Tag Archives: Empire

Black Poor and White Philanthropists: Sierra Leone

2800738What a title, eh?

It is a worthy and detailed look at the first attempt to set up a colony of free Blacks in Sierra Leone in 1786. It asks the simple question, did Black folks have agency in this process? The answer is of course they did, so there are a lot of deeper complexities that this book doesn’t address theoretically. But there is a basic history (which will make you rage), and some fun facts along the way, because a few of the principles involved were, to put it simply, batshit crazy.

There’s this nugget about Granville Sharp:

It may also seem incongruous to present-day readers that Sharp should take time off from his campaign against the evils of slavery and the slave trade to call in at Covent Garden theatre, in order to protest in person against the stage practice of dressing women in men’s clothes (15).

He must have been a very busy man with so much iniquity in the world. Described here as one of the driving forces behind the Sierra Leone settlement, he accomplished much through pithy interventions by pamphlet like this one:

Memorandum on a late Proposal for a New Settlement to be made on the Coast of AFRICA; recommending to the Author of that Proposal, several Alterations in his Plan, and more especially the Adoption of the ancient Mode of Government by Tithings (or Decenaries) and Hundreds, as being the most useful and effectual Mode of Government for all Nations and Countries.

Establish an Anglo-Saxon government in Sierra Leone? Why not. Even Swedenborg (founder of the Swedenborgian mystical… tendency? religion? cult?) got into the act with his pamphlet titled ‘An Essay on Colonization, particularly applied to the Western Coast of Africa’. I’m looking that shit up, but later.

Putting the craziness to one side for a moment (and just a moment) there are some great details on this early and mostly lost period of Black lives in London pulled from a review of parish registers from 1783-1787. Braidwood found 168 people noted as black, spread across 9 parishes, 144 of them in 6 East End parishes —  partiularly St-George’s-in-the-East (71), and St Dunstan’s, Stepney (Mile End Old Town and Ratcliffe). 83 names given place of origin, 6 born in Britain, 3 definitely born in Africa, 26 (31%) from West Indies (9 from Jamaica, 5 from Barbados). 13 from from Charleston, South Carolina. A global community. The 960 people who would ultimately receive relief, however, reflect a much larger community than that described through this source.

Braidwood also found clusters of names reflecting the histories of slavery and freedom. ‘Classical’ names like John Jupiter, James Neptune, William Cato, John Scipio. Others biblical: Aaron and Darius Brooks, Moses Handley, James Titus, Sampson Morgan and Hezekiah Nukins. Other names from where they had been born: Robert Carolina, James Stepney, Black London (!). Others on characteristics held or desired: Michael Handy, George Comfortable.

But mostly this book details the effort to establish a colony in Sierra Leone, and the principal mechanism for it through the formation of the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor in 1786. The motivations are tangled in charity and racism, a desire to export the poor and to some limited extent a desire to help them. Formed in Mr Faulder’s book shop in Bond St, but subsequent meetings took place in Batson’s Coffee House, opposite the Royal Exchange. Its best known chairman was Jonas Hanway (his batshit reminiscent of Granville Sharp’s):

Hanway is today chiefly remembered for two campaigns which received strikingly different measures of success: his introduction to London of the umbrella, and his opposition to the ‘pernicious custom’ of drinking tea (65).

There is some really interesting primary evidence of English views on the presence of Blacks (particularly around their role in the American war of independence). Letter to The Public Advertiser (I think 19 January, 1786):

the Lascars…demand our pity only; but…the African negroes have an actual claim on our justice:- They, or the greater part of them, have served Britain, have fought under her colours, and after having quitted the service of their American masters, depending on the promise of protection held out to them by British Governors and Commanders, are now left to perish by famine and cold, in the sight of that people for whom they have hazarded their lives, and even (many of them) spilt their blood. (68)

We learn more about the geographies of Black residence in London: Relief was originally handed out at ‘the shop of Mr Brown, a baker, in Wigmore Street’, with an increase in donations rooms in two public houses were hired, the White Raven in Mile End, and the Yorkshire Stingo (!) on Lisson Green in Marylebone. On the 24th of January they were giving broth, a piece of meat and a twopenny loaf to 140 people a day, by February it was 210.

My own experiences and researches lead me to agree with those who put racism at the top of the tangle of ‘philanthropic’ motivations. John Pugh, Hanway’s biographer, wrote in 1787 in The Remarkable Occurences in the Life of Jonas Hanway that success for the committee:

must tend to relieve the misery of these poor people, and prevent the unnatural connections between black persons and white; the disagreeable consequences of which make their appearance but too frequently in our streets.

In an attempt to enlist the help of the Committee of West India Planters and Merchants, Benjamin Johnson wrote:

Commiserating the calamitous Situation of these People the object of the Committee has thus far been confined to a temporary relief, but being assured, that nothing short of their removal will effectually assist them, they are using their best endeavors to fix on some means of affording them a permanent subsistence. They have it in view also to procure a Act of Parliament, to prevent any Foreign Blacks being brought to this Country to remain, as it must ever be attended with many Inconveniences; To obtain these ends, the Committee would be very happy to have the honor of your Advice and Assistance (74-75, quoting ICS West India Committee minute books, 3/1, 32).

Novia Scotia was the original idea for the site of the settlement, but a certain Henry Smeathem had his heart set on Sierra Leone, writing Plan of a Settlement to be made near Sierra Leona in 1786 (a reworking of an older plan). He claimed it was a beautiful and healthy place, when in fact the death toll among Europeans was extremely high. He won over the committee and then the government, now involved in the plan. Black folks themselves, however, were not quite so happy about the idea. Relief became conditional on their agreement to colonise Sierra Leone by June of 1786, about 30 refused to take it, others wished to go to the US or the West Indies. There were rumours flying around that this was deportation to a penal colony — either Botany Bay or in Africa, and why not?

There was some resistence to the plan, and newspapers make clear that some Blacks did appeal to Lord George Gordon (of riot fame), but unclear if he intervened in any way or penned any of the anonymous attacks on it that were printed. Apparently, however, many were won round to the idea of returning to Africa, and there are some interesting details on how those on relief were organised around key leaders who would be responsible for bringing their people to the ships.

By late 1786 the number of those who had accepted allowances was 700 (a later figure is 960), the number Granville Sharp assumed was sailing. Payments were stopped to those who did not agree to embark, a plan to arrest all Blacks for vagrancy who did not embark was mooted. Only about 350 people had boarded the ships waiting for them by February 1787 — of which there were originally three planned, and there were huge delays in trying to get more to embark. The total in the lists drawn up by Gustavas Vassa (also known as Olaudah Equiano, famed for his autobiography and leading role in advocacy for abolition as a former slave, so I’m fascinated by his role in this affair, though it was short lived and not well explained) were 459 – 117 women (70 of these white wives) and 25 children.

By March all three had left London and reached Plymouth. There had been outbreaks of fever. A public letter was printed detailing complaints of Olaudah Equiano, who left the expedition here after his dismissal for disrespect and accusations of fomenting mutiny. Meanwhile the whites were fighting over the land to be granted them.

The fleet finally set sail on 9 April, 1787 — five months later than planned, practically ensuring the failure of the settlement as it had been timed to arrive before the rainy season when mortality was already known to be at its highest, but instead arrived on the 10th of May.

In total the Treasury had paid out £14,747 13s 9d.

They called the settlement ‘Province of Freedom’. By mid-September, 122 had died. By March of the following year only 130 people were left alive. The settlement itself only lasted 2 and half years. The blame, states Braidwood, has usually been placed on the settlers, especially their failure to set up a stable government.

White people decided to start again. In 1788 an abolitionist named Falconbridge was sent to Sierra Leone to try and refound a settlement. He found 56 survivors who had moved to a nearby town, 36 men and 20 women. Thornton and Wilberforce worked to get the Sierra Leone Settlement Bill through parliament, to support the settlement of the area by the Sierra Leone Company. A whole new effort was to commence, supposedly on a for profit basis as any other chartered company of trade and colonization.

I read this book to try and find out more after finding a reference to this extraordinary and terrible history in a biography of Henry Thornton. It’s worth requoting that in length:

The one attempt in pure colonial philanthropy, which Granville Sharp had made five years before, had proved a dismal failure.

Sharp had himself explored the land along the mouth of the Sierra Leone River in 1787. The Royal African Company had lost its monopoly there in 1698, and the territory was full of slavers from France and from England. Sharp returned to London determined to see at least one colony of freemen on the western coast of Africa, He formed a Committee for Black Poor which raised money to send a group of 340 indigent Negroes to Sierra Leone. They sailed under the protection of nine white officials and in the company of 62 white prostitutes. Sharp had elaborate plans for his settlement, but by September 1788, four months after landing, just 66 Negroes remained alive. Disease felled half the tough white women. Those neither dead nor sick were burdened with the care of 30 black and mulatto babies. The five harassed officials still at work could only try in vain to interest them in re-establishing the Anglo-Saxon frank-pledge system Sharp had felt best suited to their needs (102-103).

Everything infuriates me, from the callousness with which Black lives are treated, to calling the white wives prostitutes. Everything about this venture breaks my heart, doomed to failure as it was, and ugly as the behavior of abolitionists and philanthropists and fortune-seekers proved to be.

And still so much to find out.


A License to Trade (and thus conquer the world)

I am going to try to evoke the excitement and fascination of the rise of chartered companies. Awesome you say. But really, this is how England became an Empire.

I am slogging through it. Writing because that helps me understand.

To do it, I am going to depart slightly in interpretation from the dull and very partisan book I am basing all of this on and quoting from, A License to Trade: The History of English Chartered Companies by Sir Percival Griffiths (1974, London: Ernest Benn Ltd).

These companies were experiments beginning mostly in the 16th century but stretching back long before. They were slightly revolutionary, emerging in a time when the crown had enormous power and its subjects had none. Griffiths writes of the reasons that this form of organisation was necessary:

A charter was necessary in the first place because associations of individuals had no inherent right of meeting or electing officers or framing regulations. Without royal sanction the members of such an association would have been at continual risk of being punished as an unlawful assembly [I see why it was included in the U.S. Constitution]. Even the administration of oaths, or the export of goods, or the departure of an individual from England might require royal permission… (x)

So they had to invent something that would allow the pooling of resources necessary to carry out trading expeditions and explorations and that could meet regularly as a group with the crown’s permission, that gave them jurisdiction over their employees while they were abroad (again, normally a right belonging entirely to the crown), and at the same time had proof that the crown was backing them up. With force.

That’s exciting.

The charter was the outward sign to the foreign government that the company operated under the aegis of the English Crown and that injuries to its members would be resent by the Crown and might provoke retaliation (xi).

And finally, the wet dream of all capitalists everywhere, monopoly.

No body of individuals would have been prepared to accept all the risks then attendant on opening up overseas ventures without some assurance that others would not enjoy the fruits of its labours and all the early charters, therefore, conferred exclusive trading rights against all other Englishmen (xi).

I spy a hint of the classical economist’s assumption of freeloading here, which I hate, and that stupid idea that people are only motivated by profit, but I will let it slide. Particularly as on this occasion, most of these men were in fact motivated solely by profit, and did not let a single moral qualm stand in their way. It’s like free-market economics were invented entirely to describe them.

But what I find most interesting is that from their earliest beginnings, these chartered companies that sent out trading, exploratory and colonising expeditions around the world, were a strange mix of public and private, an uneasy combination of   individual and collective and national interests, and a part of the crucible that created the very ideas of free trade and rights that are so familiar today. Though they were all decrepit and bailed out in the end, or just used as the vehicle for crown rule.


In thinking about that crucible, we must remember that while determining their rights and ‘exploring’ and ‘adventuring’ they were also extorting vast wealth and embarking on policies of conquest, slavery and genocide. This book doesn’t get into any of that however. At least, not where it can avoid it.

It mostly started with the merchant adventurers — who I shall hate forever for stealing the joy of the word adventure. There are mentions of merchant groups back in the 1200s, but in 1485 the English cloth merchants petitioned the crown as ‘Merchant Adventurers, Citizens of the City of London, into the parts of Holland, Zeeland, Brabant and Flanders’.

It’s not surprising, but interesting that they style themselves ‘Citizens of the City of London’, and set up branches in other cities. Citizens of London, not England.

There are few light notes in this tome, I admit. But here is one. These merchant adventurers had apprentices who misbehaved as apprentices will do, ‘liable to fines for immorality or drunkeness, or for playing cards for excessive stakes…”knocking and ringing at men’s doors, beating at windows and consuming the master’s goods”‘ (11).

Another ‘fun’ fact: members often traded individually but divided up the total trade. The portion belonging to each was known as his stint.

I won’t go too much into each of the companies, but I hadn’t realised quite how many there were, quite how early they were, nor how different they were. It’s interesting to see them all together and realise the scale of this early stage of building the Empire. Also interesting is that before the beginning of accounting (or perhaps in spite of it), it is hard to gauge actual profits and losses. The wealth of England shows that there were profits, company members seemed to continuously pay themselves large dividends completely unrelated to actual profits and losses, but they all in the end seemed to have received subsidies from the crown (though that went both ways) and most were eventually fully taken over by the crown. As we know. That Empire over which the sun never set.

I’ve pulled out exciting quotes — there were a few. Honest. Well, enraging really. But there’s some good gossip about Ivan the Terrible and a visionary named Wakefield.

Seal of the Muscovy Company, showing the date 1555 above an escutcheon of arms.
Seal of the Muscovy Company, showing the date 1555 above an escutcheon of arms.

The Russia Company:

Beyond theories of the Elizabethan spirit of adventure and daring ‘…it is clear that the driving force behind the pioneers of the Russia venture was the need to find markets for the newly created surplus production of England’ (19). So early, it seems too early, does it not?

Circumstances were thus propitious when, in 1553, two hundred and forty ‘grave Citizens of London and men of great wisedome, and carefull for the good of their Countrey’ banded themselves together under the governorship of Sebastian Cabot to promote a voyage for the discovery of a North East passage to Cathay and for the establishment of trade wherever possible (20)

I love this description of the Tsar Ivan the Terrible, pioneer of multiple costume changes, from pilot Richard Chancellor:

Before dinner hee changed his crowne, and in dinner time two crowns; so that I saw three severall crownes upon his head in one day (21).

In return for their trading rights to Russia, the crown extorted from the company a few things. Not that they pay a portion of their earnings to the crown’s overseas creditors (as many other companies were required to do), but instead that they provide all of the wax required by the Royal Household and all the cordage required by the navy. They could not sell either of these two commodities until the crown and the navy had had enough.

A gold beaker bearing the Levant Company's arms, presented to Katherine, Lady Trumbull, in April 1687
A gold beaker bearing the Levant Company’s arms, presented to Katherine, Lady Trumbull, in April 1687

The Levant Company:

Ah, Turkey and Venice…and the companies formed to ‘wrest from the Venetians the existing trade between England and the Levant’ (42).

In 1581, Elizabeth I granted ‘letters patent’ to the Turkey company that ‘authorized them to make laws and ordinances for the government of the Company, and prohibited English subjects from even visiting Turkey without permission of the Company’ (46) and renewable after 7 years.

The Levant Company received its letters patent in 1592, and was entitled to also appoint an Ambassador to Turkey to represent both crown and company.  After some prosperity it received a few infusions of cash from the crown, and failed.

God, this is a little boring. Except you wake up and realise the company was appointing ambassadors to represent England abroad, and you’re like what? There was a bit of struggle over this, but still…

The African Companies:

Of the great charter companies established in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the African companies alone can be regarded as, on the whole, unsuccessful. From 1588 to 1672 a succession of companies chartered to trade to the Guinea Coast went out of business, and even the Royal African Company, chartered in 1672 to exploit what was thought to be the very lucrative slave trade, enjoyed only a brief spell of prosperity and eventually found itself unable to compete with private traders.

This is real banality of evil stuff, in presentation, not in subject.  He discusses lightly the three phases: trade by private individuals with or without permission, trade by the companies focused mainly on gold, and from 1660 (what ho restoration and the joys it brought the rest of the world), companies were chartered mainly for the slave trade.

A quote from J.A. WIlliamson that gives the lie to all of the later quotes about civilization and for people’s own good and etc:

The Guinea traffic of this period is one of the fundamental transactions of British expansion…it produced an oceanic war with Portugal…and it occassioned the formulation of a British doctrine which was never afterwards abandoned, the doctrine that prescriptive rights to colonial territory are of no avail unless backed by effective occupation.

The first English slave raid on the Guinea Coast? John Hawkins, 1562.

eastindiaThe East India Company:

Chartered in 1600. I am reading tons about them (see another post here), so I am going to be brief here.

Young men went to India in the eighteenth century to make a fortune and since they were grossly underpaid they relied for this purpose on private trade–a practice at times allowed and at other times connived at by the Directors (97).

Like a swarm of jackals really…I’m mixing my metaphor there, but I like it. Griffiths skips lightly over this, as he does the horror-filled famine in Bengal in 1769 onwards, though he has to note Pitt’s Act of 1784 which arose to control the company’s abuses that gave rise to it.

It is only in thinking of profits that this makes any sense:

The China trade presented the brightest aspect of the Company’s affairs in the late eighteenth century. It consisted of the export of opium from India to China and the export from China of tea, silk and spices (104).

No mention of Opium Wars of course.

Heraldic achievement of Hudson's Bay Company
Heraldic achievement of Hudson’s Bay Company

The Hudson’s Bay Company:

The 1670 charter granted it:

The sole trade and commerce of all those seas, straits, bays, rivers, lakes, creeks and sounds, in whatsoever latitude they shall be, that lie within the entrance of the straits, commonly caled Hudson’s Straits, together with all the land and territories upon the countries, coasts and confines of the seas, bays, lakes, rivers, creeks and sounds aforesaid, that are not actually already possessed by or granted to any of our subjects, or possessed by the subjects of any other Christian Prince or State (112).

Thus they bring god into it robbery and theft. Their first sales in London were by

‘inch of candle’ at Garroway’s Coffee House on 24 January 1672. It was not a financial success–of between 2,700 and 3,000 lb of beaver put up for sale, only 789 lb. were sold, realizing £282 4s 0d.

Breaks my heart that does.

There’s more, like this:

Wedderburn had also shown much interest in land settlement as a means of providing for the Company’s retired servants and their half-breed offspring, and also of making servants and labourers available for the Company’s needs (126).

I almost ripped that page out of the book, but I didn’t.

It was unthinkable that the great prairies, large areas of which were believed to be fertile, should remain almost uninhabited. The only question was as to who should colonize them (131).

The Virginia Company:

They settled Virginia, most of them died, blah blah blah.

The Plymouth Company:

We’ve heard lots about them before.

The Massachusetts Bay Company:

This differed from the rest in that the government of the company was not required to remain in England. Good for founding theocratic states.

The Newfoundland and Guiana Companies:

The Darien Company:

A Scottish chartered company, but it didn’t quite get off the ground.

By the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, these companies were still being formed, but intellectual fashion had ‘swung strongly against monopolies’, so they didn’t have that going for them. The reason I am reading this book at all was the little I have found out about the

g161Sierra Leone Company:

When Griffiths writes this it is without sarcasm, but not when I copy it:

Even before the news of this disaster had reached London, it had become apparent to Sharp that philanthropic motives were not always by themselves sufficient for the maintenance of a colony and that commercial interests must be attracted to it (219).

The Governor was fortunate in the choice of his two Councillors — Zachary Macaulay, a leading member of the Clapham Sect, and William Dawes, a former marine officer at Botany Bay (221)

An evangelical abolitionist and the warden of a prison colony. Jesus.

I don’t even know where this comes from:

Like most visionaries, Wakefield was unbalanced and in his early days found himself in trouble with the law as a result of abducting an heiress (226).

Niger_Coast_Scott_44The Royal Niger Company:

Prepare yourself for some truly righteous anger…

The determination of the British Government to suppress the slave trade led, in 1851, to friction with Kosoko, the King of Lagos. When he attacked the British settlement at Badagri, he was driven out and his successor, Akitoya, entered into a treaty for the abolition of the slave trade. He was succeeded by Docemo, who genuinely sought to observe the treaty, but opposition from his subjects was too strong and it became clear that nothing except direct British control would achieve the desired result. In August 1861, Docemo was therefore pursuaded to cede his kingdom to the Britain and was given a very adequate pension (238).

The pension is a nice touch.

…in the Delta, where many of the tribes keenly resented the presence of the Company. Its activities not only undermined their position as middlemen but also threatened their way of life, since the Company was determined to put an end to slavery and to suppress the barbarous customs of cannibalism and human sacrifice…bit by bit, either by peaceful treaty or force, the Company established its ascendency and within a few years the Delta was fully under its control (241).

In the words of a writer in 1898, unconsciously giving a better angle on what it really was all about:

The West Coast of Africa at the present day resembles a huge estate that has been split up into building lots, with desirable frontages on to the Atlantic, and boundary fences running back on either side of each lot, but in many cases having no fence at the end of the back garden… (A. F. Mockler-Ferryman, British West Africa, London: 1898. p 411)

The British North Borneo Company:

Never concerned with trade, this company just governed Borneo. You know.

The Imperial British East Africa Company:

As a Chartered Company, however, they were considered to have responsibilities almost as agents for Her Majesty’s Government and so had to undertake an unprofitable advance into territories from which that Government wished to exclude the Germans. As a result, the shareholder received no dividends and lost much of their capital (263).

The British South Africa Company:

Ah, South Africa, a monument to the benefits of Empire.

There were a host more of smaller, less important, more prone to failure companies. In spicing this post up with pictures I found stamps and coins…which demands a whole other post really. Of course they had stamps and coins, but I still ask myself, did they really have stamps and coins? Seriously?

I mock these things, but I know this is a history of conquest and slavery and a destruction of lives and cultures and languages and traditions and knowledges. Unimaginable horror. Driven by greed. Hidden behind discussions of chartered companies and their legalistic language and reasonings.

Which is why I am learning more.


Walpole: The Sole and First Prime Minister

6208944A government is formed when a bunch of men sit around in a room and figure out exactly how everything is going to work, and who is going to do what, and they write it all down as something everyone can read.

Being raised in America, that little nugget has sat unquestioned in my head since I can remember. If I had thought about it, I would have questioned it. But I didn’t.

This book was a bit soporific, quite supportive of its subject and forgiving to the aristocracy. But reading about Walpole (1676-1745) and his twenty year reign at the head of government (1721 to 1742ish) has been good, if only to understand a bit better the early period of Empire, and how a government not entirely dependent on the whims and fancies of a spoiled human being was wrestled slowly and haltingly into life. Hill argues that monarchs needed money, didn’t want to bother raising it, didn’t want one guy in charge of money who might challenge them one day, and so…

By the accident of an historical situation in which insecure monarchs resolved to entrust the Treasury to a committee rather than an individual, the office of First Lord was able to begin its evolution in that of Prime Minister in the hands of one of the ablest politicians of the eighteenth century (1-2).

This broadening of the base of power and decision-making was a step in the right direction, particularly interesting as it began to center power in the House of Commons. But it didn’t go too far, of course, as they weren’t very common at all.

Conscious of their power in the new permanent setting of Paliament, these men legislated for the benefit of their own class in the firm conviction that what was best for them was best for the country as a whole (7).

The continuance of a ministry irrespective of the person of the monarch was a logical step as the importance of Parliament gradually increased in the eighteenth century and ministers’ power base shifted towards the House of Commons (144).

Funny that Walpole hated and repudiated the slur of being called prime minister, as did those who followed him down to Pitt. Even so, they were at the top, and it was still a system based entirely on patronage — you could argue the same is still true today, just a little more subtle. A little.

The famed, and at the time much-publicised ‘corruption’ by which Walpole sought to assist his parliamentary majority was in fact no more than the use of classic methods of patronage management raised to a new standard of perfection by a master manipulator (9).

Hill says that, but he does later on note a business venture with Josiah Burchett, Secretary of the Admiralty, which involved smuggling wine from Holland using an Admiralty launch…

There is also, of course, the old boys club at play — the Kit-Kat Club to be exact, the place to see and be seen and to get anywhere in whig society. For men (and socially for women), being a whig meant being ‘a socially close-knit group in face of a strong Tory majority in the nation as a whole’ (39). Interesting, there’s no way to get a sense here of just how divided people in the top ranks were.

He also notes the connections to the new and burgeoning business of empire and trade: ‘Whig political fortunes became inextricably mixed up with the fortunes of the commercial community’ (26). But of course, the Tories must have been too, or they would have been drowned by whig wealth and have disappeared long ago as a force of conservatism.

Anyway, beyond the major jolt to my common-sense conceptions of how government forms, there are some interesting tidbits about society, like this on the role of women and money in building influence:

In 1707, Walpole took two months off in Norfolk to conclude the lengthy negotiations for a financial settlement in connection with the marriage of his sister Susan (47).

Two months.

The burden of having to shelter his other sister Dolly is also often mentioned, through the whole of her spinsterhood and ill-fated love affair with Townshend before his wife died and they could be married. Then there is this little misogynist dig, which probably says more about the author than anyone:

Despite the existence of a regular mistress and perhaps others of her kind George was devoted to his wife Caroline, a woman of ability who liked to pose as an intellectual and enjoyed the conversation of intelligent men (145).

God how women pose.

I’m a bit obsessive about gardens and food chains, and was fascinated to see how country estates in this period still supported their owners in town with meat and produce — until their needs outgrew it. Walpole certainly seems to have never gone hungry:

More than ever the estate in Norfolk was ransacked to provide culinary delicacies for the more lavish entertainment now possible; but the new needs exceeded the capacities of Houghton, and from now on the usual London retail markets provided most of the large quantities of food and wine essential to the furtherance of any political career (41).

And this goes perfectly with my rant about gardens of pure evil like Stowe, created by Walpole’s gadfly, Lord Cobham (barely mentioned in this book, despite his epic gardening battle to belittle and mock his enemy):

By the standards now prevailing among wealthy landowners, Houghton was a small and old-fashioned residence. New mansions were springing up around Norfolk and the whole of Britain…If Walpole were to rise higher, as he confidently expected, he would need visible evidence of success in the form of a house and park which could vie with the greatest… the existing building…must be pulled down completely to make way for a residence in the fashionable Palladian style…[and] a vast park landscaped by the fashionable garden designer Charles Bridgeman…The village of Walpole’s boyhood would have to go, for it was not in keeping with the new style and must be re-erected a mile further away (106).

And what a garden it was:


Trade plays almost no role in the telling of this story — which I found a curious snobbery really. Particularly anything to do with the colonies and slave trading. The arena for this book is almost entirely that of Europe. My god there were a lot of wars were being fought by England, maneuvering to ensure a balance of power and restraints against Catholicism! I forgot that of course William III involved us more in Dutch affairs,  and how much time the Georges spent continuing to work and manoeuvre as the Prince of Hanover while still the Prince of Wales.

It seems a bit mad now, a lot of the book is taken up with it, and I couldn’t bring myself to care. Nor does Hill bring alive the religious tensions between the Dissenters and Church of England and Catholics, the fact that Jacobites were still in the country muttering and the pretender still holding court in France. The continuous murmurs of rebellion all seem very unexciting.

Of course, in this lack of excitement trade can’t be forgotten completely. There’s the South Sea Company bubble, its crash and the government subsidy of the stock (we never learn I guess — or we do, apparently Walpole’s sinking fund to reduce debt was copied by the US congress in the early 1800s, and being considered by Obama).

1713_Asiento_contractThere is one mention of the Asiento, ‘the profitable concession for slaving and general trade given to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht and regretted in Madrid ever since’ (154).

There’s a note that Walpole reduced land tax in 1737, the resulting sizeable government deficit to be made good by a salt tax. The good old policy of protecting landed wealth at the expense of everyone else.

I’ll end this potpourri of Walpolian facts from a long (but the shortest of all of them by far I believe) dry biography with what might be the most interesting: the end of his career was spent settled into 10 Downing Street, ‘donated by the King for the use of the Treasury and its First Lord’ (183).

The end of Walpole, the beginning of a protest destination for the ages.



Black Skin, White Masks

274392Black Skin, White Masks, Franz Fanon ([1952] 1986)

Another classic I am long overdue in reading, though I loved Wretched of the Earth and it’s now higher on the list to be read again.

There is a controlled anger in his writing, made possible by distance.

This book should have been written three years ago. . . But these truths were a fire in me then. now I can tell them without being burned. These truths do not have to be hurled in men’s faces. They are not intended to ignite fervor. I do not trust fervor (11).

I like hurling truths, but laying them out eloquently and  clearly often works better. I feel that rage demands at least this clarity, perhaps this is why much modern theory frustrates me. As for fervor, I don’t always trust it either.

I enjoy the occasional burst of a lyrical passage:

There is a zone of nonbeing, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, an utterly naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born. (10)

But above all I love tying psychological analysis to material conditions. Seems to me another form of oppression to deny the role (and thus culpability) that conquest, physical oppression and racism have played in forming our psyches.

If there is an inferiority complex, it is the outcome of a double process:
— primarily, economic
–subsequently, the internalization–or, better, the epidermalization–of this inferiority.

The black man must wage his war on both levels: Since historically they influence each other, any unilateral liberation is incomplete, and the gravest mistake would be to believe in their automatic interdependence (13).

Seems to me we need to think about how we reclaim this, heal this. On both levels.  It affects everyone, the violence of this relationship does not harm only those on the receiving end of it.

The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation (60).

I was thinking this when reading Virginia Woolf, and this brought to mind Faulkner, who has always epitomised to me the terrible harm that a slave-owning society causes to those supposed to be its beneficiaries. Fanon picks up on this later, this connection between the colonial and the familial writing

In Europe and in every country characterized as civilized or civilizing, the family is a miniature of the nation. As the child emerges from the shadow of his parents, he finds himself once more among the same laws, the same principles, the same values (142).

The horror of Colonial laws, principles, values. Greed mostly. Fanon goes on to quote work by Joachim Marcus who finds that conflictual family structures produce social neurosis, ‘abnormal behaviour in contact with the Other’ (158, footnote 23).

This does not shift where the greatest pain and damage lies.

what is often called the black soul is a white man’s artifact (16).

Let us have the courage to say it outright: It is the racist who creates his inferior. (93)

As everyone has pointed out, alterity for the black man is not the black but the white man. (97)

The ways in which colonialism have twisted worth up with language and skin. There is great insight here into words, the ways that power relations warp language and our appreciation of it, the meaning we give it.

The Negro of the Antilles will be proportionately whiter–that is, he will come closer to being a real human being–in direct ratio to his mastery of the French language. I am not unaware that this is one of man’s attitudes face to face with Being. A man who has language consequently possess the world expressed and implied by that language (18).

The ways that this also marks ‘rubes’ from the country vs the city. England is perhaps the prizewinner in building hierearchy by accent, but the level of English spoken too often seems to define the respect granted to others wherever I have lived. Or traveled. Another terrible kind of violence, as is talking down:

To make him talk pidgin is to fasten him to the effigy of him, to snare him, to imprison him, the eternal victim of an essence, of an appearance for which he is not responsible (34)

But this is not simply to be accepted.

From the moment the Negro accepts the separation imposed by the European he has no further respite and “is it not understandable that thenceforward he will try to elevate himself to the white man’s level? To elevate himself in the range of colors to which he attributes a kind of hierarchy?” (quoteing Claude Nordey, L’homme de couleur (Paris, Collection “Presences,” plon, 1939)

We shall see that another solution is possible. It implies a restructuring of the world. (81-82)

Isn’t about damn time we restructured the world? Who can bear it as it is?

There is a long quote from Karl Jaspers, (La Culpabilite Allemande, Jeanne Hersch’s French translation, pp 60-61 — reading Hannah Arendt put him on my list of things to read many years ago, but he is hard to track down). It’s a quote I think at the end of the day I agree with, but don’t know what to do with exactly, apart from choose my battles and fight them to the best of my ability…

There exists among men, because they are men, a solidarity through which each shares responsibility for every injustice and every wrong committed in the world, and especially for crimes that are committed in his presence or of which he cannot be ignorant. If I do not do whatever I can to prevent them, I am an accomplice in them. If I have not risked my life in order to prevent the murder of other men, if I have stood silent, I feel guilty in a sense that cannot in any adequate fashion be understood juridically, or politically, or morally . . . . That I am still alive after such things have been done weighs on me as a guilt that cannot be expiated.

Somewhere in the heart of human relations an absolute command imposes itself: In case of criminal attack or of living conditions that threaten physical being, accept life only for all together, otherwise not at all. (89)

I want to accept life only for all together. I want to make this world. Sadly the world as we have created it now is one of the exploitation of the many, the destruction of the natural world. These things demands solidarity for each and all in their oppressions, as much as we can give. Fanon recognises this, taught me that in the French colonial hierarchy a native of the Antilles was higher than an Arab– another marker of the shifting boundaries of race, religion and hierarchy–and makes his stand:

Whenever I see an Arab with his hunted look, suspicious, on the run, wrapped in those long ragged robes that seem to have been created especially for him, I say to myself, “M. Mannoni was wrong.” Many times I have been stopped in broad daylight by policemen who mistook me for an Arab; when they discovered my origins, they were obsequious in their apologies…every citizen of a nation is responsible for the actions committed in the name of that nation (91).

I do not mind the humanism, the affirmation, the search for hope

I said in my introduction that man is a yes. I will never stop reiterating that.
Yes to life. Yes to love. Yes, to generosity.
But man is also a no. No to scorn of man. No to desegregation of man. No to exploitation of man. No to the butchery of what is most human in man: freedom. (222)

Homi K Bhabha in his forward (‘Remembering Fanon: Self, Psyche and the Colonial Condition’ (London 1986)) is a little more skeptical of this life affirmation, this humanism. I like how his thoughts build on Fanon, however, how they situate it in relation to theory now:

He nails the London left here I’m afraid:

When that labourist line of vision is challenged by the ‘autonomous’ struggles of the politics of race and gender, or threatened by problems of human psychology or cultural representation, it can only make an empty gesture of solidarity. Whenever questions of race and sexuality make their own organisational and theoretical demands on the primacy of ‘class’, ‘state’ and ‘party’ the language of traditional socialism is quick to describe those urgent, ‘other’ questions as symptoms of petty-bourgeois deviation, signs of the bad faith of socialist intellectuals. The ritual respect accorderd to the name of Fanon, the currency of his titles in the common language of liberation, are part of the ceremony  of a polite, English refusal. vii-vii

These speak far more eloquently than I do, I think, about what Fanon has brought us:

He may yearn for the total transformation of Man and Society, but he speaks most effectively from the uncertain interstices of historical change: from the area of ambivalence between race and sexuality; out of an unresolved contradiction between culture and class; from a deep within the struggle of psychic representation and social reality (ix)

In his desperate doomed search for a dialectic of deliverance Fanon explores the edge of those modes for thought: his Hegelianism restores hope to history; his existentialist evocation of the “i” restores the presence of the marginalized; and his psychoanalytic framework illuminates the ‘madness’ of racism, the pleasure of pain, the agonistic fantasy of political power (x)

Remembering Fanon is a process of intense discovery and disorientation. Remembering is never a quiet act of introspection or retrospection. It is a painful re-membering, a putting together of the dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present. It is such memory of race and racism, colonialism and the question of cultural (xxiii) identity, that Fanon reveals with greater profundity and poetry than any other writer (xxiv).

Again, as always, we come back to the past, to the ways it continues on into the present recalling CLR James a little, Trouillot a whole lot. In just a fragment of a sentence the geographies of the colonial project are invoked, ‘the validity of violence in the very definition of the colonial social space’ (xiv) but I would argue it is as much physical, material space: The arbitrary delimitations of nations, the segregation of living spaces.

To end with this final farewell and celebration of his legacy:

The ‘social’ is always an unresolved ensemble of antagonistic interlocutions between positions of power and poverty, knowledge and oppression, history and fantasy, surveillance and subversion. It is for this this reason — above all else — in the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, that we should turn to Fanon.  xxv

For more on race and empire…




The Years of Virginia Woolf

10357431I didn’t like Virginia Woolf’s work when I first read it long ago. It was Mrs Dalloway or To the Lighthouse, I can’t remember. It seemed all a big fuss about nothing to me, and I thought if she had poverty or a job grinding the life out of her she might well be better off.

I’m not sure I was wrong. Still, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

A year or so ago my partner convinced me to read Orlando and I loved it, found it hilarious and imaginative and thought provoking.

The Years explained some of this disconnection to me. I had the same early frustrations in the opening chapter. I then sat on a very uncomfortable coach next to a barely-if-at-all overweight woman who still managed to spill into my seat and who didn’t seem to mind just what she was doing with her elbows for over two hours and read and read (after I had passed that sleepy stage) and my mind fell into the same cadences as the prose and my new older and wiser self recognised that swift passing of years, the ellipsing of time, the changing of things and the diverging of people, and I thought maybe I loved this book too. I walked from Victoria coach station to the underground with Woolf’s narrative voice in my head, describing the branches bare against the leaden skies and the bitter winds that crept down the neck of my coat and I wondered why I had not thought to bring a scarf, which I only like to wear on the very coldest of days but the day was very cold. The blue one, a beautiful and mathematically-amazing wool moebius strip that my mother knitted for me and I wore for the very first time in Limerick.

The priggishness of Belgravia took a little of the joy away. Martin lives on Ebury St, only one street away from my path between buses and trains, which she describes as a gloomy thoroughfare. But for their former servant Crosby in 1913, now working with another family:

She felt more herself in Ebury Street than in Richmond. A common sort of people lived in Richmond she always felt (169).

Ebury St

The pigeon cheered me up when I took this picture at least. I wondered too if Crosby would have found Ian Flaming common, when he lived on this street.

I spent one extremely terrible post-rave-on-the-Thames-Beach-can’t-let-the-party-stop-cocktails-and-card-playing night in one of the terraced houses one street over through some bizarre ironies of circumstance. I found it opulent without being interesting or revealing of character, and very oppressive.

I do love Woolf’s beautiful descriptions of London though, the groundedness of them as she replays us her memories, perhaps saying goodbye to them in a way. I’ve added my favourites at the end of the post.

The distance between some of them and what the places actually evoke in me perhaps explains why I finished the last fifty pages or so that night, and they helped crystallise my dislike. These pages bring us current, when the younger generation does the thinking, tries to muddle through it all. The year is unspecified, some time after the war, perhaps closer to the book’s date of publication in 1937?

I had been thinking, in that walk between coach and tube, that absolutely no one had been able to communicate, to speak openly and frankly about their troubles, to gain clarity of meaning either in their own thoughts or in their expression. With one exception (that one time Maggie and Martin sit beneath a tree one fine day, and he tells her everything that is troubling him).

But no one else can speak.

No one else can clarify what they want, what they believe, what they need.

No one can unburden themselves of the pressure of words, things unspoken.

It occurred to me suddenly that this stream of consciousness, these descriptions lathered across page after page that jumped from image to incident to thought and back again, reflect an uncertainty in the author as strong as that seen in Eleanor. Perhaps it is simply a way to characterise this generation, to set a mood and a tone. But perhaps Woolf has thrown everything on the page for us, everything that crosses her mind, everything she sees and hears she feels somehow are important and all the thoughts that come skipping along, hoping that out of it we can find some pattern, some deeper meaning.

At the end it felt almost like a yielding of her own agency, a releasing of frustration. That War and Peace moment with the general far removed from battle as everything is let go into the flow of time passing and the movement of nature and humankind. But in miniature, with nothing at stake. It is left for the next generation to struggle to give her words meaning. To find her life’s purpose.

In the final pages North and Peggy hammer and hammer away at this inability to understand, to speak, to get to the truth of their own desires. They do so at a party of pleasure and immense privilege, the upper middle classes at their sparkling leisure. It’s thrown by Delia, the most interesting character to me by far fighting for the cause of Irish independence, but she appears only at the beginning and the end. I think because Delia’s edges are too sharp for the novel’s effect of blurriness, she knew struggle and heartbreak even though her marriage casts a shadow across the strength of her ideals. Instead we cast about with other Pargiters unable to grasp their own beliefs:

He paused. There was the glass in his hand; in his mind a sentence. And he wanted to make other sentences. But how can I, he thought — he looked at Eleanor, who sat with a silk handkerchief in her hands — unless I know what’s solid, what’s true; in my life, in other people’s lives? (313)

Then he shut up. It’s no go, North thought. He can’t say what he wants to say; he’s afraid. They’re all afraid; afraid of being laughed at; afraid of giving themselves away. He’s afraid too, he thought, looking at the young man with a fine forehead and a weak chin who was gesticulating too emphatically. We’re all afraid of each other, her thought; afraid of what? Of criticism; of laughter; of people who think differently… (315)

This party…it filled me with disdain, I confess, for brittle enjoyment and all of the things people of this class could not allow themselves to say. That stopped their minds and lips completely. Their silences became self-serving. I thought about their servant Crosby who served them but in old age was let go and made to serve others, I thought about their pettiness, their ambition, their privilege. Their unquestioning natures, even as they focused on detail and minutiae. Their multiple and mutual dislikes and discomforts.

The novel opens with the father figure, Colonel Pargiter in his club chatting with other members also returned from the business of Empire. Three fingers on the one hand are stumps, lost in his fighting to put down the mutiny. He dies never having told his children what really troubles him, though he yearns to speak to someone. In the novel it appears to be the trouble of his mistress, but I couldn’t help but feel the silence is one not just of male privilege and desire (and loneliness), but also of Empire. He leaves his friends abruptly in the club to think his own thoughts. Remember his own stories.

Stories we never hear. War and death stories. (I found out more here).

Perhaps this is the foundational silence. He is where this novel begins, where everything begins for Eleanor, and the generations that follow. The wealth of conquest is the basis for this position in society, a way of life that permits both the freedom and sets the limits for their thoughts. Their mother dying seems nothing but a weight to them all. A silent one.

Eleanor’s realisation — that in fact is the opposite of realisation —  comes at the end:

There must be another life, she thought, sinking back into her chair, exasperated. Not in dreams; but here and now, in this room, with living people. She felt as if she were standing on the edge of a precipice with her hair blown back; she was about to grasp something that just evaded her. There must be another life, here and now, she repeated. This is too short, too broken. We know nothing, even about ourselves (325).

We know nothing. Everything is broken. All we have are these moments, impressions, fleeting happinesses that we cannot explain.

The back of my book says that this was Woolf’s most popular work in her lifetime…this must have resonated.

But ah, her descriptions of the city. Like this one on the Strand, 1891, walking from the courts of justice…I love this street too, could share in this.

The uproar, the confusion, the space of the Strand came upon her with a shock of relief. She felt herself expand. It was still daylight here; a rush, a stir, a turmoil of variegated life came racing towards her, in the world. It was as if something had broken loose — in her, in the world. She seemed, after her concentration, to be dissipated, tossed about. She wandered along the Strand, looking with pleasure at the racing street; at the shops full of bright chains and leather cases’ at the white-face churches; at the irregular jagged roofs laced across and across with wires. Above was the dazzle of a watery but gleaming sky. The wind blew in her face. She breathed in a gulp of fresh wet air….

Cabs, vans and omnibuses streamed past; they seemed to rush the air into her face; they splashed the mud on to the pavement. People jostled and hustled and she quickened her pace in time with theirs (85).

and then she reads that Parnell is dead…

To Covent Garden, 1907: Covent Garden when it was still a market, when this kind of business still took place in the city and its connection to the countryside and the origins of its food still strong, I love this too:

All along the silent country roads leading to London carts plodded; the iron reins fixed in the iron hands, for vegetables, fruit, flowers traveled slowly. Heaped high with round crates of cabbage, cherries, carnations, they looked like caravans piled with the goods of the tribes migrating in search of water, driven by enemies to seek new pasturage. On they plodded, down this road, that road, keeping close to the kerb. even the horses, had they been blind, could have heard the hum of London in the distance; and the drivers, dozing, yet saw through half-shut eyes the fiery gauze of the eternally burning city. At dawn, at Coven Garden, they laid down their burdens; tables and trestles, even the cobbles were frilled as with some celestial laundry with cabbages, cherries and carnations (101).

Wandsworth, 1913:  Some thoughts on class and place, a little self-defensive snobbishness as Eleanor sells the house in Abercorn Terrace where she grew up and took care of her father:

As he went downstairs, she noticed the red ears which  stood out over his high collar; and the neck which he had washed imperfectly in some sink at Wandsworth. She was annoyed; as he went round the house, sniffing and peering, he had indicted their cleanliness, their humanity, and he used absurdly long words. He was hauling himself up into the class above him, she supposed, by means of long words (165-166).

Milton St, Present Day, North visiting Sarah:  and more reflections on class and housing (if this is actually today’s Milton St it has been swallowed by the Barbican, nothing left that is dusky or old):

This was Milton Street, a dusky street, with old houses, now let out as lodgings; but they had seen better days.


‘What a dirty,’ he said, as sat still in the car for a moment — here a woman crossed the street with a jug under her arm — ‘sordid,’ he added, ‘low-down street to live in. (237)’

…There was a curious smell in the hall; of vegetables cooking; and the oily brown paper made it dark. he went up the stairs of what had once been a gentleman’s residence. The banisters were carved; but they had been daubed over with some cheap yellow varnish (238).

‘Why d’you always choose slums–‘ he was beginning., for children were screaming in the street below, when the door opened and a girl came in carrying a bunch of knives and forks. The regular lodging-house skivvy, North thought; with red hands, and one of those jaunty white caps that girls in lodging houses clap on top of their hair when the lodger has a party (240).

Abercorn Terrace, Present Day, Eleanor to Peggy in a cab

‘That’s where we used to live,’ she said. She waved her hand towards a long lamp-starred street on the left. Peggy, looking out, could just see the imposing unbroken avenue with its succession of pale pillars and steps. The repeated columns., the orderly architecture, had even a pale pompous beauty as one stucco column repeated another stucco column repeated another stucco column all down the street (254).

Abercorn Terrace (which doesn’t exist in London, though a Lord Abercorn was head of the British South Africa Company) is ‘a replica of 22 Hyde Park Gate where Woolf grew up’ writes Nuala Casey, who sees this as a book of ghosts — I like thinking of this book like that. But while the house itself might be a replica, the street is certainly not. Because this is the street:

Hyde Park Gate

I imagine the new buildings are from bomb damage, but seems that this was always an odd street of unique homes. Lived in by four more blue plaque winners, Winston Churchill, Robert Baden-Powell the founder of Scouts, Enid Bagnold the author of National Velvet and sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein (Blue plaques are so damn useful).

Woolf’s house is bigger, far grander than I was expecting from her description, I could not fit it into a camera view, there is another floor above and the main entrance is down the stairs on the lower level:

22 Hyde Park Gate

22 Hyde Park Gate

I perhaps could have tried for a better picture, a different angle, but I didn’t like this street, didn’t feel comfortable here. Two men in suits stood talking at the end of it. Most of Kensington, in fact, looms above you in wealth and monumental architecture of five stories and higher. Inequality hiding the sky from you. I found relief only in the winter stripped branches of trees beautiful against the tarnished clouds at the end of the street and across the road in Kensington Gardens. But then there is this, this massive gilded gaud of a thing:

Albert Memorial

The Royal Albert Memorial facing the huge red brick mansions of Kensington Gore alongside the Royal Albert Hall. Everywhere monuments of wealth and ambition, and perhaps a strange kind of love. Perhaps.

I thought to myself that this place, this wealth and ambition written into architecture, this inequality looming large, this is no place to raise children. And perhaps that is just the trouble, this intertwining of mental health and power and privilege into something that harms everyone.


A Vision For London: The London County Council

London County Council - Susan D. PennybakerA Vision for London, 1889-1914: Labour, Everyday Life and the LCC Experiment
Susan D. Pennybacker (1995) London & NY: Routledge

This was a brilliantly detailed look at some of the archive material for the London County Council, and it signposts the collections beautifully in exploring some of the lived experience of its workers through the Progressive period. The founding legislation for the LCC was the Local Government Act of 1888, and it brought together the Municipal Board of Works and the justices. Pennybacker writes:

The Progressives led the London County Council, the worlds largest municipal authority of its time, from its founding in 1889 until their defeat in 1907; an unbroken period of Conservative control followed until 1934. The Progressives’ ethics and their political strategy prescribed a redemptive role for the government of the imperial capital, a social mission in the secular metropolis. This book assesses the LCC’s success in attempting such a mission and in doing so offers a selective portrait of the Council’s work…. (3)

The characters of this story are John Benn, John Burns, Sidney Webb and Ben Tillett among others, and they embody all the contradictions of Progressivism  including its eugencism and ‘drive for racial fitness’.

There is also some sense, though not enough I don’t think, of the earlier fragmentation of governance in the metropolis, particularly in relation to the power of the City:

John Benn was not the first to assault the City Corporation. Since the 9th century, its accumulated wealth and power has stymied and obstructed attempts at incremental reform. From 1688 onward, this single square mile’s control of the river traffic, its absorption of the coal dues, its exemption from the powers of the Metropolitan police, its livery companies, its guilds and lucrative estates, were formidable barriers to equitable and comprehensive government (6).

It is indeed ironic that they now hold the LCC archives.

Some of the basics: the LCC was directly elected — the first apart from London School Board. Its boundaries were the same as for parliamentary constituencies — each electing 2 LCC Councillors and 1 MP. Important to remember is, contrary to what I had heard, ‘only in limited, exemplary terms was the LCC an organ of popular democracy; it simply was not a body mandated under universal suffrage’ (26). There still existed tremendous limits on the franchise, I always forget how recently these have shifted to become universal.

In evaluating their legacy, Pennybacker looks at their ‘most notable endeavours’: Holborn to Strand improvement & opening of Kingsway, Boundary Street estate, acquisition of trams, Blackwall Tunnel, and briefly passenger steam boat service (11). Alongside this is their innovative labour policy, fair wages and direct employment of labour rather than through contractors . The LCC works department, for example,  had 12,000 employees by 1904, when the  acquisition of the scool board added another 35,000. By WWI it was London’s largest employer. What they didn’t achieve? Control over utilities like gas, water or electricity, municipalisation of the docks, acquisition of police control, control of markets or expansion of public sector housing to more than 15%.

‘But in terms of this book, the greatest achievement of the Porgressive period was the way in which the early LCC tested the outside parameters of what can be categorised as ‘social-democratic’ and ‘municipal socialist’ reform in its infancy, in prototype (19).

I like that she does this without shrinking from London as an Imperial Metropolis — the LCC impacted by national anxieties around the Boer War, the movement for national efficiency, and a focus on motherhood alongside a horrific infant mortality rate of 20,000 every year after 1900. She writes:

‘No municipal aspiration, however selfless in its articulation, could be entirely separated from a will to efficiency, to racial uplift and to competitive zeal, or from the desire to ‘catch-up’ and to achieve order at home while maintaining hegemony abroad (23)…Fabian and other socialists shared these ideals; those who dissented were a minority. In the capital, advocates of the rights of women, votes for women and the causes of labour and of the trade unions employed rhetoric of ‘Englishness’ and committed themselves to the cause of bettering those whom they saw as their racial and social inferiors. Far from being marginal or incidental aspects of ‘municipal socialism’ or of the feminisms of the period, these were central purposes and principles (23).

Below are just a collection of interesting quotes pulled from the three case studies

On clerks:

Both the Civil Service and the LCC required candidates for advertised clerkships to sit examinations under a scheme administered through City of London College. Sample papers were sold to the public so that prospective candidates could prepare them in advance. Candidates for the fourth class were required to be 18 to 23 years of age and British-born. (This provision took on special significance as a criterion of employment and it was enforced even after 1945. When West Indian nurses arrived in London after the Second World War, they found no posts available at the LCC) (39).

Some samples of the essay questions — I love them as a window into government expectations of what their clerks should know and have well-formed opinions on:

– Is war ever justifiable?
– The effect of science on literature
– Methods for dealing with the unemployed.
– ‘The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.
– Is compulsory military service desirable?
– Imperialism (40).

From the first moment it was apparent that the women hired had not replaced men per se, but instead comprised a new, cheaper form of labour in the clerical divisions; their work was of a different character (43).

Blackcoated workers were concentrated in London where they tended to reside in the outer suburbs less by choice than because of rising rents in the desirable central areas (47).

LCC Works Department

One side maintains with zeal that the council the working man’s best friend, a model employer, and the best representative of progress in London. Trams, model dwellings, the Works Department, and several quite inaccurate statistics are fleeing at other speakers’ heads. John Burns is prominently to the front. ..then the other side gets a word in edgeways. ‘The County Council? Look what they’ve done down Clare Market way! Pulled down half the houses, turned the people out of the other half as insanitary, and then let tenants into ’em and sent all the respectable people yo go an crowd into Holborn as best they can. When they get up their new buildings will they let ’em to you or me? Not much. Look what they charge down in Shoreditch. They’ll let us go to Tottenham, that’s what they’ll do’ (96).
— Reverend HGD Latham ‘Nights at Play’ The Cornhill Magazine, 12, 1902 677-685

The arguments for and against the Department reflected the first concerns about ‘socialism’ as an institutional political project to appear since the time of the Owenite communities. It had been decades since property was held in common for the useful production of services to a community of producers and consumers who were constituted (somewhat) democratically and who were in a position to exercise even indirect control over their conditions and terms of labor (97).

The Works Department was now seen as a test case of municipal socialism or, as some would have it, as a new adjudicator of the ‘labour question’ in London (114).

The balancing act between government, the contractors and the building trades, sought so desperately by Burns and many other Progressives, proved a sham not because of financial insolvency but because of the moral and political conflicts invariably arising from an attempt to reconcile bureaucratic organisation and public service with the need to compete effectively on a labour market in London’s key industry (120).

I love that the LCC agreed to pay the rates and uphold the hours set by the unions following a conference held after the 1891 Carpenters and Joiners’ strike in London (124). This agreement was extended in 1897 to recognise negotiated scales, including maximum hours and minimum rates.

That said, this is an immensely detailed chapter on some of the scandal and controversy and argument surrounding the Works Department, but I wished this, as well as the chapter that followed it perhaps, had been set against a little more background of actual conditions of the people whom the policies were to help. Most working men in the building trades and their families  were subsisting close to starvation levels (read Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, or Maud Pember Reeve‘s careful account of some of the conditions of working men and their salaries, or Margaret Harkness or many another work). It is easy to get lost in her accounts of theoretical controversy over the effectiveness of the LCC, I wanted it more grounded in the conditions the LCC was fighting to change.

The third case study is on inspectors — titled ‘The appetite for Managing Other People’s Lives’

LCC social and cultural policy had its formative years in the Porgressive era and was part of the national restructuring of welfare provision. Social purity, National Efficiency, racial purification and maternalism formed the broader context in which specific projects were undertaken by the Council (159).

I found the sentence below curious:

Nineteenth-century London remained largely prostrate and impoverished, open to assault and subversion by the new municipal body (160).

I am still unsure what I think of the marshaling of Foucault to look at the phenomenon of inspections, torn by the class-based and moral judgments, and the feeling that something, anything had to be done to make things better. Landlords needed to be forced to fix their buildings. Factory owners needed to be forced to improve working conditions. I cannot be sad the state moved to enforce such things, I wish critiques of inspections offered a more critical analysis of why and how such things happened in such a damaging way, what it would have taken beyond inspections to change them for the better. I am most interested in change.

Another example is the new, healthy, affordable housing that needed to be built on a tremendous scale…for the tenants in the slums that were displaced. I have read some conflicting things about whether or not this happened, I tend to the side of the disbelievers supported by this:

Chief sanitary Inspector of Bethnal Green explained in 1898: ‘The conditions and rents the Council impose, render it simply impossible for poor people to live in their houses.’ He claimed that the building of the Boundary Street Estate had resulted in the displacement of thousands of neighbourhood residents; not even 5 per cent of the original inhabitants could afford to return and were now creating overcrowding of lesser, nearby accommodations (189).
–Lessons from the Bethnal Green Calamity’, London, 6 Jan 1989 p 5

I didn’t have the same reservations about the discussion of the hypocrisy and morality that put restrictions on activities in the parks on Sundays, even though they were the only day off for many. This was most telling, as was the discussion of the ways in which the regulation of music halls took place. I’m not sure it was fully brought together here, but a good start on thinking things through.

A quick quote to summarise the conclusion, and the decline and demise of the London County Council:

This study suggests at least three areas of failure that account for the decline of the vision and for its increasing lack of credibility in its own time: the failure of economy, of the fiscal; the failure in the realm of the political, which was in part a failure to preserve a distinctiveness of doctrine; and a failure in social terms, as captured by the LCC’s inability to eradicate London poverty or to relieve much of the distress of its inhabitants. Instead, intrusion and supervision were substituted for grander programmes of social amelioration or cultural enlightenment (241).

It ends with a wonderful section that serves as a guideline to the archives themselves, so much of which remain to be explored…


In the Year of the Jubilee

12196008George Gissing (1894)

I’m not entirely sure what I thought about this. Somewhere around the middle I had to put it down, after Nancy is seduced by Tarrant and its disdain for both the female sex and for the aspiring lower middle and lower classes seems to reach its height. I came back to it, and was glad I did as it is at least somewhat self-reflective on this point and didn’t go quite where I thought it would, so it improved on me.

The story focuses primarily on Nancy Lord, daughter of a self-made man now made fairly wealthy through business. She and her brother Horace seem made for better things than their neighbours and friends — a family of three sisters (Ada, Beatrice and Fanny) residing with the eldest’s hen-pecked husband Mr Peachey, a bookish girl named Jessica, the strict and religious Barmby family, the advertising man Luckworth Crewe. Above them is Mr Tarrant, gentleman, and a Mrs Dameral, who turns out to be the mother they thought was dead (this is the plot of a Georgette Heyer novel of my mother’s, Venetia, whose other main character is a Lord Dameral — it seems hardly coincidental but I can’t think it an hommage). Really this novel is an uncomfortable portrait of almost everyone in it. It is well-written but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it were it not for the insights it offers onto Gissing’s own geographies of class mapped across the streets and homes of London (and those of Empire via Barbados to some extent), as well as a fascinating (if disapproving) look into changing views on women and their place in society. There are extensive descriptions of streets and areas making this an oft-quoted source among those writing about literature and the city — or so I was told. It’s on Gutenberg Press so I was able to pull large blocks of text:

It was a house in De Crespigny Park; unattached, double-fronted, with half-sunk basement, and a flight of steps to the stucco pillars at the entrance. De Crespigny Park, a thoroughfare connecting Grove Lane, Camberwell, with Denmark Hill, presents a double row of similar dwellings; its clean breadth, with foliage of trees and shrubs in front gardens, makes it pleasant to the eye that finds pleasure in suburban London. In point of respectability, it has claims only to be appreciated by the ambitious middle-class of Camberwell. Each house seems to remind its neighbour, with all the complacence expressible in buff brick, that in this locality lodgings are not to let (loc 56).

I partly only love these meditations on suburban architecture and the lives they shape within them because I know these suburbs — though being from America I don’t think of them as suburbs at all. Itself interesting. I might just share the belief that it is more pleasant when homes are different, even if differently ugly:

Grove Lane is a long acclivity, which starts from Camberwell suburban dwellings. The houses vary considerably in size and Green, and, after passing a few mean shops, becomes a road of aspect, also in date,–with the result of a certain picturesqueness, enhanced by the growth of fine trees on either side. Architectural grace can nowhere be discovered, but the contract-builder of today has not yet been permitted to work his will; age and irregularity, even though the edifices be but so many illustrations of the ungainly, the insipid, and the frankly hideous, have a pleasanter effect than that of new streets built to one pattern by the mile. There are small cottages overgrown with creepers, relics of Camberwell’s rusticity; rows of tall and of squat dwellings that lie behind grassy plots, railed from the road; larger houses that stand in their own gardens, hidden by walls. Narrow passages connect the Lane with its more formal neighbour Camberwell Grove; on the other side are ways leading towards Denmark Hill, quiet, leafy. From the top of the Lane, where Champion Hill enjoys an aristocratic seclusion, is obtainable a glimpse of open fields and of a wooded horizon southward.

These are suburbs perhaps, fundamentally, because they are still in construction. Because all around lie the remains of the country that was there before the universally reviled speculative builders arrived to do their damage:

Her place of abode favoured neither health nor mental tranquillity. It was one of a row of new houses in a new quarter. A year or two ago the site had been an enclosed meadow, portion of the land attached to what was once a country mansion; London, devourer of rural limits, of a sudden made hideous encroachment upon the old estate, now held by a speculative builder; of many streets to be constructed, three or four had already come into being, and others were mapped out, in mud and inchoate masonry, athwart the ravaged field. Great elms, the pride of generations passed away, fell before the speculative axe, or were left standing in mournful isolation to please a speculative architect; bits of wayside hedge still shivered in fog and wind, amid hoardings variegated with placards and scaffolding black against the sky. The very earth had lost its wholesome odour; trampled into mire, fouled with builders’ refuse and the noisome drift from adjacent streets, it sent forth, under the sooty rain, a smell of corruption, of all the town’s uncleanliness. On this rising locality had been bestowed the title of ‘Park.’ Mrs. Morgan was decided in her choice of a dwelling here by the euphonious address, Merton Avenue, Something-or-other Park.

The old mansion–not very old, and far from beautiful, but stoutly built–stood grim and desolate, long dismantled, and waiting only to be torn down for the behoof of speculative dealers in old material. What aforetime was a tree-bordered drive, now curved between dead stumps, a mere slushy cartway; the stone pillars, which had marked the entrance, damaged in the rending away of metal with a market value, drooped sideways, ready at a touch to bury themselves in slime (loc 2696).

Here is another passage where moving up in the world always means moving out, the obtaining not just of well-kept lodgings, but bay windows and an address that will impress:

Before his admission to a partnership in Mr. Lord’s business, Samuel Barmby lived with his father and two sisters in Coldharbour Lane. Their house was small, old and crumbling for lack of repair; the landlord, his ground-lease having but a year or two to run, looked on with equanimity whilst the building decayed. Under any circumstances, the family must soon have sought a home elsewhere, and Samuel’s good fortune enabled them to take a house in Dagmar Road, not far from Grove Lane; a new and most respectable house, with bay windows rising from the half-sunk basement to the second storey. Samuel, notwithstanding his breadth of mind, privately admitted the charm of such an address as ‘Dagmar Road,’ which looks well at the head of note-paper, and falls with sonority from the lips (loc 2596).

The mysterious Mrs Dameral is given the seal of trust and approval simply because of her post code. We reach the difference between the West End and everywhere else as Horace tells his sister Nancy why he continued her acqaintance:

‘One couldn’t refuse, you know; I was only too glad to go to a house in the West End. She opened the carriage-door from the inside, and I got in, and off we drove. I felt awkward, of course, but after all I was decently dressed, and I suppose I can behave like a gentleman, and–well, she sat looking at me and smiling, and I could only smile back (loc 429).

In trying to ‘improve’ Horace from her West End flat, she says:

You, Horace, belong to a social sphere so far, far above her. If I could only impress that upon your modesty. You are made to associate with people of the highest refinement. How deplorable to think that a place in society is waiting for you, and you keep longing for Camberwell!’ (loc 2049)

Later she tells Beatrice:

‘Miss. French, I believe you reside in a part of London called
Camberwell. And I believe you are engaged in some kind of millinery business. This excuses you for ill-manners. All the same, I must beg you to relieve me of your presence.’ She rang the bell. ‘Good evening.’ (loc 3219)

Neighbourhood is everything, you see. Everywhere the characters and the narrative itself equates neighbourhood with social station and personal limits. These limitations are never fully exceeded, even as a few make the very best of them they can and finally win narrative approval. From early on Nancy blames the closed of nature her life and prospects on her home almost entirely:

It is a neighbourhood in decay, a bit of London which does not keep pace with the times. And Nancy hated it. She would have preferred to live even in a poor and grimy street which neighboured the main track of business and pleasure (loc 196).

Always she comes back to her neighbourhood, and the connections it was lacking. Her father is dying, though she doesn’t know, and:

She stood before him, and spoke with diffidence.

‘Don’t you think that if we had lived in a different way, Horace and I might have had friends of a better kind?’

‘A different way?–I understand. You mean I ought to have had a big house, and made a show. Isn’t that it?’

‘You gave us a good education,’ replied Nancy, still in the same tone, ‘and we might have associated with very different people from those you have been speaking of; but education alone isn’t enough. One must live as the better people do.’ (loc 593).

In Camberwell you do not find the better people. You find people like Ada, Beatrice and Fanny:

They spoke a peculiar tongue, the product of sham education and mock refinement grafted upon a stock of robust vulgarity. One and all would have been moved to indignant surprise if accused of ignorance or defective breeding. Ada had frequented an ‘establishment for young ladies’ up to the close of her seventeenth year; the other two had pursued culture at a still more pretentious institute until they were eighteen. All could ‘play the piano;’ all declared–and believed–that they ‘knew French.’ Beatrice had ‘done’ Political Economy; Fanny had ‘been through’ Inorganic Chemistry and Botany. The truth was, of course, that their minds, characters, propensities had remained absolutely proof against such educational influence as had been brought to bear upon them. That they used a finer accent than their servants, signified only that they had grown up amid falsities, and were enabled, by the help of money, to dwell above-stairs, instead of with their spiritual kindred below.

Beatrice herself becomes quite a canny business woman. She opens a kind of cooperative dressmaker business and moves off on her own — surely a braver move than this novel ever gives her credit for. You cannot like her as she is portrayed, her business described as predatory (how could it not be given the silliness of women) when in fact it seems more to me a pooling of resources, and she herself is predatory too, though perhaps trying to be kind despite her brusque lack of civility. She moves to Brixton…

Another cab conveyed her to Brixton, and set her down before a block of recently built flats. She ascended to the second floor, pressed the button of a bell, and was speedily confronted by a girl of the natty parlour-maid species. This time she began by giving her name, and had only a moment to wait before she was admitted to a small drawing-room, furnished with semblance of luxury. A glowing fire and the light of an amber-shaded lamp showed as much fashionable upholstery and bric-a-brac as could be squeezed into the narrow space. Something else was perceptible which might perhaps have been dispensed with; to wit, the odour of a very savoury meal, a meal in which fried onions had no insignificant part. But before the visitor could comment to herself upon this disadvantage attaching to flats, Beatrice joined her.

The ‘natty parlour-maid species’ indeed. There is more in relation to Beatrice’s new business and the lack of taste associated with certain locales:

The ineptitude of uneducated English women in all that relates to their attire is a fact that it boots not to enlarge upon…A very large proportion of the servant-keeping females in Brixton, Camberwell, and Peckham could not, with any confidence, buy a chemise or a pair of stockings; and when it came to garments visible, they were lost indeed (loc 2961).

And still more, with a reminder that there are neighbourhoods even lower:

Now indeed the last trace of veneer was gone, the last rag of pseudo-civilisation was rent off these young women; in physical conflict, vilifying each other like the female spawn of Whitechapel, they revealed themselves as born–raw material which the mill of education is supposed to convert into middle-class ladyhood. As a result of being held still by superior strength Ada fell into convulsions, foamed at the mouth, her eyes starting from their sockets; then she lay as one dead (loc 3143).

Ah, the female spawn which their family and location had not succeeded in molding properly. These passages point without needing exposition to what I hated about the drawing of women characters — there is so much to hate. Nancy is drawn the most fully, but is as limited by Camberwell itself as by her own limitations of blood and nurture (though these she manages to ‘overcome’ as the novel progresses). The others range from those who are superficial, who pretend at learning for appearances not for its own sake to those like Jessica, who overheat their poor limited brains with the excesses of their learning:

This friend of hers, Jessica Morgan by name, had few personal attractions. She looked overwrought and low-spirited; a very plain and slightly-made summer gown exhibited her meagre frame with undue frankness; her face might have been pretty if health had filled and coloured the flesh, but as it was she looked a ghost of girlhood, a dolorous image of frustrate sex. In her cotton-gloved hand she carried several volumes and notebooks (loc 232).

‘A dolorous image of frustrate sex’? As if intelligence and learning aren’t the sexiest things ever — or should be. Tarrant from the luxury of his higher social position looks at what is changing (for the worse):

We must begin by admitting that the ordinary woman hates nothing so much as to have another woman set in authority over her.’ He paused, and laughed lazily. ‘Now, before the triumph of glorious Democracy, only those women kept servants who were capable of rule,–who had by birth the instinct of authority. They knew themselves the natural superiors of their domestics, and went through an education fitting them to rule. Things worked very well; no servant-difficulty existed. Now-a-days, every woman who can afford it must have another woman to wait upon her, no matter how silly, or vulgar, or depraved she may be; the result, of course, is a spirit of rebellion in the kitchen. Who could have expected anything else?’

Nancy played with a dandelion she had plucked, and gave sign neither of assent nor disagreement.

‘Mrs. Bellamy,’ continued the young man, ‘marvels that servants revolt against her. What could be more natural? The servants have learnt that splendid doctrine that every one is as good as everybody else, and Mrs. Bellamy is by no means the person to make them see things differently. And this kind of thing is going on in numberless houses–an utterly incompetent mistress and a democratic maid in spirited revolt. The incompetents, being in so vast a majority, will sooner or later spoil all the servants in the country.’ (loc 684)

Again and again we see women rising above their station, not formed properly thus carrying the potential to revert to their origins. Gissing can see (or imagine he sees) some of the attraction in this, and it horrifies him really. Women are there as temptations, dragging men down with them. This is Fanny, with her fascinations for Horace:

It was not thus that Horace would naturally have spoken, not thus that he thought of his father. Fanny had subdued him to her own level, poisoned him with the desires excited by her presence. And he knew his baseness; he was not ignorant of the girl’s ignoble nature. Only the fury of a virgin passion enabled him to talk, and sometimes think, as though he were in love with ideal purity.

‘I didn’t think you had the pluck,’ said Fanny, swinging one of her feet as she tittered (loc 1111).

For a brief moment Nancy herself is able to break away from all society tells her to be, she does so alone in the crowd celebrating the Jubilee (I am fascinated by all that happens to people in crowds, but will think about that later):

Nancy forgot her identity, lost sight of herself as an individual. Her blood was heated by close air and physical contact. She did not think, and her emotions differed little from those of any shop-girl let loose. The ‘culture,’ to which she laid claim, evanesced in this atmosphere of exhalations. Could she have seen her face, its look of vulgar abandonment would have horrified her (877).

Enter the capitalist Luckworth Crewe (great name!) who sees her like this, falls in love with her like this. To his doom of course, though I don’t think Gissing much minds as Crew also represents the man on the make, perhaps the capitalism itself that is driving so many of these changes:

Nancy made him moderate his pace, which was too quick for her. Part of the pleasure she found in Crewe’s society came from her sense of being so undeniably his superior; she liked to give him a sharp command, and observe his ready obedience. To his talk she listened with a good-natured, condescending smile, occasionally making a remark which implied a more liberal view, a larger intelligence, than his. Thus, as they stood for a moment to look down at the steamboat wharf, and Crewe made some remark about the value of a cargo just being discharged, she said carelessly:

‘I suppose that’s the view you take of everything? You rate everything at market price.’ (loc 1280)

Crewe is not a good man, but you regret him as Nancy falls for Tarrant who will never amount to anything in this new world that no longer has much use for the gentleman of leisure but without means. She is seduced, they marry, she conceals the birth of the child and the marriage as her father dies and the provisions of his will strip her of everything if they are found out. Tarrant can’t handle it, though the author is most sympathetic to his plight (I need to do a post just on Gissing I think). He needs to make easy money — he is not a man of the labouring classes you understand. And where can a well-born Englishman make money without working?

Barbados of course. The whole disgusting colonial attitude in a nutshell, both in Tarrant’s expectations and the ways that they are frustrated. In convincing Nancy of the wisdom of his plan to abandon her and the child, Tarrant says:

‘Partly because it is a delightful winter climate; partly because I have a friend there; partly because the islands are interesting. A man I knew at Oxford has gone out there, and is likely to stay. His father owns nearly the whole of an island; and as he’s in very bad health, my friend may soon come into possession. When he does, he’s going to astonish the natives.’


A vision of savages flashed before Nancy’s mind. She breathed more freely, thinking the danger past.

‘Simply by making a fortune out of an estate that is lying all but barren. Before the emancipation of the niggers, the Bahamas flourished wonderfully; now they are fallen to decay, and ruled, so far as I understand it, by a particularly contemptible crew of native whites, who ought all to be kicked into the sea. My friend’s father is a man of no energy; he calls himself magistrate, coroner, superintendent of the customs, and a dozen other things, but seems to have spent his time for years in lying about, smoking and imbibing. His son, I’m afraid, waits impatiently for the old man’s removal to a better world. He believes there are immense possibilities of trade.’ (707)

It doesn’t work of course. Nancy in the end saves the day, but only by immense self sacrifice, along with repressing that sense of self that emerged in the Jubilee as well as any feelings disagreeable to her husband and all recriminations. I’ll end with this maxim that hopefully today no woman will ever have to live up to:

She looked up, and commanded her features to the expression which makes whatever woman lovely–that of rational acquiescence. On the faces of most women such look is never seen (loc 5108).


Henry Thornton of Clapham

18696405I came across Henry Thornton, and the rise of the Clapham religious and abolitionist community as perhaps the first suburb reading Robert Fisher’s Bourgeois Utopias. In looking for more information I found this rather quaint book in the LSE library, copyrighted in 1964 and the first (only?) biography of Thornton, but it feels almost of another era in its reflections and open opinions on Thornton’s life and beliefs. I was most interested in the growth of the Clapham group, how this contributed to modern ideas of home, city and suburb, and the involvement of religion upon these constructions, and those of gender roles. I found a very little of that, but so much more. I’m still reeling a little I think.

THORNTONI’ve borrowed the basic bio from his parliament biography (wonderful things these):

b. 10 Mar. 1760, 3rd s. of John Thornton, Russia merchant and dir. Bank of England, of Clapham by 2nd w. Lucy, da. and h. of Samuel Watson, Russia merchant, of Kingston-upon-Hull Yorks.; bro. of Robert Thornton* and Samuel Thornton*. educ. Dr Davis’s sch. Wandsworth Common 1765-73; Mr Roberts’s sch. Point Pleasant, Wandsworth 1773-8. m. 1 Mar. 1796, Mary Anne, da. of Joseph Sykes, Russia merchant, of West Ella, Yorks., 3s. 6da.

Offices Held

Asst. Russia Co. 1789-1811; chairman, Sierra Leone Co. 1791-1811.
Capt. Battersea and Streatham vols. 1798.

His father, John Thornton, was an early promoter of the Evangelical beliefs. They are of the kind that I find frustrating and bewildering, where God is the cause of all things, and we are but his instruments, with a heavy does of predestination thrown in. So you could imagine young and earnest Thornton finding it slightly hard to get on in society. Novelist Fanny Burney writes ‘Mr Thornton, the new member for the borough, a man of Presbyterian extraction, upon which he has grafted of late much ton and nonchalance…was pleased to follow me about with a sort of hard unmeaning curiosity, very disagreeable to me, and to himself very much like nothing’ (26).

In 1785 Thornton met his cousin William Wilberforce, the more charming and famous of the two. Meacham writes:

For Wilberforce was welcome anywhere. A rich man, from a class above the Thorntons, he relished conversation with the London ton–an evening’s gossip with Grenville and Pitt, the rather more exotic chatter of Mme. de Staël (39).

An interesting entry of class into the picture, as opposed to money. Still, the two became fast friends and worked together for the abolition of the slave trade. In 1792 they moved into Battersea Rise, a mansion next to Clapham Common.


Thornton writes in 1793:

On the whole I am in hope some good may come out of our Clapham system. Wilberforce is a candle that should not be hid under a bushel. The influence of his conversation is, I think, great and striking. I am surprised to find how much religion everybody seems to have when they get into our house. They seem all to submit, and to acknowledge the advantage of a religious life, and we are not at all queer or guilty of carrying things too far (28, quoting from Henry Morris, Life of Charles Grant London 1904, p 200).

Meacham describes Clapham at the time:

Clapham, five miles from the city, was a pleasant place to live. The great Common, until 1760 a tangled wilderness, now looked a vast and pleasant stretch of land. Paths had been laid and drains installed. But this was still the country. The parish paid a shilling bounty for every polecat killed, and fourpence for hedgehogs. Horse chesnuts and poplars grew to the edge of many of the ponds. On the north corner stood the parish church: large, solid, unadorned, built in 1775 with money raised by John Thornton. Big enough to hold 1400, by 1790 it was none too large. The 1760 village of 1000 now had a population nearly three times as great (32).

Apart from renovating and adding two wings to Battersea Rise, Thornton built a second house, sold to Charles Grant in 1794. First a merchant in the East India Company and then on the Board of Trade, he joined the Clapham Evangelical community where his family would become one of the closest to the Thorntons. They were joined by John Venn, who became tutor to Grant’s children and later became rector of Clapham. James Stephens, married to WIlberforce’s sister Sarah, who became an abolitionist after working in the West Indies and corresponding with Wilberforce on the conditions on the plantations. Meachem states he became an Evangelical through his hatred of slavery rather than the other way round. Zachary Macauley, formerly a bookkeeper and overseer of a Jamaica plantation from age 16 to 20, became part of the circle (and would later become governor of Sierra Leone). John Shore, Lord Teignmouth also from the East India Company, would join them. William Smith, Charles Elliot, and  John Hatchard, publisher, also joined them. In the wider circle were the Gisbournes, Babingtons and Hannah More, joined by a tangle of shared beliefs and marriages. The book contains a brilliant map showing the Clapham Community and its members, along with a description of what is left — a little disparaging of Clapham as a ‘dreary London suburb’.

Scan 5

Thonrton'sCommon2 Thonrton'sCommon3

These villas would form the basis of future ideals of the suburb, but at this time most of its residents still kept, or took on under the pressures of work, houses in town — King’s Arm Yard, Palace Yard, Kennington, Bloomsbury, Ormond St.

This is partly because Thornton, Wilberforce, Babington, Grant and Stephen all sat in Parliament — quite a political commitment from so religious a community. They saw their bedrock as moral integrity and incorruptibility, thus Meacham argues that while they are usually described as Tory, it was a little more complicated.  They were, of course, remembered for their work to abolish the slave trade. For Thornton it was more than abolition, he wrote:

To promote the instruction of the African in letters and useful knowledge…to induce them to substitute a beneficial commerce in place of the slave trade; to introduce amongst them the useful arts of Europe… (Thornton to Zachary Macauley, 28 May 1806 SB p 34, 97).

And abolish the trade they did.

But then there’s Sierra Leone, and this is where I must confess my ignorance and astonishment and no small degree of horror. Here’s a piece of the history I’m ashamed I didn’t know:

Thornton’s anxiety to better Africa and civilize the Africans equaled his concern for slaves and hatred of the slave trade. Sierra Leone showed itself the means by which that civilizing might begin, and Thornton, committed as he was to abolition, worked less for that than for the colony which he felt promised most for Africa once slave-trading had stopped.

The Act of Parliament creating Sierra Leone Company authorized a court of thirteen Directors, and the Directors elected Thornton their chairman. They chose him as much for his ability as a banker as for his convictions as a Christian. Sierra Leone would prove their point–that Africa could prosper as more than just a market for humanity–only if the Company should show a profit. Thornton, it was hoped, would make the venture pay. The one attempt in pure colonial philanthropy, which Granville Sharp had made five years before, had proved a dismal failure.

Sharp had himself explored the land along the mouth of the Sierra Leone River in 1787. The Royal African Company had lost its monopoly there in 1698, and the territory was full of slavers from France and from England. Sharp returned to London determined to see at least one colony of freemen on the western coast of Africa, He formed a Committee for Black Poor which raised money to send a group of 340 indigent Negroes to Sierra Leone. They sailed under the protection of nine white officials and in the company of 62 white prostitutes. Sharp had elaborate plans for his settlement, but by September 1788, four months after landing, just 66 Negroes remained alive. Disease felled half the tough white women. Those neither dead nor sick were burdened with the care of 30 black and mulatto babies. The five harassed officials still at work could only try in vain to interest them in re-establishing the Anglo-Saxon frank-pledge system Sharp had felt best suited to their needs (102-103).

Sweet Jesus. I don’t even know what to say to either of those two attempts to create a settlement. Now, given a description like that (Who were the women? Why did they come? Who were the Black men? What the hell is happening here?) this clearly isn’t a book that will explore this story with much of a critical eye. I’ll be investigating more, so just a few choice details pulled from a chapter that hardly engages with what is really happening.

The new Sierra Leone Company, when it assumed control of the Colony, made use of what it could at Granville Town and reimbursed [!] Sharp with £1,850. The directors expressed their readiness to spend additional money to turn what had been a philanthropy into a philanthropic business. Their charter spoke of factories and a second town… (104)

Complication came almost at once with the importation of 1196 Negroes who had served in the British army during the American Revolution and been left to fend for themselves in singularly unsuitable Novia Scotia (106).

Turns out those guys didn’t like white capitalists telling them what to do. I applaud them, disagreeing with sentences like these:

It was a noble end–to make a colony remake men: an end, however, that was to prove maddeningly difficult to achieve (107).

When Macauley retired as governor in 1799 he brought 30 children with him back to Clapham to be educated and returned to Sierra Leone as part of this end.

The children had come to Marianne [Thornton’s wife] to learn their Bible and their manners, and they exasperated her. “My African girls have been a plague to me,” she complained to Hannah More. “I mean to send the worst back by the next ship.” The Society would have been wise to ship them all back home. There was nothing to teach them at Clapham that they could not learn at Freetown; hence little reason to pluck them up into cold England. For several years they remained a Clapham “sight,” playing on the Common, displaying themselves in the libraries of their benefactors. But climate took its toll, and one by one they died. In 1805 only six remained alive. It was a well-meant experiment, unmeaningly cruel (111).

Climate my arse, this is the most chilling story I have read in a long time. My heart breaks at the thought of those poor children among people who looked down on them, even hated them, and still used them to raise money. I wonder where they are buried, how to make sure they are remembered and mourned. There is more to be found here.

More on the ‘Nova Scotians’, Thornton writes:

The untoward disposition which too many of the settlers have shown proves, but too plainly, the importance of bestowing on them an intelligent and protective government (108).

Macaulay writes:

Uniting great ignorance with a vain conceit of their own talents, and sufficiently disposed of themselves to regard the share, which Europeans had in the government of the Colony as an usurpation, they were easily persuaded that nothing would so effectually contribute to their happiness as the demolition of the existing establishment (28, 113).

The insurrections kept on coming (hurrah) — especially after transporting a bunch of Maroons from Jamaica — and the Company became convinced the Crown needed to take over. Reading all of this I am still a little in shock that I had never heard of any of it. I knew of Thornton and Wilberforce as abolitionists, but this profit-making venture in Sierra Leone is the stuff of horror, nor did they step in when slavers were capturing Blacks in Sierra Leone and then making of them ‘identured’ servants, because indentured servitude was not illegal.

Apart from Sierra Leone the Clapham group were involved in missions — founding the Society for Missions to Africa and the East in 1799. They also tried their hand at conversions in England. But:

The rich, however, would not be lectured. ‘Having tried them almost in vain” and tiring of cool looks and cold shoulders, the Evangelicals gave it up and taught the poor instead, who could at least be poked awake to hear a sermon.

The English lower classes needed civilizing. Thornton wrote correctly that

“while principles of equity, moderation, and benevolence prevail in a considerable degree among the higher orders of the people, it is much to be lamented that disorders of the most pernicious tendency pervade the lower ranks; and that reformation with repsect to them, has till late, been rather a matter of solicitude and desire, than of serious expectation” (130-131).

Ugh. You throw in the religious beliefs about God defining our station — surely also applicable to the slavery, so I’m curious about how that worked intellectually — and you get a whole lot of initiatives offensive to poor people.

Yet evidence and inclination suggested to Thornton one fact about the poor before all others: that though their lot might improve, they would stay poor…With it he accepted a corollary class system, static in rank, rigid in task. Education under such confining circumstance became instruction in the duties of one’s condition (140).

A little more on this note from Thornton himself:

God often punishes men by sending a real trouble. And the means which discontented people take, to better their condition, not seldom prove the occasion of the new calamity which overtakes them (143).

The last chapter is on the legacy:

the estimates of Evangelicalism commonly diverge. Historians agree it played a great part in shaping the Victorian mind. yet there agreement ceases. Some, following the lead offered by Samuel Butler or Edmund Gosse, discover little more than tepid piety, hypocrisy, self-satisfaction, and cruelty. Others, reading the lives of George Eliot or Beatrice Webb, find instead awareness of a moral code and conviction as to the duty of moral man within society. Both the bad and the good have their roots in the beliefs of Henry Thornton’s generation (153).

I find it so hard to find a moral code and conviction worth anything at all in this recounting. Only by rigidly separating whites from Blacks, and removing actions towards non-whites (and poor people) from the same morality required in interactions with equals, does this make any kind of sense. How this double morality took life through the following decades — century even — is such a key question I think. And one to take sides on.


Imperialism at Home

6591131Meyer, Susan (1996) Imperialism at home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.

This was interesting, and read just fine, but didn’t really ask the questions I wanted it to ask, it didn’t dig deep enough. I’m not sure how much insight fiction can yield, but felt there must be more. The first chapter is titled ‘Race as Metaphor’, and is the argument of the book:

This book will argue that, on the contrary, a close study of the fiction of novelists of the nineteenth century, and a close attention in particular to the use of metaphor in that fiction, reveals that, since the gender positioning of British women writers required them to negotiate an association with ‘inferior races,’ their feminist impulses to question gender hierarchies often provoked an interrogation of race hierarchies. To say this is not to contend, with the optimistic idealism of the feminism of an earlier era, that an awareness of gender oppression has historically given women an easy, automatic comprehension of oppression on the basis of race or class…An attention to their fiction reveals that their gender (and in some cases, class) positioning produced a complex and ambivalent relation to the ideology of imperialist domination, rather than an easy and straightforward one. It was precisely the gender positioning of these women writers in British society, in combination with their feminist impulses and their use of race as a metaphor, that provoked and enabled an (albeit partial) questioning of British imperialism (11).

So for me this study becomes muddied between what in an author’s work is intentional, what reflects their unconscious, and where that comes from. I was reading and kept reacting as a writer, knowing sometimes metaphors are very deliberate but just as often they are not. Other times I reacted as a reader, someone who loves Jane Eyre — and though I know how problematic it is, I still didn’t buy all of these critiques — and really didn’t like Wuthering Heights when I read it so many years ago. Though this might have convinced me to read it again, and better understand why I identified with Heathcliff and despised Catherine with every ounce of me. This looks at George Eliot’s and Daniel Deronda as well, which I am curious about now. But they are so damn long.

So just to pull out a few things I found interesting. In the opening chapter drawing the literary links made between women and slaves or colonised populations, she looks at Anthony Trollope’s ‘Miss Sarah Jack of Spanish Town, Jamaica’ and Dickens Mystery of Edwin Drood and writes:

In both narratives, also, the English house or home has a greater than literal status. The image of the house at once evokes the literal dwelling, the lineage of the family that inhabits it (as in the phrase ‘the house of Cumming’), and the entire Anglo-Saxon race. The domestic space of the home is at once an individual domicile and suggestive of the domestic space in a larger sense, the domestic space of England. In neither narrative is the space of domesticity separate from the concerns of imperialism. The Trollope text, in particular, strongly suggest that what happens in the home is both parallel to and necessary for the construction of empire. (7)

I feel this connection between home and empire — and white men the master of both — is so important.

I also loved reading about the Brontë sisters, the imaginary and colonial worlds they created, how they read chapters to each other as they were writing them. I suppose this is common knowledge amongst English majors, but I had no idea.

I really liked this quote from Thomas McLaughlin’s “‘Figurative Language’ in Critical Terms for Literary Study”, and want to think more about it in terms of what we can learn from literature about these systems of thought, often opaque to those who use them:

‘If figures of speech rely on an accepted system of thought, they also reveal to the critical reader that it is a system, that it is not a simple reflection of reality…Figures of speech, especially spectacular ones, are potential weaknesses in the system, places where the workings are visible, places that remind us that our truths are not self-evident.

There is also a quite extraordinary quote from George Eliot, whose Middlemarch I read too long ago to remember it very well at all. The quote is on race and submission — which figure prominently in this discussion — and interestingly, the art of writing itself and crafting a story. It comes from Notes on “The Spanish Gypsy.”

A tragedy has not to expound why the individual must give way to the general; it has to show that it is compelled to give way; the tragedy consisting in the struggle involved, and often in the entirely calamitous issue in spite of a grand submission. Silva presents the tragedy of entire rebellion; Fedalma of a grand submission, which is rendered vain by the effects of Silva’s rebellion. Zarca, the struggle for a great end, rendered vain by the surrounding conditions of life.

Now, what is the fact about our individual lots? A woman, say, finds herself on the earth with an inherited organization; she may be lame, she may inherit a disease, [34] or what is tantamount to a disease; she may be a negress, or have other marks of race repulsive in the community where she is born, etc. One may go on for a long while without reaching the limits of the commonest inherited misfortunes. It is almost a mockery to say to such human beings, “Seek your own happiness.” The utmost approach to well-being that can be made in such a case is through large resignation and acceptance of the inevitable, with as much effort to overcome any disadvantage as good sense will show to be attended with a likelihood of success. Any one may say, that is the dictate of mere rational reflection. But calm can, in hardly any human organism, be attained by rational reflection. Happily, we are not left to that. Love, pity, constituting sympathy, and generous joy with regard to the lot of our fellow-men comes in—has been growing since the beginning—enormously enhanced by wider vision of results, by an imagination actively interested in the lot of mankind generally; and these feelings become piety—i.e., loving, willing submission and heroic Promethean effort towards high possibilities, which may result from our individual life.

Sometimes I marvel at just how deep racism goes, that easy assumption of white privilege, even recognising the oppression of gender.

There was one other interesting historical tidbit that stood out:

In an intriguing historical parallel, the social standards that mandated the voluminous clothing of mid-Victorian women also provided a significant stimulus to the textile trade: eighteenth-century style was revived in the enormous hoop skirts and numerous petticoats that came into fashion in the early 1850s, reaching their largest circumference in 1860, the year in which The Mill and the Floss was published. Eliot’s mockery of earlier women’s styles also involving colossal quantities of cloth is part of her quiet resistance to the commercial economy of 1860 (152).

Hm. I’m not so convinced this is part of a quiet resistance but maybe. Still, Meyer goes on to say ‘The novel seems to be facing the existing social organization as one might face the fact of mortality: it is an unchangeable but regrettable fact, and the mature thing to do is to accommodate it’ (156).

God I hate accommodation. Good thing the struggle has moved on.

The Pioneers of Gardening and Empire

Miles Hadfield (1957)  London: William Clowes and Sons Ltd

A highly personal account and set of opinions of famous early gardens and gardeners, designers, plant hunters, breeders and writers — a nice wide range of the people who have shaped how the UK thinks about gardens and the plants available to fill them. It serves as a good introduction in some ways, and I don’t regret the pound spent on rescuing it from an outside box at Haye-on-Wye. It is quite a superficial account, however, and its immense admiration of the aristocracy and support of England’s ambitions and practices of empire are just so problematic — it was first published in 1957. Yet very instructive of a certain mindset, so I almost gave this three stars.

On empire: This is a story of white men exploring lands which to them are unknown, backed up by either the threat or the actual presence of troops. From when I was little, the idea of traveling, seeing things you had never seen before, learning about plants and animals always seemed so wonderful and it is only in learning about how this happened in reality that I gave it up as a dream. Such explorations (at least those of the western world since Columbus really) have been in the context of conquest, with scientific inquiry dependent upon and furthering the project of empire. Thus curiosity about the world and a love of knowledge sit with more or less ease alongside a project of death and domination depending on the person involved. There is almost no respect for local knowledge described here, particularly grievous in countries like China and India with long histories of scholarly investigation of the natural world (which are noted, then ignored completely), but grievous anywhere where local survival has always depended on a deep knowledge of local plants and their properties. In an immensity of arrogance and assumption of anglo superiority that I still find staggering, everything must be learned anew, documented and studied by Europeans, and seeds obtained by any means necessary for profit back in the UK. Thus Hadfield is able to write:

Maximowizc, Hance and their friends for long worked under impossibly restrictive conditions. Most of China was in a wild, lawless state at the mercy of petty chieftains. The inefficient central government, instead of carrying out the terms of its treaties with the European trading states, was awkward and obstructive. At last Britain and France sent an army. The Chinese forces collapsed and in 1860 a new treaty was made. Maximowizc and Hance must have been overjoyed at the terms. Foreigners were now to be allowed much greater freedom of movement in the interior. The European consular services were strengthened. Religious missions were permitted to increase their work and members, while an organisation, the Imperial Maritime Customs, was set up under an Englishman, Sir Robert Hart. All this meant that more men would come into China who could be pressed into service as collectors — apart from others who might collect and botanise independently’ (185).

At last Britain and France sent an army? What? They are well into their project of conquest, and Hadfield is here referring to the 2nd Opium War, fought by Britain to force the Chinese government to legalise opium, promote the exportation of ‘coolie’ labour and force open the entire country to British trade. An undertaking that makes me literally shake with anger, and gives context for an ‘awkward’ and ‘obstructive’ government. There are a few stories such as that of collector and missionary-botanist was Father Jean Andre Soulié, who apparently ‘helped by high cheek-bones’ was able to travel disguised as a native, tricking all those gullible people thirsting for European blood in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Right. He was killed by Tibetens during an uprising. Interestingly, he is also the introducer of the Buddleia davidii or butterfly bush, that is beautiful and wonderful for butterflies and bees, but has since become an invasive species which you can see lodged everywhere in UK buildings and along railroad tracks as it thrives on lime and sends mortar crumbling into dust. There is a fact sheet on the history of its invasion here.

There is not a thought in this book for ecosystems, or the dangers of introducing foreign species into new environments. I suppose that is a new ‘discovery’ Europeans have made.

This is primarily a story of men, and where women enter into it, it is in their role as assistants. Jane Webb for example, an early pioneer of Science Fiction and author of The Mummy, is described thus: ‘Indeed, Jane Webb, the high-spirited girl, disappears to become Mrs. Loudon, the most capable assistant of Mr Loudon… (162)’ though it does go on to acknowledge her work as a writer on popular gardening. Still. She was at least his equal.

And finally, an insight into some of the fine class distinctions of gardening. On the one hand this is almost entirely a tale of self-made men, capable and energetic, born into the working-classes (and so many of them Scottish!) and working their way up through gardening to positions of wealth and distinction. Thus, while much print is spent admiring their noble patrons, the fact remains that the pioneers themselves were hardly noble. And yet, there is this, on recent developments in gardening:

William Kent, Launcelot Brown and Humphry Repton, we can feel certain, were turning in their graves, their spirits distraught by the lack of taste shown by the Victorian gardener.

For one thing, the pendulum again swung right over to the other side: colour, and garish colour at that, came into full favour once more. While the study of nature–and, of course, plants–on scientific lines progressed by leaps and bounds, “nature” is the sense understood by all the gardeners from Kent to Loudon went right out of fashion. First of all we must blame the new school of practical gardeners; these men were exceedingly skillful at cultivating plants. And next we must accuse the greenhouse…Their cost fell considerably, and a whole new class of society–and a class with neither tradition nor very refined tastes–could now own them.

He goes on to rail against the ‘bedding out’ of plants, their strange and extravagant results and etc.

As someone with a hatred of empire, as a woman, and as a member of a class with neither tradition nor refined taste, I won’t write more about the content, but there is lot more to think through here in terms of how class, gender, race, nation and empire intersect all in the context of plants and gardening.  And in spite of it, I retain my love of plants themselves and all their wonders, and my joy in botanic gardens. So here is an incredible flowering tree mentioned in the book, along with the race to bring it to the UK and successfully get it to flower: the Amherstia nobilis, or Pride of Burma:

Amherstia Nobilis - Mumbai Jan 2010

A short bio of the author Miles Hadfield, of a family of property fallen on hard times and the founder of the Garden History Society and its first President, can be read here. The book is also a good starting list for the key figures in the history of British gardens for further investigation, so here it is:

  • Henry Lord Danvers founds the Oxford University Botanical Garden 1621
  • John Godyer: Early botanist, with Thomas Johnson – updated Gerard’s Herball 1633
  • The Tradescants: Their Ark in South Lambeth opens in 1628, early plant hunters
  • John Parkinson: Introduced (?) idea of gardening for beauty with Paradisi in Sole Parasisus Terrestris in 1629
  • André Le Nôtre – French–and this author doesn’t much care for many of the French–but very influential as the designer of the formal gardens of Versaille
  • Phillip Miller – Head gardener and rescuer of a failing Chelsea Physick Garden, opened by the Apothecaries Company (1673)
  • William Kent – with Lord Burlington propagator of the ideal of the Palladian Villa and move from ‘garden to landscape’ as best seen at Stowe 1713-ish, inventor of the ha ha, laid out Kew Gardens
  • Lancelot Brown, aka Capability Brown – head gardener at Stowe (also Blenheim Palace) and transformer of multiple gardens into landscapes through his own garden design business started 1749
  • Humphrey Repton – third great landscape designer, worked with John Nash, wrote Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening. thankfully brought back ‘cottage’ flower gardens as well as introducing ‘ornamental cottages’
  • William Jackson Hooker – great figure in ‘history of scientific gardening’, head gardener of Kew beginning in 1842, ensured Kew botanists on many major expeditions of conquest around the world
  • David Douglas – Explored North American Pacific Coast, numerous dubious adventures involving Native Americans a little upset about his activities
  • John Claudius Loudon – from Cambuslang! pioneered the modern agricultural college, made the interesting decision to undertake a foreign tour through Europe at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, produced Encyclopaedia of Gardening updating Miller’s Dictionary and launched The Gardener’s Magazine. Improved and designed Kensington Gardens.
  • Jane (Webb) Loudon – Writer of The Mummy (1829) and numerous books and articles on gardening, popularising gardening
  • Joseph Paxton – gardener at Chatsworth, builder of greenhouses leading to his design of Crystal Palace.