Who drank which creature’s milk mattered to British imperial writers in the colony. A definitively mammalian product for nourish young creatures, the consumption of milk was a form of interspecies intimacy. As such it, was subject to certain taboos and framed by historically contingent cultural understandings. It was commented that Indian ‘martial races’, such as Punjabi Sikhs, drank milk and ate cheese and thus were muscular and manly. In contrast, it was claimed Burmese Buddhists did not drink milk because of their sympathy for animal life. Some writers went further, recounting in disgust apocryphal stories of Burmese women nursing orphaned animals. These descriptions of milk drinking fed into British representations of Burma as a place distinct to India and behind Britain in the development of decorous sensibilities and secular thinking.
At the same time colonial officials worried about the plight of plough cattle in the colony. By the end of the nineteenth century Burma was the largest rice producer in the world. The cultivation of this staple was dependent upon the labour of oxen who ploughed the fields, provided manure and transported people and rice across the colony. Officials believed that local Burmese breeds of ox were hardier than those found in India, although both were of the species Bos Indicus and neither had been subjected to the same intensity of anthropogenic selective breeding as bovine livestock in Europe. As result, officials became concerned that the migration of dairy herds from India were a threat to the Burmese ‘breeds’ of cattle. These Indian herds were said to spread diseases and to promiscuously mate with local oxen leading to a degeneration of local plough cattle. The measures the colonial state put in place to rectify these supposed problems were coterminous with similar policies put in place to regulate the movement of Indian people into the colony.
In an article published in the Journal of Historical Geography, I argue that both the cultural observations made about dairy consumption and the state controls put on Indian dairy herds were part of a wider naturalisation of Burma’s political geography – a mapping that was always and remains contested, complex and contingent. But how did milk even come to emerge as a subject to study? Certainly, I did not ever envisage that I would be engaged in uncovering a history that, taken at face value, sounds so esoteric and niche. The topic came into focus only after I had started a new research project into the history of animals in colonial Burma. By decentring humans as the default starting point of my study, I have found myself reading archives in different ways in order to tease out the records in which histories concerning myriad other creatures resided. This was particularly apparent when I went back through the annual reports of the Rangoon Lunatic Asylum. I had scoured these reports several years earlier for an article on colonial psychiatry, but during this research I had entirely missed the fact that the institution had its own dairy herd with over forty heads of cattle – despite the asylum’s chronic overcrowding. My turn towards animal history has not so much been to put animals into history, but to recognise the ways in which I had previously ignored and overlooked their presence.
Jonathan Saha is an associate Professor at the University of Leeds specialising in the history of colonial Burma. His blog Colonizing Animalslooks at the history of beasts, British imperialism and Burma.
On the morning of 13 October, 1603, Sir Thomas Tresham summoned his tenants to Rothwell parish church, Northants, like naughty students to the headteacher’s study. He had got wind of a petition they sent to the King in the summer ‘to prevent sr Thomas from renewinge his lease’ of their home village of Orton, on the basis that he had been a cruel landlord. Sir Thomas had been fuming for a while but, ‘respectinge their harvest tyme’, postponed his florid telling-off until after Michaelmas – a not entirely unselfish pause, since they’d been reaping in his rent money during the harvest. And so he dragged the tenants to Church on a Thursday morning to give them an alliterative earful, and to ‘defend his Credytt, … against the infammus imputations which they impudently taxed on him in their petition to the kinge’.
That the tenants had put their names to a petition was not unusual. Then, as now, petitioning was a popular form of politics that attracted wide participation – as the ‘Addressing Authority’ symposium over on the Many-Headed Monster blog recently laid out. Early modern petitions survive in their tens of thousands, and were used by people of all social ranks to try to improve their lot, or get their voices heard. And, on occasion, to lie through their teeth.
Tresham thought the Orton petition was full of ‘trothelese and infamus Calumniations’ against him, ‘that they, ther wifes, ther Childern and familyes were utterly undone by the extremitye of their fynes, Rentes, paymentes and servis innumerable as by vexationes with processes, and inclosure’. In other words, the tenants had accused him of increasing rents and fines, harassing them for money, and enclosing their shared land – all fairly common stuff in this type of complaint.
When everyone had assembled, ‘Sr Thomas produced the sayde petition and caused yt to be publicklye red’. He then ‘duely proved that their fynes were verye reasonable… [and] that their Rents was as of autentique tyme they had beine’, with apparently little objection from the tenants. None of them admitted being harassed for rent. The enclosure or land that was ‘complaynd of so bytterlye, and with such extremitys of Raylling words’ was no more than four acres. Finally, Sir Thomas ‘proved by testymonie’ that some of the tenants had ‘marked’ the petition even though they didn’t know the contents. By the end of the lecture, ‘all the tenantes of orton … disclaymed from their petition, and in publike presence ther, beseched Sr Thomas Tresame to forgive them’.
This story was recorded in an ‘information’ signed by Justices of the Peace who had been there at the church. Tresham enclosed the document in a letter complaining of being ‘delayed by the peevish and paltry proceedings of my Orton tenants’, but I haven’t (so far) been able to track down the original petition against Tresham, or any further mention of it. In any case, the document paints an unusually vivid picture of the relationship between a landlord and his tenants, and the aftermath of a petition.
We were discussing popular politics this week on Durham History’s first-year module ‘Early Modern England: a social history’, and petitions inevitably cropped up. I brought along copies of Tresham’s ‘information’ and we considered how far we could read it ‘against the grain’. How do assumptions we make about the motivations of those involved change the way we imagine the scene that unfolded in Rothwell church? We came up with a couple of possible scenarios.
Maybe Sir Thomas was the victim of a mendacious plot to deprive him of his manor. The tenants would have been aware of his uneasy relationship with the Court (an eccentric Catholic, Tresham had spent years in prison and under house arrest), and of the successes and failures of similar action. Petitions were not unfiltered expressions of popular complaints; they were artfully constructed towards a particular goal, sharing rhetorical tropes that were known to be effective. Early modern people (and not just the many lawyers) were familiar with the law, comfortable and confident with how they could use it to their benefit.
On the other hand, maybe Tresham was a consummate bully. What if it had been a genuine petition, filled with real complaints, put down with a display of flamboyant rhetoric and symbolic force? Put yourself in the shoes of the petitioning tenants for a moment. Summoned to the parish church by their priest, under the gaze of their landlord and more than a dozen gentry (not to mention the creepy dogs carved into the pillars at Rothwell), you might be intimidated into silence. JPs were often called on to arbitrate disputes like this, but the signatures suggest that four of the gentlemen present shared the unusual surname ‘Tresham’ – scarcely a disinterested bunch. In the presence of their landlord and his kin, tenants would be used to speaking only when spoken to, and to self-censoring. If not they risked being accused of disrespectful or seditious speech, and finding themselves in the stocks – or relieved of their ears.
Evidently Sir Thomas did ask for the tenants’ input at the Rothwell meeting, but only in answer to a series of leading, almost catechising, questions. Are your rent and fines not fair? Yes they are. Am I not as kind and generous in my terms as any other lord? Yes you are. Were you not wrong to say such mean things about me? Yes we were, and we’re sorry. It took a brave subordinate to speak out alone, and only one tenant seems to have disagreed: ‘one of the tennants [said he] payd twelve pence more then of auntient tyme was payde. To this Sr Thomas replyed that yf yt were so yt was more than he earst knew, but verelie did thinke yt to be untrew’. Case dismissed. Now hold your tongue.
Perhaps the real story was a bit both. If Tresham had been upping rent and building hedges, he wouldn’t have been alone. Likewise, the tenants probably embellished their claims with the help of someone well versed in this kind of law. Perhaps the ringleaders did put pressure on a few of their less willing neighbours to add their mark to the petition. But in the face of a direct confrontation in Rothwell, they (almost) unanimously backed down, and a number disavowed it altogether. Social relations in early modern England were marked by both deference to the established social hierarchy and a defiant and violent streak that frightened elites. But most episodes, like the incident at Rothwell, sit somewhere between these extremes.
 All the quotations are from the pictured document: The National Archives, E 163/16/19.
The advent of the First World War was a defining event in the lives of civilians as well as those in the military. So-called ‘enemy aliens’, people who had settled in territories which were now at war with their homelands, have until recently been overlooked in the study of the war. North-East England was home to a thriving German community, with many of the immigrants having lived in the region since the mid-nineteenth century. German Evangelical churches had sprung up in South Shields and Sunderland, and German butchers’ shops were common; at the same time, many of them anglicised their names and became naturalised. However, with the war came frenzied anti-German sentiment whipped up by the press; the Germans’ commitment to integration would not count for much.
Months of well-publicised spy-scares and German military atrocities, culminating with the torpedoing of the Lusitania passenger liner in May 1915, sparked the outbreak of rioting across the country in that month. Violence in the North East was concentrated in Newcastle and South Shields, where on the night of the 15th May 1915, it was reported that 7,000 rioters assembled in the Market Place, destroying shops belonging to Germans and shouting, “Remember the Lusitania!”. But more personal issues were also at play. A young Gateshead labourer named Arthur Adams received news on 10th May that two friends had been killed at the front. His response was to enter the butcher’s shop owned by Charles Frederick Seitz, and to attack the startled German with a brick, forcing him to barricade himself in the back room.
Fortunately, it seems Arthur Adams was not representative of the North East as a whole. Many local people stood by their German neighbours in the face of the mob. On the night of the 15th May, the butcher’s shop owned by Frederick Seitz (a distant cousin of C.F. Seitz) came under attack. A twenty-year-old South Shields woman, Matilda Carney, was inside at the time. As a domestic servant of the Seitz family, she was caught between two loyalties. Yet Matilda decided to protect the German family, aiding the escape of Mrs. Seitz and her five young children, and sheltering them at her own house overnight. For some, the wartime rhetoric of the murderous German barbarian did not infiltrate their personal relationships with the real Germans who lived alongside them.
The war eventually saw the internment of most German men of military age (between 17 and 55), and widespread deportation. In this legislation, the government took its lead from the anti-German press, the mobs of 1915, and the increasingly reactionary feeling in parliament. But it is important to remember that the war did not turn all British people into violent anti-German rioters. Those who remained loyal to their long-standing German friends, neighbours and colleagues also deserve their place in the narrative of the German community during the First World War.
Lauren Haikney wrote her undergraduate dissertation on ‘Germans and Geordies: The Great War and the German Minority of Newcastle and South Shields’. Her research has contributed to Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums’ new online exhibition, ‘The Kuch family on Tyneside: A story of changing attitudes towards German migrants in Britain.’ Click here to view it on Google Cultural Institute.
In the summer of 1609, Southwark innkeeper William George was targeted by a distant ancestor of the ‘stranded traveller’ scam. A group of respectable-ish men that George knew through his business had decided to take him to the cleaners, but he saw straight through it. They showed him a letter, which ostensibly had travelled from Cologne but in fact had been cooked up just around the corner. The intention of the letter was clear: to indirectly embarrass and threaten George, in order to extort ‘the some of fortye poundes to be shared and devyded amongest them selves’. In the letter, Robert Swadden claimed to be stuck in Cologne, so he couldn’t pay his debts, but he said that George had stolen the money from him and he threatened consequences if the innkeeper didn’t cough up.
Fortunately for us, rather than paying up, George petitioned the King’s Court of Star Chamber to investigate, and records of that case survive at the National Archives. To do that, he had to submit the full letter as evidence, and so we get a window into this interesting episode. The gist is as follows: Swadden owed £40 to Mr Cradock, but this was only because William George had rode away with the money when he and Swadden had been working together in Cambridge. Swadden had since been to prison (for uncertain reasons) and was now in Cologne, he said, from where he wouldn’t return because the quality of the English air was not up to snuff. If Cradocke wanted payment, then he would have to go to George, and if George wouldn’t pay up, then Swadden had all sorts of dirt that he could dredge up.
Why did Swadden think that George be so keen to pay out? The threat to ‘make my Lord Cheiffe Justice acquaynted with that I have wrytten’ is clear enough, but it backfired when George himself sent a copy of the letter directly to the King’s council. The real threat was to George’s reputation, and that’s why he brought the case. There were grounds for a suit because the threat to publicise this letter (technically a ‘libel’) was intended to damage George’s public reputation and his business interests – his ‘credit’. The conspirators, according to George, ‘offered for the saveinge of [George’s] reputacion and Creditt … in not divulginge of the said scandalouse and infamous libell’ – blackmail, in other words.
We often now think of ‘credit’ as something value-neutral, a mysterious but objective ‘score’ calculated on our behalf by the credit reference agencies (though the 2007-8 financial catastrophe should have cured us of such naivety). It reflects our assets, our income, and ultimately our ability to pay back creditors, nothing more. But, as Craig Muldrew showed, to early moderns, financial credit was intimately bound up with moral and social worth. The modern meaning of the word followed from the older sense of ‘favourable reputation’. In an economy with a chronic lack of hard cash, tradesmen and merchants had to know who they could trust to pay later, and the moral virtues of sobriety, sexual propriety and honesty were important factors. For one person to challenge another’s moral character was to attack them financially as well as socially.
In this case, the libellers were threatening the innkeeper with a reputation as a thief and a swindler. Swadden’s letter described him as ‘as notable a fellowe and daungerouse as any lives in London’, something of a Thenardier: a menace to his customers and to everyone else. Not only did he rip off both Mr Cradock and Swadden, but he regularly payed ‘only ½ halfe the worth’ for items he bought; he was disloyal to friends; he overcharged at his inn (£2000 in only seven years). And further unnamed dark sins lurked in his past, capital crimes ‘which shall cost him his lyffe’.
The ‘conspirators’ vigorously denied any wrongdoing, as we might expect – and the Star Chamber was already becoming known as cruel and arbitrary, so we should consider whether George was simply lying through his teeth. But Swadden’s case was not helped when the court began to dredge up his past. Cambridge merchant Thomas Jewry believed he had ‘used threateninge deceite and consoning to gett money’. And Swadden’s account of how he came to owe forty pounds to Nathaniell Cradock in the first place was contradicted by a number of witnesses. According to one of the inn’s servants, Swadden had come to the Dolphin Inn in Cambridge about three years earlier, under a false name, Johnson. He asked the servant ‘whoe were the greateste traders in the Towne, and likelieste to paie moneye by exchainge from London’. Cradock’s name was suggested, and they agreed that Cradock would give ‘Johnson’ £80 in return for a bill of exchange which he could cash in London (a handwritten note that worked a bit like a traveller’s cheque, meaning merchants need not travel with large sums of cash but instead could instruct that a third party pay out unconditionally on their behalf). Cradock paid half the money, but the bills Swadden handed over turned out to be counterfeit, and he skipped town.
He then, as we have seen, tried to pin the blame on innkeeper William George in a threatening letter from ‘Cologne’. This illustrates another aspect of early modern credit – its networks were spread across oceans and international boundaries. Swadden’s intrigues had long had an international flavour. A trader from Suffolk ran into him two years earlier, though this time he was going by the name of Thomas Smith. He conned Shawberrie out of ‘fifty poundes by counterfeyting of a bill of exchange in the name of Sumuell desbonnerie of London a douchman’ – a German merchant resident in London. Swadden was clearly a Germanophile of sorts, studiously watching the news from the continent as confessional fighting was straining the Holy Roman Empire. He added a touch of authenticity to the end of the dodgy letter with ‘the newes which is heare currant is, that this next Sommer wee expect great wares. Leopaldus is stronge in feild for the Emperor… The Cyttie of Collen have put out all religions except Catholickes…’.
The modern ‘stranded traveller’ scam – when an email account is hacked to solicit money from the victim’s friends with tales of an ‘emergency’ – exploits new technology and booming international travel to fool its victims. In William George’s time, expanding networks of trade and a growing system of debt and credit left room for similar scams. Conmen like Swadden could exploit their understanding of London trade in Cambridge, of Cambridge trade in London, and of goings-on in Cologne to fool their victims into accepting counterfeit bills in return for cash. This pace and reach of trade multiplied over the 16th and 17th centuries, and as Durham’s Professor Chris Brooks showed, so did the number of people coming to court to settle debts and resolve other disputes. It was particularly important for early modern people to maintain their reputation: without it, they had no credit, and without credit, life was much more difficult.
Mr Brett, accordinge to my promise unto yow at my beinge in durance, I will nowe give you some light to recover the fortye poundes which I owe to Mr Cradocke, for my owne parte I had smale reason to stay where I was, when youw last sawe me for I did not like the ayre. Nowe these are to give yuw to understand that ther is dwelling at the Bancke side neere ould parris Garden steares at the signe of the meaden head, on William George, as notable a fellowe and daungerouse as any lives in London this fellowe, sett my plott upon Mr Cradocke. He was with me att Cambridge laye att the dolphin shared ½ of yt and Caried the rest the ostler and tapster doe know him very well, he road uppon a sorrell mare with a shorne mayne which he hath yett, Alsoe he was with me that same tyme att Huntington at Mr Kilbornes, where one Peacocke should have paid me 80li … but that he was gone to London, wee myst it also at that tyme, he and I Receavd 50li of younge Noble, of Newark uppon Trent where he shared halfe, wee laye at the post maysters which servantes do all knowe him and so do kilborne. I protest Mr Brett I have layen at this fellowes house this 7 yeeres as all the neighbours do nowe and have spent in his house above a 2000li … whereas I am fully assured that he cheted me of the one halfe, yett at my beinge in prison of thirtye poundes Ix/xx lent him out of my purse, I would now have a penny but I must confesse untill the last I did Impositon him for any. Also I gave him a Grey mare which he was proferred tenn poundes for, my truncke of apparell did all this while stand at his house, besided, not longe before my trobles I bestowed a blacke suyte of stuffe amd a gonne for his wyffe the which I gott of one about the Queenes head in Patternoster Rowe by a letter, he sett the match and bought it all at ½ halfe the worth, a hundred things more. But I thinke this shall suffce to cause him to give yow sattisfacion, the Reason why I write yow this is when I had gotten out I went pryvilie unto him to send me one of my Rapiars and dagger and a suyte of apparell with other lynen and ten pownd in money this Roge sent me an answere he had bynn before the Justice and there swore yf ever he sawe me to apprehend me and for money or any thinge els he would send none so I not having meanes to procure my owne was fayne to lose it and begone, yett he gott all that he hath by me. I pray yow yf this this fellowe give yow not sattisfacion and content yow make my Lord Cheiffe Justice acquaynted with that I have wrytten yow said wryte unto me at your leasure to Collen at the white horse upon the new markett, and yf this will not suffice I will wrte yow more against him which shall cost him his lyffe, the newes which is heare currant is, that this next Sommer wee expect great wares Leopaldus is stronge in feild for the Emperor arr much assisted by the archduke Reformados, Braughborch on thother side of the Raigne. Also very strong 8000 french newly come into his Ayre, the termes of their strength stand equall Bredenbaint is belevyed by Braughburgh they have sailed from within slaine some hundred horse and foote, the Cyttie of Collen have put out all religions except Catholickes, the Towne of utricke in Armes, and will paye no more assisses or Customes without they mae have wares againe. In hast, I commend me unto you and so comytt in to god your lovinge freind
Britain has a complicated relationship with its past. It loves it. It builds an entire tourism industry upon it. It builds an entire entertainment industry of it. It hates it. It conceals it. It ignores it. At the moment, it’s defending it (selectively, of course). For once, debate over the need to preserve history has come out from the shadows of academia and into the eager hands of the public. The recent #Rhodesmustfall campaign at Oxford University, following on from student protests around South Africa last year aimed at the removal of the numerous statues of imperialist Cecil Rhodes offensively permeating their cityscapes, seems to be both gripping and dividing the country.
(Social) media is distorting the intricacies of the argument and decontexualising the reasoning of both sides. No surprises there, but as a result the public seems to be forgetting the larger implications of the movement and reducing it to a clear-cut dispute: ‘statue’ vs ‘no statue’. While the explicit crimes of Cecil Rhodes (engineering South African apartheid, stealing millions of miles of indigenous lands, exploiting black labour, prompting the Second Boer War, ETC…) are certainly not to be side-lined, protestors are also keen to situate their campaign within the more pressing issue of entrenched racism and discrimination continuing to saturate Britain’s institutions, universities and educational curriculum.
Rhodes was a real person; this point is vital to remember. Yet he has also become a symbol through which change can be positively enacted. As such, another aspect of the debate asks questions about how countries choose to interact with their past. Instead of prompting knee-jerk reactions denouncing the opinions of both sides, it should stimulate discussion about the purpose of historic statues and their evolving place in civic commemoration.
An argument that keeps cropping up from the ‘pro-preservation’ faction is that the translation of Rhodes’ statue to a more appropriate setting amounts to an erasure of history, the equivalent of book-burning, violent iconoclasm, censorship, essentially. This is a bit silly, really, considering that nobody in Britain was talking much about him until recently; that Britain’s engagement with the atrocities of its colonial past has always been quiet, to say the least; and that the entire campaign is centred upon the exposition and discussion of a rather dominant section of our history. Even the more thoughtfully-composed discussions that suggest removal of Rhodes is akin to photoshopping out the dislikeable bits of history ignore the fact that the campaign is not being fronted by those who have the most to lose from acknowledgement of our severely blemished past, but by those who continue to be negatively affected by its absence from public consciousness.
While the Rhodes debate is about more than just a statue, it is also about statues, which in themselves are about more than just statues (…get it?). The creation of monuments as a method through which to remember, honour, mourn or celebrate pasts events and people has long been a cultural (and often, political) approach to memory. There is something in the visual and artistic nature of monuments that expresses a connection with, and reflection on, the past – in a way that words sometimes cannot. At the same time, monuments, because they have been built for a particular purpose, and (in the case of Rhodes) because they continue to stand, are not just about the past, but also about the present.
I see no implicit problem with the application of twenty-first-century values to historical figures, as others seem to. The manner in which we engage with the crimes of our country’s past is not anachronistic or futile. Rather, it defines how we wish to be viewed as a modern nation and how our future values might be shaped. As such, just as statues being built today are inaugurated to celebrate and glorify the character depicted, those that continue to stand as testament to another time also shed light on modern values and (with no presence of contextualisation) even suggest some form of continued endorsement.
The discussions surrounding Rhodes seem to forget that controversy around certain monuments – often in terms of aesthetics, but also because of perceived problems in message and representation – is nothing new. Statues often act as rallying points for protestors to express their dissent over certain political stances. Monuments, moreover, are not permanent – no matter what the material solidity of stone or bronze might suggest. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 saw the toppling of vast Lenin and Stalin statues in revolutions all over the Eastern Bloc. In 2003, crowds and US soldiers in Baghdad famously brought down a thirty-nine-foot stone figure of Saddam Hussein. I do not condone violent iconoclasm or brush aside the destruction of cultural heritage in times of political uprising. But I am drawing attention to the possibility that the symbolism of removing statues associated with (often traumatic) pasts can be more a reflection on present day beliefs and hopes for change, than a want to purge memory of their existence. Likewise, as physical representations of memory (rather than history) – which is constantly evolving in relation to its contemporary context – it would make sense that monuments themselves retain some degree of transience.
It is tempting to interpret the removal of statues as an attempt to forget a certain past and restructure public space to accommodate a modern agenda. Certainly, this is sometimes the case: the removal of historical artefacts by ruling bodies (as is increasingly the case in the Middle East) in order to legitimise a certain ideology has often been a key feature of turbulent regime change. This clearly is not what is happening in Oxford, and any characterising it is as such overlooks the real issues being vocalised here. People seem to be clinging to physical monuments as the only vestiges of the past, but I don’t think we’re at any imminent risk of destroying the legacy of colonialism. Unfortunately, it’s all around us. The real concern here is a reluctance to incorporate our past into public and political discourse despite an abundance of physical evidence. The debate surrounding Cecil Rhodes is hopefully a step in the right direction.
Lizzy Galliver is an undergraduate in her final year of studying History at Durham University: her dissertation focuses on the memorialisation of communism in Eastern Europe.
England ‘north of Trent’ was for centuries the administrative division whereby the counties north of the Rivers Trent and Humber were distinct from southern England. Originating in medieval times, the King’s Council in the North (usually sitting at York) was made responsible for the North, while the government in Westminster exercised authority in and over the South. The Church of England was also divided into a Northern Province (governed from York) and a Southern Province. This administrative division in Crown and Church government provided the formal origin of a ‘North/South’ divide in English history, though the North has still deeper roots in earlier kingdoms (notably Northumbria) and the Roman province centred on York.
Britain also has a recognisable East/West divide, but this has always been a more subdued part of northern identity. Northern solidarities generally unite the North-East with the North-West before either would associate with the South. An East/West divide is perhaps more strongly articulated within the South, where the ‘West Country’ is a world away from the metropolitan Home Counties. In Shakespeare’s plays, fools and rusticks were portrayed on the London stage with a West Country accent.
England’s rulers long dreamed of a united island of Britain, and when the Welshman Henry Tudor became King Henry VII he hoped to incorporate Scotland into his realm. When King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, this British king considered moving the capital of a united North and South Britain to York. James’ scheme foundered on the resistance of English politicians to an Anglo-Scottish Union, which was not to be achieved until Oliver Cromwell united Britain by force in the 1650s and the Edinburgh and Westminster parliaments created in 1707 a united Great Britain as the core for an overseas empire. As London became a world city, no-one again proposed York as a capital for all of Britain. Had the political capital been planted at York, London would doubtless have remained the financial and cultural capital – like Canberra and Sydney in Australia, or Washington D.C. and New York in the United States. Within Great Britain, at a distance from the political and cultural capital at London, northern England was free to develop its own cultural trends.
Throughout the Middle Ages northern England was generally less prosperous and less populous than southern England; already, south-east England was the more developed economy and greatest contributor of tax. Fortunes changed with the Industrial Revolution. Industrialisation started in the North of England, with the exploitation of Sheffield steel, West Riding cloth and Newcastle coal before reaching its zenith in the cotton factories of Manchester and potteries of Staffordshire. Railways, steam technology and factory production transformed the North in the Industrial Revolution and created an enduring idea of the North as a powerhouse of industry, while southern England became more associated with the rural. Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, North and South (1854) confirmed the industrial identity of the North in the national imagination. In truth, the North always retained its rural country character alongside industry, with a commercially-developed agriculture that supplied the industrial population with food. Only certain parts of the northern landscape were industrial – where unprecedented feats of human ingenuity and exploitation were alternately admired and condemned from the Industrial Revolution to the present. But the North Country was also powerfully associated with upland and mountainous areas. Long regarded as unproductive ‘waste’ ground and susceptible to lawlessness, from the Romantic poets onwards the peaks of the North were increasingly recognised as places of majesty and aesthetic delight.
With its industry, agriculture, ports and wild mountainous areas, the North of England was never a particularly homogenous area. Nevertheless, ‘the North’ and the notion of a ‘North Country’ was a feature of the Middle Ages that survived to be consolidated by industrialisation and the modern age. Before the twentieth century, people spoke of a North Country as well as their ‘own country’ in more immediate localities defined by landscape characteristics. These home ‘countries’ were far smaller than our modern idea of a ‘North West’ or ‘North East’ of England, and reflected the area of activity in which people lived out their lives. People spoke of entering their ‘home country’ on returning from business in London. By contrast, the regional terms ‘North-East’ and ‘North-West’ are of surprisingly recent date. The term ‘North-East’ was first used in a variety of contexts in the nineteenth century, and featured in the title for the ‘North-East Coast Exhibition’ World’s Fair held in Newcastle in 1929. Yet, only with the advent of broadcasting in the mid-twentieth century – first with BBC Radio, and then with regional commercial television companies (notably Tyne-Tees TV) – did an articulation of a ‘North-East’ identity become part of the culture. Similar articulations of a ‘North-West’ identity emerged in the context of broadcasting based in Manchester and Liverpool. It was the emergence of new networks of communication – now involving people who had not met one another – that forged this new articulation of a North-East and North-West identity. No-one before the twentieth century spoke of these North-East or North-West regions, though they had for centuries spoken of their ‘home country’ – where they knew people directly, in a face-to-face, familiar and localised society – within the North as a whole.
The folk of the North Country possess a distinct culture from the South, and this has been their self-belief for centuries. Within the wider North, particular economies in trade, industry and farming, as well as the ports and fisheries, have all contributed particular regional differences within the wider North. The culture of each district within the North today is still to a considerable degree a legacy of regional specialisation during industrialisation – from the coal industry and shipyards of the Tyne and Wear, to the cutlery makers of Sheffield and the cotton workers of Manchester, and the ports of Liverpool and Hull. All of these industries attracted large concentrations of people, which in turn created particular cultures, with each region retaining today its own distinctive version of Northern-ness. Many of these localities originally had differences in dress that reflected their particular occupational character – such as the blue coats and caps of the keelmen who rowed the coal keels on the River Tyne.
Local identities involved sub-regional rivalries, often with colourful names for the inhabitants of each locale – such as ‘Sand Dancers’ of South Shields or ‘Makems’ of Sunderland alongside the better-known ‘Geordies’ of Newcastle. The subtleties of distinctive cultures gave rise to distinctions in dress as well as dialect, and differences in clothing as well as accent continue to mark out the variations in culture from place to place across the North today. Writing in 1962, Cambridge geographer Gus Caesar nicely captures the spirit of rivalry and intense identity:
‘If a Wearsider visits a pub in Scotswood Road, Newcastle, on a Saturday evening, things may go hard with him, especially if by chance Sunderland have beaten Newcastle at soccer that same afternoon. But if a Wearsider meets a Geordie in a more distant part of Britain, they may well linger over a drink together for they have many interests in common. These relationships epitomize much of the North-East with its intense local rivalries but strong regional unity.’1
The same could be said for the North as a whole.
1 A.A.L. Caesar, ‘North-East England’ in Great Britain: Geographical Essays ed. J.B. Mitchell (Cambridge, 1962), p. 455. The research underpinning the history of northern identities sketched above is presented in Adrian Green and A.J. Pollard (eds.) Regional Identities in North-East England, 1300-2000 (Boydell, 2007).
Dr Adrian Green is a lecturer in Early Modern History at Durham, with an interest in the history of regional identity and the role of regionalisation in economic and cultural history. His wider research focuses on buildings and architecture across England and English settlement in North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This essay was originally published on 25 November 2015 at https://showstudio.com/project/north/essay_the_north_country_in_history.
If asked today, many people would probably spontaneously associate Newcastle with local football legends Alan Shearer and Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne or the cast of Geordie Shore. However, a new digital history project led by Northumbria University’s ‘History of Activism Research Group’ – including contributions by historians from Durham and Newcastle universities – seeks to correct this image by emphasising the historical importance of the region as an important centre of political activism. The ‘Mapping Radical Tyneside’ website, which was officially launched on 20 November 2015, aims to map the rich tradition of social and political activism in the region. As a matter of fact, since the late 17th century Newcastle and the adjacent boroughs of Gateshead, South and North Shields were vibrant hubs for popular movements in Britain and beyond. This radical tradition shaped the identity and culture of the region profoundly yet many important historical events are gradually vanishing from the public conscience. What is more, radical local politics were often embedded in international movements and the big political struggles of their time and made Tyneside a strikingly cosmopolitan place.
During the 19th century, leading figures of international movements such the Italian revolutionary Guiseppe Garibaldi (1854) or the American anti-slavery campaigners Frederick Douglass (1846) or William Lloyd Garrison (1867) visited Tyneside, and were enthusiastically welcomed by their local supporters. Similarly, many Geordies were actively supporting revolutionary movements abroad by collecting donations or offering asylum to refugees.
In 1851, a group of 12 members of the Polish Legion, who fought during the 1848 revolution against the Russian Empire, were received with thundering applause in a local meeting, subsequently finding asylum and a new home on Tyneside. In the same year, a mass meeting in Newcastle celebrated the arrival of the iconic leader of the Hungarian Revolution 1848/49, Lajos Kossuth, in Britain. Five years later, in 1856, Kossuth eventually visited Newcastle and paid tribute to the local support for the revolutionary cause.
There was, however, also a strong home grown radical tradition of radical politics on Tyneside. This includes prominent figures such as the radical bookseller and land reform campaigner Thomas Spence, who was born on Newcastle’s Quayside in 1750. Spence became a leading member of the famous London Corresponding Society and is seen by many historians as one of the intellectual forefathers of the Chartists. Another prominent figure of Tyneside radicalism was the local newspaper proprietor and liberal politician Joseph Cowen Jr. Being well-connected with social reformers, international revolutionaries and the regional elites, Cowen put his full financial and journalistic weight behind a great number of causes. He supported the local miners’ unions, supported the early co-operative movement, resisted the Boer War and collected donations for revolutionary movements abroad.
An almost forgotten yet even more fascinating local figure is Dr Ethel Williams. She belonged to various political organisations such as Women’s Social and Political Union, the Union of Democratic Control and helped to establish the Workers’ Education Association in Newcastle after the First World War. Yet, Ethel was pioneer in other fields as well. She was, for example, the first female doctor in Tyneside with her own surgery and also the first female motorist in the city. According to some accounts, she used her car to transport fellow suffragettes to protest meetings and direct actions in the region. In July 1917, Ethel Williams and Charlotte Despard (another veteran suffragette and sister of Field Marshal John French) tried to establish a Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council in Newcastle to protest against the First World War. However, its first and only meeting was violently broken up a ‘patriotic’ mob and the council ceased its activities almost immediately afterwards.
Yet, the history of social and political activism on Tyneside is not limited to prominent individuals. Many historical instances of protest were only recorded as collective actions, and these are recorded on ‘Mapping Radical Tyneside’ too. Dr Andy Burn (Durham) discusses apprentices’ protests in 1633 that addressed grievances about the enclosure hitherto public land. He also contributes a description of the first recorded keelmen’s strike in 1660. One of my own contributions provides a vignette of the Guild Hall Riots of 1740.
These are just a few examples. Other events highlight the long and complex history of industrial conflicts, social and political activism in one of the early heartlands of industrialisation in the world. The ‘Mapping Radical Tyneside’ aims to raise awareness for this aspect of local history that is so deeply engrained in the collective identity of the region. Yet the approach to research and understand the spatial dimension of political activism also contributes to a better academic understanding of urban history and geography. It helps explain how certain localities, spaces and places became attributed with political meaning. For example, many meetings for liberal causes with a strong presence of middle-class supporters took place indoors in lecture halls and assembly rooms. This probably contributed to its perception as being more ordered, respectable and compatible with British political culture. In comparison, working-class activism very often took place in public places, for example in public squares, in pubs or in the workplace. The question how this spatial dimension influenced the perception of urban space and how it impacted on activism is another interesting aspect of this project.
‘Mapping Radical Tyneside’ is, however, no exclusively academic exercise. The public is invited to make use of the information on the website to discover Newcastle anew from a different perspective. The makers are also keen to received input and recommendations which events and persons to include. Ideally, the website will become a repository for the various histories of activism on Tyneside curated by the public for the public.
Dr André Keil is a Lecturer in Modern European History at Durham University. His work focuses on 19th and 20th-century Europe with a special focus on British and German history. His research interests cover the broad fields of political culture in Europe, the history of social movements and historical peace and conflict studies.
This week sees the first symposium for the Ordered Universe project as part of the programme under the new AHRC grant. It will examine Grosseteste’s treatises On the Liberal Arts (De artibus liberalibus) On the Generation of Sounds (De generatione sonorum) and the Middle English translation and exposition of both The Seven Liberal Arts. On Friday 27th, Dr Giles Gasper will give a public lecture ‘Order, the Universe and Everything’ exploring Grosseteste’s earlier life, his interests in sound, colour and light, and the purposes towards which he conceived learning as directed. The lecture is free and open to all: please book a place here. It takes place in the Ken Wade Theatre, Calman Learning Centre on the University Science Site. It will start at 5.30 pm, and is introduced by Professor John O’Brien, Director of the Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies.
In his op-ed, he argues that modern Europe, like the Roman empire in the 5th century AD, stands on the brink of collapse before insuperable external forces – but the 21st Europeans are too complacent to spot the obvious analogy. Where Rome faced barbarians, modern Europe faces Daesh. He quotes from Edward Gibbon’s lurid description of the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410, offering it as an obvious parallel to Friday’s massacre in Paris. Ferguson wants to push the parallel further: fifth century Rome was complacent about its frontier defences; so too, he argues on the basis of the recent influx of refugees, is modern Europe. The link he posits is causal: “Poor, poor Paris,” he concludes. “Killed by complacency.”
Ferguson admits he “do[es] not know enough about the fifth century” to trace what he would see as ancient parallels to the supine responses of modern European leaders to current threats. But I do know about the fifth century: it is my historical stomping ground, and I, along with others in the field (to judge by social media), have read Ferguson’s op-ed with dismay mounting to anger. He seriously misrepresents the historical experiences of the fifth century, which matters when a Harvard history professor purports to be presenting the past to a general audience. For all his lack of knowledge, Ferguson claims to have done some cursory research. In addition to Gibbon, he cites two important studies of the end of the Roman empire, both published in 2005: Bryan Ward-Perkins’s The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization and Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire.
But what he does with these works amounts to eye-wateringly simplistic distortion. For instance, basing his deductions on Peter Heather’s discussion of the economic attractions of the empire to its barbarian neighbours, he remarks: “Like the Roman empire in the early 5th century, Europe has allowed its defences to crumble. As its wealth has grown, so its military prowess has shrunk, along with its self-belief. It has grown decadent in its malls and stadiums. At the same time, it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.” Notice the pernicious conflation there between economic migrants and refugees: it is a point Ferguson labours elsewhere in his article, when he remarks “Things in their own countries have become just good enough economically for them to afford to leave and just bad enough politically for them to risk leaving.” For Ferguson, all these people, no matter how desperate their circumstances, represent an undifferentiated external threat.
There are other conflations too, this time underscoring an “us” versus “them” mentality of fear. He writes begrudgingly: “It is doubtless true to say that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Europe are not violent. But it is also true the majority hold views not easily reconciled with the principles of our liberal democracies, including our novel notions about sexual equality and tolerance not merely of religious diversity but of nearly all sexual proclivities.” But this is a straw man argument, producing a caricature of “us” that fails to account for the wide variety of opinions on matters of inclusion and tolerance to be found across Europe. In equal fashion, his construction of a Muslim “other” is a caricature devoid of nuance.
But this caricature aids his simplistic argument about a Europe beset by hostile forces from without. Some of my fellow historians have asked the obvious question why Ferguson fixates on the fifth century, when the seventh century in the East, which saw the rise of Islam, might present more obvious food for thought. Perhaps Ferguson knows even less about that. But there is another point here, in that it enables Ferguson to construct a narrative that fixates on the West. Edward Gibbon, whom Ferguson cites with approval, pulled a similar trick. In his ‘General considerations on the decline of the empire in the west’ that concluded volume 3 of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon made this European dimension explicit by considering how a similar chain of events might impact on the Europe of his own day.
Gibbon, then, saw the demise of the Roman empire in the fifth century as a peculiarly western tragedy; it was also one that risked happening again. No modern specialist of the period would accept Gibbon’s analysis as anything more than the posturing of an Enlightenment intellectual decrying the forces of “superstition” and “barbarism”. That Ferguson chooses to do so fits neatly with the primacy and ascendancy of the West in his historical vision. In this he is not alone: a string of right-wing commentators in the United States have expounded a similar vision equating modern America with ancient Rome, and issuing dire warnings that it risks a similar fate. This perspective has been subject to withering deconstruction by the late Jack Goody, who argued in his The Theft of History (2006) that much of world history has been shoehorned into a narrative framework derived from and designed to satisfy the experience of the West. It also purposefully leaves out of the picture the dynamic interactions and genuinely shared histories of the West and the rest of the world. But that is not a story that suits an agenda of “us” pitted against “them”.
Even Gibbon came to question the validity of his analysis and see that not everything could be blamed on an external barbarian foe crashing inwards towards a civilised centre. The final, sixth volume of his Decline and Fall was published in 1788. A year later, France was thrown into the convulsive horrors of revolution. Gibbon was compelled to acknowledge that he had completely missed the significance of internal problems, notably civil war, in bringing about Rome’s demise. In notes made for a never-realised seventh volume of his history, he wrote: “Should I not have deduced the decline of the Empire from the Civil Wars, that ensued after the fall of Nero or even from the tyranny which succeeded the reign of Augustus? Alas! I should: but of what avail is this tardy knowledge? Where error is irretrievable, repentance is useless.” Ferguson would do well to meditate on this.
Peter Heather, one of the modern historians of Rome’s fall cited by Ferguson, allows for a more nuanced analysis of the empire’s collapse. He writes: “there is no serious historian who thinks that the western Empire fell entirely because of internal problems, or entirely because of exogenous shock.” I’ve often wondered what the obvious opposite of Heather’s “serious historian” – a frivolous one – might write. Having read Ferguson’s ill-judged and shallow analogies between 5th century Rome and 21st century Europe, I think I now know.
Poor, poor Ferguson. Undone by complacency.
Mark Humphries is Professor of Ancient History at Swansea University. His research focuses on religion, politics and society in Late Antiquity. He is a general editor, with Professor Gillian Clark (University of Bristol) and Dr Mary Whitby (University of Oxford) of the series Translated Texts for Historians (Liverpool University Press), which publishes scholarly translations of and commentaries on texts from Late Antiquity (AD300-800). He is also a member of the international advisory boards for the Irish Theological Quarterly and the Rivista di Cultura Classica e Medioevale. This piece originally appeared on Monday 16th November as a Facebook note and has since been shared several hundred times.
Although on the damp side, the penultimate night of Lumiere Durham was a great success. Various members of the Ordered Universe team gathered in Durham, for the start of the Being Human, Festival of Humanities (see forthcoming post!). We were very glad to be joined for the day and evening by artist Alexandra Carr whose work is heavily based around science and natural phenomena. We were able through Keith Bartlett’s very kind offices to see the World Machine from an unusual vantage point; the results are below. The whole show really has been amazing to watch over the course of the last few days; to see the scientists from the Institute for Computational Cosmology, from undergraduates to the Directors, so involved in the project; and to see the results created by Ross Ashton, John Del’Nero and Isobel Waller Bridge exemplifying the Ordered Universe methodology, laying medieval conceptual frameworks and images over…