Thursday, 24 November 2011

Ghosts in the Snow - Chasing Ancestors North

Half the joy of being a genealogist is poring over the census records, deciphering ancient hand-writing, working out who the correct parents should be, and trying to draw a diagram that represents a family. But if you really want to play the sleuth, as we all love to do, the other half of this great hobby is getting out there. Walk their streets. Find their houses. Visit their churches.

This is a story which is strange for me to tell because it contradicts my normally rational and unflinchingly logical view of the world. This is a tale of coincidence, sentimentality and bewilderment about how I chased an unknown branch of my tree, and grew to love them. It's a soulful and lonely adventure I'd like to share.

It began with a visit to an old friend in Newcastle. A visit which went badly wrong. Not because of anything I did, but because the circumstances of her life contrived to destroy our plans on a Friday night in such a way that it was impossible for me to stay the rest of the weekend. I was far from home and without a place to stay.

But what I did have was a plan forming quickly in my mind as I packed my bag on Saturday morning. The line of my family which gives me my middle name came from the area, and I happened to have grabbed a few notes from home, with a half-hope of driving around Newcastle to see whether the streets still existed. We had a little time to kill before I had to head off, so my friend was kind enough to act as patient chauffeur and pander to my genealogical whims, whilst her life gently imploded in the background.

My trail began with this certificate:

My deeply Scottish ancestor Charles Napier McCulloch had married a young woman appropriately called Ann Isabella Scott. These were my great, great grandparents. At the time of their marriage of 1877 they had been living in Argyle Street. Ann Scott had been born in Newcastle, as revealed by her birth certificate, a document which also gave the names of her parents:

Ann's father was William Scott and her mother was Margaret nee Hills. A few years after Ann Scott's marriage, the 1881 census reveals her mother in Tower Street, Newcastle. Ann's father had died by 1881 and her widowed mother aged 58, was a boarding house keeper.

Tower Street, Newscastle
It was with some excitement I walked up the old steps to Tower Street - a narrow, student-occupied corner of the town centre. The immortal Tyne was behind me and the tall, slender Victorian Weights and Measures building stood guard over the entrance to a steep road.

Looming above were magnificent 19th century buildings. One's brickwork elaborately proclaimed itself to be Industrial Dwellings from 1879. These ominous, monolithic structures had sprung up in the years when the widowed Margaret Scott (nee Hills) would be running her boarding house, probably in a building opposite, but now gone.

I loved that I could see the buildings she saw, and the view of the river that would have greeted her at the end of the alley. I felt very comfortable there, standing on the very stones that she and her family would have helped wear down, a hundred and thirty years ago.

We went back to my friend's flat, and we said our goodbyes. I'd been so pleased with seeing Tower Street that the thought of making the five hour drive home never even entered my head. I knew that an even older document gave me a different possibility.

The marriage certificate of Ann Scott's parents told me that the road to take was not south - it was north, and further back in time.

In 1845, Ann's parents William Scott and Margaret Hills were married in Spittal, in the Borough of Berwick upon Tweed. William's father had been a baker (from Scotland) and Margaret's father had been a fisherman.

Berwick was an hour and a half's drive further north, and it was starting to rain. But I was excited. I was on the trail. So onwards I went, alone and looking for my ancestors.

As I drove, the rain cleared, but the ground became patchy with snow. Along the A1, a picturesque winter scene gradually developed as the blanket of white thickened the further I drove. The sun began to drift down behind the fluffed-up clouds, and I couldn't help but stop in the wilderness to photograph the beauty.

I pulled into a side road and the car slushed awkwardly onto the snow-covered soft verge. I gingerly stepped out and admired the cold landscape.

As I took my photos, holding the camera high over a bush to get an unobstructed photograph of the flat white field beyond, my clothing snagged and I fell into the needle-like branches which tore open my already chapped hand.

The shock of the pain on my icy-cold hand made me loose my footing and I splashed through a foot-deep puddle of freezing water, soaking me thoroughly, and I fell into the snow.

I pulled myself up and sat on the car seat, checking my hand. Having decided I was likely to survive the wounds, I found a spare pair of socks and put my shoes in the passenger footwell to dry under the car's heater. I took another couple of photos of the desserted scene and sheepishly got back into the car.

Starting the engine, I attempted to pull forwards but the wheels spun in the slush. It's surprising how quickly a feeling of isolation can strike you when you're a long way from home and the elements are against you.

Drawing a deep breath, I slowly raised the clutch again and gently, the car eased forward. But the road was a narrow lane and I needed to turn around. Cautiously, I swung the car around into a right-angle in the road and inched towards the hedge. An alarming clunk hit the front of the vehicle. It started to occur to me that without knowing the edge of the road, it was possible I couldn't turn round.

Putting the car into reverse I rolled it back, trying to guess where the edge of the road might turn into a dangerous ditch beneath its cover of snow. I felt the back of the vehicle start to dip down, and I quickly hit the brake. Turning the wheel fully, I moved off again and there was just enough room for the front of the vehicle to creep round and face the right way. I was able to make the final turn and head back onto the main road towards Berwick, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Noting to myself that I wouldn't be making any more desolate stops, I pondered the significance of the route I was taking. I knew from the 1861 census that I was reversing a journey my ancestors had made - and I knew roughly when they had travelled.

William and Margaret Scott's first children had been born in Spittal, like them. But following the birth of George in 1851 they moved to Newcastle, where my ancestor Ann Scott was born in 1854 (although she's recorded as Isabella Ann in the census).

I knew therefore that the family made the journey from Spittal down to Newcastle in 1852/3. William Scott was a tailor, and perhaps a journeyman, and it seemed the family might have moved in search of work.

Around the time they moved I knew that both William and Margaret's parents remained in Spittal and the surrounding areas, known as Tweedmouth and Berwick-upon-Tweed. The 1851 census shows Margaret's parents and extended family - and it reveals a sad clue as to what factors might have driven Margaret and her husband to head south.

The 1851 census above shows Adam Hills (Margaret's father, and my great-great-great-great-grandfather) was a Pauper, with his wishful occupation of fisherman in brackets. Margaret's mother Jane was a "Pauper's Wife." These were obviously hard times. Perhaps the growing port city of Newcastle held promise for the next generations.

But the census revealed another fact which would alter the course of my journey. Adam Hills was not born in Spittal where he was living at the time, but in a tiny village six miles away, called Ancroft. I had to pass this place to get to Spittal, and so I took the turnoff in the narrowing and twisting country lanes.

The creamy orange and red sun streamed out from behind fluffed up cotton clouds, and I knew my destination was beneath the burning sky.

The tree-lined hill brow and scattering of ancient cottages were settled into their powdered landscape as I drove into this breath-taking, oil-painting image.

Arriving at the start of what could barely be called a village, I parked the car and crunched out into a dreamland. It was deserted. Deadly silent in the fading light. The one-track lane which snaked away was glistening with ice and patched with snow.

My feet left impressions in the land of my distant ancestors, and I soaked up this red, orange and white vista which Adam Hills knew as a boy. A string of old, low cottages hid behind some scrawny trees as I made my way further up the road.

At last a figure appeared. He was a friendly man with a black dog. I wish I'd asked his name. I explained I was looking for my ancestors. He asked if I was going to the church, and he pointed me towards it.

The reddened sky was silhouetting an ancient farm-house, and the little stream which flowed beside the road was stopped still in time, its icy surface catching the warm colours of the sky. I gazed, and took more photos and then I walked carefully up the slippery path to the church

At the gate, I paused. The white pavement lead towards an evergreen tree which obscured the building itself. The graveyard was surprisingly big and less covered in snow than any of the fields surrounding it. Large patches of green lay untouched and the leaning gravestones were randomly and generously spaced.

I pushed the metal gate and entered. Barely taking a moment to consider which of the many directions to start, without thought or reason, I stepped off the path, and walked to the left.

I had only walked a few paces, passing and partly-ignoring the first few head-stones before I stopped as a slightly more elaborate one caught my eye.

I couldn't believe what I was looking at.

The hairs on the back of my neck had risen.

I was looking at the grave of a Margaret Hills.

My mind spun with the possibilities. Emotion and confusion took hold of me. Yesterday had been upsetting and sad, but today had been exhilarating, picturesque and full of promise. I'd felt guided by the sunset and I'd been literally steered towards this church. And now, within seconds of entering the hallowed ground I was standing facing the name of my ancestor.

My tired and unreliable brain required a moment to take hold of the facts. It could not be my Margaret Hills - she married, and her surname changed to Scott before ending up in Newcastle running that boarding house. Ancroft was her father's village, not hers.

But this village was tiny. Virtually one road with a few houses. Surnames matching in villages like this were never a coincidence, I knew that from practical experience.

I walked around the grave. I touched it.

I looked up, and the bright moon hung in a clear, dusky-blue sky, sitting perfectly above the bizarre, square, nine-hudred-year-old church. The scene was surreal. The moment was improbable.

I stumbled away from the grave, talking to myself, scanning more headstones.

No more Hills. Not a single one.

The only one in the whole graveyard was the one I had found instantly. The namesake of my great, great, great grandmother.

The evening light suddenly faded, and I found myself trying to use the screen of my phone to see the names on graves. I refused to believe my find had been so easy and that there was nothing else of consequence here.

I hunted closer to the church, where the burials became older, and the inscriptions more faded.

I started to stumble clumsily across graves, and I was glancing only hastily, frustratedly. The chill of the air was closing in, and the dusk was almost tangible in the air.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone darting along the path which encircled the church.

I looked up, alarmed, trying to see if, as I imagined, it was a young person in white clothes. The anxieties of the real world were suddenly upon me. This strange quest amongst the dead seemed dangerous and lonely. I'd breezed through the day barely thinking and brought myself to a desserted village in the dark. No-one knew where I was.

I looked for the figure, to see if they were making their way out along the path. But the grave yard was completely empty. There was no figure at all.

The last feelings of excitment about my discoveries were drained from me. The darkness was all around. The outlines of the graves stood like stone figures, guarding their home.

I felt unwelcome. The rational part of my brain was gripped by the fear of being alone and in unknown territory. The irrational part of me was scared that I might not be alone.

I hurried back to the gate in the gloom, treading carefully on the untrustworthy path. I glanced back over my shoulder to take a last look at the church but it had sunk into the darkness.

I stopped at the gate. A black cat was sitting in the path, staring back at me.

Never had an animal looked so sinister.

Ususally I'm a cat-lover, but I hesitated before taking a step closer. It immediately darted, and melted into the blackness.

I quickly returned to the safety of my car, and I locked the doors.

The day had provided many emotions, and a few scars. The sadness of leaving my friend, the thrill of adventure, the isolation, the fear. But breaking through the randomness, I knew I'd walked where my ancestors walked. I'd found my family's name - however tenuous the connection.

In the days that followed, I continued to follow the trail of the Scott and Hills families and found far more signifncant things than the name on that grave, but nothing touched me quite so much as meeting "Margaret Hills" on frozen ground beneath a moonlight sky.


So who was Margaret Hills? Once I got home I did the necessary research and I found she was an aunt by marriage, of my Margaret Hills.

My Margaret's father, Adam Hills the pauper fisherman, had at least two siblings. One was Elizabeth Hills, born 1786, and another was William Hills, born in Cheswick in 1784.

William Hills, like my ancestor Adam, was a fisherman. Some time around 1815 he married a young woman called Margaret Black and they lived together in Ancroft. They had three children, but their little boy Thomas died aged three in 1824. The family lived in Ancroft until at some time after 1832 they moved two miles closer to the sea, to William's original home of Cheswick. That's where the family of four can be found in the 1851 census:

On November 6th 1855 Margaret Hills (nee Black) died aged 73 and she was buried in her home of Ancroft. The headstone I found some 154 years later remembers her, her little son Thomas, and daughter Susannah Hills who died a spinster aged 60.

When I looked again at the dates, one final link became clear. William Hills had married Margaret Black around 1815, and a few years later when William's brother Adam (my ancestor) had a baby daughter, they named her Margaret.

Which meant that my ancestor had been named after her aunt - whose grave I found quite by chance one day, far from home, amidst the sunset, the snow and the spirits of the past.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Spon St - The Newest Ancient Place in England

In the historic town of Coventry, England there is a particularly attractive road of timber-framed buildings - the type which are often (although not totally accurately) referred to as "Tudor".

Spon Street is an active, commercial area which lies within the city's ring road and appears to be an oasis of untouched architecture preserved amidst a plethora of concrete tower blocks and shopping centres. But despite its wonderfully authentic appearance, this olde-worlde place is something of a lie.

Coventry was a prime target for the German bombs during the Second World War but Spon Street fared surprisingly well. In the decades after the war, the area's historic buildings saw the emergence of a new enemy: the town planners. Coventry went through a period of redevelopement which saw the tearing down of many ancient structures including those at the western end and in the middle of Spon Street. A new ring-road was in development which would completely bisect the street and result in further obliteration of the city's heritage.

By the mid-1960s, the destructive path of 'progress' was being met by growing concerns that the original heart of Coventry was being lost. Particularly significant timber-framed houses and shops were threatened in a number of streets including Gosford Street, Far Gosford Street, Jordan Well, Much Park Street, Spon Street and Spon End. A plan of action was devised.

But rather than preserve the scattered ancient sites themselves, it was decided that the structures could be moved and collected together in one place. This proposal would allow construction schemes to continue around the city without the unadaptable old shops standing in the way of property developers.

Having been fortunate during the blitz, Spon Street's east end still retained a good concentration of old buildings, albeit in varying states of disrepair. It was decided that the best of the remaining shops and houses would be renovated in situ and suitable buildings from the other threatened streets could be relocated there.

Whilst this plan was somewhat questionable, it at least secured the preservation of buildings which were in danger. However, following further appraisal, a number of the structures were then deemed unsafe and were subsequently demolished. After an analysis of the logistics, it was decided that others couldn't be dismantled as proposed, and they too were bulldozed. Ultimately, the only properties relocated from outside Spon Street would be three from Much Park Street.

On the 8th August 1969 a conservation area was declared and the first work undertaken in the "Spon Street Town" scheme was the restoration of one of Coventry's oldest buildings, pictured right.

From the early style of its roof construction and the curved braces in the front wall, it can be dated back to the 1300s. The front block was originally two separate workshops, each with an open hall at the back. The street door opened into a through-passage and there was a ladder stair to the upper chamber.

With the aid of gifts of materials, the work was carried out betweet 1969 and 1970 by Coventry Corporation.

Over on the eastern side of the city centre, Much Park Street was an area which had been struck by both neglect and the German bombs. The photo below right shows the street as it is today, with a Coventry University building now standing on the corner, and the Herbert Art Gallery beyond. But at the end of the 1960s, there were still a number of old buildings lining the street, as can be seen on the left-hand image.

This view shows the north end of the street, where three timber-framed structures were earmarked for rescue - they are shaded in red on the black and white photograph above. The building on the left of the road was numbers 122 and 123, whilst the tall one in the distance constituted numbers 8, 9 and 10. Hidden from view behind this was number 7.

Below left is a photograph taken further up the street in which properties 8, 9 and 10 dominate the view. This was one of the very few surviving three-storey jettied buildings of Coventry and it dates from around 1500. The decision was made to save it, and so over a period of four years it was dismantled and restored in Spon Steet, with work completed in 1974.

As a medieval city centre building it is larger and richer than the indigenous buildings which now surround it in its new location. Internally, the building was more or less mirrored down the centre, with passages at either end and a room at the rear. Half was open through two storeys to the roof, and the other had an upper floor. The cellar on the old site, lost to redevelopment, was even earlier in date than the building, and from which a carved lintel was preserved and re-incorporated into the new incarnation of the fa├žade.

The old photo above shows that half of the upper jetty was not present in the sixties, and the front of the left side of the upper floor is a modern construction. At the end of this short terrace, and all but hidden in the black and white photo is number 7 Much Park Street.

The image below left better shows number 7 it in its original location. The neighbouring three-storey building is already missing from the photo, indicating it had been dismantled first (despite records which state that number 7 was the first to be taken down). Reconstruction and restoration was completed in June 1972. In its new home in Spon Street, number 7 was positioned at the beginning of the row on the site of the Old Plough Inn. When its former neighbour arrived a couple of years later it was positioned on the opposite side of the road, further up.

Modern rendering had concealed most of the original timbers but once restored, the wooden beams provided a striking welcome for anyone entering Spon Street.

This building dates from the late 15th or early 16th century and the front half was a workshop sited over a stone vaulted cellar. Above it was a room known as a "solar". Contrary to common misconception, this word is unrelated to the sun, but refers to solitary activities such as reading, which could be enjoyed there by the head of the household, away from noise and smells on the ground floor.

After reconstruction of number 7 there were various modifications made, such as the window on the upper floor solar becoming one and the stairs being altered. The original spiral stair position is still evident inside from the trimmed joists.

A passage down the left of the building gave access to a hall at the back, and at one time lead to further buildings. The hearth at the rear is still in its original position, and one of the bays within the hall was open to the roof, where smoke marks can still be seen.

The third and final building to be relocated from Much Park Street was numbers 122-123. Formerly the Green Dragon Inn, it was dismantled in 1972 not long after the others. But unlike the others, it was not re-erected very quickly. It took until a decade later before relocation was completed.

The photograph above shows the original site on the left, and the new location in Spon Street is seen on the right. The colour photo was taken a few years ago when it had become a bar aptly-named "1420", although this is an optimistic estimate for its age since the rear is probably circa 1450 and the front likely to be 1550.

Extensive restoration work was carried out to return the building to something like its earliest appearance, with the removal of the brick-work and other later modifications. Projecting out from the top of the roof is the frame of its previously neighbouring building. This was an earlier and much grander three-storey structure destroyed on Much Park Street during the war.

Spon Street prior to the arrival of number 122-123 can be seen below left in which the white 16th century Old Windmill pub stood next to the brick-built Rotherham's Social Club.

After the Social Club was knocked down, the timber-framed building was reassembled in its place in the early 1980s. This comparison is a great illustration of the strange backwards development of Spon Street, and perhaps it will confound architectural historians in a thousand years.

Although 122-123 was the final building to be imported from Much Park Street, it was not the last to appear in the new version of Spon Street.

Before the ring-road sliced through the street, it continued west and contained several other half-timbered houses. In order to allow redevelopment of the area, two more old properties were dismantled and shifted a quarter of a mile east to their present locations.

The building which had constituted numbers 142 and 143 Spon Street is relatively modern by the standards of the others, having been built around 1700. It was dismantled in 1971, and reconstruction was completed in 1974. In the above photo it can be seen with its present reddish-brown frontage and timber grid pattern. Its new site was next to an extant structure which was restored not long after.

Once the restoration had been completed, this impressive white building constructed between about 1450 and 1500 showed off twin gables as seen in the above photo.

It was virtually unrecognisable at the start of the 20th century as demonstrated by the black and white photo on the right. The shape and position of the gables are completely lost amidst the built-up Victorian frontage.

Thankfully this building was restored in 1977 and then again in 1985, resulting in the magnificent sight we have today - truly representative of its prime status amongst the original buildings of that street.

The most recent - and probably final - addition to the Spon Street project was made two decades ago. The central black and white photograph of the montage below shows the original location of a structure which had been numbers 54-57 at the western end of Spon Street.

That area now has been claimed by modern flats, and the present site is identifiable by the same tower block in the photo below left.

The older half of this set of buildings dates from the early-mid 15th century. The other half dates from about 1480. The entire structure was dismantled in 1973-74 and kept in storage for nearly two decades. Finally, in December 1988, work began on reconstruction, and the project was finished in January 1990.

The magnificent building now stands as numbers 1 and 2 on the corner of the street (pictured left), overlooked by the gigantic edifice of the Ikea store.
Over a period of four decades the current version of Spon Street has emerged from the once-neglected shops, as timbers were revealed and frontages were reconstructed. The commendable restoration work sits alongside the less desirable relocated projects, all of which come together to create what is today something of an enigma.

When admiring Spon Street, it is important to understand its evolution. It is not simply a preserved area, it is something that has been assembled, as if from a kit. It is a collection of real buildings positioned out of context - remodelled and reworked to fit a new vision.

Just a few days ago I sat in what had once been the Green Dragon Inn and gazed out from the ancient windows at the beautiful, jumbled dwellings. I would usually be in awe when sitting in a five-hundred-year-old building, looking at structures which were even older. But I knew that that particular view had not been created until after I was born. The building and its timbers were real, but the soul of the place was new. No ancient tales exist in which men and women walk down Spon Street and enter that pub, as I had done. Colour television has been around longer than the building and its street have been acquainted.

There is no doubting it is a beautiful place to walk, and each building is fascinating in its own right. It may not be a desirable way of preserving pieces of the past, but it is at least preferable to not having them at all.

I suspect that in a thousand years when Coventry is discussed by historians, Spon Street will be used to demonstrate the attitudes of the 20th century towards architecture and planning, rather than those of the 15th century to which many of the buildings once belonged.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Remembrance: Albert and the Great War

My great grandfather, Walter (known within the family as 'Pop') was born in 1883. It was his younger brother Albert, my great uncle, whose story really brought home to me the reality of the First World War. It was a stark illustration of how it lured in such ordinary people, and sent an entire generation into oblivion.

For Remembrance Day, this is the short life and death of Albert.

Albert was born into late-Victorian Liverpool, around October 1890. His father, Frederick  was a joiner, born in Banbury and his mother Elizabeth was the daughter of a Policeman from Ripon.

Baby Albert had a sister, four years older than him, and a brother Walter, seven years older. The family lived at number 8 Rupert Grove, a newly-built, typical terraced street off Heyworth Street about a mile away from the city centre of Liverpool. Another brother, Arthur, was born three years later.

Living in the heart of a flourishing maritime city it is not surprising that after leaving school, Albert found employment with a shipping company, working as a stationer. Similarly, his younger brother Arthur became a 'Shipping Clerk'. Older brother Walter became a joiner like his father, both of whom worked for a building company.

At the start of the decade that would see the world change forever, this ordinary Edwardian family was living at 67 Stanfield Road in Liverpool.

Signing Up

Three years later, and a thousand miles away, on 28th June 1914, a Bosnian-Serb student called Gavrilo Princip fired two shots at Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countess Sophie, killing them both. Within days, all the powers of Europe had declared war on each other, including Britain upon Germany.

Three months on, in the old watch factory at Prescot, the 17th (Service) Battalion (1st City) was formed by Lord Derby. The '17th Liverpools' has the distinction of being the first of the 'pals' battalions. In April of 1915 this 17th Battalion was attached to 89th Brigade, 30th Division.

At some point during 1915, Albert left his job as a stationer and signed up with the 17th Liverpools. Not long after, and with no more military background than I have, this young man who'd just turned 25, boarded a ship destined for France. He landed at Boulogne on 7th November 1915.

What must have gone through his head as he marched through France? Did it seem a great adventure away from home? Was he thrilled to be doing his duty? Or was he frightened, homesick and tired? Either way, it was only the beginning.

Into Battle

The Liverpool Pals' first battle came during the infamous 'Big Push' on 1 July 1916 - The first day of the Somme Offensive. The 89th Brigade, under the Earl of Derby's brother Brigadier F.C. Stanley, comprised Albert's 17th Liverpool Battalion, plus the 19th, and 20th Pals.

In the opening phase of the Battle of the Somme, the British and French fired 1.7 million shells during a 7-day preparatory barrage at the Germans. But the shells were not effective and the enemy waited it out.

The 'creeping barrages' were supposed to land artillery fire between the advancing British troops and the German troops, and then push the Germans back to their own lines as the Allied troops attacked. However, faulty implementation of this system resulted in the barrage starting on the German lines and then lifting beyond, leaving the advancing British troops to face unsuppressed defenders. XIII Corps which included Albert's 30th Division abandoned the creeping barrage altogether.

The southern flank of the British line was held by XIII Corps whose objective was the village of Montauban. The two assault divisions - the 18th (Eastern) and Albert in the 30th Division, seized all their objectives. They were one of the few divisions during the offensive to claim such success but it came at the cost of over 3,000 casualties each.

On 29th July 1916, after four deafening, bloody and horrifying weeks of fighting in the Somme, the fighting had abated. A photo was taken of the soldiers of the 17th Service Battalion of the King's Liverpool Regiment praying during a church parade before entering the trenches.

To me, soldiers are a particular breed of men. Those who feel capable, ready, tough and adventurous. I am not saying that Albert wasn't all of these things, but the only thing I really know about him was that a few years before this photo was taken, he was just a young man bearing my surname, with a desk job in an office in Merseyside - just like me. I find it hard to reconcile that familiarity with this image. That young man is suddenly a soldier, kneeling with his comrades in a field a very long way from home, praying they would endure the next battle.

Having survived the Somme, Albert next fought in the Battle of Le Transloy, including the capture of Eaucourt l’Abbaye, Le Sars and the attacks on Butte de Warlencourt.

He fought at the First and Second Battles of the Scarpe at Monchy le Preux and Guemappe in April of 1917.

He fought at the Battle of St. Quentin in March of 1918, at the Somme corssing, and at the Battle of Rosieres.

Then, in April 1918, the Germans made their 'Spring Offensive' in an attempt to defeat the Allies before the full resources of the United States joined the war. The Germans' objective was to capture Ypres to force the Allies back to the channel. Also known as the Third Battle of Flanders or The Battle of the Lys, this was the war starting to reach its conclusion.

A sequence of bloody battles were fought during April which culminated, on the 29th April 1918, in the final attack of the offensive. German forces were able to capture the hill to the northwest of Mount Kemmel - the Scherpenberg.

It was on the 29th of April 1918, whilst defending the Scherpenberg that Albert was killed, at the age of 27.

When Albert's letters stopped, my great-grandfather Walter wrote to Arthur to ask if there'd been any word from their brother.

They waited, but there were no more letters from Albert.

Shortly afterwards, French units re-enforced the Allied position, and German attacks in front of Hazebrouck were failing, which resulted in German High Command calling off the offensive.

One month later, the 17th Battalion was reduced to minimum strength and on 30th June 1918, the remaining men returned to England.

If Albert had survived two more months, he would have come home to Liverpool, and today he would have grandchildren and great-grandchildren of his own. But like so many young men, he had no future because of the Great War and instead it falls to his brother's descendent to remember him.
Albert is named on the Menin Gate, six miles from where he fell.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Building that Still Stood on 6th Nov 1605

Whilst the subject of this article originates 406 years ago, the prospect of a British newspaper headline proclaiming "Parliament Building Saved from Terrorist Bombing" feels very close to home in 2011. But we won't be delving into the murky world of religious oppression or politics today, as there is a more passive player in the events of the Gunpowder Plot, and one which is always overlooked: The building that survived the events of November 5th 1605.

Bonfire Night is a prominent date in the British calendar and whilst it sadly doesn't warrant a day off work, it is at least a significant night for many families and communities who gather together and set fire to things. Yet despite the common knowledge we have about November 5th, it is surprising that the setting for those fateful events is almost entirely anonymous.

To unwitting eyes, the current Houses of Parliament look suitably ancient and an appropriate setting for a 17th century espionage drama. But despite its Gothic styling, the modern parliament building wasn't fully completed until just 140 years ago. The original Westminster was not one single palatial building as it stands today, but a mis-matched collection of structures from different centuries, repeatedly altered and re-purposed many times by different kings. Compared to what stands in its place today, the building which Guy Fawkes attempted to destroy was surprisingly small and unremarkable, and all traces of it are now lost. What do know about it, and what did it look like?

We begin our search behind the MI5 Security Service building in central London, where we find Thorney Street. This street name is the last clue surviving to the course of a waterway which joined the River Thames here. The River Tyburn entered the Thames via rivulets which formed a small island, and this patch of dry land was named Thorney Island.

Upon this empty island, some distance from the walled capital of England, it was perhaps as early as 1016 that a royal residence was first sited, possibly by Cnut the Great.

Around 1045 Edward the Confessor constructed a royal palace along with a magnificent Abbey. The location of his new Minster, situated west of the City of London soon resulted in Thorney Island and its buildings being dubbed the "West Minster" area.

The earliest depiction of Westminster Palace comes from the Bayeux Tapestry (of which a modern copy is shown above) and it was William the Conqueror's son William Rufus who began building a new Palace when he came to the throne in 1087. It was his hope that the new palace would match the splendour of the adjacent Abbey, but his dream was never fully realised. Remarkably it is from this phase of construction that the great hall dates which still stands today, known as Westminster Hall.

In the 12th century, a second hall was built to the south and during the reign of King Henry III in the 13th century, several new structures were built and modifications were made. One such change regarded a hall called the Queen's Chamber to the south.

This Queen's Chamber was a modest stone construction built up on the first floor, and aligned north-south. According to sources such as William Capon, the ground floor of this building was the site of Royal Kitchens built by Edward the Confessor.

This Braun map of London from 1572 (right) gives us a glimpse of the old Palace on the banks of the Thames and we can start to get a feel for the layout of this site. However, the accuracy of this map is less than perfect as there aren't enough buildings depicted for the number that would have been there.

Parliament (and its earlier incarnation) had been meeting in Westminster Hall since the 1200s, but after fire destroyed many buildings in 1512, the purpose of the Westminster complex shifted from being a royal residence to primarily being the home of parliament.

The House of Lords settled into the hall that had been called the Queen's Chamber, already four hundred years old at this point. Beneath this hall, the large space on the ground floor (formerly the royal kitchens) became privately owned. On the left is an engraving from 1799 by G Dale showing this room, said to be 77 feet long, 24 feet and 4 inches wide, and with a roof 10 feet high. Often said to be a basement or cellar it was termed an "undercroft" and not situated beneath ground, but was accessible directly from the street level.

Within the modest stone hall above, the King and nobles were scheduled to meet at the end of the year of 1605. The ramshackle arrangement of buildings at Westminster meant that merchants of all kinds lived and worked in the shops and taverns, and there was no restricted access to important nearby buildings. Thus, beneath the first floor of the House of Lords, the undercroft owned by John Whynniard was leased out to the gunpowder plotters.

John Rocque's map of 1746 (pictured right) provides a more accurate ground plan of the main buildings in question. Westminster Hall dominates the area to the north, and the House of Commons is labelled occupying St. Stephen's Chapel. The House of Lords to the south appears extremely small by comparison to everything around it.

This image on the left gives an accurate 3D sketch of the layout of the buildings. Our view is looking north, with the Thames to the east.

Not fully depicted are the lesser structures of what had become a heavily developed area. As well as the prestigious buildings of state, a warren of additional wooden houses and shops would have butted up against them and formed narrow streets around the place. On this illustration the small House of Lords is picked out in red, behind the Queen's Chapel. Westminster Abbey dominates the area just to the west.

Despite its significance, there is a distinct lack of imagery of the old Westminster and the artwork that does exist tends to be extremely limited in what is shows. One depiction comes from a Dutch map started by Wencesclas Hollar some time after 1688. The map itself is fairly useless for the study of the area, however it is adorned with illustrations, one of which is below.

The view depicted is facing west with our back to the River Thames. On the left of the frame and looking like a church is the north entrance to the great Westminster Hall.

Just peeking over the wall is the blue-grey roof of Westminster Abbey which runs at right-angles to the parliament buildings.

But once again our place of interest - Guy Fawkes' terrorism target - is not shown. Westminster Hall was impressive enough to warrant an illustration and yet the building with the greater political importance was tucked away around the back and not pictured.

Another piece of work by Wenceslaus Hollar is this engraving (left) which dates from 1647, but just like the other representations of the time, Westminster Hall is given centre stage, with the Abbey behind and St Stephen's Chapel on the left, home to the House of Commons.

With all near-contemporary illustrations of the area showing only the big, impressive buildings, what do we actually know of the hidden setting for the treasonous plot?

Could it be that the exterior was a actually a diminutive masterpiece...?

We finally arrive at what is probably our best, clear view of our terrorists' target building. Unfortunately it dates from two centuries too late, but this 1807 image reveals the (then former) House of Lords in its later life to be little more than a dishevelled old stone hall overlooking an untidy yard. It was hardly a venue befitting the seat of power for the entire country.

This beautiful drawing below by H J Brewer dates from 1884 and is a suggested reconstruction of the Old Palace at the time of Henry VIII. The main Westminster Hall is picked out in blue near the centre whilst The House of Lords is in red. Note the different number of windows and the longer structure compared to the 1807 interpretation - showing how little confirmed information there was about it.

This artwork gives a powerful indication of just how much collateral damage would have been caused to the surrounding site if the gunpowder had been ignited. The House of Lords was connected to buildings at both its north and south end, with the Painted Chamber and Court of Requests just a few yards away.

But, as history records, the plot was foiled. The king and the Parliament buildings were saved. For a while at least...

Given its ageing state and jumbled location, it is perhaps not surprising that this medieval House of Lords chamber was demolished about a century after the Gunpowder Plot. According to Thornbury the hall was destroyed "and some mean brick edifices were erected in their stead". Shortly after this, fire tragically broke out which destroyed most of the remaining ancient buildings on the site. This painting depicts the aftermath of the 1834 fire, with the ruined St Stephen's Chapel on the right, and the "brick edifices" on the left where once the old House of Lords had stood.

The disaster resulted in the rebuilding work which would see the creation of a brand new Palace of Westminster, and the foundation stone of the modern building was laid in 1840.

The image on the left shows an overlay of the 17th century ground plan in yellow on top of the modern site. The House of Lords is highlighted in red.

Westminster Hall and the adjoining courtyard were the only elements which were preserved after the fire, and remain relatively unchanged to this day. The east side of new Gothic palace extends further forwards to meet the bank of the river Thames on reclaimed land.

So, given the historic significance of the old palace buildings, why do we know so little of them, and why do they make so little impact on our telling of the Guy Fawkes story?

The "happy ending" of the Gunpowder story is the saving of lives and the preservation of our political system. The building which was also triumphantly saved in the process was later voluntarily destroyed, thus eliminating any thoughts about it being a victory for architectural preservation.

Images of the early Westminster complex are rare and not exceptionally inspiring. This Samuel Scott painting from 1746 (below) is typical of the view; dominated by the Abbey, and Westminster Hall (behind the trees). The ancient stone House of Lords is lost amongst the jumble of nondescript buildings and when singled out it is quite underwhelming. It was steeped in history, but its time had passed and its usefulness had come to an end.

The real tragedy about the old Palace was that fire destroyed the beautiful St Stephen's Chapel and other buildings surrounding it. If there is any architectural "happy ending" to be taken from this tale, it is that the amount of gunpowder the plotters used might have damaged the nearby Westminster Abbey and Westminster Hall. Stone and flaming debris would have been propelled in all directions at hundreds of miles per hour, along with a devastating shockwave which would have ripped through the narrow streets. Fires would have burned and many lives would have been lost, not just those in the Parliament.

If the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded we might have been deprived the full splendour today of two of our oldest and greatest buildings in London, as well as having the legacy of the devastating consequences of the assassinations and mass-murder.