Search This Blog


Monday, 5 September 2016

Lancashire's Heritage Crisis

Weaving shed, Queen St Mill.
On Saturday we visited Queen Street Mill at Harle Syke, Briarcliffe, near Burnley. This amazing site is Lancashire's last surviving steam-powered weaving mill.

The mill, a Grade I listed building, is home to a nationally important collection of textile machinery, along with its sister site, Helmshore Mills at Rossendale (another fantastic museum, which I visited while researching my book Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives).
The mill chimney.

Queen Street Mill originally housed 1,000 powerlooms; it was built in 1894 for the Queen St Mill Manufacturing Company.

You can see 'Peace', the 500hp engine which powers the weaving shed, and the boiler house is still home to the original Lancashire boiler. It was stiflingly hot in the boiler house (2 newer Lancashire boilers, made at Hyde in 1901, heat the water for the engine). Water is supplied from the mill pond.
When the engine is 'in steam', you can see several looms at work; the weaving shed houses about 300 looms. The noise was absolutely deafening, so it must have been unbelievably loud when all the looms were in use. The warehouse has several examples of different looms, including a Jacquard loom capable of weaving a tapestry. I was also very interested to see a demonstration of terry-towelling weaving, which I haven't seen before. You can buy towels, aprons and fabric woven at the mill in the gift shop.

Lancashire boilers need a lot of coal for fuel.
Peace, the 500hp mill engine.
I am sorry to say that Queen St and Helmshore both face imminent closure, along with three other Lancashire heritage sites  - victims of council cuts necessitated by Tory austerity policies which have disproportionately targeted the north and inner-city regions. The other Lancashire museums now at risk are the Judges' Lodgings, Lancaster; the Maritime Museum, Fleetwood; and the Museum of Lancashire, Preston
The closure of these five museums - now in a last-ditch fight to save their collections - will save the council just £64.2million, according to the Museums Association.
It seems a relatively small price to pay to keep these irreplaceable heritage sites open to the public, so if you happen to be a multi-millionaire or billionaire philanthropist with some spare cash, please contact the museums if you would like to help.
Queen St Mill and many other sites nationwide are open free of charge next weekend as part of the Heritage Open Days event, so do take this opportunity to visit.

Terry-towelling loom at Queen St mill.
Jacquard loom at Queen St Mill.
I am desperately saddened by the prospect of these museums' closure, and I sincerely hope that a way can be found to preserve them for future generations, so that tomorrow's children can see how their Lancashire ancestors lived and worked.
All photos © Sue Wilkes.

Monday, 8 August 2016

The 'Spy Nozy' Affair

Alfoxton House.

In early August 1797, a concerned resident wrote to the Home Office to report his fears about the new tenants at Alfoxton (Alfoxden) House, near the little village of Holford, Somerset. He believed that these incomers were actually French spies (especially as there had recently been an attempted invasion at Fishguard in Wales).
The new tenants were actually William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. A couple of years earlier, they had set up their first real home together (a long-held dream) at Racedown Lodge, in Dorset. Then 1795, Wordsworth met Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and a famous literary friendship blossomed. The Wordsworths moved to Alfoxton House, not far from Coleridge’scottage at Nether Stowey. The two men, accompanied by Dorothy, went on long walks together over hill and dale, discussing poetry and philosophy long into the night. 
The Home Office spent special agent James Walsh to investigate. From his base at Nether Stowey, he discovered that one of the guests at Alfoxton was ‘Citizen’ John Thelwall, a noted Radical and Jacobin sympathiser he had been investigating for years.
William Wordsworth.
Next, he turned his attention to Coleridge, who was said to have his own printing press – perfect for publishing seditious literature. Coleridge and Wordsworth often rested and chatted on their favourite seat by the seashore at Kilve, discussing poetry and philosophy. The agent hid for hours, listening to their conversation. He was alarmed; the spies seem to know of his presence – they repeatedly talk about ‘Spy Nozy’. At last Walsh was convinced that Spy Nozy was ‘the name of a man (Spinoza) who had made a book, and lived a long time ago’. The Home Office had nothing to worry about.
Coleridge Cottage.
Were the Romantic poets really in danger of being imprisoned, maybe even executed? Coleridge, apprised of the tale from the pub landlord, had a wonderful after-dinner story to entertain his guests. Wordsworth treated the whole affair as a storm in a teacup, but the owner of Alfoxton, angered by rumours of Jacobins, gave him notice to quit soon after. Writer Thomas de Quincey later dismissed the ‘Spy Nozy’ story as a fable, and insisted Coleridge had been duped. 

But the Home Office files clearly show that the story was true – and that for a time at least, someone in the Government took the matter very seriously indeed…

Alfoxden (Alfoxton) House, Somerset.  Dorothy and William lived here in 1797-8.  © Sue Wilkes.
Coleridge’s cottage at Nether Stowey. © Sue Wilkes.
Wordsworth. Engraving by the Brothers Dalziel for Poets of the Nineteenth Century, (Frederick Warne & Co., c.1870).

Monday, 4 July 2016

Life In the Georgian Court

Today I'd like to welcome the fabulous Catherine Curzon to my blog. Catherine's new book Life In the Georgian Court has just been published by Pen & Sword, and I'm sure it will be a must-read for fans of that era! 

The Greedy End of a Gluttonous King

Whilst researching my book, Life in the Georgian Court, I came across no shortage of dramatic stories and tragic deaths. From smallpox to strangulation, guillotine to gangrene, our 18th century royals didnt always die the most peaceful deaths.
Spare a thought then for Adolf Frederick, the King of Sweden who met his end on 12th February 1771 not by bullet or beneath the battlefield bayonets, but as a victim of pudding.
 When the Swedish monarch settled down to enjoy a meal that, as the saying goes, really was fit for a king, he wasnt in the mood for a simple snack. This well-liked king enjoyed nothing more than indulgence and on this day, he was going to indulge himself like no man had before.
As the hours drew on, he tucked into lobster, caviar, sauerkraut and kippers in abundance, the seemingly endless procession of food barely slowing as the evening passed. The ravenous monarch devoured everything that was set before him, swilling it down with glass after glass of the finest champagne. Yet for every plate that he cleared, Adolf Frederick still had room for more.
One of the kings favourite desserts was a dessert known as semla, a sweet roll popular in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Most diners would content themselves with one or, with a very sweet tooth, maybe two of these super-indulgent treats but at Adolf s last meal, the king just kept on going. This was the last meal before Lent so the king was determined to feed himself up, and nothing was going to stop him.
To finish his meal, Adolf wanted semlas lots of semlas; fourteen portions served in hot milk, to be exact. Once the greedy king was finally sated, he retired to his chambers where his stomach began to grumble and soon, so did he. Adolf died that same day; whether his last meal contributed to his demise we cannot be certain, but posterity has recorded Adolf as the king who ate himself to death, the victim of one semla too many.

About the Author
Catherine Curzon is a royal historian and blogs on all matters 18th century at A Covent Garden Gilflurt's Guide to Life.
Her work has featured by publications including BBC History Extra, All About History, History of Royals, Explore History and Jane Austens Regency World. She has also provided additional material for the sell-out theatrical show, An Evening with Jane Austen, which she will introduce at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, in September (tickets are available here).
Catherine holds a Masters degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine, she lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.
Her book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Book Depository and all good bookshops!

About Life in the Georgian Court
As the glittering Hanoverian court gives birth to the British Georgian era, a golden age of royalty dawns in Europe. Houses rise and fall, births, marriages and scandals change the course of history and in France, Revolution stalks the land.
Peep behind the shutters of the opulent court of the doomed Bourbons, the absolutist powerhouse of Romanov Russia and the epoch-defining family whose kings gave their name to the era, the House of Hanover.
Behind the pomp and ceremony were men and women born into worlds of immense privilege, yet beneath the powdered wigs and robes of state were real people living lives of romance, tragedy, intrigue and eccentricity. Take a journey into the private lives of very public figures and learn of arranged marriages that turned to love or hate and scandals that rocked polite society.
Here the former wife of a king spends three decades in lonely captivity, Prinny makes scandalous eyes at the toast of the London stage and Marie Antoinette begins her last, terrible journey through Paris as her son sits alone in a forgotten prison cell.
Life in the Georgian Court is a privileged peek into the glamorous, tragic and iconic courts of the Georgian world, where even a king could take nothing for granted.

Monday, 13 June 2016


Seamen complain about their rations.

First of all, apologies for the radio silence! My poor blogs have been much neglected over the last few weeks, as I've been very busy writing a new book, but hopefully I should have more time to spend on them now.
On 16 April 1797 the crews of the Royal Navy’s ships at Spithead, including the Queen Charlotte and Royal George, went on strike. They refused to put to sea as ordered until their pay was raised, and red flags of mutiny were run up the flagpoles.
The mutiny could not have come at a worse time, as a French invasion was expected at any time (there was a landing at Fishguard earlier that year). But the men had had enough. Living conditions in the fleet were dreadful; crews were poorly paid, and their food and drink scarcely fit for human consumption. Many sailors were ‘pressed’ men, and a brutal system of floggings was used to enforce discipline.
The mutineers were primarily concerned with improving their pay and conditions, rather than disloyalty to Britain. Great care was taken to maintain discipline. Each ship had its own central committee; another committee comprised two delegates from each disaffected ship. The men took an oath of allegiance to one another.
Apology from the crew of the Mars.
The strength of feeling amongst the men was so solid that parliament agreed to several of the men’s demands. They were given a substantial pay rise and offered a free pardon. By 23 April the mutiny appeared over, but trouble began agains when doubts surfaced over whether the promised pay rise would materialize. On 7 May the men of the London at Spithead mutinied and three officers were imprisoned; soon more ships mutinied at St Helens (a harbour on the Isle of Wight). The men were reassured by the Admiralty, and returned to their duties.
Richard Parker, mutineer.
Meanwhile on 12 May another mutiny broke out at the Nore (Sheerness), led by Richard Parker, a well-educated seaman from Exeter, who served on the Sandwich. The Nore mutineers wanted better wages, like the Spithead men, and additional demands such as a fairer distribution of prize-money (given when an enemy ship was taken). When news reached the Nore of the terms agreed at Spithead, the Admiralty believed that the men would back down.
But the Admiralty refused to give the extra concessions which the Nore mutineers wanted, so the seamen seized some gunboats in Sheerness harbour and fired at the fort there. Effigies of William Pitt and Lord Dundas were hanged at the yard-arm. The language used by many ships’ delegates was clearly modelled on Thomas Paine's works. The men talked of their rights and liberties, and the mutinous ships were dubbed the ‘Floating Republic’.
In late May, some ships from Admiral Duncan’s fleet joined the mutiny at the Nore instead of going to the Texel to blockade the French as ordered. This action in wartime greatly shocked public opinion, and lost the men much support.
During the first and second weeks of June, more and more ships slipped away from the rebel fleet and surrendered. By 14 June the mutiny was a spent force. Retribution was swift: Richard Parker and over twenty ringleaders were hanged at the yard-arm. You can watch a YouTube video about the mutinies here.
Seamen complain about their rations prior to the mutiny at the Nore. Cassell’s Illustrated History of England Vol. VI, (Cassell, Petter and Galpin, c.1864). Author’s collection.
Letter dated 25 June 1797 from the sailors on board the Mars, a 74-gunner, apologizing for the mutiny. On display at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (MKH/15.4).
A 1797 etching of Richard Parker, leader of the mutineers on the Nore. On display at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (PAH5441).