Suffragists, sufragettes, and votes for women

English women’s fight for the right to vote began in the nineteenth century, and it started out politely enough. Bills were introduced in Parliament. Bills were defeated in Parliament. 

What could be more polite than that?

In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies gathered local groups into a national organization and by 1914 it had 54,000 members. Most of them were respectable and middle class, and it’s not too much of a leap to assume that the campaign made a huge difference in individual women’s lives and in how they saw their role in the world. We can make a wild guess and say that many a couple argued about it over their respectable breakfast tables. Or didn’t argue and just let the tension build. 

They also made the issue part of the national conversation.

Irrelevant photo: a red hot poker. Not, obviously, a real one. A flower.

The organization was efficient and nonviolent and the members were, for the most part, dedicated. And you know what? Women kept on not getting the vote. 

Their work played out against a complicated background involving political parties and a lot of wrestling over not just whether women should vote but which men should. So as usual, we need a bit of background: 

From as early as the 1830s, the Chartists, a working-class movement, had been pushing to open the vote up to all men. They presented petitions to Parliament: 1.25 million names on the first one, 3 million on the second, and nobody I checked with says how many on the third. In response, Parliament blew a raspberry and ignored them.

Before the First Reform Bill (that was in 1832) only 3% of adult males could vote. Your right to vote (or not vote) depended on how much you earned and what your property was worth.

After the bill, the vote was broadened but not to all men. Shopkeepers, tenant farmers, and small landowners got the vote. That’s in the counties. In the boroughs, householders who paid at least £10 a year in rent could vote and so could (gasp) some lodgers. 

What’s the difference between counties and boroughs? Beats me, but that comes from Parliament’s own website, so it must be right. It’s probably about the difference between cities and the countryside, but don’t take my word on that. I’m a stranger here myself. The point is that more people could vote, but only a safely respectable kind of more. And since women had come into the conversation they were, for the first time, specifically excluded. 

Isn’t progress a wonderful thing?

The Second Reform Act in 1867 did more of the same, doubling the number of men who could vote in England and Wales from 1 million to 2 million.

Leave Ireland and Scotland out of it, will you? This is complicated enough already.

By 1885, 8 million people out of a population of 45 million could vote–two-thirds of adult men. (Any numbers that don’t add up here can be blamed on women and children being left out of the accounting.)

So when women started pushing for the vote, the first question that popped its divisive little head up like a jack-in-the-box was, Which women? If all women had the vote, then presumably all men should as well. Or should only women who could meet the same property qualifications as men vote? Or how about unmarried women who met the qualifications, since married women were–or so the argument went–represented by their husbands. Or should it be only married women, since unmarried women were at best faintly embarrassing.

Or only women with those huge, amazing hats.

And this is where party politics came into it, because different choices were to the advantage of different parties. 

And if that wasn’t complicated enough, the women’s suffrage movement  was pulled between the women who wanted a single focus for the organization–votes for women–and those who wanted to address other issues too, because wasn’t the purpose of voting to have an impact on issues?

As women’s suffrage gained momentum, the Conservative Party could see the value of having propertied women vote: Well, of course they’d vote Conservative. And you could see why both non-propertied women and working-class (and presumably non-Conservative) men might oppose that. If the country allows only a small group of campaigners into the hall and they go in, closing the door on the rest of them, the people left outside might well ask themselves why they’d bothered supporting the ones who went in and didn’t return that support.

In 1893, the Independent Labour Party was formed–the forerunner of today’s Labour Party. Its goal was to represent the interests of the working class–a tough job at a time when large parts of the working class were still disenfranchised. 

In those conflicting currents, the suffragists bobbed around, lobbying politicians and campaigning for candidates who supported women’s suffrage, getting their hopes raised and crushed with each new bill. But the question of whether women should vote was, increasingly, an issue that couldn’t be ignored. Even people who made fun of it couldn’t ignore it. The Liberal and Conservative parties formed party women’s groups. They weren’t where the power lay, but they involved women in the machinery.

In 1894, women who met the same qualifications as men gained the right to vote in local elections.

In 1897, a women’s suffrage bill that had looked promising was defeated. You probably know what follows when a movement with a lot of momentum runs into a wall. Either it collapses or it explodes.

It exploded. The Women’s Social and Political Union was formed in 1903. The names you might recognize here are Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel, Sylvia, and Adela. The group appealed to working-class women, not just respectable ones, and they were called suffragettes by a hostile press. The name was meant as an insult but the group adopted it. Why not? The words Tory and Whig had originally been insults, and both groups ended by embracing them.

In 1905, Christabel and Annie Kenney got themselves arrested when they interrupted a political speech and unfurled a Votes for Women banner. And when I say “got themselves arrested,” I mean that Christabel had to work at it. The police threw them out of the hall and were going to let it go at that until Christabel spat in a police superintendent’s face and hit an inspector in the mouth. 

That did the trick: They both got arrested, they refused to pay a fine, and they were jailed, one for three days and one for seven. 

When they came out, they were met by a thousand supporters and the press, which got them national publicity. 

By 1909 the WSPU was a national organization, selling 20,000 copies of its paper every week, and it had a genius for attention-grabbing actions. Members disrupted political speeches and by-elections. They tried to rush the House of Commons. They broke windows, blew up pillar boxes (which in other versions of the English language would be called mailboxes), attacked paintings in galleries, and bought gun licenses not so they could use guns but to scare the authorities into thinking they might.

They also chained themselves to railings, getting the grill that sectioned off the House of Commons Ladies Gallery removed by chaining themselves to it.

They took advantage of a Post Office service that allowed postmasters to “arrange for the conduct of a person to an address by an Express Messenger,” posting two women to the prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, so they could talk with him.

The delivery was refused. 

The sad part was that social media hadn’t been invented. 

It was the eye-catching actions that gave them their reputation, but most of what they did was legal and even peaceful. They drove (at the time that involved horses) around town with placards on carriages. They carried placards themselves, on foot. At a time when women were supposed to be quiet, passive, deferential, and to the best of their ability and training to imitate doormats, this was shocking enough, but they also addressed crowds in theaters and restaurants–crowds who hadn’t come to hear them and were often hostile. They threw leaflets from theater balconies. Many of them were roughed up by crowds of men or by the police. 

In 1913, Emily Davison tried to stop a horse race and was hit by the king’s horse. She died of her injuries a few days later.

In a lot of these actions, women were arrested, and when they were released they were greeted by supporters, who sometimes pulled them through the streets in open carriages, increasing the visibility of their actions. And in prison, many of them went on hunger strikes and were force fed–a brutal and very painful process. 

In The English Rebel, David Horspool asks whether their militancy delivered or delayed votes for women and answers that it probably did both. If you have trouble working that out, go argue with him. I’m not sure both are possible at the same time, but I can see his point anyway. The same argument goes on, although the parallels aren’t exact, when Black Lives Matter demonstrations spill over into rioting or looting. Does it help or does it hurt? It depends on where you do your counting and how. In the case of the suffragettes, even a century later historians can still argue over it.

Whatever the answer turns out to be, it won’t be a simple one.

In 1910, a bill that would have given unmarried women the vote failed. The Liberals thought it might harm their interests. The Conservatives weren’t strongly enough in favor. Militancy had been winding down, but the bill’s defeat wound it up a notch. Asquith’s car was attacked. 

Somewhere in here, the Suffragists’ leadership–and the Pankhurst family–split over tactics. Should they work with men? How violent should their actions be? Should any bill introduced expand the vote for both men and women or should it only be for women?

I’ve been around political activism long enough for this all to sound familiar. If you get deep enough into politics, it can get very crazy very easily, but the alternative is–or at least seems to be–what someone I once knew called crackpot realism, where you dial your goals down to fit what looks possible, accomplishing somewhere between less than you wanted and nothing at all. 

And there things stood when everything was interrupted by World War I. Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the European powers all dug trenches and shot at each other, and 20 million soldiers and civilians died. Another 21 million were wounded. 

That was the war to end all wars. 

Yeah, they really did say it would.

The more radical branch of the Suffragettes (that was Emmeline and Christabel’s) suspended their activities, partly, according to Horspool, because Emmeline and Christabel were exhausted but also because they were realistic about how much political oomph women’s suffrage could have in the circumstances. And they did something I find more interesting: They moved to the political right. They suspended the campaign for the vote, backed the war, changed their paper’s name from The Suffragette to Britannia, and diverted the organization’s funds to the war effort, but many suffragettes were pacifists and the organization broke up for good. 

Their support for the war, according to Horspool, consisted of making speeches and editorializing in the direction of industrial workers, who were probably looking for their news and editorials elsewhere.

 Sylvia’s branch of the Suffragettes had become the East London Federation. Its membership was working class and it aligned itself with the Labour Party, campaigning for both workers’ and women’s rights. And–since changing newspaper names was in style–it changed the Woman’s Dreadnought to the Workers’ Dreadnought.

In 1916, the government faced the prospect of an election in which most servicemen wouldn’t be able to vote because of a residency requirement. 

Crisis. Conference. 

The moderates (remember the suffragists, working politely away in the background?) made a pitch for women’s suffrage. The former radicals (remember half the Pankhursts?) withdrew their support for women’s suffrage in case if ended up disenfranchising servicemen.

Aren’t humans strange?

A compromise bill passed in 1918. It gave the vote to women over 30 who were qualified to vote in local elections or whose husbands were qualified. That was about 8 million women. And there it sat for the next ten years, when the voting age was dropped to 21 and all other restrictions were lifted–in other words, women voted on the same terms as men.

Christabel ran for Parliament as a Women’s Party candidate and lost. Later she became a born-again Christian and lectured in California. Emmeline moved to Canada for a while and lectured on social hygiene until the winters drove her out.

I know just how she felt–minus the social hygiene part.

What is social hygiene? “The practice of measures designed to protect and improve the family as a social institution; specifically: the practice of measures aiming at the elimination of venereal disease and prostitution.” 

Bet you didn’t see that coming. 

Quinine, malaria, and empire

Quinine reached Britain (not to mention the rest of Europe) by way of Jesuit missionaries in South America. Browse around the internet and you’ll read that quinine is the dried, powdered bark of a tree that grows in the Andes and that it was discovered in the seventeenth century: The Jesuits, you’ll read, may or may not have used it to treat a Spanish countess’s malaria. Or the countess may or may not have discovered its uses herself. She may or may not have brought it back to Europe with her. 

Had the bark’s uses been discovered long before that by the people who were known as Indians thanks to Columbus having put too much trust in a glitchy SatNav (or GPS, since he was headed for the Americas)? 

Um, yes, according to biologist Nataly Canales. She says the bark was known to the Quechua, Cañari, and Chimú peoples long before any countesses or missionaries barged onto the stage.

Irrelevant photo: a begonia

Once it got to Europe the bark was added to a liquid–usually wine–and drunk as a treatment for malaria.

Now let’s put quinine on the shelf and talk about malaria for a few paragraphs.

I don’t know about you, but the random reading I did when I was younger (and I spent a shocking amount of my life being younger) left me with the impression that at least the British and probably Europeans in general were exposed to malaria as a result of empire. In other words, I assumed they caught it when they left their nice, safe home climates and broke into other people’s (warmer, mosquito-prone) countries, taking them over.

Not so. Malaria in Europe predates predates the British Empire, the Spanish Empire, and while we’re at it, the Roman Empire. It was around in the ancient Mediterranean and it was also around in marshy, fenny parts of England from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, and in London itself for at least for part of that time.

Starting in the early nineteenth century, it went into decline in England. Lots of causes have been proposed, from swamps being drained to an increase in the number of domestic cattle, which meant mosquitoes could bite creatures that weren’t able to swat them. Any combination of those reasons is possible. I found a perfectly respectable article that told me no one’s sorted the reasons into piles yet or measured which one is larger. 

Was malaria present in England before the fifteenth century? Probably. In “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” Chaucer writes about tertian fever–a recurring fever that was probably malaria. That takes us back to the fourteenth century and we won’t chase it any further back than that or we’ll never get out of here.

Malaria was also called ague or intermittent fever, and ague appeared in any number of the crumbly old novels I read when I spent all that time being younger. I had no idea what ague meant, I just accepted it as some vague kind of sickness and went on as if I understood more than, in fact, I did.

Those characters had malaria. And although some caught it by breaking and entering in other people’s countries, some caught it right there at home.

In fact, Europeans may have exported the disease to the Americas. That’s not certain, but a second strain of malaria was definitely imported with the slaves Europeans dragged over from Africa.

The long-standing European belief was that malaria came from bad airmal’aria–and that made a kind of sense. Folks had noticed that it was associated with stagnant water, vapors, swampy places. They were missing a piece of the puzzle, but as far as it went, it was good observation.

By the seventeenth century, the English were treating malaria with the latest wonder drug, opium, which both doctors and patients agreed cured pretty much everything: pain, fever, financial embarrassment, although it only cured that last problem if you were selling the stuff, not if you were taking it or buying it.

Opium was also used as an antidote to poison. Like I said, it cured everything.

Then along came quinine and–well, there was a problem. It came from the hands of Jesuits–in fact, it was called the Jesuit powder–and England wasn’t just Protestant, it was aggressively Protestant. Puritan-flavored, Cromwellian Protestant. And Cromwellian Protestants didn’t want a Catholic-flavored drug, even if it would cure a serious problem. 

Cromwell himself is thought to have died of malaria and he might (it’s not certain) have refused to take any of that dread Jesuit powder. Andrew Marvell (another staunch Puritan and a poet; nothing to do with the comic books) also had malaria and might have died from an accidental overdose of opium that he might have taken for it instead of quinine. 

Sorry–lots of mights in there. History’s full of things we don’t know for sure, and one of them is whether anyone dangled Jesuit-inflected quinine in front of them. (“Here, kid, the first one’s free.”) The consensus, though, is that Cromwell, at least, refused it. In a definitely very probably likely kind of way.

Opium wasn’t the only treatment for malaria. I’m not sure when Europeans gave this one up as a lost cause, but at some point the remedies they tried included throwing the patient head-first into a bush. The idea was the patient should get out quickly and leave the fever behind.

Britain’s full of thorny bushes, and I know that because I’ve met every one of them personally, so I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the British gave this remedy up early.

Eventually, England settled down enough to realize that taking quinine for malaria didn’t necessarily turn you into a (gasp) Catholic (and didn’t leave you full of thorns) and it accepted the drug.

All of this mattered because malaria was and is, to varying extents, debilitating. The extent depended on the strain. Some strains killed people and others didn’t. Britain’s version was on the milder end of the spectrum, but many strains were capable of leaving individuals, whole regions, and armies debilitated. Some historians tag malaria in the fall of the Roman Empire. It wanders into discussions of the American Civil War, World War I, World War II, and assorted other historical turning points. The European colonization of Africa was slowed by malaria. Europeans had no immunity to it, while some (although not all) Africans did. If you inherit two copies of a particular genetic mutation, you have sickle cell anemia, but if you inherit only one it protects you against malaria. 

By the nineteenth century, Europe was in the process of eradicating malaria, so the Britons who went abroad to build and serve the empire (not to mention to build their own fortunes and serve themselves) were moving from a relatively low risk of the disease to a higher one. Which explains my impression that malaria was something they got in the hot countries where they practiced breaking and entering. 

In India, the British Empire ran on quinine. In the nineteenth century the active ingredients was isolated and purified, and Britons in the Indian colony mixed it with sugar and soda water, called it tonic, and took a dose of it daily as a preventive. 

In 1858 it was first made commercially, and from the colonies it eventually took over the home market.

At about this same time, gin was overcoming its reputation for dragging people into sin and degradation. It became respectable enough for British colonial officials to pour a bit into their tonic water. Or possibly a bit more than a bit.

For medicinal purposes only, you understand.

In 1880, the malaria bug was finally identified. It was a nearly transparent, crescent-shaped beastie. Then, as the world was falling off the edge of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the anopheles mosquito was identified as its carrier.

Quinine remained the treatment of choice, as it had been for four hundred years, but the stuff had–and has–side effects that range from mild headache, nausea, and hearing problems to severe vertigo, vomiting, marked hearing loss, loss of vision, hypertension, and thrombosis, asthma, and psychosis.

Its use is not recommended if you take a long list of drugs that you can’t pronounce anyway.

All of which explains why other drugs are often used for malaria these days and why so many websites tell you not to use it to treat leg cramps–although a few swallows of tonic water won’t leave you psychotic and vomiting by the side of the road. 

Annie Besant does Cristianity, secularism, socialism, and Theosophy

Annie Besant was, in more or less this order, an intensely religious child, a minister’s wife, a campaigning secularist, a brilliant public speaker, a writer, a socialist, a champion of everything from trade unions to birth control to feminism, a Theosophist, a Briton in colonial India, and a campaigner for Indian home rule. She adopted (sort of) an Indian son who she promoted as a new messiah and the incarnation of Buddha.

Along the way, she won exactly zero awards for consistency, so maybe we’ll want to slow that down a bit.

Irrelevant photo: a day lily.

She was born in 1847 (her birth name was Annie Wood) and she got, for a woman of her time, a good education. She married a clergyman, Frank Besant, who’s described by the only article I found that bothered to describe him at all as stiff-necked and charmless. He’s basically a prelude to her story and most articles drop his name in and move on. She married him because he proposed and she didn’t want to hurt his feelings. She wouldn’t be the first woman who married someone because she couldn’t think of anything else to do that afternoon. We can inch out on a thin limb and say that the relationship didn’t get off to a good start.  

They had two kids, and both were difficult births. When she suggested doing the limited things that were possible then to keep from having a third, he beat her. Which was perfectly acceptable at the time, at least to the world at large if not to her. Whether that was the first time I don’t know, but it wasn’t the only one.

At some point, she began to question her religious beliefs and in 1872 she heard  Charles Voysey preach. He was a dissenter who challenged the authority of the Bible and the perfection of Jesus. Through him, she met Thomas Scott, whose beliefs were even more radical and who encouraged her to write a pamphlet on what she believed, which he then published as On the Deity of Jesus of Nazareth: An Inquiry into the Nature of Jesus.

All hell broke loose at home and Frank presented her with two choices: Take communion publicly and regularly at his church or leave home.

She chose, as she put it, expulsion over hypocrisy. 

She moved to London with one of their kids, a girl, and continued to write pamphlets for Scott. Frank stayed in Wherever with their other child, a boy. 

In the 1870s, Besant joined the National Secular Society, and here we need to stop and make sense of why secularism was a thing:

The Church of England, as the established church, had the power of the state behind it. It didn’t rule as many aspects of life as it once had, but it still ruled plenty of them. Divorce had only been taken away from church courts in 1857. Paying church rates–basically a tax you owed to the church–had been made voluntary in 1868. It wasn’t until 1871 that religion stopped being a requirement for university admittance. A non-believer still couldn’t be an MP unless he–and he had to be a he at this point–was willing to put his beliefs in his back pocket and swear a religious oath. In 1888, atheists and people whose religions didn’t allow them to take oaths were first allowed to solemnly affirm instead of swearing a religious oath. But church doctrine still influenced a wide assortment of laws, including one forbidding cremation, which didn’t become legal until 1902. And, of course, it influenced people’s thoughts and assumptions. Didn’t the Bible say the man was the head of the household? Didn’t it give him permission to beat his wife? 

All this meant that being a campaigning secularist wasn’t just for those pains-in-the-ass who couldn’t pass up the chance for a philosophical fight over dinner. It was for people who wanted to change society. Until you uncoupled religion from law and everyday life, any change you proposed could be challenged on religious grounds. Cremation? Birth control? Women’s right to own property and keep their own wages? It wasn’t enough that a change was harmless or life saving or entirely sugar free. If you could throw it out on religious grounds, it wasn’t valid. 

Being a campaigning secularist was also for people who couldn’t make themselves pretend to hold beliefs that didn’t come in their size or style. And it was for scientists, who couldn’t use the Bible was the one and only authority. They had to explore the world on its own terms. This was an intellectually fertile time, and secularism was a necessary ingredient.

Besant began to write for the Secular Society’s paper and to speak in public, and forget what she had to say, a woman speaking in public was in itself shocking. She was by all accounts a brilliant speaker, and it didn’t hurt that she was small and pretty. Yeah, you can speak as a feminist and call for equality, but a certain number of people will go right on judging you by the old standards. 

What number? Something along the lines of 99.7% back then. In today’s enlightened world, we’ve gotten it down to 99.4%. 

You could argue that she was using the patriarchy’s weapons against it: You think I look like a woman should look? Good. Now listen while I set your brain on fire.  

Of course, you can make an argument for just about anything. I haven’t a clue what her attitude toward her looks was, but they didn’t give her a free pass in any case. Beatrice Webb–who broke a few taboos herself–said that to “see her speaking made me shudder, it is not womanly to thrust yourself before the world.”

Besant quickly became a key figure in the Secular Society, denouncing religion as a force that kept women down and writing on the contentious issue of birth control. One of her arguments in its defense was, “We think it more moral to prevent the conception of children than, after they are born, to murder them by want of food, air, and clothing. . . . The wage which would support the parents and two or three children in comfort and decency is utterly insufficient to maintain a family of twelve or fourteen, and we consider it a crime to bring into the world human beings doomed to misery or to premature death.”

After she had a hand in publishing a pamphlet on birth control, her husband went to court, challenging her right to have custody of their daughter, and won. 

In 1887, she joined the Fabian Society, a socialist group, where again she quickly became a powerful force, co-founding a weekly newspaper, the Link. At a Fabian Society event, she learned about the working conditions of the women who made Bryant & May matches. They worked fourteen hour days, faced fines that could cost them as much as half a day’s pay (and their pay was already miserable), and worked with phosphorus, which caused bone cancer and killed them by horrible stages. Sweden and the U.S. had banned its use, but the British–holding out, nobly, for free trade–declined to.

I do so admire politicians with principles.

Besant wrote about their conditions in the Link, and the company demanded that workers sign a statement saying they were happy with their working conditions. When one group refused, they were fired and 1,400 women went out on strike. The Link campaigned in their support, calling their conditions white slavery.

Have you ever noticed how white slavery shocks polite (and, yea, even impolite) society in an entirely different way than black slavery? That can even be true of people who you’d expect to know better. But let’s acknowledge Besant’s limits and remember that she was a person of her time and place. Being an idiot in one way (or several ways, come to think of it) doesn’t take away the wisdom she showed in others.

Crucially, the Link also raised money to support the strikers.

After three weeks, the company agreed to end the system of fines and met several of the strikers’ other demands. The women went back to work, forming the Union of Women Match Makers and electing Besant as its first secretary. The union soon opened to men as well and continued until 1903, inspiring the unions to organize the lowest paid workers, not just skilled craftsmen.

In 1889, Besant was elected to the Tower Hamlets school board with 15,000 votes more than the next highest candidate. She initiated reforms that included free meals for undernourished students and free medical exams for all students.

In the 1890s, atheism be damned, she started to be influenced by Theosophy, a religious movement based on the Hindu ideas of karma and reincarnation, and again became prominent, serving as its international president from 1907 until her death in 1933.

She moved to India and from 1913 on she became active in the struggle for independence, running a campaigning newspaper, New India, and starting the Home Rule League and the Women’s Indian Association. She drew back from Gandhi’s passive resistance campaign, though–he was  breaking the law and she couldn’t go that far–and her popularity waned.

And here we drop into the seedier side of her life

A Theosophist, C.W. Leadbeater, spotted two young boys in Chennai and announced that one of them had an aura that would make him the World Teacher–the person who would bring enlightenment to the world–and he convinced Besant to take the boys in. She eventually gained custody from their father. (Yes, they had a father. She didn’t rescue them off the streets.)

It ‘s not irrelevant that the Theosophical Society had expelled Leadbeater over a sexual scandal involving adolescent boys and had only just reinstated him. More than that I can’t tell you. People didn’t talk about those things then. 

Yeah, I think so too, but we don’t actually know.

Whatever did or didn’t happen behind the scenes, the Theosophists raised one of the boys, Jiddu Krishnamurti, to be the World Teacher, and the money rolled in. And Hindu-influenced as Theosophy may have been and supportive of home rule as Besant may have been, they raised the boys to dress and behave in the European style. 

Krishnamurti and his brother, NItya, remained close to each other. They both studied law in England, where Nitya passed with honors and Jiddu didn’t pass at all. Nitya died of tuberculosis in 1925.

In some of his early talks, Krishnamurti claimed to be the reincarnation of the Buddha, in others, the vehicle for the messiah, and in others still the messiah himself. But in 1929 he broke with Besant, the Theosophical Society, and the idea of being a World Leader. He returned the gifts he had control over to the people who’d given them. There’d been plenty of them, but the Society had control of the majority. 

He did become a teacher as well as a writer and lecturer and he promoted, among other things, the need for spiritual freedom, including freedom from teachers–something he knew a bit about.

Besant went on to promote Rukmini Arundale, a dancer and the daughter of a Theosophist, who took a style of traditional dance, bharata natyam, that was practiced by lower-class temple servants whose role included prostitution, and turned it into something to perform on stage, making it a respectable form for upper-class women.

Whether that satisfied Besant I can’t tell you. One article about Kristnamurti and Besant says she died heartbroken. Others just say she died. 

We all do, sooner or later.

*

My thanks to Bee Halton, of The Bee Writes, for bringing Besant to my attention. 

The Bristol bus boycott

Back in the bad old days, when the U.S. was unashamedly racist (gee, just think of the changes time has wrought), when the southern states weren’t just segregated but vibrating with the possibility of lynching, Britain had a reputation for being free of the color bar. 

I don’t think it was just me who believed that. I’m pretty sure I had both company and a push or two in that direction, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the belief came at least in part out of the experience of black American soldiers during World War II, when the U.S. Army was still segregated and Britain felt like a place you could take a deep breath.

That should teach me not to judge a country on the basis of one or two stories, although it probably won’t. In postwar Britain, it wasn’t unusual to see signs saying, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs,” when a place was for rent. 

In the interest of getting to the point, we’ll let that example stand in for a range of racist practices and talk about the bus boycott. 

Irrelevant photo: I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think this is a viola. At any rate, it’s a volunteer.

But before we do that, I need to stop and warn you that I haven’t managed to be funny about any of this. Sorry. It happens. Ask me to write about the black death and yes, I could probably be funny. The Bristol bus boycott, though? I haven’t managed it, but it’s an interesting piece of history. For whatever good my opinion does, I think it’s worth your time. 

The story starts in 1963. In the U.S., the Civil Rights Movement was still fighting to integrate the most basic elements of public life, in South Africa the anti-apartheid movement was becoming more and more visible, and in Bristol the bus company had a whites-only policy for its higher paying jobs. That was as legal in Britain as it was in the US or South Africa. The difference was that in Britain no law enforced segregation, it just didn’t ban it.

The union local at the bus company and the management were in agreement on keeping blacks out of the better jobs. For the union, it was about the garden-variety racism of some members, but it was also protecting overtime. Before the war, basic wages had matched what skilled workers at the city’s aerospace plant earned, but since then they’d fallen behind. That left drivers and conductors dependent on overtime to make up the difference. 

But overtime depended on the company being short of workers, so tapping into a new source of drivers and conductors was the last thing the union wanted, and back in the fifties the local had passed a resolution against hiring anyone black as a driver or conductor. 

What management got out of the whites-only policy is anyone’s guess. Maybe just a chance to sit comfortably in their existing prejudices. It’s a surprisingly powerful motivator. You can judge their thinking by a quote from a manager:

“The advent of coloured crews would mean a gradual falling off of white staff. It is true that London Transport employ a large coloured staff. They even have recruiting offices in Jamaica and they subsidise the fares to Britain of their new coloured employees. As a result of this, the amount of white labour dwindles steadily on the London Underground. You won’t get a white man in London to admit it, but which of them will join a service where they may find themselves working under a coloured foreman? . . . I understand that in London, coloured men have become arrogant and rude, after they have been employed for some months.” 

A group of four men formed the West Indian Development Council (West Indians made up the majority of the black community) and set out to demonstrate that the bus company really was refusing to hire black drivers and conductors. An eighteen-year-old, Guy Bailey, applied for a job and showed up at the receptionist’s desk, explaining that he had an interview. 

You have to give a kind of back-handed credit to the bus company, because if they’d wanted to prove the association’s point they couldn’t have been more helpful. 

“I don’t think so,” the receptionist said.

He gave her his name. Yup, he had an appointment. 

She went to the manager’s office door and called,  “Your two o’clock appointment is here, and he’s black.”

The manager called back, “Tell him the vacancies are full.”

The company had been advertising for applicants, and an hour before someone from the association had called to ask about a job and been told they were hiring. He had an Essex accent, so they’d assumed he was white.

“There’s no point having an interview,” the manager said, still calling from his office. “We don’t employ black people.”

The next day, the association called a boycott of Bristol’s buses. 

At this point, I’d expected to read about the boycott itself, but the boycott isn’t the focus of anybody’s article about, um, the boycott. Bristol’s black community wasn’t large, so it didn’t have the economic impact of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Instead, the West Indian Development Council picketed bus depots, organized blockades and sit-ins, and generally brought the issue in front of  the public. Britain was the scene of an active movement against apartheid in South Africa, and the two causes became linked. 

Support came from the local Labour MP, Tony Benn, and the Trinidadian cricket player and high commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago Learie Constantine became a central figure. Student groups and antiracist organized demonstrations handed out leaflets. Bristol’s local press was inundated with letters, pro and con. The national press began to pay attention. 

The strategy had an impact. The local became isolated within the union movement and was accused of bringing shame on it. And the drivers began getting grief from passengers. 

Bristol’s Council of Churches decided to help out by issuing one of history’s more useless public statements: “We seriously regret that what may prove an extended racial conflict arising from this issue has apparently been deliberately created by a small group of West Indians professing to be representative. We also deplore the apparent fact that social and economic fears on the part of some white people should have placed the Bristol Bus Company in a position where it is most difficult to fulfil the Christian ideal of race relations.”

If you figure out what they’re calling for there, do let me know. Possibly a return to the time when they could snoozily ignore the problem.

Negotiations went on for months with the bus company, the union, the Bishop of Bristol, and the city government doing their best to sideline the West Indian Development Council, but Learie Constantine–remember him? the cricket player?–met with everyone he could and convinced the Transport Holding Company , the parent company of the Bristol Omnibus Company, to talk with the union, which they did for several months before the union voted, at a meeting of 500 members, to end the color bar. 

The first non-white conductor wasn’t Guy Bailey but a Sikh, Raghbir Singh. Bailey–remember, he was only eighteen–had found it hard being at the center of the storm and decided he didn’t want to work on the buses. 

“I felt unwanted, I felt helpless, I felt the whole world had caved in around me. I didn’t think I would live through it,” he said. “But it was worth it.”

A few days after that first hire, four other non-whites joined him. 

In 1965 and 1968, Britain passed two Race Relations acts banning discrimination in housing, employment, and public places. Harold Wilson’s government had decided it had to keep a situation like Bristol’s from happening again.

Three of the central people, Bailey, Roy Hackett, and Paul Stephenson, were awarded OBEs for the roles they played. 

An OBE? Well, irony’s alive and well, thanks. That stands for Order of the British Empire, which (you may remember) wasn’t what you’d call free of racism. Still, recognition is recognition, however deeply tinged with irony. 

 

The Early Quakers

The Quakers came into existence during the uproar when England fought a civil war, deleted a king, founded a start-up republic, and then rebooted the king (a new one, not the one they’d deleted). And whenever people found some down time, they argued about religion. 

And you thought we were living through interesting times.

Let’s start the tale with George Fox. He was the son of a weaver and came from Fenny Drayton. I mention the first fact because it places him in a relentlessly hierarchical society (he wasn’t anybody grand) and the second because I can’t help myself. It’s as absurdly English a place name as you’ll find anywhere. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: An old-fashioned kind of hydrangea. If I have my British snobberies right (which is far from a sure thing), they’re the classier kind, and the fuller ones for the people like me who don’t know any better.

He left home at  nineteen to seek the truth.

About what? When people talk about seeking the truth, they’re pretty much always talking about religion. And religion, remember, was what everyone talked about anyway. Politics was religion. Everything was religion. Where’d you lose your mittens? I didn’t lose them. They went where god willed them to go. What’s for supper? Even that would circle back to religion. 

Fox listened to preachers–the country was well stocked with preachers–and inevitably he began to preach himself. I never thought of the Quakers as a preaching-type group, but it was a Quaker website using the verb, so we’ll let them set the tone: He preached, and he did it to increasingly large crowds. 

What he told them was that god’s light was in everyone. Or since he’d surely have used a capital letter, so let’s use his presumed style: God’s light. Follow that thought to its logical end–and he did–and you’ll end up attacking the social structure of the day, which held that God had made some people a whole lot better than other people, and that this was natural and good and necessary. 

Not only did everyone have that inner light, he preached that they had to follow it, even when it diverged from the Bible. 

In 1650, he was jailed for blasphemy. The early Quakers spent a lot of time in jail. I won’t list many of their arrests, but keep in mind that this was a risky set of beliefs to live by.

In 1652, Margaret Fell (later Margaret Fox) heard him preach and was convinced, and she quickly became central to the movement, coordinating the communications of its far-flung preachers and offering the safety of her house and the protection that her husband, who was a judge, could sometimes provide. She was one of the few founders who was from the gentry and she was the first to put the movement on record as being against violence. 

It was also in 1652 that Fox gained another key follower, James Naylor (or Nayler–it wasn’t possible to spell a word wrong back then). He was a more difficult personality than Fell and we can have more fun with him, so he’s going to get more space. Sorry. 

Naylor had served in the Parliamentary army. This was before the Quakers dedicated themself to nonviolence, and some branches of the army had Quakers hanging from every bough.  He was charismatic and a good debater, and he attracted a personal following that made other Quakers uneasy. 

He and Fox clashed. Meetings were disrupted. In an attempt to make peace, Fox offered Naylor his hand to kiss. Naylor told Fox to kiss his feet instead.

Yes, they believed all men were equal–and by men, of course, they meant both men and women. Yes, they meant what they said. No, it’s not easy to step outside the biases and assumptions of your time and place, or even to see them.

In 1656, Naylor and some followers re-enacted Christ’s entry into Jerusalem in Bristol. The scene included a couple of women walking beside Naylor’s horse and singing, “Holy, holy, holy.” 

Whatever they intended to get across, the authorities decided that Naylor’d presented himself as Christ, and it couldn’t have been too hard a case to make. At some point–earlier, later, during; I have no idea–he called himself the Sun of Righteousness, the Prince of Peace, the only Begotten, the fairest of ten thousand.

Not to mention the soul of modesty. 

His followers said he was the anointed king of Israel. No one thought to phone Israel to either check on that or tell them the news.

He was brought to London to be tried. We’re still in the middle of the Protectorate here–that period between the deletion of one king and the reboot of the next–and the Protectorate was all for freedom of religion, but only up to a point. You had to be Christian to take advantage of it. And you couldn’t be a Catholic kind of Christian. Or a licentious kind. 

Naylor was whipped, branded, imprisoned, and had his tongue pierced with a hot iron. 

After he was released, he and Fox made a reluctant sort of peace, with Naylor kneeling to Fox and asking his forgiveness.

Like I said, it’s not easy to step outside your time and place.

But enough about Naylor. Let’s go back to the Quakers as a movement.

By 1660, some estimates put their numbers in England at 50,000. By way of comparison there were about 35,000 Catholics. Eleven of their sixty key people–called the Valiant Sixty–were women. Women preached. Women spoke at meetings. Quakers promoted education for both girls and boys. If everyone had a spark of god in them, then everyone was spiritually equal.

And in case that wasn’t radical enough, they refused to use the titles that were so important to a hierarchical society, so no sirs, no madams, no lordships. They–and this would’ve applied only to the men–wouldn’t take their hats off to their social superiors. They addressed everyone by the informal thou, and people back then knew their thou from their you, so they knew when to consider themselves insulted. These days, if you address someone as thou and all you’ll get is a blank look. 

After the kingly reboot, the Church of England was back in power and in a position to demand tithes. Quakers refused to pay them. 

They wouldn’t take oaths. Not oaths as in curse words but as in I swear to tell the truth and all that stuff. They told the truth all the time, they said. But the culture took oaths seriously, and if you refused the swear one in court it was easy to convict you of pretty much anything. If you wouldn’t swear to tell the truth, who could believe you?

In short, they were principled, upright, and a pain in the ass to a society that took the symbolic stuff as seriously as the practical. They stuck quietly, consistently, and relentlessly to their beliefs.

In 1662, the Quaker Act made it illegal to refuse to take an oath of loyalty. It also outlawed meetings of five or more Quakers. In 1663, a hundred Quakers were arrested in a single day. 

It was 1689 before the Toleration Act allowed them to meet legally. And at that point we’ll leave them. Their later history is better known, from their implacable opposition to slavery to their long opposition to war. 

*

I’ve drawn on a number of books for this post, as well as the websites I’ve linked to, but the longest and most interesting section I found is in Paul Lay’s Providence Lost: The Rise & Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate, which gives James Naylor a good chunk of text.

Everything we don’t know about Aphra Behn

The first English woman to make her living entirely as a writer was Aphra Behn. She’s known to have been born, to have been a spy, to have been a writer, and to have died. After that, information about her ranges from the sketchy to the questionable. 

What could be more fun than writing about someone nobody knows much about?

She was born in 1640. Her father might have been a barber and her mother might have been a wet nurse. They might also not have been. 

Her last name might have been Johnson. She might have been adopted. 

Since we can’t sketch in her family, let’s sketch in the times she lived in: The English Civil Wars ran from 1642 to 1651. In 1660, the Stuart kings settled their hind ends back on the throne they’d been lusting after. So she grew up in turbulent times and was twenty at the start of the Restoration, which is a fancy name for the aforesaid Stuart hind end settling back on that throne.

Irrelevant photo: This is one of about a dozen big, flat wildflowers that don’t look alike but are similar enough that I doubt I’ll ever learn their names.

She may or may not have spent some time in Surinam.

Suri-what? A small country in South America. It was an English colony until 1667, when it became Dutch. Under the English, it evolved into a place of sugar plantations and slave labor, which gets an early mention because it feeds into one of Behn’s books. 

(It’s irrelevant but interesting to note that the Parliamentarians–the folks who threw out the Stuart kings–were no more opposed to slavery than the Royalists were. That won’t be on the test. In fact, there won’t be a test. This is a blog. You can stop reading right here if the mood takes you.) 

If Behn had been a man, an aristocrat, or a religious nonconformist, she’d have left more information behind, or so say Abigail Williams and Kate O’Connor in an essay. The surprise in that, for me, is the nonconformists. They were prone, both the men and the women, to keeping spiritual journals. 

In 1664, Behn married a merchant named Johan Behn, although the marriage might not have lasted long. He might have died the next year. He might not have. Either way, that’s the last we’ll hear of him. 

She was a royalist spy in Antwerp during the Anglo-Dutch War. If she was in Surinam, she might have been there as a spy. 

Of course, she also might not have been in Surinam as a spy. 

She might not have been in Surinam at all. 

Don’t you love history?

Spying wasn’t a good way to get rich. According to one source, she wasn’t paid at all and had to borrow money to get home from Antwerp.

That leads to our next questionable statement: She ended up in debtors prison, according to one source (a different one this time) for “debts she incurred in service to the crown.” None of the other sources I’ve found mention the reason for her debts. In fact, the British Library entry on her says there’s no documentation that she was ever in debtors prison.

If she was, though, either somebody ponied up the money needed to break her loose or she started writing as a way to get herself out. Either way, write she did, and back then it was a better way to make money than it is today. Writing was still the hot new medium. You know how parents yell at their kids to get off their phones and turn off their computers? “Go read a book and learn something,” they say. Well, back then parents yelled at their kids to put down their books, get out in the fresh air, and be ignorant.

Yes, every last parent. Every last kid. That’s how you can tell what the hot new medium is: Parents are appalled by it.

Now we’ll take a quick step back. Bear with me. Before the Restoration, the theaters were closed. They were frivolous and led to perdition and fun. Then the king sashayed back to London, the party began, and theater companies were licensed. It wasn’t exactly a new medium, but it was hot all the same.

Behn started working for two of the theater companies that had started up, first as a scribe, then as a playwright. Fittingly, the timelines I’ve seen are contradictory, but her first plays either were or weren’t commercial successes, but either a later or the first one was. But forget which play it was, one of them ran for six nights, and that counted as a smash hit. The income from the third day (and the sixth if there was one, and the ninth if miracles should occur) of a run went to the author, so she got the income from two nights. 

She went on to write and publish an assortment of other plays, some successful, some not, and one–now lost–a complete disaster, involving an arrest for an abusive prologue (or epilogue–take your pick) attacking the Duke of Monmouth. She was (probably) let off with a warning. 

Nope, I have no idea what it said. It’s lost. Sorry. 

Some of her plays were definitely her plays. Others might have been her plays but might have been someone else’s. During her lifetime, a lot of her work was published anonymously, which helps explain the murkiness over what was her work and what wasn’t.

She also published novels and poetry. 

She had a couple of lovers. One of them, John Hoyle, is believed to have written the epitaph (not to be confused with that troublesome epilogue) that’s on her tombstone: “Here lies a proof that wit can never be Defence enough against mortality.”

She died in 1689, at forty-nine. 

So what did she have to say? Well, in her novel Oroonoko, the narrator swears the story’s true, that she either saw everything in it  or was told it by its hero, thus muddying the autobiographical waters by pouring fiction into alleged fact. The book’s unusual in English literature in its choice of hero, an African prince sold into slavery in Surinam. Behn wasn’t not free from the prejudices of her time and place–who is?–but she allowed him his humanity, something it took European writers and their descendants centuries to find their way back to.

She also wrote about sex–about women enjoying sex and about men sometimes failing to enjoy it, much as they would have liked to. “The Disappointment” is full of seventeenth century roundaboutness, but it’s also frank: The man couldn’t get it up. 

 

      . . . In vain th’ enraged Youth assaid

      To call his fleeting Vigour back. . . .

      In vain he Toils, in vain Commands,

      Th’ Insensible fell weeping in his Hands.

 

After Behn died, Memoirs on the Life of Mrs Behn. By a Gentlewoman of her Acquaintance was published, further blurring the line between fact and fiction. The gentlewoman was probably a man named Charles Gildon, who drew heavily on her fiction, along with her letters, to piece together a life, leaning heavily on sex to sell the story.

Behn went out of fashion in more prudish centuries and–well, Restoration literature doesn’t draw a mass audience anymore, but feminists since Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf have been rediscovering her, reinterpreting her, re-appreciating her, and in Sackville-West’s case reimagining her from the ground up. 

Which given the gaps in her story is easy to do. You have no facts to lean on but you also have none to contradict you. 

The City of London: Where medieval silliness meets modern finance 

English place names strew confusion with all the restraint of a four-year-old trapped in a confetti barrel, so let’s start by sorting out what we’re talking about: The City of London isn’t the same as the city of London. Give city a small first letter and you’re talking about the place the world (sillly thing that it is) knows as London. Give it a capital letter and it’s not London but a square mile of high finance, non-resident voting, and that all-around oddity that the English do so gloriously. 

That capital-letter City calls itself the City, as if it was the only city the world ever knew. It’s also called the Square Mile because it’s not a square mile, it’s 1.2 square miles.

Follow me through the looking glass, kiddies. Let’s find out about the City of London. I’ll tell you everything I know. And much more. The sign that I’m telling you more than I know is that I quote big chunks of text from people who do know. Trust them. Ignore me.

Irrelevant photo: I have no idea what we’re looking at here, but I do know it’s a wildflower.

History

We pick up our tale in Anglo-Saxon England, at a time when London was England’s biggest city. It wasn’t the capital, but it was a center of trade and commerce. Which are the same thing but doesn’t it sound more important when I use both words? 

The city was important enough that Edward the Confessor–the almost-last of the Anglo-Saxon kings–thought it would be a good place to build a castle, not to mention a church that became known as Westminster so it wouldn’t get itself confused with the east minster, a.k.a. St. Paul’s. 

Then the Normans invaded, and even though William upended the box that was England and gave it a good hard shake, rattling everything and breaking some of it, he was careful not to break London. He granted it a charter and promised its citizens that they’d live under the same laws they’d had under Ed the almost-last Anglo-Saxon king. 

That’s important, because its special status continued under his successors and London grew to be wealthy, self-governing, self-taxing, self-judging, and surprisingly independent of the crown. It had its own militias, called the trained bands, which played a pivotal role at assorted turning points in the country’s history.

Fascinating as that is, though, it’s a tale for another post. I tried to work it into this one but it’s a rabbit hole. It was when I found a bottle labeled “Drink Me” that I realized how much trouble I was in. 

In 1100, London had a population of 18,000. By 1300, that had grown to 80,000. (That’s from the Britannica. WikiWhatsia says it was 100,000. Fair enough. Nobody was counting noses.)

Nearby Westminster had also grown, but not as much. Westminster was for the bean counters and administrators. You wouldn’t have wanted to move there. London was where the action was.

Within London, guilds formed and gained charters from the king. Their role was to defend the interests of their members, set prices and standards in their industries, settle disputes, control apprenticeships, and limit their membership (which just happened to limit competition). By 1400, the City had 100 guilds, and at least some of them were powerful beasts indeed. When a monarch needed money–and rich as they were, monarchs always needed money–the guilds could bow a few times, then finance a war or two and buy themselves and their city increased freedom from royal meddling.

Some of the guilds took to wearing livery–basically uniforms for their trades–and called themselves livery companies. Make a note of that. It’ll be on the test.

With all that history, though, there’s no piece of paper we can turn to that marks the City’s beginning. According to an article by Nicholas Shaxson in the New Statesman, “No charter constitutes [the City] as a corporate body. It grew up beside parliament and the crown, not directly subordinate to either but intertwined with both.”

 

More History

Around London, a patchwork of settlements grew up. In 1550, three-quarters of Londoners lived in the City. Among other things, this means the definition of a Londoner is getting hazy already. By 1700, only a quarter of them did. By 1800, that was down to a tenth. 

Even so, the City was crowded–enough so that at one point the Court of Common Council (that’s a fancy phrase for the City government) tried to stop houses from being subdivided into smaller, even more crowded units in a process called pestering. That doesn’t have much to do with our tale, but I had to sneak it in. It’s a very shallow rabbit hole. We’ll climb back out now.

In the seventeenth century, the crown asked the Corporation–that’s also the City government, and please don’t ask me to explain why it needs two names–to extend its jurisdiction to the new settlements. If it had said yes, London would be one city, but it refused. That’s called the great refusal of 1637 and it set up the odd, two-city structure London still has. Inside the large city that we naive fools think of as London sits the City of London, like the pit inside a peach. It left the sprawling settlements outside to solve their own problems so it could continue as it always had.

This decision eventually turned around and bit it on the ass. The guilds that had controlled competition by limiting their membership? They had no sway outside the City, and competitors were free to offer cheaper goods and services. 

Time passed, and we’ll let the Financial Times article provide a bridge to the present day: 

“Even as Parliament displaced the Crown as the fundamental unit of sovereignty and democracy displaced the Divine Right of Kings as the principle of legitimacy, the state still refused to subordinate the Corporation of London to national laws and practices. Its assets and its ancient privileges remained untouched. . . . The Corporation’s assets, its property inventory and financial portfolio remain unpublished.”

 

Government and Independence

So here we are in the modern City of London. How’s the place governed? 

The guilds have been central from the start, and they still are. The lord mayor, who heads the City of London Corporation, has to belong to one of the livery companies. And he or she has to have been a City sheriff. Both positions are elected by the senior members of the livery companies, who also elect bridge masters, auditors, and ale conners. 

Ale conners? They’re essential. They taste the ale. Also the beer. It was a fairly standard medieval position that most towns and cities have been happy to let sink into quiet obscurity. Not the City.

The livery companies also approve the candidates for alderman. 

After the livery companies have made sure the alder-candidates are acceptable, what happens? Why, the people get to vote, of course. It’s a democracy, isn’t it?

Who are the people? That’s where it gets interesting. Some 8,000 people live in the City, but almost 19,000 people vote there. And it’s all legal

How? If a business has up to nine staff members, it gets one vote. Up to fifty, it can appoint one voter for every five staff members. Above that, it gets ten voters plus one for every additional fifty. 

Anyone want to place bets on how independent those voters are?

The City has twenty-five wards, but the residents are concentrated in four of them, which limits resident impact even more.

As a City spokesperson explained,“The City is a democratic institution. All of its councillors are elected.” 

They pay people a lot of money to say things like that with a straight face.

The spokesperson also said, “As the local authority we provide public services to both 7,400 residents and 450,000 City workers. Therefore to reflect the needs of the workers who come to the City each day, businesses located in the City can appoint people to vote in our local elections.”

Okay, we now have an elected government. What’s its purpose? According to several non-radical sources, its purpose these days is to represent international finance.

An article in the New Statesman says, “By the 1980s, the City was at the centre of a great, secretive financial web cast across the globe, each of whose sections–the individual havens–trapped passing money and business from nearby jurisdictions and fed them up to the City: just as a spider catches insects. So, a complex cross-border merger involving a US multinational might, say, route a lot of the transaction through Caribbean havens, whose British firms will then send much of the heavy lifting work, and profits, up to the City. . . .

“Thus, the role of the City of London Corporation as a municipal authority is its least important attribute. This is a hugely resourced international offshore lobbying group pushing for international financial deregulation, tax-cutting and tax havenry around the world.” 

To make sense of how a city can be a tax haven when it’s inside a country that isn’t a tax haven, we have to go back to the City’s independence. Parliament (and I keep checking this because I can’t entirely believe I have it right) doesn’t have authority over the City. The City functions, basically, as an autonomous state within the U.K. International banks can do things within the City that the governments of their home countries don’t allow. Even if their home country is Britain.

According to a paper called “The City of London Corporation: The quasi-independent tax haven in the heart of London,” “Parliament has powers to make legislation affecting the City of London; however, any suggestion brought forth to the Corporation of London falls within its discretion, without liability of enactment. [No, I didn’t get that the first or third time around either. It has to do with parliament not having authority over the City.] To keep a watchful eye on all legislation passing through Parliament, and to safeguard its exclusive rights and privileges, the City of London has a permanent representative, called the City Remembrancer, who sits in Parliament beneath the Speaker’s chair to observe House of Commons proceedings. The Remembrancer is the City of London’s envoy. Should Parliament contemplate any legislation against the City’s interests, the Remembrancer is duty-bound to communicate such matters to his peers, whereupon it shall lie within the Guildhall’s purview to engage a City Sheriff to petition Parliament against any unsavoury bill.”

To explain how this happened, the New Statesman article says, “Over centuries, sovereigns and governments have sought City loans, and in exchange the City has extracted privileges and freedoms from rules and laws to which the rest of Britain must submit. The City does have a noble tradition of standing up for citizens’ freedoms against despotic sovereigns, but this has morphed into freedom for money.”

Britain being Britain, the City’s independence plays out in outdated costumes and obscure ceremonies that everyone performs as if they made sense. Again, the New Statesman:

Whenever the Queen makes a state entry to the City, she meets a red cord raised by City police [the City has its own police force; London’s police have no authority there unless they’re invited] at Temple Bar, and then engages in a col­ourful ceremony involving the lord mayor, his sword, assorted aldermen and sheriffs, and a character called the Remembrancer.” 

The surviving livery companies include the Worshipful Company of Mercers (its coat of arms looks like it was drawn by a twelve-year-old obsessed with blond-haired princesses; I looked for a unicorn but didn’t find one), the Worshipful Company of Tax Advisers, and the Worshipful Company of International Bankers.

No, I didn’t make any of that up. 

More than one government has tried to democratize the City. So far, they’ve all failed.

English history: how heavy was the Norman yoke?

In the years before 1066, English history was chugging along very nicely, thanks, with the Anglo-Saxon and Norse royal houses at each other’s throats, as they had been for long enough that everyone thought, Well, families, you know. They’re like that. Because by then they were family, and that was part of the problem. They’d intermarried enough that it wasn’t always clear who was supposed to inherit the chairs, the dishes, the crown. 

It wasn’t what you’d call peace, but at least everyone knew more or less what to expect. 

Then the Normans invaded. In no time at all (as history measures these things) the family broke apart. The Norse became distant relatives who the Anglo-Saxon didn’t see anymore–except, of course, for the ones who’d settled in England. A lot of them had done that in the north, and the Anglo-Saxons saw them all the time but they didn’t seem quite as Norse as they once had, what with the Normans stomping through. By comparison, they seemed positively–English.

Or so I like to think. You won’t find that in any of the history books. 

Just something to break up the text. It has nothing to do with anything.

Irrelevant photo: erigeron

The new outsiders, the Normans, replaced England’s governing class (with themselves, you’ll be surprised to learn), along with its language (sort of; it’s complicated and we’ll leave it alone for now) and its social structure (mostly; everything’s complicated when you give it enough thought). People who’d once been free became serfs–tied to the land and subject to the lord of the manor and his whims. 

See the end of the post for the grain of salt that goes with that last sentence.

Some 600 years later, during England’s Civil War, people who wanted to level out the country’s massive inequalities (called, surprisingly enough, the Levellers) talked nostalgically about the time before the Norman yoke was imposed on free Anglo-Saxon England. That was what they wanted–the freedom the land and its people had once known.

So just how free was Anglo-Saxon society?

Well, it depended on who you were. Free men were free. Free women were freer than they’d be again for many a century, or at least free women upper-class women were. Less is known about free women further down the social ladder. Slaves, though, were anything but free, and although the poorest peasants weren’t slaves, their situation sounds a lot like serfdom, which is somewhere between slavery and freedom.

Let’s work our way through it–or at least as much as I’ve been able to wring out of the internet and the books I have at hand. It won’t be a full picture. So much about Anglo-Saxon England has been lost.

Slavery

In Anglo-Saxon England, people could be born into slavery or they could be enslaved as a penalty for some crime. They could be captured in war, and capturing slaves was as important a reason to go to war as capturing land was. Finally, children could be sold into slavery by their parents and adults could make themselves into slaves. Both of those were probably desperate steps that people took in the face of famine.

There was a well-established slave trade, both within England and to other countries. So slavery’s roots reached deep into the economy. Bristol was a slave port, trading with the Viking merchants based in Ireland.

Slavery wasn’t necessarily a permanent condition, although it could be. Slaves could buy their way out; they could marry out of slavery; or they could be freed by their owners. It wasn’t uncommon for people to free a few slaves in their wills. Sally Crawford, in Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England, speculates that people freeing slaves in their wills could, at times, have been done it with an eye toward not imposing the liability an older, unproductive slave on their heirs. She doesn’t offer any hard evidence for that, just raises the possibility. Either way, freeing a slave seems to have been considered a pious act. 

Not that Christianity pitted itself against slavery. Toward the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, ecclesiastical landowners had more slaves than lay people did. 

What did slaves do? They were plowmen, stockmen, beekeepers, dairymaids, swineherds, seamstresses, weavers, domestic servants, concubines, cooks, millers, and priests. 

I’m not sure what to make of priests being on that list, but it’s very much a part of the picture.  

Crawford writes about Anglo-Saxon slave owners having reciprocal obligations to their slaves–primarily to keep them fed and clothed, but also, possibly, to train some of them for skilled jobs. They also had the power to beat their slaves–not, she says, because slaves were considered a lower form of human but because Anglo-Saxon law punished transgressions with fines, and they couldn’t fine someone who couldn’t pay, so they fell back on physical punishment. 

Is she right about the reciprocal nature of Anglo-Saxon slavery? I’d have to hear it from the slaves before I’d be convinced, but they left no record. 

HIstory Today paints a less forgiving picture. “As Old English law codes make clear, slaves could be treated like animals: branded or castrated as a matter of routine and punished by mutilation or death; stoned to death by other slaves if they were male, burned to death if they were female.” 

According to Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger in The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, no line clearly divided slaves from the “other members of the labouring classes.” They wouldn’t have lived separately, and “almost everyone was beholden to someone more powerful than themselves.”

As the years ticked away and we come closer to the Norman invasion, Crawford says, slavery became less widespread. Free labor was available to do the same work and slaves had become an economic liability. The Domesday Book, which counted every chicken feather in England so that the new Norman king would know just how many chicken feathers he’d amassed in his conquest, counted slaves as 12% of the population. 

History Today isn’t convinced that slavery was on the wane and estimates that slaves made up 20% to 30% of the population. 

I’m staying out of this. Can we say that slaves made up a significant portion of the population and stop squabbling, please? 

Non-slavery

Just above the slaves on the social ladder were people who owed service to their lords. Most of them were serfs. 

Cottars were one step up from slaves and many of them might have been freed slaves. (You notice how hazy that got? “Many”; “might have been.” We can’t know, so let’s not pretend we do.) They worked on the lords’ estates in exchange for some land they could work for themselves. It was often marginal land. 

Above them came bordars, or geburs, who are in italics because the word’s Old English (it means tenant farmer) and Old English is foreign enough to a modern English speaker’s ear that we treat it like a foreign language and use funny-looking letters. Bordars don’t come in italics because the word crept into Norman usage, although most of us won’t recognize it. 

Look, don’t ask me to explain it. I’m following Crawford’s system of italics and inventing explanations as I go. You shouldn’t trust me too far on this. 

Have we gone off topic? Of course we’ve gone off topic. It’s what we do here.

The  bordars/geburs weren’t as poor as cottars but still owed work to the lord. Some were brewers or bakers. 

Above them came the coerls–small freeholders. They paid taxes, sat on juries, and owed public service, all of which marked them as free, but they also owed service to a lord. They may or may not have been armed and may or may not have fought with their lord when called on. It’s not clear. 

The word coerl comes into modern English as churl–a peasant; someone who’s rude or mean spirited, probably because from the Norman point of view, all Anglo-Saxons working the land looked alike and sounded alike. And were inherently rude and mean spirited, not to mention muddy, and so they could all be treated like dirt.

Coerl didn’t bring any italics with it. I’m only using them here to talk about it as a word, the same way I italicized churl.

And that, my friends, has nothing to do with our topic. Don’t you just love the way I keep us focused?

Under Alfred the Great’s version of Anglo-Saxon law, you couldn’t treat a free person like a slave–couldn’t whip him or her, say, or put him or her in the stocks. If you did, you’d be fined. You also couldn’t cut his hair–and here we’re only talking only about his hair, not hers–“in such a way as to spoil his looks” or to leave him looking like a priest. You also couldn’t cut off his beard, which is one of the things that convinces me that his really does mean his here. 

Anglo-Saxon pronouns were gender neutral. Without the beard, you can’t tell a his from a hers.

The point of the law, apparently, was to keep a lord from forcing a free person into the ranks of slaves, because the hair and beard were marks of a free man. 

Free boys, when they turned twelve, had to swear an oath to the king–at least from the time of Athelstan onward–and the king’s shire reeve visited every community once a year to hear them swear.

What they swore wasn’t just loyalty, but to favor what the lord favored, to discountenance what he discountenanced–and to turn in anyone who didn’t. “No one shall conceal the breach of it on the part of a brother or family relation, any more than a stranger.”

So that’s what freedom looked like.

The Norman conquest

Crawford’s reading of the transition from Anglo-Saxon to Norman society was that the lives of serfs and slaves might not have changed much. Rural life still focused on the manor and the lord, even though the manor would have been owned by a new lord, who’d have spoken Norman French. I can’t help imagining that those new lords, given a huge amount of power and surrounded by a language and a culture that frustrated them and made no sense to them, would have been ruder than the old ones–more churlish, if you like irony. They were conquerors, and conquerors do tend to act that way.

I said earlier that people who’d once been free became serfs after the conquest, and that seems to be the general belief, but I can’t document it. Lots of things from that time can’t be documented. Be cautious about how much belief you pour into that particular juice glass. If I had to guess–and I don’t but I will anyway–I’d guess that it was the coerls who dropped down the scale into serfdom. If that’s true, it would have been a loss of both freedom and status.

As for the Anglo-Saxon elite, they lost their lands and their status, and many fled abroad. Some lost their lives in various rebellions. I haven’t seen anything that says they became either serfs or slaves. Aristocrats recognized other aristocrats, even those who were their enemies.

The lives of both the poor and the rich were massively disrupted–or ended–by the harrying of the north, the Norman response to a rebellion. The Domesday Book lists land in northern village after northern village as waste–valueless and unoccupied. But we’re not talking about whether the transition to Norman rule was brutal–it was–only about whether life, once things settled down, became less free than it had been before they came. 

To weigh against any losses of freedom, it was under the Normans that slavery gradually died out. 

If people ceased to be slaves and became serfs, did their lives improve? Possibly. Probably. But again, they left us no documents. We can’t know.

So although my heart’s with the Levellers, I’d have to say that the picture of Anglo-Saxon freedom and Norman oppression was photo-shopped.

The South Sea bubble and the national debt

It all started with the War of the Spanish Succession, which Britain got involved in, and lucky us, all we need to know about it is that it cost Britain money. Lots of money. £5 million a year, according to Roy Strong’s The Story of Britain. That was more then than it is now, but even today it’s more than you could raise by running a raffle.

Okay, I lied. We need to know one more thing about the war, and that’s when it happened: from 1701 to 1714. If your mind’s anything like mine, you’ll have forgotten that by the end of the next paragraph, but even so it’ll give you a picture of what sort of silly clothing people were running around in.

Irrelevant photo: mallow

Of course, war isn’t the only expense a country has, because governments cost money, so even though we started with the war, we can’t stop there. This was a time when bureaucracy was growing, and along with it the professionalization of government. As much as we like to complain about bureaucracy, the people who write about this time–at least the ones I’ve read–say its growth was a good thing. Governmental departments were now run by people who lived off their pay instead of off the fees they took in and what Strong calls perks, which I suspect we’d call bribes.

Maybe you had to live through the alternative to understand how good the growth of bureaucracy was.

The government also had other expenses. The king’s wigs, for example. They needed maintenance, and so did his palaces and his family and household and hangers-on. 

In 1698, parliament had created the Civil List, which paid for both the king or queen’s household’s expenses (think wigs, palaces, banquets, relatives, endless staff) and his or her government’s expenses. For life. This was a huge change. In the past, Parliament had voted the king money by the teaspoonful in order to keep some sort of power in the relationship. Now it had enough power that it didn’t have to do that.

The Civil List didn’t cover out-of-the-ordinary governmental expenses, such as war, but it did give the government a predictable base to work from.

At more or less the same time, what had once been the king’s debts became the national debt.  

The problem with all this is that once you have power, you’re responsible for running things and fixing whatever breaks, and a lot less fun than getting into power–something Boris Johnson may have noticed by now. So once parliament was in charge of the national debt, it had to figure out how to pay the damned thing. 

I know, we still haven’t gotten to the South Sea bubble. We will.

I said £5 million was more than you could raise in a raffle, but parliament did try paying off the debt by running a lottery. They also borrowed money from trading companies and sold annuities. They’d have sold Girl Scout cookies, but the Girl Scouts weren’t around yet. Cookies, however, were, although it’s hard to say whether they’d reached Britain. They’re first recorded in Persia in the seventh century. Or so Lord Google tells me.

While you were thinking about cookies, I changed books. A Short History of England, by Simon Jenkins, puts the national debt in this period at £50 million, although it doesn’t put a date on that. But what do we care? We wouldn’t remember it anyway. Somewhere along in here is close enough. 

So somewhere along in here, parliament was looking at a big debt and some genius came up with the idea of the South Sea Company taking on part of it. 

Why would a company do that? Because they planned to profit from it, of course. We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about what the South Sea Company was. It was set up to sell slaves to the Spanish colonies in the Americas, and Britain had granted it a monopoly on the trade. So yeah, nice guys. And not all that unusual. Plenty of British traders and aristocrats made money off of slavery in one way or another. You could argue that it was money from the slave trade that fueled the industrial revolution.

We won’t, though, because that’s not our topic. 

Would somebody shut me up, please?

I said earlier, if you were paying attention, that the government had tried financing the national debt by selling annuities. The problem with annuities was they weren’t transferable, meaning you couldn’t sell them, and that limited their appeal. But now that the South Sea Company had entered the picture, if people wanted to convert their annuities into stock in the company, hey, that would be wonderful, because they could sell the stock any old time. And if they didn’t sell, they’d get dividends from the slave trade. They’d make money, money, money, and money causes people’s vision to go so fuzzy that they don’t notice where it’s coming from. 

The South Sea Company promised to pay the treasury £7.5 million just for the joy of taking over part of the national debt. It didn’t have the money, but never mind. Keep your eye on the shell with the pea under it. It’s right here in the center. 

It also promised to give the first lord of the treasury and the chancellor of the exchequer stock in the company, which they’d be able to sell back to the company once the price went up. That gave them an interest in seeing the price go up. According to one source, the stock didn’t exist, but I haven’t found a second source to confirm that and it doesn’t matter. Whether the stock was real or not, it was still a bribe. 

The pea’s on the left. 

If you want names, the chancellor was John Aislabie and the first lord of the treasury was the Earl of Sunderland. Which isn’t a name, but it’s close enough. We don’t really need to know them, but doesn’t the story feel authoritative now that they’re in place?

Company directors circulated rumors about the wondrous profits the company was making. The stock price went up. Then it went up more. The company took on a larger portion of the government’s debt. And everyone was happy. Except of course the slaves, who’ve been shoved to one side of the story anyway because unless all hell breaks loose–as it does periodically and has recently if you follow the news–history’s about the rich and powerful. 

Buying South Sea Company stock became a mania. Everyone with two guineas to rub together wanted it. The price rose to something like ten times its original price.

And then the price crashed. In part because the trade that the company was going to get rich on turned out to be more restricted than they’d hoped. Blame wars. Blame treaties. Blame all kinds of complications. 

But I said “in part,” so we need at least one more part to keep things in balance. The other part is that people lost confidence.  You can’t read much about the South Sea Company without someone telling you about the loss of confidence. What does it mean, though?

It means the whole thing had been a Ponzi scheme: You only made money if you convinced other people that they could make money. That pushed up the price of your shares. Look at how much that paper in your hand is worth! You’re rich!

Then some spoilsport started yelling that none of it was real–the pea wasn’t under any of the shells. Or–new metaphor–the poker chips were just bits of colored plastic (which hadn’t been invented yet). You couldn’t buy so much as a sandwich (which also hadn’t been invented) with them. 

Or forget both metaphors. There was no money to be made by owning the stock and its price collapsed. People who had fortunes lost them. People who’d taken out loans using their stock as security or sold land or property to buy shares went bust. Bankruptcy listings hit an all-time high.

To give you a quick picture of the moment, I’ll get out of the way and quote Jenkins: “The Riot Act had to be read in the lobby of parliament. Stanhope had a stroke in the House of Lords and died. The Postmaster General took poison and the chancellor of the exchequer . . . was thrown into prison.”

Everyone wanted someone to blame the disaster on, so the Commons set up an investigation, and this was when a lot of people who had reputations lost them. The king, however, wasn’t among them, even though he and his two mistresses had gotten involved in some questionable transactions. As had everyone with money for miles around. Sir Robert Walpole managed the investigation by sacrificing a few visible politicians and leaving the rest to skip merrily on.

One of those he didn’t save was Sunderland. Remember the Earl of Sunderland? One of the people whose name I said we wouldn’t remember? He resigned and Sir Robert Walpole replaced him as the first lord of the treasury, making himself pivotal enough that he effectively became the prime minister–Britain’s first, although the title didn’t come into use until later. The king gave him a house in Downing Street, which Walpole insisted should go with the job, not stay with him. And there you have 10 Downing Street.

Larry the Cat has done well out of it.

Britain’s chimneys and chimney sweeps

Britain’s earliest chimneys were strictly for the rich, and in the Tudor era, they were the must-have accessory. The aristocracy’s news feeds were clogged with targeted ads saying, Heat Your Castle the Modern Way

Heat Your Hovel ads didn’t show up for many a year. 

Hovel-dwellers didn’t have news feeds anyway.

Hovel-dwellers lived in single-story houses with a central fire whose smoke worked its way out through the roof (thatch is good that way, and I’ve heard that slates aren’t bad) or through a hole in the roof. If you were clever about covering the hole, you could let the smoke out and keep the rain from pouring in, all in one go, but no matter how clever you were, above a certain height these houses were smoky.  

Irrelevant photo: osteospermum, with a bit of valerian getting ready to bloom.

With the introduction of the chimney, though, at least some of the the smoke went politely up and out, changing the residents’ lives and lungs. On the other hand, a good bit of the fire’s warmth was polite enough to follow the smoke, so the change wasn’t all about gain.

If you have a third hand, balance this on it: Chimneys also meant you could heat a second story. You could even add heat to rooms that didn’t have fireplaces. All they had to do was cuddle up against the back of the chimney and suck up a bit of warmth. 

By the seventeenth century, enough chimneys had been built around the country that they were worth taxing. Enter the hearth tax, which was based on the size of the house and, most importantly, the number of chimneys it had. 

So what did the rich do? To minimize taxes, they started running the flues of multiple fireplaces up a single chimney.  Many fireplaces, many flues, fewer chimneys. In a big house, they’d still end up with more than one chimney, but nowhere near as many as they had fireplaces.

What innocents they were back then. Today, they’d just build the chimney in a tax haven and have as many as they wanted. So what if it cost more to build them there and import the heat? They’d still be saving on taxes, and the point of the game, once you have that kind of money, is to pay as little in taxes as possible and then yell, “I win!”

Nothing I’ve read tells me how people first discovered that chimneys had to be cleaned, but I’m reasonably sure the realization took the form of chimney fires, complete with the neighbors standing around saying, “I could’ve told them this would happen.” Or whatever the era-appropriate version of withering scorn was.

That’s how the occupation of the chimney sweep  was born, and when the country’s primary fuel shifted from wood to coal, which lines chimneys with creosote, it became even more important.

I’d love to pinpoint the moment when children were first used as sweeps, but I can’t find any information on it. My best guess is that children working in dirty and dangerous occupations was so much a part of life that for a long time it was barely worth mentioning. Kids worked in mines and quarries and everywhere else. In slate quarrying country, where I live, they’d send boys over the cliffs in baskets to set the explosives. It only made sense: They were lighter than the adults. 

A website maintained by a chimney sweeping outfit in Hartford, Connecticut, doesn’t give a start date but does say that kids were used most heavily as sweeps during the two hundred years between with the Great Fire of London (that’s 1666) and the mid-nineteenth century, when Britain outlawed them. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but any number of chimney sweepers’ sites include some history of the trade, and they’re reasonably consistent.

So let’s talk about those kids. The apprentices to master sweeps were usually boys but sometimes girls, and they were generally paupers or orphans. Anyone who had choices in life would look somewhere else for their kid’s apprenticeship. 

How old were they? Well, they had to be strong enough to be useful but small enough to climb up the inside of a chimney. And since narrow flues created a better draft, you’d be talking about a very small kid–usually around six, but they could (rarely) be as young as four.

And here we circle back to all those flues running up a single chimney. Remember them? The flues made sharp turns and had awkward angles, making them that much harder to get through and putting even more of a premium on smallness.

The kids worked their way up the chimneys using their backs, elbows, and knees, knocking the soot loose with a brush as they went, so it fell on and past them.

According to some sources, the apprenticeships were for seven years and according to others until the apprentice was an adult, although reaching adulthood wasn’t guaranteed. The dangers of sweeping chimneys included getting stuck, suffocating, and breathing the carcinogenic soot (one form of cancer was common enough to be called chimney sweep cancer). The kids also lived in the soot, because we’re talking about people who had minimal chances to wash and who generally slept on the sacks of soot that they collected and the master sweep sold. They grew up stunted and deformed and were prone not just to cancer but to lung problems. 

So yes,it was just like in Mary Poppins, all singing and dancing along the rooftops.

They also had to contend with hot chimneys and rough brick on their knees, elbows, and backs.

Their conditions horrified a fair number of respectable people, and many attempts were made to improve their conditions, mostly without changing anything substantial, although over time the pressure did grow. The turning point came when a twelve-year-old, George Brewster, got stuck in a chimney. A wall was pulled down and he was gotten out, but he died not long after. After that, child sweeps were finally banned.

The sweeps were replaced with brushes on long, long handles, which an adult could work up a chimney.

The bright spot in sweeps’ lives was their one yearly holiday, May Day, which coincided with local celebrations that predated chimneys and sweeps–and Christianity, for that matter. In a few places, May Day is officially a sweeps’ festival. 

Why that day? No idea. We just have to accept that it is and go with it.

I’ll leave you with a link to William Blake’s poem about a child chimney sweep. He wrote two versions. This strikes me as the stronger of them.