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