NACBS first day and Providence

We started early today, and I saw a number of excellent papers.

I attended the session on Popular Fiction and Representations of Politics and Empire in Britain, 1880-1950 because it overlaps the period I’m working on and, let’s face it, in addition to his scientific and pedagogical writings, HG Wells did write some fiction.

The first paper was “Popular Fiction and the Politics of Anti-Socialism, 1900-1940”, by Liam Ryan, so it was a little later than my period. The main idea was that some popular fictions, particularly mysteries and spy thrillers, pushed a conservative agenda. We can tell this by how socialists are treated in the works. For example, in John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, the hero helps thwart a Bolshevik plot (I think he meant anarchist — the book is 1915) , and characters are mocked for their working-class sympathies. Dorothy L. Sayers’ character Lord Peter Wimsey is scornful of socialists, and Agatha Christie’s plots ridicule “champagne socialists”, with plots that reveal socialist characters to be secretly wealthy, and socialism as an error of the young. Questions following the paper delved into why it isn’t ok to be rich and socialist (and why Bernie Sanders gets criticized for that), how the authors are middle-class so they’re also making fun of artistocrats also, and how high brow characters can be aligned with lower-class characters, since neither is self-conscious.

James Watts’ “Flora Annie Steel, Henry Rider Haggard and the Use of Fiction in the History of Imperialism” asked questions about the popularity of fiction, which might be read as factual. Steel had lived in India for almost 20 years, so one might take her as an authority, and Haggard’s character Allan Quartermaine, although presented in fictional settings, reads like real life. They also contain tropes I hadn’t thought about: luxury represents moral corruption, bad acts lead to bad ends, financiers are duplicitous.

Nupur Chaudhury’s paper was changed from the program, where it said she would talk about representations of Indians in Kipling. She also spoke about the depictions of Indians in women’s periodicals as well, especially the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Although she proved clearly that these sources demonstrated prejudice against Indian culture a la Edward Said, I felt the thesis was factual rather than interpretive.

The moderator, Jeffrey Cox, commented on the papers, and noted a teaching problem with texts that use objectionable language. How do we teach texts that contain misogyny and racism, when students (and others) object to the use of language? He mentioned, for example, a new version of Huckleberry Finn, where all instances of the word “nigger” have been changed to the historically incorrect “slave”. (Although he said this edition was by Gates, I think it was Auburn English prof Alan Gribben.  I just used Gutenberg’s version and came up with 214 instances of the word.) Looks like teachers are working well on this one.

Christopher Bischof’s “Curios and Curiosity: A Teacher and the World in a Sutherland Community, 1899-1930” introduced me to William Campbell, a Scottish schoolteacher who liked to collect things but had little money. Apparently the history of collection usually focuses on the finding of objects rather than their use, but here the collection is significant in that Campbell got people to donate things, and shared his collection with the community. The paper also sought to debunk prevailing ideas of Scottish precociousness in democratic education, but pointed out that Campbell went through the pupil-teacher and teacher-training system originally adapted from England. It also highlighted the long-standing interest of Scots in the larger world.

I then learned some food and nutrition history I hadn’t planned on, because the two other papers cancelled. Lacey Sparks’ “Low-Hanging Fruit: Interwar Nutrition Education in Britain and Africa” introduced me to the programs, based on science and women teaching women, designed to increase nutrition in meals. I found it interesting that in Africa, this could be difficult because fresh food was not always available. Thus tinned food, which was being discouraged in Britain for its lesser nutrition, was encouraged in Africa.

At the lunchtime plenary, Mark Ormrod of the University of York spoke on “England’s Immigrants, 1330-1550: Aliens in Later Medieval and Early Tudor England”. There were several fascinating aspects to this paper — I had planned to eat instead of taking notes, but took notes anyway. The work presented is based on the data shown at Ormrod traced the rights and laws pertaining to immigrants, noting that until about 1500 trustworthy immigrants had rights. I was surprised to learn this included the “jury of half tongue”, where half the jury had to speak the language of the accused. (I imagined what would happen if we did that now in this country.)

He also showed how well immigrants were integrated geographically — there is no evidence of ghettoization despite periodic outbreaks of prejudice or violence (this was not true of Jews, who had been expelled in 1290 — only converts were tolerated). By the 1450s, economic changes meant that immigrant workers (many of them craft masters and merchants) were seen as a threat. The Statute of 1484 during the reign of Richard III created alien taxes, reduced immigrant rights, and implemented more stringent standards on their products. Even so, there was still plenty of inclusiveness, though more so before the Reformation than afterward. The connections to Brexit anti-immigrant sentiment, based on economics, is obvious. For my students, this would be a theme: when the middle classes are economically threatened, they have less tolerance for immigrants.

The big education history session was Education and Empire: Networks in the 19th-20th Centuries, with Gavin Schaffer moderating.

Alex Lindgren-Gibson’s paper, “Enlisted Orientalists: Autodidact Soldiers and Educational Networks in the Raj” told how soldiers were ill-prepared for their stint in India, and that their education, for both colonial knowledge (local culture) and imperial culture (knowing how British rule worked) was gained mostly from each other. Although colonial knowledge was presumed to lead to social mobility, the case of a man named Lambert showed that even taking exams on local languages didn’t guarantee advancement. There was a concern not to educate soldiers too much. I was somewhat disappointed that, for my work, there wasn’t more on the exams themselves, but I was taken with the idea that learning local language wouldn’t move you along anyway when the elites had studied classical languages at university, but I would need a lot of work to demonstrate this.

Hilary Farb Kalisman’s “Colonial Crossings: Educational networks across Britain’s Middle Eastern Mandates” showed that too much unregulated education could cause revolts. The idea of the American University of Beirut was to create an educated elite for government employment through university inside the mandates (previously colonies). It instead led to a rise of the effendi, young, urban, educated, partially-westernized discontents.

Darrell Newton’s “Gaining Firsthand Fear: Colonial Students, Racialism, and the BBC” looked at West Indian students in Britain and their issues with prejudice, including being rejected for housing. The BBC tried to create some radio programs to discuss issues of racialism; some were successful, others were sidelined.

By the time this session was over, I was stiff from sitting, and needed to walk. Besides, there are three second-hand book shops within walking distance. So I headed toward the river and educated myself about Providence. First I found something I’m more accustomed to seeing in England: a World War I memorial. It’s part of a revitalization project as Providence reclaims its riverfront (I have a soft spot for any city that claims its river). It’s a large, well-designed memorial park:

Providence River


Irish Famine Memorial, Providence


Holocaust Memorial


First World War Memorial

Base of First World War Memorial


I walked over a pedestrian bridge (there are several) back into downtown to find those bookstores. And now I began to understand why people love Providence. It’s one of the cleanest, nicest downtowns I’ve seen. A few potholes or broken pavement, but for the most part very well-tended, growing while keeping its centuries-old traditions.

I get it now. And I only bought four books, but at three different shops. Got back to the conference in time for the reception and planning for our panel. A very good day.


More photos…

A Californian back east

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Historical correction (and Ruskin)

Over two years ago I wrote a post that got no comment nor many readers. It was one of the only posts where I shared my discomfort with today’s identity politics.

Then this week, I received an announcement of some workshops at the college designed to engender “cultural sustaining pedagogies”. I wrote a five paragraph response to the ideas contained within this concept, explaining my views supporting universal principles over the perceived needs of particular groups, be they racial, age-based, cultural, gender, or otherwise. Having spent several hours writing, I realized there was no one to whom I could send it, and nowhere I could post it, without endangering my job and quite a few working relationships that were important to me. At the same time I realized that this was what was wanted, my refusal to engage, because the entire pretext is that I am not worthy to discuss any of these issues.

But when one attacks history, however, as a discipline, I do feel a professional responsibility. I did some reading about culturally sustainable pedagogies (cuz I’m always in for good pedagogy), and at one point was led to this article on How Racism and Patriarchy is Taught at School, published just a few days ago. It was about truth versus distortion in history textbooks and class materials, and cited as heinous examples phrases like black slaves were people “who came to work on plantations” and “[s]ome slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly”. Now the first of these is distorted enough to be an untruth: slaves did not “come” to work — they were forced and they were brought. Factually, they did not “come to work on plantations”, either — they were sold for whatever the buyer wanted them for. But the second quotation is not factually incorrect. Some slaves did report that their masters treated them kindly. There are primary sources where they say so, and I assign them. I then discuss with my students why they might have said so, what influences there might have been on their perceptions and testimony. But the truth is that they did report this kindness. So we are not replacing lies with truth. We are replacing nuanced views requiring discussion, with untruth.

The article mentioned how teachers should use the website Teaching Tolerance to teach “the truth” of the past. So I went to the site (which is sponsored by the ever laudable Southern Poverty Law Center), and it recommended a “formative assessment” for students. I link it here. Several of the questions are loaded or misleading. For example:

In the Declaration of Independence, what percentage of enslaved people were included in the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

You are supposed to answer 0%, or you’re wrong. This question demonstrates the same sort of oversimplification argued against in the article, just to the other side. Jefferson, like many of his contemporaries, were intellectually and morally conflicted by slavery, but stated in a number of places that men may be created equal, but were then subjected to unequal environments, treatment, birthrights, intelligence, etc. Some included women in “men”, while others did not. 18th century intellectuals argued the many sides of these issues. The “line” about equality was likely written by one man, approved by a committee of five, and agreed to and signed by the 2nd Continental Congress. Some had slaves, some didn’t, some had never owned slaves, some made money off the slave trade, some had vowed to release their slaves within a year, others had promised to release them upon their death, and many worried about slavery in its various impacts, discussing its moral, economic, and intellectual problems. To say that slaves were definitely included would be false. To say that they were all excluded would also be false.

The included Teacher Guide says: “The promise of equality and liberty in the Declaration did not extend to any enslaved people. ” But the passage from the Declaration does not promise equality or liberty. It declares them as natural rights. In fact, the Declaration of Independence doesn’t promise anything to anyone — it lays out an argument and justification for breaking away from Great Britain.

Later on the quiz there’s this question:

Which was the reason the South seceded from the Union?

To preserve states’ rights
To preserve slavery
To protest taxes on imported goods
To avoid rapid industrialization

You’re supposed to answer “to preserve slavery”. Yes, indeed. But the reason? The only reason? The main reason? There are no historical events with only one cause, and even the extremes of post-modern historicism admit to multiple explanations if not causation.

The Teacher Guide to this question says, “Every secession document cites slavery as the main reason the southern states seceded.” I have not reviewed every secession document, and I’m not sure whether this means official documents from the states, or whether it also includes letters, diaries, etc. Quite a few both official and unofficial documents also talk about states’ rights, but not always in those terms. A great many talk about freedom and independence, particularly in the context of the American Revolution. Preserving slavery was often discussed within a context of property and ownership, even by people who didn’t own slaves or didn’t care for it as an institution. To not understand and discuss these complexities is to commit presentism (the application of the values of ones own era to the circumstances of the past). Presentism, although increasingly popular, does not actually lead to a rational understanding, but rather a “stand”.

The article also says that our country was “quite literally founded on the slaughter, colonization, enslavement, segregation, and ongoing systematic oppression of millions of indigenous peoples and people of color”. Yes, indeed. But it was also founded on ideals, some of which are worthy discussing and defending. We might want to start with representation, open debate, or any of the rights listed in the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

So none of this is really about truth. It’s about correction. It’s about grievance. It’s about telling the other side, because it isn’t being told. A worthy goal, certainly. Telling the stories that haven’t been told is a main responsibility (and joy) of historical work. It’s why we’re here. But the goal isn’t to replace Storyline A with Storyline Z. It’s to understand how both storylines interact, to whose benefit one side takes precedence, and to what extent evidence supports the stories.

But lest we think these issues are new, I’ve also encountered them in reading today about the man I cannot avoid in my work, although I don’t like him: John Ruskin. In Judith Stoddart’s article* on his Fors Clavigera, I learned about Ruskin’s push to develop cultural literacy in working people with whom he admittedly not only had little in common, but didn’t know very well as individuals. What he did know, however, were big social and political trends, and what he saw was a lower class that was forming into groups to create solutions for their grievances.

In brief, Ruskin saw a grievance culture, and radical groups loosely based on socialist ideals without actually examining them (he was likely thinking of the Paris Commune, for example). Their grievances focused on class-based social hierarchy, even though that was not, to Ruskin, the root of the problem. The problem was moral, not structural. Some people may have more of some things in society, and others less, but the people with less simply taking the things from those who have more does not create a moral system. In fact, it just puts the lower classes into the immoral position that the upper classes had occupied. The problem of capitalist, industrial exploitation cannot be solved by the exploited becoming the exploiters. It is solved by doing away with exploitation.

Ruskin thus had just as much sympathy for the conditions of working people as 19th century radical politicians did. Education was the solution, but it was moral education that was needed. This was not “character education” or brainwashing, or even Christian education (though Ruskin himself was pretty darned devout). Subjects like music, astronomy, and botany, for example, could teach that things in life have an order that can be understood (p53). Understanding the universal concept of order could thus underpin the planning of political action. Basic principles could then be applied in a rational way according to the needs of both society and the individual. Ruskin aimed to “replace class consciousness by cultural consensus” (p45). Movements that engaged in action without any philosophical underpinnings were dangerous, because they displaced morality, elevating the same greed and selfishness that had been protested against in the first place.

Even before Stoddart began comparing Ruskin with Alan Bloom’s ideas of cultural literacy midway through the article, I saw connections to today. We have political and social movements, on both left and right, that are not based on moral philosophical underpinnings, except in their insistence that they are. The oppressed may become the oppressors, claiming their own truth and the inadequacy of all other truths, but that does not solve the problem. It is oppression itself that must be eliminated. The problem of people being silenced necessitates eliminating silence, not applying it to those who speak. Kindness, goodwill, and understanding are universals, not privileges withheld from some groups and given to others. It is not only unnecessary to prevent talking about incomplete ways of understanding the past, it is essential that we encourage such talk to make the historical picture more complete.

If one is trying to create Ruskin’s cultural consensus, then the intention of education should be to examine views based on what human beings have in common. The elements that bind humanity together should be openly available to discuss and to use. These elements may change over time, but to abandon a search for larger truths in a headlong drive to redress grievances will be of no more help now than it was in the 1870s.


*Judith Stoddard, “The Formation of the Working Classes: John Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera as a Manual of Cultural Literacy”, in Culture and Education in Victorian England, Patrick Scott and Pauline Fletcher, eds. Lewisburg: Buckness University Press, 1990.

Historiography and tracking backward

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Trails of research: Lord Salisbury

This morning’s activities demonstrate some of the difficulties of “rabbit hole” research. This is searching that starts from a single point, and ends up going off into different trails. Sometimes it leads to enlightening information or interpretations. Other times it doesn’t.

This began with (Chrome! Show full history!) an email announcing new history book reviews in Cercles: Review Pluridisciplinaire du Monde Anglophone (that’s me, unfortunately). In particular, this review caught my eye: The Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 by Sir David Cannadine, reviewed by Charles Giovanni Vanzan Coutinho of New York. In the last paragraph, the reviewer says that near the end of the book

“…Sir David brings the reader to the late Victorian era, in which the dominant political figure was Lord Salisbury, whose important essay in the Quarterly Journal in 1883, suitably titled ‘Disintegration’, the author explicates for the reader as providing a leitmotif of the entire era: one in which the one-time certainties and confidence of the high-Victorian period no longer seemed to be true…”

Well, this sounded like something I should read, a leitmotif for the entire era I’m studying. Damned handy, I thought.

So I tried a search for “disintegration salisbury” on DuckDuckGo and Google search. Only two links, one to an article in The Spectator, but I couldn’t access it because I’m not a subscriber (more’s the pity, but it’s too expensive to post to the U.S.). The other was a reference, so I tried Google Scholar with “lord salisbury disintegration 1883”) and got the full reference from another paper:

Salisbury, Lord, ‘Disintegration’, Quarterly Review, Vol. 156, 10 1883, p. 594

but not the paper itself. Two more articles referencing it were also blocked by paywalls. I tried my college library, EBSCOHost and JSTOR, and only a couple of articles referenced it, neither of which had a better citation than this.

One reference said the article is in another book, Paul Smith’s Lord Salisbury on Politics. Tried Google Books. It was here but there is no preview, search, or ebook. Tried Amazon to Look Inside. Nope, on this one you cannot look inside.

So I tried my old standby for old journals, Hathi Trust, and found several sets of full-text listings. I tried the first one, 1883. Not in the first one, then I realized that was only through summer, and ended before page 594 anyway. “10” might be October. Tried the second one, found an item that included page 594 and was October 1883. It said “Disintegration” at the top. But then I went up to the first page of the article (dreading that it was so long since once can only print one page at a time). Here’s what I found:


Well, that doesn’t say Lord Salisbury. Was his name W.E. Forster? Who is that?

No trace of a W.E. Forster by Googling or on DuckDuckGo. Tried another set of Quarterly Review for 1883. Same thing.

So I started tracking down Lord Salisbury. His name was Robert. Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, aka Lord Robert Cecil and at one point Viscount Cranborne. He would become Prime Minister two years after this article. In photos he looks rather humorless. According to Wikipedia, Paul Smith’s book describes him as depressive, neurotic, and competitive, among other quirks. Everyone said he wrote “Disintegration”. Except my primary source.

So I tried The Spectator again. In the flash of the article before it was blocked by the paywall, I saw something that suggested that there is no doubt that Salisbury wrote it. That might imply there should be some doubt. How frustrating!

So I tried a trick. I got my screen capture program ready, then clicked again on the article and took a quick snap before the paywall came up. So devious. I got:

Ridiculous. Deceitful. I feel so bad. Not.

Soooo…it looks like the W.E. Forster is a deceit. Rather, conceit. I do love Victorian writers, but in periodicals important people (or not very important, like HG Wells writing as Septimus, or complainers about Cambridge writing as Cambridgensis) often use assumed names.

Back to the article. It’s very long. It has things in it that might be useful to my research, and even more useful to our current times, such as “Hack phrases are a dangerous snare to an age too hurried and too busy to think” (p. 566). Salisbury was conservative, but liked America: “The Constitution of the United States was framed by men, deeply mistaken, as we think, in that they were hostile to monarchy, but yet fully sensible of the dangers that attended the democracy that they chose…” (p 568). He liked the empire, and was fearful that elements in England at the time, including the expansion of the franchise and political solutions for Ireland, would end it entirely.

He thinks educating the working man was dangerous, at least as it was being done (p 358):

I would certainly put the invention of “race” as a calm teaching of science that corresponds with dangerous passions.

But for me, what’s here is not so much a lietmotif of the era, as one for the Tory position of the era, clearly articulated but not of much help. I keep my tracking, so if I do suddenly need a Tory explication of empire and conservatism by a future PM I know where it is.

And that’s a morning doing research. Many times, things are not what one expects. And sometimes it’s quite difficult to follow the rabbit.


Self-portrait with mahl stick

We interrupt the sabbatical work for a combination of art, feminism, and technology.

It’s this self-portrait by Catherina van Hemessen, whom I had not heard of till today (by way of a reference from a community college art history class):

Catharina van Hemessen, Self-Portrait (1548)

In that context, I was told that it’s the first self-portrait by a female artist. But on the Wikipedia page about her, it claims it may be the first self-portrait of anyone at work at an easel, and references a book by Frances Borzello. So I went off looking for her. Yup, she’s qualified and literally wrote the book on female painters and their self-portraits.

So I looked at the book with Amazon’s search. There are images of women painting their self-portraits in Boccaccio’s Concerning Famous Women (c. 1402-4) on page 20 of the book. Borzello also claims that an illustrator named Claricia drew herself into the letter Q in medieval manuscripts. What Borzello actually says, on page 40, is that Hemessen’s “has been claimed as the first self-portrait showing an artist of either sex at work at the easel”.

Oh, ok, then. Not quite as grand as the first self-portrait ever, of man or women, and limited by “at work at the easel”. When did easels start? And what’s that rod in her hand?

It’s a mahl stick, still used to keep the painter’s hand steady and prevent smudging. I found out about it here (well, I’m not an artist, obviously).

And, according to this Victorian book, easels have been around since at least Roman times.

Under what circumstances is a story “untold”? If I’ve never heard of either van Hemessen or Claricia, that doesn’t mean their stories aren’t there. Over and again, things that are forgotten re-emerge. The current focus on feminist history and heritage is a case in point. While I am not in favor of anything that separates humans from each other, or sets them in opposition, the histories of particular groups of people do tend to generate the re-emergence of essential knowledge. It is this re-emergence, particularly in the Internet Age, that makes it possible to find information, and more importantly, other sources of information, like Borzello’s book. And sites about mahl sticks.

Art, but for history

If it were my main subject, of course, I’d try harder. But searching for information about an artist whose work I discovered has been too difficult. Is it possible to look at art from a historical persepctive without knowing much about the artist? I think so.

I saw this painting posted on Twitter by longvictorian2:

John Atkinson Grimshaw, A moonlit country road (1877)

I thought it was stunning, so I looked up more of Grimshaw’s works.

He seemed to enjoy fall, and that season just when winter was starting.

Stapleton Park near Pontefract Sun (1877)

There are a lot of roads with one person, or just a few, and often a house.

A Wintry Moon (1886)

He also was into fairies, sometimes floating above a town.

Spirit of the Night (1879)

But I like just as much his many townscapes, including this one very near where I was looking for Work.

Hampstead Hill, Looking Down Heath Street (1881)

So I looked up the artist on the web. I found very little.

Wikiart referred me to Wikipedia, which told me there was only one book about this artist, by an Alexander Robinson in 1988. I’d like to buy a copy, but there are so few that they’re expensive. The cheapest I could find was over $50. Supply and demand.

Wikipedia also directed me to a now defunct page from 2007 (that’s 50 years ago in internet years), which said that Robinson’s book was pretty much it, and that it’s a shame such a talent died of cancer. It had the same wording as a site that has taken his name, selling reproductions. Except that Wikipedia says he died of tuberculosis.

Apparently Grimshaw left no written works, diaries, letters. We don’t have much on him.

So to a certain extent we have to take the art on its own terms, which makes sense since Whistler admired Grimshaw’s work, and he’s the “art for art’s sake” guy. Grimshaw’s style is pre-Raphaelite in its photographic realism in some paintings and attention to detail in others. I also noticed a connection to earlier traditions. Here we seem to be channeling Vermeer:

Vermeer, Woman with a Water Jug (~1662)

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Summer (1895)

If we were analyzing his work as evidence for a historical theme (which I do ask my students to do), we have a number of things to look at. Usually it’s best to look at just one work, but this site makes it possible to look at some of Grimshaw’s in chronological order. Most of his work seems to be about place, rather than the conditions of people or the ravages of industry. Domestic buildings are important in the rural scenes, and they are nice middle class houses, likely reflecting his clientele. There are many works that are similar, also suggesting a clientele who wanted certain things. We cannot really separate the artist’s work from those who were buying it.

Which suggests a time when art like this was in demand, for its beauty and, possibly, its refusal to deal with quotidian problems of the 1870s and 1880s. Instead, there is loneliness, and loveliness, and all the connotations that go along with the changing to autumn and winter. There is a focus on roads, and people traveling on them, moving away from the viewer. There is warmth within coldness in all his work, which people might find comforting.

These are larger themes that go beyond just the era in which the work was created. It would be possible, in other words, to find works from earlier or later times which are also representations of these ideas. We might find that certain themes or styles tend to appear in art at certain times in history, perhaps when there is social change, or political strife. We do this as historians, although art historians also appreciate context and the influence of historical setting on the works of artists.

Because it’s easy to misinterpret art (perhaps Grimshaw liked his paintings of women better than the townscapes, and I’m projecting that he liked the townscapes more because I like them more), historians consider them as evidence. I can appreciate their aesthetics as a viewer, but as a historian I may be more concerned about their use. In that sense, the story of the artist has less value than the art itself.

Biography has its limits, and not just with art. More coming soon on that.

Stumbling upon Wells and killer octopuses

Reading HG Wells has become something of a pasttime. I don’t have any scholarly need to read much of his fiction, and none to read anything after The Time Machine. At least, not for my research. But a few years ago I fell in love with these books, Penguin Little Black Classics:

Of course, it’s easy to fall in love with anything one discovers at Blackwell Bookshop in Oxford. (Side note: I was at Barnes and Noble here buying a book for a child, and somehow the worker wrapping my gift got to talking how she’d also just returned from England, and it turned out we’d both been to Oxford recently, and both been to Blackwell’s. She loved Tolkein, so I asked if she’d eaten at the Eagle and Child and she said no, but she’d found the Turf Tavern. On this trip, I too found the Turf Tavern — it is down a narrow alley and you kind of have to know it’s there — though I didn’t eat there.)

At the time I first found these lovely little books, they cost 66p. They are now £1. I always have one with me, because although I tried reading on my phone (I got through The Island of Dr Moreau but that was it), I don’t like it. And don’t get me started about Kindles and other backlit means of reading for pleasure. Backlit is for work.

So I happened to be carrying HG Wells’ The Sea Raiders in my purse last month, and while waiting at a pub for the West Sussex Records Office in Chichester to reopen after lunch, I read the story.

It was terrifying. I forget, since I’ve mostly been reading Wells’ romances (Ana Veronica, Tono-Bungay, Mr Britling Sees it Through), that his work can be scary. The last time I was this scared was reading The Invisible Man, which isn’t at all surprising.

The Sea Raiders, I thought from the title, would surely be a pirate story. I envisioned scenes of derring-do. But it was a story of nasty tentacled creatures coming up from the deep to kill people, grabbing them off the beach and even taking a whole boat of them, including a child. I finished the story and my lunch, admired the craftsmanship of the story (not so much the lunch), and moved on.

Then today, I was cruising through my Twitter feed looking at Victorian artworks, and came upon this from @longvictorian2 (you can also find it on Wikipedia):

The date is 17 October 1896. If this blog post is correct, Well’s story was published in December 1896. Could it be that Wells’ horror story was based on an actual event?

According to this tour guide, the Illustrated Police News was voted ten years earlier as the worst newspaper in England by readers of the Pall Mall Gazette (another place Wells liked to publish, though I’ve had trouble finding anything in the Gazette files at the British Library). So how accurate this is may be subject to question (or more likely derisive scoffing). But the story appeared. Which may mean that Wells’ reading habits at 30 years old were far from elitist.

[NB: For those who know I’m a serious historian, you might be surprised at my accepting homegrown blog posts and Jack the Ripper tour sites as valid sources. But since we’re talking here about killer octopuses, I don’t have a problem with it. And yes, it’s octopuses, not octopi, since it’s Greek, not Latin.]

Conversations with cab drivers

Americans have a thing about taxis. Who doesn’t know the song Big Yellow Taxi? or the Harry Chapin song? or the movie Taxi Driver? (OK, I admit I haven’t seen it.)

But if you’re studying Victorian England, taxicabs have a much longer history, going back to all those characters who drove cabs through the foggy streets of London, ferrying criminals and Members of Parliament (and some who were both), sitting on top of the hansom in the rain, water dripping from their tophats. Cab is, after all, short for cabriolet.

Today’s London taxi drivers are know for the black cabs, aka hackney cabs, a stalwart breed of transport determined to make its way among the private cars, limos, minicabs, and now Ubers.

Despite that scary episode of Sherlock, this trip I took more taxis than usual. I had budgeted for that — less Guinness, more taxis, as if fewer glasses of high-caloric stout would make it ok to do less walking. I use the standard pair of excuses: Heavy Luggage, and Woman Alone at Night. Plus the new one: Too Old for This.

So I talked to more taxi drivers than usual. In the old days, the drivers would talk to you immediately. Now, with the heavy plastic window in between, the fact that the passenger seat is far to the back means that it’s more difficult to hear each other. You really have to try. I also suspect that more passengers spend the trip looking at their phone (or talking into it – I understand these things do make calls). I have to talk first, and of course I want to, because I want to hear their stories.

I learned last trip that a guaranteed conversation starter is to ask about Uber. I was in a cab going around the London Central Mosque near Regents Park. The driver had asked if it was OK to take that route, I assume because I was American or something. I said of course — I’d love to see it. But on the way we were held up by an accident, and according to the driver, the body under the tarp (it’s awful to think about this) was probably a cyclist hit by a car. He said that’s happened more and more since Uber came. The Uber drivers don’t have The Knowledge (the exams all black cab drivers must take), they get confused, they don’t pay attention, they hit people.

Since that experience, Uber was first banned, then allowed back but regulated, so I ask drivers about their view (I only take black cabs in London, on principle).

One driver said that Uber was such a problem he was going to take classes and retrain for another job. He claimed that they had pretty much pushed out the black cabs with their cheaper pricing, that it wasn’t profitable anymore. But the next cab driver told me he was doing just fine, that Uber had its own problems and people want quality, not just a low price. They want drivers with The Knowledge. When I asked about the Gett app I’d used to call for a cab (he had a Gett sticker on the window) he told me that some of these services take too big a cut and aren’t good for the drivers. He told me about better apps like TaxiApp, which was created by the drivers themselves, and handed me a flyer.

I had a female driver with the lovely south Asian accent who talked with me about her children and how they’re learning to drive. She told me she couldn’t tell where I was from since I sounded half English, half American (I try to keep my California accent, but it’s hard to do). In another cab the driver was playing classical music, and I asked him to turn it up.

I had two drivers who sounded like they were Londoners. One conversed with me about the 80s music he liked. He told me his grandmother was in Brian May’s classroom at school when May was a maths teacher. One day the teacher announced he was going off to join a band called “Queen”, and wouldn’t be their teacher anymore.

The other Londoner turned out to be from East Germany (when that term was used) and told me how he’d come to America only once, to drive a friend’s car from Florida to California. He spent the night in jail in Texas when he was pulled over, a foreigner driving a car that wasn’t his. While the police tried to get it straightened out by contacting his friend, they ordered a “pizza pie”. What came was not what he would call pie — he tried it and decided it wasn’t food and that he didn’t like America.

Despite both the presumed British reserve and the impoliteness of talking about politics, religion, or sex, I’ve never had a cab driver who wasn’t happy to talk about politics. I’ve mentioned that just after the Brexit results came in, I asked my Durham cab driver whether he was a happy or unhappy voter that morning. He was “over the moon”, convinced that the NHS would be saved by money coming back from Europe. This trip, one driver asked me if I was a Trump supporter. Just as I was about to launch into the series of apologies I use on such occasions, he said, “I think he’s great. Really shakes things up!” I had to agree that yes, he does do that.

As for The Knowledge (one driver told me it took him almost four years to pass the exams), I have extraordinary respect for it. But I have to tell you — I’ve never been in a cab where I didn’t have to give directions, and I have often been driven past the address. What black cab drivers know, though, is the streets. They know every stoplight, the flow of traffic, where the pedestrians are, what route is best at what time of day.

My favorite hackney driver this trip asked me why I was in England, and when I told him he asked me intelligent questions about my research. When I asked how long he’d been a driver, and he said 15 years, I asked if he liked his job. He said yes, because he gets to drive so many different kinds of people. Movie stars, government officials, prostitutes, and academics like me. He learns something from everyone he drives, and has gotten himself a real education. A university in a cab. Can’t argue with that.



Lisa’s Magical History Tour: a syllabus for London and beyond

I think sometimes that I should take a group of students to England for my History 105: History of England class. There are such opportunities. One can teach for a community college consortium that offers a short semester in London, or work with an education abroad tour company. Trouble is, these create the curriculum and/or activities, and put you in a classroom. And all you do is teach. That has never been my way.

So in the spirit of one day teaching my class in England, here is a possible syllabus. I center it on London because there are classrooms there and easy transport to elsewhere. But no classroom would be necessary, nor particularly desirable. So this is a syllabus not only for a college course, but for anyone traveling there who wants to do a history tour! I list tube stops and rail stations, but it’s better to learn the bus from wherever you are – fewer stairs, cheaper fares (get an Oyster card), and you get to see so much more. Leave each day after 9 am, and avoid all transport between 4 and 7 (eat an early supper).

None of this relies on a car. You shouldn’t drive there unless you’re British. Really. Unless you’ve memorized this. For Americans, BritRail passes can be purchased in the US only, before you leave only.


Begin at the Museum of London.

It isn’t overwhelming, but this museum effectively walks you through the entire history of England, beginning with geological time and going to the present. It’s beautifully designed, basically a syllabus in itself. Take notes in the order of chronology, then carry those with you through the rest.


Prehistoric England

Field trip to Avebury and its barrows and museum
Why not Stonehenge? First of all, it’s a zoo, with too many tourists, and a long walk, and then you can’t even touch the stones unless you’re on a special tour. Avebury you can walk around and touch the stones (and pose with one, as I am doing), plus see barrows, plus learn about everything. For free.

Paddington Station to Swindon, then Stagecoach Bus 49 (a little over 2 hours)

Anglo-Saxon and Viking England

British Museum
Contains objects from the Sutton Hoo excavation, including the ship. And even though it isn’t exactly British history, while there be sure to go to the Assyrian Lion Hunt reliefs, which are from the 7th century BC and are truly amazing.

Russell Square

Field trip to YorkYorkshire Museum
Not a huge tourist attraction, but a small and wonderful collection of everything you need to appreciate the era, including some fabulous swords.
And, if you must: Jorvik Viking Center Museum

While in York, jump eras and enjoy the medieval Shambles (don’t miss Margaret Clitherow’s chapel) and an entire Victorian re-creation at the York Castle Museum. Oh, yeah, there’s a cathedral there too…

Kings Cross (2 hours)

Roman England

The Mithraeum, The City
Mike Bloomberg’s contribution to the history of London, by moving an ancient Roman temple to Mithras where it can be seen the the basement of the Bloomberg building. Overly dramatic lighting and sound helps one imagine the temple as it would have been, but the ruins alone are very cool. But, as noted before, you’ll need to teach about the rites of Mithras.

District or Circle line – Cannon Street

Field trip to Roman Baths in Bath
Bath is really more of an 18th century place, but the Roman Baths are so complete they’re a must-see. To jump eras and go all 18th century, tour the town.

Paddington to Bath Spa (1.5 hours)

Field trip to Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex
If Roman mosaic floors are more your thing, this is the place. It was excavated in 1960 by Barry Cunliffe shortly after its discovery by a water engineer (this is the same Sir Barry who was so kind in helping get his textbook for my students). There is also a museum on site.

London Bridge (a little under 2 hours)


Tower of London
Crowded with tourists, the Norman feature here is the White Tower. Skip the Crown Jewels and crawl around the tower any way you can. It is pricey, at £23/adult, but you can also see the Bloody Tower and the Royal Mint exhibit. The courtyard itself is of interest as it surrounds the tower and makes it easier to see how a castle worked, with central fortification and outbuildings. Also nearby is Tower Bridge, but that’s Victorian (and a damn good piece of engineering).

Tower Hill

Field trip to Hastings
The ruins of Hastings Castle are a 10-minute walk from the rail station.

Charing Cross (but also stops at Waterloo and London Bridge stations) (1 hour, 45 minutes)

Overnight field trip to Durham
Norman castle, Norman cathedral (voted best Evensong by…me!) – the place drips with Norman stuff. Plus England’s third university. If it’s summer (till mid-September), stay at UniversityRooms in the castle if you book far enough ahead.

Kings Cross (3 hours)



Field trip – Canterbury Cathedral

From Private Eye

Assign The Canterbury Tales (or at least that of the Wife of Bath and one of the churchmen) then go here. Visit the site where Thomas Becket was killed and compare it to assassinations today.

from St Pancras (about an hour)

Westminster Abbey
Although finished in the 16th century, it was begun in the Middle Ages, and Chaucer is buried here. If you don’t mind missing Poet’s Corner, the best way to enjoy it is for services, since there are no crowds.

London Bridge (a little under 2 hours)

Temple Church
I couldn’t care less about The DaVinci Code, but it’s because of that book that it’s so hard to get in and see Temple Church, which is really quite lovely inside. It’s now £5 to visit, and I don’t blame them a bit, but as with all recalcitrant churches, I suggest learning a bit about Anglican traditions and going to a service (and donating accordingly, of course).

Temple or Blackfriars – it’s a little tricky to get to so see their advice


While it might be tempting to go the Old Globe, it’s a new building and the performances I’ve seen have not been sterling. If you’re really into the Tudors, I’d stick to the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace instead.

Hampton Court Palace
The kitchens are fantastic! It costs more (about £20 per adult) but worth it.

 District  to Richmond, then bus R68 (a little over an hour)

Field trip to Portsmouth
Home to the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship raised in 1982. A little pricey at £17, but cheaper online in advance and how often do you get to see a 500-year-old ship?

Waterloo to Portsmouth Harbour (about 1.5 hours)

English Civil War

Banqueting House
Built by Inigo Jones (1622) and featuring a ceiling painted by Rubens (enjoy looking at it from comfy bean bag seats), this is the last surviving piece of Palace of Whitehall. Charles I was executed just outside the first floor window, where they built a scaffold so everyone would have a good view. It’s mostly one giant room, so see it on the way to or from other sights on Whitehall.



St. Paul’s Cathedral
The original having burned down in the Great Fire (see the model at the Museum of London), Christopher Wren rebuilt nearly on the full footprint, 1675-1708.


Right next to the tube station, it’s impressive and if you want to wait in the queue you can go to the top. Also built by Christopher Wren. See my discussion of the Great Fire and its commemoration in my previous post.


There’s the Old Royal Naval College if you can’t get enough of Christopher Wren, but the reason to go is the Prime Meridien, where time starts, and the Royal Observatory, financed by Charles II and at first housing John Flamsteed, royal astronomer and creator of a fabulous star atlas.

London Bridge to Greenwich (also by DLR over-ground train) about 25 minutes


18th century

Portsmouth againCaptian James Cook, Captain Bligh – so many names are associated with Portsmouth.  Nelson’s flagship The Victory is there, which is why I put this in the 18th century, but so are

St Martin-in-the-Fields church, Trafalgar Square
Not just for visiting the architecture, but instead of services go for the fantastic music (classical in the evenings, and jazz) and the Crypt Cafe underneath, which has good food and you eat right on top of the tombstones. Neo-classical architecture.

Charing Cross

Strawberry Hill, Twickenham
Horace Walpole’s neo-Gothic Georgian monstrosity. He set a trend in Gothic Revival. Not necessarily a good trend, but a trend.

  Waterloo to Strawberry Hill
 District  to Richmond, then bus R68

Osterley House
Built earlier, but reformulated by Robert Adam in the 1760s. The most complete Adam there is.

A bit tricky, but I’d take the tube to Bow Street and change to the light rail to the Langdon Park DLR station.

Industrial Revolution

London Science Museum: Energy Hall
And even beyond Energy Hall, there are fantastic exhibits about the history of agriculture and much more. Worth finding! Jump to the later industrial era at the Victoria and Albert Museum next door (be sure to eat in the Morris Room at the cafe), then walk up Brompton Road to Harrods (although the current building is actually Edwardian).

South Kensington


Old Operating Museum and Herb Garret, discussed elsewhere on this blog, it’s a long hike up a small windy staircase but the payoff is the only operating theatre from this era, where they now give lectures on the history of medicine, plus a garrett full of herbal remedies and old medical instruments. (For jumping eras, the Shard, Southwark Cathedral, and Borough Market are all nearby)

London Bridge

— or — Grant Museum of Zoology, a Victorian museum still used by the University of London. Lots of squishy dead animals in jars — very cool.

Euston Square

Leadenhall Market
Don’t go on a Saturday if you want to eat or shop — it’s in The City so not much is there on the weekends except the buildings. And yes, yes, it was in Harry Potter.


Victoria Embankment
Walk along the river. The Houses of Parliament are Victorian neo-gothic, and there are statues from the Victorian era, and representing Victorian people, along the way, especially in Victoria Embankment Gardens. If you prefer the southern route (no traffic! pedestrians only!), try Queen’s Walk.

Red House, Bexleyheath
Not quite a field trip, but a little out of the way south of London. Home of William Morris, completed in 1860, with lovely designs and secret paintings on the walls.

Charing Cross, Victoria, Cannon Street to Bexleyheath, then 15 minute walk

Field trip to Oxford for the Natural History Museum/Pitt Rivers Museum
Covered elsewhere on this blog, you can’t get more Victorian than these.

Fin de Siecle, First World War, Between the Wars

Imperial War Museum
Also good for the Blitz.

Elephant and Castle, then walk

Memorial in Foxton, sponsored by William Briggs

Every memorial cross in every town
Most towns have a memorial cross to the fallen of the First World War. In London, there’s the Cenotaph in Whitehall and the memorial to war animals in Park Lane.  Every cathedral and many churches have memorials. Poppies are still visible on memorials and still for sale as pins, and not just because of the centenary.


Senate House

Part of the University of London, it was begun in 1932 and is hugely Art Deco. During the world wars it was used by the Ministry of Information, inspiring both Graham Greene and George Orwell to use it as fearful ministries in their books. It’s used a lot in movies. The area of Bloomsbury which is next to it was the home of the Bloomsbury Set (writers including Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey, plus artists like Vanessa Bell).

Russell Square


World War II

Cabinet War Rooms
Technically part of the Imperial War Museum, the war rooms are expensive at £19/adult and can be crowded. They were opened in 1984, which is “new”, so many people haven’t seen them yet (including me).


HMS Belfast
Also part of the Imperial War Museum, it’s right there on the Thames, and it’s enormous. The ship saw action in World War II, but more in Korea and as an Arctic exploration ship. You can climb up and down the stairs and visit re-created areas (the galley and sick bay are especially good) with mannikins so real they’re kind of spooky.  A visit is easily combined with Old Operating Theatre and other Southwark attractions to jump eras.

London Bridge

Field trip to Dover – for the intrepid only!
If you can go here without singing “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover“, you haven’t seen enough old movies. You can visit the tunnels but you have to get a ticket and then walk a long way to get to the tunnels.

Victoria Station (about 2 hours) to Dover Priory, then it’s a couple of miles so Bus 60, then a long (American) walk — worth a taxi, and they’ll call one for you from the visitor centre when you’re done


Post-war, 1950s-1970s

Dennis Severs’ house
Part installation art, part history, partly bizarre, created by an American. You need to book in advance and it’s not really marked on the outside. Only a few people may go in at a time. The three floors are supposed to represent a Flemish family’s house from the 17th to 20th centuries, but by the time you get done you’re celebrating the coronation of Elizabeth II. Must be experienced to be understood.

Liverpool Street, then walk

National Theatre
The company is a bit older than the architecturally controversial building, which opened in 1977, so it was new when I first went there, and I felt very welcome. Like the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera House, it’s a public theatre. There has always been a sense that it belongs to the people, that its purpose is to provide a creative space for the city and its populace. Ticket prices are good and performances excellent.


Camden Market

Carnaby Street may not be what it was, but Camden is as close as you can get to the spirit of 1960s London.

Camden Town

Late 20th-21st century

Tate Modern
There is no better venue for modern art. Open till 10 pm Friday and Saturday. Take the lift to the Restaurant and pretend you’re looking for something, just to see the view.

London Bridge or Southwark, then walk

Millenium Bridge
Right out back of the Tate Modern is the pedestrian bridge. Apparently it had a swaying problem at first, but it was corrected. From the bridge, which crosses the Thames to near St Paul’s, you can see many of the newer landmarks of London.


So that’s Lisa’s Magical History Tour. Enjoy!