Archeological finds and treasure from a country knee deep in history

The last few years have been good ones for British detectorists.

For British whats?

Detectorists. Those people who wander around with glazed eyes, waving metal detectors above the ground and listening to them beep. They’re looking for buried treasure. Or the tops that people break off aluminum cans. The metal detectors, as opposed to the detectorists who wave them, aren’t discriminating. They’re like gun dogs that point not just at game birds but also at feathered hats, feather dusters, and feathers tattooed on people’s arms. Metal is metal. Let the humans sort it out.

Irrelevant photo: camellia buds.

More people have turned to metal detecting in recent years and they’re uncovering some serious archeological finds, which are making their way into museums. The increasing interest is due in part to–of course–a sitcom. Reality limps along behind the representation of reality. And that, my friends, is what passes for real life. 

In 2018, 96% of the treasure dug out of the British earth was found by people with glazed eyes and metal detectors.

Okay, they don’t necessarily have glazed eyes. It just sounds better that way. And treasure has a narrow official definition–coins; precious metals; that sort of stuff–so archeologists have found plenty of other stuff, but it appears in a different column on the sreadsheet.

A 1996 law that required finders to report treasure also allowed them to split any profits with the landowner, and that’s meant that they’re likely to actually report their finds instead of squirreling them away somewhere or selling them through shady antiquities dealers in back alleys.

Sorry. I don’t know any antiquities dealers, shady or otherwise, so I’m falling back on cheesy stereotypes there.

So when we count up the reasons new people are being drawn to metal detecting, the sitcom isn’t the only one. We can add potential profit. 

A very small and random selection of what’s been found lately: 

  • More than a thousand silver coins in a field behind a pub in Suffolk. The best guess is that they were buried there during the Civil War. 
  • And 69,347 Iron Age coins in a field in Jersey. They date back to 50 B.C., give or take a few months. 

But enough about treasure. It’s the smaller part of the historical riches waiting to be discovered. Let’s talk about archeology.

 

The neolithic era

In Yorkshire, archeologists have uncovered a saltern–an industrial-scale salt-making site–that dates back 6,000 years. Or to put that another way, it predates Stonehenge. It’s the earliest one that’s been found in Britain.

The pottery that’s been found there shows traces of milk, indicating that the people who built it were settled, growing crops and raising animals. And the scale of the saltern says that they were selling salt, not just making it for themselves. 

“It changes how these people are seen,” said Steve Sherlock, the archeologist who led the dig. They were “people who are undertaking a level of industrial processing and distributing.” 

Because of salt’s use in preserving food, the people who produced and distributed it would have been among the wealthier groups of their time. 

Neolithic salterns have been found in Europe–especially Poland and the Balkans–but this is the first found neolithic one found in Britain, possibly because rising sea levels and coastal erosion have swallowed the others. They have a habit of being coastal, since seawater has a habit of being salty.

The pottery found at the site matches a type introduced by people who migrated from what’s now northern France at around 4000 BC. The saltern technology may well have come with them.

 

The bronze age

With the old stuff out of the way, let’s move south to Stonehenge

A major road, the A303, runs alongside Stonehenge, and for years there’s been a fight over whether to dig a two-mile tunnel and run the road through it. Opponents argue that it will do lasting damage to a world heritage site and that millions of artifacts will be lost. On the other hand, once the tunnel’s built, you’ll be able to take a selfie at Stonehenge without a big red bread truck showing up in the background. Which makes it all worthwhile.

After an assortment of court challenges and the use of a lot of newsprint, the opponents lost and the work’s been started. The current stage involves 1,800 test pits, 400 trial trenches, 150 archeologists, 18 months, and some uncounted amount of mud. Construction on the tunnel itself won’t start until 2023. 

Is the tunnel a good idea? Probably not, but what do I know? As long as they’re digging, though, they’re finding some interesting stuff. Let’s not ignore it just because we’re sulking. They’ve found graves, pottery, burnt flint that suggests metal or leather working. (No, I don’t know what the connection is either.) It’s probably too early to know what this tells them about the site or the people. 

 

The iron age and the Roman era

In Oxfordshire, the excavation of a hillfort turned up an iron age settlement that dates from 400 to 100 BCE, not to mention a Roman villa built at the end of the third century CE or the beginning of the fourth. They were found when the Earth Trust, which cares for the hillfort, decided to redevelop its visitor center.

Because no place that welcomes visitors is complete without a visitor center. Where else will people spend their money?

The site was occupied from the bronze age through the Roman era, so the trust hadn’t just planned to just plow through with heavy equipment–they figured they’d find something interesting–but they also hadn’t expected anything quite so rich. What they found included well-preserved iron age pots, Roman bone combs, surgical instruments, and lots of pottery shards. It seems like pottery shards are always in there somewhere.

Chris Casswell, the dig’s head, said, “It’s a substantial iron age settlement. It’s probably no surprise because we’re right at the foot of Wittenham Clumps, an enormous hillfort. The settlement probably continues well into the landscape beyond where we’ve looked.

“Normally we go out and do geophysics, which gives an image of what might be under the ground. But on this site, it didn’t show up any of this. . . . So it’s completely unexpected.”

The Roman villa is still partially buried, and there are at least two Roman cemeteries and stone-built ovens for drying grain.

And in case you’re wondering, the bronze age came before the iron age because copper and tin, which make bronze, melt at lower temperatures than iron. It took humans a while to pull together the technology to melt iron. I had to look it up too.

 

The medieval period

King’s College in Cambridge tore down some 1930s-era student housing and found an early medieval graveyard

According to Bede’s Ecclessiastical History, which was written in the eighth century, Cambridge was abandoned in the fifth century, when the Romans left. A lot of Roman towns were. But take that with a grain of salt. Dr. Caroline Goodson, a professor of medieval history, said, “We already know that Cambridge wasn’t fully abandoned. But what we’re seeing now is a greater and clearer picture of life in the post-Roman settlements.” 

They’re finding lots of goodies in the graves: bead necklaces, swords, pottery, glass, bronze brooches, short blades, mostly from the early Anglo-Saxon period–say 400 to 650 C.E. And because the soil’s alkaline, the bodies are well preserved, so they may be able to extract information about people’s diets and DNA, which should give them information on migration patterns. 

Goodson’s best guess at the moment is that the people were the descendants of Roman Britons along with more recent migrants from Europe. 

“They are no longer living as the Romans did,” she said. “They’re eating differently, dressing differently, and finding different ways of exploiting the land.”

Who policed England before it had police? 

Let’s start in the sixteenth century, when merrie England was still mostly rural and maybe not 100% merrie, since–well, we’ll get to that later. In the meantime, the feudal system was breaking apart and parishes began taking charge of things that the lord of the manor would have done back when feudalism was fully functional and the peasant knew her or his place.

What was the peasant’s place? Why, firmly under the lord’s thumb, of course. Or else appearing as a defendant in the lord’s court, hoping he’d had a decent lunch and was in a forgiving mood. [See the correction from April Munday in the comments section below. I was trusting to memory here and shouldn’t do that. It’s the stuff we think we know that’ll trip us up.]

Irrelevant photo: primroses.

The breakdown of feudalism

Sorry, I threw a lot of things at you all at once. 

Under full-out feudalism, the lord of the manor not only owned the land that the serfs couldn’t leave without his permission, he also collected a portion of their crops, claimed some of their labor, and collected fees for everything from marrying off a kid to dying. He also dispensed what passed for justice. If peasants broke a law–even if in breaking the law they wronged him–he was the person who judged them.

Really, it’s only fair. 

So that system was breaking down, as systems will. 

Now let’s define a parish, since it was taking over some of the tasks the lord had once handled. The word came into use in the Catholic Church in the thirteenth century and a workable definition is an area that has one church which is cared for by one priest.

Or, if you like, it’s the church community in that area.

In seventeenth century England–because that’s later than the period we’ve slid into without me bothering to tell you–it came to mean the most local level of government. In other words, it went from being a purely churchy word to also being a civil one, and that happened because of the way the lines blurred in our first paragraph between the chuchy responsibilities of a parish and the civil ones.

Thanks, guys. As if the English language wasn’t messy enough without that. 

So we have the lord of the manor’s civil power fading and the local church organization moving into the opening. Because the church organization was there and what the hell, it worked. And possibly because some of the better-off parishioners were itching to get their hands on a bit of local power. 

The Tudors gave increasing amounts of responsibility–and power–to parishes. In 1555, they were responsible for maintaining the roads. In 1601, they were responsible for looking after the poor of the parish. (No one said they had to look after them well, but that’s another tale.) 

And in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they took on increasing responsibility for what we now think of as policing.

You knew we’d get to policing eventually.

In the towns, watchmen–also called bellmen–had been around since Edward I’s time, patrolling the streets at night. They were unpaid, and all men were expected to volunteer–unless of course you had enough money, in which case you could pay someone else to volunteer for you. 

Justices of the peace

At the same time as parishes took on a bigger role, so did justices of the peace. 

The JP was a medieval post–an unpaid one that local landowners generally took on for the prestige. And possibly the power. Never rule out the power. They organized road repairs, checked weights and measures, licensed ale houses, and supervised poor relief. 

They also held what were called petty sessions–courts that dealt with low-level crimes. 

For more serious stuff–you know, assault, rioting–a number of JPs would pass judgement jointly. But the truly big-league crimes–murder, witchcraft, or (again) rioting–went to the assize courts for the big kids to deal with. Because witchcraft isn’t something for the amateurs to take on. You need an established director, a big budget, and lots of special effects people. That’s more than your average local court can assemble.

The JPs also led and organised the parish constables or (in towns) the town watchmen, and here, at last, we get back to policing. After 1554, a JP could arrest someone and question them for three days.

The JP could also appoint a parish (or petty) constable. This was an unpaid job that a person–a local tradesman; a farmer; somebody who wasn’t rich but also wasn’t poor–would hold for a year, and the populace was expected (okay, required) to help out when they were called on. 

The constable kept order in the alehouses and inns, sent illegitimate children back to their original parishes (and here we get around to how merrie a place it was), impounded stray farm animals, arrested people who had (presumably) committed crimes, prevented poaching and trespassing, carried out punishments such as whipping vagabonds (did I mention merriness?), and rode herd on apprentices, who were considered (and may well have been) a rowdy lot.

Either the constable or someone who’d been wronged or who discovered a felony was responsible for raising the hue and cry. And everyone (whether that meant everyone or every man I’m not sure) who heard it was responsible for chasing and arresting the felon. This was, remember, long before the accused was considered innocent until proven guilty. If the accused had what the Britannica calls “apparent evidence of guilt on his person” or resisted capture, the crowd could kill them. Merrily.

The last elements of the hue and cry system weren’t repealed until the nineteenth century. 

And yes, the felon did change from being male to being plural as soon as the Britannica got out of my way. It’s an English-language thing. Either you inaccurately assume that everyone’s male or you inaccurately assume that all individuals are plural. Or you repeat “he or she” until you’re feeling a bit multiple yourself. Screw it. 

I mention that to point out that I’m in control of (at least some of) my mistakes here. I know you’d lose sleep over it if I wasn’t.

If you’ve been trying to find a clear dividing line between judging criminals and arresting them–or between what we’d now think of as the courts and the police–I don’t think you’ll find one yet. They were all tossed into the same pot and stirred vigorously.

Creeping professionalization

In the seventeenth century, Charles II (we’re into the Restoration if you keep track of these things) set up a (low-)paid force. This was a significant shift, and not just because the force was paid. The king was now involved in policing where in the past towns and villages had policed themselves. 

At least that’s what the BBC says, although I’d add that the towns and villages policed themselves according to laws they had no control over and under the watchful eye of their richest and most powerful residents. So even if the whole community was bound to help the constable, it wasn’t just to protect the average person’s safety and possessions, it was in large part to protect the powerful and the system itself. Catch those poachers, whip those vagrants, get rid of those illegitimate kids so they don’t sneak in from neighboring parishes. 

The members of Charles II’s new force were sometimes called Charlies. Or–English spelling still being a fluid instead of a solid–Charleys.

By the eighteenth century, the population of towns and cities had grown noticeably. According to one source, the crime rate was rising, although I doubt statistics were accurate enough to bear that out. Let’s say that at a minimum people felt it was rising, and for all we know they were right. If you get enough people in one place, the crime rate’s likely to go up. Cities lend people a certain anonymity. That’s a good thing if you want someone else’s lawn mower. Even if it hasn’t been invented yet.

Another factor driving up the crime rate–if it did go up–was that a hefty proportion of the people who migrated to the cities had been run off the land. They were poor and they were desperate. Unlike anonymity, desperation wasn’t something the cities lent them. It was a full-out gift, and they couldn’t give it back.

The patchwork system of unpaid and low-paid amateurs couldn’t keep up with this new reality. 

Having said that, let’s toss a bit of weight on the opposite side of the scales: History Extra says that evidence–that would probably be transcripts–from the Old Bailey (a criminal court) shows that a number of the watchmen and constables knew their law. Presumably, they were competent. It doesn’t, however, say that the system they worked in was up to the job it now had. 

Thief takers stepped into the gap. They’d capture a thief and negotiate with the loot’s original owners about getting it back, making sure they got a profit from the transaction. That worked well for the thief takers, but I doubt anyone else thought much of the system.  Jonathan Wild, called the Thief Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland, policed the London streets and handed criminals over to the authorities. He and his men were also, it turned out, behind most of the thefts in the area.

Which at least meant they knew who to sell stuff back to.

The Bow Street Runners

Midway through the century, Henry and John Fielding, magistrates at Bow Street, formed the Bow Street Runners, who were paid by the government. They started with six full-time officers and ended with sixty-eight. In addition to their base pay, they got rewards along the same lines as the thief takers, although probably not by doing their own robberies.

If you recognize Henry’s name, you’re right: He was also the novelist Henry Fielding.

The Fieldings carried over the tradition of the hue and cry, appealing to the public through newspapers, which were still a hot new technology, for help in solving crimes. After Henry’s death, John published a paper, The Quarterly Pursuit, later renamed The Public Hue and Cry, publicizing information on stolen property, on crimes, and on suspects. 

But the Bow Street Runners worked in a small part of London and the system wasn’t picked up elsewhere. People were skeptical. A police force would be expensive. People would lose freedoms. Their privacy would be invaded. 

Hell, they might even have to wear masks to keep from spreading a virus.

Sorry–wrong century. It’s interesting, though, to see things we take for granted treated as new and threatening developments.

Here and there, though, moves were being made in the direction of more organized policing. At the end of the century, the River Thames Police were formed to protect the port’s cargoes. (That was the first time the word police was used in England to mean, um, police.) In 1805, a horse patrol was set up and nicknamed the Robin Redbreasts because of their red uniforms. In Glasgow, watchmen and constables were organized into a single force to protect the city. 

The Peelers

And now, in the spirit of telling a story directly, let’s back up a bit. 

After soldiers were called in to put down the Gordon Riots in 1780, demand for a metropolitan police force rose among the middle and upper classes, but the City of London Corporation and the lord mayor (do you know how hard it is to type “lord mayor” without making a wisecrack?) opposed it. It might trample on their independence. They had their own institutions, even if they weren’t working. https://notesfromtheuk.com/2019/08/02/the-gordon-riots-religion-poverty-and-no-revolution/

We’ve all been there, in small ways and in large. The system may not work, but by god it’s ours and we’ll defend it.

Just to be clear: I’m not arguing that anyone was wrong (or right, for that matter) about the impact a police force would and later did have. And I’m not arguing that the best of all possible solutions was found. You don’t have to support the solution to poke holes in the objections.

Predictably, the French Revolution, which was the boogeyman of the era (at least in Britain), entered into the debate.Could England have a police force without it becoming like the French (or at least what he English thought the French police force was like)–political and militarized? 

In 1822, while that question was still being batted back and forth, Robert Peel (who would much prefer, even when he’s long dead, to be called Sir Robert Peel) became home secretary and by 1829 he’d established a unified London police force. 

Unified, that is, except that it only covered an area within a seven-mile radius of the center of London.  And unified except for the area the Bow Street Runners patrolled. And unified except for the City of London, which is separate  from the city (no capital letter) of London and even today has its own laws, police force, government, and silly clothes. 

This is a complicated country, and it’s in love with its own complications. It’s complicated enough that I’m referring you backward to several of my own posts here. The topic has an endless number of side stories and this is too long already. Apologies for a bit of self-serving vanity, but no one else on this couch is offering herself up to play expert so I’m afraid your choice is to consult me or Lord Google. 

One of the factors that weighed in Peel’s favor as he drove the police force through was the 1819 Peterloo Massacre–a demonstration that was broken up chaotically and bloodily by a somewhat random combination of soldiers and semi-professional local military units. Another factor was the demographic shifts of an industrializing country and the impression was that the crime rate was rising. And, although the BBC doesn’t say this, industrial unrest was an ever-present fear among the powerful.

Not everyone was happy with the unified system. (When is everyone happy?) Under the earlier system, every parish had its own constables and watchmen, and the richer tha parish the more of them it had. The Metropolitan Force meant that local control was lost. Richer parishes might now have fewer men on patrol. And they were paying taxes to support the Metropolitan Force, not their local one. 

When the wealthy complain, they tend to get heard, so in 1833 the government agreed to pick up a quarter of the cost of the Metropolitan Force. 

Ten years later, the radius the force patrolled was expanded to fifteen miles and the Bow Street Runners, the River Thames Police, and the Watchmen were incorporated into it. 

By 1882, the Metropolitan Police had 11,700 officers.But we haven’t arrived in 1882 yet. We need to stop in 1835, when a law gave towns outside of London the power to set up police forces, and in 1839, when counties got the same power. 

But those were powers, not an order to use the power. That didn’t come until 1856, when both towns and counties were told to get with it and set up paid, full-time forces with one officer for every 1,000 people. 

Inspectors of the Constabulary had to certify the new forces as acceptable, at which point the national government would pick up some of the cost and local taxes had to cover the rest. 

That leaves an odd situation where all police forces except London’s are still controlled by local governments but London’s is controlled by the home secretary, who’s part of Britain’s national government.

So what happened to the fear that the police would be militarized and the French Revolution would creep into Britain? I can’t swear that it’s the reason the police wear blue uniforms, but the choice of blue was made so that they could be distinguished from the military, which wore red. 

How the Magna Carta works in modern Britain

Britain lags behind the U.S. in the creation of fringe political groups. No one’s tried to take over Parliament lately, probably because they’re afraid they’d succeed and have to run the country, which won’t be easy after the mess this lot have made. All this must disappoint the prime minister, who’s desperate to come up with a world-beating something–anything, please–so he can demonstrate his competence.

Competence, in case this isn’t already clear, is established by having the most something, the best something, the biggest something. It doesn’t matter what. We were going to have a world-beating Covid tracing app. We may have the most embarrassing one. That would explain why it’s not mentioned anymore.

Well, take heart: We may not be leading the world, but we do have a fair crop of nutburgers. In fact, a hairdresser in Bradford cited the Magna Carta as a justification for opening her shop (repeatedly) during lockdown.

So let’s talk about the Magna Carta. 

 

Irrelevant photo: A neighbor’s camellia. They’re in bloom at this time of year.

Britain’s unwritten constitution

The Magna C. was signed in 1215, which makes it old even by British standards, and it’s part of the country’s unwritten constitution. Or it may be. The damn thing’s unwritten, so who’d know? If I slipped Green Eggs and Ham in, could anyone tell? Maybe I already have and no one knows it. Except me.

Or maybe I haven’t and only thought I did. I can’t tell either. It’s unwritten. 

But the Magna Carta was written down–more than once, in fact–so we can consult a document and figure out if it gives us the right to reopen a hair salon in the midst of a lockdown.

Did I just use the word salon?

Should we be worried about me?

You can find the argument the hairdresser’s drawing from in multiple spots on the internet if you’re not too picky about the company you keep. The idea is that article 61 of the Magna C. leaves anyone free to ignore any invalid law, a category defined (and I’m guessing here) largely by whether they piss off the person in question. 

The hairdresser isn’t alone in this. A few other small businesses have made the same claim but she’s the one I happened to find out about. I’d quote a longer segment of their argument but the people who write about it go on for so long and so murkily that they try my patience. 

So let’s skip them and go to the fact-checking site Full Fact, which summarizes their argument before it offers a reality check. The argument is that the Magna Carta not only says you aren’t bound by invalid laws, it says you’re free to rebel against them. 

Does that hold up? 

Well, no, but other than that it’s a great argument. 

 

The history

The Magna Carta was signed reluctantly by King John. He had a rebellion on his hands. He had no intention of keeping his word but that was okay because neither did the rebel barons. The agreement was that he’d sign the Magna C. and his barons would hand back London, which they held.

They didn’t.

On John’s side, the pope promptly invalidated the Magna Carta, as he’d expected. In spite of that, it  resurfaced over a period of years. Since it gave the aristocracy considerable power, they liked it, and it ended up being reissued several times after its first appearance (and invalidation). But here we come to the important point: Only the first version included Article 61. As a rule, kings and governments aren’t enthusiastic about giving their subjects (or citizens, if you tune in late enough) permission to rebel. They may rebel anyway–the governed can be a rowdy bunch–but if you’re running a country, or even if you’re only making vague gestures in that direction, you don’t want to encourage the governed by telling them rebellion’s not such a bad idea after all. 

This matters because it was one of the later, 61-less versions that went into the statute books and became law. The earlier version ended up in an era-appropriate version of the recycling bin and instead of becoming law became a historical curiosity. 

I have no idea whether they renumbered the following clauses. I’d assume they did but I haven’t checked. For all I know, the newly renumbered article 61 gives us the right to clip poodles so they look like ambulatory hedges.

Over the years, one bit after another of the version that did become law was repealed and dropped out of use. Of the original 63 clauses, only 4 are still in force

 

The legal stuff

All of that makes it less than wise to base your argument on article 61 if you go to court. But let’s look at what it says, even if it never became law and wouldn’t be in force anymore even if it had. 

“If we, our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in any respect against any man, or transgress any of the articles of the peace or of this security, and the offence is made known to four of the said twenty-five barons, they shall come to us – or in our absence from the kingdom to the chief justice – to declare it and claim immediate redress. If we, or in our absence abroad the chief justice, make no redress within forty days, reckoning from the day on which the offence was declared to us or to him, the four barons shall refer the matter to the rest of the twenty-five barons, who may distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon. Having secured the redress, they may then resume their normal obedience to us.

“Any man who so desires may take an oath to obey the commands of the twenty-five barons for the achievement of these ends, and to join with them in assailing us to the utmost of his power.” 

To (over)simplify that, it says that if we or our agents piss you off, four out of twenty-five barons can talk to us (or maybe that’s at least four but possibly all twenty-five speaking in unison; the wording strikes me as ambiguous, but I’m not a lawyer). And by us, of course, I mean me, since I’m the king and use the plural. If I don’t return them to a state of utter bliss, they can do highly unpleasant things to me until I do make them happy, after which they have to behave nicely again and go back to saying “Please” and “Thank you, Mr. King.” 

You can see why King J. wasn’t happy about signing that and why he crossed his fingers behind his back when he did. But even so, nothing in there grants the common people the right to assail him and seize his castles and generally be unpleasant. That’s granted only to 25 barons. The common people only get the right to follow the 25 barons–or presumably to talk to them about how pissed off their common selves are, although I wouldn’t want to bet a lot of money on the barons taking up their cause. 

By extension (and I’m extending the clause so far that it’s about to snap), the common people do not gain the right to cut hair during a lockdown unless the barons are cutting hair during a lockdown. And barons, I think we can pretty safely assume, do not cut hair. 

Is there a moral to this tale? Why yes, there is.

The moral is that depending on time, place, and circumstance rebellion may (or–please pay attention here, because it’s important–may not) be right and necessary, but if you do rebel you’d be wise not to count on getting permission from the government. You have to do it the old-fashioned way, which involves risking your liberty, your hair salon, and quite possibly your life. After the fact, your courage may become the stuff of legend, but it’s not likely to be fun in the moment. 

The hairdresser’s been fined close to £20,000 for repeatedly opening her shop, and she’s (reportedly–the paper doesn’t seem to have been able to confirm it) raised a lot of money to pay the fines through a crowdfunding campaign. She hasn’t seized any castles or assailed the queen, so she’s not following the exact wording of article 61.

When England reluctantly adopted the fork

Although you can still find Britons who measure other people’s intelligence, level of civilization, and general acceptability by whether they use a fork and knife in the approved manner (and of course there’s only one), the fork first arrived in Britain to the sound of mockery and jeering. 

Unlike the knife and the spoon, the fork doesn’t seem to be one of those things early humans felt a strong urge to invent. 

According to the Smithsonian website, prehistoric humans made spoons out of shells or wood depending what was on hand. 

Forks, though? A few early ones have been found, but the design says they weren’t meant to eat with. They had two or three straight tines, and they were meant to hold something down while you cut it, or maybe work something reluctant out of its shell.

Irrelevant photo: a morning view of the fields.

 

 

The fork dawdles on its way to England

The fork came to Britain by way of Europe, and since this was before the European Union and also before either social media and influencers, it took its own sweet time. 

It got to Europe in the eleventh century by way of a couple of Byzantine princesses who married 1) a Venetian doge and 2) a Holy Roman Emperor. Both sent their new subjects (and probably their husbands) into shock by bringing forks with them and then using them to carry food to their mouths. 

What was so horrifying about using a fork?

Well, “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers,” according to one of the Venetians.  

I just love the religious habit of knowing what god wants. It holds up so well over time. 

The princess who married the doge died of the plague a few years later and Saint Peter Damian announced that it was god’s punishment for her vanity. 

By the fourteenth century, though, forks were common among merchants. 

Why merchants? 

Why not merchants? It’s beside the point, so we’ll just duck left and avoid that rabbit hole. And while we’re at it, we’ll hop over to England and into the sixteenth century. By then the fork had paddled across the Channel and if you wanted to make fun of someone for being pretentious, all you had to do was associate them with the fork. In Scoff, her book on food and class in Britain, Pen Vogler cites a couple of plays that use them that way.

How did decent people eat?

With their fingers, of course. With their bread. With a knife. Presumably with a spoon, although we won’t find a lot of documentation of spoons early on in English history. The first one mentioned is in Edward I’s wardrobe accounts in 1259. But whether they made it into the written record or not, food that’s cooked needs to be stirred. And food that’s runny doesn’t take well to being eaten with a knife, or even the fingers, although it gets along well enough with bread. 

The poor, Vogler reminds us, would mostly have eaten bread and pottage (a stew made mostly of grain, beans, and vegetables, in whatever combination was available). Fingers and (maybe) a spoon would’ve been plenty. 

The aristocracy would’ve had a servant to pour water over their hands before they ate and they’d have cut and speared their food with a knife and used a combination of bread and fingers for anything that couldn’t be speared and didn’t need to be cut. So they were fussier about it, but they were still eating with their fingers.

Soups and stews were served in communal bowls, which everyone in reach could dip into. Or so says the Royal Museums Greenwich website. (The link’s above). They wiped their hands on the tablecloths, which were plain linen but damned expensive because everything was handmade, remember. How anyone got the tablecloths clean is beyond me.

Forks were strictly for carving, and even that may have caught on slowly. In 1673, Hannah Woolley felt she needed to encourage gentlewomen to carve and serve meat with a fork. 

“It will appear very comely and decent,” she wrote, to use a fork instead of holding the mean with two fingers and the thumb of the left hand. 

And I thought my manners were a little rough. 

 

The triumph of the fork

By the time of the Restoration (that’s 1660 to 1666; thank you, Lord G.), matching forks, knives, and spoons were in use among the upper class. This was fancy stuff and it was all part of a rejection of Puritan plainness. Many sets came with a sheath–a sort of travel case–so if you were invited to a fancy dinner you could bring your own. Even in upper class circles, you couldn’t count on your hosts having enough silverware for a party. 

The forks involved were still two-tine type. A third tine was added in the eighteenth century, and by this time silverware was being mass produced (in Sheffield, in case you’re interested). If you were trying to claw your way into the upper classes, you’d need a whole set of the stuff. But you’d want to show that you’d gotten the right silverware, so the style was to lay it face down and show off the silver hallmark. 

When it wasn’t in use, you’d keep it in a fancy wooden box, sort of like dueling pistols. 

Silverware defined the aristocratic life, and starting in the 1820s the kind of novel that gave readers a glimpse of that world was called the silver fork novel.

By Victorian times, cutlery had moved down the social scale, so the upper classes had to complicate their dinner tables to keep from being confused with their underlings. You needed one kind of fork for oysters, another for lobster, another for snails, for fish, for pastry, for dessert (pastry isn’t dessert? Don’t ask me; I’m a barbarian), for berries, for serving bread. And god help the diner (or worse, the hostess) who didn’t know which to use for what. Toss them into the outer darkness.

By now, damn everything had to be eaten with a fork. If you were served jellied something that wobbled and demonstrated a desire to return to a liquid form? Tough. You ate it with a fork. A banana? You could use your knife to help slice it, but you had to eat it with a fork. 

Crystallized cherries? You weren’t supposed to use a knife on them, only a fork. I’m not sure what you were supposed to do with the pits. Swallow them? Definitely not spit them at the person sitting across the table, although it might’ve broken the tension.

What’s a crystallized cherry? No idea. It involves sugar. And a cherry. 

Now can we let’s leave the upper class struggling unhappily with their crystalized cherries and their forks and see what’s happened to the folks who we last saw eating pottage with their fingers and their bread–and possibly their spoons?

Sure we can. We make our own rules here. Spit the cherry pits if you want to. Just clean them up before you leave.

In 1906, free school meals were offered to the poorest students, although only where the local government saw fit. You know how it is: You feed them once and they only want to eat the next day, so may a  local government didn’t see the point. (Universal education until the age of ten had been introduced in 1880, and a lot of people didn’t see the point of that either.)

With the introduction of free school meals, teachers discovered that their students weren’t used to using a knife and fork or to eating at a table. 

I can’t help thinking that they were used to the idea that parents couldn’t afford to feed their kids. But not to teach them to eat properly? Now that was serious.

 

Class and the fork

In the 1920s,  stainless steel made cutlery affordable enough for the mass market. So ow the upper class needed a new way to keep themselves from being mistaken from the kind of people who’d spit cherry pits. The proper way to use the knife and fork, if you’re hanging around the upper classes–or the well-behaved middle classes–is to hold your fork upside down. No, that doesn’t mean you hold onto the tines and eat with the handle. You hold the handle, but instead of letting the hollow face upward, as logic dictates, you hold it so the hump faces up and all the food you can’t spear slides off. 

Why? So the upper classes can keep their tables free from cherry-pit spitters. It’s a kind of secret handshake, only everyone knows it. It’s just that some of us can’t be bothered using it. Or can’t bring ourselves to do it. Or can’t remember it for the length of a meal.

The people this matters to take it painfully seriously, though. Hold your fork the logical way and you’re (you’ll need to read this next phrase in a disapproving voice) scooping your food. Or even worse, shoveling it. You might get mistaken for someone who eats because they’re hungry.

Vogler quotes Debrett’s–the ultimate British guide to class snobbery–on this: “It may be necessary to use mashed potato to make peas stick to the fork but it is incorrect to turn the fork over and scoop.”

Yes, they’re serious.

How to get to work on time in the 19th century

Question: In an age before alarm clocks (and then in the one before affordable alarm clocks), how did anyone get to work on time? 

Answer, at least in parts of Britain: Starting in the nineteenth century, they got woken up by a knocker-upper. 

Digression: In American, if you’re knocked up, you’re pregnant. (This does not apply to the male of the species.) In British, though, you can knock up some scrambled eggs without anyone giving birth to little baby scrambled eggs. Knocking something up means you’re building it “very quickly, using whatever materials are available.” In the case of our example, we’ll hope that’s eggs, not cement blocks. 

Being knocked up can also–in British–mean being tired. 

But more to the point, you can knock someone up by pounding on their door when they’re asleep. 

Or on their window.

For the sake of clarity, reproduction takes place in the same way in both countries, it’s only the language that changes. Let’s say you’re talking about waking someone up. By knocking. Take two words, knock and up. Now combine them and shake and you’ll get one of those things we call a phrase–a small number of words that, over and over again, spot each other across a crowded room, run into each other’s arms, and form a unit of meaning.

The American meaning? It dates back at least to 1830 and I can’t begin to explain why it means what it does, but all the same it does.

Where were we?

People were going to work. It was the beginning of the nineteenth century, bang-slam in the midst of the industrial revolution. Industry was (and is) a regimented beast. It depended on everyone being in their place at the same time. Keeping your job meant getting up at the right time.

 

A rare relevant photo. This is a knocker-upper from London. She was known for using a peashooter to wake people up.

Enter the knocker-upper

Actually, knocker-uppers didn’t enter. They walked down a street and tapped on windows, or possibly doors, and they kept going. Because they got paid by the head, and if they were going to make a living they had to get a move on. Getting your butt out of bed was up to you. 

Most of them carried a long pole so they could reach an upstairs window. One, Mary Smith, was known for using a pea shooter. Others carried soft hammers or (so I’ve read) rattles. I’m skeptical about the rattles, because they wouldn’t want to wake the neighbors. Not just because they’d complain, but because they’d be waking them up for free. 

We’ll talk about payment in a minute.

As an aside, you might’ve noticed that “upstairs window” is a little vague. In Britain the floor up one flight of stairs is the first floor. In the U.S., it’s the second floor. The two countries put the numbers in the same order, but they start counting in different places.

Knocker-uppers tended to be old men or women. Does that mean the women were old or just that they were women? I’m not sure. The source I stole the information from lists them that way, either because they didn’t notice that the words can be understood two different ways or because they were doing what I am and dodging the issue. I’m just going to duck behind this nice potted begonia over here and pretend it has nothing to do with me. 

Just think of the women as being a kind of upstairs window.

Don’t think about it too hard.

Occasionally cops worked as knocker-uppers while they were on their rounds, earning a bit of extra income since they were up anyway. Robert Paul, who found the body of Jack the Ripper’s first victim, saw a cop and told him about the dead woman but the cop was knocking people up and couldn’t be bothered.

“I saw [a policeman] in Church-row,” Paul said at the inquest, “just at the top of Buck’s-row, who was going round calling people up. And I told him what I had seen, and I asked him to come, but he did not say whether he should come or not. He continued calling the people up, which I thought was a great shame, after I had told him the woman was dead.”

Knocker-uppers were particularly common in northern mill towns and in London, where dock workers’ shifts changed with the tides, although they also worked in smaller cities and towns. The trade went into decline in the 1940s and 1950s, and the last knocker-upper is thought to have retired in 1973.

I’m not sure why anyone was still paying a knocker-upper in 1972. Maybe out of loyalty. Or because they liked the personal touch.

 

Who paid? 

Customers paid by the week. A knocker-upper named Mrs. Waters (from somewhere in the north of England) told a Canadian newspaper in  1878, “All who were knocked up before four o’clock paid … eighteen pence a week; those who had to be awakened . . . after four gave . . . a shilling a week; whilst those who had to be aroused from five to six o’clock paid from sixpence to threepence weekly, according to time and distance.” She said she “never earned less than thirty shillings a week; mostly thirty five; and . . . as high as forty shillings a week.” 

There were twelve pence in a shilling. I’ll leave you to figure out who got a bargain while I hide behind that begonia again.

How much of a person’s pay would that eat? These were low-wage workers, and in 1880 a male laborer’s average pay was £30 a year; a woman’s was £15. A pound was made up of 20 shillings, and a family’s budget would have had next to no give in it. Still, the knocker-upper’s price had to be within a working person’s reach. 

Mrs. Waters also talked about her customers tapping back to let her know they’d heard her–some cheerily and some complaining and swearing the whole time. 

To keep the times and places straight, knockers-up chalked times on sidewalks and buildings, and some may have hung up signs.

Who woke up the knocker-upper? Themselves, for the most part. They were night owls, sleeping during the day. Think of them as people who worked the graveyard shift. 

How did they know what time it was? Nothing I’ve found addresses this, but cities and towns had clocks–they were an important civic show-off item–and even if you couldn’t look at your wrist and know if you were two minutes ahead of schedule, you’d get a nice loud bong every fifteen minutes, and a count on the hour. When I was a kid–we’re going back to the 1950s here–stores still had clocks in their front windows and long before I had a watch I could walk down the street from clock to clock and know the time. 

Cornish history: the Prayerbook Rebellion

The Prayerbook Rebellion started when Henry decided to divorce Katherine.

Yeah, that Henry. Isn’t it odd how we’re on first-name terms with people who wouldn’t have known us from the dirt under their feet?

By way of full disclosure, I set the start date a little early, just for context, so nothing happened for the first few years. Then in 1534 Henry founded the Church of England, with himself as its head. And–no one could’ve been more surprised than him–it decided to grant him his divorce, which the Catholic Church was being very crabby about.

Irrelevant photo: Camellia blossoms. 

 

Henry the Much-Married starts the ball rolling downhill

The reconfiguration of the church took on a logic of its own, and starting in 1536 Henry closed religious centers–monasteries, hospitals, nunneries, abbeys. Some of them served a purpose in their communities–as schools and hospitals. The confiscated land and the buildings went to the crown and a lot of it was sold off to the wealthy. Who else had that kind of money? 

We’ll get to Cornwall any minute here. I promise.

In 1537, Henry banned the feasts on saints’ days. That included St. Piran’s Day, which is where I finally get Cornwall into the picture. St. Piran is Cornwall’s patron saint, and at this point we have a reaction on record: A fisherman from St. Keverne planned a protest and was arrested and probably executed. In Truro–Cornwall’s capital–a customs officer tried to stop a ship carrying people to Brittany to celebrate some unspecified saint’s day. He was pushed into the sea. The story seems to drop out of history there but let’s assume the ship got away and the people came back later and lived happily ever after.

The next year, pilgrimages were banned. 

You get a sense of how life was changing, right? Anne Bolyn, who Henry divorced Katherine for, had been dead by Henry’s executioner’s hand for two years by now. I mention that as a reminder of how far all this had wandered from where it started.

Along with the ban on pilgrimages came a directive that churches had to use an English-language translation of the bible. When I first heard about that–this was, oh, maybe a hundred years ago–I thought it meant people could understand the book they considered holy. The problem was, English wasn’t Cornwall’s language. Cornish was. 

It didn’t go down well. So let’s talk about the ways Cornwall was both a part of England and not English.

 

Cornwall as a country and a county

Cornwall was governed by England at this point, and it had been for a long time. Technically speaking, it was just another English county.  But it also had a distinctive culture: Not just its own language, but its own style of dress, folklore, naming customs, agricultural practices, and games and pastimes.”

High on the list of games and pastimes was pushing customs officers into the sea.

Cornwall also had two distinctive administrative institutions, the Stannary organisation, which oversaw tin mining, and  the Duchy of Cornwall. We won’t stop to make sense of those; we’ll just take it on faith they underlined its sense of separation.

Writers of the time–and well into the next century–wrote about the Cornish as a separate people, as distinct and recognizable as the Welsh, and about Cornwall as almost a separate country.

So that’s what we get to plunk onto the separate-country side of the scales. On the English-county side was an English gentry, which England had long since imposed on Cornwall, and the gradual inward seep of the English language. 

It might not have looked that way at the time, but from our point of view we can see the Cornish language in a slow retreat from the Devon border down toward the tip of Cornwall’s foot. 

Why’d that happen? The English gentry spoke English, although they may (or may not–I don’t know) have spoken Cornish as well. That made it useful to know enough English to do business with them, to work for them, to mix with them in whatever other ways the non-gentry mixed with the gentry. To people who cared about refinement, the fact that the gentry spoke English would’ve made English seem like the language of refinement. 

Cornwall’s ports would also have been full of the English language and the people who spoke it. This was a time when it was easier to get from, say, London by sea than by road.

 

All hell breaks (slowly) loose

In 1547, colleges, hospitals, chapels, and guilds were closed, and no provision was made for anyone else to fill the roles they’d played in caring for the sick and educating–well, some small number of kids, but still it mattered to the ones who might’ve been able to take advantage of it, leaving a very practical gap. The next year, an English official was stabbed when he tried to take down an image in a parish church. 

That makes it sound like a sudden thing. It wasn’t. The conflict had rocked back and forth for months, but we don’t do detail here at Notes. Twenty-eight Cornishmen were arrested and ten were executed for it. 

Then in 1549, Edward VI–or at least his government, since he’d have been somewhere in the neighborhood of eleven–introduced the Book of Common Prayer. Which was in English. And it insisted that church services follow it. That demand’s called the Act of Uniformity, in case that rings any bells from your long-buried memory of history classes.

Straw.

Camel.

Back.

For all that Cornish was in retreat, it was still Cornwall’s language, and for many people it was their only language. This wasn’t bringing the church’s language closer to them, it was moving it further away. 

Nationalism, meet outraged religious beliefs. You’ll find you have a lot to talk about.

Three thousand men gathered outside Bodmin–the geographical center of Cornwall, in case that’s of any relevance, which I suspect it isn’t–and drew up a set of complaints. They chose a leader, Humphrey Arundell, who was one of the richest and most powerful men in Cornwall and from an aristocratic English Catholic family. 

Was he Cornish or English? These days, the only way to figure out who’s Cornish and who isn’t is by how many generations of ancestors a person has buried in Cornish soil. I’ve been told four. I’ve also been told two. Either way, I’m too late. Whether either of those was the standard then, when Cornish identity was more sharply defined, I don’t know. I know Arundell was born in Cornwall and that he had family in England. He could as easily have been moved by religious belief as by nationalism. 

Either this set of complaints of a later one (sorry–the quotes have all gone adrift) said, “We will not receive the newe service because it is but lyke a Christmas game, and so we the Cornyshe men (wherof certen of us understande no Englysh) utterly refuse thys newe Englysh.” 

Half the church’s confiscated land was to be returned.

The complaints were sent to the government, which shrugged its shoulders and ignored them, convinced everyone would settle down as soon as it was time for Coronation Street to come on.

Then, in the random way that these things tend to happen, a rebellion broke out in Devon, the neighboring county: A congregation forced its priest to conduct the service in Latin, and in case that wasn’t enough, a supporter of the book of Common Prayer was killed. Somehow or other things escalated and the next thing anyone knew (okay: the next thing I knew) an army was marching on Exeter, Devon’s capital. 

You know how things can get out of hand, right? One day you’re killing someone over a prayer book and before you know you’ve got a whole damn army and you’re marching on the capital, thinking, How’d I get here? Do I really want to do this? Did someone think to bring sandwiches?

Arundell hadn’t wanted a fight, but the snowball was rolling downhill too fast. His army started off toward London. His plan was to talk to the government, with a few thousand soldiers at his back to serve as a megaphone, but on the way it took Trematon Castle, where some members of the gentry had holed up, and Plymouth. It also took St Michael’s Mount, which is in the wrong direction. This tells us that sat-navs (what Americans would soon learn to call GPSs) were no different then than they are now.  

Plymouth, by the way, isn’t in Cornwall, it’s in Devon, a change that’s marked by the River Tamar, which is wide enough at that point that you’d be hard put not to notice it. It’s also very wet, both there and along its entire length. But like I said, snowball; downhill; and melting gently in the Tamar’s waters. Who’s going to argue about county borders when all that’s going on?

 

Across the Tamar

At roughly this point, the Cornish and Devon armies joined together and laid siege to Exeter for five weeks, and they would have blown up the city walls but their gunpowder was too wet. That’s the English weather for you. 

The Cornish weather’s no better.

In London, the news that a Cornish army was marching on London caused a panic. Bridges were pulled down. Plays were banned–they might turn people against the government. France rubbed its hands and declared war.

The government sent soldiers to defend Exeter.

The leaders of the Cornish on Devonian armies wrote the government again, saying essentially the same thing: “We will have our old service of matins, mass, evensong and procession in Latin as it was before.”

This time the government wrote back. Three times, in fact, all of them saying no. In a long-winded, oddly spelled sort of way.

Several battles were fought, and I won’t drag you through them. The English army was bigger and the Cornish and Devonians lost. In one battle so many were captured that the English were afraid they’d lose control of them and slaughtered them instead. 

In the final battle, 1,400 were killed and the survivors fled. Arundell went into hiding and was captured (his servant turned out to have been working for the English). He was taken to London and with other leaders of the rebellion was hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Which kind of makes getting slaughtered en masse by the people who captured you look almost good. 

His lands were also confiscated and given to the leader of the English army that had defeated him. He was past doing anything with them by then, but it meant his family lost out. 

All told, some three thousand to four thousand Westcountry men were killed, including some priests and mayors hanged after the rebellion was over. According to one source, hundreds may have been killed for taking part–including many who may not have had anything to do with the uprising. 

 

The aftermath

The Cornish language went into a sharper decline after this, and although the Book of Common Prayer was translated into Welsh, it was never translated into Cornish.

Mind you, I’m not sure how welcome the translation was in Wales.

Stained glass windows were broken out of Cornish churches and images with any scent of Catholicism were destroyed, as they were elsewhere in England. 

Maps stopped showing Cornwall as a separate nation, and by 1700 you don’t find anyone writing about it as almost a separate country.

Ironically, the defeat of the rebellion, which was against the king’s new religion, set Cornwall up to support the king during the Civil War. The king was seen as British and the Parliamentary Army was seen as English. I suspect you had to be there at the time for that to make sense. The Parliamentary Army was also far more Protestantly Protestant than the king’s. I don’t know how heavily that weighed on the scales, but I assume it mattered.

When the king was defeated, it was another whack on the head for Cornwall’s status as an almost-country of its own.

The Cornish diaspora

Cornwall–that nobbly foot sticking its toes into the waters of southwestern Britain–lost about a third of its population in the nineteenth century. 

 

The background stuff

To come up with that number, we have to use a flexible definition of the nineteenth century, then we have to admit that no one actually counted heads. Yes, you can document the number of people who left Britain, which ports they left from, and where their ships were bound, but no one asked where they were from. Or if they did, they didn’t write it down. 

You can guess more or less reasonably that most people leaving from Cornish ports were Cornish, since Cornwall (being foot-shaped and sticking into the ocean) isn’t on the way from anywhere except Cornwall, but not everyone would’ve left Cornwall from Cornish ports. Plymouth, which is in Devon, is temptingly close. 

Never mind. A third is close enough, so let’s call that calculated.

Irrelevant photo: A wild primrose. Although it’s in Cornwall, so let’s call it semi-relevant.

Are we ready to start yet?

Nope. To understand the story, you need to know although England swallowed Cornwall centuries ago, it never managed to digest it completely. 

Cornwall was once its own country, with its own language, and even today it holds onto its identity. The last native speaker of the Cornish language, Dolly Portreath, died in 1777, not all that long before the period we’re talking about, and I’m reasonably sure that “native speaker” here means that Cornish was her only language, not that she was the last person who spoke it fluently, because the language survived in isolated communities into the nineteenth century.

If we’ve got the pieces in place now, we’ll go on.

 

Early emigration

In 1815, the Napoleonic Wars ended, and instead of joy and relief, peace brought a depression. For farm workers, that meant low wages and unemployment. For farmers, it meant being squeezed between high rents and high taxes. 

In Britain, remember farmers were likely to rent their land, not own it. 

For Cornwall, it meant the start of wholesale emigration, with families headed to the U.S. and Canada. 

The West Briton (that’s a newspaper) wrote in 1843, “The spirit of emigration continues active in the neighbourhood of Stratton. High rents, heavy rates, and obnoxious and impoverishing taxes are driving some of the best of our agriculturalists to climes where these demons of robbery and ruin are unknown.”

Agriculturalists? That translates to farmers. And Stratton’s in North Cornwall, not all that far from where I live.

But if poverty and depression were the primary forces driving people out, they weren’t the only ones. Cornwall was a stronghold of Methodism, and even though they no longer belonged to the Church of England, they still owed it a tithe, which was basically a tax the church levied. You could quit the church if you liked, but your money couldn’t. If you left England, though, you could shuck off that history and those obligations and be free in your religion. 

Still, if leaving England gave people a whiff of freedom and the promise of a decent living, or at least a full meal, it also meant leaving their families, their homes, and their culture. It’s the story of immigrants everywhere, and as always, hope mingled with grief.

Between 1815 and 1830, Latin American countries were winning their independence, and some of them drew Cornish emigrants. Copper, gold, and silver were being mined in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Colombia, and Peru, and Cornwall was hard-rock mining country, from prehistory onwards. Cornish miners had the experience mine owners were looking for. The saying is that you can go anywhere in the world and if you look into a hole in the ground you’ll find a Cornishman at the bottom, digging. 

In the 1840s, the same potato blight that devastated Ireland hit Cornwall. Potatoes had become a staple in the Cornish diet as well as a cash crop and pig food. With the blight, people faced starvation in Cornwall, although not in the same devastating numbers as in Ireland. But if you’re starving, you don’t stop to argue if somewhere else more people are even closer to the edge than you are. There were food riots.

At about the same time, the Australian government offered free passage to anyone who met their standards. They wanted people who were “healthy, sober, industrious and in the habit of working for wages.” To prove that they qualified, applicants needed two signatures from “respectable householders,” one from a physician or surgeon, and one from a clergyman. Presumably the clergyman was supposed to attest to the sober and industrious part.

Don’t get me started.

They wouldn’t have needed to say this, but they also wanted people who were white. 

 

And the later waves

In 1859, Australian mines started producing copper–lots of copper–and the price dropped worldwide. Cornish mines closed. Then in the 1870s, the price of tin collapsed. More jobs lost. More emigration. 

Reverend Hawker, from a North Cornwall parish, wrote in 1862,

“They come to me for advice. If they have a few pounds out of the wreck my advice always is ‘Emigrate!’ And accordingly nearly a hundred in the current year go across the seas. Our population in 1851 was 1,074 in 1861 it was 868.”

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the Cornish began emigrating to South Africa to mine diamonds and gold. By then, steamships had made the trip faster, and miners were more likely to go abroad and return home rather than sink permanent roots in new countries. 

Wherever they went, though, and for however long, many emigrants sent money home. At the end of the nineteenth century, 7,000 miners in South Africa  sent £1 million a year to Cornwall. In 1898, the West Briton reported a rush to the banks after mail came from South Africa. 

By the time World War I ended, emigration had slowed down, but the population of Cornwall kept on shrinking until the late 1960s. By one estimate, between 1815 and 1920, 250,000 people left Cornwall for other countries and almost the same number left to find work–mostly in mining–in other parts of Britain and in Ireland. 

A different source estimates that between 1861 and 1900 44.8% of the Cornish male population who were between fifteen and twenty-four left to work overseas. So did 26.2% of the female population in the same age group. Another 30% of men and 35.5% of women left for other parts of Britain. 

By the time you add all that up, you have something like half a dozen people left at home to keep the fire going.

 

Cousin Jack

Outside of Cornwall, the non-Cornish considered the Cornish to be clannish. Somehow immigrants are always accused of being clannish. They cluster together to share their customs, their food, their memories, their language, their joys, and their grief. They lean into each other for familiarity and for help–material and emotional–in negotiating the transition. And they’re resented for it. It’s an old story, and it seems to play on a loop throughout–well, I can’t speak for all of human history but the parts of it that I know about.

This led to the belief that Cousin Jack, the common name for a Cornishman, especially a miner, came from Cornish miners always lobbying for some other Cornishman to be hired–his cousin Jack. 

The parallel name for a Cornishwoman is Cousin Jenny.

The story’s vivid enough to be convincing, although that doesn’t make it true. Especially since different sources trace the origin of the phrase to Australia, to the California gold fields, and to Devon, Cornwall’s neighboring county. 

The historian and archeologist Caitlin Green traces it to either Cornwall itself or to Devon and wonders if it didn’t start out as a name to mock Cornishmen, which was then stolen and repurposed by the community it was meant to mock. 

Cousin, she reminds us, didn’t just mean a family member at the time. It was a friendly way to address someone who was close but not family.

I’ll leave you with a link to a beautiful and heartbreaking song about Cornwall, mining, and emigration, “Cousin Jack.” It’s by the Fisherman’s Friends, a group of Cornish singers who are the subject of a movie made a few years ago. It’s got a joke embedded in it about Cornish and English nationalism, although maybe you have to have spent time in Cornwall to get it.

*

My thanks to Pete Cooper for sending me a link about the origin of the phrase Cousin Jack, which got me going on this.

Edward Colston and the statue in Bristol’s harbor

In June of 2020, a Bristol crowd looped a rope around the statue of Edward Colston, pulled it down, and dumped it in the harbor, firing a British version of the usual debate around who owns history, although as far as I know no one put it that way. 

But let’s put history in general to one side and start with who Edward Colston was and why he ended up in the drink.

 

The bio

Colston was born in 1636. You’ll forget that within seconds, but it gives you a century and a set of clothes to imagine him into. He came from a prosperous merchant family whose links to Bristol went back to the thirteenth century. The family bet its chips on the Royalist side of the Civil War, which was first a bad move and then a good one. Somehow they ended up in London. When the king was restored, Eddie’s father went back into business trading in oil, wine, and raisins. 

That isn’t particularly relevant, but it is thorough. Are you impressed?

Irrelevant photo: A snowdrop. In bloom in January. Unbelievable. With a nice hardy weed growing at its feet.

Edward was apprenticed to and then became a member of the Mercers’ Company. In London. He never did move back to Bristol. Except as a statue.

Mercers? They dealt in fabrics, usually expensive ones–silks, velvets, that kind of thing. 

Colston established his own business, trading mostly in cloth and wine and acting as a money lender. He had interest in St. Kitts, in the West Indies, and that should send send up red flags: Britain controlled much of the West Indies, and the economy was based on plantations worked by slave labor. Britons made profits both from selling slaves and from selling the products of their work. Slavery was an important slice of Britain’s economy and the people who ran both the trade in slaves and the slave plantations wielded a hefty slice of political power. 

In 1680, Colston became a member of the Royal African Company. More red flags, waving wildly. The company held the British monopoly on the slave trade between African and the Americas. During his time with it, its ships embarked 84,500 people from west Africa, bound to the Caribbean. 

Notice the wording there–embarked. By one estimate, a quarter of the people who boarded the ships as slaves–or cargo–died en route from disease, from murder, from the occasional suicide, although in the conditions suicide wasn’t easy. They were branded and shackled so tightly together that they lay in their own filth. 

The crossing took six to eight weeks.

I’ve shifted focus from Colston to the company because no one seems to have sorted out how much of his fortune came from the slave trade and what came from ordinary mercerizing. By one account, he owned forty ships. By all accounts, he made what’s commonly known as a shitload of money. What is known is that he played a major role in the company, becoming a deputy governor. 

The profits from his slave trading financed his money lending. 

During the 1690s and 1700s, he sold off his ships, withdrew from the RAC, settled into retirement in Surrey, and got to work philanthropizing. He was High Church, and he knit that tightly into the fabric of his philanthropy. 

High Church translates to–oh, hell, someone else should really be the one to explain this, but it’s the Catholicky end of Anglicanism. It’s formal and heavy on ritual and priests and fancy clothes. That should hold us until someone better educated in churchly stuff comes along. 

One scholarly paper describes his brand of both Christianity and philanthropy as authoritarian, and that seems fair. A foundation he set up required students “‘to be staunch sons of the Church, provided such books are procured for them as have no tincture of Whiggism.” 

The Whigs? They were the politicians who weren’t the Tories. The differences between them were both political and religious.

His approach to religion was that the “holy doctrines, if we follow, will teach us obedience to our governors, as well civil as ecclesiastical, and to support the rights of both, to which that God will incline us all.”

If you have nothing better to do, you might want to see if you can untangle that sentence. I gave up. What the hell, it’s a quotation, I can claim not to be responsible. But we could fairly safely sum up the content as, Sit down, shut up, and do as you’re told. 

Philanthropy sounds selfless, but it gave (and still gives) a person a lot of political clout, and his made him a revered figure in Bristol. 

He never married. I found one intriguing quote saying, “he prefers good works to purity of life, by laying out some thousands of pounds in building hospitals here, while himself lived very much at his ease with a Tory, though of a different sex, at M[ortla]ke.” 

You figure it out. I got lost trying to figure out which sex is the opposite of Tory. Whatever his purity or sexual interests, he left his money to a niece–and of course her husband, because in those days a lady didn’t soil her hands with money, even if she wanted to.

 

Colston’s legacy

Bristol was a focus of Colston’s philanthropy and over the years it got to be thoroughly be-Colstoned. Buildings were named after him, along with streets, schools, pubs, a hill, an almshouse, and of course that statue. I could go on, but enough. Twenty things have carried his name according to a local paper

And for ages Colston was commemorated in a yearly service at St. Stephen’s Church, where he was buried. Three charity groups held a procession from his statue to the church, complete with top hats and tails and double lines of expensive-looking men. All of them white. They did that until 2017, when Colston’s reputation was getting too ripe and the church refused to host the service, although it offered to hold one thanking the groups themselves for their charitable work.

In what seems to have been a separate commemoration, schoolkids were rounded up to sit in the cathedral, contemplate a window in Colston’s memory, and listen to a sermon about his good works. 

My point here is that it wasn’t just Colston’s statue, standing there and minding its own business. This was in-your-face, behold-the-great-man Colstonizing. I’m not sure the statue wouldn’t have been torn down anyway, but with all that worshipfulness, you could argue extenuating circumstances.

 

Why people didn’t use legal channels

It’s not like people didn’t try to get rid of it legally. Over the years, petitions to have the statue removed had been created, circulated, signed, submitted, and ignored. Demonstrations had been held, not necessarily aimed at the statue but at other bits of the Colston cult.

Okay, that’s unfair. It’s not exactly a cult, but the alliteration was so tempting.

At some point, a home-made plaque appeared on the statue, noting that Colston was a slave trader and filling in as much of his history as you can fit on a plaque, and that sparked several years of effort to replace it with an official plaque. 

What should the official plaque say, though? A group of historians were asked for a draft, which was nitpicked to dust. Someone objected to the word trafficking being used to describe the slave trade. Couldn’t it just say Africans were transported? And that word enslaved. Doesn’t that sound kind of harsh?

No blood was shed in those meetings, although I don’t know why.

Okay, I don’t know if they actually held meetings. If they didn’t, that might explain it.

When a compromise was finally–somehow–reached, the mayor took a look at the wording and ordered a rewrite.

At his point, they were fifteen months into the project. They’d agreed on the words and and but, but not the.

Then some ten thousand Black Lives Matter protesters converged on Colston Square. It took them four minutes to topple the statue. 

And at various points along the way, some of the things named after Colston were quietly renamed, including one of the pubs. Some organizations are still working on it and some dug a hole and pulled it in over themselves. 

 

But what about History, with a capital H?

You can’t talk about people toppling statues without someone saying that they’re erasing history. 

No. Let me try that again: You can’t talk about Black Lives Matter protesters toppling statues without etc., because when statues of Sadam Hussein were torn down–with the help of the US Army, if memory serves, because the crowd wasn’t large enough and maybe he was glued down, because he didn’t leave his pedestal without a fight–I didn’t hear any complaints about rewriting history. It was all whoopee! The dictator was being torn down. The people were taking revenge.

Ditto the statues of Lenin. Or Stalin. No articles in the paper saying that it was an attempt to erase history. 

But statues aren’t history any more than my junior high history textbooks were history. They’re mythology. At best, they’re one version of history–the version convenient to whoever’s in power. At worst, they’re bullshit–an attempt to glorify the inglorious, simplify the complicated, cover up the inconvenient, and (although this never gets said) remind the governed who still rules them. 

When Black Lives Matter protesters pull down the statues of slave owners and slave traders, they’re making history. They’re demanding that the official history of their city, their country, their world include them, not just the people who made fortunes by driving and selling their ancestors. 

Colston’s statue will end up in a museum–when they open again–where it can be presented as part of genuine, difficult, complicated history. 

Britain’s Corn Laws: that bit of history you slept through turns out to be fascinating

Britain’s Corn Laws are a bit of long-repealed legislation whose history is wrapped around the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, Ireland’s potato famine, and the struggle for workers’ rights and universal suffrage. So if (as I assume) you slept through them in some half-forgotten history class, it’s time to catch up.

They not only matter, they’re interesting.

Irrelevant photo: an azalea blossom

 

The Napoleonic Wars and the politics of wheat

Let’s start with the Napoleonic Wars. That’s 1803 to 1815, and I had to look them up too. I don’t actually know anything. I just ask Lord Google questions and arrange the information he gives me, usually in odd patterns and after filtering the sites he suggests, because he does try to slip me some losers. 

I also have a growing stash of books on British history. Some are more useful than others.

Where were we?

The Napoleonic Wars. Before going nose to nose with revolutionary France, Britain was in the habit of importing a lot of its wheat, which was its most important grain. It was also in the habit of using the word corn for any old kind of grain. It still is. What Britain calls corn, the US calls grain. And what the US calls corn, Britain calls maize.

How we understand each other at all is beyond me.

There’d been corn laws since as early as the twelfth century, but they didn’t become a political focus until the nineteenth, and that was because during the Napoleonic Wars Britain couldn’t import wheat from Europe, so British farmers patriotically planted more wheat and filled the gap as best they could. Then came the end of the war and British farming patriotically demanded that its price had to be protected from interloping foreign corn that spoke funny languages and, worse yet, cost less. 

Now that’s what I call patriotism.

In 1812, corn cost 126s. 6d. a quarter. Three years later, it cost 65s. 7d. Forget the complicated math it takes to understand that: What you need to know is that the price dropped. Drastically. https://spartacus-educational.com/PRcorn.htm

Okay, okay, we’ll break the numbers down. Don’t blame me if we can’t get them back together: 

A quarter, an s. and a d. are long-dead measurements that everyone took seriously and knew how to work with at the time. An s. is a shilling and a d. is a penny, because shilling starts with S and penny doesn’t start with d.

You can see how much sense this is going to make, right?

There were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound, although for reasons I can’t begin to understand no one seems to have shifted from shillings to pounds here when they got to 21, they just kept adding up the shillings. It’s a mystery that only people who’ve lived with the system can explain–maybe–and if we stick around a while it’s possible that one of them will. Friends, I invite you to the comments box.

A quarter is eight bushels. Its full name is quarter-hundredweight and it’s a quarter of a hundredweight. Hang onto that, because it’s the only bit that’ll make sense. A hundredweight doesn’t weigh a hundred of anything: It’s 112 pounds, or 8 stone. In the US, a hundredweight used to mean 100 pounds, but then people stopped using the term. It was too confusing, having a hundredweight weigh a hundred of something.

Try not to think about it too long or your brain will turn to jelly. Which in the US is something you spread on toast but in Britain is a fruit-flavored dessert made with gelatine–that stuff Americans call by the brand name jello, minus the capital letter. We stole the word from the manufacturers.

And how much wheat is 8 bushels? Enough to cover your living room floor nicely, thanks. 

I know. Sometimes it seems like we’ll never get to the point, but here we are.

When wheat prices dropped, British landowners patriotically pushed Parliament to protect their prices (the alliteration’s accidental but fun), and I doubt it took much pushing because the country’s political structure was weighted heavily in favor of landowners. And that last sentence is why the Corn Laws are more than just some ancient bit of legislative history but an entry point to a long battle over the right to vote.

 

Money and power

At the opening of the nineteenth century, women couldn’t not vote, the poor couldn’t vote, and most of the not-so-poor couldn’t vote. The richest industrialists could vote but that wasn’t enough to give them the political power that would’ve made such a fetching match for their money, and they weren’t happy about that. Because what good is one measly vote when you need Parliament to pass the laws that protect your interests and your business? For that, you want some serious clout. 

Parliament made no pretense of representing the country as a whole. The lords of many a constituency were able to appoint its Member of Parliament, who the few people allowed to vote would duly elect. In other constituencies, candidates openly bought votes. Big industrial cities often didn’t have their own Members of Parliament, although what were called rotten boroughs, with next to no population, did. To (atypically) get to the point, the House of Commons was safely under the control of landowners, as was the House of Lords.  

In 1815, to protect the price of wheat, Parliament passed the Corn Law, slapping a hefty import duty on foreign wheat unless the price of domestically grown wheat rose to 80s. per quarter. The duty was steep enough that wheat wasn’t worth importing. This protected not just the farmers producing the wheat but also the landlords who owned the land the farmers farmed. If the price of wheat dropped, farm rents would have to drop. And since landowners held the power–

You can see where I’m going with this, right?

Rioting broke out in London while the bill was being debated and soldiers surrounded Parliament to protect it. What with the war and several years of bad harvests, people had lived with high grain prices long enough. This was a time, remember, when you didn’t take it for granted that you could keep yourself and your family fed. Some huge percentage of the population lived on the edge. 

The bill passed anyway–who thought it wouldn’t?–and that focused a lot of people’s attention on getting the vote. In other words, it fed the demand for political reform.

The 1816 harvest was bad, pushing prices up, and that was followed by food riots and strikes for higher pay. 

Which brings us to our next point: If the Corn Laws were a disaster for people who were just scraping by, but they also pissed off industrialists–those rich people whose political power wasn’t a good match for their money. When the price of grain went up, their workers pushed for higher wages so they could afford to eat. People can be so picky about that. For industrialists, that meant either industrial unrest or less profit. 

They didn’t like either choice.

 

Who gets the profit?

From the 1820s through the 1840s, Conservative and Liberal governments tinkered with the Corn Laws but didn’t repeal them, and landowners argued that manufacturers opposed them only so they could drive down workers’ wages and increase their own profits. This was despicable, since the landowners preferred to have the profits in their own pockets. In an improbable convergence of opinion, the Chartist Movement, which was socialist, agreed, as did Karl Marx. 

From what I can see, there was some truth in the argument. A certain amount of profit was kicking around the country and the question was whose pocket was it going to end up in?

Of course, it could go into workers’ pockets through a combination of lower bread prices and stable or higher wages, but, yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.  

Marx seems (waffle word there; I’m working from second-hand sources instead of reading all 74 volumes of Capital plus his 6,739 assorted pamphlets, letters, and whatever’s left) to have gone a step further and seen the battle as one where the industrialists needed the workers’ help against the landowners, but as far as I can tell many of the struggles against the Corn Laws and for the vote came from the ground up, not the top down. Abolition of the Corn Laws was one of the demands at St. Peters Field, site of the Peterloo massacre, where people also demanded universal suffrage.

By which they meant, of course, universal suffrage for men. But that’s a different tale. You can find it here

The Anti-Corn Law League was founded in 1838 and advocated peacefully for repeal, and in 1844 the Duke of Richmond countered by founding the Central Agricultural Protection Society (called CAPS) to campaign in favor, which makes it sound like he felt that the pressure against the laws was serious. 

Then 1845 combined a bad harvest in Britain with the potato blight in Ireland, which was very much under British control. If Britain was facing scarcity–and it was–Ireland was facing starvation.

The combination convinced the prime minister, Robert Peel, that the Corn Laws had to end, and for a while it looked like Parliament would rescind them, but after some political jockeying, complete with prime ministers resigning, the laws were still in place. CAPS campaigned fiercely against abolishing them, in some places (according to the New World Encyclopedia) it practically supplanted the Conservative party.

One of the arguments offered in the parliamentary debate was that repeal would weaken landowners socially and politically, destroying the “territorial constitution” of Britain by empowering commercial interests.

In 1846, the Corn Laws were finally repealed, but the potato famine had moved well beyond the reach of half measures. It’s a separate story, and a bitter one. Estimates put the number of Irish people who died of hunger and disease at a million, all in the name of letting the problem work itself out through natural means. 

 

The effects of repeal

Repeal did keep the price of corn down in Britain. Between 1850 and 1870, it averaged 52 s. Britain became increasingly dependent on imported corn and British agriculture went into a depression notable enough to have its own name, complete with capital letters: the Great Depression of British Agriculture. Agricultural laborers left the land and migrated to the cities, feeding the Industrial Revolution.

You can chalk all that up to the repeal of the Corn Laws if you like, or you can chalk it up to railroads and steamships making North American grain easier to import. Britain and Belgium were the only corn-growing countries in Europe not put to a tariff on the stuff.

The Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884 gradually, under pressure and with much gnashing of teeth, expanded the vote. Repeal of the Corn Laws hadn’t destroyed Britain’s territorial constitution–whatever that is or was–but power was shifting.

The Corn Laws are often presented as a battle between free trade and restrictive tariffs, and that’s how my high school history textbook so forgettably explained them, after which it dropped the subject and my entire class sleepily murmured, “Did something just happen there??”

It wasn’t on the test, so the answer was no, nothing happened.

Free trade is, legitimately, a thread you can follow through the debates and battles over the Corn Laws, and it’ll carry you effectively enough into the next couple of centuries, but unless you’re a policy obsessive it may be the least interesting way to understand the story. I’m a fan of the way political power realigned itself to more nearly match economic power, and how people who had neither kind of power battered away at the system until they forced it to make a bit of space for them.