Category Archives: History

On an anniversary

Sixty-nine years ago today, starting at 19:58 on 27 November 1944, the Royal Air Force launched Operation Tigerfish in the skies over Freiburg. In the space of just 20 minutes, 292 Lancaster bombers dropped 3,000 bombs and over 11,000 incendiary devices on the city, concentrating on areas to the east and west of their main target, the railway line. The old part of the city (Altstadt) and several areas to the west were very badly damaged, in some cases flattened. Some 2,800 people were killed, thousands more injured and/or made homeless.

It’s an uneasy date in the calendar for me, associated with conflicting feelings that I’m sure I don’t need to spell out here. I don’t want to spell them out, actually, either, as I’m not sure I can put them adequately into words; and doing so might oblige me to justify them to others or leave chinks in the logic that can be picked at too easily.

I find myself poring over pictures of then, now, before then, trying to reconstruct a city I never knew that has been replaced with the one I have grown familiar with and feel lucky enough to be able to call my home. The images I keep coming back to over and over again are the ones that are, in every sense of the word, closest to home. Unterlinden, a mere 40-odd metres from where I lay my head at night, looked like this before the war. You see a tree, the crucifix and the statue of Mary at the centre of the scene. Today it looks like this. It’s bustling in a different way now that the area has been pedestrianised, and things like palm trees and cafe tables have replaced the carts of yore. Otherwise, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking not much has changed. The statues are still there, even if they’re slightly hidden by the foliage of the tree in high summer.

Now, though, look at this image, possibly taken in 1944. It hits me in the pit of the stomach every time I see it. The first time I was shown it, I wasn’t even aware it was Unterlinden. The moment of realisation was a long and painful one.

This week the Christmas market has opened, and Unterlinden is once again filled with the festive scent of Glühwein and decked out with fairy lights, including the tree (which was replaced in the 1950s, in case you were wondering, so at some point after this picture was taken). The stall closest to the crucifix sells an assortment of cosmetics and gifts for the home. Among its wares: those effervescent scented “bath bombs”.

At the risk of sounding glib, though not wanting to end on a sour note, I’m just going to sign off thus…

Make foam, not war.


Filed under History, Up close and personal

Two uncommon names, one common fate

The recent centenary of the Senghenydd colliery disaster in South Wales featured quite prominently in the UK media, as one would expect for the worst mining accident in the country’s history. On 14 October 1913, 439 miners and one rescuer died in an explosion at the Universal Colliery near Caerphilly. What was particularly poignant during the commemorations was how many ordinary individuals stepped up – both in the mainstream media and on social media sites – to tell moving, vivid stories of their great grandfathers, great uncles who died, and of the families left behind.

I am not aware of anyone in my own family having been involved in the Senghenydd disaster, and without passed-down accounts from within the family it would be quite hard to find out at this stage, since the lists of those who died contain to a large extent numbers of men who shared common (Welsh) surnames, combined with a fairly limited palette of first names and only the most rudimentary information on age, address and so on. I was surprised, though, when some random googling of a more unusual name from the peripheries of my family tree led me to reports of an earlier pit disaster – that of January 1879 at Dinas Middle Colliery near Llantrisant – for which the list of those killed turned up the distinctive names of two distant relatives who I’d never thought had any personal connection with one another (within their lifetimes). Their names were River Jordan and Elisha Upjohn.

River Jordan was born in 1827 at Middle Forge, Lydney in Gloucestershire. I believe he was a second cousin of my great-great-great grandfather Mark Jordan. Like many of the Forest of Dean Jordans, River was a forgeman, working in tin manufacture by 1851 and as an iron pudler in 1861, by which time he was married for the third time, had three (surviving) children plus a number of stepchildren and – in a move mirrored in many Forest of Dean families of the period – had relocated to the more heavily industrialised area of Wolverhampton. The transfer back south-westwards to the Rhondda Valley occurred some time between 1861 and 1871; by the latter date he was working as a hammerman in Aberdare. I don’t know exactly when he started working in mining, nor whether it was a choice or a necessity for him.

Elisha Upjohn, the grandfather of my great-uncle Tudor Apjohn, was born in Figheldean, Wiltshire, in 1825. This was a predominantly rural area where most of the men worked in farming, and certainly up to 1871 Elisha seems to have stayed in exactly the same location, working as an agricultural labourer and raising a family with his wife Emma. Again, the exact date and reasons for him moving his family to South Wales are unclear, but he was one of many thousands who moved from rural areas to the ever expanding South Wales coalmines during this period, exchanging agriculture for industry, often attracted by the prospect of higher wages and more consistent availability of work. Statistics derived from the censuses of the period show that the population of the Rhondda Valley increased from some 3000 in 1861 to over 55,000 by 1881 (source: Wikipedia).

The chilling events of 13 January 1879 – the date coincides with Hen Galan, the old Welsh New Year celebration – that claimed the lives of 63 men and boys can be reconstructed from newspaper reports published in the aftermath of the accident. I’ll quote directly from some but have included a complete list of those I consulted at the end of this entry – many details occur in more than one report, though I should also say that there are some apparent factual inconsistencies as well. Looking at them together, one can build up a picture of working conditions, the dangers involved and the precautions introduced to try to keep these in check. The special locked safety lamps used by the Dinas colliers are just one example of the precautions needed – ironically perhaps, the smokeless steam coal produced by many of the South Wales collieries was also associated with them being particularly “fiery mines”, volatile environments where “firedamp” (composed mainly of methane) was a constant risk factor; even so, the Aberdare Times comments that “it is rumoured that the hitchers [shaft attendants] sometimes used naked lights”. The newspaper reports also record the painful twists of fate that occurred that night and the involvement of the local community.

The regular daytime shift on that cold, wet Monday in January had been uneventful: some 100 men and boys had gone underground and returned safely at the end of the working day. Though this was only a quarter of the workforce, Mondays were “idle days” compared to others; this figure of 100 was actually higher than on many Mondays, as in this week many of the men wanted to leave early on the Wednesday to attend the funeral of the elderly widow of a former colleague. The smaller night-shift party numbered around 60, and these went down at 7pm, just before the day shift ended, to carry out necessary maintenance, remove rubble and carry out other tasks to ensure the safe working of the mine (if one can ever really talk of “safe” in this context). On this evening, they would as usual have been lowered down into the pit in a cage, ten men at a time, and with the cage descending once a minute (to a maximum depth of 427 yards, according to the Cardiff Times), they would soon have all been busy at work. Twelve horses were also sent down, in addition to the 32 already in the stable below ground. I had known of the “pit ponies” before but had no idea there would have been so many of them in one place at one time. But if they were responsible for transporting large amounts of timber plus the colliery’s output of 600 tons of coal a day, I guess I should be less surprised (Wikipedia suggests that the horses would have worked 8-hour shifts and could have pulled up to 30 tons of coal each per day on the underground tramways).

All was well for the first few hours, but then events took a devastating turn, as reported by the Cambrian thus:

At 20 minutes to 11 o’clock, the engineer, John Burton, heard a crash at the pit’s mouth, and going out saw that the heavy iron cap which diverts the air through the tunnel into the fan had been blown up into the pit gearing and fixed there. The banksmen [men stationed at the top of the pit to unload the full tubs of coal], William Taylor and William Webber, had also been blown away from their places, and directly afterwards there came the deep reverberation of an explosion, followed by a cloud of dust and densely sulphureous [sic] vapour.

According to the Aberdare Times, the explosion occurred in the mine’s so-called middle pit, more precisely in the four-foot “polka” seam located 80 yards above the bottom of the 430-yard-deep pit. The paper also portrays the immediate community response:

The shocks of the explosion shook the cottages adjacent and the echoes were heard miles away. The inhabitants of the district came rushing down to the mouth of the pit, some only half-clad and others scarcely clad at all, just as they had tumbled out of bed. On learning what had happened they became frantic with grief, and the scene was truly heartrending. Women and children shrieked with terror, and many wives and mothers were carried away in a fainting condition.

For the sake of balance, however, I want to contrast this with the altogether much more sober account provided by the Cardiff Times:

Perhaps one of the most striking features of the occurrence is the absence of outward demonstration on the part of the bereaved relatives. All those whose business has led them to the mine state that neither on the day of the explosion nor since have the people flocked to the pit in that grief-stricken state, and with those unreasonable demands which so often intensify the terrible nature of these calamities. This is not attributed to any want of feeling however—far from it—but to the probability of the dreadful news having been sympathetically imparted to the sorrowing relatives, accompanied by such judicious advice as would lead them to become resigned to the unfortunate state of things.

Take your pick as to which account you find more convincing, but differing degrees of dramaticisation aside, the reports seem fairly consistent in suggesting that numerous managers from this and other local collieries had arrived by 1 or 2am and were engaged in grave discussions about what to do. Attempts to go down into the mine were made impossible by the continuing escape of noxious fumes (“afterdamp”), and it soon became evident that the volume of rubble that had fallen had all but cut off any air supply that might have existed. Rescuers, under the technical leadership of the engineers and including several local medical professionals, did what they could to insert ventilation tubes, but the prospects were pretty grim, as described in the Cambrian:

They gave small hopes indeed of a single individual being recovered alive, but thought there might be the barest possibility of some of them retiring into the remoter workings, where the air would be purer. There was not much consolation in that they said, because miners overtaken by an explosion of fire-damp invariably made their way to the pit’s mouth if they could, and if the poor fellows did so in this case, those who escaped instant death would only be rushing upon a cruel doom.

It was Wednesday before anyone could safely attempt to go below the surface to assess the situation further. In the meantime, any attempts made by any survivors to make themselves known to those on the surface would also have had mixed success, as the Aberdare Times explains:

The signal wires of the pit are broken, and the men could not consequently, if alive, communicate with those above but no hopes are entertained of their safety, as they would, it is believed, have shouted for help if they had not succumbed, and their shouts would probably have been heard.

Initially it was thought that 59 had died, this figure based on the number of safety lamps issued for the evening shift. Within days, this figure had been revised upwards to 63 after it transpired that a few men had collected their lamps earlier and/or taken them home with them after a previous shift. The Gwladgarwyr reports that 45 of those who died were married, 4 widowers, and just 14 unmarried (some of whom would have been mere boys). It tells us further that Evan, David and John Jenkins were brothers, as were John and James Edwards and John and James Rounstable. Octavius Wheadon and Charles Wheadon were father and son, and River Jordan was father-in-law to one of the Jenkins brothers (the article doesn’t specify which). It does not mention – though I have confirmed this through genealogical research – that another man killed, Thomas Richards, was the husband of River’s stepdaughter Louisa. As the Cardiff Times reported, “The colliery being a very old one [it was in fact the oldest and deepest in the Rhondda], many of those who work at it have lived in the neighbourhood for years, have intermarried, and so become related”. Several of the newspapers also give details of how many children each man had, though adult children that existed in the cases of River, Elisha and some of the other older men are not included as, presumably, they would not have been (as) dependent on their fathers. Nevertheless, this means the number of all those who lost a father that day far exceeds the number printed.

The Cardiff Times, in a bid to offer some slight relief, recounts the story of one man who had a lucky escape that night:

One man, a middle-aged miner, had one of those escapes which on such occasions always seem to indicate the intervention of Providence. He was not particularly well on Monday night, but did not think of staying away from the pit. His wife, however, though thinking her husband but slightly indisposed, was, as someone forcibly remarked, “dead set” against his going to work; and yielding to her persuasions he stayed at home. How much he has to be thankful for he himself now knows.

It also makes reference to a number of men who had recently been laid off, who it suggests might also have reassessed their situation somewhat in the light of the disaster. However, it also reports that one of those who died was a 15-year-old boy who was working in the pit for the very first time on that occasion (in the interests of accuracy, though, the youngest on the list accompanying the article, Evan Jenkins, was 16).

In addition to the loss of human life, the 44 horses underground at the time of the explosion also all died.

The inspector of mines established that defective ventilation had caused the disaster: a significant blockage in the air supply in or out of the shaft would have allowed for a rapid build-up of explosive gas. It is well worth noting that only two months before the explosion occurred, the colliery manager, a Mr John Chubb, had had his manager’s certificate suspended for six months for negligence, after it was found that inadequate or improper ventilation had led to a build-up of gas underground on two previous occasions. Mr Chubb’s cousin Robert, a married father of five, also died in the accident.

The recovery of the bodies must have been a particularly arduous, harrowing and time-consuming task, and I am not certain whether they ever found or formally identified all the bodies. The deaths of River and Elisha were both registered in the September quarter of 1879, i.e. in July, August or September, so some months after the explosion.

And what about the families they left behind? Maria, River’s widow, who was 54 when he died, was living with her daughter Sarah and family in Aberdare in 1881, and she was still with them in Pontypridd in 1901. I wonder if she was relieved that her son-in-law, William Evans, was a tailor and not down the mines. I have not been able to trace River’s daughter Mary who was also left a widow after the disaster – maybe she remarried and/or moved away. His other two children, Thomas and Fanny, were back in Lydney living next door to one another with their spouses and young families by 1881.

Emma Upjohn found her way out of widowhood rather quickly – a move, I should stress, that was just as likely to be prompted by economic necessity as by any other possible factors! – as she married a sawyer called Isaac Williams in early 1880. Of their children, I know that Elizabeth Anna had married a stonemason, Thomas Longhurst, by 1881 and like her mother and brothers, Harry and Frank, was still in the Pontypridd area. Harry was a butcher by now and was boarding with the parents of his future wife, a school teacher. Ultimately they changed their surname to the more Welsh sounding Apjohn, and one of their children, Tudor, born in 1891, was later to marry a Jordan, my great-aunt Marion. I have distant memories of visiting them in Whitchurch near Cardiff.

Finally, I think Elisha and Emma’s son Frank’s story is at once the happiest and the saddest: in October 1880 he married Louisa Richards, the stepdaughter of River Jordan who had been left a widow aged just 20 after the Dinas Colliery Disaster. Rather tragically, Frank died in 1882 before the birth of their second child, though Louisa married again the following year and had two further children before she herself died in 1891.

Sources (all accessed via NLW’s Welsh Newspapers Online):

  • “Terrible colliery explosion in the Rhondda Valley”, The Cambrian, 17 January 1879
  • “Disastrous colliery explosion in the Rhondda Valley”, Aberdare Times, 18 January 1879
  • “Tanchwa ddychrynllyd Pwll y Dinas”, Gwladgarwyr, 24 January 1879
  • “Terrible colliery explosion at Dinas”, Monmouthshire Merlin, 17 January 1879
  • “Terrible explosion at the Dinas Colliery”, Cardiff Times, 18 January 1879 – this is by far the most detailed article I have read on the topic


Filed under Genealogy, History

The Tale of a 19th-Century Stuttgart Pickpocket

I thoroughly enjoy reading historical newspapers, especially those of the nineteenth century in Britain, their eclecticism and taste for the bizarre providing endless entertainment as well as insights into how differently people lived – and journalists wrote – back then.

The following report appeared in the Aberystwyth Observer on Saturday, 13 October 1860, in a section on page 3 titled “Miscellaneous general news, home, foreign and colonial”. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this apocryphal sounding tale, but the story and the manner of its telling amused me a great deal. If you’re interested, you can access the whole edition here; this and many, many more 19th and early 20th century newspapers can be browsed or searched through the National Library of Wales’s excellent Welsh Newspapers Online resource.

A COOL PICKPOCKET. — The pickpockets of London and Paris have long enjoyed the reputation of being the most adroit in Europe; but, if we may believe the statement of a M. Charles W—-, Stuttgardt can fully rival those cities. That gentleman was walking in the Koenigstrasse, looking at the shops, when he was accosted by an obsequious little man, who offered his services to show him the lions of the capital, but the other refused the offer. The officious personage, however, was not offended, but politely asked him what o’clock it was. The other answered that he did not know, as his watch had stopped, and continued his walk towards the Museum of Natural History, which he entered. He had not been there many minutes before the same person came up to him with the air of an old acquaintance, and offered him a pinch of snuff. This M. W—- declined, saying he was no snuff-taker, and walked away; but some minutes after, having a presentiment of something being wrong, he felt for his snuff-box, but instead of it found a scrap of paper in his pocket, on which was written,

“As you are no snuff-taker, you do not require a box.”

He thought the logic of his unknown acquaintance rather impertinent, and resolved to bear his loss like a philosopher; but what was his amazement when, a moment after, he discovered that his watch had also disappeared, and in his other pocket was another note, in the following words:

“As your watch does not tell the hour, it would be better at the watchmaker’s than in your pocket.”

It is hardly necessary to say that he never heard any further tidings of the two articles.

What I especially like is the stark contrast between the earthy, yet measured and certainly creepy “voice” of the pickpocket contrasting with the quite pompous, condescending and almost trite tone of the rest of the report: the latter is clearly not the sole preserve of today’s Daily Mail!

I’d love to know the provenance of this story and how widely it was known and published elsewhere. A quick Google search yields the same story in the Fayetteville Observer (North Carolina, 1860 – link opens PDF of the relevant edition) and the Hawke’s Bay Herald (New Zealand, 1861), so that suggests quite a geographical spread. Within Wales, it also appeared in the Monmouthshire Merlin in 1862 (edition of 4 October), so it seems to have been doing the rounds for a couple of years at least.

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Filed under Books & reading, History

A linguistic excursion: from industrialization to nature via the sports field

Linguistic excursionToday’s entry is going to be rather bitty – though with a long ornithological excursus towards the end that non-bird-nerds should feel free to skip – but I do have what I hope are some interesting word- and phrase-related snippets to share. Some are new discoveries, others welcome jogs to the memory I’ve come across over the last few days.

On stereotype and cliché

I knew that the term stereotype came from printing, but professional cornucopia of knowledge Stephen Fry added some further insight into the matter on this week’s QI (a BBC quiz programme, in case you didn’t know). The term was first used by the French printer Firmin Didot in 1798 and it applied to a process whereby once a page of print had been (manually) typeset in its final format, a mould was made and a single metal printing plate cast from this mould. It was easier and quicker to print multiple copies of any page from this plate than from the original made up of all those small pieces of metal lined up in a frame.

Given that manually setting movable type was a laborious and time-consuming business, printers had discovered that if they had phrases that were frequently reused, it made sense to make a cast of the whole phrase so that it could be quickly inserted in one fell swoop. And these mini-stereotypes, metal strips of interconnected print “characters” representing well-worn phrases, were known as clichés. Some say that the etymological origin of the name is the verb cliquer, meaning “to click”, on account of the clicking sound the metal made as it was poured into the mould.

On jacquard and sabotage

Also on QI, there came a discussion of technical developments including prototypes of the computer and other “programming” systems. The broadcast of the episode almost coinciding with the birthday of Ada Lovelace (born 10 December 1815), mention was made of her work with Charles Babbage, and the discussion turned to developments preceding their work on the Analytical Engine.  The machine made use of punch cards of a kind developed in 1801 by French merchant Joseph Marie Jacquard for insertion in a special patented loom to add a degree of automation to the weaving process by “pre-programming” a pattern into the cloth. To this day we associate the term jacquard with certain ornate types of woven fabric, damask being one example, and it was thanks to the punch-card system that the process of producing these complicated patterns was made very much quicker and more efficient. I remember becoming fascinated by the idea of the Jacquard loom during a visit to the National Wool Museum in Dre-fach Felindre (South West Wales) some years ago, but at the time I hadn’t completely cottoned on (geddit?!) to the extent to which the reach of this invention went so much further than producing cloth.

Not everyone, though, was as inspired by Jacquard’s invention as the likes of Babbage and Lovelace. Just as the Luddites in England revolted against the introduction of machine looms a few years later, fearing that their status as skilled handloom weavers would become worthless, their French counterparts were similarly aghast at Jacquard’s innovations and set out to destroy these new-fangled machines. Their weapons of choice? Their wooden clogs – sabots – and thus the word sabotage came into being. Or at least, that was Stephen Fry’s line – Wikipedia suggests that the term might actually go back to Dutch weavers in the fifteenth century, though in a similar scenario.

On throwing people curveballs and knocking them for six

This morning on Twitter, Kellie (@belouise) was asking what a “curveball” was, not in the original baseball sense but in the figurative expression “to throw someone a curve[ball]“. I didn’t know what it meant either – we Brits don’t do baseball or baseball idioms, on the whole – but I did a bit of poking about on t’internet and found out that it basically means to confuse someone or throw them off track by doing something surprising or unexpected. It struck me that in British English we tend to use the expression “to knock someone for six” with much the same meaning, though interestingly the expression is based on the (unexpected) behaviour of the batsman in our case, not of the bowler, and – not so surprisingly – it is derived from cricket rather than baseball.

It is also no real surprise that there are many sport-derived idioms that have developed differently in American English and British English (as well as a lot more that share meaning and form). While translating a text with colleagues recently, I found that while I had written “the ball is in the politicians’ court” (= tennis), an American colleague had written “the ball is in the politicians’ corner” (= baseball again). In the wider context, it is certainly the baseball terms that have come to the fore in the international boardroom, though interesting that phrases such as “to touch base” and “a ballpark estimate” frequently make it onto British-based lists of most hated “management speak” or jargon. Is this due to a knee-jerk anti-Americanization drive, because they sound alien or false when used by a non-American, or simply because a few people use them too frequently in an offhand, cliched manner? I really don’t know and am not going to be the judge of that here.

On eagles, hawks and kites

Moving away from contentious issues, it seems to be a fact internationally acknowledged that birds of prey have good eyesight, and this fact has given rise to its fair share of idiomatic expressions, some dating back to ancient lore. An observant or scrutinising person can be described as having eyes like a hawk or keeping an eagle eye on something, and in German you can use either Falkenauge (= hawk, falcon) or Adlerauge (= eagle), or related phrases, to get the same idea across; I’m sure many of you reading this could provide further parallel examples from other languages, too.

My heart did a little skip the other day, though, when I discovered that a Welsh expression for this seems to be llygad barcud, i.e. “eye of the kite”. Now, eagles are extremely rare in Wales – the golden eagle, once a native species, has not been resident for over 400 years and sightings are thus extremely rare, and the white-tailed eagle seems also to be only a rare visitor. It may in fact be that neither was ever really prevalent in the area, so that the absence of these species from everyday expressions would not be that surprising. Kites are a rather different case in point, having been present in Wales for longer than anyone knows, though not without their challenges, as I’ll explain in a moment.

To backtrack a bit first: in English folklore and literature the kite traditionally suffered pretty bad press, being considered nothing more than a trouble-making scavenger: Shakespeare, for example, has King Lear refer to his daughter Goneril as a “detested kite”. In Scotland the situation was no better as they were legally labelled as vermin in the 15th century. Not the stuff of noble idioms, then. Nor any surprise that the red kite was extinct in England and Scotland well before the end of the 19th century (with reintroduction only from 1989: see here).

I really don’t know how the red kite was viewed historically by the people of Wales – maybe someone else can enlighten me on this – but it is certainly the case that various individuals made efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to prevent its extinction. They managed that, though only just – by the 1930s the population had continued to decline to an estimated <20 birds. What did happen, though, was that the local population became fiercely protective of these birds – not least against the efforts of egg thieves – and the red kite took on an almost mythical status that I can still remember from my childhood. Mid Wales was a place of hallowed pilgrimage for those seeking the last habitat of the UK red kite.

The situation has much improved since then and has been mirrored elsewhere in the UK through reintroduction programmes. In Wales, though, the red kite remains a symbol of triumph over adversity and has widely been used as an icon representing wildlife in the region. In a poll run by the RSPB and the BBC in Wales in 2007, the red kite was the clear winner: “an astonishing 36% of voters picked the red kite as their favourite bird, putting it way ahead of the robin – which came second with 15% of votes – and the barn owl in third place with 11%.”

I still feel a sense of exhilaration when I see a red kite – or even a pair of them – circling overhead, and all of this is why I was so pleased to find an expression that ennobled this lovely bird.

Thank you if you’ve taken the time to read this far – that’s all for this week. 🙂


Filed under History, Intercultural & interlinguistic

On my birthday

On my birthdayAnother post, another meme, but this time the topic caught my eye because I thought it was a good opportunity to dust off and expand on my knowledge of history.

The aim is to focus on the day of the year on which you were born and to talk about various events and personalities associated with that day. Click on the picture to the left to view the original post that has, in the meantime, inspired a lot of other people to write about their birthdays (links to these can be found at the bottom of the original article – is your birthday there yet?).

Note: all bullet points in this post are copied, including hyperlinks, from the Wikipedia entry for May 19, though I’ve looked at a wider range of sources for my own input.

When is your birthday?

On 19th May.

Pick three people who share your birthday and share what you know about them.

Nancy Astor is best known as the first female MP to set foot in the House of Commons, in 1919. I say “set foot” deliberately as she wasn’t the first female MP to be elected: the previous year saw the election of Constance Markievicz, but as a Sinn Fein member who refused to take the obligatory oath of allegiance to the UK monarch she was not allowed to take her seat in the Commons – not much has changed there.

Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor (source: Wikimedia)

Astor was active in the temperance movement and championed causes relating to (women’s) suffrage and education. Like most politicians, she was not without controversy – she was accused of jumping on the suffrage bandwaggon only after she had been elected, while her American birth and upper class credentials led to criticism that she was out of touch with ordinary people. Having said that, I suspect it would have been well-nigh impossible within the social structures of that time for an “ordinary” woman to have the wherewithal to enter high-level politics, though I am very happy to be corrected if this is an inaccurate view.

Astor was well known for her acerbic wit and sharp tongue. Her election slogan was “Vote for Lady Astor and your children will weigh more”. She is also quoted as saying, “I married beneath me – all women do”. My favourite Astor soundbyte, though, and one I’ve known since I was quite young, comes from an exchange with Winston Churchill:

Astor: If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.

Churchill: If I were your husband, I’d drink it.

I don’t know as much about Malcolm X as I should, so it would be pretentious to try to give the impression of writing knowledgeably about him here, when probably most people reading this know a great deal more. What strikes me, though, after writing about Nancy Astor above is that here we have a political activist who also grew up in America, though half a century later than Lady Astor and in circumstances dictated by the cards having fallen very diferently. He was not cushioned by affluence in his political aspirations, but spurred into action by hardship and suffering experienced firsthand.

I can’t think of many comedians I’ve laughed at so much and for so long as Victoria Wood. Her TV shows and other projects were very present in my life throughout my teens and most of my twenties (after which I moved to Germany), and she specialises in the kind of razor-sharp observation applied to satirizing the mundane that has always made me laugh (and probably always will).

A 2005 Channel Four poll among those working in the comedy industry ranked her 27th among the top 50 comedy acts ever – she was the highest-ranked female comedian of all, beating some stiff competition from other favourites of mine, French & Saunders and Joyce Grenfell (though I have to say I’m disappointed – though not surprised – that there were no women in the higher echelons of the poll rankings). In the meantime she has won BAFTAs and other awards for her acting and comedy shows, and has been awarded both an OBE and a CBE by the Queen.

Here is one of my favourite Victoria Wood sketches. The show is completely stolen by the fabulous Julie Walters, but it’s an unforgettable exchange.

Is anyone listed as being born on the same day as you (ie the same year)? If so, what do you know about them?

Without looking these guys up, I have to confess I couldn’t tell you a thing about them – I feel I should know more about the first guy as the name rings a vague bell somewhere, but as I’m dreadful with names of producers and directors I have to draw a complete blank. The second guy no doubt thought he was giving himself a scary name of the “psychosis” variety, but I find myself wanting to read it as “psittacosis” – exactly why I have a better memory for obscure avian diseases than for (probably) mainstream movie producers is a mystery to me.

— Interlude while I do a bit of googling… —

Ah, it seems that Ross Katz’ main claim to fame is that he co-produced Lost in Translation, so that provides a link of sorts to stuff that I do (translation, rather than getting lost in it). Of course, the film is not ostensibly about translation in the classical sense – something that I can remember slightly disappointed me at the time I saw it – but it does deal with quite important issues of interlinguistic and intercultural problems in a much subtler way than the usual crashing slapstick such moments tend to give rise to in mainstream cinema. So hats off to Mr Katz for his role in that.

As regards the wrestler, I now know that his actual name is the much more mellifluous (and to me, less sick-parrot-sounding) Dionicio Castellanos Torres. I have to say, though, that I can’t really bring myself to work up a knowledge of wrestling, prodigious though Señor Torres’ career seems to have been, so I will refrain from saying any more about him. What did catch my eye, though, was a brief sentence towards the end of the Wikipedia article on him: “Torres appeared in the independent documentary, 101 Reasons Not To Become A Professional Wrestler.” Oh.

List three people who died on your birthday and tell us what you know about them. 

  • 804Alcuin, English monk and scholar (b. c.735)

I studied Medieval Studies in Leeds many moons ago (though not so long ago that it was modern history at that time), and there was no escaping local lad Alcuin of York. In fact, however, though he started his illustrious career at the cathedral school in York, Alcuin spent much of his life rather further afield in continental Europe, where he was appointed as a scholar and teacher at Charlemagne’s court in Aachen. He is acknowledged as one of the key figures in the Carolingian Renaissance and led efforts to set up a standard curriculum to be followed at the Carolingian schools. The basis of this curriculum was the artes liberales divided into the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy); these subject areas remained an important educational basis well into the Renaissance period (and indeed the term “liberal arts” still exists today, albeit in a somewhat different form).

OK, this is going to be much more about reactions than historical facts. My first real encounter with Charles Ives was incredibly nerve-wracking. I was twenty, in my last year with the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, and had finally reached the coveted – and veeeery exposed – position of principal flute. One of the pieces on our ambitious programme for our two-week stint of rehearsals and concerts was Ives’ Three Places in New England. It’s a comforting, tidy, unpretentious, homely (in the American sense) title that made me think of picturesque wooden houses and the placid autumnal glow of the New England fall. However, the first rehearsal was dominated by chaotic cacophony, me (and others) missing important solos due to miscounting, and an overall feel that was more akin to not knowing where one was in Old England on a Saturday night at throwing-out time.

For people like me who were far more used to the regular time signatures and broad melodic expanses that characterize the mainstream of Classical and Romantic music in a broad sense, Ives was a nightmare of cross-rhythms, syncopation, apparently random entries cued by silence, and some of the most controlled, exposed technique I’ve ever had to use. I don’t think I slept much the first week.

In any case, it was a steep learning curve, but so very worth it in the end. Out of the initial cacophony rose an intricately woven tapestry of the most amazing combination of snatches of sound – two competing marching bands playing at once, passages that you just had to associate with water, or fog, hard textures, soft textures, layer upon layer of sound, folksong against avant-garde atonal clustering, sudden caesura alongside gently metamorphosing motifs.

I think it’s one of the most amazing pieces I’ve ever heard, let alone had the privilege of playing. Do, do, please give it a listen if you have never come across it.

I was rather sad to discover that in fact two of my favourite poets died on my birthday. John Betjeman , English poet and Poet Laureate died on this day in 1984, and I could easily have written a few lines about him. However, Ogden Nash has the slight edge as he died on the very day I was born (why does that send an odd shiver down my spine?), and I came to his poetry earlier, at about the age of six. I can remember being fascinated by a poem of his that we had up on the wall at school. I know I’d recognize it if I saw it again, but unfortunately my attempts to find it have proved unsuccessful so far.

However, there is much more of value to be discovered in the anthologies of this master of humorous rhyme and wordplay, so I’ve just picked out a few lines and stanzes from here and there that particularly caught my eye and made me smile.

Nash has a refreshingly irreverent take on love poetry, for example:

A girl whose cheeks are covered with paint
Has an advantage with me over one whose ain’t.

– “Biological Reflection”

Some of what he says sounds silly but makes a very serious point:

Consider the auk;
Becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly, and could only walk.
Consider man, who may well become extinct
Because he forgot how to walk and learned how to fly before he thinked.

– “A Caution To Everybody”

Beneath this slab
John Brown is stowed.
He watched the ads
And not the road.

– “Lather As You Go”

Nash was also a master of the ultra-short poem. I particularly like “Further Reflections on Parsley”, where the poem text is shorter than the title:

Is gharsley.

I wanted to pick just one longer poem to include in its entirety, and I think it has to be “Peekabo, I Almost See You”. It combines the best of Nash’s quirks with some pretty universal sentiments that I hear from my glasses-wearing friends and relatives on a regular basis:

Middle-aged life is merry, and I love to
lead it,
But there comes a day when your eyes
are all right but your arm isn’t long
to hold the telephone book where you can read it,
And your friends get jocular, so you go
to the oculist,
And of all your friends he is the joculist,
So over his facetiousness let us skim,
Only noting that he has been waiting for you ever since
you said Good evening to his grandfather clock under
the impression that it was him,
And you look at his chart and it says SHRDLU QWERTYOP,
and you say Well, why SHRDNTLU QWERTYOP? and he
says one set of glasses won’t do.
You need two.
One for reading Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason and
Keats’s “Endymion” with,
And the other for walking around without saying Hello
to strange wymion with.
So you spend your time taking off your seeing glasses to put
on your reading glasses, and then remembering that your
reading glasses are upstairs or in the car,
And then you can’t find your seeing glasses again because
without them on you can’t see where they are.
Enough of such mishaps, they would try the patience of an
I prefer to forget both pairs of glasses and pass my declining
years saluting strange women and grandfather clocks.

List three notable events that took place on your birthday.

A tapestry in the Flemish style of Catherine of Aragon and her husband Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales (source: Wikimedia)

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the royal family and the nobility always had an easier time of things in long past ages, while the poor struggled and starved. Occasionally you get a stark reminder, though, of the particular pressures the high-born were placed under. Catherine and Arthur were betrothed as small children, so there would not have been much scope for imagining a different existence in either of their lives; their being “married by proxy” at a young age was on the surface of it designed to strengthen the Tudor claim to the English throne, but it also ensured that the parties were under a stronger contractual obligation to one another.

It is interesting to note that Catherine and Arthur managed to correspond with each other by letter, in Latin, until late in 1501, when they were deemed old enough to actually meet and marry “in person”. When they did come face to face, however, they found communication quite difficult as they had very different pronunciations of Latin. Nor was there much of a happy ending in any other sense – just a few months after their marriage both fell seriously ill, and Catherine recovered only to find herself a widow.

At this point, Arthur’s father, Henry VII, could have been obliged to return Catherine’s dowry to her father. In the end, though, it was agreed that she would marry Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, Duke of York. There followed an interim of several years – Henry was too young to marry, and the idea of a union with Spain through marriage became less attractive to the King. Catherine’s future was uncertain and she was virtually kept prisoner during this time. However, when Henry senior died and his son ascended the throne, one of the first things Henry VIII did was to finally marry Catherine. The rest of this ultimately ill-fated union is well documented elsewhere.

Anne Boleyn was Catherine’s maid of honour and ultimately her “successor” as Queen, though it is certainly well known that there was an overlap between the two relationships. While Henry managed to have his marriage to Catherine annulled, this did not actually come through until a few months after he had married Anne. It was the refusal of the Pope to annul this marriage that triggered Henry’s desire to break with Rome and foreshadowed the beginnings of the Church of England. Both Catherine and Anne were important figures in English history, not least because they bore female heirs who went on to rule the country in their own right. However, both failed to produce a (surviving) male heir, and this was their ultimate downfall.

Annulment was not Henry’s weapon of choice for getting rid of his second wife after her presence came to be an obstruction to his further plans; instead, he had Anne and a group of others investigated on charges amounting to adultery, high treason and incest. She was found guilty – on unconvincing evidence, from the viewpoint of modern scholars – and was beheaded just one day after Henry announced his betrothal to his third wife, Jane Seymour. All the evidence indicates that Henry sent for her executioner, a swordsman from France, before she even went on trial.

I’m neither a republican nor a passionate royalist/monarchist, but the Commonwealth period was certainly an important caesura in English and British history. Following on from a period during which the monarch had become simply too powerful and too easily able to interfere in political life, the eventual execution of King Charles I paved the way for a period of radical political change that saw the (temporary) abolition of the monarchy, the House of Lords and the Church of England. The country was controlled by the House of Commons and the army.

Oliver Cromwell became the new “ruler” (Lord Protector of the Commonwealth) in 1653, and he imposed military rule and ran the country with as much power as the monarch had previously held. Puritan values were imposed by law, and while most of us might applaud the abolition of “cruel” sports such as bear-baiting and cock-fighting, restrictions also affected ale-houses, theatres, and the celebration of Christmas and Easter was also suppressed. There was much political experimentation without any stable form of government or institutions emerging.

Cromwell died in 1658, and after that there was no one obvious to carry on as a convincing ruler. Few of those active in politics had real parliamentary or legal experience, and things began to crumble. Ultimately royalists were re-admitted to Parliament, and slowly the tide turned once more in favour of the monarchy. Charles II, as he would become, was summoned back to England from Holland and the monarchy was restored in 1660. Importantly, Charles agreed to continue the policy of religious toleration introduced during the Commonwealth as well as to share power with Parliament and not attempt to be an absolutist ruler as his father had done. And while the path might not always have been smooth, all of these points have continued to define the reigns of those who have followed him.

Tell us about a holiday that falls on your birthday.

St Dunstan (909 – 19 May 988) had an illustrious scholastic and ecclesiastical career, serving as the Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, the Bishop of both Worcester and London, and ultimately as the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was canonised in 1029 and his feast day has been celebrated ever since. I could go into the reasons for his canonisation, but there are a number of miscellaneous aspects of his life and legacy that I’m going to pick out here, just because I happened to find them rather (more) interesting.

Dunstan seems to have had a range of talents and is known to have been a scribe, an illustrator / illuminator, silversmith and musician. He is the patron saint of both silversmiths and goldsmiths, and one fascinating fact that I discovered in this connection is that hallmark years for silver and gold run not from 1 January to 31 December, but from 19 May to 18 May the next (calendar) year.

Dunstan and the Devil, by George Cruikshank (source: Wikimedia)

As is the case with many saints, there are tales of encounters between Dunstan and the Devil. In one of these he is said to have nailed a horseshoe to the Devil’s hoof, causing him – unsurprisingly – much pain. The Devil protested but Dunstan stood his ground, only agreeing to remove the offending item once the Devil had promised never to enter a place that had a horseshoe attached to its lintel. It is widely believed that this is the origin of the lucky horseshoe superstition.

Finally, please tag some lovely people to carry on this meme, then link back to this post so they can find the badge and link up their post once published.

A couple of people have already asked to be tagged: they are my lovely photography friend Chis (better known online as Squonk) and my school friend Nicola, who has a fairly new blog. I’d also love to read my brother Matt‘s take on his birthday (which is coming up soon, plus maybe he’d like to be nudged into blogging again!). No obligation on any of you to continue the meme, but for anyone who feels browbeaten into inspired to do so, it would be great if you’d leave a comment with a link here so that I and other interested readers can follow it up.


Filed under History, Memes & blogging challenges, Up close and personal

Family history windfall

I haven’t had a lot of spare time over the last week – mainly due to having guests and a party to organize over the weekend – but what time I have had has been spent poring avidly over the latest records the folks at have added to their resources, and it’s been an exciting time indeed. No wonder my poor little laptop has been groaning and creaking of late!

Appropriately enough on St David’s Day (1 March), FMP published nearly four million new Welsh records reproduced from parish registers, the results of an ongoing collaborative project they have going with the National Library of Wales and the Welsh County Archivists Group. Though there is still a lot more to come, I was particularly excited that this update contained huge numbers of records for Glamorgan, where a great many of Mum’s ancestors hail from, and also for Denbighshire and Flintshire, the coverage for which had been very poor previously (and where significant portions of Dad’s family were / are based).

What I find particularly valuable about these latest additions is that in many cases, alongside indexed (and thus easily searchable) transcripts of the records, they have provided high-quality digital images of the original records that often yield further information not included in the standardized, reduced format of the transcripts. To give them their due, the transcripts do generally indicate whether there is further personal information included in the original register, but this can be a source of slight frustration if you have no access to the original.

Marriage records are the case in point here: while the transcripts contain what is admittedly the most important information such as the names of the bride and groom, the date and location of the marriage and (if the information is contained in the original manuscript) ages of the parties and their parishes of origin, plus – from 1837 on in most cases – the names and professions of the fathers of the groom and bride respectively, what is generally not included in the transcripts is the more precise abode(s) of the bridal couple, names of the witnesses (these were often family members so are worth researching in their own right), and information as to whether the various parties signed their names or – if they didn’t know how to write their name – made a cross or other mark in the register. The latter point can be interesting in terms of giving insight into levels of education in the age before schooling was compulsory, and on the more emotional level there is a certain thrill associated with actually seeing the handwriting of your ancestors – sometimes beautifully formed, more often a spidery scrawl or a scratchy, blotted mark on the page.

Here are the signatures (or mark) of my great-great grandparents Thomas John and Ann Thomas, who married in Llansamlet in 1866, plus their two witnesses (who from their surnames look as though they might have been relatives of Ann, though I have the impression that every second person in Llansamlet had the surname Thomas at this date):

(This is just the couple of lines at the bottom of the full register entry. I hope it gives an idea of what I mean without infringing copyright.)

I won’t bore you here with all sorts of individual details about the new connections I’ve found out over the last week; suffice it to say that I have…

  • found a number of “new” ancestors by being able to move back a generation or two in several cases
  • filled out a few branches of my family through discovering siblings, cousins and in-laws turning up as marriage witnesses
  • removed a few question marks about whether individuals of the same name turning up in different parishes /areas were the same person or not
  • solved some mysteries and dispelled a couple of myths about various people’s provenance


  • opened up numerous new cans of worms to be dealt with in the future 😉


Filed under Genealogy, History

Lime is not only the fruit…

Lime Kiln, Aberystwyth

Anyone who has been down to the harbour in Aberystwyth will have spotted the lime kiln that stands out as one of the oldest – and oddest looking – things you can see in the immediate area. As a child I always thought it looked like a giant sandcastle, which seemed to provide a satisfying enough raison d’être for this oddity, given that Aberystwyth is known for its beach and a castle as well. Even the cracks in the brickwork resemble the worrying structural faults that sandcastles tend to develop as a result of overzealous reshaping or gravity-defying planning.

To continue my recent(ish) attempts to look more carefully at things I photograph, not just through the viewfinder, I decided it was time to find out a bit more about this landmark…

In fact it is the last survivor of a number of such kilns in the Trefechan area around the harbour, dating back to the eighteenth century. In those days Aberystwyth was a busy sea port, something that is hard to appreciate today given that the harbour is home to just a few small fishing boats, modest sailing yachts and the like. Back then, limestone was shipped in from places further down the coast, together with culm (a mixture of coal dust and clay), the fuel needed to convert it into (quick)lime.

Burning limestone (calcium carbonate, CaCO3) at temperatures of 800-900°C causes it to break down into carbon dioxide (CO2) and calcium oxide (CaO) in a process that was said to result in blue flames and lots of thick yellow smoke coming out of the kiln. Calcium oxide is a very reactive compound traditionally known as quicklime because of its lively behaviour on contact with water. Adding water produces so-called slaked lime (calcium hydroxide, Ca(OH)2).

Are you still with me? Nowadays I suspect most of us could come up with a good few ideas for how you might use lime of the green, citrus variety (mmmm, caipirinha!), but this other sort of lime has most likely slipped into obscurity for us “younger” generations and/or anyone not interested in the chemical side of it. However, this stuff was hugely important in the heyday of these kilns, and had been for a long, long time before that.

The Romans used lime in mortar and concrete, and for centuries it was also used for making whitewash, a kind of paint that was popular not just because it was cheap and gave a fresh, clean look to the walls of houses but also for its added durability and anti-bacterial properties. In this part of Wales lime was used rather more extensively in agriculture – farmers purchased calcium oxide to slake and spread on their fields to neutralize the acidity of the soil, improve drainage and provide access to nutrients for their crops, the beneficial properties of lime having been noted as early as the sixteenth century. Without this fertilizer arable farming would have been well-nigh impossible, and concentrating on sheep or dairy farming was simply not an option for the subsistence farmers of pre-modern times.

The decline of the lime burning industry in West Wales in the nineteenth century can be mainly attibuted to two factors. Firstly, agriculture had changed almost beyond recognition even within the space of a century, and fertilizers had moved on, too. Those farmers who were still growing cereal crops in this area could choose between potent, if pricy, imported guano (anyone who has experienced the seagull problem in Aberystwyth might wonder why it needed to be imported…*), more readily available and economically produced bone meal, or superphosphate of the sort manufactured in England since 1842.

Secondly, the coming of the railways might have turned Aberystwyth into a tourist resort, but in industrial terms the area became marginalized as the local shipping trade was gradually wound down and inland, more central areas were more economically integrated into the industrial transport network. Even today, when you travel by train to Aberystwyth you can feel as if you are travelling to the end of the world…

* I do know why, but I don’t want to expose myself as a faeces nerd 😉


Filed under History, Out & about, Photography

Crème caramel

Well, I don’t think I’ll be winning any prizes for food photography with this shot, but this is last night’s dessert, crème caramel. It was ever so good.

No one made any snide comments about the choice of a French dessert to follow my very British main course (which went down extremely well, by the way) – maybe people don’t think of it as being French but rather a fairly international dessert.

It’s a type of baked custard.

When I hear the word custard, I certainly think of hot vanilla-flavoured sauce poured over some very British dessert: apple crumble, spotted dick, treacle pudding… The French serve it cold and call it crème anglaise (which the Germans took over as Englische Creme, so they must have thought of it as typically British/English at some point, though I can’t find any more comment on the etymology of this.

The term custard has a wider meaning of course, ranging through various kinds of egg-thickened milk or cream concoctions, whether used for filling eclairs (as confectioner’s custard) or quiches (a savoury form). Many of these forms date back to the Middle Ages, when egg and milk mixtures were popular for filling flans and tarts – in fact the word “custard” is a corruption of crustade, an old word for a pie or pie crust (cf. French croustade). Classic French cuisine, meanwhile, has no specific word for custard, using the more general term crème instead. Maybe it was conceptually more important to the British, since they at least had a word for it.

Europeans took a wealth of custard recipes with them to the New World, though sometime in the nineteenth century the terms “custard” and “pudding” became confused in the United States, so that to this day “pudding” in American English denotes a set milk pudding. This new meaning of the word came back over the Atlantic and settled in German as Pudding. Cue confusion and strange looks when, as a Brit, you start talking to people in this country about Christmas pudding, steak and kidney pudding or black pudding, or even if you simply ask “What’s for pudding?”…


Filed under Food, History, Intercultural & interlinguistic

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

Tomorrow I will be making another step in  my so far successful quest to convince German friends that British food goes beyond fish and chips, haggis, baked beans and spongy square white sliced bread (“untoasted toast” as one student once put it – I guess you have to have lived in Germany to get that one) and is actually rather good.

The main attraction is going to be beef and Guinness casserole with herb dumplings. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme – a very quaint English-sounding mixture to those of us who grew up with the song “Scarborough Fair” and were aware that it was not written by a couple of folk-rock dudes from New York.

The line is a recurring refrain throughout the song, which in its simplest form is the lament of someone who has been left by his lover and imagines a string of impossible-sounding feats that will win her back. The herbs mantra seems at first sight (or hearing) not to make much sense, but centuries-old knowledge about the medicinal properties of these four herbs can be tied in to give a somewhat clearer allegorical meaning.

  • Parsley is well known as an aid to digestion (remember Peter Rabbit?) and as a herb to counteract bitterness or acrid tastes (garlic might fall into the latter category). The jilted lover in the song presumably hopes to overcome his own feelings of bitterness.
  • Sage, whose Latin name salvia comes from the verb meaning “to heal” or “to be / feel well”, is symbolic of strength – it is no coincidence that even today it is used as a herbal remedy for excessive sweating, as a means to “strengthen” the stomach following e.g. a course of antibiotics, and as a more general boost to the immune system thanks to its antioxidant properties. An old rhyming aphorism tells us “He that would live for aye / Must eat sage in May”. The “I” of the song thus wishes for strength to overcome his adversity and recover. In German folk tradition, sage was also used to prepare love potions.
  • The herb rosemary represents loyalty and constancy (maybe partly because it is evergreen), love and remembrance (Nicholas Culpeper noted that “It helps a weak memory” and that it is good for “all the diseases of the head and brain”), qualities the singer of the song has not been receiving too much of recently, but precisely those qualities and feelings he hopes to rekindle in his beloved lady.
  • Thyme also contains potent essential oils (the name derives from the Greek verb thyo, “to perfume”) and symbolizes courage. Culpeper said that wild thyme was “excellent for nervous disorders” and that it was “a certain remedy for that troublesome complaint, the night-mare”. The Ancient Greeks believed it strengthened certain masculine characteristics (it does have proven aphrodisiac qualities, apparently), and in the Middle Ages knights often had thyme painted on their shields as proof of their mettle. Today, apart from its continued use in cooking, it has largely been relegated to a remedy for coughs, sadly distant from its rather grander reputation in older thymes …. err, times. However, the protagonist in the song was probably not thinking about his bronchial health.

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Filed under Food, History, Intercultural & interlinguistic

Exploring Neuf-Brisach

Plan of Neuf-Brisach (c. 1697) (image via Wikimedia, out of copyright)

I’d whizzed past the fortified town of Neuf-Brisach (New Breisach) in the car on numerous occasions many moons ago, on the way to Colmar, but I’d never managed to actually stop and take a look at it. This changed on Tuesday when it became the destination for a cycle tour.

The name, Neuf-Brisach, might seem misleading to some as the town in fact dates back to the years around 1700, but it distinguishes the location from the ancient city of Breisach over on the other – German – side of the Rhine. Neuf-Brisach is, today, in Alsace (France), but it owes its existence partly to Austria.

In the 17th century all of this area, also including Breisach and Freiburg to the east of the Rhine, was under French rule, but according to the terms of the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, the now German areas were to be surrendered to Austria, which was under Habsburg rule back then. The French king, Louis XIV, felt the need for a new fortification close to the Rhine border and commissioned his military engineer, the Marquis de Vauban, to build Neuf-Brisach. The plan shown above dates from this period.

Vauban upgraded and built a great many fortifications and military harbours during his lifetime, including Freiburg, Besançon, Maastricht and Dunkirk. A cluster of these were awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2008. He favoured the star fort design, not because it looked baroque and pretty, but for the military strength it offered. Unlike most older round or rectangular types of fortress, the walls of the star fort did not present easy perpendicular targets for attackers. From older designs it was hard to open cannon fire on potential infiltrators who had come close to the fortress walls, whereas the star fort offered defensive firing options from a range of different and overlapping angles, again not just perpendicular to a main wall. In other words, there were no dead zones. The diamond-shaped points allowed no hiding places for attackers, while an elaborate system of walls and ditches lured them into so-called “killing grounds”.

It’s odd thinking about all this today when you walk around the outside of Neuf-Brisach. There was a herd of sheep fenced in and sheltering from the sun next to one section of the walls, some sort of playground-cum-modern-art thingy on another side, and the only noise came when one approached one of the four city gates, which provide the only road access to the town.

Inside the walls, the chessboard layout of the original street plan has largely been preserved, and the central square, once a parade ground, is now a spacious market place in the centre of this now sleepy, quaint little town. The square’s vastness and the plain gritty surface do serve as a strong reminder of its original purpose, though.

Neuf-Brisach may not be the most monumentally impressive or best known of Vauban’s works, but it’s a wonderful destination for a day out and it’s given me a great excuse to delve a bit further into the history of this area.

Outer wall detail, with pigeon flypast

Epilogue: One interesting thing I found out while researching this entry was that Michaelangelo engineered the building of a star fortification for Florence in the sixteenth century. Who knew?


Filed under History, Out & about