Sunday, 31 March 2013

Tamworth Through Time

A second book published last week, a fascinating selection of photographs traces some of the many ways in which Tamworth has changed and developed over the last century.

While Tamworth has revealed archaeological evidence of Roman occupation, it was when the Saxons settled here that the town rose to prominence. As capital of the powerful kingdom of Mercia, the location of its castle at the confluence of the rivers Tame and Anker was a naturally defensible position against the Danes. In more recent times the landscape around this part of southern Staffordshire has been influenced by the Peel family, William McGregor, and Thomas Guy. The Industrial Revolution saw the canal and the railway play important roles. Coal mining then left a scar on the landscape. This has now been covered by a massive housing development which grew with the arrival of families from Birmingham. Within the pages of Tamworth Through Time not only is there a comparison to be made between old and new views, but also between the old residential areas to the north and west and the new developments to the east and south.

As always I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Lichfield Through Time

A new book out this week, a fascinating selection of photographs tracing some of the many ways in which Lichfield has changed and developed over the last century.

The Romans were around Lichfield with a major settlement at neighbouring Wall and Celts were certainly here at that time too. Yet it was with the arrival of the Saxons that Lichfield came into its own. St Chad built the first church, bringing the bishopric of Mercia here in the sixth century and the first cathedral being constructed soon afterwards. Queen Mary’s charter of 1553 made Lichfield a county and created the office of Sheriff of Lichfield, a position which continues until today. During the English Civil War the Royalist stronghold of Lichfield was besieged twice, the second resulting in the collapse of the cathedral’s central spire.

Later centuries saw Lichfield become a city famous for its intellectuals. Among the most famous were Erasmus Darwin, David Garrick, Anna Seward and, undoubtedly most famous of them all, Dr Samuel Johnson. Within the pages of Lichfield Through Time not only is there a comparison to be made between old and new views, but also glimpses into some of the lives of people who have contributed to recent development of this delightful city.

As always I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Beeching 50 Years On

March 2013 marks fifty years since the Beeching Axe fell upon the nation’s railway system. The recommendations made by the infamous report were greeted with horror and indignation then and the furore is rekindled simply at the mention of Beeching’s name.

Dr Richard Beeching was a businessman; he had no connection with the railways. Thus any decisions that were made were based solely upon the logic of profit margins, efficiency and reinvestment, never to be swayed by sentiment. Yet still his name is remembered in an almost Quisling-esque light as the man who decimated the railways. Even British situation comedy used his infamy: thirty years after its publication, writers David Croft and Richard Spendlove, in conjunction with the BBC, produced twenty episodes in a series entitled Oh, Doctor Beeching!

Five decades have passed and, with hindsight, we now see that the report did more than any other factor to preserve the nation’s railway heritage. Without it the buildings, disused lines, locomotives, rolling stock, signalling systems and signs would simply have been removed and tucked into a corner to be forgotten, or even rotted away.

In this book we shall look at the positive effects the report has had, not on the railways themselves – that has been done many times – but on the opportunities which would never have arisen otherwise. We shall look at the gentle gradients of old lines, perfect for walkers and cyclists alike. Buildings, no longer used as stations and sheds, are now private residences, small businesses, holiday homes and public meeting places.

Memorabilia, often described as railwayana, which would otherwise have rusted away, now command prices at collectors’ auctions which would astound those who lovingly painted and polished them. And, of course, we shall look at the heritage railways which attract many thousands each year. They not only allow volunteers to enjoy railways at a level they could otherwise never have imagined, they have also provided employment for others as engineers, station staff, and so on.

Maybe by the end of the book Dr Beeching will be seen in a slightly different light by the reader: not as the saviour of Britain’s railways, but as someone whose name should be associated with a whole new area of leisure for all and indeed pleasure for those who can swap 00 gauge for 4ft 8in (1.44m).

As part of the launch The History Press will be at the West Somerset Railway Spring Gala 2013 between Friday 22nd and Sunday 24th March at the Railway Literary Festival.

As usual I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

A Call of Nature

Following on from the look back at my Staffordshire Privies last time, here is an examination of the development of some of the terminologies.

Spend a Penny – Obviously the reference is to the coin-operated locks on the toilet doors which were once operated by a penny, obviously the pre-decimal version. It certainly did not come from the earliest known public toilet to charge a fee – the building still stands and is officially known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, although more often described as the Colosseum in Rome. Completed in 80AD, the Romans not only charged customers to use the facilities but also collected the urine and sold in on for use as a degreasing agent in making cloth. Charging to empty one’s bladder and then selling it on – that really is taking the proverbial!

The bog – is an expression which has been reversed for the room was originally known as the boghouse. This means ‘bog’ began as a verb and alludes to the consistency. Indeed this was the original meaning of the Saxon scit or ‘muddy’.

Dunny – is Australian slang and an example of how phrases from English, now obsolete in Britain, have endured in the former colonies. As with many Australian expressions this is an abbreviation, itself from a term seen as dunnick, dunnekin, dunnyken or dunnakin, depending upon the region. These can be traced back to danna, recorded since at least the eighteenth century and used to describe, quite specifically, human solid waste.

Kharzi – also seen as carsey (and anything between the two), first makes an appearances at the time of British rule in India and said to have been brought back to our shores around this time. This undoubtedly is down to the term being associated with the similar-sounding ‘khaki’, which does have its origins on the sub-continent unlike the toilet reference. Possibly this comes from casa or ‘house’ and simply a reference to the smallest room.

Loo – may have more explanations than almost any toilet terminology, none of which are at all certain. Most simple is from the French l’eau meaning simply ‘water’, but this hardly fits with the facts as the water closet did not come into general use until the twentieth century and the term was in use a hundred years earlier. Perhaps this is an abbreviation of another slang term of ‘waterloo’? Again this does not make any sense as the water factor did not exist until much later, hence this term is more likely to be from ‘loo’ rather than vice versa. Next we have ‘gardyloo’, a term once popular in Scotland meaning ‘watch out!’. Said to hail from the French gardez l’eau and a reference to the slops thrown (usually from an upstairs window) into the street below in the days before sewage systems. All these are undoubtedly examples of creative etymology as, indeed, is the final word on ‘loo’. To say ‘toodle-oo’ is to say goodbye, most usually to someone you know well and would be sure to meet again, so it is a brief separation. It has been suggested this was also used to signal a brief comfort break and ‘toodle-oo’ seen as a slurred pronunciation of ‘to-the-loo’.

Jakes – certainly in use by 1530 as Shakespeare writes in King Lear “I will tread this unbolted villain into mortar, and daub the walls of the jakes with him.” Likely this dates from a time when the name Jack was a generic term for any person, irrespective of gender, and hence Jacks place became Jakes. Most often a North American term, ‘John’ would be same as ‘Jack’.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Staffordshire Privies

It is fifteen years, almost to the day, since I was asked to produce my first book away from my normal subject of toponymy or even etymology. When Countryside Books approached me with the idea of adding to their series on the subject of privies I was lost for words. However recently I was asked to speak on the subject and I was reminded of some of the oddities I uncovered during my research.

In the late twentieth century we take for granted the efficient disposal of sewage. The sole discomfort in the modern era is on cold winter’s days when greeted with the initial shock of a cold toilet seat in public conveniences. Yet it was as recently as the 1920s when the flush toilet became the norm in newly erected properties, although then the vast majority were outside (as I well recall).

Except for the limited influence on sanitary conditions during the Roman occupation, little change in waste disposal had taken place since man first walked these green and pleasant lands. Indeed, as the population of our islands increased and rural communities relocated to live in lines of tenement properties, the problem of sanitation grew proportionately. Buckets and pots were emptied straight from windows into the street below and if passers-by were unfortunate enough to be in the line of fire, so be it.

The Biblical reference to this basic requirement instructs us to go into the desert with a paddle (wooden spade) and make a hole in the sand, the paddle also being utilized to fill in the hole afterwards. No reference to toilet paper here, nor to any alternative. The Bible also relates ho Baal’s temple was destroyed by the forces of Jehu (Kings II, 10:27), henceforth the place used as a latrine. King Eglon’s murder is also covered (Judges, 3:24), occurring whilst the gentleman was relieving himself in the inner room of the house.

Even the most magnificent of castles of the Middle Ages had no conveniences to speak of. Most were limited to narrow passages situated within tower walls, with the excrement dropping down a shaft to form a pile at the base – or sometimes to fall straight into the surrounding moat. In some of the better planned keeps one may have been lucky enough to find such places located near chimneys, which did something to keep out the cold. However personal comfort was not at the forefront of the architect’s mind, rather that the natural updraught from the fires acted as a means to remove unwanted smells.

In 1367 the first Earl of Stafford began the building of Stafford Castle. A master mason, John of Bicester, was charged with: “Building a castle on the mound within the manor of Stafford, in length, breadth and height, with towers, rooms, bedchambers, chapel, privies, chimneys, loopholes, windows, doors and gates.” This is the earliest reference to a privy I could find within the county. It is interesting that this agreement lists privies before windows, doors and chimneys.

Monarchs both here and abroad were given little consideration when it came to a call of nature. They were more often than not under the very real threat from perfidious murderers and traitors, and in order to minimise the risk of assassination the reigning sovereign would be accompanied everywhere, even to the loo. The twelfth century German emperor found his way to one loo accompanied by so many the wooden floor gave way under the weight. Fortunately Barbarossa managed to save himself but several of his entourage failed to emerge alive from the pit below. The Saxon king Edmund Ironside was murdered in 1016. One chronicle records how he died when impaled on “a spear in the fundament (backside) while at the withdraught (toilet) to purge nature.” It was only in the seventeenth century that kings and queens started to receive special consideration of a sort, when commode-style contraptions were introduced into the richest homes in the land.

For the rest of the population the only conveniences were public ones. In villages this would often have been over a natural watercourse of some description, whilst townsfolk would have been treated to a communal cesspit. The rural version provided its own disposal system; the cesspit needed to be emptied. However owing to the appalling smell emanating from the places such a task would have been carried out only when the pit was overflowing. In Stafford town centre one cesspit from the seventeenth century was discovered during building work. It now forms part of the foundations of the Mark’s & Spencer store.

A map of Stafford dating from 1625 shows how the channel in the middle of the road, principally to allow surface water to drain away, ran towards the river Sowe through the town wall at Southgate opposite the bridge. Here it discharged into the river, taking with it all the rubbish collected on the way. This would certainly have included waste products – both animal and human. The run-off polluted the river to such a degree that the men of Stafford were obliged to cross the bridge to water their horses further upstream. This daily ritual is marked on the map.

To compound the problem still further, the town dung heap was located immediately downstream of this place, where the contents of the cesspits were deposited. The 1625 map identifies the dung heap and also tells us this was the ‘way to the Thieves Ditch’. As this is the only reference to such a name we do not know if this was a place where thieves would hide out, or if they were deposited there as a punishment. Either way it is enough to seriously consider going straight.

The cesspits were emptied by gongfermors. When the bucket privy arrived the same job was performed by those known as night-soil men, who clearly worked at night, fundamentally to reduce the smell nuisance and the vast number of flies. These outside privies did not have a toilet seat as we would know it today, although the hole cut in the board would be complete with a lid (until it was lost). To find the board across the pit with more than one hole was by no means unusual. Two-holers were common and even more. These would have holes of different sizes so that the kids would not be in danger of falling through the larger hole required by their parents. On my travels I heard of how the carpenter in the high street had a long board attached to the wall of his workshop. This was hinged and could be dropped down so that customers could take a seat and order a new board made to measure with holes in increasing sizes. It was said the board had no less than ten and possibly as many as fourteen holes!

Finally mention must be made of the automatic earth closet designed by John Parker, a cabinet-maker by trade, which improved on a manual lever-operated version invented by the Reverend Samuel Moule in 1860. In John Parker’s design a series of levers were connected from the seat to a hopper. As the user rose the system released an amount of soil (or ashes) from the hopper into a bucket. Of the 20,000 made two versions were produced, in pine for the poor and mahogany for the more affluent customer. The earth closet was soon to be pushed aside with the appearance of the flush toilet. Although in many aspects it was (and is) superior to the water variety.

Regrettably, from an ecological viewpoint, the water flush did not need to be emptied and therefore inevitably reigned supreme. Should the earth closet have taken up residence in all our homes instead, today there would be few worries regarding water shortages; sewage treatment plants would have far less volume to manage and would therefore be more efficient; with fewer pipes to lag burst pipes during the thaw would be less of a hazard; and lastly we could all be producing our own garden produce – organically grown of course.

My Staffordshire Privies also contains a long list of expressions referring to the privy and answering a call of nature. Next time I shall look at the origin of some of these but in the meantime I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.