Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital | The History of London

When shipbuilder Captain Thomas Coram returned from America he was horrified by the poverty of London. Many young children were living rough on the streets, often surviving through begging or by petty-crime. Parents often had no choice but to abandon new-born babies because they were so poor they were unable to afford basic food, clothing and shelter for the child. An unmarried working woman who gave birth would most likely be cast out from her employment and both she and the baby stigmatized for the remainder of their lives. Around a thousand babies were abandoned each year in London.

Born in Lyme Regis in Dorset in 1668 Coram’s formal education was limited. He went to sea at the age of eleven and was apprenticed to a London shipwright at sixteen. He was commissioned to buy…

via Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital | The History of London.

Chaos in Naples (Snippets 39)

A few years ago I had the pleasure of visiting Naples and the surrounding area for the first time and spent a pleasant morning relaxing at what seemed like a very tranquil harbour.  Almost exactly 100 years before my visit a journal writer from the USA by the name of Thomas Rees was arriving in Naples, and he found anything but tranquility on his arrival.  He wrote of his experiences in Sixty Days in Europe and what we saw there, published in 1908.

The ordeal of landing, however, in Naples is not so poetical an experience as one might imagine, but is withal an experience long to be remembered. I think the arrangements for landing are as bad as the city is beautiful. The ship comes to anchor about a mile from shore. Before it has reached its destination scores of row boats can be seen coming from all directions, and before the ship has ceased motion they are about it like a flock of sea pirates. Their recklessness and audacity are surprising. While the marine police are trying to…

Source: Chaos in Naples (Snippets 39)

New Statesman | “Hunger, filth, fear and death”: remembering life before the NHS

Originally posted in the New Statesman

Over 90 years ago, I was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, to a working-class family. Poverty was as natural to us as great wealth and power were to the aristocracy of that age. Like his father and grandfather before him, my dad, Albert, eked out a meagre existence as a miner, working hundreds of feet below the surface, smashing the rock face with a pickaxe, searching for coal.

Hard work and poor wages didn’t turn my dad into a radical. They did, however, make him an idealist, because he believed that a fair wage, education, trade unions and universal suffrage were the means to a prosperous democracy. He endured brutal working conditions but they never hardened his spirit against his family or his comrades in the pits. Instead, the harsh grind of work made his soul as gentle as a beast of burden that toiled in desolate fields for the profit of others.

My mother, Lillian, however, was made of sterner stuff. She understood that brass, not love, made the world go round. So when a midwife with a love of gin and carbolic soap delivered me safely on a cold winter’s night in February 1923 into my mum’s exhausted arms, I was swaddled in her rough-and-ready love, which toughened my skin with a harsh affection. I was the first son but I had two elder sisters who had already skinned their knees and elbows in the mad fight to stay alive in the days before the social safety network. Later on, our family would include two half-brothers, after my mother was compelled to look for a more secure provider than my dad during the Great Depression.

By the time I was weaned from my mother’s breast, I had begun to learn the cruel lessons that the world inflicted on its poor. At the age of seven, my eldest sister, Marion, contracted tuberculosis, which was a common and deadly disease for those who lived hand to mouth in early 20th century Britain. Her illness was directly spawned from our poverty, which forced us to live in a series of fetid slums.

Despite being a full-time worker, my dad was always one pay packet away from destitution. Several times, my family did midnight flits and moved from one decre­pit single-bedroom tenement to…

via New Statesman | “Hunger, filth, fear and death”: remembering life before the NHS.

“They came out of a clear sky…”

Kolimbari, Crete © Francis Drake

Kolimbari, Crete © Francis Drake

British photographer Francis Drake has written a book — Arriving Unexpectedly: Meandering Through Crete — about his experiences on the Greek island during the 1980s and ’90s and has kindly allowed me to post this extract about a memorable conversation he had with a local fisherman in Kolimbari about the German invasion of his beautiful homeland.

Kostas smiled and went on in his heavily accented, but perfectly understandable English. “But you try to speak Greek that is good. Mostly it is the English who try to speak Greek.” He blew out a lungful of pungent tobacco smoke. “You know the history of you English in our land?”

“A little,” I replied. My father had been in the Royal Navy and although he wasn’t in the Battle of Crete, I had grown up hearing many stories of the sea, including those of HMS York and HMS Kelly together with something of the allied land forces.

Kostas snorted. “There was not a big sea battle. There was not even a big land battle; not like there was in North Africa and Italy but,” his voice was still for a moment. “But what there was bound us together forever. We Cretans and you English. People of two islands. He turned and shouted over his shoulder through the open doorway. A tiny little woman dressed in clothes so black that she seemed like a hole in space stepped out of what I had at first thought was a ruined house.

“Anna.” He spoke in Greek in his deep steady voice. I caught the words krasi, calamari and mezes. We were in for refreshments. The classic mistake is to confuse the words ‘Kala mera’ and ’Calamari’…

… So we ate and sat with the scents of harbour and land in our nostrils, the sun hot on exposed skin, and listened to a tale, which still echoes in my mind down the years.

Kostas took a drink and settled back. The air was clear and warm with the faint scent mix of smells so characteristic, herbs, sea, cooking and the ‘burnt’ smell of dust.

“They came,” Kostas began abruptly, “out of a clear sky and they could not be stopped in the air. You had no aeroplanes here. Your Generals did not listen to your Winston Churchill. The politicians,” he cleared his throat as if to spit on the floor, thought better of it and drank a little more wine. “The politicians got it wrong as always and our own soldiers were trapped on the mainland. Across there,” he pointed unerringly in spite of his blindness across the corner of the bay in the direction we had come from, “is where it all began. Maleme, the old airfield. Out of the sky in their thousands they fell, those German paratroopers. They descended like the seeds of the flowers, but they fell to sow death, not life; and like the dragons teeth of legend they grew up and no matter how many were killed, they kept on coming. You English and the Australians and New Zealand men fought like the devil and we, men, women and children stood alongside you. We had our father’s fathers’ guns, rifles, muskets, our scythes, our forks and spades. As they fell like the rain, so they died; for they never did understand the Cretan, or the English. The fact that no situation is without hope, where courage grows with each stroke and is present as an army where even one man is left standing!” Sightless eyes gazed at scenes we could not see. His voice thicker, Kostas went on. “For the life of the land is always present in him or her and the God loves them.” He drank deeply of the glass that Anna had topped up for him. I reflected on his story. Heavy as his English was, it couldn’t hide the soul of a Homer. In this old man lived a storyteller worthy of that ancient Greek tradition of oral history and the ‘Praise Singers’ who faithfully related it word-perfect at the fireside down the centuries. Kostas wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “Do you know what happened then?” he asked.

Kolimbari Monastery © Francis Drake

Kolimbari Monastery © Francis Drake

“They occupied the island,” I replied quietly for we were not just getting a history lesson, no, we were in the presence of tragedy.

He cocked his head to one side looking for my meaning.

“Held it,” I added. His time-worn hand reached for mine and gripped it in a clasp of iron.

“Ochi,” he replied vehemently. “They murdered a people; future generations.” He snarled the words and his hands clenched until the knuckles showed white against his nut-brown hands. I thought my bones would crack. “But they paid a price. Many thousands of them lie beneath the earth of Crete and two thousand of your countrymen and from Australia and New Zealand lie beneath the grass at Souda. Thousands of our own people lie in graves as well… and some only the God knows where they rest. For four years they believed they held Crete, but they never held her, not in spirit, no matter how many they starved or murdered. For although it was war, what they did was murder. With our English friends in the mountains we fought on and even as they murdered our children, and our future, they were losing the battle. The God does not miss these things and they were losing. Four years it took! Four years, but they lost!” He said it with immense satisfaction. “You see my house and my neighbour’s? They were damaged then and we still struggle to win back our future. My sons died in those years as did many here. Have you seen the old empty houses in the hillsides? They are left as a memorial. The families they belonged to were murdered. Torn out of their houses, men, women and children. Lined up and shot. My neighbour had two sons, nine and eleven years. They went out to play after the curfew. A Nazi shot them both. Two little boys.”

The food was untouched as the story unfolded in a mixture of Greek and English. Kostas held us in thrall with the horror of that time. He had fought on these beaches and then in the mountains. His sight had failed a few years past but his memory was clear and his passion and that of his fellow islanders obvious. My throat was closed by the sense of pain and misery echoing down the years and from the corner of my eye I saw Jenny wipe away a tear. Ancient, silent Anna spoke not a word but placed her wrinkled hand lovingly on Kostas’s. They entwined with the ease and comfort of young lovers.

Kostas cleared his throat again. “I think that you are young and do not remember, but I think you understand, (my first memory is being snatched out of a warm cot, wrapped in a dressing gown and carried down into a stinking Anderson Shelter). The English will be forever our brothers because we bled together. Our blood stained our clothes, mingled on our hands and joined in the soil of the island. We have stood together and died together. Two island peoples. Two peoples who will never bow to might and what is wrong, but will always look to the horizon for freedom.”

I wished with all my heart that it might be so but thought of the stupid laws and regulations that were imposed on us daily to curb just such freedoms, curbing initiative and creativity by governments who grew more paranoid by the day and feared above all things a truly free people. They would so much rather every person became a cipher carefully documented and regulated every minute of life. One visit was now due. I would go to Souda and Maleme to the War Graves soon.

Francis Drake © 2014

A la recherche du temps perdu

A beautiful and heartfelt evocation of growing up in the East End of London in the 1950s and ’60s, written with the rose-tinted spectacles removed.

beetleypete

With apologies to Marcel Proust for stealing his title, I confess to a lot of time spent in remembrance of things past. Not just lately, but for much of my life. Even as a man in my twenties, I constantly reflected on my childhood, and my early school years, developing a habit of looking back that I never lost. I was caught up in a chain of nostalgia, from which I found it difficult to escape. When I got to secondary school, I pined for my primary school, and less pressure. Once I left school and started work, I really regretted leaving education, and thought about those last few years at school with great fondness. Every job seemed better than the one that followed it, and I managed to conveniently forget my reasons for wanting to move on in the first place.

During a convivial dinner party that we were…

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UKIP: Parochialism, Prejudice and Patriotic Ultranationalism.

Although this post from kittysjones is not strictly within the remit I have set myself for First Night History, it does show very clearly what happens when the powers-that-be — in this case the UK government — ignore the past, wilfully or through ignorance, and thus repeat its mistakes to catastrophic effect. I am re-blogging it because I am disgusted and appalled that the Coalition, a government that was not elected, should have discarded everything our forebears stood and fought for. If you are a British citizen who will be voting in the European elections tomorrow, think very carefully how you vote. A vote for UKIP will mean more destruction and fear, not less.

Politics and Insights

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Over the past four years, we have witnessed the political right using rhetoric that has increasingly transformed a global economic crisis into an apparently ethno-political one, and this also extends to include the general scapegoating and vilification of other groups and communities that have historically been the victims of prejudice and social exclusion: the poorest, the unemployed and the disabled. These far-right rhetorical flourishes define and portray the putative “outsider” as an economic threat. This is then used to justify active political exclusion of the constitutive Other.
The poorest have been politically disenfranchised. Politically directed and constructed cultural and social boundaries, exclusionary discourses and practices create and define strangers. In Zygmunt Bauman’s analysis of the Holocaust, the Jews became “strangers” par excellence  in Europe, the Final Solution was an extreme example of the attempts made by societies to excise the (politically defined) uncomfortable and…

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