This blog is a selection of interesting things I've come across during my history research. I have a wide interest in history ranging from Wars of the Roses, country houses, Stuarts, Georgians, Louis XIV, Napoleon and criminals. So expect to see a bit of everything on here, with a focus on little known stories.
Last year I conducted research into the conditions of Napoleonic prisoners of war held in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. I wrote about my findings in two blog posts for the archives I work at, as well as talking through my findings with a lovely local group that I was involved with at the time. That went very well and all who heard about it said it was a very interesting topic.
Since then I have looked into the parish registers at the time and found a lot of examples of the prisoners and how they married and had children with local women. The most interesting find for me is that one prisoner brought his Egyptian wife to Chesterfield, whilst another brought his Caribbean servant with him. For this reason, I added it to my list of possible talks I could be booked to do and I’m so glad that I did as I have been booked to do it twice more.
The first will be for the Be Bold History Network, a group that connects history knowledge with the classroom. I did a talk for them back in 2021, talking about my book research on Anthony Woodville and was kindly invited back any time. So I will be giving the talk on Wednesday 9th of February. Whilst it is aimed at teachers, anyone is welcome to attend.
Well 2022 has been another strange year for me. The majority of this year has been disturbed thanks to building work at home. That has meant that I haven’t been able to get as much of things done as I would have liked, including not doing as much work on my Anthony Woodville biography as I would have liked. It did also mean that working from home came to an abrupt end. Whilst I miss aspects of that, it has been nice to get back into the archive building I work in. It’s meant being able to hold original documents again for the first time in a very long time, rather than looking at scanned versions on a computer screen.
Thankfully though, my blog work hasn’t been much affected and I hope that you have enjoyed the content that has been created this year. It has been the most successful year yet in terms of views since I started this blog four years ago. For that reason, I just want to take the time to thank each and every person who has read, shared, liked and followed the blog this year. It genuinely means a lot to me to see people enjoy the blog. The best post of all this year has been about William Morgan, who translated the first Welsh Bible. That can be read here.
I would also like to thank the people who have done guest posts for the blog this year. It has been a privilege to host such varied and interesting posts. The most popular of these guests posts has been Isabel and Hamelin de Warenne by historian, Sharon Bennett Connolly. It can be viewed here. There have also been a few firsts when it comes to guest posts too. One was a press release about the archaeology survey work at Greasley Castle in Nottinghamshire conducted by Triskele Heritage. James Wright of Triskele Heritage was kind enough to send the release and it can be viewed here. The other first was a book tour to celebrate the publication last month of Gemma Hollman’s latest book, The Queen and the Mistress: The Women of Edward III. If you’re interested, the post can be read here. I wish Gemma all the very best with it and I hope a few of you were given it as a Christmas present!
Back in September, I also returned to Bath for the Jane Austen Festival. It was our second year participating and it was a joy to be involved. This year, my parents also joined in, which was great to see. A big thank you once again to my sister for sewing our beautiful dresses! However, our holiday in Bath was also marked by the sad passing of Queen Elizabeth II. It felt like a very surreal thing as it felt like one bit of stability we had in these very turbulent times was gone. We all wore black armbands and observed a minute’s silence in honour of her on the day of the promenade. I still miss the Queen in many ways but it was so interesting to witness a historical moment during her lying in state and funeral.
I also helped out at the first ever Derbyshire Georgian Festival. I helped out on a stall for work (the Derbyshire Record Office), where we showed some of the Georgian era collections. As we were at a mill, we also took some items relating to millworkers. I was also able to have my own table showcasing my research into the period that I have done for the blog. Of course I did this dressed in my Regency dress!
On happier news, I have been booked for two talks in February, including my first paid one, on some research I did this year on Napoleonic prisoners of war in Chesterfield, a town in my home county of Derbyshire. The group I am doing the paid talk for have also suggested that I might be able to go back and do some more. I was able to find out about the conditions the prisoners were held in and the fate of two officers, General Joseph Exelmans and Colonel Auguste de la Grange, who managed to escape. I can’t wait to share the interesting stories this research has shown with more people. There is also the possibility of finally doing a talk I was booked for in April 2020 about my research into Anthony Woodville, for the local branch of the Richard III Society, which I have been a member of since I was nine years old. Fingers crossed for that too! If you would like to know more about the talks I can do, I have added a specific page on the blog for them.
Following on from my research into Anthony Woodville, I have so far written 50,000 words of my 80,000 word target that my publishers set me. My deadline for it all is the 1st of May 2023. Hopefully I can get it all done by then. It does seem to have crept up on me! Sometimes I still can’t quite believe that after so many years of researching his life, I’m finally so close to having the book out. I will of course update you all after it’s been submitted about any possible publication date. Again on the Anthony theme, I was gifted an Anthony Woodville felt Christmas decoration by a friend and colleague, which he had made for me by a local shop. It’s just the best!!
All that is left now is to wish you all a healthy and wonderful 2023. Most importantly, thank you all once again for your support over the last year. Each and every view, like and share means a lot to me, so I pass on my hearty thanks and love to all of you.
As an avid reader, I usually can’t name all the books I read in a year, but as the majority of them have a history theme, I thought I would share 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.
To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardiner
If you are a fan of the Wild West, this one will be for you. It is a dual biography of the famous outlaw, Billy the Kid, and Pat Garrett, the sheriff that shot him dead in 1881. This book does help address some of those myths in an even and balanced way, particularly in terms of the biography of Billy the Kid, that was written by Pat Garrett himself, as it focused on Pat’s motivations behind his writing. It has a very journalistic and easy to read writing style, despite the many names, events and locations that are mentioned throughout. I would definitely recommend this as I found it very hard to put down. You can find a full review I wrote earlier this year here if you are interested in find out more.
The Earth is All that Lasts by Mark Lee Gardiner
I’ll be honest, this book was by far my most favourite read of the year. I was also lucky enough to be given a review copy of this by the author. It was shipped out to me all the way from America. A huge thank you for that too! I think, just like the book on Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, that this is one of those books you won’t forget reading. This one is another duel biography, but this time of the Lakota chiefs, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Sitting Bull is one of my favourite historical heroes, so I was very much looking forward to reading this. I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest! It is a very emotive and sometimes uncomfortable read, as it tells of the gruesome reality of how settlers took over the plains. For this reason, as well as it showing the Lakota viewpoint, it is an important read. As I said in my review ‘this is the written equivalent of what Dances with Wolves was for the big screen, in that it very much shows the Lakota viewpoint, which is not shared often enough’. For that reason, I feel this is one of the most vital books to understand the final years of freedom for the Lakota. You can find my previous review of it here.
Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann
This book tells the stories of ten Africans who lived in Tudor and Stuart England. Each example shows that whilst they were in a minority, you could find Africans in a variety of different roles during this period. A personal favourite of mine was Jacques Francis, who was a salvage diver for the Mary Rose, the flagship of Henry VIII’s that sank off the coast of Portsmouth. The writing style is incredibly accessible and creates a personal narrative not only for the examples given, but also for those Africans in similar circumstances who can only briefly be discovered in documents such as parish registers. All in all, this is a very entertaining and informative book, which has quite clearly been based on meticulous research. I have written a full review of this here.
A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley
At the beginning of the year, I was reminded of a book I haven’t read since my childhood by an author who once lived in the countryside of Derbyshire, close to where I live. Whilst this is technically a children’s fiction book, it is well suited for all ages, and is based on real life events. First published in 1939, it tells the story of teenage girl, Penelope, who is sent to live on her aunt and uncle’s farm, once owned by Anthony Babington, an important Derbyshire landowner, who became embroiled in a plot to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. The girl manages to move between her own time and the 1580s and even meets Anthony Babington himself. Can Penelope alter the course of history or not? It is a slow starter, but once you get into it, this book does become somewhat all consuming and certainly triggers a lot of emotion.
Julian of Norwich: A Very Brief History by Janina Ramerez
This tells the story of Julian of Norwich, a medieval anchoress who shut herself away in a church in Norwich. It discusses her religious writings, as well as providing context to the times in which she lived. Once again, this is another reread, but I loved it just as much this time as I did before. I first came across this book after the author (a favourite historian of mine) did a TV documentary about trying to find the lost original manuscript version of Julian’s text. Sadly it still hasn’t been found, other than a fragment later edited. The author certainly has a special way of explaining things and making things accessible to an audience and this book is no exception. It is especially good at analysing the importance and legacy of Julian, who is now largely a forgotten figure. In the words of Julian herself, All shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.
I know this was meant to be a post about my must read books of the year, but as we are on the countdown to Christmas, I thought I must share my favourite historical themed film to watch in time for Christmas.
The Man Who Invented Christmas:
This film showcases how Charles Dickens really wrote A Christmas Carol, which is now synonymous with how we celebrate Christmas. As a Dickens fan of many years, I must admit I love this film and Dan Stevens plays the author very well. It shows off his eccentricities brilliantly, whilst also detailing the tragic backstory of his time in the blacking factory that Dickens himself tried to hide his whole life. I have always been fascinated by the way Dickens kept note of names and places for his books, as well as how he re-enacted his stories to audiences during readings. The film does show this wonderfully. It also has a fantastic cast, full of wonderful British actors. If you have any interest in A Christmas Carol, or Dickens himself, this is a must watch. I have watched this many times and never seem to bore of it!
Two anniversaries have inspired this blog post, first of all, yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the steps leading to Tutankhamun, probably the world’s greatest and most famous archaeological discovery, but today also marks the 244th anniversary of the birth of Giovanni Belzoni. At the moment, you may be wondering how these two things are connected, but it’s a closer connection than you may at first think. Giovanni Belzoni found a similarly exciting discovery in the Valley of the Kings, just a little over a hundred years before Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun. The discovery he made was the fantastic tomb of Seti I, which is the largest of all the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
Giovanni Belzoni was one of fourteen children. He was born in Padua, Italy, in 1778. As a teenager, he attempted to go into holy orders, where he learnt about engineering. From this engineering experience, he began to exhibit some hydraulic engines he had made. When Napoleon’s forces invaded Italy, he moved to the Netherlands, before again moving to England in 1803, to escape going to prison. Following the move, he joined the circus as a strongman, helped by his 6 ft 7 inch height and muscly build. He toured with this around Britain and Europe, until he heard the Pasha of Egypt was looking for a new irrigation system.
In 1815, Belzoni made his way to Egypt to offer his hydraulic engines for use as an irrigation system. Despite a good pitch, the Pasha wasn’t entirely impressed and didn’t take up the offer. Instead, Belzoni was offered a small allowance that allowed him to stay in Egypt a little longer. It was during this time that Belzoni became fascinated with the European efforts to excavate Ancient Egyptian sites. Officials on these digs saw him as a valuable asset thanks to his strength and engineering knowledge and so by 1817, he was officially employed by the British to help with these types of excavations.
Belzoni built up a reputation for getting things done, even if his methods don’t match up to modern archaeology. He was notorious for using his strength, bribery and ingenuity to plunder items from Egypt, to send them to Britain. One of the most famous artifacts he helped unearth was a sculpture of Ramses II, which had been notoriously difficult to move, and was fought over by the British and the French, is now held in the British Museum. He also cleared the entrance of the famous Abu Simbel temple and was the first to enter the pyramid of Khafre at Giza. Whilst he made these discoveries and more, there is one discovery he is most famous for; the tomb of Seti I.
The tomb was discovered on 16 October 1817 and up to that point, it was viewed as the finest tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Its walls were highly decorated and looked as if they had just been painted yesterday, rather than many thousands of years ago. Most importantly, it still contained the sarcophagus, which was made of fine alabaster. This was sent back to London, initially to the British Museum, but was later brought by the Sir John Soane Museum. Belzoni and his team spent just over a year drawing and taking wax impressions of the decorated walls. Unfortunately, when they left, there as a flash flood that caused damage to the paintwork. This meant the tomb would never quite be the same again. Even today the tomb is closed because of issues of damage and issues around conservation.
Belzoni continued to make discoveries after Seti’s tomb, but he returned to England in 1819, saying it was becoming too dangerous after the French had taken an obelisk from him at gunpoint. A year later, he published his account of the many discoveries he had made in the four years he had been excavating in Egypt. This was then followed in 1821 by a fantastic life-size exhibition held in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. At this exhibition, called The Egyptian Tomb, many artifacts were on display alongside a recreation of Seti’s tomb (including the sarcophagus) which was based on the original drawings and wax impressions taken not long after the discovery. The exhibition aimed to showcase Belzoni and his work, but also to educate visitors about ‘authentic’ Ancient Egypt. There was also a catalogue produced for visitors, which emphasised the educational aspects of the exhibition, but also explained the reproduced royal tombs on display. After the exhibition closed, the items on display, including the replicas, were auctioned off at the Egyptian Hall in June 1822. Exhibitions still continued to be held after Belzoni’s death in 1823 during an expedition to Timbuktu. In 1825, his widow showcased his original drawings, alongside the models of the royal tombs, in both Paris and London.
Whilst there is no doubt that Giovanni Belzoni acquired his artifacts in dubious circumstances that definitely don’t match up to current ethics about museum collections, he was not the only one working in this way. I am in no way condoning his actions, but recognise that many people were doing the same thing around this time. What his work, and the exhibition that followed, do show is that it sparked a renewed interest in Egypt, much like the discovery of Tutankhamun did a century later. The difference was that in Belzoni’s time, the idea of Ancient Egypt was still fairly new. Hieroglyphics had still not yet been deciphered but the French and British had been writing and investigating Egyptian history and culture ever since Napoleon’s invasion or so called ‘expedition’ in 1798. These French investigations famously produced the Description de l’Egypte, an encyclopaedic folio published by academics following their return to France in 1801. You can find out more about that and Napoleon’s expedition in a previous blog post, found here. As has been noted, all of these discoveries, including those involving Belzoni, despite their dubious nature, helped to open the eyes of Europe to the glory that was Egypt”.
If you are a regular follower of the blog, you will have probably guessed that I have an interest in the Georgian period. However, I knew very little about the Georgian Queens. Perhaps part of that is that as the Georgian period is named after its kings, they have been pushed to the side somewhat. I wished to learn more, so that is what first attracted me to this book. As this book is written by an author I have not read before, I must admit I was a little apprehensive, but also excited, to see what this book would bring. I was definitely not disappointed with this book in anyway.
The women covered in the book are Sophia Dorothea of Celle, Caroline of Ansbach, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Streliz and Caroline of Ansbach. Each of the women featured have their own intriguing life stories to tell, which the author writes in an accessible and exciting way. I found this made it an easy read and despite the trials and tribulations all of the women went through, there were some light-hearted and entertaining moments throughout. The book certainly highlights how downtrodden the women were because of their husbands and the courts they lived in. This makes the reader empathetic with the lives the women lived, and showed that whilst covered in jewels, they were not necessarily as happy as modern readers may perhaps think.
All of the Queens, whilst mentioned individually, were placed into the context of the royal court they lived in. This gave a fascinating insight into the cycle of how they were influenced by the court and how the individual Queens in turn influenced the court. In doing this, it shows that the author has clearly done a good amount of research, not only into the lives of the Queens and their Georges, but also the wider context of society in Britain (and the German states where they all hailed from) at the time.
The occasional addition of extracts from letters about the Queens and other events also provided a good insight, as it felt like reading about more personal matters. The same could be said about the inclusion of newspaper articles, in order to gauge possible public opinion. This was particularly useful for considering the media war between George IV and his wife, Caroline of Ansbach, who actively disliked one another. With the retelling of this, it was clear that there were so many modern day parallels in. Again, moments like this provided a good context to the times, but also highlighted the wide range of research conducted by the author.
With the amount of women involved in this book, there is of course some skimming of their lives. I feel that doesn’t necessarily detract from the overall experience of the book. Instead it allows the book to be light and not so stuffy as other history books can sometimes be. I can understand how this may put some readers off, but it is fine to use, as I did, as an introduction to either the Georgian period, or to the Georgian Queens themselves. As the book covers so many people and has a large timespan, I can also understand that that may be confusing to some readers, especially as the people mentioned have similar names. Sadly that is what happens a lot in history, so please don’t let that put you off giving this a read.
Overall, I would definitely recommend this book. Not only is it written in a witty and engaging style, but the Catherine Curzon manages to make the Queens feel like real people that the reader can connect with, rather than figures from the distant past. It highlights the human side to royalty, that can so often be forgotten. As said above, this is the perfect book to introduce the topic and I hope it would encourage anyone who reads it to find out more about the Queens who would help define an era, although the era is clearly given its name by their husbands.
When the travel operator Thomas Cook sadly went bankrupt in 2019, it was the world’s longest running tour operator. It had been running for nearly 180 years. With so many years in operation, Thomas Cook, the founder of the original company and who it was named after, has been somewhat forgotten. In reality, Cook has been dubbed by scholars as the inventor of modern mass tourism as he was the first to use the idea of a package tour. From humble beginnings, Thomas, and his son, John Mason, were able to transform how travel was perceived during the nineteenth century. With the company now no longer in existence, it could mean that the history of those beginnings could easily be lost. I hope that this post goes some way to stopping that origin story from being lost to the general public. Thomas Cook was born in Melbourne, Derbyshire in 1808. Even though I’m from Derbyshire, I must admit that I don’t think it’s particularly well-known that the famous travel man actually was born in the county, which is a real shame. Still hopefully this helps to tell his story.
He left school at the age of 10, which was around average for the time, so would not have necessarily hindered him. After leaving school, he managed to find employment in various jobs until he became a Baptist missionary in 1828 and later a printer. It was these two roles that he particularly excelled in. Both Christianity and printing would also very much go on to influence how he conducted his famous travel business, particularly in those early years.
The first tour Thomas Cook conducted had a religious theme to it. In 1841, Cook persuaded the Midland Counties Railway Company to run a special train between Leicester and Loughborough for a temperance meeting. The meeting consisted of promoting the ideas of religious temperance, which put simply meant the Christian promotion of consuming no alcohol. Cook managed to persuade the company to offer reduced fares for the excursion because the amount of people promised to use this train if it was put on was around 500. Considering rail travel was still in its infancy, the very fact Cook had manage to organise such a trip was extraordinary. At the time, most people still didn’t travel by train, largely down to the expensive nature and ‘novelty’ aspect of this form of transport. To travel in such a way, as well as with a large amount of people, meant that the religious and temperance movement also gained public attention. The popularity of such trips certainly proved popular following this first excursion as Cook organised them for the next four years.
The majority of these temperance trips were not run to make profit. They were simply to help those who wished to partake in the ideas around these conferences and meetings get there, although spreading the word via these excursions also helped. Eventually these trips became large enough to become economically viable. The first of these excursions for profit was an organised trip to Liverpool, with travellers from across the Midlands, mostly from Derby, Nottingham and Leicester. Cook created a handbook for this trip, which would be a similar to a modern day guidebook, explaining the itinerary for the trip. These would become a staple for all of Cook’s travellers.
By the 1850s, the business had grown enough for Cook to finally become a full-time travel operator and leave the printing trade. This decision was also fuelled by the sad loss of his mother. Loss sometimes has the funny way of making us see what we really want or need and in this instance, Thomas Cook was no different. It also helped that one of his biggest successes in those early years came in 1851 with the Great Exhibition held at London’s Crystal Palace (and no not the football team). The exhibition featured exhibits meant to showcase the industry and ingenuity of the British Empire, but also offered people an opportunity to glimpse the world in just one exhibition. In total, it’s been estimated that Cook gave 100,000 people discounted travel to the Great Exhibition.
Following on from this success, in 1855, the ambition grew to organising trips to Europe, starting with the 1855 Paris Exposition. A cynic would probably say it was money and profit that fuelled this decision. In fact it again was really fuelled by his Christian beliefs. At the time, Britain had seen France as a threat and enemy, largely down to the Napoleonic wars. Cook was a pacifist and instead thought offering tours to Paris could help promote peace. He thought it would make English people more tolerant towards foreigners and reduce the kind of “hatred and narrow-minded attitudes that led to wars”. Of course the logistics of organising trips to Europe would be much more difficult than arranging ones in England. For a start different companies and currencies were involved during these trips, meaning a lot more complications. After the first trip these problems were eventually ironed out, as any business would do after starting something new.
During these early days, Thomas Cook himself personally guided the tours. He would stay at the helm for many decades, until his son, John Mason, took over primary control in the 1870s, ensuring all was well for his customers. Not only did he offer them ‘working men’s excursions’, which were mainly day trips in England, but his foreign tours were promoted to the middle classes, who now could afford the discounted rates that Cook provided. Cook was able to change the way that travel was viewed as it was now something more people outside the aristocracy could do for leisure, all thanks to Cook’s guided tour, transport, accommodation and meals now becoming a whole package.
Cook’s business success is indicative of his drive to allow tourism to open up to wider society. His previous skills in printing press allowed him to advertise his tours, as well as create guidebooks needed by his travellers. Most importantly, his Christian values drove him to share the world that God had created. Whilst of course we may not understand that now, there is no denying that was a huge motivation to him. This motivation can still be seen in his birthplace of Melbourne, Derbyshire. A selection of pretty almshouses built at the end of Cook’s life still survive there. They were meant as a place specifically designed to house the poor and include a caretakers house and a chapel.
Whilst all of the achievements of Thomas Cook are hard to put into a single post, I hope that the genuine enthusiasm and business mind of the man have been shown. I know he would have been sad if he knew how his business came to an abrupt holt in 2019, but that doesn’t detract from the peace and love of the world he wanted to share with others during his early days as a travel operator. These were what drove the company to exist not just under his son, but were what the entire company had been originally founded upon.
 Waleed Hazbun, ‘The East as an Exhibit: Thomas Cook & Son and the Origins of the International Tourism Industry in Egypt’, in Philip Scranton and Janet F. Davidson (eds), The Business of Tourism: Place, Faith and History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), p. 9
During the summer, I have been working for a community based charity local to me, called Blue Box Belper. Their aim is to offer community events in a town called Belper in Derbyshire, as well as to raise money for a brand new community centre. Me and another girl, Abi, have been helping out at some of their events, as well as pitching some new ideas for them.
One of the events I’ve been helping out at has a catchy title, ‘Cuppa Cake Chat’, which does what it says on the tin really. It’s a nice informal coffee morning, where sometimes guest speakers, or members of the group, share about themselves. It was my turn this week. As many of you regular followers will have guessed, I decided to make it history themed. I must admit I had to think for a while about what to talk on as I wanted something quite interesting and not too heavy. Thankfully, I had the perfect topic to talk about from some of my current research on Napoleonic prisoners of war in Chesterfield, Derbyshire.
Back in March, following a trip to Ludlow in Shropshire, I discovered that Napoleon’s brother, Lucien, had been held prisoner there during the Napoleonic Wars. With my curiosity piqued, I brought a book on his time imprisoned, which also made some references to how other prisoners of war were kept at that time. In the same book, I saw a sentence explaining how two prisoners, called General Joseph Exelmans and Colonel Auguste de la Grange, had escaped from Chesterfield.
As little was mentioned about how they’d escaped, I decided to look more into it, as well as the conditions for the prisoners in Chesterfield at that time. That led me to an utterly fascinating discovery of many different and interesting stories, which I don’t really have the time to share now. It’s an amazing story and one that I’m glad I’m now able to share as it is something that seems to have been lost.
If you would like to know more, please to have a read of the two blog posts I wrote for my work at the local archives in Derbyshire, known as the Derbyshire Record Office, please do click here and here. I promise that they are full of entertaining and exciting things!
First of all, I would like to personally thank the author, Mark Lee Gardiner, and HaperCollins, for sending me a review copy of this book. I am very grateful for that and it honestly means a lot that I received this.
Despite my love of the history of the Wild West, I must admit that I have always sympathised more with the plight of the Native Americans. Throughout, I have often come across many accounts that make it sound as though the Native Americans ‘deserved’ their fate. For many years I have often wished for someone to correct this narrative and push for the Native American point of view. Whilst I know there have been attempts previously to do this, I feel that Mark Lee Gardiner’s efforts in The Earth is All That Lasts shows at every corner that the white man had lied and cheated its way to get land belonging to the Native Americans, as told through the Lakota chiefs, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. As Sitting Bull has always been a hero of mine, I have read and written quite a bit about him in the past. This prior knowledge did give me a certain excitement, as well as high expectations, before I started reading this book. Whilst my expectations may have been high, I can gladly say that I wasn’t disappointed.
After recently reading one of the author’s other books, To Hell on a Fast Horse, which told the connected stories of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (I would highly recommend it), I had high hopes for this latest book. As I have come to expect with Gardner’s writing, it was easy going, which sounds like a bit of a contradiction considering that the subject matter at times was tough to deal with. I must admit I initially found it hard to get into, as there are lots of descriptions of violence and battles, this is only to be expected as it provides context to the negative relations between the Lakota and the white men, particularly the army and officials, who intended to either fight them or pacify them with treaties that were not understood. At every point the argument that white men had forcibly wanted to get their way by getting land the Lakota lived on, as well as either their assimilation or extermination, is driven home. I utterly commend the author for this as I feel in general that this is not nearly used enough elsewhere. As I was reading, there were many moments that I found were very emotional and poignant, which again shows just how well the whole subject was portrayed.
There is a lot of information, names and locations to take in, but with the easy writing style, as well as a handy map of the forts and battles mentioned at the beginning of the book, there is some help towards this. The amount of information just shows how wonderfully researched this book is, as is mentioned in the acknowledgements, it took the author five years to research and write. For the reader, who may not be that well informed of the culture of the Lakota, I feel that this aspect in particular was very well researched and portrayed. The analysis of the culture that both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse lived in provides the reader with a better understanding of just what made both of these figures the people they were, rather than just the stereotype of them both being involved in Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
As previously mentioned, this is not a book for comfortable reading, but it is definitely one that is needed in order to portray the realities of how settlers really came to populate the Great Plains of America. It was done by robbing, lying, cheating, massacring the Native Americans and desecrating their sacred sites and entire way of life. However, this reality is something that needs to be told as far too often, the general narrative is very much about how manifest destiny was a given. This narrative has been written by the white men who eventually ‘conquered’ the West, which is also shown very well throughout the book, but is in stark contrast to the truths that the Native Americans were living. I challenge anyone, whether already sympathetic to the Lakota, like myself, or not, to come away still thinking and believing the whole manifest destiny narrative to be the whole truth.
The epilogue is dedicated to the ones involved in the murders of both Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, showing what happened to them all after these events. I found that the majority of them didn’t actually reap the rewards that they had hoped for, particularly the Lakotas who had chosen to follow the white men governing them when they were forced onto the reservations. One man who did seem to be promoted was James McLaughlin, the agent in charge of the Standing Rock Reservation that Sitting Bull lived on in the last years of his life. From what I had read previously, I found him a very hard man to like, mainly due to his hatred of Sitting Bull. The author showed just how McLaughlin didn’t want to understand the Lakotas he was in charge of, unless they wished to assimilate to a Western way of life. Again, I commend the author for writing about McLaughlin in such a way that shows just how strong his hatred was of Sitting Bull, leaving the reader in no doubt as to what his intentions were towards surrounding the famous chief’s death.
This is yet another book that I would recommend to anyone, whether they have an interest in the final years of freedom for the Lakota or not. I feel very much that this is the written equivalent of what Dances with Wolves was for the big screen, in that it very much shows the Lakota viewpoint, which is not shared often enough. This work is a vital piece to the history and understanding of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and those final years before the Lakota were forced onto reservations. Most importantly, I feel that those mentioned, whether white men, the US army officers, or any of the Lakotas mentioned, including Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull themselves, had their true characters revealed, whether for good or bad.
In the opening chapters of Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations, Magwitch was incarcerated on a prison hulk, a disused ship used to house prisoners, situated around the mouth of the River Medway in Kent. It was after he escaped from one that he first encountered the main character, Pip, along the foggy marshes near this part of Kent. The mention of these hulks during the opening scenes of the book was meant to play on pre-existing ideas about the harsh conditions that those on board endured. Were these ideas really true and what exactly was a prison hulk?
Hulks were first used after the American War of Independence in order to solve the issue of ever increasing prisoner numbers. Prior to the war, many prisoners were sent out to America, but during the War of Independence and after, this was no longer a viable option for the government. Something else had to be done as there was no space to hold them inside prisons. The idea of using decommissioned and unseaworthy ships, known as prison hulks, was born out of this need. They were officially made legal by the ‘Hulks Act’ of 1776, which was meant to create a temporary fix, although the hulks would be in action for the next 80 years. As the hulks were designed to be organised by contractors, it made them an easier and cheaper option that building new prisons to hold people in. The first few were located close to London in the Thames, but when need increased, more were placed along the Medway Estuary in Kent and near the dockyards at Portsmouth.
One of the first ships to be brought used from August 1776 was the Justitia, which was previously owned by the wealthy East India Company. A total of 632 prisoners were initially placed on the ship, of which 176 had died by March 1778, showing just how insanitary the ships were. Insanitary conditions were an issue throughout the lives of the prison hulks, although there were some attempts at improvement. The cramped conditions were the main cause of disease being rife on board as this meant disease could travel easier. The small amount of rations given also made the men weak and more susceptible to the diseases onboard. Instructions meant that prisoners were given little more than bread, other than some meat and potatoes for their evening meal. These rations were not enough to cover the hard labour of the prisoners, who were expected to work in chain gangs, either at nearby dockyards or along river banks. Any insubordinate behaviour was punished with heavier chains for work or whilst on board. These would have made already backbreaking work a lot harder. Those who were either too old or too infirm for this kind of work instead stayed on the ship to cook, clean and mend clothes and shoes.
The only upside to the work was that there was the opportunity to gain money. Although whilst a prisoner men were only entitled to keep a penny of every shilling they earned, funds were saved so that they could be given money upon their release. In general, this amounted to between £10 and £15, or between £670 and £1,000 in today’s money. The prisoners also had the opportunity to gain some education whilst on board, if they so wished. After their evening meal, there was the option of attending to school work, giving them the chance to learn to read and write. This was certainly more skills than most of the prisoners would have had before entering the hulk. It was hoped that with this education, as well as the backbreaking labour, that criminality could be forced out of those incarcerated.
By the mid-1800s, more prisons were beginning to be built, meaning that the prison hulks were slowly being phased out. More and more criticism was aimed at the hulks. Those who wanted reform for the prison system suggested that the improvements being made in ordinary prisons was not being implemented on the hulks, meaning that the conditions were still as terrible as ever. As husband and wife authors, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, who wrote on the prison system many years later, have indicated that the hulks had become “of all the places of confinement… apparently the most brutalizing, the most demoralizing, and the most horrible”. It is no wonder then that by 1852, there were only two hulks left in use, before the whole hulk system was officially disbanded in 1857.
Despite there being some positives, in terms of offering meals, education and money upon release, there was no denying that the authorities made sure that prison hulks were a nightmarish place to be. Many who served their sentence on them were known to stick together, almost as if to rally around the horrors they had witnessed, mainly caused by the corruption of the system. All in all, it is a good thing they ended, but let them be remembered for the inhumanity, just like much of other parts of the justice system at that time.
I had heard good things about The Belles of Waterloo and was looking forward to getting stuck into it. Of course it helped that I have an interest in the Regency period in general, but I had hopes of this focusing on the more social aspects of a time we often understand as being full of war. In both respects I wasn’t to be disappointed.
The Belles of Waterloo tells the story of the Capel family who have had to move to Brussels a year before the Battle of Waterloo because of their father’s gambling debts. The narrative particularly focuses on the lives of the three eldest daughters named Harriet, Maria and Georgy, as they adjust to their new lives and loves. Little do they know that within months of their arrival that the war against Napoleon would be right on their doorsteps. This does give the reader an expectation of things to come.
Whilst this book is a work of fiction, Alice Church makes it clear that their story is a true one. I found it rather refreshing to know that the majority of the story told was based on letters that exist of the family. By using these letters as a basis, I found this gave the book a unique feel of authenticity. Whilst this meant that there was a risk that the story could have become dull, the opposite is true in fact. This meant that the real emotions felt throughout the family’s many highs and lows during this period are acutely portrayed. The reader easily becomes sucked in and emotionally involved with all that goes on, for good or ill.
The book had a very Bridgerton feel to it in that it portrayed a close knit large family trying to navigate life and for the girls in particular, that means trying to understand the first feelings of love and romance. I feel that even if you hadn’t watched Bridgerton, but liked the late Georgian/Regency period, you would find this as equally compelling. If you have any understanding of the period, you would expect to see lots of balls and house calling. The reader is definitely not disappointed in that. By attending balls and accepting house calls, the Capel sisters find lots of potential suitors and family friends alike. These particular scenes were written with great grandeur and it was easy to imagine the glitz and glamour of those events, most famously the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, where war with Napoleon was declared once more. The writer strikes a good balance between explaining the atmosphere of these large gatherings, but also focusing on the personal experiences of the Capel girls and the relationships they form whilst there.
Whilst all three of the Capel girls did have some experience of love, I do find that it did seem to be more focused on the romances that Maria has. Whilst of course it was necessary to show Maria’s romances, I would have lived to have seen more exploration of the other two girls experience. There are some mentions of this, but I feel it would have added to a greater understanding of the sisters by doing so. Whatever may be the case, there is no denying that the girls’ relationships are shown in a way that indicated that the girls are inexperienced in love, which is only to be expected, when they came out in society after they first reached Brussels. In many ways, this was a stark contrast to the heavy realism of the relationship of their parents, which has been tarnished by their father’s gambling.
By the end of the book, the Capel siters had grown in many respects and I think this was one of the best selling points of the book (beside the historical attention to detail of course!). It showed that just like any of us, the characters had become shaped by what they had gone through, even if in reality it was a short space of time. Whilst this meant it was more of a philosophical ending in some ways, it felt very apt and was the right choice to make. It also helped that there was an end note explaining what happened to the real people mentioned within the book and how this influenced what had been written.
Whilst I did enjoy the development of the characters within the Capel family, I found I had a soft spot for General Barnes. Barnes had become a friend to the family after first meeting some of the girls early on in their move to Brussels. He was a kind man and easily befriended the entire family, although he did have a particularly soft spot for Maria. I must admit I was very keen to find out his fate when towards the end of the book, he, as well as all the other military men that the family had grown to know and care for went off to war. There are also some descriptions of the injuries and horrors of war when the timeline reaches the Waterloo campaign, but these are actually necessary in the context they are portrayed in.
In general, I felt that this book, whilst primarily a novel, felt like it was about real people who you could easily relate to. It held its authenticity in a way that showed the research and passion the writer had for the topic. The historical attention to detail made it easy for the reader to imagine being within the events being described, but also like a fly on the wall for the more intimate and gossipy moments as well. It was this engaging narrative that made it very hard to put down and I was sad to finish this, which is always the sign of a good book! I would very much recommend giving The Belles of Waterloo a read as it was just the tonic and escape that I needed.