The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

William Wilberforce 1759 - 1833

Wilberforce House museum
Chances are you've never actually heard of Wilberforce.In spite of a successful political career few people have, even though he was one of the most important figures in bringing about an end to slavery in Britain.

Wilberforce was born in Kingston Upon Hull in 1759, the son of a wealthy merchant, and became MP for Yorkshire in 1784. A year later he converted to Evangelical Christianity and his religious beliefs led to a fervent support for philanthropy, in particular the plight of African slaves. His stance  made him the target of many who believed he should have concentrated more on raising the standard of living for the poor at home in Britain.

He was one of the main driving forces behind the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which banned slavery on British soil. However, the practice continued overseas in the British Empire, so Wilberforce's campaign continued until 1833 when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed. Wilberforce lived just long enough to see his dreams come to fruition. Just three days after the Act passed through Parliament, he died.

A museum in his old home in Hull tells his life story, as well as focusing on the slavery that still exists in the world today. It has horrific tales of how slaves were treated. They were not seen as human by their owners, and before the passage of abolition laws were legally defined as property, not people. There are readings taken from contemporary sources such as slave ship captains, and the slaves themselves, some of whom managed to gain freedom. The descriptions of life on plantations, and during the long sea voyages that carried them from Africa to the West Indies are harrowing. Nevertheless, the topic is an important one and cannot be ignored.

Among the chains and shackles, whips and other instruments of torture that were used against the enslaved people are less unpleasant items from the time. For example, potter Josiah Wedgwood produced a medallion for the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. It shows a chained, kneeling man and has the caption "Am I not a man and a brother?" Almost as an aside, the museum also informs us that Wilberforce was a founder member of the organisation that eventually became the RSPCA.

Wherever you go in Hull it's hard to miss the city's pride in its son. There's a Wilberforce pub, and a Wilberforce Drive. Some local schools have named one of their houses after him. And there's a huge column outside Hull College with a statue of him on top of it.

If you'd like an easily digested version of his life story, can I recommend the film Amazing Grace, starring Ioan Gruffudd and Benedict Cumberbatch, which I found on Netflix, but I think it's also on YouTube.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Garden of Love

In 1575 Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester was expecting a visit from his queen Elizabeth I at his home, Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire. To honour her he chose to create a garden - the finest of its kind. The garden was private; never intended for any eyes except the queen, Dudley and his closest companions. But by chance one of the household, a minor clerk by the name of Robert Langham, was shown round the site by a gardener. Langham then wrote a letter to a friend describing the wonders he had seen.

That letter has formed the basis of a reconstruction carried out by English Heritage, backed up by archaeological excavation, and painstaking historical research.  The geometric knot garden outlines have been recreated. The beds have been replanted with herbs, flowers and trees that are accurate to the period. And the whole thing has been adorned with statuary, obelisks, topiary and  gravel paths, as it would have been at the time.

At the centre is an 18 foot high carrara marble fountain in an octagonal basin, and to one side stands an ornate aviary alive with chirping, brightly-coloured finches. On the opposite side is a steep bank, up to a viewing terrace flanked by rose arbours. It is beautiful, and blissfully quiet for the most time, given that the majority of the world, his wife and kids, spend their time exploring the castle and giving the gardens less than a cursory glance.

As Langham described it:
A garden then so appointed, as wherein aloft upon sweet shadowed walk of terrace, in heat of summer, to feel the pleasant whisking wind above, or delectable coolness of the fountain-spring beneath, to taste of delicious strawberries, cherries, and other fruits, even from their stalks, to smell such fragrancy of sweet odours, breathing from the plants, herbs, and flowers, to hear such natural melodious music and tunes of birds, to have in eye for mirth sometime these underspringing streams, then, the woods, the waters (for both pool and chase were hard at hand in sight), the deer, the people (that out of the east arbour in the base Court, also at hand in view), the fruit-trees, the plants, the herbs, the flowers, the change in colours, the birds flittering, the fountain streaming, the fish swimming, all in such delectable variety, order, and dignity; whereby, at one moment, in one place, at hand, without travel, to have so full fruition of so many God’s blessings, by entire delight unto all senses (if all can take) at once. 

The garden is believed to be the finest example of Elizabethan style in the country.

Dudley was a close companion of the Queen and probably would have married her, were it not for the fact that he already had a wife. Conveniently, Amy Robsart fell down a flight of stairs and died from a broken neck, but it was widely rumoured that she didn't so much fall, as succumb to a hand in the back! Dudley wasn't there at the time but, being the politically aware character that she was, Elizabeth probably avoided marrying him as a result. Nevertheless, Dudley remained a powerful figure at court and held many significant titles during his lifetime.

When Elizabeth fell ill in 1562 she appointed him Protector of the Realm, but she recovered, much to the relief of other courtiers. He was already Master of the Horse, Knight of the Garter, Privy Councillor and Lord Steward of the Royal Household.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Different Times

Back in the day you could advertise more or less everything, then medics finally overcame pressure from the tobacco industry and cigarette ads were banned. This hit motor racing pretty badly, and there were a few attempts to overcome the restrictions.

I admit I wouldn't have noticed this during a recent trip to the Donington Collection, an impressive museum dedicated to the history of motor racing and the Castle Donington circuit in particular. Mr Anorak is a huge Formula 1 fan and has followed the sport for years, so he knew straight away what this statement really says.

 I wonder how many of you will recognise that this is actually advertising.  I guess unless you were a smoker you're at a disadvantage, but I used to work my way through the best part of a pack of Benson and Hedges every day before I came to my senses.  And if you fill in the gaps, that's precisely what this encouraging statement says.

Before the ban, tobacco was linked blatantly to the glamorous sport and its fast cars. He's a prime example from the year before the Be On Edge example above.