Thursday, 28 July 2011

'It put Liverpool on the map.'

What did?

Liverpool FC's tremendous run of success under Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Kenny Dalglish, three Scotsmen who made a significant contribution to sport in England?

The Cavern Club, where the Mersey Sound originated, where the Beatles began their careers, changing the face of pop culture and setting the tone for the Swinging Sixties?

Was it the Liverpool to Manchester Railway, the first railway line built to connect two major cities and the first purpose built passenger railway (famous also for what happened to the government minister William Huskisson on the opening day)?

Or was it the Port of Liverpool and its trade? In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries millions of bales of cotton were imported through Liverpool, feeding the cotton mills of Lancashire, which along with coal and iron formed the basis for the nation's industrial power. Liverpool was also one of the principal tobacco ports.

Liverpool was also the principal English port involved in the Triangular Trade, shipping enslaved people from West Africa to North America and the Caribbean.

The Port of Liverpool played a vital role in the Second World War, being the destination of many of the merchant shipping convoys which brought vital supplies from America and elsewhere. The city was heavily bombed in an attempt to disrupt the work of the port.

No, it was none of those things that 'put Liverpool on the map'. It was a soap opera.

At the risk of sounding like a Grumpy Old Woman, this is the kind of trivialisation that sees celebrities and fictional characters given equal status to people with real achievements to their credit. It shows a lack of historical perspective; nothing beyond the memory of the person speaking counts. In public votes for the Top 100 of anything, results are always overloaded with recent examples, whatever their relative merit.

Present day ways of thinking and doing things are always superior to the past. Or, alternatively, people in the past always thought exactly the same as people in the present day. In historical fiction, characters who don't share modern values are often presented unsympathetically. The context in which people in the past thought and acted is not considered.

Television presenters reinforce these attitudes by suggesting, for example, that people in the 1920s and 1930s had poor quality of life because they did not have washing machines, televisions and computers. Whereas many people moving in to their new houses with bathrooms and inside toilets, with access to radio and the cinema, considered themselves to have a much better standard of living than their parents and their grandparents.

The first thing a history teacher, or a writer of historical fiction, must convey is that things were different in the past.  Most people were not stupid or ignorant or cruel. Most of them did the best they could with what they had and what they knew.

And if we are talking tv, for my generation, this was the show that 'put Liverpool on the map'. And this was the song. 

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Lord have mercy upon us

In the seventeenth century those words painted on the door, along with a red cross,  indicated a household that was ‘visited’ with the plague, otherwise referred to as the sickness, the infection or the visitation. 

Summer was plague time in England from 1348 to 1666. Bubonic plague   flourished in hot weather; even if there are no other indications, burials rising in June, July and August and falling again in the autumn are an infallible indicator of a plague outbreak.
The first known plague epidemic in England (although not the first known  in Europe) occurred in the year 664. It killed, among others, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Deusdedit.  The next known outbreak was in 1348-50. This is the epidemic commonly known as the Black Death. Over the whole of Western Europe, the Black Death is thought to have killed between a third and a half of the population. It took the population of England two hundred years to recover, with a consequent impact on English society and economy.

After 1348 there was probably a plague outbreak somewhere in England every summer, and a major, countrywide epidemic every twenty or thirty years or so. 1563 and 1603 were particularly bad years.

The epidemic in London in 1665-66 is the best known, largely because it was so vividly described by Samuel Pepys, who remained in London throughout. Thomas Vincent, a contemporary of Pepys’, wrote:

'People fall as thick as leaves in the autumn … now shops are shut in, people are very rare and few that walk about, in so much that the grass begins to spring up in some places, and a deep silence in almost every place … no prancing horses, no rattling carriages, no calling in customers or offering wares … Now in some places not one house in a hundred but what is infected, and in many houses half the family is swept away; in some the whole from the eldest to the youngest.’

The custom of shutting up sick and well people together in their houses was based on lack of understanding of how the disease was transmitted. Some towns had pest houses where infected people could be taken, but allowing people to stay in their homes was considered more humane than taking them away and placing them in isolation.

Families that were shut up were not completely abandoned. The parish authorities saw that they were supplied with food.

The consequence, however, was that entire families could be wiped out. In the 1603 epidemic in Maidstone, William Hamon died, followed by his children Thomasine, Mercie, Joseph and Ann. The only survivors were another son, Thomas, and William’s apprentice.

For reasons that aren’t completely understood, the 1665-66 epidemic was the last in England, although there were isolated outbreaks for a few years afterwards. On the Continent, outbreaks of bubonic plague continued into the eighteenth century. But the ending of bubonic plague in England was one of the factors which made possible the rapid population growth of the eighteenth century,  helping to provide the conditions in which the Industrial Revolution could take place.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Earning a Living - 1945

GERMANY CAPITULATES! declared the front page of the Daily Telegraph on V.E. Day, 8 May 1945.

Obviously writers of historical fiction must know the big events which shaped the lives of their characters. How might the characters in a novel have celebrated V. E. Day?

 If in London, might they have been out mingling with the crowds in the streets? Or would they have stayed quietly at home, listening to the King and Mr Churchill on the wireless?

But day to day life goes on, even while great events are taking place. It’s the details of every day life which are of most importance in researching the lives of people in the past.

Page two of the Daily Telegraph on 8 May 1945 carried the Situations Vacant. No doubt many service men and women, hoping to be demobbed before too long, read these advertisements with interest.

There were plenty of opportunities for travelling salesmen, with companies looking forward to post-war development.

A ‘well known West London Dance Hall’ was looking for a General Manager aged between 30 and 40 who ‘must have sound experience in controlling crowds and staff, with a knowledge of accountancy.’

The Isle of Wight County Press wanted a journalist with ‘good provincial experience.’ The post was ‘war temporary’ but could become permanent.   ‘Preferably a disabled ex-service man.’

Despite rationing, there were still opportunities in retail for women. Fortnum and Mason required a junior saleswoman in their perfumery department.

Pontings of Kensington wanted an experienced Corsetiere to ‘live in or out’; in the past women staff of department stores, especially the teenaged apprentices, were often accommodated in the attics above the sales floors.

Other jobs in fashion and retail were advertised by Derry and Toms of Kensington and Netta Gowns Ltd of New Bond Street. At the opposite end of London, Hammerton’s of Green St, Upton Park, wanted a ’Lady Buyer’ for Coats, Gowns and Millinery.

Office work was the other main area of employment for women advertised in the Telegraph. Some advertisements stated ‘5 day week’ or ’No Saturdays’ - a reminder that many offices worked on Saturday mornings.

Posts for office juniors aged 14-16 were plentiful. The girl (or, sometimes, the boy) was wanted as a clerk or copy typist, sometimes to do telephone or switchboard work too. For the girl who wanted something more glamorous than a City office, Warner Bros in Wardour Street were advertising several posts.

One ‘old established firm’ required ‘Junior Girls’ aged 16-18. ‘Preferably secondary education but this not essential.’ Many children remained at their elementary schools until they left when they were fourteen and received no secondary education. It was not until the 1944 Education Act was implemented in 1948 that secondary education was guaranteed for all children, and the school leaving age was raised to fifteen.

More senior positions required shorthand and typing. Some shorthand-typists’ jobs advertised paid £5 a week - a very good wage for the time. Most advertisements however asked applicants to write stating their age, experience and salary required.

Society had been changing throughout the twentieth century, but some advertisements still specified ’Lady Clerk’ or ’Lady Secretary’.

Jobs in domestic service were still advertised, under the heading ’Household’. Mrs J. Mann of Greenacre, Cannon Hill, N.14, wanted a house-parlour maid. She offered £2 15s a week ‘and all found’. There were three in the family. A cook and daily help were also kept.

Local papers, and different daily papers, would advertise different types of jobs. And the type of job advertised changed over time. The 1940s, 1950s and 1960s were probably the heyday of the shorthand typist; in the 1970s audio typing took over from shorthand typing. But the Situations Vacant in a newspaper at any time and place provide a good starting point for a writer developing the background of a character in a historical novel.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Oh dear! II

From an article about the plague on the Channel 4 History website:

‘Being exact about the size of the population and mortality (deaths) so long ago is fraught with problems. Although there was a national system of registration of births, marriages and deaths, some families - for reasons of religious dissent or moral conscience - avoided the process.’

This historian evidently knows something the rest of us don’t!

Even the greatest expert can get it wrong sometimes. But this is a fairly fundamental misunderstanding (or at best a very poor explanation) on the part of someone who has an interest in population history.

As every family historian knows, there was no national system of registration in England before 1837. There was parochial registration.  Each of the nine or ten thousand parishes of England kept records individually. They did not record births, marriages and deaths; they registered baptisms, marriages and burials.

The lack of a national system of registration is precisely why reconstructing  the population of England in the past is ‘fraught with problems’!

Thursday, 7 July 2011

It doesn't mean that!

‘People died young there, and any man living on it who reached the age of forty could consider himself fortunate indeed’ is how one novelist described a bad street in the East End of London in 1898.

She has made a mistake common to writers and television historians. She is referring to statistics on average life expectancy. Life expectancy at birth in England was indeed around forty for most of the nineteenth century. However, average life expectancy is not the same as age at death.

Average life expectancy was reduced by the very high levels of infant mortality.  In 1899 (by which time levels of infant mortality had begun to fall), sixteen or seventeen out of every hundred babies born died before their first birthdays.

It is true that there were fewer elderly people in the population in the nineteenth century than there are now. Between 1821 and 1901 the proportion of the population of England and Wales aged 65 or over was between five and seven per cent. In the early 21st century it is nearly twenty per cent.

But it is not the case that no, or very few, people lived beyond their thirties and forties.

In Stepney Workhouse in the East End of London in 1881, out of 736 inmates, about 450 were aged 65 or over. Some were over eighty, such as Daniel McCarthy, an 87 year old dock labourer from Cork, and Elizabeth Hennigan, an 86 year old blind washerwoman, born in Bury St Edmunds.

The author of the Census report for 1901 believed that there was a tendency for people, especially the very elderly, to overstate their ages, so that the number of men and women in their eighties recorded in the Census was greater than it should have been. However, a man or woman claiming to be 85 was presumably older than 65, so this overstatement does not distort the proportion of older people in the population.

Some people might have added a few years to their ages when they were young. Many family historians will have encountered ancestors who claimed to be 21 when they were married, who were in fact younger. They might have kept those few extra years throughout their lives.

No-one born in England before the middle of 1837 would have proof of date of birth. He or she might have proof of baptism, but that isn’t the same thing. For most people, the ten yearly Census was the only time they were required to state their age for official purposes. (For marriage, it was only necessary to say that one was ’of full age’.)

Quite possibly, many people genuinely did not know how old they were.