In the Bleak Midwinter- Origins of a Christmas Carol, Guest Post by Andrew Rothe

An empty field in the middle of the countryside. Kneeling before a freshly-dug grave with a gun to his head, notorious Birmingham gangster Tommy Shelby, leader of the Peaky Blinders, closes his eyes and utters what he thinks will be his final few words before death. In that incredibly tense, heart-stopping moment, what does this infamous criminal choose to say?

“In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Yes, the title of a Christmas carol. [1]

But why? More importantly, what’s the history behind this much-loved festive tune?

Christina Rossetti’s poem as it appears in Scribner’s Monthly (1871)

Part 1: Christina Rossetti

To examine the history of the carol, we first have to look at the poem it was based on. A poem that will be celebrating its 150th birthday in January 2022.

It was in late 1871 that Scribner’s Monthly (or to give its full name; Scribner’s Monthly: An Illustrated Magazine for the People), a relatively new American literary publication founded in 1870, approached famous British poet Christina Rossetti asking for a contribution for their winter 1871/1872 edition. Rossetti herself was experiencing increased periods of illness at this time, something that had plagued her for much of her life and would continue to do so till her final days, but still wrote back with an offering for publication. Simply titled ‘A Christmas Carol’, the poem featured on page 278 with an illustration of the nativity above it. [2]

Frontispiece of Scribner’s Monthly

After this initial appearance in Scribner, it took another 3 years before the poem was first released as part of a book of Rossetti’s assorted poetry in 1875, published, as with much of her work, by the now-iconic Macmillan’s of London [3]. At this point, it was simply one of many poems in her back catalogue and it would take several more years before the evolution into musical hymn and rise to household status would begin.

Part 2: Gustav Holst

In Edwardian England around the years 1904 to 1905, composer Gustav Holst, in his mid-30’s and happily married to wife Isobel since 1901, was approached by his close friend and colleague Ralph Vaughan Williams to contribute to a new project he was working on.

In 1904, Vaughan Williams was himself approached by clergyman Percy Dearmer, tasked with helping to assemble a new Church of England hymnbook. There was already a hymnbook in wide circulation throughout the Church of England at this time, Hymns Ancient & Modern, first published in 1863, but its latest edition in 1904 had been met with much criticism. Hymn numbers were jumbled around, wording had been altered and some much-loved hymns of the time had been left out altogether. Dearmer and several other discontented voices within his parish had decided that they would commission something new to take its place.

Initially named English Hymns and written simply for local use, this idea quickly grew in scale with the involvement of Oxford University Press and became The English Hymnal, intended for widespread publication throughout the nation. Being a clergyman and not a composer, Dearmer reached out to Vaughan Williams to assist him with the musical side of editing the final publication. Dearmer, having heard of Vaughan Williams and his musical prowess from English folk song collector Cecil Sharp (who was also a friend and collaborator of Holst), was confident that the 32-year-old composer would hopefully accomplish this task in just 2 months; it actually ended up taking 2 years! [5]

As well as In the Bleak Midwinter, Gustav Holst would go on to submit two other hymns for The English Hymnal; From Glory to Glory Advancing and Holy Ghost, but In the Bleak Midwinter has definitely become the more well-known to contemporary and secular audiences. It is highly likely that Holst first came upon Rossetti’s words thanks to a publication of her collected works released in 1904. The tune he wrote to accompany them is known as ‘Cranham’, named for the Gloucestershire village where Holst spent many years of his life. (4). The exact time and place where ‘Cranham’ was created remains unclear, although it’s perhaps unsurprising that many residents of Cranham village like to stake a claim that the tune was composed in the very place from which it takes its name! [6][7]

The English Hymnal (1906) by Oxford University Press, edited by Percy Dearmer and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Wikimedia Commons

After years of work, The English Hymnal was finally published in 1906; the words/lyrics edition appearing in May of that year, followed by the tunes/sheet music edition some weeks later. The end product that Dearmer and Vaughan Williams had delivered radically divided opinions within the Church of England.  The book’s more Catholic undertones, especially regarding the Virgin Mary and the Intercession of Saints, drew the ire of several Bishops and members of the clergy.

The Bishop of Bristol, George Forrest Browne, banned the book in his Diocese, stating “I cannot reconcile it to my conscience, or to my historical sense, to do less than prohibit a book which would impress upon the Church of England tendencies so dangerous.”. This caused further outrage in the press, and eventually the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, got involved by censuring The English Hymnal. [8]

Throughout this discourse, Dearmer remained steadfast and defended his creation. Oxford University Press, worried that the drama may cause sales to dip, eventually agreed a compromise with Dearmer and released an ‘abridged’ version of The English Hymnal in 1907, with the ‘controversial elements’ removed. This seemed to satisfy the critics, yet the revised version quietly seemed to fade into obscurity over the following years, not seeing any further reprints following the initial production run. In fact the only major revision to The English Hymnal after this was in 1933, when Vaughan Williams made some changes to the Tunes edition (no changes were made to the original lyrical/word edition). This 1933 version is the one that has remained in circulation through to the present day. [5]

Part 3: Harold Darke

From its initial release in 1906, Holst’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ has become a firm favourite with carol singers and choirs around the world. The tune, although labelled as ‘dreary’ by some, has become as iconic as Rossetti’s words, and can be regularly heard in a smorgasbord of places during the Christmas season. But Gustav Holst was not the only one inspired to combine the words of Christina Rossetti’s poem with music to create a festive hymn. Just 5 years later than Holst, another composer would add his own unique take on this Christmas classic.

In 1911, 23-year-old Harold Darke was a student at the Royal College of Music and also the resident organist at Emmanuel Church in West Hampstead. The exact circumstances surrounding the conception of his tune are hard to fathom, but it was in that year that London-based publishers Stainer and Bell first printed the music for his creation. [9][10]

It’s a distinctive melody, quite different from Holst’s tune. Performances naturally vary between different choirs and carol singers, but in many performances of Darke’s tune the first verse is usually performed by a soprano as a solo, Rossetti’s fourth stanza is omitted altogether, and the final line is often repeated.

This version, noted for its higher degree of complexity, has become the more popular with professional choirs around the world. Fittingly reflecting Harold Darke’s tenure as organist of King’s College, Cambridge, during the Second World War, this version is still a firm favourite with the King’s College Choir and still regularly appears in their famous Christmas Eve ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ service, enjoyed by radio listeners and television viewers around the globe. (11)

The appeal of this tune remains strong well into the 21st century; A 2008 BBC poll to find the ‘best’ Christmas carol was conducted with 51 directors of music across the UK and US, and they voted Darke’s version of In the Bleak Midwinter into the top slot at number 1. (12)

Part 4: Midwinter’s Legacy

Sadly, Christina Rossetti and Gustav Holst were plagued by severe health complications throughout their life, and both would die relatively young, never truly seeing the scale of the legacy of their work.

Rossetti died in 1894 at the age of 64 after a bout of breast cancer, over a decade before Holst’s adaption of her words. One can only wonder what she’d have made of a Christmas carol being created out of her poetry.

Holst himself died in 1934 at the age of 59 owing to heart failure, in part caused by an unsuccessful operation to treat an ulcer. He lived to see the release of The English Hymnal, but sadly not to observe the lasting popularity of his work throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Fittingly, Ralph Vaughan Williams conducted the music at his memorial service.

Harold Darke had a far longer life, finally passing away at the age of 88 in 1976. However, his lasting views on In the Bleak Midwinter were less than positive; despite bearing witness to the success of his creation, he allegedly grew to dislike it, becoming irritated that he wasn’t better known or recognised for his other pieces of work.

So, what of Tommy Shelby, leader of the Peaky Blinders? Why do the main characters of Stephen Knight’s highly successful period crime-drama series seem so obsessed with a Christmas carol?

Shelby himself explains in one episode that the family’s shared love for the carol goes back to their time serving in the First World War, and a particularly gruelling winter’s night when they all widely believed, and accepted, that they were to be rushed and killed by enemy forces. The group’s Padre, Jeremiah (played by poet Benjamin Zephaniah) suggested that they all sing the carol in that moment. When they survived the night and the enemy forces never came, they concluded that they had been spared by an act of divine mercy, and that everything in their lives from that moment until their actual deaths would be considered ‘extra’. [13] The carol goes on to appear multiple times throughout the show’s story, popping up in multiple episodes, often in the moments when various characters think that their death is imminent.

Author’s own image

Conclusion

Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poem turns 150 years old this winter and it’s a tribute to her skill as a writer that her words, be it sung or spoken, remain so popular with so many people over 100 years after her passing.

I could have written a blog post about the history of any number of fascinating Christmas carols, as they each have their own amazing stories. From the inspired last-minute improvisation behind the creation of ‘Silent Night’ through to the violent end of the life of Wenceslas I of Bohemia (‘Good King Wenceslas’), itself easily worthy of starring in an episode of Horrible Histories.

But I have a big soft spot for In the Bleak Midwinter. It’s a poignant carol. It’s delicate, melancholy and yet simultaneously comforting at the same time. It remains my favourite carol and I have no doubt that it will remain a regular fixture of carol concerts and church services for many years to come.

Thank you for reading! A big thank you to Danie for giving me this spot in her wonderful blog! She’s absolutely brilliant, please do go back through her older posts and give them a look. It was lovely to write this piece and research an area of history I don’t normally delve into.

It only remains to say that I hope you all had a safe, peaceful Christmas and I wish you all a prosperous, trouble-free New Year.

Andrew, a MA Museum & Heritage Development graduate from Nottingham Trent University

Sources and images

  1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04nyw0f/peaky-blinders-series-2-episode-6?seriesId=b04kkm8q
  2. https://archive.org/details/scribnersmonthly03newy/page/n5/mode/1up?view=theater
  3. https://www.panmacmillan.com/about-pan-macmillan
  4. http://landofllostcontent.blogspot.com/2009/12/gustav-holst-in-bleak-mid-winter.html
  5. https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-music/articles/vaughan-williams-and-the-english-hymnal
  6. https://www.bbc.co.uk/gloucestershire/content/articles/2008/12/18/midwinter_feature.shtml
  7. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52218436
  8. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3634586/Sacred-mysteries.html
  9. https://www.allmusic.com/artist/harold-darke-mn0001261167/biography?1640147639153
  10. https://stainer.co.uk/about/
  11. https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/in_the_bleak_midwinter.htm
  12. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/arts_and_culture/7752029.stm
  13. https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b09gvn5j/peaky-blinders-series-4-2-heathens

Gift Ideas for History Lovers: My Top 5 History Reads of the Year

It can be hard to know what to get the history lovers in your life when it comes to Christmas, especially if, like me, they’re interested in more than one period. If you need a bit of inspiration this year, then here’s a list of my top five history books that I’ve read this year. It’s a mixture of different periods and some fiction and non-fiction, so hopefully there’s something for everybody there.

Jane Austen Investigates: The Abbey Mystery, by Julia Golding

Whilst this is technically a children’s fiction book, it is well suited for Jane Austen fans of all ages. A teenage Jane Austen turns supersleuth when mysterious goings-on happen at Southmoor Abbey, where she has been sent to be a companion of Lady Cromwell for a week. It’s written in a very entertaining way and is a satirical version of a Gothic novel, full of many hints of the real Jane which will be recognised by hardened fans. It’s also a good way to introduce younger readers to the world of Jane Austen. This has definitely been one of my favourite books and I found it quite hard to put down! If you would like to know a bit more, I recently wrote a review for Love British History, which can be found here.

The Real Falstaff: Sir John Fastolf and the Hundred Years War by Stephen Cooper

This book places the Hundred Years War in the context of John Fastolf, the man Shakespeare used as inspiration for his Falstaff character. It successfully blends military history and social history with the personal life of John Fastolf. It gives you a great understanding of how Fastolf fit in and influenced the world around him until his death in the 1450s, including a focus on the homes he built for himself. All in all, a very interesting read and shows just why Fastolf isn’t recognised enough.

Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe

In this book, Ernie LaPointe, great-grandson of the legendary Chief Sitting Bull, tells the real story of his famous ancestor. This is a biography with a difference. It’s written in the traditional style of Lakota oral history. This makes it read very differently to other books, but feels true to the person of Sitting Bull. It also makes it easy to read. Again this is up there with one of my favourite books of all time as it is full of emotion but is also education in the respect it shows just how complicated history has portrayed Sitting Bull. I wrote a review of this earlier in the year, so please do take a look here if you’re interested.

Before the Crown by Flora Harding

This is another fiction book, but this time an adult one. I was recently given this by a friend as a gift, so I would definitely recommend gifting this one. It tells the story of how Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip fell in love during the war and the lead up to their wedding on the 20th November 1947. Whilst this isn’t my usual time period, my friend obviously remembered that I have a personal connection to the Queen’s wedding day as my mum was born on the exact same day. I feel this has captured a young Elizabeth and Philip well and is also a very easy read. This would definitely be a good choice for any Royal fan!

Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and Its Treasures from the Nazis

Again this isn’t my usual time period, but I read this mainly because I have been a regular visitor to the Louvre, but was unaware of the troubles the museum had had during the Second World War. Whilst this is a non-fiction book, it does read more like an action or thriller story as the museum staff risked their lives to protect the treasures in their care. Again this makes it an enjoyable read and really focuses on the individuals involved and their sacrifices, as well as the personal achievements and recognition they had after the war ended. I recently wrote a review of this, which can be found here.

The Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers

It’s funny where you find something you didn’t know before. Just like many others during the pandemic, I’ve spent more time rewatching old TV programmes. Recently I watched some episodes of Auf Weidersehen Pet, an old British comedy about a group of labourers from the North East of England who look for building work abroad. Some of the last episodes of the programme, which are about 20 years old, have the characters helping a Native American tribe to build a bridge, which they brought from England, on land on their reservation. I had no idea before watching these episodes, despite being fascinated by Native American history (which if you’re a regular reader, you’ll have guessed by now), that Native Americans were fundamental in constructing high-rise buildings. So I decided to do some research into this and the story behind it is amazing.

The Mohawks, who are part of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, are known in their mother tongue as Mohowawogs. This was anglicized to Mohawks by Europeans.[1] They traditionally lived along the Hudson River, which straddles the American/Canadian border. Prior to European settlers coming to the area, their lands made up much of what is now known as New England, but as with all Native Americans, they have been forced onto reservations. The Mohawks now mainly live on the Kahnawake Reservation in Quebec, which lays on the shore of the St Laurence River, just outside of Montreal. Their association with building steel bridges and skyscrapers began by accident.

The Wreckage of the Quebec Bridge Collapse of 1907 in Holgate, Henry; Derry, John, G. G.; Galbraith, John, Royal Commission Quebec Bridge Inquiry Report, Sessional Paper No 154. S.E. Dawson printer to the King Ottawa. Appendix 19, figure 20, Wikimedia Commons

In 1886, the Dominion Bridge Company began work on a bridge over the St Laurence River for the Canadian Pacific Railway.[2] As the bridge was to be built on Mohawk land, permission to build the bridge relied upon some of the Mohawk men being employed by the company. Initially they were used as day labourers to suppliers.[3] Many of those employed were young men who attempted to climb the structure on their lunch breaks, proving that they were more than adept to working at height. This meant the company promoted them to working on the bridge. They realised the advantages of continuing in this type of employment would include a stable job and good wages to support their families. However, this would also include long periods away from home.

On 29 August 1907, the Quebec Bridge collapsed, killing 96 men who were working on it, 35 of which were Mohawks. In fact, only 11 men were ever recovered alive following the collapse.[4] The disaster had been caused due to financial issues with Quebec Bridge Company who were in charge of the bridge’s construction. The company had purposefully chosen a cheaper design that required less steel than was necessary for a bridge of its size, meaning it couldn’t take the weight needed.[5] The bodies of the Mohawks who sadly lost their lives were returned to the Kahnawake Reservation. Their graves were marked with steel beams to show how they had died, a tradition which is still continued.[6]

New York skyscrapers from Jersey City (1908), Library of National Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Whilst the dangers of working at height wouldn’t have been lost on the Mohawks or any of the other men working on such projects, a decision was made to stop such large scale deaths from happening again. The Mohawk women proposed that any men wishing to become steelworkers should be split into smaller groups to work on different projects, rather than only focusing on one.[7] With this decision, the Mohawks were able to work on many different building projects around America. However, they mostly concentrated on the many skyscrapers that were being built in New York in the early 20th century. They are known to have worked in the city as early as 1901, but it was only from the 1920s that they began to work on the numerous high-rise buildings that the city became known for.[8]

Mohawks have helped construct some of the most iconic buildings in New York. Here is a list of just some of them: Empire State Building, Rockefeller Centre, World Trade Centre, Chrysler Building, United Nations Secretariat Building and Madison Square Gardens.[9] It’s amazing to realise just how much the building of skyscrapers at this time relied upon not just Native Americans, but also other emigrants. It is thought that more than a dozen ethnicities worked on skyscrapers during their construction.[10] Perhaps the Mohawks were so good at it as they were a people who “fostered cooperation and community effort”, which can be seen in the gangs they worked with on the construction sites.[11] We have all probably seen that most famous photograph of workers eating their lunch on a girder hanging in the sky. At least three of them men in that picture are Mohawk.[12]

Lunch atop a Skyscraper, published in the New York Herald-Tribune, Oct2 1932, Wikimedia Commons

As it’s coming up to the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, I feel it rather appropriate to talk about the Mohawks role on that fateful day. As previously mentioned, many had helped build the Twin Towers during their construction between 1968 and 1972. Around 500 men worked on the construction, 200 of which were Mohawks.[13] The last girder put in place in skyscrapers in New York are usually signed by the people working on it. In the case of the World Trade Centre, it was a Mohawk gang.[14] There were also other buildings in the complex added after this date. However, many rushed to the World Trade Centre as they were working on nearby building sites. They offered help to survivors and also helped in the clearing of wreckage and search for victims following the attack.[15] For this reason, I feel it rather fitting that many of them then went on to work on the Freedom Tower and memorial that are now on the site of the World Trade Centre.[16]

Many Mohawks still continue to work in steel construction. Following the demand for them in New York, many chose to move their families to New York as it was around a 12 hour journey from Kahnawake to the city. They mainly lived around 4th Avenue and many grocery stores selling traditional Native foods and church that spoke in their native tongue also tended to their needs.[17] However, since a freeway/motorway was built in the 1970s, many chose to move back to their homeland as the commute was made easier.[18]

I hope that as the anniversary for both the Quebec Bridge disaster and 9/11 are both coming up, that this post has helped show the reliance the steel construction industry has had (and continues to have) on the Mohawks. At the time of the Quebec Bridge disaster, none of the Mohawk fatalities were ever mentioned in the news.[19] I hope that this goes at least some wat to highlight the legacy they, and all those Mohawks who have worked on these important projects, have left us with.


[1] Weitzman, D., Skywalkers: Mohawk Ironworkers Build the City (New York: Roaring Brook Pres, 2010), p. 4.

[2] Bjornland, K., ‘Honouring Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers and Bridges’, The Daily Gazette, 16 April 2017, https://dailygazette.com/2017/04/16/honoring-native-americans-who-built-skyscrapers-bridges/;  Adams, C., ‘Why Do So Many Native Americans Work on Skyscrapers’, Straight Dope, https://www.straightdope.com/21341828/why-do-so-many-native-americans-work-on-skyscrapers

[3] Bjornland, K., ‘Honouring Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers and Bridges’, The Daily Gazette, 16 April 2017, https://dailygazette.com/2017/04/16/honoring-native-americans-who-built-skyscrapers-bridges/

[4] University of North Carolina, The Collapse of the Quebec Bridge, 1907, https://eng-resources.uncc.edu/failurecasestudies/bridge-failure-cases/the-collapse-of-the-quebec-bridge-1907/

[5] ‘The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html

[6] Adams, C., ‘Why Do So Many Native Americans Work on Skyscrapers’, Straight Dope, https://www.straightdope.com/21341828/why-do-so-many-native-americans-work-on-skyscrapers

[7] ‘The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html

[8] ‘The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html; Adams, C., ‘Why Do So Many Native Americans Work on Skyscrapers’, Straight Dope, https://www.straightdope.com/21341828/why-do-so-many-native-americans-work-on-skyscrapers

[9]The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html; Budd, J., ‘High and Mighty’, The Guardian, 19 June 2002, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2002/jun/19/artsfeatures1

[10] Korum, J. J., The American Skyscraper, 1850-1940 (Boston: Branden Books, 2008)

[11] Weitzman, D., Skywalkers: Mohawk Ironworkers Build the City (New York: Roaring Brook Pres, 2010), p. 4.

[12] Budd, J., ‘High and Mighty’, The Guardian, 19 June 2002, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2002/jun/19/artsfeatures1

[13] Bjornland, K., ‘Honouring Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers and Bridges’, The Daily Gazette, 16 April 2017, https://dailygazette.com/2017/04/16/honoring-native-americans-who-built-skyscrapers-bridges/

[14] The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html

[15] The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html; Bjornland, K., ‘Honouring Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers and Bridges’, The Daily Gazette, 16 April 2017, https://dailygazette.com/2017/04/16/honoring-native-americans-who-built-skyscrapers-bridges/

[16] Bjornland, K., ‘Honouring Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers and Bridges’, The Daily Gazette, 16 April 2017, https://dailygazette.com/2017/04/16/honoring-native-americans-who-built-skyscrapers-bridges/

[17] The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html

[18] The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html

[19] Bjornland, K., ‘Honouring Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers and Bridges’, The Daily Gazette, 16 April 2017, https://dailygazette.com/2017/04/16/honoring-native-americans-who-built-skyscrapers-bridges/

Cleveland Pools, Bath: The Oldest Outdoor Swimming Pool in Britain

Bath is a wonderful example of Georgian period architecture. I visited for the first time for a long weekend in 2019. We were meant to be going back last year for a full week but with the pandemic, will be going in September instead. The city has had a long association with water an bathing. The Romans occupied the city and named it Aquae Sulis, meaning the Waters of Sulis, a British goddess who the Romans identified as a version of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and battle strategy.[1] The site is one of the most complete Roman bathing complexes in the world, so it’s no wonder that it’s now part of a World Heritage Site.

Roman Baths in Bath, 2019 (Author’s Own Image)

The city’s waters were still a huge draw for people in the Georgian era. During this time, doctors were advising their patients to take bath in mineral rich waters for medical reasons. The Pump Rooms were a place to receive medical treatment, but also a place for those in fashionable society to be seen. However, despite the city’s rich and long heritage with bathing, I had no idea until recently that that Cleveland Pools existed, despite it being the UK’s only surviving Georgian era open-air swimming pool.[2]

Building on the Bath’s reputation for its water, as well as the banning of nude bathing in the River Avon in 1801, it was decided to build a subscription pool for swimming in.[3] The design was meant to reflect the Georgian style most prominent in the area, which explains the crescent shape of the original changing rooms. It looks like a mini version of the famous Royal Crescent on the other side of the River Avon to the Pools.[4] It was built in 1815 and was originally marketed as a place for the ‘gentleman of Bath’.[5] It is believed that the pool, along with the caretaker’s cottage, were built by a local builder called Newton, following a design created by local architect, John Pinch.[6] Water originally pooled in from the River Avon which was located next to the pools.[7]

Royal Crescent, Bath, 2019 (Author’s Own Image)

The pool was remained quite popular and after much demand, a ladies pool was added following renovations in 1827, including a perpetual shower bath, although I’m not quite sure what one of those is.[8] The appeal to families continued well into the Victorian period, when the pool was once again expanded to include a children’s pool.[9] It was certainly a place to go during for the Victorians as in 1867, a man named Mr W. Evans was in charge and he sought to teach swimming at the pools, as well as having entertaining gala parties with his pet baboon.[10]

Sadly though, the popularity of Cleveland Pools was not to last. It went through many hands from the end of the nineteenth century through to the late twentieth century. This is probably why it still remained largely subscription run, other than for a brief period in 1901 when entry was free.[11] Finally in 1984, it closed as the competition with indoor pools became too great. Following closure, it was briefly turned into a trout farm.[12] When this ended, it was left in a state of disrepair.

Cleveland Pools, Bath, from river side of lower pool, Rwendland (2010), Wikimedia Commons

In 2003, it was put up for sale by the Local Council, who then owned it, at the same time it was placed on English Heritage’s At Risk Register.[13] In 2004, the Cleveland Pools Trust was established to try and save the building. In 2006, Cleveland Pools’ listed status was upgraded from Grade II status to Grade II*.[14] Grade II buildings are classed as those of national importance and of special interest, whereas Grade II* buildings are classed as ones of specific importance that are of greater importance than those in Grade II.[15]

Thankfully, that is not the end of Cleveland Pools. After 17 years of campaigning for recognition and money for restoration, the Trust was given money back in Spring. It received £4.7 million from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.[16] Building work also started in the Spring, and it’s hoped that people will be able to swim there from 2022. It is somewhat of a hidden gem and I hope that this lovely and important site finally gets the love it once had. I hope that I will be able to visit when the site is fully renovated and brought up to scratch again.

If you would like to know more about Cleveland Pools, do take a look at their website, where they post updates on how the building is going. Check it out here.


[1] Bath’s Historic Venues, Roman Bath’s History, https://www.bathvenues.co.uk/roman-baths-history

[2] Visit Bath, Cleveland Pools, https://visitbath.co.uk/listings/single/cleveland-pools/

[3] Historic Pools of Britain, Cleveland Pools, Bath, https://historicpools.org.uk/member_pools/cleveland-pools-bath/

[4] Historic Pools of Britain, Cleveland Pools, Bath, https://historicpools.org.uk/member_pools/cleveland-pools-bath/

[5] Historic Pools of Britain, Cleveland Pools, Bath, https://historicpools.org.uk/member_pools/cleveland-pools-bath/

[6] English Heritage, Cleveland Baths, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1396146

[7] Cleveland Pools, https://www.clevelandpools.org.uk/

[8] Cleveland Pools, https://www.clevelandpools.org.uk/

[9] Visit Bath, Cleveland Pools, https://visitbath.co.uk/listings/single/cleveland-pools/

[10] Cleveland Pools, https://www.clevelandpools.org.uk/

[11] Historic Pools of Britain, Cleveland Pools, Bath, https://historicpools.org.uk/member_pools/cleveland-pools-bath/

[12] Cleveland Pools, https://www.clevelandpools.org.uk/

[13] Cleveland Pools, https://www.clevelandpools.org.uk/

[14] Cleveland Pools, https://www.clevelandpools.org.uk/

[15] British Listed Buildings, What Are Listed Buildings, https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/site/about-listed-buildings/#.YOHja-hKhPY

[16] Cleveland Pools, https://www.clevelandpools.org.uk/

Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love: The First Professional Footballers, Part 2

Welcome back to the second part of the story of Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love, two of the first professional footballers. The first part focused on how Scottish Players, including Suter and Love came to play football in the mill towns of Lancashire, as well as a closer look into the life of Suter himself. You can find the first part here. This follow-on post will look into the short and tragic life of Jimmy Love, so be prepared for the emotion to come.

As previously mentioned, I first came across the story of Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love in the Netflix drama, The English Game. Jimmy’s character is portrayed as a kind, loving and caring young man, who see’s Suter not just as a friend, but a brother figure. He was by far my favourite character in the show. As usual, my curiosity got the better of me and I had to investigate the life of the real Jimmy Love. I was incredibly sad to find out that he is hardly remembered at all compared to Fergus, as really little is known about him. However, I must offer my thanks once again to Andy Mitchell, who is almost the only person who has seriously explored who the real Jimmy Love was. Most of what I have written has come from his sources with his permission to reference.

Jimmy or James Love was born in Glasgow in 1858, but sadly lost his mother at five years old. His dad also confusingly called James, which was why Jimmy was used as his name to differentiate the two. When I saw this, I instantly made a connection with Jimmy as my own mum lost her mother at the same age, and soon gained a step mum. The family moved from Greenock, around 25 miles outside of Glasgow, to Partick, which is now a suburb of Glasgow, in 1876. Following this move, Jimmy decided to set up his own street cleaning business and joined Partick football club in his spare time.[1]

James Harkness and Kevin Guthrie as Jimmy Love and Fergus Suter in Netflix’s The English Game (2020)

Things didn’t go well with his business and he went bankrupt in 1878, but absconded from his court appearances about the matter.[2] In fact he’d left Scotland altogether and moved to Darwen in Lancashire. At first this may sound odd, but Love had played against Darwen whilst playing for Partick, so he probably knew people there and that he could easily pursue his love of football there. He became a part of the Darwen football team and secretly began to get paid to do so. As previously explained, Jimmy was one of many Scottish footballers, especially Partick players, who went on to play for Lancashire teams, mainly because of the better skills they had compared to English players.[3] It turned out to be a good decision on Jimmy’s part, as he became a celebrated goal scorer for Darwen, which also led the way for Fergus Suter, a fellow Partick player, to decided to join Darwen a few weeks after Jimmy.[4] In April 1879, the club played a benefit match where proceeds were raised for both Fergus and Jimmy.[5]

For whatever reason, possibly the chance of earning more money, as Fergus later recalled, saying he was bribed both Jimmy and Fergus moved on to play for nearby Blackburn Rovers. Jimmy made his first appearance for them in November 1879, but his last ever match was played in January 1880. It’s not known why he stopped playing football, especially as he was a good player. Still, Jimmy had been part of the Darwen team that made history for being the first northern team to get to the quarter finals of the FA Cup, but with the passage of time, his part in that has been partly forgotten.[6] This is probably in part to Suter, who carried on playing until his retirement in 1888 and became a household name in the world of football for winning the FA Cup three times.[7]

Report of the death of Jimmy Love in Egypt on the 27th of September 1882, Glasgow Herald, 10 October 1882

Sadly, for Jimmy, his own retirement from football in January 1880 is where most stories of him tend to end, most likely because of the unknown circumstances of it. Thankfully, Andy Mitchell has picked up the story of what happened to him after his football career was over, and it was as far away from football, and Lancashire, as you could possibly imagine. Just a month after his last game for Blackburn, Jimmy made the 40 odd mile journey to Liverpool to sign up for the Royal Marines. In his sign-up papers, he was described as a painter who was 5ft 6.5 inches tall with dark complexion, brown eyes, and brown hair.[8] He must have followed it through as he was next seen in the 1881 Census living in barracks at Chatham in Kent, a well-known naval base at the time. He had also been promoted to the rank of corporal.[9]

The Marines, Jimmy being among them, were sent out to fight in Egypt in 1882 as the Egyptians started an uprising after the British and French began to have a bigger amount of control over the country following the leader, Khedive Ismail Pasha’s financial ruin.[10] For Jimmy, this mission was ill fated as he died of a fever at the young age of 24 in Egypt.[11] His body stayed in Egypt but his name is mentioned in a memorial dedicated to the Marines who fought during that Egyptian Campaign.[12] For his service, he was posthumously awarded with a medal, which was given to his father, James Love.[13] In honour of her then dead younger brother, Jessie Love, who went on to marry David Muirhead, another Partick player, named her son Jimmy Love Muirhead.[14] What a touching tribute and perhaps a glimmer into how much Jimmy meant to his family. Still, the tragedy didn’t end their as Jimmy Muirhead died as a young man himself on the battlefields of World War One.[15] To say that name was unlucky for the Love family is a massive understatement.

Colours given to Rochester Cathedral on 27 May 1950 after final parade of Chatham Group, Royal Marines, who were disbanded that year. Wikimedia Commons

All in all, I hope you’ve enjoyed my first ever two-part blog post, even if it’s not on my usual kind of topic. After discovering the real and moving story of Jimmy Love in particular, I felt I had to share his story. When I first read about his untimely death in Egypt, I’m not ashamed to admit I had a bit of a cry. Whether Jimmy had been a famous football player or not, the story of dying so young and so much to live for, as well as the story somewhat repeating itself in the next generation, is an awful thing for the family to have gone through. Anyway, I hope this post has helped raise the profile of Jimmy Love as a player who paved the way for his friend Fergus Suter, and just as seen in the English Game, probably helped and supported his friends along the way, whatever his personal reasons for leaving the sport were.

I would once again like to end on a thank you to Andy Mitchell for investigating Jimmy’s story in the first place, as it is certainly one that I feel needs to be told more. If you would like to know more about Jimmy, Fergus and Partick, I would thoroughly recommend Andy Mitchell’s blog on Scottish Sport, where most of the information I have referenced is from with his permission. I would also thoroughly recommend you watch The English Game on Netflix, as it tells the story not just of how football as we understand it today was created, but the class divisions that separated it in those early days of professionalism.


[1] Mitchell, A., ‘The True Story of Jimmy Love, the Very First “Scotch Professor”’, Scottish Sport Historyhttps://www.scottishsporthistory.com/sports-history-news-and-blog/the-true-story-of-jimmy-love-the-very-first-scotch-professor

[2] Mitchell, A., ‘The True Story of Jimmy Love, the Very First “Scotch Professor”’

[3] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter, the First Professional Footballers’, Scottish Sport History, https://www.scottishsporthistory.com/sports-history-news-and-blog/from-partick-with-love-the-story-of-jimmy-love-and-fergie-suter-the-first-professional-footballers

[4] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[5] Mitchell, A., ‘The True Story of Jimmy Love, the Very First “Scotch Professor”’

[6] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[7] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[8] Mitchell, A., ‘The True Story of Jimmy Love, the Very First “Scotch Professor”’

[9] Mitchell, A., ‘The True Story of Jimmy Love, the Very First “Scotch Professor”’

[10] The National Archives, The Egypt War of 1882, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/battles/egypt/

[11] Mitchell, A., ‘The True Story of Jimmy Love, the Very First “Scotch Professor”’

[12] Imperial War Museum, Royal Marine Light Infantry Egypt 1882, https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/16491

[13] Mitchell, A., ‘The True Story of Jimmy Love, the Very First “Scotch Professor”’

[14] Mitchell, A., ‘The True Story of Jimmy Love, the Very First “Scotch Professor”’

[15] Mitchell, A., ‘The True Story of Jimmy Love, the Very First “Scotch Professor”’

Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love: The First Professional Footballers, Part 1

Whilst looking for something to watch on Netflix recently, The English Game kept popping up as a recommended programme to watch. From the trailer, it’s clear to see that this period drama of a different sort is based on the class struggles that dominated the early years of football, or soccer to you American readers, as a standardised game in the late nineteenth century. Anyone who knows me will know I hate sports of any kind really. I was the despair of my P.E. teacher at school, who I remember asking my mum if there was any sort of physical activity I liked at all. Still, football has seemed to surround me a little bit lately, whether I like it or not.

I’m currently an archives assistant on a coal mining project at my county’s local archives, which focuses on the health and welfare provided for miners by their employers. Sport, especially football, was a large part of this. Many local mining teams produced top players, who went on to play for well-known professional football clubs, and they even had their own leagues too. For me, the part that interested me was the social and class aspects surrounding the game. That reason, as well as The English Game being written by Julian Fellows, the writer of one of my favourite period dramas, Downton Abbey, was what persuaded me to watch. Little did I realise the research rabbit hole this would lead me down and the discovery of the interesting lives of Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love, the Scottish players shown in the series, who are seen as the game’s first professional players. As both their stories are worth exploring in detail, I thought it would be best to do a post on each of them.

Netflix’s The English Game (2020)

Football has been around for centuries. Prior to the establishment of the Cambridge Rules written in 1848, football didn’t have a set of standard rules throughout the country. It varied depending on location and was more similar to what we now call Rugby. Ashbourne in Derbyshire, not far from where I live, still plays this form of the game once a year and is known as Shrovetide Football. The whole town plays in a giant scrum and it all looks very messy. The English Football Association (FA), created in 1863, made teams use the rules created in 1848, but it heavily relied on upper class teams from universities and private schools, who made up the board for it. The Scottish Football Association followed ten years later in 1873. It was in this environment that Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love began playing football from the mid-1870s.

Fergus Suter was born in Glasgow in 1857 as the son of an Irish stonemason who had moved to Scotland in search of work. Just like his father, Fergus went into the stonemason trade and became a stonemason’s apprentice.[1] Partick, the area of Glasgow he grew up in, was known for it’s football club, although initially this was a different team than Partick Thistle who play now. Suter, as well as Jimmy, were two of the first players for the team after its formation in 1876, as many working-class men played for football clubs in their spare time. Fergus’ brother, Edward, also played for Partick. However, Fergus left in the autumn of 1878 and moved to Darwen in Lancashire, following in the footsteps of his teammate Jimmy Love. Andy Mitchell who has done extensive research into the lives of both players suggests that Suter left due to financial worries when Partick stonemasons went on strike about pay.[2]

Fergus Suter, Blackburn Rovers full-back, from 1880 to 1889, The Cottontown Digitisation Project, Wikimedia Commons

It may sound strange now to think that players moved so far away from their home teams before the game had become professional, but the Scottish players, particularly those who played for Partick were sought after by the Lancashire teams. The Scottish players were much more experimental with their game strategies, opting for combination playing involving all members of the team, rather than the rather messy one preferred by the English teams.[3] The introduction of this new way of playing soon became more popular and helped to raise standards as a whole. The Scottish players brought to Lancashire by the football clubs were found jobs in workplaces that would allow time for training and playing the game and would ensure travel expenses and compensation for lost earnings.[4] This was perfectly acceptable behaviour as this allowed the game to continue to be amateur as by the rules. However, Suter admitted in a press interview given in 1902, that he and some of the other players, were being paid to play, not a regular amount, but £10 (around £660 in today’s money) when necessary.[5] At that time, the payments were considerably more than the average earnings of either unskilled or skilled labourers.[6] It’s no wonder that Suter very quickly gave up his job as a stonemason and solely relied upon the money he was earning from football. This made him the first official professional player in footballing history.

In February 1879, the Darwen team showed how far they had come, hoping to make the toffs of football and the FA. take working-class teams seriously. They played the Old Etonians, one of the main teams at the time, who’s players made up the board of the FA. itself. At half time the Old Etonians were winning 5-1, but by the end of the match, it was a 5-5 draw. In those days, extra time wasn’t a given and it had to be decided before a match or it would have to be replayed if a draw was the final result. The first rematch was a 2-2 draw, and the Old Etonians only just won the third match, going on to win the FA Cup for that season. Darwen had made history for being the first northern team to get to the quarter finals of the FA Cup.[7]

Despite the success Fergus had with Darwen, he moved on to play for Blackburn, another Lancashire team. Blackburn had bribed Suter with £100, around £6,600 in today’s money to make the move.[8] Family legend has also speculated that Suter made the move because of fathering an illegitimate child.[9] Whatever the reason, he went on to win the FA Cup with them three times and stayed with the team for nearly a decade until he retired in 1888. Following his retirement, he remained in Blackburn, but by then working as a publican, until just prior to his death in 1916.[10]

The Blackburn Rovers Team for the 1884-85 and 1885-86 Seasons, Wikimedia Commons

Fergus Suter is now well remembered as the first professional player in the football game. He was part of a team of innovators that helped create the game that is known around the world today. However, that is not the end of his story. Following the release of The English Game, his grave in Blackburn Old Cemetery has been restored, with the work finishing just last month. Blackburn Rovers have helped for the restoration of the original headstone and a new memorial stone has been placed on it to show his contribution to football.[11]

More on Jimmy Love will be coming up in part two, who has an even more interesting, though tragic story to tell. In the meantime, if you would like to know more about Jimmy, Fergus and Partick, I would thoroughly recommend Andy Mitchell’s blog on Scottish Sport, where most of this information is referenced from. He was a research consultant on The English Game. He has also written books on the subject, including one about Arthur Kinnaird, another character in the English Game, who went on to be a President of the FA.


[1] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter, the First Professional Footballers’, Scottish Sport History, https://www.scottishsporthistory.com/sports-history-news-and-blog/from-partick-with-love-the-story-of-jimmy-love-and-fergie-suter-the-first-professional-footballers

[2] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[3] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter,’

[4] Huggins, M., The Victorians and Sport (London: Hambledon and London, 2004), p. 131.

[5] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[6] Huggins, M., The Victorians and Sport, p. 131.

[7] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[8] Huggins, M., The Victorians and Sport, p. 131.

[9] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[10] Mitchell, A., ‘From Partick With Love- The Story of Jimmy Love and Fergie Suter’

[11] Blackburn Rovers, ‘Magical’ Memorial as Rovers Celebrate Suter’s Memorable Milestone, https://www.rovers.co.uk/news/2021/april/magical-memorial-as-rovers-celebrate-suters-memorable-milestone/

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery in London is perhaps one of the most curious and unique sights in the whole of the city. It is certainly one that I have wanted to visit myself for a long time. As I live so far away from London, it’s still on the list for places to go at some point in the future. For those of you unfamiliar with the cemetery, you may be asking why a place of burial would be a good place to visit. It is actually well known for its unique architecture, most notably the Circle of Lebanon, a circle of burial vaults designed in the style of classical architecture. Whilst the cemetery now boasts some renown, I only discovered recently how the very existence of this amazing place full of history and notable people was once under threat.

Highgate Cemetery from Prickett, F. and Potter, G. W’s, The History and Antiquities of Highgate, Middlesex (1842), British Library

During the early part of the nineteenth century, London’s population was booming, sadly so too was its death rate. The inner-city plots allocated for burials were unable to cope with the sheer numbers of burials needed. This meant that bodies were very much placed into the same graves as strangers, and even given quick lime to help them decompose quicker to make room for future burials! For public health reasons, the authorities decided new and better provisions needed to be made.[1] Many new out of city places were brought, including the site that would become Highgate Cemetery. Initially, 17 acres of land, costing £3,500 (or around £211,000 in today’s money) were brought in 1836, with the cemetery officially opening three years later.[2]

People of all classes were buried at the cemetery, but it is the richer plots for which the cemetery became well-known for. Architecture based on Gothic, Egyptian and Classical architecture all became a draw for people, making it a unique place to be buried. The wealthy competed for more elaborate grave monuments to add to the existing architecture of the chapels and vaults. This competition certainly encouraged others to be buried at the site.[3] In total, there are around 850 notable people buried there, ranging from author, George Eliot, Karl Marx, and Elizabeth Siddal, a model for many famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings.[4] Karl Marx’s grave at the cemetery is said to be the most visited grave in London.[5] My favourite story is of bare-knuckle fighter, Tom Sayers, who had the biggest funeral held at the cemetery, possibly even in the whole of London, which was attended by 10,000 people, with his beloved dog as the chief mourner.[6] Sayers was popular because he was known to fight opponents who were bigger than himself, but only ever lost one fight in his career.[7]

Photograph of Tom Sayers with his trophies taken by F. W. Nicholls (1860), Wikimedia Commons

For many years, the cemetery was the place to be buried and it had to be extended by another 20 acres in 1856.[8] This popularity wasn’t to last those as it began to decline following the First World War. Many of the gardeners who worked there were called up to fight, leaving the site looking a bit shabby. From then on, a slow decline in popularity occurred until 1975, when The Friends of Highgate Cemetery was established to restore and maintain the site.[9] Now the cemetery is known to attract not just tourists, but also all kinds of wildlife.

It has become a place of historic interest, but also an active public space. Talks, tours and other events are often used to cater for the needs of visitors, giving it new meaning and life, just those buried there, but those living who are connected to the place, whether they be members of staff, the Friends group that run it, local, and of course the visitors.[10] The most recent high profile burial at Highgate is that of George Michael who sadly died in 2017. Whilst his death is still very current and still private, I hope that with time, he too will come to be looked on with the same reverence that is given to the older burials in the cemetery.

J. Armagh, Egyptian Avenue, Highgate Cemetery (2007), Wikimedia Commons

[1] Highgate Cemetery, https://highgatecemetery.org/about/history

[2] Highgate Cemetery, https://highgatecemetery.org/about/history

[3] Highgate Cemetery, https://highgatecemetery.org/about/history

[4] Johnson, B., ‘Highgate Cemetery’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/Highgate-Cemetery/

[5] Highgate Cemetery, https://highgatecemetery.org/about/history

[6] Highgate Cemetery, https://highgatecemetery.org/about/history

[7] Britannica Encyclopaedia, Tom Sayer, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Tom-Sayers

[8] Highgate Cemetery, https://highgatecemetery.org/about/history

[9] Highgate Cemetery, https://highgatecemetery.org/about/history

[10] Mader, M., ‘Public Events at a Historic-Religious Site’, in Mader, M., Saviello, A. and Scolari, B. (eds), Highgate Cemetery: Image Practices in Past and Present (Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft Mbh & Co, 2020), p. 180.

A ‘Love of Wandering’[i]: The Webb Family Abroad- Guest Post by Harriet Bird


Harriet Bird graduated with an undergraduate degree in History from Nottingham Trent University in 2019 and is currently studying for her master’s in Museum and Heritage Development. After beginning a volunteer position at Newstead Abbey in 2018 she became interested in the history of the Webb family and has begun researching this alongside her studies.  

Scotland, France, Italy, Switzerland, Madeira, Egypt, South Africa, Jerusalem, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand. The Victorian owners of Newstead Abbey travelled extensively.  

From an early age, William Frederick Webb (1829-1899) was used to travelling to different countries. Although born in England, he was largely raised in France and was known as “the French boy” when he began his education at Eton College.[i] After leaving Eton he became a captain of the 17th Lancers and spent time in Ireland, however, “the monotony of regimental life” did not suit Webb and he resigned his commission and turned his attentions to Africa.[ii] At the age of 22, he landed in South Africa to begin a two-year expedition of the country.[iii] After reluctantly leaving Africa early in 1853, he visited India after hearing so much about the country but found “after the free life of the African wilderness the India of those days failed to attract him” and he returned to England by the end of the year.[iv]

Figure 1: A photograph of five of the Webb children stood in front of Eagle Pond in the gardens of Newstead Abbey. Photograph from Webb Family Photo Album.

In July 1857, Webb married Emilia Jane Goodlake (1835-1889), the daughter of Thomas Mills Goodlake of Wadley at Farringdon in Berkshire (1808-1877).[v] The couple moved to Pepper Hall in Yorkshire where their first three children, Augusta Zelia (1858), Geraldine Katherine (1860), and Wilfred (1861), were born. Shortly after Wilfred was born in spring 1861 the family moved to Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, where four more children followed, Ethel Mary (1862), Mabel Cecilia (1863), Algernon Frederick (1865) and Roderick Beauclerk (1867).

The Webb children’s childhoods were filled with tales of their father’s excursions abroad, in particular, his expedition to Africa, so much so that Augusta later claimed, “Africa played such a familiar part in our childhood’s days as to be almost as real to us as our home surroundings”.[vi] From surviving letters and family photograph albums, we find that William and Emilia continued to travel and often took the children with them. Not only did the family spend their summers in Scotland at Arrochar, but they also travelled abroad to places such as Switzerland, Italy and Egypt.[vii] Emilia managed to fulfil her “great desire” and visited Jerusalem, as Augusta related, “it was a very real and true pilgrimage”, and she was “very proud of her pilgrim’s ring”.[viii]  It is perhaps not surprising that their children continued to travel and may have acquired the same “love of wandering” Augusta describes her father as having.[ix]

Figure 2 : Photograph taken by a member of the Webb family identified as Jerusalem. Photograph from the Webb Family Photo Album.

Three years after her marriage to Philip Affleck Fraser in July 1889, Augusta found herself settling in Jamaica during her husband’s work with the railway.[x] Already an experienced and talented author having published articles and short stories in the periodicals in England, Augusta began her first full-length novel. Inspired by her new surroundings and the stories told to her by the local population, A Study in Colour was published in 1894. A second novel, Lucilla (1895), and a collection of short stories, A Reluctant Evangelist (1896), followed, all published under the pseudonym, Alice Spinner. Augusta’s fourth work, Livingstone and Newstead, was published in 1913 under her married name.

In the 1890s Geraldine and Ethel got the opportunity to accompany their father on a trip to Japan. On their return, inspired by their visit, rooms began to be filled with purchases and souvenirs, the Henry VII bedroom being redecorated to create a Japanese Room. Ethel also took this inspiration out into the gardens and set about designing a Japanese Garden, her sketches and research having survived to be shown to visitors at the Abbey today.

Death also haunted trips abroad. In 1889, Emilia became “hopelessly ill” and the “South African climate had been recommended to her”.[xi] Accompanied only by her husband, she travelled to South Africa where the weather did “allay much of her suffering” but in December she passed away just two months after arriving.[xii]  Two years later, a visit to Madeira was extended for some time on account of Mabel’s “delicate health” and her “suffering from the effects of a severe fall”.[xiii] When she eventually returned to England in July it was decided for her to undergo an operation, however, shortly after chloroform had been administered Mabel “sank rapidly” and died from a complication with her heart.[xiv] In 1898, Webb, like his wife, had travelled abroad for declining health.[xv] Suffering from acute laryngitis, Webb spent his last months in Egypt, passing away in February 1899 potentially from heart failure.[xvi]

Figure 3: Photograph of a sphinx taken in Egypt. Photograph from the Webb Family Photo Album.

In December the same year, Geraldine married Sir Herbert Charles Chermside (1850-1929) in a quickly arranged and quiet ceremony on account of Chermside’s departure for South Africa on active service on 4 January 1900, both Geraldine and Ethel later joined him.[xvii] Following his appointment as the 9th Governor of Queensland, a post he held between 1902 and 1904, the couple relocated to Australia.[xviii]  Whilst there, Geraldine visited New Zealand in October 1903, her husband joined her for Christmas before they both returned to Australia at the end of January 1904.[xix] Like her parents, when her health was failing she travelled abroad to Switzerland for improvement but died in June 1910.[xx]

The youngest Webb sibling, Roderick, also found himself in Australia. Likely leaving England after being examined by a bankruptcy court in 1896 for debts of over £11,000, Roderick is reportedly to have taken up mining, farming and “dairying” in Australia.[xxi] Like his father, Roderick had begun a military career after leaving school, a career he retained in Australia after taking the position of aide-de-camp to his brother-in-law, Chermside.[xxii] During the war, he was ordered to East Africa where he died from heart failure in 1916.[xxiii]

With Newstead Abbey as their base, the Webb’s travelled extensively for exploration, enjoyment, employment and easing of illness. Their combined “love of wandering” led them to places as far away as Australia and Japan and their travels often coincided with important landmarks in their lives making it almost impossible to tell their story without reference to them.   

Photographs from the Webb Family Photo Album used with kind permission from Simon Brown, Curator of Newstead Abbey.


[i] Fraser, A.Z. 1913. Livingstone and Newstead, London: John Murray, p.3.

[ii] Ibid, pp.1-2.

[iii] Ibid, pp. 2-6. See Chapters 2-6 for an account of his time in Africa and meeting with Dr Livingstone.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid, pp. 41-42.

[vi] ‘Marriage in the High Life’, Morning Post, Thursday, 16 July 1857, p.5. ; Fraser, Livingstone, pp. 64-65.

[vii] Fraser, Livingstone, p.33.

[viii] A copy of the Webb family photograph album is available for visitors to look through at Newstead Abbey and some of the letters are also on display.

[ix] Fraser, Livingstone, p.170.

[x] Ibid, p.3.

[xi] Bryan, P. (2000), The Jamaican People, 1880-1902: Race, Class, and Social Control, University of West Indies Press, p.40, 199.  

[xii] Fraser, Livingstone, pp. 248-251.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] ‘Sad Death of the Daughter of Mr Webb, of Newstead Abbey’, Mansfield Reporter, Friday, 3 July 1891, p.8.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] ‘Mr W. F. Webb’, Nottingham Evening Post, Saturday, 25 Feb 1899, p.4.

[xvii] Ibid. ; ‘Stray Pellets’, Sporting Gazette: The County Gentleman, Saturday, 18 March 1899, p.345.

[xviii] ‘Major-General Sir H. Chermside and Miss Geraldine Webb’, Nottingham Journal, Thursday, 28 Dec 1899, p.6. ; ‘Major-Gen. Sir H. Chermside, G.C.M.G., C.B., to Miss G. K. Webb’, Gentlewoman, Saturday, 13 Jan 1900, p.56.

[xix] ‘Queensland’s New Governor’, Pall Mall Gazette, Wednesday, 1 Jan 1902, p.8. ; ‘Army Personal’, Army and Navy Gazette, Saturday, 11 Jan 1902, p.28. ; ‘Sir H. Chermside Resigns’, The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld: 1872-1947), Friday, 30 Sep 1904, p.4.

[xx] ‘Lady Chermside’s Departure’, The Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser (Qld: 1861-1908), Tuesday, 6 Oct 1903, p.12. ; ‘Governor Gone’, The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld: 1872-1947), Wednesday, 16 Dec 1903, p.7.

[xxi] ‘Death of Lady Chermside’, Nottingham Evening Post, Thursday, 23 June 1910, p.6.

[xxii] ‘The Affairs of Roderick B. Webb, of Cowton, Yorks, and Newstead Abbey, Notts’, The Freemans Journal, Thursday, 12 Nov, 1896, p.7. ‘Obituary: Major R. B. Webb’, Warwick Examiner and Times (Qld: 1867-1919), Wednesday, 9 Aug 1916, p.1.  

[xxiii] ‘Obituary’, Warwick Examiner, 1916, p.1.

[xxiv] Ibid.

Brushy Bill Roberts: Billy the Kid or Imposter?

After catching the last part of the film Young Guns recently, I suddenly realised I didn’t know the end of Billy the Kid’s life. Being English, I assumed that this was because we have our own outlaws, rather than the cowboys of the American West. However, after beginning to do a little research, some parallels with English outlaws emerged. Most notably that there has been a lot fictionalisation surrounding Billy’s life. This was easy to do as there are little established facts and most of the knowledge known about him has been taken from rumours and speculation found in newspapers and fictionalised accounts at the time.[1] Yet one thing stood out to me as utterly fascinating: in 1950, a man known as Brushy Bill Roberts applied for a pardon for Billy the Kid. Who was this Brushy Bill Roberts, and why was he asking for a pardon for Billy the Kid, real name Henry McCarty, nearly 70 years after the death of the outlaw?

Photograph of Brushy Bill Roberts

Brushy Bill Roberts, real name William Henry Roberts, first came to the attention of a paralegal, William V. Morrison, in 1948 whilst he was helping to settle an estate.[2] He had heard rumours that Roberts knew the true fate of Billy the Kid and wanted to investigate more. Little did he know exactly what he’d find. After some interviews, Roberts admitted he was Billy the Kid and that he was sick of hiding his identity. Morrison was initially unsure as to the truth of the claims, but quickly began to believe them, particularly as some of the activities of Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War in which he was involved, were too in depth not to be true.[3] Despite these findings, when the story was released to the press, experts on the American outlaw were utterly unconvinced and instead they continued to believe that it was Billy the Kid who had been shot by Pat Garrett in the early hours of 14 July 1881.[4]

Billy the Kid, Wikimedia Commons

There are many loopholes in the story of Billy the Kid’s death, therefore leaving an opportunity not just for Roberts, but a man name John Miller, who died in 1937, to claim to be the outlaw who died young. Garrett had shot a man who had been speaking Spanish in a darkened room of the ranch house of Pete Maxwell, a friend of Billy the Kid. The two deputies who were waiting outside the house, John W. Poe and Thomas McKinney, hadn’t met the outlaw before, so they didn’t know what he looked like. After the incident, Poe is noted to not believe the man who had been shot dead was Billy, insisting that it was the wrong man.[5] This, alongside rumours spread by locals who lived near the ranch, meant some had begun to believe that it was someone else who had been killed that day.

Photograph of Pat Garrett as a Sherriff in the Lincoln County Police, Wikimedia Commons

The day after the shooting, a Coroner’s inquest ruled that the body was that of Billy the Kid and that Garrett had shot him as a justifiable homicide.[6] The body was buried that same day and was fully intact, despite later claims by various people to have kept body parts as relics.[7] It was buried alongside Billy’s mother but the graves have since has flooding issues, so no one knows if the remains are still there. A more recent stone marker has been placed in the graveyard but it’s uncertain whether it lies anywhere near the original grave location.[8] This has meant that any calls for DNA evidence to be analysed has been impossible.

I have purposefully not gone into the full ins and outs of the case for Brushy Bill Roberts either being or not being Billy the Kid, in the hopes that you will investigate it and make up your own mind. I would suggest that as it’s a fascinating topic. However, for me, there is one strange coincidence in the timing of Roberts coming forward as Billy the Kid. Roberts and his wife decided to retire to Texas after moving around between many different southern states because of the low cost of living there. Roberts was on a small state pension and this had to be supplemented by his elderly wife taking on laundry to bring in a relatively small income.[9] He also died of a heart attack in December 1950 after his attempt of a pardon was unsuccessful.

Photograph of Brushy Bill’s Grave, Wikimedia Commons

There is no way to definitively prove or disprove Roberts claims of being the infamous outlaw, but there is no denying that the case has helped perpetuate the outlaw in American history. This started within a year of the Kid’s supposed death after Pat Garrett published a biography of his victim. However, the book was more like a traditional dime novel, which often featured cowboy figures. It was based on entertaining fiction rather than hard facts.[10] Hico in Texas, where Roberts retired to, openly admits his claims were true and has a Billy the Kid Museum to explain this. Whatever your own believes on the matter, it’s true that the outlaw does have continuing appeal and fascination. In terms of Brushy Bill, as has been said, if he wasn’t Billy the Kid, then who was he and how did he know so much about the outlaw and the Lincoln County War?[11] It is possible that even if he wasn’t Billy, Roberts would have known him well and had himself participated in the Lincoln County War.[12]


[1] Kiger, P. J., ‘How Did Billy the Kid Die?’, History, 14 May 2020, https://www.history.com/news/billy-the-kid-death-theories

[2] Jameson, W. C., Billy the Kid: Beyond the Grave (Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishers, 2005), pp. 1-2.

[3] Jameson, W. C., Billy the Kid: Beyond the Grave, pp. 5 and 20.

[4] Prassel, F. R., The Great American Outlaw: A Legacy of Fact and Fiction (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), p. 152.

[5] Jameson, W. C., Billy the Kid: Beyond the Grave, p. XII.

[6] Kiger, P. J., ‘How Did Billy the Kid Die?’, History, 14 May 2020, https://www.history.com/news/billy-the-kid-death-theories

[7] Kiger, P. J., ‘How Did Billy the Kid Die?’, History, 14 May 2020, https://www.history.com/news/billy-the-kid-death-theories

[8] Prassel, F. R., The Great American Outlaw, p. 152.

[9] Jameson, W. C., Billy the Kid: Beyond the Grave, pp. 15-16.

[10] Jameson, W. C., Billy the Kid: Beyond the Grave, p. 7.

[11] ‘Patrolling the Bandit Belt’, T. F. Dawson Scrapbooks cited in Prassel, F. R., The Great American Outlaw, p. 152.

[12] Jameson, W. C., Billy the Kid: Beyond the Grave, p. 20.

The Death of Chief Sitting Bull

Chief Sitting Bull was one of the most notable advocates for Native American rights in the last part of the nineteenth century. He is probably most known for his appearances in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. For me, he personifies the struggles of the Native American people in their fight to keep their way of life. This was also evident in the circumstances that led up to his murder by the Indian Police, helped by the army, in 1890. They saw this ageing man as the last remaining beacon of hope for all Native Americans who were being forced to leave their once nomadic existence to live reservations. Life on reservations was purposefully meant to stop their traditional way of life. They were no longer free to move as they pleased, were forced hundreds of miles away from their ancestral land and subjected to forced assimilation wherever possible. Especially by sending Native American children to boarding schools so they could ‘unlearn’ their traditions and languages, instead imposing Western education upon them.[1]

In Sitting Bull’s own words on the subject, this was an injustice to his people:

“We were once free to come and go, and to live in our own way. But white men, who belong to another land, have come upon us, and are forcing us to live according to their ideas. That is an injustice; we have never dreamed of making white men live as we live.”[2]

These very opinions made him a much-reviled figure to the American authorities, especially as this was a man who had fought at the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn, where George Custer and the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the U. S. Army were defeated by an army of Native Americans, made up of different tribes, but led by visions Sitting Bull had had.

Sitting Bull photographed and published by Palmquist & Jurgens, St. Paul, Minn, ca. 1884. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/94500412

The bitterness the army and other authorities had towards Sitting Bull stemmed not just from his brave fight at the Battle of Little Bighorn, but from his flee to Canada following the bad winter of 1876-1877. That winter was full of bad weather meaning food was scarce. Many of the Native Americans decided to give in to being put on reservations, believing it would mean a guaranteed food source. Sitting Bull and his people refused to do this and instead fled to Canada, which was viewed as a safe place for the indigenous people. This meant that all the Native Americans still living in America were now all living on reservations.[3] Their time in Canada didn’t last long though as the buffaloes they relied on began to dwindle in numbers. It forced the Chief and his people back to America and onto the Sioux Reservation.

Under the Sioux Act of 1889, the government wanted to reduce the size of the Sioux Reservations into six smaller ones, rather than just one large one. This purposefully sought to reduce the amount of land available for the Native Americans, so that larger parts could be sold on to settlers.[4] You can imagine how Sitting Bull and many other leaders in the community reacted to this. For them, it once again showed how the white man could not be trusted. Many promises given had been broken, and not for the first time. Just as before, their opinions and complaints, despite being just, “and loud, and bitter, but were little heeded”.[5] Out of the ashes of the brokenness this brought, there was one glimmer of hope that began to arise: The Ghost Dance.

The Ghost Dance was a spiritual revival within the Native American communities living on reservations, most notably the Sioux. It believed that through performing this dance, it would prepare the way of a messiah, along with ghosts of the ancestors and buffalo, to save them from their current misery in order to re-establish their old way of life.[6] Whilst the initial ‘prophet’ of this movement was Wovoka, who believed he had had a vision, Sitting Bull played a major part in the movement. Another Sioux Chief named Kicking Bear believed in revelations that the Great Spirit had entrusted Sitting Bull to oversee and conduct the dances.[7]

Ghost Dance of the Sioux Indians in North America, 1891. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2006681363/

These dances caused great concern for those in charge of the Sioux reservation that Sitting Bull lived on. Major McLaughlin believed that Sitting Bull was the root cause of this new movement and wanted it to end. On the 17th of November 1890, McLaughlin and an interpreter went to one of these dances to gauge how many of the Native Americans were involved. They found 100 people dancing and another 100 people watching.[8] Following this, McLaughlin began negotiations with Sitting Bull about how to stop the dances, despite Sitting Bull’s instances that this was nothing to fear. When the Major invited Sitting Bull to the reservation headquarters at Fort Yates, it was seen as a trap for the elderly chief. Sadly, the authorities responded with punishments that included attempting to starve the warriors. The ghost dancers were also worried and fled into the wilderness away from the camp. Sitting Bull wished to follow to carry on peaceful talks about the situation. Sitting Bull needed permission to do this and had a letter translated for this. However, it was poorly translated and instead looked like a threat.[9] He was told no and instead put under house arrest.

Within a month it seemed like the Chief’s fate was sealed. Orders were given to arrest Sitting Bull and bring him to Fort Yates. Others had sent a warning telegram to Buffalo Bill, a former friend whilst he was in the Wild West Show, was sent, hoping he could be an intermediary. Despite arriving at Fort Yates, he was suspiciously plied with drink and turned away the next day.[10] This was probably to maintain the secrecy surrounding the idea of murdering the Chief. The Indian Police went to the camp early in the morning of 15 December 1890 with a hidden group of soldiers. They dragged Sitting Bull out of his cabin and placed him on a waiting horse. Rather than quietly submit to his fate, Sitting Bull shouted orders to his followers, despite being threatened by the Police with guns.[11] A gun fight ensued between the Police and those in the camp. During the fight, Sitting Bull and two of his sons, Blackbird and Crow Foot, as well as 6 of the Indian Officers, 2 of which died from their wounds afterwards. Another version told at the time was that the Indian Police had shot Sitting Bull and his sons inside the cabin, only to later smash the Chief’s face into pieces.[12]

Kurz & Allison. Capture & Death of Sitting Bull, ca. 1891. Jan. 5. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003656865/

Despite the death of the famous chief, that was not the end of the story. His body was buried at the cemetery at Fort Yates, but many other stories surfaced about what subsequently happened to the body. The Chicago Tribune reported at the time that the body buried at the fort was a fake and that the real body was in fact “now in a dissecting room”.[13] Others included quicklime being placed into the coffin to disintegrate the remains, his body being taken to Canada, and drunken soldiers stealing a thigh bone before the Fort closed in 1903.[14] All of these rumours complicated the legacy of the once great chief and in some ways meant he was forgotten, even more so when his body was the only one not to be moved when the fort closed.

Fiske, Frank Bennett, photographer. Sitting Bull’s grave / F.B. Fiske. North Dakota, ca. 1906. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/91482751/

The sad part is that the grave was left unattended and unloved. It would have been a sad legacy for him had it not been for his descendants, who were finally allowed to move his body to a spot looking over the Missouri River in April 1953. This was divisive as one granddaughter believed the site chosen was unsuitable because of antisocial behaviour that was known in the area. Yet, it happened, and 2 cars moved the remains to the chosen site in snowy weather. His new resting place now has a bust to commemorate him, which is more than he had whilst buried at Fort Yates.[15]

Whenever I think of the death of Sitting Bull, I feel incredibly sad to know he was killed for what he believed in. My heart has always agreed with the Native Americans, that they have been treated with injustice and still continue to be to a greater extent. Was it really a crime to hope that your life would improve if only you could practise your traditional way of life? I will also leave you questioning whether if Buffalo Bill could have reached Sitting Bull, whether the outcome would have been any different. Whatever may have happened if he had, I like to remember the small kindness in that Buffalo Bill attempted to bring his old friend some of his favourite sweets that he new he loved. What a contrast to the treatment he was given by the Indian Police, one of whom was his nephew, One Bull, who was actually an informant for McLaughlin.

[1] ‘Boarding Schools, https://americanindian.si.edu/education/codetalkers/html/chapter3.html#:~:text=Beginning%20in%20the%20late%20nineteenth,Code%20Talkers%20attended%20boarding%20schools.

[2] ‘This Land Belongs to Us’, in McMaster, G. and Trafzer, C. E. (eds), Native Universe: Voices of Indian America (Washington: National Geographic Society, 2004), p. 92.

[3] Todd, A. M., Sitting Bull, 1831-1890 (Mankato, Minnesota: Blue Earth Books, 2003), p. 24.

[4] Todd, A. M., Sitting Bull, p. 26.

[5] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull: And History of the Indian War, 1890-1891, Reprint(DSI Digital Reproduction, 2000), p. 169.

[6] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 169

[7] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 169

[8] Stillman, D., The Unlikely Alliance Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, https://www.history.com/news/the-unlikely-alliance-between-buffalo-bill-and-sitting-bull

[9] Stillman, D., The Unlikely Alliance Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, https://www.history.com/news/the-unlikely-alliance-between-buffalo-bill-and-sitting-bull

[10] Stillman, D., The Unlikely Alliance Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, https://www.history.com/news/the-unlikely-alliance-between-buffalo-bill-and-sitting-bull

[11] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 185.

[12] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 187; Thomas, R., ‘Sitting Bull’s Burials: A History’, Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, 25 February 2007,  http://www.friendslittlebighorn.com/sittingbullsburials.htm

[13] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 188.

[14] Thomas, R., ‘Sitting Bull’s Burials: A History’, Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, 25 February 2007,  http://www.friendslittlebighorn.com/sittingbullsburials.htm

[15] Thomas, R., ‘Sitting Bull’s Burials: A History’, Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, 25 February 2007,  http://www.friendslittlebighorn.com/sittingbullsburials.htm

To find out more about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, please visit https://voyagerofhistory.wordpress.com/2020/02/11/buffalo-bill-and-his-wild-west-show/