Thursday, 10 August 2017

Cheshire’s Only Island

Did anyone see a lovely little piece on Springwatch earlier this year where documentary cameraman James Bayliss-Smith took off to Hilbre Island as a homage to his grandfather who took many bird photographs there, especially of wading birds stopping off on their way to their breeding grounds?  It got me wondering what we might hold here in the Archives relating to “Cheshire’s only Island”.  A quick search of the catalogue ( actually reveals 155 items listed under “Hilbre”.

If you don’t know of Hilbre, it (and its two smaller companions Middle Eye – sometimes, confusingly, Little Hilbre - and Little Eye) is “an archipelago consisting of three islands at the mouth of the estuary of the River Dee, the border between England and Wales at this point.  The islands are administratively part of the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral." At low tide the islands can be reached on foot from West Kirby. An image from the Ordnance Survey 1st Edition 25 inch (Sheet XII-6) from 1871 shows Hilbre Island Telegraph Station and the ‘Submarine telegraph’ line to the mainland
1871 OS map

One of the earliest documents we hold that mentions Hilbre is  a copy (but an early one) of a seventeenth century Indenture (ref: EDD 13/5/1) 
EDD 13/5/1
There are also many Local Studies items.  These include a large range of articles in Cheshire Life, a full run of which is housed on open access in the searchroom.  Many of these are by Norman Ellison, who wrote A Naturalist’s Notebook in the magazine and was clearly a huge fan of Hilbre.  One of his pieces from Cheshire Life in April 1970 is an interesting article entitled “Storm over Hilbre” with an excellent and rather emotive image included.  Another book that interested me when I found it is Atgofion Ynyswr (roughly “Memoirs of an Islander”) by Lewis Jones, Hilbre gynt (formerly of Hilbre) published in Liverpool in Welsh, although there are some specific related pieces included in English (ref: 228560).  Mr Jones was the Telegraph Station Keeper on Hilbre (at the location on the map above) from 1888 until his retirement (back to Wales hence, I’m guessing, the language of the book) in 1923.  The book looks absolutely fascinating, but is rather lost on me due to its language of publication.  Thankfully I can see online that a Hugh Begley undertook a translation in 2003, although this has not, unfortunately, been published.  It is, however, available to consult at West Kirby Library.
Things then took a slightly unexpected turn when I found a fantastic book called Hilbre, The Cheshire Island: its history and natural history (ref: 016561) published in 1982.  This lovely 306pp volume is notable for a number of reasons.  Firstly, its cover and several internal illustrations were undertaken by a Guernsey born prize winning artist, Laurel Tucker who won many prizes and huge acclaim for her work, particularly with regard to her bird illustrations.  Very sadly she died in 1986, aged only 35.

In the same book, I then spotted a 17 page chapter entitled “A year on hilbre” which is written by an Ann Cleeves about her and her husband Tim’s first year on Hilbre (1977-78) where he was employed as the resident Warden.  In the list of Contributors printed on the dust jacket it states: “A. CLEEVES, wife of the Warden lived on Hilbre from 1977 to 1981, and holds a Certificate of Qualification in Social Work, University of Liverpool.”  This raised my eyebrows a little, and some judicious googling later revealed that this was indeed the well-known crime writer, best known for her Vera Stanhope and Shetland Island series of titles.  In several interviews Ann has alluded to this period, and indeed on her own biography she writes “Soon after they married, Tim was appointed as warden of Hilbre, a tiny tidal island nature reserve in the Dee Estuary. They were the only residents, there was no mains electricity or water and access to the mainland was at low tide across the shore. If a person's not heavily into birds - and Ann isn't - there's not much to do on Hilbre and that was when she started writing.”  However, to the best of my knowledge, Ann has not actively publicised this early work before.  As this actually appears to be her very first published work, it remains to be seen whether this now leads to a rush of collectors suddenly vying for what must be a somewhat limited number of copies.  Time will tell!

As always there appears to be something for everyone here at Cheshire Archives – from seventeenth century Indentures to the first tentative steps towards literary stardom.  All that is left (apart from the other 150-odd related items on the catalogue) is to actually visit the Islands themselves, something that a combination of the tide and the weather forecast has so far combined to stop me undertaking .  I shall have to remedy that.  Which brings me to my final, and very important, point to note if you are going to visit Hilbre – you really do need to plan your visit very carefully around the tide timetables.  An excellent guide with very precise instructions on when you can and cannot go, and on what route to take across the sands, can be found here The tide timetables themselves can be found in many places including on the BBC website

(Addendum:  Since I wrote this, I’ve been doing some work on the population of Hilbre at census time which shows some fascinating glimpses into the history of the island in the second half of the nineteenth and first years of the twentieth centuries.  At times, it was home to a surprising number of people.  You’ll have to await a future blog to read about this in full.)

Friday, 16 June 2017

Protecting Cityscapes

This year we celebrate 50 years of the Civic Amenities Act 1967, and what it means for our historic places across England, Wales and Scotland. President of The Civic Trust and MP, Lord Duncan Sandys helped to bring this legislation into being. The Act was passed in 1967 but a number of events leading up to it pushed conservation to the forefront.

After the war there was a need to rebuild war damaged areas across the country. Chester had been largely unaffected by the architectural damages of war but was in need of an overhaul to rectify some of its problems. A Plan for Redevelopment was written up by Charles Greenwood in 1945. It focused on controlling the city centre traffic and dealing with old housing with undesirable living conditions. About 2500 houses over 100 years old were condemned.
Chester, Francis Street. Image Courtesy of Chester History & Heritage. Image Bank ch5860

Many recommendations in the report were used as the basis for future changes, but lack of funding meant that redevelopment was slow and ineffective in reaching the goals over the short term. But it was the beginning.

In the 1950-60s there was concern that the historical face of Chester was being slowly obliterated which sparked the creation of Chester Civic Trust in January 1960. After their formation, the Chester Civic Trust immediately had to step in regarding The Blue Bell. The Blue Bell in Northgate Street was in danger of being demolished, but the Chester Civic Trust put forward their case that it should be kept and restored. The council agreed to keep the building and to fund the restoration project themselves. This was one of the first major wins for the Trust.
Northgate Street, Chester : neglected and in danger of demolition (LHS)
Northgate Street, Chester : Restored and repaired with the adjoining Blue Bell. (RHS)
Taken from the Insall Collection at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies.
In 1964 a Central Area Plan was developed for the city by Grenfell Baines. The plan focused on traffic flow- using one-way streets to discourage traffic in inner city areas. It also suggested the pedestrianisation of Town Hall Square (which was undertaken) and St Werburgh Street.
Around this time, lots of new development projects were being proposed. This included small and larger tower blocks. Chester Civic Trust tried to fight to stop these going ahead. Those approved with only minor consideration for the views of the public included Commerce House (now demolished to make way for Storyhouse); The Police Headquarters (now demolished to make way for the ABode hotel and Chester West and Chester council HQ) and the replacement for Clemences restaurant on Northgate Street.
Chester Civic Trust did however make some headway and advised the council not to demolish a number of historically important houses on Queen Street and to acquire and renovate the Nine houses on Park Street, which still stand today. The idea of preserving and conserving buildings had been brought to the forefront of people’s minds.
Chester: Park Street View of the Nine Houses. Image Bank c10324 
1967 brought the Civic Amenities Act. The Act required local authorities to start to recognise groups of buildings with historical value and designate them as conservation areas. Most of the centre of the city was designated. Previously, historical buildings were at risk of becoming derelict and demolished with little money or support to stop this. The aim of the Act was to conserve groups of buildings which made a town, city or village unique and ensure their value was not overshadowed by new developments.

In the new conservation areas, additions to properties such as extensions were regulated and trees within the areas were occasionally granted historical importance and not allowed to be felled. Also, any “proposed developments must preserve or enhance the special architectural or historic character of the conservation area. This does not specifically exclude innovative proposals but they must be sympathetic to their context.”
Out of this Act came four Historic Town Reports (one each for Bath, Chester, Chichester and York). Chester commissioned their Historic Town Report to be undertaken by Donald Insall Associates entitled ‘Chester, A study in Conservation’.

  Cover of Donald Insall’s report “Chester: A Study in Conservation.” Taken from the Insall Collection at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies.

Sir Donald Insall and his team identified key streets and areas in need of conservation efforts. Photographs were taken, voice recordings of initial impressions made and rough conservation costs drawn up of properties at risk. The photographs produced for this work are now held on-site at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies.
The report considered the most problematic area to be Bridgegate. A base of operations was set up in the area, and the need for swift restoration was highlighted when the office’s roof collapsed!
Gamul House and Gamul Place were some of the first chosen to be preserved and extensive work was carried out in this area and the rest of Bridgegate. A short film ‘The Conservation Game’ was produced and shown on television to highlight the considerations over this period and to follow the renovations of the buildings.
Gamul House, Lower Bridge Street, Chester : following restoration

Houses in Shipgate Street, Chester before restoration
Houses in Shipgate Street, Chester following restoration. Taken from the Insall Collection at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies.

More recently, conservation work was undertaken on the City Walls in 2013 and on Eastgate and Eastgate Clock in 2014. Modernisation and conservation of buildings around Chester Station has also been undertaken after some had fallen into disrepair. The Civic Amenities Act 1967 has made a difference to the cityscape of current Chester with the spirit of conservation continuing on.
More photographs from the Insall Collection will be shown on our Twitter page @CheshireRO for #civicday 17th June 2017. The whole collection of images taken for Chester’s Historic Town Report are held by Cheshire Archives and Local Studies and we are working to make them accessible to the public as soon as possible.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Monumental Inscriptions

A few months ago, whilst I was producing documents for customers in the searchroom, a customer ordered D5104 which the catalogue describes, accurately but somewhat drily, as “1 folder: Transcripts of monumental inscriptions made from tombs and printed sources, various Cheshire parishes, 17c-20c”

When I found the folder and opened it to check its contents it looked like hundreds of tiny typed copies of inscriptions in small bundles, each one held together by a paper clip.  Unsurprisingly, not all the paper clips were still in the right place. Using the description and numbers of items in each theme from the full paper catalogue that the customer had seen here it didn't take long to make sense of the jumbled slips, and present the customer with what she expected. To prevent this happening again and to make the experience of reading them a little less chaotic in future, we decided to copy the slips onto A4 sheets by theme, which gave us the chance to experience a little flavour of what lay within!

We’ll start with the benevolent Joseph Bleamire, Coachman, 1760 (buried in Barthomley):

Coachman to/JOHN CREWE Esq./left by his last Will and /Testament
the Sum of Sixty/Pounds the Interest of which/to be laid out
weekly in brown/Bread of the value of two/Pence per Loaf and to
be/distributed in the Parish Church of Barthomley/
every/ Sunday immediately after/morning Service to the Poor/of
the Township of Crewe.

Then, how about the somewhat productive Sir Henry Bunbury (17th Century, from Thornton-le-Moors):

He married two Wives: first Anne/by whom he had yssue 3 sonnes
And 6 daughters/and Martha by whom he had/yssue 7 sonnes and 3

And the even more eye watering Lady Katherine Clegg from Heswall:
She was married on the 22nd July 1650 and died on the 26th
August 1666 aged 39. She bore 15 children, 13 sons and two

Next how about poor Latitia Leyland, Born and Died October 1st 1837 in Cheadle:
Sweet Babe, she glanc’d into our world to see
A sample of our misery,
Then turn’d away her languid eye,
To drop a tear or two and die
The cup of life to her lips she press’d
Found the taste bitter and refus’d the rest.
Sweet Babe no more but Seraph now
Before the shrine behold her bow,
Adore the grace that brought her there
Without a wish – without a care,
That wash’d her soul in Calvary’s stream
That shorten’d life’s distressing dream.
Short pain – short grief – dear Babe was thine
Now joys eternal and divine.

If you’ve managed to compose yourself again after reading that one, we can return to issues of mind boggling productivity with Ann Barker of Middlewich:
Here lies Ann, Wife of Daniel
Barker, who died July 3, 1778,
Aged 77
Some have children and some have none,
But here lies the Mother of Twenty one
Time for reflection in Church Lawton where “it is said that an iron tombstone by the main gate of the churchyard bore the following inscription (long since illegible)”:
He was a brute of a husband and
led me a shocking life
Another desperately dispiriting pair now, firstly Martha Clark of Bidston who died in 1846, aged 21:
Nineteen years/a Maid/Two years a Wife./Nine days/a Mother/And
then /Departed Life.

Secondly, here is poor William Pownall of Mobberley who died in 1864, aged 20:
All you that stop this Stone to see
Pray think how sudden death took me
I in my youth God call’d away
Just before my wedding day
More happily, it is pleasing to discover that some lived just a little longer. Joseph Watson, ‘Park-keeper’ died in 1753, aged 104 and is buried in Disley:
He was Park Keeper to Mr Peter Leigh, at Lyme,
more than 64 years and was ye first
that Perfected the Art of Driving ye Stags.
Here lyeth also the body of Elizabeth his wife,
aged 94 years, to whom
he had been married 75 years.
Reader, take notice, the longest life is short.

A note is added stating “He was born at Mosley Common in Lancashire.  He claimed that he drank a gallon of malt liquor every day for sixty years”.  Five other centenarians are also recorded, although, sadly perhaps, their level of alcohol consumption isn’t.
If you are interested in Monumental Inscriptions in a more structured sense then please note that a search on our catalogue for that term lists over 400 items in total.  Please also be aware that we have a large collection of individual volumes on open access in the public searchroom  that each relate to a different Parish in the County.

Friday, 9 June 2017

A honeymoon tour to remember!

Who has kept a diary? I have – with a birthday at Christmas time and growing up in the seventies there was every chance I would receive at least one diary, usually with matching pen, every year – but even the most attractive of them (purple velvet) still didn’t inspire me much beyond February. Then there were the teenage years  ... And the last diary I kept? Recording a trip to Japan in my early twenties I supposed I wouldn’t make again.

The wonderful thing about diaries in Cheshire's archive collections is that we can recognise all of this and ourselves in them. For International Archives Day 2017 and #archivestourism here are extracts from a young woman's honeymoon diary.

Wednesday July 13th 1892

We were to travel by a train which left Alderley Edge soon after half past three in the afternoon – Leo and I. The express which Leo had decided on to take us up to London would not stop for us at Alderley, though most politely requested to do so; but brides and bridegrooms were things it was very accustomed to, and its iron heart was not to be moved. The express left Manchester at a quarter past four, so we had a good half hour to wait at Crewe. Leo put me in the waiting room to rest before the journey. He came to summon me presently, and took me to the express which had come in, and finding his name on the window of a coupe, he opened the door. We reached Euston about half past eight. Leo got a cab and we packed in with our luggage, my box and Leo’s portmanteau and he had a hat box, and I a handbag, and set off for the Victoria Hotel in Northumberland Avenue.  We were expected, and our room was waiting for us. It is a very fine hotel, the largest I have yet been in.
Of course we were much too late for dinner, and we were too tired to care for a private one, so Leo ordered cutlets and tea, as the most refreshing things he could think of, to be ready immediately. Leo, who knew the hotel, made his way to the coffee room, where our tea was to be laid, a handsome room, but oh so hot and close! Our tea came soon, cutlets, chip potatoes, tea and toast, and very good and refreshing it was, but I was not sorry to leave the hot room as soon as possible, and as we were both very tired, we went straight away to bed. I do not seem to have much to say about today, but it is not a day one would choose to write about.

Thursday July 14th

I am ashamed to say what time it was when we got up, but Leo had slept badly, having had toothache, which was very unromantic, but true nevertheless. 

We went down to breakfast (I might say at last), and Leo ordered coffee, and fried soles, and toast, which was very nice, but the room was as close as ever, and my new morning frock pinched so dreadfully round the neck, that I unhooked it, and furtively fastened the brooch in again over a good gap of collar. (Otherwise, it is a very nice blue serge, and in my heart I rather admire it, with collar and cuffs.) 

Our newly weds have the best part of a day to kill before their train to the coast and the boat for Rotterdam.  They would both have liked Kew (Frances will become an expert gardener) but it’s too far out and museums or galleries seem like hard work …

So Leo proposed that we should go and see ‘Venice’ at Olympia, as a good lazy way of passing the time, for as we know that there were canals and gondolas, we naturally thought that they must be in gardens. In other respects, we knew nothing at all about it.

The gardens were creations of our own wild imagination … the glass-making was in progress at certain hours, but we did not see it …. We went to see the – I know not what to call it – say, spectacle. Presently the play began, a hash-up of all sorts of things, the whole thing was sung; and we were too far away to hear anything of words. 

And on to the boat at Harwich, and perhaps the reasons for Frances’ growing dissatisfaction becomes clear … Leo predicts a calm night …

We did not want any supper, after the long dinner we had had, but I was very anxious to be allowed to pass the night on the saloon couches; the cabins looked so full and close, and I don’t care to be sick before strangers, in a box. At first we were told that I could and Leo went away cheerfully to look after his own berth. But by and by came the stewardess to me, and said that it could only be allowed if all the berths were taken up. When Leo came back he had found a berth, and an old lacrosse acquaintance. I waited awhile, but I was doomed to disappointment; the stewardess came and bore me off to a berth, in a cabin containing four. The whole place was about as big as a very small dining table and it already contained three Americans. I climbed into my top berth, half undressed and lay down. Presently came the stewardess and dealt out basins. ‘Prevention is better than cure’ she said with a pleasing smile. My heart sank right to the bottom end of my berth. The abominable Adelaide began to roll almost immediately after leaving Harwich, and one of the Americans succumbed early, and kept it up all night. If this were any consolation to me I had the pleasure of lying and listening to it, until the small hours, when I too succumbed. 

Friday July 15th

Not to have slept till morning, and not much then, does not conduce to general briskness, to say nothing of the horrors of seasickness and a close cabin. Soon after six I roused up altogether, for the stewardess came in and said that we were later than usual, for we had had a very rough passage. And that was Leo’s calm night.

Frances Crompton was born near Prestbury in 1866, and lived in Wilmslow, where she met and married bank manager John Leopold Walsh. They later lived in Holmes Chapel and Chelford. She published 29 children’s stories, was a skilled painter and kept her Gardening Diary begun in 1915. She died in 1952 and her daughter deposited her diaries in the archives. The collection reference is D 5453.

With thanks to volunteer Hilary Morris for transcribing diary extracts.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Votes for Women!

Over the weekend of 20th and 21st May, Chester will play host to their very own Women of the World (WOW) Festival. Based at Storyhouse, WOW will feature a line-up of talks, performances, panel discussions and workshops dedicated to celebrating women and girls worldwide. The festival hopes to bring women and men together to examine the obstacles still faced today and how they can be overcome.Thanks to WOW, I was intrigued to delve into Chester’s past to discover how women of Chester have strived to make the world a fairer, more equal place.

Little is known about Chester’s connection to the ‘Votes for Women’ movement, however the discovery of an article written in 1939 to celebrate the 21st anniversary of women’s enfranchisement, sheds considerable light on the activities and organisations in Chester dedicated to achieving votes for women.
‘Chester saw some of the activities of the suffragettes who worked for the cause with energy and enthusiasm, and were careful, as a rule, to keep within constitutional bounds.’
(Cheshire Observer, March 25th 1939, MF 225/74)

This sparked an idea! Given that newspapers were the principle means of communicating to a mass audience and the most widespread media form in the Edwardian age, I wondered whether it would be possible to piece together Chester’s suffrage past using old editions of local newspapers held on microfilm at the Record Office.I discovered a number of local newspaper reports detailing the peaceful activities of organisations that had set up branches in Chester, particularly the Chester Women’s Suffrage Society, the Women’s Freedom League and the National Union of Women’s Suffragist Societies (NUWSS). An article written by a ‘Lady Correspondent’ remarks that all branches of the NUWSS, including the Chester branch, stood for the ‘enfranchisement of women worked for on peaceful and law-abiding lines, and that the recourse to violence is destructive.’ (Chester Chronicle, 18th July 1914, MF 204/38).Unlike more militant organisations such as the Women’s Social and Political Union, evidence suggests that organisations in Chester concentrated on legal and peaceful means of drawing attention to their cause by arranging speeches, events and the sale of merchandise to raise funds. The Women’s Freedom League even opened a Suffrage shop at 45 St. Werburgh’s Street where they sold merchandise such as badges. 
Chester Chronicle, 13th January 1912, MF 204/36

Chester Chronicle, 16th February 1918, MF 204/268

Despite the preference for legal and peaceful means of protest in Chester, Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the more militant WSPU, visited the city in January 1912. Despite the Hall not being filled, reports indicate that Mrs. Pankhurst received a ‘good reception’. Speaking with ‘great clearness and… putting her points with telling effect’, Mrs. Pankhurst declared that she wanted ‘every human being, if possible, to have some control over the spending of taxation and the making of laws’. Mrs. Pankhurst also spent time defending militancy commenting that ‘it was not the reasonable patient person who ever got anything’ and posing the question ‘Were the women of Chester prepared to help?’
Chester Chronicle, 13th January 1912, MF 204/36

The article I first found in the Cheshire Observer dated 1939 reveals that there was one particular incident that saw the events in Chester make widespread national news.
‘There was a notable incident however, when their zeal outran their discretion and they brought themselves in conflict with the law. It occurred in the summer of 1912, and the Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith, was the victim of their violence.’
(Cheshire Observer, March 25th 1939, MF 225/74)
On his return from Dublin, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith paid a visit to Chester. Arriving at Chester Station on Saturday 20th July 1912, the Prime Minister made his way to the Town Hall to meet the gathered crowds.
‘About twenty past two there was a commotion among the crowd… The Prime Minister had arrived… The fleet of cars sailed into the Square almost noiselessly, and the third car, decorated with blue ribbons, contained the Prime Minister.’(Chester Chronicle, 20th July 1912, MF 207/36)

‘There was a spasm of violent excitement among the crowd as it stopped. Something had happened which not everybody could see, but everybody could see a stalwart policeman pounce on a protesting young woman and forcibly haul her off to the lock-up. She was a suffragette, a bag of flour had been thrown (it was said) at the Prime Minister’s car, and she had been arrested for it’.
Chester Chronicle, 20th July 1912, MF 207/36
A report from the Cheshire Observer dated July 27th 1912 harked at the ‘Exciting and alarming incident’, describing how the ‘excited lady’ appeared to ‘rush out of the crowd and hurl something at the car’.
‘Instantly, P.C. Baker secured the lady, and at almost the same moment another lady was heard shouting and pushing through the crowd. P.C. Wakelin pushed her back… As the lady in custody was taken past his car on her way to the Police Office, she jeered at him, and the crowd returned the compliment to her.’ (Cheshire Observer, 27th July 1912 MF 225/35)

Reporting on the aftermath of ‘The Chester Incident’, the Cheshire Observer recounted events at the Police Court. Charged with the assault of Frank Clark who had been driving the car that was hit by flour, the assailant was identified as Mary Phillips, a journalist from Cornwall. Giving evidence, the Chief Constable asked ‘the Bench to make an example of the defendant.’ (Cheshire Observer, 27th July 1912 MF 225/35)
‘There was no doubt that the missile was intended for the Prime Minster. If Cabinet Ministers could not travel about the country without attempts being made to assault them, then the country must be coming to state of anarchy.’ (Cheshire Observer, 27th July 1912, MF 225/35). Despite denying the charge of assault and protesting that if she had intended to injure the Prime Minister or damage the car she would have used a more dangerous missile, Mary Phillips was found guilty. She had the choice to pay 5s. in fines and additional costs, or receive seven days imprisonment in the second division. She refused to pay the fine, but it was later paid by a ‘prominent Chester Liberal’ whose identity remains unknown still.

Cheshire Observer, 27th July 1912, MF 225/35

By piecing together the newspaper articles above, we can come to understand that the women of Chester were engaged with the political campaign to give women the vote and furthermore, that the streets of Chester did witness militant action to advance this aim. 2018 marks 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 gave the vote to around 8.4 million  women over the age of 30 who met certain conditions, including owning a property. It took a further decade for women to receive the vote on the same terms as men with the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 extending the vote to all women over the age of 21.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Some Theatrical Entertainments in Chester in the18th and 19th Centuries

Here in Chester, in 2017, a new theatre opens its doors on Northgate Street.  The first production on the Storyhouse stage is a new adaptation of ‘The Beggar’s Opera’.  Go back nearly 250 years, to a time when ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ was a very popular hit show, and the New Theatre on Northgate Street is welcoming the Venetian’s Company of Performers, from Sadler’s Wells, London.  The Chester Courant of October 1768 carries an advertisement for the show, highlighting the entertaining delights of ‘Stiff Rope Dancing’, ‘Lofty Tumbling’, the ‘diverting tricks’ of Monsieur de Monkeyro, Miss Wilkinson and Signior Georgi on the ‘Musical Glasses’ and a Pantomime.

What was then known as the New Theatre started life as the Chapel of St Nicholas in 1280 and had a variety of uses over the years before becoming a theatre.  In 1777 an Act to Licence a Theatre (ref. acts/b/51) saw it converted into the Theatre Royal.  With the premises now being officially licensed, the players could perform without the risk of being raided by the city magistrates, halting the performance.  In the mid-19th century it became a concert hall and its last incarnation as an entertainment venue was as a cinema, which closed its doors in 1961.  Nowadays it is better known to residents and visitors as Superdrug.
I was interested to see what other theatrical entertainments were on offer years ago, and though we don’t have an extensive theatrical collection, it does have its moments!  For example, looking at the 19th century playbills we hold, you can see that the touring companies that visited the city set up their shows in a range of places, not just the Theatre Royal.  ‘Thiodon’s Mechanical & Picturesque Theatre of the Arts’ was playing in the Royal Hotel Assembly Room, offering the eager public the delights of mechanical figures depicting the ‘Birth of Venus’ and ‘Buonaparte Crossing The Alps’ with his army of 30,000 men, ‘announced by an extraordinary instrument consisting of sixteen trumpets’.  The evening’s entertainment concluding with a ’Storm at Sea’ complete with ‘agitation of the waves … Lightning, Thunder etc’!  Other companies performed at the Royal Britannia Theatre near the Bowling Green Inn, the Pantheon on Grosvenor Street and at Latimer’s Theatre, where you could see ‘The Bohemian Girl! Or the Deformed of Notre Dame!’  The venues and performances may have varied greatly in quality, but all seemed to finish off the evening’s entertainment with, at the very least, a dance and a comic song but more often, a Farce - ‘How To Settle Accounts With Your Laundress’ being a notable example.

The posters not only outlined tempting teasers for the unfolding drama, but were full of spoilers.  The audiences for ‘Ambrose Gwinett or A Seaside Story’ could be lured into the theatre with the prospect of a ‘Press Gang’, a ‘Bloody Handkerchief’, an ‘Ugly Postman’ (always suspect!) and an ‘Unwelcome Guest’!  With the promised peril of an accusation of ‘Murder’ and our hero sentenced to be ‘Hung In Chains’, you might think the audience felt they simply had to attend to discover the outcome, but no such thing!  The poster reassures us that we will see ‘Innocence Triumphant’ and the play will culminate with the ‘Death of the Guilty’!  Hurrah!  Presumably, 19th century audiences preferred to know exactly what they were committing to on a night out.

Over on Northgate Street, the Theatre Royal was playing host to Signor Stanislaus, ‘The Wonderful and Unrivalled Fire King!’  During the first half of the evening he showed off his strength - raising a table with his teeth, on which stood a soldier, lifting a variety of heavy weights - backwards, and having a stone weighing 300lbs broken over his head with a sledge hammer!  The second half of the show saw him perform even more amazing feats – holding red hot iron in his hands and mouth, even biting off several pieces (!?) swallowing blazing pitch and finally, the ‘Polish Salamander Will Stand Bare-footed in a Large Fire of Blazing Charcoal!!!’  To bring the audience back to its senses and send them home happy, the evening ended with the usual Farce.

However, not all theatrical events ended happily. One performance, in a building on Watergate Street in 1772, ended in tragedy. Our Local Studies collection has a poem which was ‘Occasioned by the late dreadful Explosion of Gunpowder, on the Fifth Day of November, 1772 … whereby a Company assembled at a Puppet-Show … were blown up, and many killed and wounded.’ (ref. 014203) After describing the event, the poem continues with prolonged moral ‘Reflections, Expostulations and Exhortations …The whole designed as a Terror to evil doers, and an Alarm to those that are asleep.’ There is an article in the November 1979 edition of Cheshire Life, written by John Bridge, which tells the story of the night’s events. The Puppet Theatre was held in Eaton’s Room, part of a multi-storied building on Watergate Street. The room below it was a warehouse where 800lbs of gunpowder were stored! The building was almost completely destroyed and, given the date and the contents of the warehouse, it would be a very funny Bonfire Night story, if it were not for the great loss of life. Nineteen died in the explosion and fifty-seven people were admitted to hospital, four of whom subsequently died, and a further thirty had minor injuries.

But to end with something jollier – no, not a Farce, but a Circus! Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal!

On seeing these posters, one of our volunteers remarked ‘Like in Sgt Pepper? Mr Kite?’ and indeed he was.  A quick search of the internet revealed that the song ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ was inspired by an old poster for a performance of Pablo Fanque’s circus as a fund raiser for a fellow artiste, Mr Kite.  Pablo Fanque was an English equestrian performer and circus proprietor and the first non-white British circus owner in Britain.  Circuses  were extremely popular in Victorian Britain, and his topped the list for nearly thirty years.  He was famed for his dancing horses, most likely what we would now call dressage, and the London Illustrated News reported that ‘…the steed dances to the air, and the band has not to accommodate itself to the action of the horse, as in previous performances of this kind.’  However extraordinary the dressage skills of his horses may have been, the poster illustration of waltzing horses does seem a little generous!  Alas, the only Cheshire connection, apart from his Circus performances in Chester, is that he died in Stockport on 4th May 1871.  He was buried with his wife, in Leeds.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

T.A. Coward and the origins of ‘jizz’?

You know that moment when you bump into something which you thought only you had the vaguest interest in, and suddenly it all makes just a little bit more sense?  Well, that moment…

I was looking through some of our Local Studies collection relating to Birding and Ornithology when I fell upon a book by the Cheshire Naturalist T.A. Coward entitled Bird Haunts and Nature Memories (Reference 200289) from 1922. This is a handsome volume published by Frederick Warne, a collection of sometimes revised articles, many of which we are told originally appeared in the Manchester Guardian, Scotsman, Daily Despatch and Westminster Review.  Sadly which pieces appeared in which publication, and when, is not disclosed.  Many, but not all, of the articles have local interest and are focussed on Cheshire (or what was Cheshire) and the Wirral, with others relating to the North Wales Coastline.  I was initially fascinated by a lovely chapter on A Cheshire Bird (the Great Crested Grebe) as well as the rather poetic Memories of a Cheshire Moor which relates to Carrington Moss and proceeds from 1884 through 1894, 1904, 1914, ending in 1921, finishing with the somewhat unsettling sentence “Perhaps Carrington Moss was a better place forty years ago.” 

There’s also a fantastic piece (with photographs) entitled An Old Cheshire Wild-Fowler which describes the life of such an individual on the frozen Dee marshes near Sealand.  Much of this writing is very much of a different time.  In this article, Coward (a lifelong Ornithologist) resolutely defends the ‘sport’ (as he sees it) of Wildfowling.  The article even describes (in passing) the hunting of Spoonbills, which recent visitors to RSPB Burton Mere and elsewhere wouldn’t be very happy about
in 2017, I’m sure.

Anyway, we must eventually proceed to the real subject of this blog.  As a (very bad) birder with an ability to easily forget the name of something I had pointed out to me only the day before, I’ve always been interested in the birding concept of ‘jizz’.  This is a term much used on “Introduction to Birding” type courses, and in many identification books.  I’ve always understood it to mean that comprehension of the identity of a bird without having fully captured it in clear sight.  An example might be that you’re digging at the allotment and ‘sense’ a little bird hopping around waiting for you to disturb a worm.  Somehow you ‘know’ without looking at it that it’s a Robin.  That ‘knowing’ – in effect being aware of the little bird’s ‘Robin-ness’ is its ‘jizz’.  You don’t have to clearly see it to know it’s a Robin. In the early 90s (around the time Rob Hume’s Birds by Character – a Field Guide to Jizz Identification was published) I remember asking a (much better and far more knowledgeable) birding friend where the term came from (the book, which is actually really good, is very vague in defining the term’s history).  There followed lots of shrugging of shoulders and mumbling.  Nobody seemed to know.  As I went online in the mid 90s I remember looking on various forums.  The general consensus then seemed to be that it might have something to do with GISS (General Impression of Size and Shape) which is a term in use by aeroplane spotters and dates back to at least WWII.  Others argued (less convincingly to me, anyway) that it was a corruption of gestalt, a German word which roughly translates as ‘form and shape’.

Imagine my surprise and delight then when I open up this wonderful book in our Local Studies collection to find on pages 141-144 a chapter entitled ‘Jizz’.  As I read it, it clearly defines the concept, if not the origin (which Coward states only as coming from ‘A West Coast Irishman’), of the birding term: “That mental picture recorded through the eye is accurate in proportion to our familiarity with the species; the more familiar we are the less we note except the jizz.  The passing curlew may have a long curved bill, a pale lower back, a strong distinctive flight; we knew these characters were present, but we did not actually see them; we saw a curlew.  Curlew flashed into the brain without pause for mental analysis, for we noted the jizz.”  Ignoring the fact that the origin of the word is so uncorroborated (and there is little evidence from anywhere I can see that this is indeed an Irish word) these four pages provide the perfect definition of the term as it is used today proving that the word has been around for much longer than previously thought.  As I rush to the computer to announce my findings to a no doubt expectant world, it becomes apparent that I’m not the first to realise this.  Coward’s book was not a massive seller, but he was a well-known Ornithologist and Naturalist of the time, and some of his titles did sell in high numbers, although I’m unaware if he used the term in any of these other books. But others have seen this title and found this chapter.  The earliest written reference I can find to Coward’s use of the term is in David McDonald’s The Etymology of Jizz (published in Canberra Bird Notes Vol 21 No.1 1996).  The Oxford English Dictionary has updated its entry to reflect it.  Both, I think, very much underplay the way in which Coward exactly defines how the word is used today. 

As for my interest in the term, I’m not really sure if this marks the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning.  Perhaps I’ll just forget all about it for another twenty years or so.  Maybe if I could just find the original newspaper publication (if indeed there was one)…
And, finally, if you do have an interest in Ornithology, do please have a look at our catalogue and see what you can spot.  As well as our varied Local Studies collection of published material, we also have some fascinating Archive items that might interest.  One of my favourites is D4643/1 which is a notebook belonging to an Arthur Lewis of 28 Arkles Lane, Liverpool (literally just around the corner from Anfield, on the edge of Stanley Park).  This is a fascinating nature notebook from the first decade of the Twentieth Century in which young Arthur records his birding finds both in Liverpool and out on jaunts to the Wirral, and into both Cheshire and Wales.  This is the kind of thing he recorded:

According to a note in the front of the book, Arthur later lived (and died) in Watergate Street, Chester.