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.

Book Review of Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and Its Treasures from the Nazis by Gerri Chanel

I’m not usually a fan of World War Two, although I know many others are, so this book was an unusual choice for me. I really brought it as I have visited the Louvre many times and didn’t know the story of how the museum had dealt with keeping the priceless treasures safe during a time of war. After reading this book, which describes the dangerous situations, often at the threat of the lives of museum staff, as well as the many times the art was nearly taken by the Nazis, has made me realise just how much we take these amazing institutions for granted. It does try and focus on a good mixture of the fate of the curators and other museum staff, as well as their families. There is a keen focus on Jacques Jaujard, the Director of the Musee Nationaux, who was instrumental to the evacuation process and dealing with the Nazis once they occupied France. This gives the book a very personal feel and at some points, makes the reader feel very connected with those involved.

Whilst the book doesn’t instantly talk about the evacuation, I thought the background on how the Louvre became a museum, as well as explanations as to why the staff had learnt from previous threats to the museum, all contribute to a greater understanding of the challenges and logistics required to organise such a venture.

Despite the title, the book does cover all the art evacuated from the Louvre, and other French museums in preparation for the Second World War, which had to be spread across many different chateaus for safety reasons. I do like though that it covers all the art works, with mentions of the Mona Lisa sprinkled throughout. Personally I liked this as I felt a bit disappointed at easing the Mona Lisa, as I much preferred other paintings in the museum. This also helps to demonstrate the enormous challenges the staff faced in such an evacuation, especially with the larger paintings and sculptures. Whilst I enjoyed this part, I feel others would find this hard to get into as it is more background context than specifically focuses on the World War Two topic promised. However, if this isn’t to your taste, once you get a few chapters in, you won’t be disappointed.

There are some graphic description of violence and war, which is to be expected considering the topic, but I must admit these parts were hard to read. Although these are important to the narrative and explain the genuine dangers the museum staff had to contend with. I would be prepared for these as I had to take a break from reading at this point. These, alongside mentions of wider war issues, such as food shortages, the difference between Occupied and Vichy France, could have used with better context, but I understand this wasn’t necessarily the scope of this book. However, it could easily be used as a platform for further learning about the period.

I do especially like the epilogue, which mentions what happened to the main people after the end of the war, including the awards given in recognition for the courage, bravery and can do attitude that all museum staff had in the face of great adversity. This was a touching tribute and I must admit I was quite emotional to see the recognition the staff had received. It was a very fitting way to end what is a very fascinating and easy read. Thank you to Gerri Chanel for writing this book in acknowledgment for the achievements of the staff.

I would definitely recommend this book as the easy writing style made it very hard to put down. Whilst it’s a nonfiction book, it very much reads like a novel in its easy style, reading much like an adventure story. This has definitely been one of my favourite books that I’ve read this year. Whenever I am finally able to go back to Paris, especially the Louvre, I will now look on it in a new and grateful light for the sacrifice the staff and their families made at the time to keep the art protected for the world, not just for France.

Walter Tull: Footballer turned Military Officer

As this week marked Remembrance Day, I wanted to share the amazing story of Walter Tull, one of the first black professional footballers and the first black army officer who served, and died, during the First World War. Whilst researching his story in more depth, I must admit I got quite emotional, even more so knowing he hasn’t received recognition since his death in 1918. Thankfully in recent years, there have been attempts to share his story, led by his grandnephews and nieces. I hope this blog post goes some way to adding to that recognition.

Walter Daniel Tull was born to Daniel and Anne Tull on the 28th of April 1888. Daniel was from Barbados and had moved to England at the age of 20. He settled in Folkestone on the Kent Coast, where despite facing initial prejudice due to his skin colour, had a successful career as a carpenter. Whilst attending the Grace Hill Wesleyan Chapel, he met Alice Palmer, and they married in 1880, with the consent of her family.[1] They went on to have six children, one of them being Walter, but sadly their oldest child died within a few weeks.

Walter had a happy beginning to life and the family were known to be close knit. Sadly this wasn’t to last as Alice died of cancer at the age of 42 in May 1895, leaving Daniel as a single parent struggling to look after them and work at the same time.[2] To show how much Daniel was accepted into Alice’s family, a niece of Alice’s called Clara moved in to help look after the children so the family wouldn’t be split up.[3] Daniel and Clara went on to marry and they had a daughter. Again heartbreak reached the family as Daniel died of heart disease in December 1897, leaving Clara to look after six children alone.[4] The situation was dire and Clara had to make the awful decision to place Walter and his brother, Edward, into care. They were placed into a home in East London run by Methodists on Clara’s insistence, hoping that there would be some familiarity in that, no matter how big the difference was in moving from the coast to the dirty and polluted capital.[5]

Walter Tull with Comrades (1914), Wikimedia Commons

Before any application could be sent to the home, the Reverend Stephenson, who ran the home, was made aware of the skin colour of the boys. He responded that it made no difference, they were very welcome, so long as poor relief board could contribute towards their costs, just as they did with the other boys in their care.[6] Care homes at that time made it hard for families to ever take their children back, as it was expected the families would financially compensate the home, the costs of which increased the longer children had been in the home for.[7] The home that Walter and Edward lived in also did this, but was well known for the kindness it was run with. The children well fed and taught trades for the future, as well as encouraging hobbies and sport, including access to their own swimming pool.[8] It was here that Walter found his love of football. He was often a player for the home in local amateur games, with which he competed in more after Edward was adopted by a Glaswegian family.[9]

Walter was first offered a trial by Clapton FC in 1908. This was a good place to start his football career, albeit on an amateur basis, as Clapton was seen as one of the best amateur teams of the time.[10] Walter proved his worth for the team as he helped contribute to them winning the FA Amateur Challenge Cup, London Senior Cup and London Amateur Cup that season.[11] Tottenham soon signed him up as a professional in July 1909, so that he could join them in a football tour of Argentina, before he made his English debut for the team in September.[12] Within a month, he was racially abused by Bristol City supporters at an away match, which made all the national newspapers.[13] Soon after he was dropped from Tottenham’s first team and placed into the reserves, which he did continue to make appearances for, although on a smaller scale than he envisioned. Whilst playing one of these reserve matches against Northampton Town in February 1911, Walter again showed his talent for the game. He scored a hat trick in a 7-1 victory against Northampton.[14] It impressed the club and they signed him up for the next season. He played just over 100 matches for the team before the First World War.[15]

In December 1914, just four months after Britain entered the First World War, Walter enlisted in what was known as the Football Battalion, a battalion made up of footballers from all over the country. Within two months, he was promoted to the position of Lance Corporal, and then promoted again to Lance Sergeant.[16] In May 1916, he was invalided back to England due to shell shock, although the Northampton Mercury newspaper also reported that he was suffering from pneumonia.[17] Despite this, he returned to the fighting and took part in the Battle of Ancre, the first and second Battle of the Somme, Battle of Messines, Battle of Passchendaele and first Battle of Bapaume.[18]

First World War Football Battalion Recruitment Poster, Wikimedia Commons

With the bravery shown in battle, he was again promoted to the rank of Sergeant in 1916. He was recommended for an officer’s training course and became a Second Lieutenant in May 1917 after showing good leadership skills.[19] This went against the Army Council’s rules of only allowing those of European descent of becoming officers. The Council also said that black people should be placed in their own regiments and not mix with white people, but Walter’s example went against this as he first led white men at the Battle of Passchendaele.[20]

Whilst stationed in Northern Italy towards the end of 1917, he successfully led men on night time reconnaissance missions to gather information on German positions. Each time he did this the party came back without any casualties.[21] For this he was mentioned in dispatches and put forward by Major General Sydney Lawford for a military cross, but he didn’t receive one.[22] It’s thought he didn’t receive one as due to the Army Council’s rules.[23]

Walter was killed at Arras on 25th March 1918 during what is known as the German Spring Offensive, which was the German’s last attempt to regain control towards the end of the war. It’s reported that Private Tom Billingham, a former goalkeeper for Leicester Fosse, attempted to bring Walter’s body back to the British lines but was unable to, meaning he was unable to have a grave.[24] His name is instead mentioned on the memorial wall at the Faubourg d’Amiens cemetery in Arras.[25]

Newns, T., Epitaph of Walter Tull at the Sixfields Stadium in Northampton (2009), Wikimedia Commons

That could easily have been the last people heard of Walter, but there have been efforts to increase public awareness of his achievements in football and his sacrifice during the First World War. Northampton Town have a memorial set up outside their stadium, as well as the road that leads to their stadium being named Walter Tull Way.[26] To mark centenary celebrations of the First World War between 2014 and 2018, a special £5 coin and stamp with Walter’s face on were created.[27] Most recently, Walter was finally inducted into the Football Hall of Fame on the 20th of October 2021, with the award being collected by his grandnephew Edward Finlayson, the grandson of Walter’s brother, Edward.[28]

Whilst I am very pleased that Walter’s story has become more well known since the centenary, I must admit I was disappointed to learn that he has still not received a military cross for his bravery, despite the possible reason for his colour not allowing him to be granted one in his lifetime. A petition was set up in 2013 but didn’t receive enough signatures.[29] The granting of a military cross would be the next logical, and deserved, step in remembering the legacy of Walter Tull and the achievements he made despite the obstacles of racism and poverty he had. If any campaign is reignited for Walter to be granted a military cross, I will be right behind it as I feel he definitely deserves one.


[1] Wynn, S., Against All Odds: Walter Tull, The Black Lieutenant (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2018), p. 2

[2] Ibid, p. 3.

[3] Ibid, p. 3.

[4] Ibid, pp. 3-4.

[5] Ibid, p. 4.

[6] Ibid, p. 4.

[7] Ibid, pp. 4-5.

[8] Ibid, p. 7.

[9] Ibid, pp. 7-9.

[10] National Football Museum, ‘Walter Tull Inducted Into Hall of Fame’, 19 October 2021, https://www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/news/walter-tull-induction/

[11] Wynn, S., Against All Odds, p. 9.

[12] Ibid, p. 10.

[13] Ibid, pp. 18-19.

[14] Ibid, p. 21.

[15] Ibid, p. 21.

[16] Ibid, p. 33.

[17] Ibid, p. 36.

[18] Ibid, p. 36.

[19] Ibid, p. 41.

[20] Ibid, p. 41; Aarons, E., ‘Walter Tull: Why the Black Footballing Pioneer was Denied a Military Cross’, The Guardian, 3 February 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/feb/03/walter-tull-black-football-pioneer-military-cross-tottenham

[21] Wynn, S., Against All Odds, pp. 41-42.

[22] Ibid, p. 42.

[23] Conway, R. and Lockwood, D., ‘Walter Tull: The Incredible Story of a Football Pioneer and War Hero’, BBC Sport, 23 March 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/43504448

[24] Ibid.

[25] Walter Tull Archive, https://waltertullarchive.com/a-brief-history/

[26] Wynn, S., Against All Odds, p. 23.

[27] Aarons, E., ‘Walter Tull: Why the Black Footballing Pioneer was Denied a Military Cross’, The Guardian, 3 February 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/feb/03/walter-tull-black-football-pioneer-military-cross-tottenham

[28] National Football Museum, ‘Walter Tull Inducted Into Hall of Fame’, 19 October 2021, https://www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/news/walter-tull-induction/

[29] Wynn, S., Against All Odds, p. 54.

Irena Sendler: The Polish Woman who helped save Jewish Children during World War Two

In June of this year, a statue was unveiled in Newark in Nottinghamshire to a Polish woman who played a hugely important role during World War Two. The woman was Irena Sendler, who helped to rescue an estimated 2,500 children from the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw. It may sound a little odd that Newark was chosen for the site of the statue, but Newark has had many Polish connections. The statue itself is in a park close to the Polish cemetery in the town, where the bodies of many Polish airmen who were stationed in Newark during the Second World War.[1] I had never heard of the brave and heroic efforts of Irena and her colleagues, but after looking more into her story, I feel it should be shared more. The statue in Newark also aims to share her amazing story.

Irena was born as Irena Krzyzanowska on the 15th of February 1910 to Dr Stanislaw Krzyzanowski and his wife, Helen. Stanislaw died of typhus when Irena was 7, after contracting it from patients he was treating. He had decided to treat the patients, many of them Jews, as other doctors had refused to treat them for fear of catching typhus.[2] In recognition for the treatment offered, Jewish community leaders offered to pay for Irena’s education.[3] This was politely turned down, but Irena did go on to study Literature at Warsaw University. Whilst at university, she became opposed to the Jewish segregation policy that existed in some pre-war Polish universities. In protest, she defaced her grade card and was suspended for three years.[4]

Irena Sendler in 1942, Wikimedia Commons

Following her suspension, she tried to apply for teaching roles, but was always rejected due to Warsaw University warning of her previous behaviour.[5] Instead, she chose to become a social worker and wanted to improve people’s standards of living. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, she began offering food and shelter to Jews at risk. This was only able to continue until 1940, when the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw was erected, which completely segregated the Jewish community. As she couldn’t openly assist the Jewish community as she had done previously, she decided to help orphaned Jewish children, which was a common occurrence with disease rife in the Ghetto. As a social worker, she was able to get papers to enter the Ghetto, with much assistance from a worker within the Contagious Disease Department.[6]

She became a member of the Zegota, a code name for the Council to Aid Jews, a secret organisation set up by the exiled Polish Government to help Jews in Poland find safety.[7] The organisation was the most consistently organised resistance group in operation throughout the Second World War, and encouraged Christians and Jews alike to offer whatever aid they could to Jews at risk of their lives.[8] Irena quickly became the person in charge of the children’s division of the Zegota. Her and her network devised many different methods to smuggle the children out of the Ghetto, including hiding children in ambulances and in trunks or sacks, or through sewers and other secret passageways.[9] One of the main ones used was a church that was next to the Ghetto. It was known as a ‘sealed’ entrance, or a sort of barrier, as it had two gates, one that led to the Ghetto, and another that led to other parts of Warsaw. Children would be smuggled in if they had good enough Polish and could recite some Christian prayers.[10]

The children who were smuggled out of the Ghetto were handed over by their families with the hopes of saving them from death. Irena ensured that all the families the Jewish children lived with during the war knew their birth families had been promised the children would be returned to them when the war ended.[11] Children who could not be found a family were housed in orphanages run by nuns, which was the next safest place for them.[12] The children were given a new identity with Christian names to hide them from the Germans and Irena had kept coded information on their birth identities and families buried in jars and bottles underneath a neighbours’ apple tree to hide them from discovery.[13] The hiding place was only just across the road from a German barracks.[14]

Irena Sendler in 2005, Wikimedia Commons

Irena’s life was just as in danger as the families who had taken the Jewish children in. In October 1943, she was arrested by the Gestapo. She was constantly questioned and tortured in order to give up information on the Zegota network. Despite having her legs and feet broken, she only ever gave up false information her and her associates had agreed upon if they were ever captured.[15] Once she had given this information, she was told she would be shot to death. On the day of her execution, she was taken into a room by her execution on the basis of last minute questioning, but in reality he let her go as he had been bribed by the Zegota.[16] The next day, posters were put up all over Warsaw saying she had been killed, so the man who helped her escape must have convinced the Germans that he had done his duty. I hope he was able to survive as he would have been killed for what he had done.

For the rest of the war, Irena had to live in hiding, just has the children she had saved had had to do. When the war ended, she dug up the bottles with the children’s identities and tried to trace their a living parent. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them had been killed at Treblinka death camp, but the amount of children she had saved had been great.[17] Her compassionate nature continued with her career as a social worker. She continued to help set up and run care homes and orphanages.[18]

Tree honouring Irena in The Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, Wikimedia Commons

Her work rescuing Jewish children had been largely forgotten, other than the immediate recognition from the Polish government straight after the war, and a tree planted in The Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, in 1965, which honours individuals who helped the Jews during the Holocaust.[19] It wasn’t until 4 students from America contacted Irena in 2001 about her story that the truth in its entirety was discovered. Irena’s response was emotion, but she admitted it had been overshadowed by the fact she was one of the only ones among her colleagues left who was left to receive the recognition and honour given to their life saving work.[20] Irena died in 2008 at the age of 98, but I hope this, alongside other attempts, such as the statue in Newark, raise the profile of the importance and heroism of Irena and her network of colleagues and most significantly, the amount of gratitude they should be given for the lives they saved by risking their own.


[1] ‘Polish humanitarian hero Irena Sendler had her statue officially unveiled at Newark’s Fountain Gardens on London Road after a small COVID-secure ceremony this Saturday’, Radio Newark, 28 June 2021, https://www.radionewark.co.uk/news/local-news/polish-humanitarian-hero-irena-sendler-had-her-statue-officially-unveiled-at-newarks-fountain-gardens-on-london-road-after-a-small-covid-secure-ceremony-this-saturday-26-june-2021/

[2] Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Project, https://irenasendler.org/

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] ‘Irena Sendler was born 111 years ago’, The International Roul Wallenburg Foundation, 15 Feb 2021, https://www.raoulwallenberg.net/general/irena-sendler-was-born-111-years-ago/

[6] Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Project, https://irenasendler.org/

[7] ‘Jewish Resistance: Konrad Żegota Committee’, Jewish Virtual Library, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-379-egota

[8] Ibid

[9] Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Project, https://irenasendler.org/

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] ‘Irena Sendler was born 111 years ago’, The International Roul Wallenburg Foundation, 15 Feb 2021, https://www.raoulwallenberg.net/general/irena-sendler-was-born-111-years-ago/

[13] Ibid

[14] ‘Irena Sendler was born 111 years ago’, The International Roul Wallenburg Foundation, 15 Feb 2021, https://www.raoulwallenberg.net/general/irena-sendler-was-born-111-years-ago/

[15] Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Project, https://irenasendler.org/

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] ‘Irena Sendler was born 111 years ago’, The International Roul Wallenburg Foundation, 15 Feb 2021, https://www.raoulwallenberg.net/general/irena-sendler-was-born-111-years-ago/

[19] ‘Polish humanitarian hero Irena Sendler had her statue officially unveiled at Newark’s Fountain Gardens on London Road after a small COVID-secure ceremony this Saturday’, Radio Newark, 28 June 2021, https://www.radionewark.co.uk/news/local-news/polish-humanitarian-hero-irena-sendler-had-her-statue-officially-unveiled-at-newarks-fountain-gardens-on-london-road-after-a-small-covid-secure-ceremony-this-saturday-26-june-2021/

[20] Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Project, https://irenasendler.org/

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/

Madam C. J. Walker: America’s First Self-Made Female Millionaire

Being an English person, I hadn’t heard of Madam C J Walker, the first self-made, black female millionaire in America. I came across her by pure accident Whilst scrolling through Netflix for something to watch, I found Self Made, the recent drama about Madam C J Walker’s success in creating hair products made for, sold by, and targeted at black women. I must admire her tenacity at a time when black women were trapped in hardworking roles in farm labour or laundry, she wanted to make a better life, not just for herself, but all black women.

Madam C J Walker was born as Sarah Breedlove on the 23rd of December 1867 as the fifth child of Owen and Minerva. She was the first of their children to be born after the emancipation following the American Civil War. From a young age, this meant she would have known exactly what hard work and racism was. Perhaps she would have even thought that through hard work, she could prove her worth. Sadly, this wasn’t the end of hardship in the early part of her life as she was orphaned at 6 and married Moses Williams at 14 to escape her abusive brother-in-law.[1] By the age of twenty, she was a young widow with a young daughter, A’Lelia.

After the death of Moses, she took on laundry to earn money, as well as balancing motherhood, so there is no doubt she led a busy and stressful life.[2] It was during this time that she developed a scalp problem, which made her lose a lot of her hair, and started trying various hair products to make her hair grow back. Her enterprising nature realised just how little hair products were available for black women. A lot of what was there was made by white businesses, who didn’t really have a clue how to market to a black audience. Instead, they appeared to conform to white ideas of beauty were, assuming that black women wanted the same look, especially as there was a desire to aspire to ‘whiteness’.[3] In that respect, Madam Walker was different. Her products focused on the benefits of healthy hair, rather than just for beauty. The products focused on scalp preparations and lotions aiming at promoting hair health.[4]

Madam C.J. Walker—Preparations, 1920, Photograph, https://www.loc.gov/item/2002716791/

Sarah took on the name Madam C J Walker after her marriage to Charles J Walker in 1906 after they moved from St Louis to Denver, Colorado. Charles was initially supportive of the business venture and he was often involved in the marketing and advertising of products.[5] This lasted until the couple grew apart and eventually divorced. Sarah still went by the name Madam C J Walker until her death because her products used the same name.

Despite some innovations in the style of products, it was the way that the business was run that was truly innovative. When her business started to grow, Sarah’s business model changed from her selling direct to customers, she hired door-to-door sellers. These sellers were all black women who were purposefully trained to develop their skills, not just in selling Madam Walker’s products, but finding innovative ways to help the poor in their communities.[6] Sarah’s belief in the enterprising nature of black women is clear in her confrontation of Booker T. Washington’s business convention in 1912. He had denied both her, and anyone else attempting to speak on her behalf, any opportunity of presenting. It was claimed this was because he believed Madam C J Walker’s beauty products, as well any aimed at black women, were destructive to black women and instead encouraged white behaviours.[7] Sarah believed in her product and how the business could become a positive thing. Indeed, it was as it would go on to employ an estimated 20,000 sales agents across America and beyond.[8]

Madam C. J. Walker, c. 1914, Scurlock Studio (Washington, D.C.), Wikimedia Commons

The company became a safe “public sphere of leisure, labour, and politics” which black women could participate in.[9] Madam Walker herself did this through raising the profile of racism and inequality for black people during the early 20th century. Not only did she attend the White House in 1917 to protest against lynching, but she gave much of her wealth away to help black causes.[10] It helped to fund a scholarship for women at the Tuskegee Institute, just to name one.[11]

Sarah died of kidney failure caused by hypertension in 1919 at the age of 51, at one of her 3 large houses. In her will she left two-thirds of the company’s net profits to the charities and schools she had promoted in life.[12] Her main legacy is the promotion of black female talent by creating a female run business, purposefully designed to promote the health, happiness, and equality of black women. This certainly continues as the business has since passed on to the subsequent female generations of Sarah’s family.

Whilst this post is not an extensive example of Madam C J Walker’s achievements or life, I do hope that it has helped to raise her profile, particularly here in the UK. I hope that it serves as a reflection of what she was able to do, despite the barriers and prejudice that were in front of her. Both Madam Walker and her selling agents did a job that was ahead of their time. I utterly commend them and give them a standing ovation for what they managed to create. They deserved every success they had.

If you would like to find out more about Madam C. J. Walker, I would suggest that you read her biography, On Her Own Grounds, written by great-great granddaughter, A’Lelia Perry Bundles, who is also the current owner of the Madam C. J. Walker Company. It’s a very insightful book that often shows Sarah’s motivations and how she is remembered by her family.


[1] Michals, D., ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, National Women’s History Museum, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/madam-cj-walker ; History, ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/madame-c-j-walker

[2] History, ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/madame-c-j-walker

[3] Baldwin, D. L., ‘From the Washtub to the World: Madam C. J Walker and the “Re-Creation” of Race Womanhood, 1900-1935’, in Weinbaum, A. E., Thomas, L. M., Ramamurthy, P., Poiger, U. G., Dong, M. Y. and Barlow, T. E. (eds), The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalisation (Duke University Press: Durham, North Carolina, 2008), p. 56; History, ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/madame-c-j-walker

[4] History, ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/madame-c-j-walker

[5] History, ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/madame-c-j-walker

[6] Michals, D., ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, National Women’s History Museum, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/madam-cj-walker

[7] Baldwin, D. L., ‘From the Washtub to the World’, p. 56.

[8] Baldwin, D. L., ‘From the Washtub to the World’, p. 57.

[9] Baldwin, D. L., ‘From the Washtub to the World’, p. 57.

[10] Bundles, A., On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (Scribner: New York, 2001), p. 15.

[11] Michals, D., ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, National Women’s History Museum, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/madam-cj-walker

[12] Michals, D., ‘Madam C. J. Walker’, National Women’s History Museum, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/madam-cj-walker

Audley End- Aristocrats, Avenues and Espionage: a Guest Post by Laura Adkins

This guest post has kindly been written by Laura Adkins, the creator of the For The Love of History Blog, which I have been able to do a few guests posts for myself. She has worked at many historical sites and mainly posts about ones found in Essex, her home county. Do check her blog out if you can, I promise you it’s a very enjoyable read.

One of the grandest houses in England, Audley End stands proudly in the countryside of Saffron Walden. Its origins date back to the 10th Century, where it began life as Walden Abbey, given to Thomas, Lord Audley, by Henry VIII, who converted the monastery into a house. 

The rooms are high and hung with beautiful tapestries: the beds amply decorated with golden velvet and silk bed hangings and covers.’

From the account of the visit of Johann Ernst, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, to Audley End, September 1613

In this post, I will be exploring three parts of Audley’s history, those who lived there – the Howards, its beautiful gardens designed by the one and only Capability Brown and its role in WW2 and the polish resistance.

Aristocrats:

The creator of the current structure of Audley End was Thomas Howard, part of the infamous Howard family. He inherited the House in 1605 and set about transforming the site into a country estate fit enough for royalty as he wanted to show off his wealth. Unfortunately, not much survives of his transformations and what we know from his estate comes from archives and documentary evidence. We know work began in 1605 and completed around 1614. Along with his uncle Henry Howard and Bernard Janssen, a Flemish mason, the three set about creating one of the greatest houses in Jacobean England.[1] Audley End had all the parts one expects in a Jacobean Mansion including symmetrical inner court, lodgings for his guests, including one for both the King and a separate one for the Queen for when they would stay. Today the house is only half the size of what it once was.

Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk by Unknown Artist, National Portrait Gallery

The Howard family’s rise to power began in 1483, when King Richard III created John Howard the Duke of Norfolk. This was the third time that the Title of Duke of Norfolk had been used, and John had blood links to the first ever Duke of Norfolk – Thomas Mowbray (made 1st Duke of Norfolk in 1397). The head of the Howards would not only hold the title of Duke of Norfolk, but that of Earl of Arundel, Earl of Surrey, and Earl of Norfolk in addition to holding six baronies. They were a powerful family, who in the reign of the Tudors were ones to watch out for. Thomas Howard, son of John would be successful in defeating the Scots at the Battle of Flodden with two of his nieces – Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard being married to King Henry VIII. Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, would hold the title of Lord Admiral and lead the English against the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588. For more on this infamous family, I suggest reading House of Treason by Robert Hutchinson.

In 1751, after the 10th Earl’s death, Elizabeth, Countess of Portsmouth brought Audley End which in turn would be inherited by her nephew, Sir John Griffin Whitwell, on the agreement that he took the surname of Griffin. John was a retired soldier and MP for Andover. He had fought and was wounded at the Battle of Kloster Kampen in 1760 during the Seven Years War.

Sir John, who became Lord Howard, would make more transformations to Audley End, most of which is what we can see today. He hired the architect Robert Adam to transform the house and Capability Brown the landscape. Adam’s work can be seen in the ground floor reception rooms on the south front today. Over time, Sir John started to pick up the architectural bug and his second wife, Katherine the decor. They both, respectively, became amateur architect and decorator and thus set about making many of their own changes to the house. The central range was rebuilt to reconnect the two wings of the house, along with a unique service gallery and detached service wing, all under the eye of Sir John.

Audley End would be one of the first houses to have a flushing water closet (installed in 1775) along with a bell system for the family of the house to call their domestic staff. Today, much of what can be seen at Audley End is a result of Richard Neville, who in the 1820s remodelled the house taking it back to its Jacobean roots.

Audley End, Wikimedia Commons

Avenues:

The beginnings of formal gardens at Audley End were started during the conversion of the monastery into house. It would be Elizabeth, Countess of Portsmouth, who would begin the transformation of the gardens into a more formal landscape. However, the landscape that we see today was mostly the result of one Capability Brown.

I mentioned above that in 1763, Griffin hired John Adam to assist with the interior development, he had Capability Brown do the same with the estate. Brown’s brief was to widen the river running through the estate, building a ha-ha and transforming the overall look of the gardens into Brown’s ‘naturalistic style’. He would create new roads towards the house, including one with a bridge, which was designed by Adam’s and is a Grade I listed structure. Brown was to be paid £660 (around £1,150,000 today) for his work in three payments, the last being on completion.

The two would eventually fall out with the result being Griffin dismissing Brown and getting the unknown Joseph Hicks to finish the work. However, the elements of Brown’s work are there for all to see and appreciate, including sweeps of grass, water flowing towards the house, long curving drives with stunning views for visitors and wooded areas to hide service buildings.

Espionage:

When I visited Audley End many years ago, I did not really pay much attention to a monument within the estate, remembering fallen soldiers from WW2. It was not until planning this post that Danielle mentioned the Polish secret missions that made me go back and re look at Audley End’s history in the 20th Century.

In 1941, like a number of other country estates, Audley End was requisitioned by the Army to be used as a training facility. By 1943, those who trained there was exclusively Polish Soldiers. They were undergoing training to assist them when they were secretly returned to German occupied Poland and assist the Polish resistance.

WWII Reenactment at Audley End

Code named station 43 (overseen by the Special Operations Executive), the Polish agents, under the command of Captain Alfons Mackowiak (Alan Mack). They would undergo various training in guerrilla warfare which included close combat, assignation, forgery, planting booby traps and of course learning how to parachute out of a plane. In total 527 soldiers passed the training and were sent into Poland. Sadly, 108 of these were either killed in action or at concentration camps and are remembered on the memorial I mentioned above. The soldiers would be known as the Cichociemni (the silent and Unseen). They would be involved in many missions, including recovering a German V2 rocket and smuggling into England.

‘Between 1942 and 1944 Polish members of the Special Operations Executive trained in this house for missions in their homeland. This memorial commemorates those who parachuted into enemy occupied Poland and gave their lives for the freedom of this and their own country.’ Listed Grade II © Historic England Archive PLB/K030323

In 1948, the house was handed over to the nation. Today it is managed by English Heritage, and accessible to the public, for more information on visiting times, exhibitions and events head to https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/audley-end-house-and-gardens/

[1] Drury, P (…) English Heritage Guidebooks – Audley End

Sources:

Borger, J (2016) Honouring ‘silent and unseen’ fighters who led Polish resistance. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/10/honouring-poland-silent-unseen-fighters-resistance-nazi-british [Accessed 04.08/20]

English Heritage (2020) Audley End House and Gardens. Available from:  www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/audley-end-house-and-gardens/ [Accessed 25/07/20]

Historic England (2020) Audley End. Available from: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000312 [Accessed 25/07/20]

Historic England (2019) The Secret War: Resistance in Britain During the Second World War. Avalbne from: https://heritagecalling.com/2019/11/05/the-secret-war-resistance-in-britain-during-the-second-world-war/ [Accessed 05/08/20] Landscape Institute(2016) About Capability Brown. Available from:  http://www.capabilitybrown.org/  [Accessed 4/8/20]

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.

Creation of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich is now one of the things to visit in London, but it had a rather rocky first 10 years after it was opened by King George VI on 27th of April 1937. Small scale ideas for some form of national museum to celebrate Britain’s seafaring history had been in circulation since the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1905, but none of these stuck until 1927.[1] From 1927, the Society for Nautical Research led a campaign to create some from of a national maritime museum. This was helped by a wealthy member of the Society, Sir James Caird, who purchased a large collection of naval themed items known as the A. G. H. MacPherson collection.[2] Originally, the museum was to be called the National Maritime Museum, as ingeniously thought up by Rudyard Kipling.[3]

Sir James Caird, Bain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

These acquisitions, alongside items either belonging to, or associated with, Lord Horatio Nelson, which had already been bought for the nation a long time before, formed the beginnings of the museum’s collection. It had built upon the small art gallery that had already been in existence at Greenwich, a former naval hospital similar to its army sister hospital at Chelsea, since the early 1800s.[4] This made Greenwich the perfect place to house the museum. However, the location being chosen, the process of turning the buildings into a museum worthy of the nation’s maritime heritage couldn’t take place until two things had happened. First, the Royal Hospital School, for sons of naval men, that already used the site had to move out, which they did when it moved to Suffolk in 1933; and secondly, an official act passed by Parliament granting the site national status was passed in 1934.[5]

On the 29th of April 1937, the museum officially opened to the public. Around 5,000 people attended on the first day alone, which in a time of financial hardship, was no mean feat.[6] One of the most popular galleries was No. 10, which was dedicated to all things Nelson. Sadly though, less than 3 years after it had opened, the museum had to close its doors at the outbreak of the Second World War.[7] The threat of bombs meant many of the precious items had to be moved outside of London, a decision which proved to be right as the site was bombed many times during the war.

When the museum was finally allowed to reopen at after the end of the war, things had changed very much. Sir Geoffrey Callender, the first Director of the museum, who had been an integral part of the creation of the museum, had recently died, leaving a large hole in the staff.[8] There was also a vacancy on the Board of Trustees, which was filled by the late Prince Philip, then a 27-year-old who was just out of the Navy himself.[9] This was a role he took seriously, not just for his own interests with the navy, but also preserving naval history for future generations, just as with his involvement in saving the Cutty Sark. The role as trustee was one he held until 2000, a total of 52 years. His long legacy with the museum will continue there through the Prince Philip Maritime Collection Centre, where royal maritime collections are held and cutting-edge conservation is practised.

With all the turmoil the National Maritime Museum faced in its first 10 years of life, it’s wonderful to see it thriving now. Sadly though, that isn’t really true with the current pandemic, but I sincerely hope it will last for many more years to come, especially as it’s on my list of places to visit one day when we can go places again.


[1] Littlewood, K. and Butler, B., Of Ships and Stars: Maritime Heritage and the Founding of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (London: The Athlone Press, 1998), p. 24.

[2] Royal Museums Greenwich, History of the National Maritime Museum, https://www.rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum/history

[3] Royal Museums Greenwich, History of the National Maritime Museum, https://www.rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum/history

[4] Royal Museums Greenwich, History of the National Maritime Museum, https://www.rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum/history

[5] Downer, M., Nelson’s Lost Jewel: The Extraordinary Story of the Lost Diamond Chelengk (Stroud: The History Press, 2017), pp. 230-231.

[6] Downer, M., Nelson’s Lost Jewel, p. 231.

[7] Downer, M., Nelson’s Lost Jewel, p. 231.

[8] Littlewood, K. and Butler, B., Of Ships and Stars, p. IX.

[9] Downer, M., Nelson’s Lost Jewel, p. 232.