managed to gain a seat in Parliament (for Oldham) and who also founded a newspaper (the “Northern Star”) with the aim of promoting the Chartist cause. He was able to bring the disparate local groups of Chartists together into something resembling a national campaign, and also to restrain those who sought a more violent solution, with the result that more than three million names were gathered for the 1842 petition, although it fared no better than that of 1839.

Economic conditions improved during the 1840s, helped by a series of good harvests, and the fire went out of Chartist agitation for a time. However, things started to go downhill in 1847 and Chartism revived.

The final fling

1848 was a remarkable year in Europe, with revolutions and insurrections affecting many countries, including France where a new republic was established in February. In Britain, the revolution took the form of another monster Chartist petition, reputed to contain more than five million signatures.

O’Connor was determined to achieve maximum impact for this latest campaign and organised a day of protest to be held on 10th April in London. Chartists from all over the country would gather at four rallying points north of the Thames. They would then cross the river to Kennington Common and from there the petition would be taken to Westminster in a massive cart drawn by four dray horses.

The Government’s response was to prepare for the worst. With governments falling across Europe, they were not going to take any chances, entrusting the defence of London to the elderly Duke of Wellington, the hero of Waterloo. The steps that were taken included the recruitment of 85,000 special constables and the mounting of guns and cannon at strategic locations.

As it turned out, the precautions were not needed. Many of the Chartists regarded the whole demonstration as a fun day out, wearing coloured ribbons and adopting a cheerful, celebratory mood. They had no intention of causing any trouble. At Kennington Common, O’Connor addressed the crowd, some of whom carried banners reading “No Surrender” and other inflammatory slogans, with a message that advised against confronting the authorities. He could see that there was no point in advising differently, because the Chartists, very few of whom were armed, could never win any sort of confrontation. In any case, most of them were not the sort of people who would have wanted to turn violent.

As might have been expected, there were a few in the crowd who did not follow the advice and threw stones at the police, but injuries were few as were the arrests. This was in stark contrast to what would happen a few weeks later in Paris when thousands of working-class protesters would be gunned down by government forces.

As for the People’s Charter, it was laughed out of the House of Commons as its predecessors had been. Stories soon went around that many of the signatures were false, including many in the same handwriting and for “impossible” names including that of Queen Victoria. However, there is no way of knowing if those claims were justified or not. In the event, it did not matter either way.

That was the end of Chartism as a movement, although it had spawned the idea that working-class people from industrial cities could organise themselves in ways that could eventually produce results. Many ex-Chartists went on to become trade unionists or to be active in the co-operative movement, and to sow the seeds for what would eventually become the Labour Party. If Chartism was a revolutionary movement, the revolution was a notably British one, in which change happens slowly and the body count is low.

© John Welford

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

The Grantham rail crash, 1906

The fatal rail crash that occurred at Grantham on 19th September 1906 must count as the “Mary Celeste” of British rail accidents by virtue of the fact that the cause seems to be inexplicable. What happened is clear enough, but why it did is another matter altogether.

The train that was involved in the crash left London King’s Cross at 8.45pm bound for Edinburgh with scheduled stops that included Peterborough and Grantham. It was a passenger service with sleeping cars, and it was also a mail train. The stop at Peterborough was to change engines and that at Grantham was to pick up mails that would be sorted on board for delivery the next day.

The crew that took on the train at Peterborough comprised Driver Fleetwood and Fireman Talbot. Driver Fleetwood, who had 18 years’ experience, was based at Doncaster and knew the route thoroughly. Colleagues who saw them at Peterborough later testified that both men were in good health and spirits and had certainly not been drinking.

At Grantham the signals were set appropriately for the train to stop, and the points north of the station were set for a goods train to cross the main line to proceed towards Leicester on the Nottingham line. Everything was just as it should be.

Three Post Office employees were waiting on the platform to load the mail bags on to the train that was due at 11.00pm. They were accompanied by the night station inspector. One of the postmen spotted the lights of the approaching train and alerted his colleagues to get ready. However, the train in question was clearly going too fast to stop and at first the postmen assumed that they had been mistaken and that this was a different train that was running through. However, they then saw that their mail van was on the train that was rushing past them.

The men on the platform looked on helplessly as the train disappeared and then seemed to explode in a fireball as it left the rails. They all ran up the line to see what they could do to help.

The train had been switched off the main line by the points that had been set for the Leicester goods train, but it was going too fast to stay upright on the following curve. The locomotive ended up slewed across the track with the front three vehicles piled against it. Six carriages and the tender fell down an embankment and only the last three carriages were left upright on the rails. Fire broke out in the crashed carriages on the track and also in those that were now at the foot of the embankment. As well as the driver and fireman, six passengers and a postal sorter were killed.

Why might it have happened?

All sorts of theories were advanced as to why Driver Fleetwood had not stopped his train at Grantham, but none of them seemed to fit the facts. One such fact was the evidence of the signalman at the Grantham South box who had noticed the driver and fireman standing on either side of the cab looking forward at the line ahead. This did not accord with theories of drunkenness, a fight on the footplate or a sudden illness.

Could Driver Fleetwood simply have forgotten that he had to stop, or had he mistaken where he was on the route? This also seems incredible, given that both men knew the road inside out, and they had also worked exactly the same routine the previous night.

As mentioned above, this looks like a mystery that will never be solved.

© John Welford