Menton Memorials: Then and Now

On his travels again, Andrew Hillier finds evidence of British colonisation nearer home in the French Riviera resort of Menton.

In my last blog (Malaysian Linkages, Old and New) I examined how Britain’s presence in nineteenth-century Malaysia could be explored through its buildings, cemeteries and other spaces. Similar evidence of a British presence, albeit in a different context, can be found in Menton, the village, perched on an outcrop of the Mediterranean coast, which Britons began to frequent in the 1860s.

University of Bristol historian John Pemble’s, The Mediterranean Passion, published almost 30 years ago, remains the most engaging account of how the Riviera was colonised during this period, principally by Britons, Germans and Russians. As he shows, it was British doctors who, by ordering their patients to go south in winter, first transformed the region’s ‘humble French and Italian villages into fashionable winter resorts’.[1]

Nowhere was this process more evident than in Menton. If Dr James Henry Bennet (1816-1891) first put the medieval village on the English map, by recommending it for patients suffering from phthsis (tuberculosis), it was Queen Victoria who gave the resort its real impetus. She spent two months there in 1882, in search of a cure for her youngest son, the sickly Prince Leopold; sadly without success, as he died two years later.

Such was its attraction as a health resort that, by the turn of the century, invalids in ‘their Bath chairs monopolised the promenade du Midi by day and by night their premature retirement imparted a hospital hush to the atmosphere’.[2] By then, although multi-national, the French regarded it as ‘une colonie Britannique’. And although this was in part Gallic humour, it can properly be considered as part of ‘the British World’: of its seventy-five hotels, seventeen boasted Anglo-Saxon names, including Victoria, Windsor, Balmoral and Westminster, and, outside the old town, many of its Belle Ēpoque villas were owned or occupied by Britons, whose lush ‘English’ gardens cascaded down to the sea.

The more intimate setting of Le Cimetière du Vieux Chateau most obviously captures this presence. Multi-denominational, the marbled mausolea of French Roman Catholics greet you on arrival. Higher up the hill, the graves of those same invalids compete for the fabulous views which unfolded before the grieving mourners. Trusting in, but – alas – not cured by, treatments prescribed by Dr Bennet, they first started to be buried here in the 1870s. Plainer than the French graves, the simple stone slabs are each surrounded by a low gated fence – the only concession to the Mediterranean ambience. Evocative in their own right, they connect us with lives that, for all their luxury, ended, for many, in their early thirties.

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It might be thought that these Britons, who spent their winters in Menton and other Riviera resorts, developed a more cosmopolitan outlook than their counterparts who stayed at home. The evidence is, however, against this. Most came in search only of the climate and a cure and had little interest in France or its culture, nor in associating with any of the other nationalities who wintered there. When they stayed in hotels, they held themselves aloof and when they rented villas, they brought their own servants to tend to their needs. If they had any interest in their surroundings, it was limited to classical antiquities. As Pemble concludes, in the years leading up to the First World War, the British ‘were never more insular than when they were abroad’.[3]

If this smacks of a typical colonial mentality, it would be wrong to suppose that it was resented then, or is so now. The resort is keen to celebrate what an official publication calls ‘la volonté Britannique de recréer un “bout d’Angleterre” partout où ils s’installent’.[4] Buildings and streets retain their English names: Rue Henry Bennett boasts a statue in his honour; Avenue Edouard VII runs in parallel to it; and, in 1960, an elegant fountain was installed in Square Victoria, as it is called, to commemorate the visit of that monarch’s mother.[5]

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Not only is the foreign section of the cemetery well-maintained but public funds were also made available to restore the grave of a quintessential Englishman, even though he had not merited a mention in Pemble. If the Revd William Webb Ellis may not be the cemetery’s most celebrated incumbent, his grave is now certainly the most garlanded.

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No indication is given as to why the Vicar of St Clement Danes, The Strand, was in Menton at the time, but, if, as seems likely, it was to convalesce, then as with so many others who came for that purpose, it was to no avail. A bachelor, he died on 24 January 1872 at the age of 65. Whether he did in fact pick up the ball and run and thereby found the game of rugby is controversial. However, plainly this does not trouble those who climb the hill to pay their respects and place their tributes on his tomb. Ranging from New Zealand to the Ukraine, they demonstrate how memorialisation can be a positive means of generating and reflecting international goodwill.

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Surrounded by the graves of Britons, Russians, Germans and French, high above the bay known as Le Golfe de la Paix, the private memorial of one unassuming English clergyman provides a fitting space in which to ponder the fragile nature of international comity.

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[1] John Pemble, The Mediterranean Passion: Victorians and Edwardians in the South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); quote at p.84.

[2] Pemble, p.87.

[3] Pemble, p.268.

[4] Francois Rosso et al., Menton rejoint la France: 1861, Chronique du Rattachement (Les Archives Municipales de Menton, 2011), p.58.

[5] The French always spell his name with two T’s, Pemble, following his BMJ entry, with one.

Remembering George Hare Leonard, 1863-1941

An institution is comprised of more than just buildings, hierarchies or symbols. When the University of Bristol was founded in 1909, its managers and patrons rushed to explain its purpose in terms of what it stood for: a common culture – an attitude – of excellence, improvement, and civic responsibility. But these are just fine words until they are given meaning by real people actually enacting these values, promoting and defending them.

Today – graduation day – is a very important day for University of Bristol historians. One of the ways we celebrate our students’ success is through the award of prizes for high attainment. The George Hare Leonard Prize is awarded to the graduate with the best overall performance, but who was George Hare Leonard, and what does the fact that we attach his name to such a prestigious award mean?

Photograph of George Hare Leonard, 1902, from the University of Bristol’s Special Collections

Born in Clifton, Leonard took his BA and MA in History at Cambridge, returning to Bristol to deliver the Cambridge Extension Lectures in the 1880s and 1890s. He was eventually appointed Lecturer in History at University College Bristol in 1901, rising to the rank of Professor in 1905. Only one one other candidate was interviewed for the professorial job: Frederick Maurice Powicke, who would go on to rise to the very top of his discipline by becoming Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford.

But Leonard was something special, and everybody at University College knew it. The College’s great patron, John Percival, the Bishop of Hereford, remarked in 1908 on the ‘good work’ that he and ‘the younger teachers’ were doing there. This stood in contrast, Percival claimed, to ‘older professors’ who had ‘lost touch with the working classes’. Leonard’s retention as professor came at just the right time to make a real impact, for in 1909 the College became the University of Bristol. At this institution Leonard stayed until his death in 1941.

There is much to celebrate about Leonard’s life, and his contribution to our institution, our discipline, and our city. Four highlights may serve to underline why he is worth remembering.

First, he used his professorship to reinvigorate the intellectual quality of historical studies at the College by introducing a new syllabus in the 1906/07 academic year. For the first time ever at Bristol, students were expected to become acquainted with primary sources directly, and to engage in a dialogue with their lecturers. Out went grand lecture series which tried to locate the greatness of the English psyche in the misty forests of fifth-century Saxony; in came the latest historiography, original documents, and a spirit of common intellectual purpose. These are the principles which still form the core of the degree at Bristol today, where our students are encouraged to form their own opinions, and to share and defend them in rigorous but collegiate seminars.

Second, he held a firm belief that the production of historical knowledge was an endeavor of real value, arguing that history ‘cast light on modern problems which engross the attention of all thoughtful men’. We encourage all our students to consider the purpose of what we all do and, whether we agree with Leonard or not, the willingness to engage in critical self-reflection is an important skill which we try to encourage all at Bristol to adopt. Above all we want our graduates to be self-confident in the value both of their discipline and of their own beliefs and ideas.

Third, he was strongly committed to the equality of all persons. While holding his professorship, he headed up a committee and acted as fundraiser-in-chief for the erection of a memorial to Mary Clifford, a nineteenth-century campaigner for women’s welfare, in Bristol Cathedral. This was neither an easy nor a meaningless gesture: in the 1910s, attacks on Suffragette headquarters in Bristol were widely reported in the national press. Leonard was a person willing to speak out, but perhaps more importantly, to put his ideas into action.

Fourth, he ‘gave himself heart and soul to the cause of adult education’, according to the writer of his obituary in The Times. This was an accurate assessment. Not only did Leonard frequently hold the management of the University to account on the issue of ‘educating the working men and women’ of Bristol, but he also gave up what little time he had spare to read their poetry, respond to their letters, or even go rambling with them – even if they were not registered students. At Bristol today, we celebrate continuing education and aspire to widen access as far as possible, because we see that education can have a transformative impact on peoples’ lives.

So, when we award the George Hare Leonard Prize today, we do more than just remember one of our department’s ancestors. We celebrate a great historian, certainly, but we also recognize a set of timeless values which bind us together – staff, students, and graduates alike. We celebrate both individual excellence and a collegiate spirit, the importance of rigour, but also the enduring value of historical thinking. In offering an award in Leonard’s name, we look not a committee to define our values for us, but to our own past.

Special thanks to colleagues in the University of Bristol’s Special Collections, who helped to identify some of the sources which form the basis of this judgment: Leonard’s own correspondence, that of the Bishop of Hereford, Calendars of the University College Bristol, and various newspaper cuttings.

Dr John Reeks, Teaching Fellow in History.

Bristol University to the Somme

WMB-WWI-MemorialThere are 173 names recorded on the University of Bristol’s memorial to those who died in the First World War. Captain W. J. Mason is one of these. A Lecturer in Economics, and head of the department, William John Mason was killed 100 years ago today, at La Boisselle on the Somme. He was 27.

William John Mason, 1915. Source: Imperial War Museum Collections

An LSE graduate, Will Mason was appointed to his post at Bristol in early 1914, and his role also included delivering lectures for the Workers’ Education Association at the recently-established University Settlement in Barton Hill. Mason joined the University’s Officer Training Corps at the outbreak of the war, was gazetted to the Gloucester Regiment in November 1914, arriving in France in July 1915. In January the following year he was promoted to Captain, serving with the 8th Gloucesters. Some 32 members of the university’s teaching staff were on active service by the time he was killed. An earlier report in September 1915 had outlined the University staff’s contributions to the war effort. Some 14 members of the Arts Faculty staff were listed. Amongst these, History’s Professor George Hare Leonard was spending most of his spare time engaged in YMCA work; the Lecturer in History and tutor for women students, May Staveley, a Quaker, had worked over the previous summer with the Friends Relief Commission in France; their fellow historian William Luther Cooper, who had joined the department in 1913 and would later become the University’s first salaried Librarian, was waiting to take up a commission in the Royal Field Artillery. May Staveley was also honorary secretary of the University of Bristol Women’s War Work Fund which, amongst other activities, ran the University Hostel for Belgian refugees.

Captain Mason was a ‘brilliant teacher’, reported the WEA’s regional secretary, with a ‘genial disposition’. He was one of ‘the three brilliant men of my generation’ of LSE students, recalled Baroness Mary Stocks four decades later. The University of Bristol’s Council recorded its ‘deep grief’ at the news. The 8th Gloucesters — mostly ‘untried’ men — had gone into battle at La Boiselle at 3.15 on the morning of 3 July to reinforce the attempt to take and hold the heavily fortified village. Mason was one of the six officers killed that day. The village was secured on 4 July; the battalion’s total casualties by then totalling 302 killed, wounded or missing. ‘A truly bloody scene’, recorded their commander, the village flattened as ‘if the very soul had been blasted out of the earth and turned into a void’. Into that void had gone William John Mason, and his name is recorded on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. The University’s memorial tablet was unveiled on 4 July 1924 in the Wills Memorial Building by Field Marshall Lord Methuen, who could not resist using the occasion to offer indirect but tart observations on the recently-established Labour government. After the service a trumpeter played the Last Post, the final notes echoing through the corridors of the otherwise silenced building.

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W.J. Mason included along with some of The Gloucestershire Regiment’s missing, Thiepval Memoria.l Pier and Face 5 A and 5 B. Source: Ancestry Family Tree.

Sources include Western Daily Press, 20 September 1915, p. 9; 17 July 1916, p. 4; 11 November 1916, p. 4; 5 July 1924, p. 5, National Archives, WO 95/2085/1, ‘8 Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment (1915 Jul – 1919 Mar)’; Adrian Carton de Wiart, Happy Odyssey (1950), pp. 58-59.

Malaysian Linkages, Old and New

Andrew Hillier – who recently completed a PhD at the University of Bristol – shares his research in this blog, which addresses the history of Malaysian diaspora by exploring its spaces, places, furnishings and memorials. 


Walter and Betty Medhurst arrived in Melaka (Malacca) in 1817. A printer by trade, Walter had been sent by the London Missionary Society (LMS) to the Ultra-Ganges region, to assist Robert Morrison and William Milne in the task of printing and distributing translations of the Bible and other tracts. But Medhurst was fired with evangelical zeal and his principal aim was to become a missionary himself. Two years after his arrival, having acquired a reasonable command of Chinese and shown a fervent devotion to the Gospel, he was ordained and spent a further two years in Malacca before moving to Penang. His fervour did not always endear him to his colleagues and as a result, a year later, he was transferred to Batavia (present-day Jakarta), where he lived for the next twenty years. The objective was to enter China and begin the mass ‘conversion of the heathen’ and so, when the first treaty ports were opened in 1843, Medhurst immediately embarked on this task.

As the first of my forbears to ‘go east’, the Medhursts are the starting point for my thesis, in which I explore the relationship between family and empire through the lens of four generations, who lived and worked in east and south-east Asia. Although they only spent four years in Malaysia, this was a formative time for Walter and Betty and, whilst Medhurst wrote of his experiences in China: Its State and Prospects (1838), I wanted to see the places for myself. In the event, apart from a fine memorial to William Milne in the Dutch Church in Malacca (plate 1), I found little evidence of the LMS, since, after the opening of the treaty ports, it removed its operations to Hong Kong.

However, the visit proved rewarding because there is a lively interest in the history of both Malacca and George Town (as Penang’s port-city is still called), spear-headed by Khoo Salma Nasution, who also runs her own publishing house. This contributed to the two port-cities being jointly listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in July 2008. In the words of the Declaration, their rich multi-cultural heritage had been preserved and maintained over several centuries and could still be seen in their ‘…unique architecture, culture and townscapes’. Of this, three elements were of particular interest.

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1. Memorial tablet to William Milne, Dutch Church, Malacca.

First, the vibrant plural society of Chinese, Malay and Indian, which greeted Medhurst on his arrival, can still be found in both the buildings and the everyday life. Secondly, whereas Britain was the only European power to colonise Penang, in Malacca, the presence of the Portuguese and, later, the Dutch had plainly influenced the port-city’s development. Thirdly, leaving aside the European presence, what had given rise to the plural society in both settlements was the mass migration, principally of Chinese but also of Indians, Indonesians and others, which had begun in the 1500s. Accordingly, by the early 1800s, within the framework of Britain’s formal empire, there was an informal empire or diaspora, promoted by the Chinese both economically and culturally. Moreover, family had played a key role in stimulating and consolidating this process.

To understand this, it is logical to begin with Malacca because it was there that the Portuguese first landed in 1511, and established a safe haven for their voyages to and from the Spice Islands. Whilst there is little tangible evidence of this now, by inter-marrying, they added to the island’s plural society and left an enduring Catholic legacy. When the Dutch arrived, they introduced a very different version of Christianity and European culture, which shaped the city’s development during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. By the time the British formally acquired the Settlement in exchange for Bencoolen in 1824, the port had lost its importance, with Penang providing better facilities and Singapore already becoming a busy entrepôt. As a result, it is the Dutch influence which continues to exemplify the European presence.

It is evident in the simple lines of the Dutch Reformed Church which overlooks the central square, in the administrative buildings, such as the Stadthuys, and in the street architecture, where the Dutch style of merchant house, locally known as a ‘shophouse’ was introduced. A typical example can be found in Heeren Street, adjoining Jonkers Street. Totally derelict twenty years ago, it has been carefully restored by the Heritage of Malaysia Trust. It illustrates how Dutch building methods and materials were used in the construction of such houses and how, later, it served the needs of a Chinese merchant and his family. The shop’s façade contains one large shutter which would fold down to serve as a counter for displaying wares (plate 2).

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2. Facade of restored shop-house, Heeren Street, Malacca, 2016.

Inside, there is a central open courtyard, with the family rooms being at the rear (plate 3). On the bench are examples of the original Dutch bricks which were shipped as ballast and then used for building. Fittingly, inside, there is a Vermeer print to show how closely the design matches that of similar houses in Delft. Here, therefore, we have strong linkages between Dutch and local Malaysian society.

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3. The Inside courtyard of the shop-house

About 50 metres down the same street is a strikingly different building – one built by a rich Peranakan Chinese, or as they are more usually called now, a baba-nyonya. These were the Chinese who, from the 1500s, came over to settle and, often leaving a wife at ‘home’ on the mainland, to whom they would return from time to time, married a ‘local’ woman, either Malay or Indonesian. Contrary to Western colonial culture, where such inter-marriage was frowned upon, this class became respected and often affluent and formed a key part of the local community.

This is all brought together in the baba & nyonya Heritage Museum, the former home of a baba, Chan Cheng Siew (1865-1919), whose father had first migrated from China and who, having made a fortune in rubber and other investments, built this lavish mansion for himself and his family (plate 4).

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4. The Former Home of a Rich Peranakan, Malacca.

Whilst it is Chinese in its overall appearance and much of its furnishings, with chairs and tables made of Chinese black-wood and decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay, the fashion was to import and use British materials: plasterwork, tiles from Stoke on Trent, wrought iron pillars and beams manufactured by Macfarlanes in Glasgow and art nouveau glass for windows, chandeliers and artefacts (plates 5).

Plate5 Plate5(2)5 5. Eclectic Peranakan Style importing British influences.

Further down the same street is Hotel Puri, the ancestral home of Tan Kim Seng, a third generation Chinese, born in Malacca, whose grandfather, like many others, first came from the Eng Choon district of Fujian in the eighteenth century. The current house, which was built in 1876, retains many of the original Chinese features as well as a library where the story of the Tan dynasty is displayed. By chance, I got talking to a cleaning lady who told me the history of her family, which was Indian, third generation Malay. Taking me to a map, she described the trajectory of their lives which now extended to Singapore, Italy, Britain and Canada, which she still visited. Thus, Malacca’s plural culture, underpinned by family connection, continues to thrive.

A similar pattern can be found in Penang where, in the nineteenth century, wealthy Chinese and Peranakan families established themselves, living and working alongside the British. It is illustrated by two houses, previously derelict but which have been restored by entrepreneurs dedicated to preserving Penang’s heritage. The Blue Mansion was built by one of Penang’s richest merchants, Cheong Fatt Tze, who arrived penniless from Guangdong in the mid-nineteenth century, and went on to amass a fortune through rubber, coffee and tea investments, and was appointed Consul-General to the Qing government in the 1890s. The house comprises 38 rooms, 5 courtyards and seven staircases and is a typical mixture of Chinese and European taste. One of its most distinctive features is the ‘cut and paste shard’ porcelain decoration on the outside of the building, the restoration of which could only be done by craftsmen brought over from the People’s Republic of China. Cheong left eight wives and six sons but none of them were able to continue his legacy.

The Pinang Peranakan Mansion was owned by a very different type of Straits Chinese. Chung Keng Kwee made his fortune through tin mining and other more dubious enterprises and was one of the principal leaders of the Chinese secret societies, until they were outlawed in the 1880s. Born in 1821, Chung came from a family of farmers living in a remote Hakka village in the region of Zengcheng, east of Guangzhou. Coming to the mainland in search of his father, he quickly established himself as an astute businessman and was appointed leader of one of the secret societies. Frequently in dispute with other Chinese Clans, the rivalries culminated in the Larut Wars which indirectly led to the Pangkor Treaty (1874) and the introduction of a British Resident as ‘adviser’ to the Sultan. Whilst the house has been restored to reflect this family history, the contents are primarily Peranakan, albeit it is difficult to define that style precisely.

The importance of family in these processes is exemplified in the ancestral home of the Khoo Clan, Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi. The Khoo family originated from Sin Kang Village in Fujian and was one of the Five Big Clans that formed the backbone of the Hokkien community in early Penang. According to the Kongsi curator, Lawrence Cheah, the birth of the first Khoo clansman in Penang took place in 1775. His son married a local woman and their children were thus baba nyonya. The earliest Khoo clansmen to Penang earned their livelihoods as fishermen and small-time merchants but, when Francis Light established the port-city in 1786, the Clan began to build their fortune, bringing over from China not only their own kinsmen but also substantial contingents of Chinese labour.

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6. The Khoo Ancestral Temple, Penang

In 1850 the Clan bought the land on which their home now stands, presided over by its giant ancestral temple. In the adjoining rooms, the Clan’s history is displayed, with memorial tablets recording its members’ achievements, amongst whom are a number of UOB alumni (plate 7).

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7. Bristol Alumni, Khoo Temple.

Each year, coming from all over East and South-east Asia and further afield, the Clan assembles at the Kongsi and nowhere could better represent the importance which the Chinese still attach to ancestral worship and filial piety than this set of magnificent buildings.

Whilst the formal British presence is represented by standard colonial architecture – Fort Cornwallis, former government buildings and a number of churches – the everyday life can be found in the street architecture and arcades, and, of course, in the Christian Cemetery. In this tranquil, if somewhat unkempt, setting, the hazards and heartache of colonial life can be found inscribed on gravestones and memorials. The following provide a few poignant examples.

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8. Tombstones, Christian Cemetery, George Town.

Considering these lives in the context of this society, two questions occurred to me. First, what sort of contact took place between the British and this affluent Chinese/ Peranakan community? That there was a degree of intellectual interaction is evident from the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, produced and edited by James Logan between 1847 and 1858, and the proceedings of various learned societies – see Su Lin Lewis, ‘Between Orientalism and Nationalism: The Learned Society and the Making of “South East Asia”’, 10 (2013) Modern Intellectual History, pp. 353-374. But it would be interesting to know how this developed when imperialism became more strident. Secondly, given the appetite for British materials and furnishings, how was the exercise of designing, ordering and shipping from Britain performed? Might there be private archives with records of such transactions and what would they tell us about these relationships? Given the number of UOB alumni, perhaps there is scope for forging linkages between the University and Penang to explore these sort of questions.

 

Time for History in a History Degree

Third-year undergraduate Tim Galsworthy reflects on a year of participating in ‘History at the Hawthorns’: a series of informal discussions with academics outside the seminar room.

Whilst undertaking a History degree at the University of Bristol we spend an awful lot of time doing history, but we spend less time thinking about history. What are we doing history for? Who are we doing history for? Is there even any point in doing history at all? These are some of the major questions we have been wrangling with during the History at the Hawthorns series. The History at the Hawthorns series has given us an informal setting to discuss all things historical. From topic specific sessions, such as one on the historical memory of the Easter Rising, to general sessions of big issues, such as the pursuit of truth in history, we have covered a great deal of material.

We reached general consensus on the importance of public history, a major topic of our discussions. In a world of diffuse moments, historical films, and even historical video games the past is omnipresent in our society. We debated the issues of ‘truth’ and ‘accuracy’ in public history, agreeing that academia needs to engage with the general populace. The issue of historical memory, especially physical reminders of the past, also drew our attention. The concurrent ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign informed these debates. We argued that erasure of the past is just as dangerous as the celebration of imperialism. We argued for the historicising of artefacts, rather than their destruction. Once more we saw the importance of engaging in such public historical issues.

The make-up of our History at the Hawthorns group has been just as rewarding as the discussions themselves. Our group contained first, second, and third years, along with Masters students. A number of mature students also made up our group. It was extremely satisfying to discuss historical issues with a diverse assembly of people. Different ages, even different generations, from different backgrounds bring a great variety of views to the table. It is always worthwhile to hear competing opinions, sometimes opinions you never even considered, on such important topics. It is only through such interactions that we can grow as historians specifically, and as individuals generally. The interaction between students in different years is expedient in creating a greater sense of community in our school.

Praise must also be paid to the academics who took the time to lead these sessions. History at the Hawthorns allowed me to feel like a historian in training. The informal nature of the discussions allowed staff and students to discuss history as equal, coming from different perspectives and different predispositions. Just as talking with students from other years contributes to a more wholesome University experience, talking with academics enables students to consider themselves as junior academics in a shared scholarly community. As someone who wants to become an academic, but is currently still a student, the opportunity to look a major historical problems from both sides of the fence was an incredibly useful experience.

We spend so much of our University experience with our heads stuck in books, writing essays, and accumulating marks. History at the Hawthorns afforded us a casual vehicle to spend time just talking about history, without having to worry about exams or essays. It enabled us to really sit down and think about what history means, to historians as a collective and to us as individuals. There is nothing better than discussing history, over or a pint or a cuppa, with other people passionate about the past. Sometimes our degree gets so hectic – especially for third years like me – that we forget just how lucky we are to spend our time doing history. The History at the Hawthorns series has reminded me just how much I love history purely for the sake for it, rather than just as a degree subject. I would recommend students in future years take up the opportunity to partake in this series.

The Lost Workscape of Tyneside

Hunter Charlton, a 2015 graduate of Bristol University’s History Department, has made a film about the decline of industry on Tyneside in collaboration with the AHRC research project The Power and the Water.

Hunter also wrote a final year undergraduate dissertation on ‘Landscape and Change: Shipbuilding and Identity on the Tyne’, which you can read here: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/history/documents/dissertations/2015charlton.pdf.

The Case of Father Bloodsucker

Our series by new lecturers continues with a piece by Will Pooley, Lecturer in Modern European History, who brings together his work on the histories of folklore and witchcraft with this blog on the strange case of ‘Father Bloodsucker’:

I’ve come across a few pretty weird cases in my ongoing search to find crimes involving witchcraft in France between 1791 and 1940, but perhaps none are stranger than the story of ‘Father Bloodsucker’ (Le Père Sangsue).


This is how the violently anti-clerical and republican newspaper La Lanterne told the story at the time:

The following events took place in a small village in the Gers, where there lived an ugly old man who had been dubbed Father Bloodsucker, who lived by a pond teeming with eels and leeches. But nobody dared to fish in the pond, which was considered bewitched!

Father Bloodsucker claimed to be a witch, exploiting the terror he inspired in order to extract food and tobacco from the local population.

But one local man, Jacques Drux, refused to give in, driving Father Bloodsucker out of his house with his cudgel. Father Bloodsucker decided to take revenge.

He managed to gain the trust of both Jacques Drux’s daughters. He made them believe that the Kingdom of Leeches lay under his pond, and that he himself was King.

Every month, he was transformed into a leech and would go to see his subjects. Underwater, there was a wonderful palace.

Finally, he told them that any girl who threw herself in the pond on the night of the full moon at midnight, will be turned into a mermaid, and become princess of the leeches.

Inspired by his words, the young girls, Jeanne and Madeleine, arrived one night, determined to take the plunge. Jeanne rushed in first. Madeleine was about to follow her, when she saw a terrible head grinning in the rushes nearby. Father Bloodsucker had therefore not turned into a leech at all!

Madeleine realized the horrible truth and ran away, mad with terror. The next day, the locals found the body of Jeanne, with hundreds of leeches attached.

The old rascal has not been seen since.


Several things immediately make me suspicious about this story with its strange Freudian undertones:

-The vagueness of the location. Newspapers tended to either report the exact location of witchcraft cases, down to the hamlet or street where events took place… or they would use anonymised details, and ellipses to draw a veil of privacy over personal tragedies.

The apparent blind credulity of the rural population. This is largely inconsistent – no matter what the newspapers claimed – with how people actually behaved in accusations of witchcraft. Many participants were skeptical, empirical, and careful, but confessed confusion and dismay at events they did not understand. In the case of Father Bloodsucker, though, the entire local population supposedly falls for his deception, and the young daughter of Jacques Drux are particularly vulnerable. This discourse of female credulity and superstition was the stock in trade of anti-clerical publications like La Lanterne.

The fairy elements of a hidden world where a humble outcast is actually king. The story sounds suspiciously like a folk tale. There are a whole set of tales where it tends to be heroes (rather than villains) who persuade their enemies to jump into lakes or rivers, claiming there are submarine realms where they can become rich. If crimes involving supernatural beliefs such as witchcraft were fairly common (there were often three a year mentioned in the national press), this is the first time I have seen any evidence of a crime based the fairy world in France. Perhaps there are similarities here to the famous case of the murder of Bridget Cleary in Ireland, but even that is quite different to Father Bloodsucker. Bridget’s murder had many of the features of intra – family conflict, misfortune, and ill-health that characterise witchcraft crises.

The characterisation and motives of the protagonists. These all sound rather fanciful, and stereotyped, more like how urban writers imagined the moral conflicts of the countryside than how people there actually behaved.


And it turns out I am right to be suspicious.

Twenty five years before this story appeared in La Lanterne, the Beaumarchais theatre in Paris briefly hosted a piece called ‘Le Père Sangsue’.

I have had a quick look through library catalogues, and cannot find any evidence of a script for this show, but it may well be that this was the kind of light (?) entertainment that leaves little trace in the archives. If any does know anything about this show, or about the Beaumarchais, I’d love to hear more.

But is that the end of Father Bloodsucker?

My research is about the very real conflicts that French men and women engaged in over sorcery in this period. The story of literary representations of witchcraft during the same era is in many senses a completely different one, which Vincent Robert has begun to tell.

Or is it?

I can speculate about why La Lanterne chose to present a story that was almost certainly fabricated as if it were true. Perhaps they were simply passing on a badly researched legend, which may have come from the theatre piece, or may have been the inspiration for both the earlier theatre piece and the newspaper story itself.

Or perhaps they were making a point about the credulity of the French population. La Lanterne was very fond of referring to the Catholic priesthood in the same terms most other newspapers reserved for the fraudsters, magicians, and magical healers hauled before the courts in this period. Perhaps Father Bloodsucker was meant to be read allegorically?

Whatever the case, it seems important to me that this story could be presented as if true, because it suggests I have to be careful whose truth I am dealing with when looking through the newspapers. Did readers think this story was true? Might it have fed back into their own beliefs about the creepy old men who lived near their houses?

How to draw a firm line between fact and fiction?

The Lives of Others

Grace Huxford, who joined the department as a lecturer in nineteenth/twentieth century British history in September 2015, reflects on reading letters and diaries in historical research:

Trooper of King’s Royal Hussars, Writing Home c. 1950. Copyright: Imperial War Museum.

Trooper of King’s Royal Hussars, Writing Home c. 1950. Copyright: Imperial War Museum.

For a number of years, my New Year’s Resolution was to keep a diary. Like many would-be diarists, I always started well; the first couple of weeks of January contained detailed descriptions of my day, who I had talked to, what music I had listened to, what I had eaten. But by February my entries would fizzle out and the notebook would go back in a drawer for another year. Apart from providing snapshots into my rather mundane activities in January (and the phenomenon of New Year’s Resolutions), I imagine that my diaries would be of little interest to future historians. Furthermore, I would be mortified if these diaries were to ever to reappear – even more so, if they were to reappear in a published format, like an article or book. Last year, many famous diarists noted how they were appalled at reading their old diaries once again. Recalling these attempts at diary-writing always prompts me to think: how should historians treat ‘private’ documents like letters and diaries? Even those which are publically available via archives?

In researching the experiences of British servicemen during the Korean War (1950-1953), I have read a great number of other people’s diaries, as well as personal letters sent from serving soldiers to their loved ones: letters from husbands to wives, boyfriends to girlfriends, fathers to children, sons to parents. Understandably, the tone, length and content of these letters varied greatly. One letter from a prisoner of war held in China contained a picture of a dog for his four-year-old child (something that could not be objected to by the censors at the prisoner of war camp). Elsewhere, fathers at home in Britain wrote to their sons (many 19-21 year old National Service conscripts served in Korea) about their own experiences in the Second World War and their advice for keeping warm, happy or busy. Many young National Servicemen also wrote to their mothers, asking for socks and magazines to be sent as soon as possible.

In one particular set of letters a young conscript told his fiancée (in great detail) about the silk stockings he had bought her when on leave in Japan. When reading such material, I was reminded of the diary theorist Julie Rak’s comment that we are all ‘voyeurs when we read the diaries of others’.[1] In the most personal letters, the researcher becomes deeply aware that the letter is the full extent of that relationship at a given time – what sociologist Liz Stanley has called ‘a simulacrum of presence’.[2] Some letter writers were even told to give as much detail as possible: in 1945 psychologist Kenneth Howard advised army wives writing to their husbands that ‘[n]o scrap of news, of domestic detail, of friends and of local events is too trivial to be interesting. These things make him feel that he belongs, that he is still there and in touch with all that is going on.’[3] The letter was thus a microcosm of an entire relationship and the social world the soldier had left behind. In this case, the historian feels even more like a ‘voyeur’.

War Memorial, Paddington Station, soldier reading.

War Memorial, Paddington Station, soldier reading a letter.

But perhaps viewing letters and diaries as ‘private’ and beyond the ethical realms of the historian is to misunderstand this material. Scholars of diary writing in the Soviet Union (such as Jochen Hellbeck) have noted that it is inaccurate to see a diary or a letter as a purely private space, because ‘selfhood’ in this context was neither private nor public. People used diaries to cast particular public roles for themselves or (as in the case of war) to reflect on public, geopolitical events. Furthermore, they always anticipated a future reader, even if it was just a future version of themselves. Neither are letters simply just between two people – in the 1950s, as in earlier periods, letters were read aloud, shared around family members or even published in newspapers or newsletters (as in the case of some British POW letters from Korea).

So perhaps reservations over using publically-accessible, willingly-deposited letters and diaries is nothing but squeamishness on my part. As I put my diary back in the drawer for yet another year, I think it is important to remember that as historians we should interrogate not just the content of a diary or letter, nor just the context of its production, but what that source represents to both the writer and the reader (and the historian).

[1] Julie Rak, ‘Dialogue with the Future. Philippe Lejeune’s Method and Theory of Diary’, in Philippe Lejeune (eds Jeremy D. Popkin and Julie Rak; trans. Katherine Durning), On Diary (Honolulu, 2009), p. 20.

[2] Liz Stanley, ‘The Epistolarium. On Theorizing Letters and Correspondences’, Auto/Biography, 12 (2004), p. 208

[3] Kenneth Howard, Sex Problems of the Returning Soldier (Manchester, c. 1945). p. 59.

An Interdisciplinary Study of a Victorian Medicine Cabinet

Isabel Wiltshire reflects on this summer’s interdisciplinary research internship, which brought chemistry together with the history of medicine; the project was supervised by Dr Victoria Bates (history) and Dr Jenny Slaughter (chemistry).

How can chemistry be used to write history? This was the question that I set out to answer this summer, using the contents of a Victorian medicine cabinet discovered at Tyntesfield House in North Somerset. This cabinet was the property of the Gibbs family who were prosperous traders and contains over 150 bottles; the contents of the cabinet ranged from medicinal ingredients to prescriptions and ‘quack’ medicines. The School of Chemistry of the University of Bristol has been involved in the safe cleaning of the bottles contained within it, many of which contained poisons and dangerous substances. I am a third year undergraduate chemistry student and have investigated the cabinet as part of an interdisciplinary project between the School of Chemistry and the Department of History.

Cabinet The cabinet – as it was found by National Trust Staff

It has become apparent, as I reach the end, that this project was far more history-based than chemistry-based, despite my initial introduction to it being through the School of Chemistry. This was inevitable really, when dealing with a Victorian artefact. However, when starting out, the sheer size of the task was daunting: I had never done historical research or studied history at any great length. Where to start? I went about the historical research the way I would go about researching a lab report. After three years of studying chemistry, I sure know how to type a keyword into a database. It turned out, of course, to be a lot harder than that. There was in fact very little literature on the exact area of history I was interested in: self-care in Victorian England. I wanted to know what happened after the doctor left, or before he would even have been called out. I started big, trying to gain a general idea of what medicine and sickness were like at the time, because I really don’t have a historical backing to start from; this process was pretty much the equivalent of reading a chemistry textbook before starting a research project because you don’t know what molecules are. I could then start going into detail about particular areas that, together, would give me an idea of how Victorians treated themselves when ill.  This research covered pharmacists, opium and quackery, to name but a few, and focused initially on books and papers published by historians. Finally I got down to the primary sources, many of which are quite different from a primary source in science. My historical primary sources included diary entries and newspapers, whereas a primary source in chemistry would generally be a journal article, peer-reviewed and presenting the latest research in that field. I found the historical primary sources to be often amusing and horrifying in equal measures (I would recommend the seminal tome, Memoirs of a Stomach to anyone). medicines It was certainly a challenge to apply my chemistry skills to a historical problem, but my background as a science student didn’t hinder my research. Any skills I have in research I believe I obtained by studying chemistry. Despite disciplinary differences, in both chemistry and history it is possible to take a medical cabinet as a ‘source’: a starting point for research. By using my skills in chemistry to analyse the medicine itself, instead of just historical books about medicine, I could gain unique insights into the history of medicine. The historical research led me to choose three bottles from the cabinet to sample. Each would be an example of a different aspect of self-care and the medical marketplace in Victorian Britain. Determining the different categories came from the observations of the different bottles and the historical research undertaken. Both complemented each other: seeing that the cabinet contained many tinctures and spirits of herbs and flowers correlated with contemporary and historiographical reports of traditional medicines still being used in ‘modernity’, for instance. The interdisciplinary aspect of the project was essential at this point: chemical analysis was important for identifying what types of medicines were being used; research into the preparation and uses of the different medicines was essential for making this analysis historiographical meaningful. Here, chemistry and history needed to work in tandem. The meeting of chemistry and history is possibly a strange one, but I believe that there is much to be learned by utilizing scientific resources, notably analytical techniques, to aid historical research.

Historians at the Festival of Nature

At the Festival of Nature 2015, a history project ran its first ever stand at the Bristol’s annual celebration of the natural world. ‘Hidden River Histories’ took the research of Bristol-based team members and created an interactive display that introduced environmental history to a diverse audience.

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For the full story, and details of the ‘The Power and the Water’ project, see http://www.bristol.ac.uk/publicengagementstories/stories/2015/history-at-science-festival.html and http://powerwaterproject.net/?p=603.