Newcastle upon Tyne

I’m not a very good northerner. Looked for the weather in advance on my phone. “Newcastle” – no entry. “Newcastle on Tyne” – no entry. Duh. It’s Newcastle upon Tyne. I didn’t bring coals there, but I did bring my historian’s tendencies, and was enchanted.

Those bridges over the Tyne! Each one is different.

Tyne Bridge (1928) and Swing Bridge (1876)

Quayside: Millennium Bridge

Walking underside of High Level railway bridge

(Being from California, I made sure to catch the palm tree in the Millennium Bridge shot. I have no idea what a palm tree is doing by the Tyne. Vacationing, I suppose.)

I expected an emphasis on industry in Newcastle, but didn’t realize the old city would be so beautiful. There has been a lot of attention given to the shopping district, emphasizing the commercial nature of the area. I just happened to stumble upon not one, but two, covered arcades.

Central Arcade

Grainger Market

Grainger Market

The architecture is that traditional-modern mix that I love so much in contemporary British cities. I am particularly partial to this view from  the bridge overlooking a much older area down below near Quayside:

Over old town rooftops

I discovered two local heroes. One I found in St Nicholas Cathedral: John Collingwood Bruce. He was easy to find, since there was a big sign next to his sarcophagus. He was a schoolmaster and local historian — an effigy of a schoolmaster is certainly special! Apparently it’s because of him that they knew how to restore the castle next to the cathedral (yes, it’s the New-Castle), and it’s because of him we know so much about what we now call Hadrian’s Wall. His book on the Roman Wall is here.

John Collingwood Bruce, St Nicholas Cathedral

Rare lectern to survive the Reformation – John Knox may have used it – St Nicholas Cathedral

Annunciation, St Nicholas Cathedral

I notice now as I post these that all my shots are leaning to the left, as, indeed, do I.

Which brings me to the other local hero, Charles Grey, who has a huge monument erected to him in the middle of the shopping district. He is lauded there as author of the Reform Act of 1832, although really he presided over its passage, since he was Prime Minister 1830-34. He also presided over the abolition of slavery (I didn’t realize till I looked it up that the government compensated slave owners).

But for those of us who drink tea, of major importance is that he is the Earl Grey. Surely Captain Picard was most politically correct in his choice of beverage!

I travelled, of course, on the bus. On the way up, I took route 21X from Durham – X trains are express, so some of it was by motorway. On the way back, though, I took Angel 21 local bus, which went right past the Angel of the North:

Angel of the North, seen from the Angel 21 local bus

This is a sculpture by Antony Gormley, installed in 1998 in Birtley, and it’s quite an attraction. People driving can pay to get close to it. I liked seeing it from the bus. But then, I like seeing most things from the bus….

More photos…

Durham. Always Durham.

What is it about Durham?

Stairs in castle

It certainly isn’t the 106 steps up to my room in Durham Castle, where I’ve always wanted to stay but could never get in (yay fall sabbatical!). It’s 106 steps down too.

It isn’t a connection with H.G. Wells. Despite the exhibit at the Palace Green Library in 2017, there is no connection between Durham and H.G. Wells, William Briggs, or anything else I’m working on. (That exhibit was created by Simon James of Durham University. He is an expert on Wells as a literary giant, but I cannot conceive of any justification that I could use to contact him.)

It’s not that Bill Bryson, an American writer, fell in the love with the place, made his home here, and even became chancellor of Durham University. I’m a fan, but not that big a fan.

So that’s not it.

Maybe it’s the look of the place, with the old town perched on a hill between two rivers, providing stunning views:

Wear River

Framwellgate Bridge

Maybe it’s the cathedral, burial place of St Cuthbert, comforting in its pre-Gothic design, and home to a cozy evensong in the choir stalls.

Maybe it’s the fact that there was a fulling mill here. In fact, there were two. The weirs on the river are because of them. One of them was in a building that used to be an archaeological museum, and is now used to store objects. It’s on the river path, which you can walk, as I’ve done many times.

Maybe it’s the way I can go into The People’s Bookshop, as I chanced to do today, and spend an hour chatting with the seller about UK and American politics, H.G. Wells, and what the future holds.

Or that the Oxfam bookshop has the best selection in town. Or that the food here is excellent, with the variety one expects in a college town. Or that it has so many secrets, and boasts the third university in the country after Oxford and Cambridge. Or that there’s such a mix here of working class and university people. Or the way everyone asks if you’re alright. Or the way I can joke around, because they do too. Or the conversations I’ve overheard on buses and in cafes. The one where the kids talked about how they were afraid to come to America because of guns, or the one where the man on a new date with a woman was talking about whether he could discuss his past or not, or the many I’ve heard of older couples just sitting in the front window up top on the bus and talking about whatever they see:

“That’s a nice house, isn’t it?’

“Yes. Didn’t Mary have a house like that?”

“In Sunderland, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, I think so. Only hers was yellow.”

“Oh, yes, I remember.”

“It would be a lot of upkeep, though, wouldn’t it?”

Or the fact that the community theatre has the chutzpah to do Alan Bennett. (Yes, of course I went.)

Whatever it is, I come back.


More photos…



Traveling in the online era

The first time I came to England, my mother made reservations by post to let a small flat in Kensington. There were letters, back and forth, on onion skin paper, sent in airmail envelopes with blue and red dashes at the edges and lots of postage. She also sent letters to people there she knew, letting them know we were coming and arranging visits and tea.

Today, I decided that since I was early for my train from Midhurst to London, I’d have time to go to the British Library this afternoon. I paid for my train ticket by sliding my credit card into a machine, a card that does not charge a foreign transaction fee and has a chip so British machines can read it (we don’t have Contactless yet in America, as I explained to a Bus 60 driver). I got on the train, took out my laptop. I prepared to tether my Pixel so I could get a connection, but it wasn’t necessary – free wifi took a minute to connect. I went to the British Library website, logged in with my credentials, discovered that the book I want could be ready in 70 minutes, and made a request to see it today in Humanities Room 1.

I then texted my wonderful friend Jane using my international phone pass. Jane is teaching in London, and we arranged for dinner and late museum tonight.

I interrupt this story for a 20 minute lecture by HG Wells on how communication patterns are bringing the world together in 1931:

And throughout history with the development of roads and more efficient writing, with money as a means of commerce, the development of shipping also, you find the signs of communities increasing. And in the last hundred and fifty years there has been an enormous development in the facilities with which men can get at man. We have passed from the semaphore to the electric telegraph and the wireless. We have passed from the stage coach on the muddy high road to the aeroplane and the swift steamer.

And now we have passed into a world where communication is so fast that I can type a blog post about communication while on a train, put HG Wells himself in it, and have it public in minutes. (I can also ask that readers not be surprised by his voice – contemporaries noted it as “squeaky”, and I have decided — with help from my colleague Simon in Midhurst — that Wells’ speaking voice was not the source of his extraordinary appeal.)

Midhurst 2018

I have arrived in England, specifically to Midhurst to see whether I can solve some mysteries and, of course, enjoy the West Sussex area. Downtown last evening:

This morning I will venture to Chichester to the West Sussex Records office, to take a look at old historical society magazines and fine the photograph of Horace Byatt.

As a reminder, the two Midhurst mysteries are:

  1. Where did Horace Byatt, new Midhurst Grammar School headmaster, live? This was where HG Wells would have lodged with his family while the school was being rebuilt in the first half of 1881. (see here)
  2. Did Mrs Allin, the ironmonger’s wife, know HG and recommend him for an assistant post at the school when he returned in the fall of 1883? (see here)

For the first, I have walked the street again with my old map, and will keep looking at the houses. One biography says it “overlooked South Pond”, though that seems to be possible from several of the two-storey houses on South Street. I am staying across the road, on what is now Chichester Road (but could be seen as further South Street) at Two Rose Cottages with landlady  Sarah, who is being most helpful. We’ve determined it can’t be any of these houses, as they were built after 1890.




The British book trade and what’s missing

P. Meijer Warnars’ bookshop in Amsterdam, painted 1820 by Johannes Jelgerhuis

Weedon, A., & Bott, M. (1996). British book trade archives 1830-1939: a location register. Bristol: Simon Eliot and Michael Turner.

I ordered this book through interlibrary loan (the service I could not do without). It was rather smaller than I imagined, basically a bound photocopied book that listed British book traders and publishers.

Then I realized why it was small – I think people are missing. I couldn’t find a single educational publishing house or book trader, and I know that there was at least one. William Briggs had a bookshop for his press, W.B. Clive, out of the University Correspondence College, at 13 Bookseller’s Row in the Strand.

I ordered the book hoping to find other educational booksellers, and there weren’t any. So it occurred to me that what I was seeing with book traders might be true in other areas. I started to notice that history journals had few articles on the history of education, and that Victorian Studies journals didn’t either. History of education journals (I found two) had little written by historians.

In the article “Victorian Education and the Periodical Press” (2017), Janice Schroeder also noticed this gap. I recently became a member of the Research Society of Victorian Periodicals, and, as she did, search the huge volume (a freebie for new member) of the Dictionary of Victorian Periodicals. There isn’t much at all.

I honestly didn’t expect this. Why wouldn’t the history of education be like the history of anything else? Time to examine further…

History of education: classics vs science

Because my work on distance education in the 19th century is so closely connected to the History of Education, I’ve been working on understanding that sub-discipline a little better. I have also been thinking about whether working in the History of Education for the late 19th century overlaps with Victorian Studies (another discipline) in a meaningful way.

My research took me to Alice Jenkins – Mathematics and Liberal Education in Victorian Cambridge  (2009), a paper delivered at the CRASSH conference ‘Changing the Humanities/the Humanities Changing’ (July 2009).

Victorian Studies is considered an interdisciplinary field, and I’ll cover that in a later post. From this video, it’s clear that there are hazards to looking at Victorians themselves for examples of interdisciplinarity, because they excelled in a range of disciplines but didn’t use what we would call an interdisciplinary approach. 

The talk focuses on the argument about curricula in Victorian universities, which I’ve been studying for a paper I just submitted to a journal.  In that article, I briefly discussed what C.P. Snow later called the Two Cultures Debate between classical curriculum and the newer science/mathematical curriculum (see The Rede Lecture, 1959). Classics and mathematics were the original Cambridge Bachelors Degrees, and were seen as combined into a common culture that represented a foundation of knowledge. But rather than representing a common culture, these degrees may have represented Cambridge justifying its own creating, using a narrow method to discipline the mind for future duties. Was it really necessary for stuents studying classics to sit exams in maths, and vice versa?

Tripos exam 1842

Some people criticized the focus on Tripos maths as “partial and inadequate”, but Cambridge defended it as broad. Jenkins uses one controversy to illuminate the issue: the “Slaughter of 1841”, where 25 of 130 students failed the maths exams and had to leave without a degree. The Senate House crowd booed the examiners, and the controversy became public. Half the students had been forced to take the Maths Honours exam just so they could study Classics (a nod to educational reformers), and two examiners that year had decided to raise the Maths standard without notice. Colleges became angry because they lost good Classics students.  Only one letter in The Times supported the examiners’ efforts to keep standards high – newspapers in general deplored it, and questioned the condition to pass Maths in order to study Classics.

By April The Times had changed its view. Did it mean the end of a unified culture? There is no evidence that those passing both classics and maths were culturally rounded anyway: the exam results show students only took Firsts at one or the other, although some were bad at both, and one was exempted from the maths tests because he was a peer. Students from both curricula did mix, and benefited from knowing each other, which might have created a common literary or interdisciplinary culture regardless of the curriculum. Cambridge (Trinity especially) remained the defender of maths in a liberal education long after others had abandoned this idea. The conflict did force universities to defend their curricular objectives, and may have encouraged Parliamentary intervention. It certainly encouraged public debate. 

 Jenkins notes that the scholars involved did not acknowledge that the entire curriculum perpetuated class and gender distinctions. I am disturbed by this comment. It seems to be necessary to acknowledge the fuzzy thinking of people in the past when it comes to class and gender, as if these issues were ignored during the Victorian era. Just because we now frame everything through gender and class does not mean that others did — it’s a form of presentism I think is distracting to historical studies. Besides, Victorians not only questioned gender and class norms but often worked against them, even if particular individual Victorians did not. That’s the same situation we have today, so I’m not in favor of woke-shaming.

Ghosts, urban identities, and evidence

Many people enjoy the Victorian era because there are ghosts and other supernatural phenomenon as part of the popular culture. There’s a reason why “haunted houses” are in the Victorian style, and the popularity of public lectures on psychic phenomenon and supposed practice of post-mortem photography (which could be bogus) indicate a fascination with the other world. 

So how do historians handle such subjects?

I took a look at a presentation from last year by Dr Karl Bell of the University of Portsmouth called Urban Mindscapes: Exploring Supernatural Cartographies and Victorian Urban IdentitiesIt was a paper given at a workshop: ‘Approaching Inner Lives: Thinking, Feeling, Believing, 1300-1900’ (University of East Anglia, 28 March 2017).

Dr Bell began with a ghost story of sorts: in 1869, the Feathers Hotel in Manchester drew crowds when it was rumored to be haunted. His theory is that ghost tales like this represent a narrative re-mapping of the urban environment. A story of a ghostly haunting fills in the blanks, imagines activity in places where there is no activity (one expects continual activity in a city), and rebels against urban planning. Ghosts, of course, do not recognize modern developments, and won’t abide by spatial orderings (data, maps). It’s as if ghosts live in a different space that is superimposed on our space.

So the thesis is that a nebulous imaginary city co-exists with the real city. But this thesis has holes: ghost stories don’t create an actual alternate meaning. So how can historians probe interiority without evidence? We can find reports of Victorian hauntings, but how can we prove a thesis about this theory of imaginary cities? Dr Bell has drawn upon non-historians like deSoto and deFevre. These thinkers would say that people re-walking the city (knowing their own shortcuts, for example) may not have been conscious that they were re-mapping the space, but that doesn’t mean the alternate city isn’t there.

For historians, this lack of evidence draws fire in the same way as fields like psychogeography – are wanderers really re-mapping the city? Psycho-anything is based on internal feelings, not verifiable events. Historians are accustomed to looking at society, and large groups of people, but looking at individual experiences turns us into either biographers or psychiatrists. But we can study activity: communal ghost hunting, like with the Feathers Hotel incident in Manchester, or 2000 people showing up hoping to view Bermondsey ghost, are verifiable events.

So stories of ghost sightings are difficult to use as evidence, but people’s response to the stories is explicit and can be studied. It’s often only through external manifestations that one can see the internal anyway (it’s not like biographers actually get inside the mind of their subjects). Instead of doing interdisciplinary work with sociologists and psychologists, one can focus on historical method as one would with any other topic.

As a historian, I have no problem with studying the reactions of people to any sort of event, when that can be documented. Sometimes, though, evidence of reactions is hard to find. Often I have students who want to work with propaganda, particularly war-time posters, as evidence. They’re great sources, but they cannot be used to prove that people did what the posters wanted them to do (buy war bonds) or feel the way they were encouraged to feel (hatred toward the enemy). That would have to be proven with other sources, and it would be very difficult to show that a particular poster generated a particular effect.

With cause and effect in general in disrepute (thanks partly to post-modernism), it becomes necessary for historians to divide what can be documented from what cannot, or at least what sort of evidence can be used to prove something. Ghost stories show this particular difficulty, and the historians’ solution, very well.

Starting my sabbatical

For the next four months, my blog will feature documentation for the independent learning portion of my sabbatical. I will be engaging in closed writing for publication, and open writing for learning about the Victorian era and the topics surrounding my research. If you want to read my closed posts, just email me at for the password.

My sabbatical application and more about my project can be found at my Sabbatical page.

My research concerns distance education in the 19th century, and connections to H.G. Wells. But to fully understand my topic, I need to work on a broader vision of Victorian culture, adult education, the history of distance education, correspondence college practices, and more. I will need to begin with an exploration of the field of Victorian Studies, to determine whether my research fits into that field or is more properly situation in the historical discipline in general, the history of education, or something else. This is a shift in topic for me, since my original field of study was medieval technology.

Many sabbaticals, I realize, are more focused than this. But I work at a community college, and teach broader survey classes. My main purpose as an instructor is to have students practice historical skills, which at MiraCosta College we have made the basis of our Student Learning Outcomes. In other disciplines, the SLOs are often content oriented, but in my department they are skills-based across the various eras and regions. Thus I have an opportunity to consider the larger reading and writing of history, and model wide-ranging research and historical writing, full-time for one semester.

I would like to first thank MiraCosta College for this opportunity, and so I begin.

Arts and Science

Today I discovered (looking for something else, of course) a book called National Competition, 1902: List of Students Rewarded, with the Report of the Examiners on the Selected Works of Schools of Science and Art and Art Classes. With a typically Victorian/Edwardian title, this book featured the student award winners presented by the Board of Education, South Kensington.

It is an entire book of student projects, evaluated by experts, with wonderful illustrations.

Of the over 5,000 works entered for competition in that one year are included designs for household furnishings, clothing, and material objects. Also many drawings in many media, of people and lettering and stencils. There are paintings and jewelry, mosaics and friezes, illustrations for children’s books and pictures of fish.

The awards list demonstrates remarkable diversity of location, with students from all over Britain, from Brighton to Newcastle-on-Tyne.

There are a few surpises for contemporary observers. Contrary to our view of the Edwardian era, there is much focus on the nude human form, and on sensuous designs. Women are well-represented among the awards winners, and the critiques of their work are in exactly the same tone as those of the men. The pronoun “he” is inclusive.

Silver Medal to Albert W. Dodd of Liverpool (Mount Street) School of Art (p. 28)

The critiques are cleverly worded, but could be sharp. For example:

With but few exceptions a want of interest on the part of the students is still apparent and the Examiners repeat their remark of last year, that painting from Still Life, which should be a delightful study, seems to be regarded as a wearisome task ; the result is that the work in general is more remarkable for patient labour than artistic spirit. (p. 32)

Also of historical significance is the goal of the institution itself, which combined artistic and scientific achievement. The Art and Science Department had been founded in 1853 with an emphasis on practical arts, but by the 1860s it was training science teachers, and in the 1870s its program for science had created the Normal School of Science, where T.H. Huxley taught new methods in biology at the higher education level.

During the 1880s T.H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold represented the sides of the Two Cultures debate. While classics dominated the standard curriculum for undergraduates, Huxley argued that science should be required study. Traditionalists maintained that while scientific achievements were important to understanding human development, the scientific method was not necessary to becoming an educated person.

It seems to me that in its combining of science and art, the Science and Art department was prescient in understanding that both are needed. Its origins in the practical arts, which combined technical knowledge with aesthetics to create useful items, inherently blended the expression of human achievement with the new methods of science and technology.

Such a book then provides a reading on our own issues of curriculum and culture, as we push the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) agenda and note its STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Maths) alternative.

It also gives us an idea of the artistic and technical achievements of students who in many ways are like our own.

More joys of Google Street view

I just enjoyed reading a book at the Internet Archive by checking it out, like an online library.

A Midhurst Lad: a Sussex childhood by Ronald E. Boxall .

And in that book there was an image of the street, Duck Street, where Boxall grew up in the 1920s and 30s:

book image

And I thought, I wonder if it still looks the same. Thanks, Google Street view.