For all the differences in the way they lived, their experiences, expectations, even life expectancy, the people of the past had more in common with “moderns” like us, than perhaps we appreciate. As part of my research into William Scoresby Jr.’s whaling voyages, and in an attempt to reach a workable understanding of early nineteenth century life, I’ve been reading Thomas De Quincey’s Recollections of the Lakes and Lake Poets Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey, first published between 1834 and 1840., and first published together in 1862. I’ve been reading a battered, rebound copy of the 1862 edition, which I picked up for £1 a few months ago (we live in remarkable times). Anyway, De Quincey is an eccentric and opinionated writer, known for his racy style (for the time), and anecdotal digressions.
I first read Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), and On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827) as an undergraduate. De Quincey’s restlessness appealed to me then, but what I find fascinating now, in this later work, and in my middle age, is the way his sensibility grates against the modern world: how terrifying must the railways, and the growth of industrial towns, have been to a generation that grew up without them? In that respect, he reminds me of my own generation, with our pre-digital childhoods and hyper-connected adult lives. Here he is on the poet Wordsworth’s older brother, Richard:
… he had become a thriving solicitor, at one of the inns of court in London; and, if he died only moderately rich, and much below the experience of his acquaintance, in the final result of his laborious life, it was because he was moderate in his desires; and, in his later years, reverting to the pastoral region of his infancy and boyhood, chose rather to sit down by a hearth of his own amongst the Cumberland mountains, and wisely to woo the deities of domestic pleasures and health, than to chase after wealth in the feverish crowds of the capital.
I learnt to drive on the Great North Road, or rather its modern incarnation, the A1. My soon-to-be wife taught me. Her technique was to sit patiently while I crunched the four troublesome gears of her elderly Austin Metro, a tiny city car not intended for long distance travel. It was noisy, cramped, twitchy at speed, and lost power when it rained. It wasn’t much fun at the time, but I see now that we were lucky to be travelling in the 1990s: a journey along the Great North Road by mail coach from London to Edinburgh, took eight or nine days. Coaching inns made an arduous journey just about bearable.
Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Road—a sturdy paperback tough enough for the glovebox or door pocket–is published by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, and arranged linearly, as a journey, starting in London. The holloways and open roads of the past have long since given way to tarmac and motor traffic, and part of the appeal of this book—and the pubs it describes—is in the glimpses it offers of a slower-paced world now bypassed, and in many cases almost entirely erased. These twenty-first century pubs in all their variety–including those, like the Queen’s Head at Morpeth, Northumberland, that have closed down—carry in their long histories a collective memory, of old battles, famous visitors, and journeys taken, when to travel was to endure hardship barely imaginable today.
It is difficult now to visualise the road as it was—terrorised by highwaymen, all but unusable in winter—but some of it is still visible. Much of the old road between London and York, away from the modern A1, was based on the Roman road known as Ermine Street, laid down in dead straight miles made for marching soldiers. And many of the coaching inns along the way have also travelled to the future with us. There is the Bull and Last, on Highgate Road, so-called because it was once the last stop before London; and the George of Stamford, an inn with a six hundred year history that grew, Roger Protz tells us, to “it’s present pomp and glory” in the eighteenth century. Back then it handled 20 coaches, and their horses, each way, every day—the stables must have been enormous. Others have been less fortunate: The Golden Lion, at Ferrybridge, West Yorkshire, is the last remaining coaching inn in a village that once thrived as a crossing place on the River Aire. Now, completing its fall from grace, the only beer it serves is “John Smiths keg ale”. When I checked this last point for the purpose of this review, I discovered it currently serves Greene King IPA, which many people will not consider a great improvement.
Protz’s descriptions of the inns are vivid and opinionated. The sin of being a gastropub is absolved by a good range of cask ales, while the historic and preserved are celebrated generously. The ancient and splendid Angel and Royal at Grantham—perhaps the oldest coaching inn in Britain—gets a potted history going back to 1203, though the obvious enthusiasm and affection in the description includes what might be a slightly waspish mention of “Bertie’s Bistro,” named after King Edward VII. The Yorkshire town of Doncaster is not so easy to like. Protz says that its “importance as a Roman camp, and an Anglo-Saxon fortress, lie buried” under car parks and a shopping centre. Thankfully, marks are awarded for effort, and the Red Lion, a Wetherspoons pub dedicated to the St Leger horse race, and to Thomas Crapper, inventor of the ballcock valve system, sounds comfortable and unpretentious.
Historic Coaching Inns includes 46 featured pubs, charting a wavy course up the East Coast of Britain from London to Edinburgh, and taking in York (204 miles from London, 219 miles from Edinburgh), where every pub seems either to have a connection with highwayman Dick Turpin, a ghost, or a combination of the two. An old favourite of mine in York is the Olde Starre, off the Shambles. The collection of pubs in the book seems ready-made for people ticking things off lists, but there is plenty of background material too, on the history of the road, the people who used it, famous or otherwise, and topics such as how the Great North Road was built, the types of mail coach that used it, and the process of making Stilton cheese. Shorter sidebars offer places to visit during your stay at one of these historic inns.
I don’t recommend learning to drive on the A1. When I finally had a proper driving lesson in a modern car, after thousands of miles of practice, the instructor reminded me gently, as we joined a dual carriageway at an ear-bursting 70mph, that his car had five gears, and I should use them all. And that goes for pubs too. For its role in commerce, and the transmission of ideas between North and South, the Great North Road is just as important to British history as the great cathedrals. The coaching inns that punctuate it–the cared for, and the neglected–are as significant, in some cases, as any cloister. Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Road is not going to make the modern A1 a tourist destination, but if you ever find yourself driving on the Great North Road, and looking for somewhere interesting to rest, this book should be with you. You can buy it direct from CAMRA:
Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Road: A Guide to Travelling the Legendary Highway, by Roger Protz. St. Albans, Hertfordshire: The Campaign for Real Ale, 2017.
Back in 2013, as part of my work in Continuing Education, I was involved in organising a marathon reading of Moby-Dick at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool. Although the organising was complicated (all those chapters to read at the right time over three days in two venues) it turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Melville’s challenging, troublesome book came alive in the voices of over 100 lovely volunteers. I’m quite familiar with Moby-Dick, but I heard a lightness and humour I hadn’t fully understood before.
Four years later and I’m at it again with another waterborne tale, Swallows and Amazons, in the Lake District. It won’t take three days this time (I calculate nine hours), but it will be outdoors, or at least in a small marquee, on the northern shore of Coniston Water near the boating centre. We begin at 9am on September 3rd, 2017, and we’ll read until around 6pm. There will be tea, and possibly cake. Many volunteers have already signed up, but it’s free to all, so if you want to get involved, let me know which chapter you want to read (or share reading) here: ifnotduffers.org/
The Jupiter Project is something I’ve been working on intermittently for quite a few years now with the poet Rebecca Goss; I take the pictures, she writes the words. This has never been a central project for either of us, but we are starting to gather a body of work now, and starting to think of where we might take it from here. With that in mind we’ve published our first 2017 post on the project website today. Click the image below to read the poem.
A quick note to say that I’m going to be talking about my Jupiter Project collaboration with poet Rebecca Goss at an Ideas Lab at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool on Wednesday 14 December 4pm – 7pm. It’s a free event, but booking is required (see below).
I will introduce The Jupiter Project and discuss the process of collaboration—what works for us and what doesn’t—and how it has changed the way I think about photography and writing; how they complement each other, but also their separate limitations and strengths. I’m going to be joined by Robert Sheppard, Professor of Poetry and Poetics at Edge Hill University, who will speak about the possibilities and potential of collaboration between photography and poetry.
To reserve your free place at Open Eye Gallery, call +44 (0)151 236 6768 or email email@example.com.
My work on the whaler William Scoresby Jr. centres on his 1822 voyage to Greenland, a small, but significant episode in a very diverse and influential life. Scoresby gave up whaling after his voyage the following year–there were commercial as well as personal reasons in play–and became a clergyman. In the early 1840s he was Vicar of Bradford, and, besides bringing him into contact with the Brontë family at Haworth, his experiences there made him an outspoken social reformer. Scoresby was never less than opinionated, but his dismay at the way workers in the mills and factories of Britain’s industrial towns was enough for him to establish schools for poor children in Bradford, to give lectures on the conditions men and women endured in their employment, and in their lives. Following a visit to Massachusetts in 1844, where he investigated the conditions experienced by American factory workers (better than in Britain, he thought), Scoresby gave a series of lectures about his findings, and collected them into a book, American Factories and their Female Operatives, published the following year in Britain and the US.
When reading this we must bear in mind Scoresby’s paternalistic and moralistic view of the working poor–he was at least as interested in saving souls as saving lives–but there is real concern and forcefulness here:
“The consideration, let it be observed, of the long hours of labor, is one by no means belonging peculiarly to our factory system. The Reports of the Commissioners appointed by the government, ‘for inquiring into the employment of children and young persons in mines and collieries, trades and manufactures,’ have brought to light a most appalling amount of misery induced, as to this one essential element, by over-working. And from hence we find, taking the whole range of the investigations under this humane commission, that the oppression of the laborer is no local or peculiar incident, but an evil of huge magnitude, as a national sin. It is an evil which has grown up insidiously amongst us, the offspring of success in trade and of an excess of laboring population.”
William Scoresby Jr. _American Factories and their Female Operatives_ Boston: Ticknor and Co. 1845.
In the eighteenth century, Liverpool was a key port in the “triangular trade” in which ships sailed from Britain to West Africa, collected a cargo of living humans, then crossed the Atlantic to the Americas to sell them on. Many of Liverpool’s wealthiest families were involved in slave trading, or profited from slavery, including several who lived in Abercromby Square, now part of the University of Liverpool. The trade was made illegal in 1807, though of course slavery in the United States and the Caribbean continued for years afterwards.
But what the law says should happen, and what actually happens, are sometimes quite different. Back in 2014, while I was researching a short piece on Henry Howard Brownell, the American Civil War poet and abolitionist, I came across an interesting letter (reproduced below) that is suggestive, to me at least, of slave trading going on in Liverpool as late as 1825. It’s far from definitive–there is no actual mention of slaves, for obvious reasons–but it’s intriguing.
As an abolitionist, Brownell had an interesting background. His mother came from the DeWolf family of Rhode Island so he was a close relative of James DeWolf (sometimes written D’Wolf), a major ship owner, slave trader and privateer. Although based in the North East, the DeWolfs were slave owners in Cuba and the southern US states, and are known to have continued to transport and trade in slaves well into the nineteenth century, and to have used their influence to evade the law. They were immensely rich and often packed the courts with family members, and controlled the excise in Bristol, RI.
The letter itself is from a man called Martin (?) Bennett to John DeWolf (James’s brother I think), dated April 16 (?), 1825, and was written when the ship (owned by DeWolf) arrived in Liverpool with cotton from New Orleans. Apart from revealing the massive profit on cotton, it ends with the following:
“I purchased the goods according to your memorandums at this port and at the lowest rate payable. I shall take particular care of the goods and keep them onboard the vessel until I return.”
There is no certainty in this of course, but word “them” and the bit about keeping them on the vessel under “particular care,” suggests something alive, which I doubt was sheep.
I’d be interested to know what others think. Hat tip to the Rhode Island Historical Society, which is where this came from.
It’s been a while since I posted anything here, so it seems appropriate that I should revisit Cain’s: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint, the book I published in 2008 about the Cain’s brewery in Liverpool. After the book was finished the brewery struggled on for a couple of years but has now closed. It is about to be transformed into a centre for independent retailers and an apartment block, but in the mean time it is host to the 2016 Liverpool Biennial. I was asked to produce an audio guide giving some historical background to the brewery, but tying it in to the Biennial’s themes:
Liverpool Biennial 2016 explores fictions, stories and histories, taking viewers on a series of voyages through time and space, drawing on Liverpool’s past, present and future. These journeys take the form of six ‘episodes’: Ancient Greece, Chinatown, Children’s Episode, Software, Monuments from the Future and Flashback. They are sited in galleries, public spaces, unused buildings, through live performance and online. Many of the artists have made work for more than one episode, some works are repeated across different episodes, and some venues host more than one episode.
For several years now I’ve been researching the life and work of William Scoresby Jr., an early nineteenth-century whaler and Arctic explorer who sailed from Whitby, and Liverpool. Of course this has on the whole been a spare time project, and one that is quite a departure from my academic background in American literature, and crime fiction. It has taken quite a while to reach the point where I feel confident about publishing on the subject. I’m working on a full-length book about Scoresby, but in the mean time I have written and self-published a short (~10,000 words) book-let on his once famous voyage of 1816, a voyage which could very easily have ended in tragedy and disaster.
This booklet is available as a print copy from Amazon and in due course as an ebook from all the usual outlets and in all the usual formats. In the mean time your one stop shop for the ebook in the right format for you is Smashwords. The cover image is by mixed media artist Caroline Hack, from an original illustration by Scoresby himself.