Thursday, 24 October 2019

Happy Halloween!

With 31st October fast approaching, we have unearthed some Halloween-related records from Cheshire Archives and Local Studies.  From accounts of witches, ghosts and mummification to old Halloween customs, here are just a few examples of spooky goings-on from Cheshire’s past.

One of Cheshire’s most famous witches was Bridget Bostock who became known as ‘The White Witch of Coppenhall’ in the 1740s.  She was known to cure ills and cast out devils by a combination of prayer and magic – the latter effectively being the use of her own saliva!  Reports of her healing abilities made the London press, and many people’s accounts of her activities feature in our Local Studies collection, such as this extract from a letter to the Whitehall Evening Post in 1748:

"Old Bridget Bostock…hath, in her life-time, made it her business to cure the country-folks, her neighbours, of sore legs, and other disorders; but her reputation now seems so wonderfully to increase, that people come to her from far and near…She cures the blind, the deaf, the lame of all sorts, the rheumatic, King’s evil [scrofula], histeric fits, falling fits, shortness of breath, dropsy, palsy, leprosy, cancers, and, in short, almost every things, except the French disease [syphilis], which she will not meddle with, and all the means she uses for cure is, only stroking with her fasting spittle, and praying for them.” 
The letter claimed that between six and seven hundred people a day were seen by her; “some people grow well while in the house, others on the road home; and, it is said, none miss”.

We also have accounts of witches who were said to have done evil, with examples of prosecutions of so-called witches contained in church court records.  The Consistory Court was responsible for the moral welfare of citizens and was held in Chester Cathedral.  Our Consistory Court archives include a 1627 Tarporley libel case of an Emma Mosse being accused of “practising witch craft and making potions” (reference EDC 5/1627/62); another case where a John Ramsden of Newchurch claimed a witch “did witch my cow to death” (ref: EDC 5/1613/66); and at Nantwich in 1662, an Anna Wright was accused of killing a child by witchcraft, with the rather gruesome description that "her eyes hanged over her cheeks and sometimes would play on her forehead and sometimes up and down on her face like two bladders." (ref: EDC 5/1662/63). 

Cheshire Archives holds coroners’ inquest files dating back to the fifteenth century, and includes one relating to Elizabeth Powell, a widow.  She died from various ailments after a long period of detention: she spent the last six years of her life a prisoner in Northgate, Chester, on a charge of witchcraft. 

Back in the seventeenth century, those convicted of witchcraft could be subject to capital punishment, and a register from St Mary on the Hill Church records the burial of ‘three witches’ executed at the Michaelmas Assizes in Chester in 1656.  According to a book in our Local Studies collection, (Death in Chester by Roy Wilding, ref: 217345) Ellen Beech and Anne Osboston of Rainow, and Anne Thornton of Eaton, all pleaded not guilty, but were sentenced to be hanged by the neck.  St Mary’s was close to Chester Castle, only separated by a deep ditch, so it was used as the burial place of prisoners condemned to death at assizes held at the castle.  The burial register also records some other gruesome deaths, such as those caused by the torture of ‘pressing’.

Some executed prisoners are said to be amongst Chester’s many ghosts, reputedly haunting everywhere from the city’s streets to houses, churches to pubs - but our Local Studies collection covers tales of ghosts, witches, myths and legends from all across the county.  You can read about The Congleton Cannibal, The Seven Sisters Curse and The Headless Woman of Tarvin, to name only a few! (In Myths and Legends of Cheshire by Paula Manley, ref: 228056)

There are several books about Cheshire customs, including traditional ‘Mummers’ Plays’ which have taken place across the UK and beyond for centuries.  In Cheshire they were known as ‘Soul-Caking Plays’ and took place on All Souls Day, just after Halloween.  We have many archive items on this subject, such as play scrips and numerous photographs of soul-cakers in Halton around 1885 (ref: D5154/124), and in Antrobus from the 1920s to the 1950s (ref: D5154/119), but this photograph - complete with masked man and headless woman – shows a scene from a pageant play written by the Vicar of Tarvin, the Rev. Maurice Hill Ridgway, in the 1930s. 

Our collection of his papers also includes a newspaper clipping of this scene marked ‘Echo’ (possibly the Cheshire Echo newspaper) with the caption “Mrs Bracegirdle fainting into the arms of Mr Ebenezer Bracegirdle on seeing the ghost of the headless woman – a scene in the pageant-play, ‘The Haunted House – Perhaps!’, written by the Vicar of Tarvin, the Rev. M. H. Ridgway, and which is based on a local ghost legend.”  

Not all of our gruesome stories are myths, however.  We hold a large collection of newspapers, some going back centuries, in which there are many unusual stories such as reports of a mummification in the 1920s.  Under the headline “Amazing Discovery at Nantwich”, the Chester Chronicle of 27 March 1926 reported that a Crewe auctioneer, acting under a county court bankruptcy order, had to force entry into the house of a mother and three daughters after all other means of gaining access had failed.  The mother was last seen years earlier, and the daughters lived as recluses.  The auctioneer discovered a skeleton wrapped in paper and old rags, and a table set out with food.  He was told, “that is God’s table, and is for mother” and warned not to enter another room as there was “fire and brimstone” inside.  All rooms apart from the kitchen were locked up, and the sisters said that they lived in the kitchen with their deceased mother.  They were reported to have been “certified insane”, believed to be suffering from a religious mania, and taken to the county asylum in Chester.  A doctor at the inquest stated that Mrs Nixon’s body was found in a sitting position on a tilted chair, tied with a cloth belt.  It was completely mummified.  

Finally, on a happier note, we have an account of a Cheshire man’s experience of Halloween customs in America.  Cheshire Record Office holds the papers of Frederick William Latham from Crewe, the son of a railway clerk who was put through college in the USA by a wealth uncle based in Mexico.  The letters he sent home to his parents include the following description from November 1927 of Halloween activities in the USA:
“they celebrate Halloween here with a great procession and everyone wears fancy dress and carries coloured flares – the ‘do’ is at night…it was a lovely sight and a lot of people buy pumpkins, scoop the inside out, and then cut eyes, nose and mouth in it and put a candle inside; they get some weird effects.” 

We wish you a Happy Halloween!

All of these items and more are available to view at Cheshire Record Office in Chester.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Stranded at Crewe - the 1919 National Rail Strike

This blog post was written by Susan Chambers and focuses on the experiences of some of the soldiers stranded at Crewe during the National Rail Strike of 1919. You can read more about the Crewe Sailors and Soldiers Rest in Susan's previous blog posts. 

The road passing Crewe Station - the ‘Rest’ was on the left

The year of 1919 was drawing into autumn, and the men who had fought in the recent Great War were still being demobilised, repatriated or relocated to other troubled spots across the globe.

Many soldiers were changing trains at Crewe Station and indulging in a meat pie, sandwich or cake and a mug of tea, coffee or Oxo at the Sailors and Soldiers Rest while they waited.

However, on the night of Friday 26th September a period of disruption lasting nine days began. A strike of 400,000 railwaymen (members of the NUR and ASLEF trade unions) had been called in response to a reduction in the rates of pay that had been negotiated in the war years.

Extract from the Railway Service Journal, (Journal of the Railway, Clerical, Administrative, Supervisory, Professional and Technical Staff)  1919. RCA is Railway Clerical and Administrative- who decided to stay neutral.

During the strike over 300 men visited the Rest, many of them unable to go any further. According to the Cheshire Observer, some travellers stuck at Crewe converted train compartments into temporary homes, and a wealthy American gentleman at Crewe who offered to pay generously for a special train to London was refused and had to finish the journey by car!

The Rest visitors’ book was well used during this period, with comments ranging from those simply stating that they were stranded to slightly more witty offerings:

Comment made by L. Cpl. J. Kewley and Cpl. R Kewley of the South Lancs Regiment, otherwise known as the "The Pe’kewley’ar Couple”

Other comments were as follows:

From  another South Lancs Rgt man heading for County Cork:
Stranded at Crewe after 9 hrs ride from London through strike’

Some were heading for the Army base at Ripon:
Stranded at Crewe owing to Railway Strike, just returned from Germany, WHAT A reception’.

Several were heading for the base at Prees Heath in Shropshire and grateful for the Rest :
Stranded at Crewe, a good welcome at Rest Hut’
Just arrived to get demobbed, could not go any further than Crewe at CEMS’ (Church of England Mens Society, the organisers)

Corporal Essen of the Northants Regiment (we forget how young many of these lads were):
‘Demobb on My Birthday, 20. Held up owing to Strike.’ 

Driver S. Hooley, Royal Army Service Corps heading for London:
Stranded owing to the Strike after fighting 3 ½ years for liberty’

Two members of the 1stArgyll & Southern Highlanders:
Gott strafe the Strikers’ and ‘Double ditto’

Lots of other comments:
Fighting for your Country for 3 years, Tommy has to walk home’
‘Fortnight’s rest on Crewe Station’
‘A Digger stranded in a strange town’ ‘Saved from the Streets’
‘Stranded owing to our “Comrades” the Railway men’
‘How little one thinks of another’
‘No money no socks no boots’
‘Roll on October, then what-oh for India (Punka fand)’
‘Down with J.H Thomas’  (ie General Secretary of the NUR)

From 2 members of Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry from Sheffield:
‘Damn NUR’  and ‘Another Pint Please’

Someone wished them well…
Every wish for a Striking Success’

Many were just grateful for what the Rest provided:
Most grateful for kindness and comfort when stranded’
‘Stranded – Sweet cup of Tea’
‘This place indeed is a friend in need, from Palestine’
‘Cheered 4 weary comrades. Stranded on Demob’
‘Many thanks for a good haven’

From W. Lloyd (Southport) of the 1st Battalion The King’s Regiment, late Liverpool Pals (interesting handwriting!) Says he visited the delightful place on the day he proceeded for demobilisation. His mate from Walton says similar.

The stranded troops were from many different units including the Army Cyclist Corps, Sherwood Rangers, Royal Air Force, Royal Army Medical Corps, Australian N&M Forces, Royal Army Service Corps, Royal Engineers Signals, HMS Eagle, HMS Kendal, 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, Argyll & Southern Highlanders, RASC Remounts, Royal Marines, Machine Gun Corps, SS Dakar, Tank Corps and many other Regiments throughout the country. Many were heading to or from various camps such as Brocton, Grantham, The Curragh, Aldershot, Tidworth and Woolwich.

After nine days of strike action, the government agreed to maintain wages for another year. Subsequent negotiations resulted in the standardisation of wages across the railway companies and the introduction of a maximum eight hour day.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Back to school!

As the new school year is about to begin, we have been looking at documents from school days of the past. The records of hundreds of schools are held at Cheshire Record Office in Chester – read on for examples of lessons, rules, uniform, reports and more, going back a hundred and fifty years.

Teaching methods may have changed over time, but pupils have had to learn the same subjects for generations.  Some school exercise books have been deposited with us, such as the French and physics books of a child named Neild at Sandbach School from 1908. Science was perhaps not his best subject, as whole pages of his ‘pysics’ book have been scored through in red ink with the word ‘bad’, presumably written by the teacher who made many other corrections of his work! 

The arithmetic book of a girl called Elizabeth Stockton at Harthill County Primary School in 1887 (SL196/7441/8) was much better though - her mathematical problems on silverware weights prompted the teacher to write, “Elizabeth has made a very good beginning, and with care she promises to do well, for she takes great care with her work which is clean and neat throughout."

All schools have rules, and we hold a copy of the ‘Loyal Devoir’ for Mostyn House School in Parkgate, an instructional book written by the head teacher in 1920 listing school rules such as being truthful, having good manners and knowing how to behave in chapel and at a cricket match, for instance.  It also includes an introduction 'To My Boys' reflecting on the effects of World War One on the school and on boys of their class.

We have several prospectuses of Mostyn House School from the 1880s to the 1930s as well, which included school uniform requirements that were rather different to today: the 1889 version (document reference SP5/8427/18/1) stated,
“boys will need for Sunday wear an ‘Eton’ or ‘Norfolk’ suit, and a silk hat.  For ordinary wear a dark knickerbocker suit and ‘Eton’ collars are recommended”.

When school rules were broken, ‘punishment books’ from dozens of schools across Cheshire detail the corporal punishment children received as a result.  To take one example, Byley Primary School in the 1910s recorded giving one or two 'strokes', presumably with a cane, for carelessness in work or disobedience; two strokes for copying or for refusing to answer; four strokes for not doing work and six strokes were given for telling untruths to a child’s parent (SL 31/2). Other punishment books went into further detail: for instance Acton Church of England Primary had a boy given four light strokes with cane, two on each hand, and detained in school 30 minutes each day for a fortnight, for stealing cardboard coins from school and trying to pass them on to the local shop keeper in 1911, and playing truant resulted in one boy being struck six to eight times across the buttocks in 1919 (SL2/4).

Attitudes to corporal punishment changed over time, as illustrated by a 1968 Department of Education and Science circular found within the records of Macclesfield Parkroyal County Primary School. The Secretary of State acknowledged many teachers’ need for a “reasonable amount of force” in some circumstances, but believed that
“the practice of corporal punishment should disappear from our schools, and I hope that the local education authorities, the governing bodies of schools and the teachers themselves will all use their powers and influence to achieve this end."

Schools today require high levels of attendance, but everyone has had to spend the occasional day at home due to being ill.  In the records of Alsager County Secondary School, we found guidance of how long sick children should take off school, such as 28 days from the beginning of the “characteristic cough” of whooping cough.  Diphtheria and small pox were also listed as some of the “commoner infectious diseases”, showing how far medical science has advanced today.  We also found an example of Cheshire County Council playing its part in tackling the 1918 flu pandemic in the papers of Acton Church of England School.  A communication from the Education Department’s School Medical Officer shows the whole school being closed for almost a fortnight “to prevent the spread of Influenza”, noting “it will be necessary for you to arrange for the thorough cleaning and aeration of the school for the time it is closed”. 

Children also had time off for reasons other than sickness:  the head teacher's log of Saighton Church of England School for July 3 1874 - at harvest time -  "gave several children leave, to help to make hay for their parents" (SL 122).  And it seems many children benefitted from a day off due to the royal family - Acton C E School papers include a note that,

"The Elementary Schools Committee at its meeting on the 20 February, 1922, had before it a request from His Majesty The King that a whole holiday might be granted to all schools on 28 February, 1922, being the wedding day of Princess Mary, and it was decided to accede to this request." (SL 2/5/3)

Attendance nowadays features in school inspections, and we have found evidence of early versions of inspection reports recorded in head teachers' log books.  Congleton Mossley Church of England Primary, for example, received some slightly negative comments regarding its teaching of spelling and geography, but
"the work both on the slates and paper is neatly done and the results in arithmetic are good"
And Saighton School will have been pleased that a summary of the Inspector's Report they received in March 1875 stated that,
"The School is in excellent condition, and the children are thoroughly well taught.  There is no weak point." (SL 122)

Like today, children of the past occasionally had time away from lessons for school trips or something different like sports day.  We have an account of children at the same school in Saighton who were able to enjoy a sports day, out-of-school visit and treats all at once, according to the school log book entry of August 1 1873, which gave an account of Lord Westminster's annual treat for the children - including a description of the tea ("consisting of a bountiful supply of currant bread, seed-cake etc, which was heartily partaken of by all"), races, games and prize-giving.

Duddon Church of England Primary School had a dedicated log book for evacuees during the Second World War (SL195/3), which starts in September 1939 and details the numbers of children and how they were separated into classes for their lessons.  Towards Christmas, the log book entry for December 13 describes a teacher who "left school at 11.45am" in order to discuss with the Welfare Worker arrangements for a party for evacuee school children.  We have other school records that show the impact of the war, with evacuees coming to Cheshire from places as near as Liverpool or as far as Guernsey.  This photograph from Bramhall Primary School, which at the time was in the county of Cheshire, shows a knitting lesson for evacuated school girls.

Finally, as the school holidays come to a close, Tattenhall CE Primary School records include an 'Important Notice' from 1875 to the parents and employers of children following an Act of Parliament regarding the employment of children in agricultural labour.  Whilst it states that "no child under 8 years of age shall be employed at all in agricultural work", those aged 8 to 10 could be, if they had attended school 250 times in the 12 months preceding, or 150 times for children aged 10 to 12.

For any children reluctant to return to their studies next week, perhaps they could think about this and imagine how different their lives could be!

All of these documents, and more, can be viewed at Cheshire Record Office in Chester.  Admission Registers for some Cheshire schools have also been digitised, and can be viewed here on Find My Past.