The Making of a Saint

Until 22nd August 2021, the British Museum is finally hosting its Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint exhibition, which celebrates the 850th anniversary of Becket’s brutal murder. Having been postponed due to Covid-19, visitors can now discover the murder that shook the Middle Ages and learn about the life, death and legacy of Thomas Becket. The exhibition features objects from the British Museum’s collection and those on loan from Canterbury Cathedral and other locations around Europe and the United Kingdom. Each object, whether an illuminated manuscript, item of jewellery or a sacred reliquary, helps to tell the story of Becket’s journey from a merchant’s son to an archbishop, to a martyr and a saint.

Pendant with an image of Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, 15th century, England.

Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside, London in December 1120 to Gilbert and Matilda. Both parents were of Norman descent and may have named their son after St Thomas the Apostle, whose feast day falls on 21st December. Gilbert Becket was a small landowner who gained his wealth as a merchant in textiles. At the age of 10, Becket attended Merton Priory in the southwest of London. He later attended a grammar school in the city where he studied grammar, logic, and rhetoric. At around 18 years old, his parents sent Becket to Paris, where his education expanded to include the Liberal Arts, such as arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

After three years, Becket returned to England, where his father found him a position as clerk for a family friend, Osbert Huitdeniers. Shortly after this, Becket began working for Theobald of Bec (1090-1161), the Archbishop of Canterbury. At this time, Canterbury Cathedral was a place of learning, and Becket received training in diplomacy. Theobald entrusted his clerk to travel on several important missions to Rome. He also sent Becket to Bologna, Italy, and Auxerre, France, to study canon law. Following this, Theobald named Becket the Archdeacon of Canterbury and nominated him for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor.

Thomas Becket was appointed as Lord Chancellor in January 1155. He became a good friend of King Henry II (1133-89), who trusted Becket to issue documents in his name. Becket had access to Henry’s royal seal, which depicted the king sitting on a throne, holding a sword and an orb. For his work as Lord Chancellor, Becket earned 5 shillings a week. The king also sent his son Henry (1155-83) to live in Becket’s household. It was customary to foster out royal children into other noble families, so it was a great honour for Becket.

Following Theobald’s death in 1161, Henry II nominated Becket for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a strange choice because Becket had no religious education and lived a comparatively secular lifestyle. Nonetheless, a royal council of bishops and noblemen agreed to Becket’s election. On 2nd June 1162, Becket was ordained a priest, and the following day, consecrated as archbishop by Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester (1096-1171).

It soon appeared Henry had an ulterior motive for selecting Becket as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. He wished Becket to continue to hold the position of Lord Chancellor and put the royal government first, rather than the church. This would place the church under Henry’s power, but his plan failed, and Becket renounced the chancellorship, which Henry saw as a form of betrayal. Despite his secular background, Becket transformed into an ascetic and started living a simple life devoted to humility, compassion, meditation, patience and prayer. Becket also started to oppose Henry’s decisions in court, which created significant tension between them.

The rift between Henry and Becket continued to grow throughout the two years following Becket’s archbishopric appointment. Their main arguments focused on the different rights of the secular court and the Church. Henry wished to punish churchmen accused of crimes at court, whereas Becket insisted this infringed upon the rights of the Church. Neither Henry nor Becket gave up their argument, and the issue was never resolved. Becket disagreed with many of Henry’s decisions and refused to endorse and sign documents.

On 8th October 1164, Henry summoned Becket to Northampton Castle to stand trial for allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor’s office. Despite Becket’s attempts to defend himself, he was convicted of the exaggerated crimes. Angry and fearing for his life, Becket stormed out of the trial and fled to the continent, where he spent six years in exile under the protection of Louis VII of France (1120-80).

At his coronation banquet, the Young King is served by his father, King Henry II (Becket Leaves, c.1220-1240).

Running away did not fully protect Becket from the king. Henry confiscated Becket’s land and wealth in retaliation for leaving the country without his permission. He also forced members of Becket’s family into exile. The king took the opportunity to go against the ways of the Church, knowing that while in exile, Becket could not prevent anything. On 14th June 1170, Henry II had his son Henry crowned as joint monarch at Westminster Abbey. By ancient rights, only the Archbishop of Canterbury could perform coronations, but the king undermined Becket by asking the Archbishop of York and Bishop of London to conduct the ceremony.

Learning of the “Young King’s” coronation, Becket approached Pope Alexander III (1100-81), who had previously forbidden the Archbishop of York from conducting such ceremonies. The Pope permitted Becket to excommunicate the bishops involved. This was a punishment reserved for serious offences.

Becket initiated a fragile truce with Henry II and returned to Canterbury on 2nd December 1170. At this time, Henry was unaware that Becket had excommunicated the bishops involved with young Henry’s coronation but soon learned about the act while at his Christmas court in Normandy. He reportedly flew into a rage and called Becket a traitor and “low-born clerk”. Four of Henry’s knights witnessed this outburst and hatched a plan to arrest Thomas Becket on behalf of the king.

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket

On 29th December 1170, the four knights: Reginald FitzUrse (1145-73), Hugh de Morville (d.1202), Richard Brito and William de Tracy (1133-89), arrived in Canterbury. They found Becket in the cathedral and informed him he had to go to Winchester to account for his actions. Becket refused and proceeded to the main hall for vespers. Meanwhile, the knights went away and returned with their armour and weapons. Seeing this, the monks tried to bar the doors to the cathedral, but Becket allegedly exclaimed, “It is not right to make a fortress out of the house of prayer!”

According to eye-witness reports, the four knights rushed into the cathedral wielding their weapons and shouting, “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and country?” Standing near the stairs to the crypt, Becket announced, “I am no traitor, and I am ready to die.” The knights attacked, severing a piece of Becket’s skull. “His crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church.” (Gerald of Wales, Expugnatio Hibernica, 1189)

Thomas Becket’s story does not end at his death. The exhibition at the British Museum uses objects to narrate the events in chronological order. Becket’s death occurs only one-third of the way into the narrative, suggesting the Archbishop’s legend had only just begun.

The spilling of Becket’s blood had defiled the sanctity of the cathedral. The monks needed to act quickly to clean up the mess. They placed his body in a marble tomb in the crypt and cleaned up the blood, which they kept in special containers. Due to the number of eye-witnesses, the news of Becket’s death spread quickly, so the monks closed the cathedral to the public to prevent people from entering out of morbid curiosity.

On hearing of Becket’s murder, Henry II was shocked but initially refused to punish his men. This implicated the king of the crime, and rumours soon spread that Henry had ordered his men to kill the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket’s popularity grew, and Henry feared his people turning against him. The pope also suspected Henry of foul play, so to appease him, Henry performed penance twice in Normandy in 1172. Afterwards, the king travelled to Canterbury to acknowledged his involvement with the crime and asked the monks to punish him accordingly. Henry underwent public humiliation by walking barefoot through the city.

Cult-like worship of Thomas Becket began throughout the country before spreading to the continent. People travelled from far and wide to visit his tomb, which the monks eventually opened to the public. Soon, rumours spread of miracles that happened to those who visited the location of Becket’s remains, which drew thousands more to the cathedral. On 21st February 1173, the Pope officially made Becket a saint and endorsed the growing cult.

Lead ampulla, c. 1170–1200, England.

Members of the Thomas Becket cult believed the saint’s blood held miracle properties. Becket’s blood-stained clothes were sought by those who believed touching them could cure them of many ailments. The monks also sold Becket’s diluted blood, known as St Thomas Water, to pilgrims in special flasks decorated to reflect the saint’s life. Many unwell people consumed the “water”, who claimed it healed them from their life-threatening illnesses. These flasks have been found as far as the Netherlands, France and Norway, indicating the distance people travelled to visit the saint.

A monk called Benedict, who witnessed Becket’s murder, undertook the task of recording all the miracles that occurred to pilgrims visiting Becket’s tomb. By 1173, he had recorded over 270 stories, and still, people continued to arrive at the cathedral in the hopes of receiving similar treatment. In 1220, Becket’s body was moved to a new shrine in Trinity Chapel, which helped accommodate the influx of visitors. This relocation marked the 50th anniversary of Becket’s death and was celebrated with a ceremony attended by King Henry III (1207-72), the papal legate, the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton (1150-1228), and large numbers of foreign dignitaries.

On loan from Canterbury Cathedral is a “miracle window” that reveals several experiences of pilgrims who visited Becket’s shrine. In 1174, the cathedral suffered a devastating fire, which destroyed most of the east side of the building. Over the next fifty years, stonemasons worked laboriously to repair the damage. During this time, they also built a new shrine for Becket’s body. The new chapel was decorated with stone columns and a marble floor. The stained-glass “miracle windows” completed the shrine.

“In the place where Thomas suffered … and where he was buried at last, the palsied are cured, the blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the lepers are cleansed, the possessed of a devil are freed … I should not have dreamt of writing such words … had not my eyes been witness to the certainty of this.” (John of Salisbury, Becket’s clerk and biographer, 1171)

The six-metre tall windows, twelve in all, only reveal a handful of the miracles following Becket’s death. The window exhibited at the British Museum is the fifth in the series and records people cured of leprosy, dropsy, fevers, paralysis and other illnesses and disabilities. Six panels of the window tell the story of Eilward of Westoning, a peasant accused of theft. He was punished by blinding and castration, but during the night, Becket visited him during a vision. When Eilward awoke, he discovered his eyes and testicles had regrown.

St Thomas’ popularity continued to grow during the next couple of centuries. The pilgrimage to his shrine became as famous as those to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims arrived from as far north as Iceland and as far south as Italy to visit Becket’s shrine and experience his miracles. The cathedral began selling souvenir badges and other paraphernalia made from lead, resulting in one of the earliest gift shops in the world. The majority of the badges featured images of Becket as the Archbishop of Canterbury or with a sword in his scalp to indicate his murder.

One of these souvenirs is referenced in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s-1400), one of the world’s earliest pieces of literature. The book tells the story of an imagined group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury. To pass the time on their journey to the shrine, each character competes to tell the best tale, for which the winner would receive a free meal on their return to the Tabard Inn in London. Chaucer’s characters are an eclectic mix of medieval pilgrims, such as a yeoman, a merchant, a shipman, a knight, a miller and a friar.

Pilgrimages to St Thomas’ shrine continued until the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547). English kings and their families respected the saint, often visiting the cathedral and commissioning spectacular commemorative items. Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), did the same, but the king’s attitude towards Thomas Becket changed when he tried to file for a divorce. Pope Clement VII (1478-1534) refused to comply with Henry’s wishes, so he took it upon himself to reject Catholicism and create a new branch of Christianity, the Church of England. In the years following his self-appointment as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, Henry dissolved Catholic convents and monasteries, destroying buildings and their contents in the process.

On 5th September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury, where he and his men set about dismantling the shrine of Thomas Becket. They stole the jewels and gold embedded into the tomb, then removed the saint’s bones. Following this act, Henry stripped Becket of his sainthood. Henry VIII’s allies supported his actions and condemned pilgrimages and denounced Becket as a traitor. They removed his name from books, and anything containing references to Becket was destroyed.

Those who opposed the crown continued to revere Thomas Becket. They also respected the former chancellor Thomas More (1478-1535), who shared a similar fate when he opposed the king. No longer able to collect mementos of Thomas Becket, people began treasuring objects connected with Thomas More. Similar acts occurred after the execution of the chancellor Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) during the reign of Mary I (1516-58).

Devoted Catholics managed to keep Becket’s memory alive by worshipping him in secret during the reigns of Protestant kings and queens. Many items connected to the Archbishop survived due to the number of pilgrims and devotees on the continent. One of the rarest reliquaries to survive is a fragment of Thomas Becket’s skull. The bone rests on a bed of red velvet and is secured in place by a golden thread. It is protected by a silver and glass case upon which is written “Ex cranio St Thomae Cantvariensis”, meaning “from St Thomas of Canterbury’s skull”. It is likely someone smuggled the reliquary out of the country during the Tudor period.

Opinions remain divided as to whether Thomas Becket is a saint and martyr or a traitor and villain. Yet, for the majority of people, Becket is a name confined to school history books. There is no cult following or pilgrimage route, yet kiss marks have been discovered on display cases holding some of the most revered objects. Perhaps Thomas Becket still has a following after all!

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint is open until 22nd August 2021 in The Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery at the British Museum. Tickets cost £17 for Adults, but Members and under 16s can visit for free.


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Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part Two

Previously in Simeon’s life, the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) has run around Castle Park searching for spies, learned about the connection between Treasure Island and Bristol, earned himself a certificate, and had a rejuvenating rest. Now he is ready to tell the world about some of his other favourite things to do in the city. So, all aboard the Simeon Tour Bus. Enjoy the ride!

Stop One: Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Situated half a mile uphill from the city centre is the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, which opened its doors to the public on 20th February 1905. The Edwardian Baroque building was built by the architect Sir Frank William Wills and funded by his cousin, Sir William Henry Wills (1830-1911). Some of the building suffered damages during the Second World War, but much of the original architecture remains. Initially, the museum intended to display antiquities and natural history, whilst a separate museum exhibited artwork. Due to lack of funds and the two world wars, a separate museum never materialised, and the building remains both a museum and an art gallery.

Expecting to see antiquities and natural history, Simeon was surprised to find a stone angel with a paint bucket over its head standing in the entrance hall. This is an artwork called Paint-Pot Angel by Bristol’s anonymous graffiti artist Banksy. It remains in the museum as a reminder of their successful Banksy versus Bristol exhibition held in 2009. If that was not confusing enough for the little gibbon, above the statue hung two frightening Chinese dragons. With fur standing on end, Simeon reassured himself they were not real but rather examples of carved wooden dragons used in Chinese temples during the Qing dynasty.

Further into the museum, Simeon discovered items from Ancient Egypt and Assyria, including amulets, weapons, masks and mummified cats. Many of these items were donated to the museum by Bristol-based travellers, such as, Amelia Edwards (1831-92), “the Godmother of Egyptology” who co-founded the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1882. Carved stone reliefs from the palace of King Assurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) of Assyria (now Iraq) found their way to the museum in 1905, but how they got from the Middle East to England remains uncertain.

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery has a vast collection of taxidermy (stuffed animals), although as Simeon quickly pointed out, they lack a gibbon. Some of these are in the ground floor gallery opened by Sir David Attenborough (b. 1926). These animals are examples of wildlife found in the marine and freshwater habitats of the South West of England. Included in the display are owls, falcons, oystercatchers, gulls, auks and ducks. Simeon found more British animals on the first floor of the museum, including a hedgehog, a dormouse, foxes, badgers, otters and many birds.

In the World Wildlife gallery are specimens from all over the world. Some of these were shot by trophy hunters in the early 1900s, for instance, a tiger shot by King George V (1865-1936) in Nepal in 1911. Others were once residents of Bristol Zoo whose bodies were carefully preserved after death. For most visitors, this is the closest they will get to a sloth, an echidna, a duck-billed platypus, a koala, a chimpanzee and many more animals. Simeon was not sure whether to be disappointed or relieved that there were no gibbons on display.

The highlight of the World Wildlife Gallery is Alfred the Gorilla. In 1930, Alfred came to Bristol Zoo as a baby, where he entertained visitors by throwing snowballs, wearing woolly jumpers, and recoiling in horror at men with beards. Alfred also had a fear of aeroplanes. When he died in 1948, the Daily Mail jumped to the assumption that a passing aeroplane frightened the gorilla to death. In reality, Alfred suffered from tuberculosis, a disease previously thought to only affect humans. Alfred’s body was mounted in the museum shortly after his death, but in 1956, he briefly escaped from the museum. A group of university students stole the stuffed creature from the museum as a prank. Three days later, Alfred was discovered sitting in the waiting room of the student health centre.

Hanging above the museum cafe (which Simeon thoroughly enjoyed visiting), the little gibbon was horrified to come face-to-face with a hideous creature. With hair standing on end, Simeon learned this was Doris, a life-size model of a prehistoric marine reptile called a Pliosaurus. Palaeontologists do not know what Doris, named after a Greek sea goddess, looked like for certain, but she is based on fossil remains found near Westbury in Wiltshire.

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery owns several fossils of dinosaurs, including a Thecodontosaurus antiquus, which roamed Bristol and the surrounding areas about 210 million years ago. The museum also displays a pregnant ichthyosaur specimen. The bones of the baby form the smallest “sea dragon” found to date and prove that the creatures gave birth to their young rather than lay eggs. Also in the museum is a vast collection of minerals and rocks from Bristol and further afield.

The art gallery is located on the topmost floor of the museum. Initially, the museum wished to display local artists, but the collection quickly opened up to foreign artists from all eras. Paintings span from the Old European Masters of the 1400s, such as Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), through to the Impressionists and Pre-Raphaelites of the 19th century, including Alfred Sisley (1839-99) and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98). The gallery also contains contemporary artworks and several ceramics.

Stop Two: Bristol Zoo

Having indulged in stuffed animals, Simeon thought it about time to visit the real things. So, next stop, Bristol Zoo. “Hurry!” shouted Simeon as he ran up the road towards Clifton. “We need to get there before they move all the animals to the Wild Place Project.” Bristol Zoo is closing in 2022 and moving to the Wild Place Project in South Gloucestershire

Bristol Zoo is the fifth oldest zoo in the world. It was founded on 22nd July 1835 by Henry Riley (1797-1848), a British surgeon and naturalist from Bristol who led the Bristol, Clifton and West of England Zoological Society. Many animals were shipped from across the world ready for the grand opening, but the first big attraction did not arrive until 1868. This was Zebi the elephant, who became well-known for removing and eating straw hats. Today, there are no longer elephants at the zoo, but Simeon did not mind; he was too enthralled by the lions.

Lions were first introduced to Bristol Zoo in 1900 when they erected a new house suitable for a family of large cats. Simeon admired the Asiatic lions from behind a wire fence, although they were not very active at the time. The female, Sonika, appeared to be fast asleep whilst Sahee watched over her. Asiatic lions are the most endangered large cat species in the world. They only live in the Gir forest in India, but Sonika and Sahee arrived in Bristol from other zoos rather than from the wild. Simeon was quick to point out that his fur was a similar colour to Sahee’s mane!

Simeon had already met Bristol Zoo’s first gorilla, albeit stuffed and mounted. Now the zoo is home to a family of eight western lowland gorillas. Jock the silverback, the dominant male, can make enough noise for people a couple of kilometres away to hear. Fortunately, he did not do that in Simeon’s presence. Three adult females, Kera, Kala and Touni, and three youngsters, Afia and Ayana and Hasani, live with Jock on Gorilla Island. In December 2020, Touni gave birth, taking the total of gorillas up to eight. The baby has yet to be named.

During the 1980s, Bristol Zoo developed several new exhibits. The Reptile House opened in 1981 and now houses a comprehensive list of reptiles and amphibians, including snakes, turtles, frogs, crocodiles, iguanas and tortoises. Simeon’s favourite tortoises were the Aldabra giant tortoises, which can live as long as 100 years and weigh up to 250kg. In 1983, the Monkey House opened, where mischief occurs daily. Simeon resisted the urge to play with the cheeky monkeys, macaques, lemurs and the two agile gibbons, Samuel and Duana.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the television presenter Professor David Bellamy (1933-2019) opened the Seal and Penguin Coast section of the zoo. The attraction provides the opportunity to view African penguins and seals both on land or underwater. Although penguins are very sociable animals, they were hiding during Simeon’s visit, but he enjoyed watching the seals swimming around the enclosure. The South American fur seals were almost hunted to extinction during the 20th century. Fortunately, they are now of least concern on the International Union for Conservation (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Simeon loved every aspect of Bristol Zoo, but if he was forced to choose a favourite animal, he would choose the meerkats. The charismatic mob of female meerkats, one of whom introduced herself to Simeon as Bubushka, frolicked in the warmth of their house, frequently coming up to the glass to greet visitors. Simeon admired the patience of the meerkat on lookout duty and was amused when two rested their heads on a ledge and appeared to fall asleep.

Relieved not to be mistaken for an escaping zoo animal, Simeon exited Bristol Zoo with dozens of lovely memories. Bristol Zoo allowed him to meet animals from all over the world, including red pandas, armadillos, flamingos, frogs, bats, stick insects, birds, sloths, mongooses, and so much more.

Stop Three: The New Room

The next stop on Simeon’s tour of Bristol is the “New Room”, which is actually very old. This is the oldest Methodist building in the world, dating to 1740. The building, which became a chapel, was built after two religious societies in Bristol asked the preacher John Wesley (1703-91) to create a new room where they could meet. Wesley arrived in Bristol in 1739 to continue the work of the evangelist George Whitefield (1714-70), who preached on the streets of Bristol. Today, the chapel has been restored to resemble how it looked in 1748, with the addition of pews, which were added in the 19th century. As well as a chapel, Wesley used the upper floors as his home. The space is now a museum dedicated to John and his brother Charles (1707-88).

On entering the chapel, Simeon was struck by the lack of windows on the ground floor. The only source of light comes from an octagonal skylight. Methodism, as the denomination became known, was not welcome by some people in Bristol. Mobs frequently attacked members of the congregation, so the lack of windows limited the amount of damage they could create during a service. The design of the building also made it difficult for anyone to reach the preacher. The pulpit is only accessible from the upper floor.

Services usually took place at 5 am before people went to work – far too early for Simeon! Worship began and ended with a song, usually written by Charles Wesley, who wrote an estimated 6,500 hymns during his lifetime. The organ in the chapel was given to the New Room in the 1930s. During the 18th century, congregations sang unaccompanied.

Wesley did not design the New Room as a church, nor did he intentionally separate from the Church of England. The term ‘Methodism’ was initially given to the group by those who disliked the religious society. The Methodist Church came into being after the death of John and Charles. As well as preaching, John Wesley aimed to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. He created food and clothing banks and argued for a national living wage. He founded affordable schools and encouraged uneducated adults to earn qualifications. Wesley also promoted cleanliness and taught people how to improve their health. He provided free medicine for the poor and improved the living conditions of those in prison. Wesley was a man before his time who campaigned against the slave trade and encouraged women to play a wider role in society.

Upstairs in the museum, Simeon explored the living quarters of John Wesley and his assistants. There were twelve small rooms and one large common room, which served as both a meeting space, dining area and study. Wesley only used two of the rooms for himself: a bedroom and a private study. Today, the rooms tell the story of the Wesley family, the start of Methodism, and life during the 18th century.

The first couple of rooms in the museum explain what life in Bristol was like before John Wesley arrived in 1739. Life for the poor was dismal in comparison to the rich. Simeon’s eyes widened, and his mouth salivated as he read how the rich used to dine. A meal typically lasted at least two hours, and each course consisted of between five and 25 dishes. Gentlemen always drank port with dessert, and the women drank sweet wine. For a brief moment, Simeon thought he would love to live like the rich of the 18th century, but the rest of the museum soon put that notion out of his mind.

Admittedly, Simeon felt a bit sceptical when he read John Wesley’s recommendations for a healthy lifestyle. “Abstain from all pickled, smoked or high-seasoned food.” (Simeon eyed his round little belly guiltily.) “Exercise is of greater service to your health than a hundred medicines.” (“But I only have little legs!” exclaimed Simeon.) “Those who read or write much should learn to do it standing.” (“I think not!” declared Simeon.)

The final few rooms of the museum focus on social injustices, particularly those concerning slavery, war, consumerism and politics. Wesley looked to God for inspiration and strength. He wished to promote equal treatment for women, care for animals, offer the best possible education, create a society based on values and not on profits, avoid engaging in wars, live simply and “be content with what plain nature requires”. (“What a good man,” said Simeon, admiringly.)

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

Stop Four: Tyntesfield

A week in Bristol is exciting, but sometimes it is nice to get away from the city crowds. So, Simeon travelled eight miles into the countryside to visit an ornate Victorian Gothic house called Tyntesfield and its extensive gardens. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, Simeon only had access to a handful of ground floor rooms, which failed to tell him much about the house’s history. Fortunately, Simeon is a resourceful gibbon and has learned everything he wished to know from the National Trust guidebook and website.

The estate, formally known as Tyntes Place, became the possession of William Gibbs (1790-1875) in 1843. (That’s GIBBS, Simeon. Not GIBBON!) Gibbs hired the architect John Norton (1823-1904) to double the size of the house in the High Victorian Gothic style. He also purchased neighbouring estates upon which he built homes for his sons. Following his death, his descendants made a few changes to the interior of the building, for instance, installing electricity and central heating. Richard Gibbs (1928-2001), the last member of the family to live at Tyntesfield, died without an heir and the house was left neglected. In 2002, the National Trust acquired the house and surrounding land. Following an ambitious conservation programme, they restored Tyntesfield to its former glory.

William Gibbs earned his money through guano trade with Spain and South America. Guano, as Simeon is keen to tell you, is the dried excrement of seabirds, a popular fertiliser in the 19th century. Although Gibbs spent a lot of his wealth on Tyntesfield, he also contributed to many charities. Both Gibbs and his wife Matilda Blanche (1817-87) were deeply religious and funded several churches, including the chapel at Keble College, Oxford. Towards the end of his life, Gibbs commissioned Sir Arthur Blomfield (1829-99) to build a chapel next to Tyntesfield, which the family used for daily prayers and Sunday services.

Simeon entered the house through the cloister, decorated with encaustic tiles. This led through to the centre of the house, designed to create a sense of awe and grandeur. Here, the main staircase leads up to the first-floor family bedrooms, but Simeon could not visit them on this occasion. Fortunately, Simeon was permitted to look in the library, which contains over 2000 books on several subjects such as theology, science, fine art, history, poetry and gardening.

Gardening was a favourite activity of the last inhabitant of Tyntesfield. After William Gibbs died, his son Antony did not continue the family trading business. Instead, he focused on arts and crafts. Likewise, the next heir, George, took a different profession and became an influential politician, earning him the title of 1st Lord Wraxall. By the time Richard Gibbs, 2nd Lord Wraxall became the owner in 1949, the family’s wealth had reduced considerably. After shutting up many rooms, Richard focused on maintaining the estate grounds, particularly the Kitchen Garden.

Simeon thoroughly enjoyed exploring the Kitchen Garden, which continues to grow many fruits and vegetables. The little gibbon also ventured through fields of cows to locate some of the other formal gardens on the estate. His favourite was the rose garden, which ironically contains very few roses. The local deer have eaten most of the roses, but a pink American Pillar rose continues to thrive on the iron pergola.

Stop Five: Floating Harbour

Simeon’s tour of Bristol concludes at the Floating Harbour, which covers 70 acres of the city. It is referred to as “floating” because the water levels remain consistent and are not affected by the tides. Simeon explored the harbour many times on his previous visit to Bristol, but he could not resist a few walks along the water, looking at all the boats.

Naturally, Simeon believes his tour of Bristol is far superior than anyone else’s, as I am sure you agree. Nonetheless, he insisted on travelling on the “Toot Bus” to get a glimpse of all the places he had not the time to visit. Bristol’s sightseeing bus tour starts near the floating harbour then drives up to Bristol Zoo, passing Clifton Down Station along the way. The bus passes under the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which Simeon bravely crossed on his last visit.

From the top deck of the bus, Simeon had a view of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain, as well as the other boats in the Floating Harbour. Before returning to the first bus stop, the bus drove Simeon to Temple Meads Station, which opened in 1840 as the western terminus of the Great Western Railway – another of Brunel’s inventions. Finally, the bus came to a halt outside Simeon’s apartment, where he indulged in a well-deserved rest.

Of course, a trip would not be complete for Simeon without sampling several restaurants, no matter what John Wesley says about abstaining from rich food – although the New Room’s cafe makes a mean marble cake! For pizza lovers, Simeon recommends The Stable, situated on the harbourside. The laidback restaurant serves up seriously good pizza with a wide range of toppings, alongside pints of beer, cider and crafted drinks.

Another of Simeon’s favourite places to eat is Bar + Block, a steakhouse on King Street. Whilst they specialise in steak, there are plenty of other options on the menu. Other places with large menus include The Berkeley and The Commercial Rooms, both owned by J. D. Wetherspoon. The Berkeley is situated in a former shopping arcade and contains a stained-glass dome and a small whispering gallery. The Commercial Rooms were once a gentlemen’s club and meeting place for the city’s merchants. The foundations were laid in 1810, and the Rooms opened for business the following year. In 1852, following the completion of the Great Western Railway, The Commercial Rooms became the first telegraph office in Bristol. The Rooms were taken over by Wetherspoons in 1995.

Those wishing to experience Bristol’s ultimate fine dining need to visit Browns, housed in a building that once belonged to Bristol Museum. Simeon enjoyed eating in the sophisticated establishment against a backdrop of enormous arched windows and original stone pillars. By the end of the meal, Simeon felt well and truly stuffed – both literally and figuratively. (Don’t expect this treatment all the time, Simeon!)

This concludes Simeon’s tour of Bristol. We hope you have enjoyed the ride. Do come again soon.

Simeon’s Top Tips

  1. Book tickets for the attractions in advance. Most places are limiting the number of visitors due to Covid-19. (Generally, it is best to book to avoid disappointment)
  2. Do not fall in the harbourYou will get very wet.
  3. Watch out for people on bikes and electric scooters. Do not walk in cycle lanes.
  4. Do not feed the animals in the zoo. That is the zookeeper’s job.
  5. Be prepared for lots of walking. Bristol is not very car-friendly.
  6. Watch out for seagulls. They will try to steal your food.
  7. Be prepared for rainPack more than one pair of trousers.
  8. Pace yourself. There is so much to see. It is impossible to do it all in a day.
  9. Do not eat too much pickled, smoked or high-seasoned food. John Wesley would disapprove.
  10. Follow government guidelines regarding Covid-19. They are there for everyone’s safety.

Read about Simeon’s previous adventures here:
Simeon goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea
Simeon Encounters Antwerp
Simeon Investigates Covent Garden
Simeon and the Green Witch’s Treasure
Simeon Conquers York
Simeon’s Bristol Highlights
Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part One

My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part One

Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) has returned to the South Western city of Bristol for more adventures. On his last trip, he visited the cathedral, Clifton Suspension Bridge, the SS Great Britain, Bristol Aquarium and the M Shed, but there was still so much left to explore. After patiently waiting out another Covid-19 lockdown, the double-vaccinated gibbon made his great escape in the back of a Vauxhall Corsa. Having returned from his latest adventure, Simeon wishes to tell you everything he discovered.

Broadmead and Castle Park

Simeon’s favourite way of exploring a city is by taking part in a Treasure Trail. Last year, Simeon solved a murder mystery, but this time, he received instructions about a TOP SECRET spy mission. An Eastern bloc spy ring called the “Trojans” had attacked the computers of Bristol businesses and were demanding a ransom of £10 million. The only way to avoid paying the ransom was to discover a four-digit code. Agent Simeon, under the code name “Achilles”, immediately started searching for clues and discovered some interesting facts about Bristol along the way.

The trail began in Broadmead, a street in the shopping district of the city. Originally called Brodemede as far back as 1383, the name may mean “broad meadow”, referring back to its pre-city times. Alternatively, it may refer to brodemedes, a type of cloth once woven in Bristol. In the 18th century, a shopping arcade was built in Broadmead, but the area received significant damages during the Second World War. Rebuilding began in the 1950s, and today, Broadmead is home to a shopping centre called Cabot Circus, which opened in September 2008.

In 1227, a man named Maurice de Gaunt founded a Dominican priory called Blackfriars on Broadmead. Its name describes the black hooded cloaks of the friars who inhabited the building. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538, the friars surrendered the buildings and contents to Henry VIII (1491-1547). Two years later, William Chester, the Mayor of Bristol purchased the buildings from the king.

During the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603), the Smiths and Cutlers Company bought the old priory and leased parts of the buildings to other organisations, for instance, a workhouse for poor girls. During the 17th century, the Religious Society of Friends acquired the premises and became known as the Quaker Friars. Only part of the original priory remains standing today. During the 20th century, the building housed the Bristol Register Office. In recent years, it has become home to a restaurant.

Llywelyn ap Dafydd (c.1267-1287), the eldest son of the then Prince of Wales, was buried in the priory grounds after a four-year imprisonment in Bristol Castle. This information confused Simeon because he could not see a castle anywhere. The matter was soon cleared up after Simeon carefully crossed the road to Castle Park.

Situated in Castle Park is the partially excavated remains of the stone keep and two preserved vaulted chambers of Bristol Castle. It was built in the Norman era to protect the walled city of Bristol from attack. The original castle, a timber motte and bailey, was presumably built on the orders of William the Conqueror (1028-87). It was strategically placed between the River Avon and the River Frome and surrounded by an artificial moat.

The castle was later rebuilt in stone and became the possession of Robert of Gloucester (1090-1147), the half-brother of Empress Matilda (1102-67), the legitimate heir to the throne. During Matilda’s fight with her cousin, Stephen (1092-1154) over the English crown, Matilda appointed Robert as her trusted right-hand man. Bristol Castle became a notable location in the war. Stephen was briefly captured and imprisoned in the castle but released in exchange for other prisoners. When Stephen became king, he thought little of the city of Bristol and the castle remained Robert’s property.

When Robert of Gloucester died, the castle and title passed down to his son William (1116-83). Unfortunately, William fell foul of King Henry II (1133-89), who confiscated Bristol Castle, making it a possession of the crown. As a result, the castle became one of the most important in the country. King John’s (1166-1216) sons received their education at Bristol Castle, including the future Henry III (1207-72), who added a barbican, gate tower and great hall during his reign.

By the 16th century, Bristol Castle showed signs of neglect, as recorded by the English poet, John Leland (1503-52). He wrote a description of the castle, noting its dungeons, church and domestic quarters, but revealed, “Many towers still stand in both the courts, but they are all on the point of collapse.” Bristol Castle had fallen into disuse and, after the civil war, Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) ordered the destruction of the castle in 1645.

The land on which the castle once stood is used as a public park today. In the centre stands the ruins of St Peter’s Church, which was bombed during the Bristol Blitz on the night of 24th November 1940. The church foundations date back to 1106, but the majority of the building was constructed in the 15th century. Excavations after the Second World War revealed St Peter’s may have been the first church built in Bristol.

The majority of the church walls are still standing, but the roof and interior suffered severe damages. Rather than demolish the rest of the building, the city maintains St Peter’s Church as a memory of the civilians who died during the Bristol Blitz. A plaque on the south wall of the church lists the 200 Bristolians who lost their lives on the night of the Blitz. Nearby, another plaque remembers the names of citizens from Bristol who died fighting against the Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

St Peter’s is not the only church destroyed during the Bristol Blitz. Temple Church in the Redcliffe district of the city, which Simeon visited towards the end of his trip, remains an empty shell and is protected by English Heritage. Fortunately, the unique bell tower survived the bombing. Constructed between 1441 and 1460, the tower leans towards the left due to subsidence. During the construction, builders noticed the lower sections sinking into the ground and attempted to correct it by building the upper section at a different angle. The reason for the subsidence was due to the soft alluvial clay beneath the foundations, which was compressed by the weight of the stone.

The destruction of the church revealed the foundations of a previous round nave from the 12th century. This belonged to the Knights Templar, who received the land from Robert of Gloucester. After the suppression of the Templars, the Knights Hospitaller took over the building in 1313. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the church became the property of the crown, but the Bristol Corporation managed to purchase it from the king in 1544.

Back on the spy trail, Simeon trekked through the Physic Garden running parallel to St Peter’s ruined nave. Replacing a neglected sensory garden, the Physic Garden was planted by the luxury fragrance brand Jo Malone London in 2015 as part of a global charity initiative to support people living with mental ill-health and physical disabilities. Designed to nourish and nurture, the garden is a peaceful haven for rehabilitation and recovery. Jo Malone London also supported the homelessness charity St Mungo’s to create the Putting Down Roots (PDR) programme, which encourages the homeless and jobless to help maintain the garden, earn qualifications in horticulture, and seek permanent employment.

Behind the church, Simeon was excited to discover a feature called Beside the Still Waters. Two Kilkenny limestone fountains sit in small ponds, which are joined together by a narrow channel of water. At one end, the carved stone resembles a pine cone, and at the other, the stone has a cinquefoil form, giving it the appearance of a garlic bulb. The feature was created by Peter Randall-Page (b.1954), who has public work on display in several locations, including London and Cambridge. Randall-Page focuses on the geometry of his designs, which he explains “is the theme on which nature plays her infinite variations”.

Simeon was intrigued to discover another sculpture nearby of a throne made of Normandy limestone. While inspecting it for clues for his spy mission, Simeon found giant footprints at the base of the throne. Simeon is now convinced that giants once roamed the city of Bristol, but this sculpture was commissioned in the early 1990s during the new landscaping of Castle Park. The sculptor is Rachel Fenner, who takes inspiration from ancient natural and archaeological sites of Britain.

With no time to worry about the existence of giants, Simeon hurried on through Castle Park – he had spies to catch! He even resisted climbing the five Silver Birch trees planted in memory of the five D-Day landing beaches, code-named Juno, Gold, Sword, Utah and Omaha. Nor did Simeon notice the memorial trees for Anne Frank and the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the centre of the park stands another sculpture, which Simeon paused at to sniff for clues. Unveiled by the Bristol Civic Society in 1993 to provide drinking water, the bronze fish fountain was created by ceramic artist Kate Malone. The water spouts, which poured out of the mouths of the fish, were later turned off when they failed the updated Water Regulations Advisory Scheme. Plans to refurbish the fountain are underway, so hopefully Malone’s work will function once again.

Whilst combing through the rest of Castle Park for clues, Simeon spotted a couple more things of note, such as several bird and bug boxes hanging on a wall. Opposite this, an S-shaped footbridge takes people across the Floating Harbour to the Finzels Reach development. The bridge opened in 2017 and, in Simeon’s opinion, is far more attractive than some of the industrial-style bridges. Unfortunately, Simeon did not have time to cross the bridge – he had spies to catch – but he was able to enjoy the experience later in the week.

Situated on the harbour is a floating ballast seed garden called Seeds of Change. Ballasts were frequently unloaded from trading ships in the harbour between 1680 and 1900. They often contained seeds of plants from all the countries the ships had visited, some of which flourished after arriving in Bristol. In 2007, Bristol invited Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves (b.1961) to exhibit her work in an exhibition at the Arnolfini gallery. During her stay, Alves dug up some of the remaining ballasts and extracted the seeds, which she grew and displayed in the gallery.

In 2010, Bristol invited Alves back to the city to develop a permanent ballast garden. A disused barge in the Floating Harbour was selected as the location of the garden, and with the help of German designer Gitta Gschwendtner, Alves chose several plants grown from seeds by participating schools and organisations. These plants arrived in Bristol from all over the world and include figs, asphodels and squirting cucumbers. Admittedly, the Seeds of Change garden did not look all that impressive to Simeon, but many new plants may flourish between now and September. 

Having collected all the clues he needed from Castle Park, Simeon returned to Broadmead, where he enjoyed following a snake-like blue line along the pavement. Along the way, he rested his weary legs on stone spheres decorated with blue mosaic tiles. This installation refers to Bristol’s famous blue glass, produced in the city in the 18th and 19th centuries. ‘Bristol Blue’ glass was mostly used for medicine bottles, and the landscaping firm Reckless Orchard recycled many of these to create the blue bricks seen along Broadmead.

Great work, Simeon! You have managed to solve all the clues, worked out the code and stopped the Trojans. Simeon patted himself on the back and set off in search of some well-deserved tea and cake.

Treasure Island Trail

Being the adventurous little gibbon that he is, Simeon sought out another treasure trail to follow around Bristol. Put together by the Long John Silver Trust, the trail takes intrepid explorers around parts of Bristol’s harbour to celebrate the city’s connection with Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1850-94) classic novel Treasure Island (1882). Simeon’s task was to locate eight wooden barrels, upon which he would learn a bit about both the book and the city.

Simeon located the first barrel outside the old Merchant Venturers’ Almshouses. Built in 1699, the houses accommodated many sailors, including William Williams, the first person to introduce a pirate treasure map in his book The Journal of Llewellin Penrose, a Seaman. Stevenson incorporated the idea for his novel, which involved pirates, treasure hunting and a young lad from Bristol.

Treasure Island begins at the Admiral Benbow Inn on the Bristol Channel, where an old sailor named Billy Bones warns the innkeeper’s son, Jim Hawkins, to keep a lookout for “a one-legged seafaring man”. On Simeon’s walk through Bristol, he came across the Llandoger Trow, a historic public house built in 1664. It is this building that inspired Stevenson to invent the Admiral Benbow Inn. It is also where English writer Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) met Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721), a Scottish privateer who spent four months stranded on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific Ocean. Intrigued by Selkirk’s story, Defoe wrote one of the first English novels, Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk may also be the inspiration for Stevenson’s character Ben Gunn.

In the book, a blind beggar visits Billy Bones to give him “the black spot”. This is a summons to share a map leading to buried treasure. Shortly after, Bones suffers a stroke and dies, and the beggar and other men attack the inn in search of the map. Jim finds the treasure map first and escapes. After sharing his find with Squire Trelawney and Dr Livesey, they secure a ship called the Hispaniola to seek the treasure, but first, they need to hire a crew. In a fictional Bristol pub called The Spy-Glass, they meet the landlord, Long John Silver, who offers his services as a cook. Jim is a bit wary because Silver only has one leg, and he recalls Billy Bones’ warning. 

Stevenson described The Spy-Glass as having a spy hole through which people could warn others of the presence of press gangs or slave traders. In Bristol, Simeon came across a pub called The-Hole-in-the-Wall, the only known pub in the country to have a spy hole feature. It is likely Stevenson based The Spy-Glass on this pub, which has other similar features, including doors leading on to separate streets so that patrons could make a swift exit. Fortunately, Simeon did not see any one-legged seafaring men in the area.

The Treasure Island Trail took Simeon to Redcliffe Wharf, where he learned of the many barrels loaded onto and taken off ships in the harbour. In the book, Jim Hawkins finds himself trapped in a barrel when he overhears Long John Silver’s plans to find and keep the treasure for himself. Simeon shuddered at the thought of getting trapped inside one of the barrels on the trail. Fortunately, they also function as plant pots, so there was no danger of Simeon falling in.

On the trail, Simeon heard about a real-life pirate who grew up in the Redcliffe district. Edward Teach (1680-1718), better known as Blackbeard, served on an English ship in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), after which he became a notorious pirate. He attacked merchant ships and stole their goods, weapons and valuables. Fortunately, there is no record of Blackbeard killing anyone. (“Phew!” thought Simeon.) Blackbeard’s second-in-command, Israel Hands, also known as Basilica Hands, inspired Stevenson’s character of the same name, a villainous sidekick of Long John Silver.

Simeon thoroughly enjoyed the Treasure Trail spy mission and the Treasure Island Trail. It was a lot of walking for such a small gibbon but he learned a lot of information about Bristol. Simeon still had several days to enjoy in the city, but first, he needed a nice long rest. He will tell you about the rest of his trip next week. See you then!

Read about Simeon’s previous adventures here:
Simeon goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea
Simeon Encounters Antwerp
Simeon Investigates Covent Garden
Simeon and the Green Witch’s Treasure
Simeon Conquers York
Simeon’s Bristol Highlights


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

How to Write a Book Review

There is no right or wrong way to write a book review. For some, writing “I liked this book” is good enough, but many writers prefer in-depth feedback and critique. A friend recently asked me for advice about writing book reviews, knowing that I have written many reviews, and new authors send me copies of their books in exchange for honest opinions. Admittedly, I do not follow a strict method of writing reviews, but I do try to include a few key points. At my friend’s request, I wrote the following instructions.

How to Write a Book Review

Firstly, write a brief description of the book. What is it about? Is it fiction or non-fiction? To what genre does it belong? Do not give anything away, especially the ending, but it is useful to tell potential readers a little about the narrative to entice them. Also, mention whether it is part of a series or a stand-alone. Is this the author’s first work, or are they a well-established writer?

For example:
Ancient Indian knowledge and wisdom have been expressed through storytelling for thousands of years. With this in mind, Limesh Parekh wrote his first business book Cracking the CRM Code in fiction format. CRM, which the author fails to define in the book, stands for Customer Relationship Management and is a useful process for businesses to interact with their customers.

What did you like about the book? Even if you did not enjoy it, try to find something positive to say. Was it well written? Did it contain interesting ideas or characters? What made you keep reading? Mention the emotions you felt, whether the author made you laugh or cry. Could you relate to the subject? Did you learn something new?

For example:
Many business books and manuals are nondescript and boring, whereas Limesh Parekh keeps the reader engaged with anecdotes, stories and quotes. Rather than learning how to use CRM, the characters show the process of purchasing and using the software, which is far more enlightening than a step-by-step guide.

For some, the hardest part of writing a review is mentioning the things they did not like. It is so easy to tell someone you liked their work rather than criticise them. Yet, even if it is unpleasant to hear, authors appreciate honesty and take on advice and comments in their future writings. If you found the book uninteresting, say so. Perhaps you were not the intended audience. Was the narrative easy to follow? Did you dislike any of the characters or ideas? Were there too many mistakes? (Be aware, typing errors are sometimes the fault of the editor and publisher rather than the author.)

For example:
English is presumably not the author’s first language, hence the sentences do not always flow, and the punctuation is far from perfect. At times, it is difficult to work out which character is speaking, making it a little confusing to follow.

Why should other people read this book? Did your reading experience benefit you in any way? Was it entertaining or educational, or was it a waste of your time? To whom would you recommend the book? Was it written for people with particular interests? Is it suitable for older or younger readers? Did it remind you of any other books you had read?

For example:
Cracking the CRM Code is written for business-minded people who understand the jargon and acronyms, many of which are unexplained. As a layperson, some of the information went over my head, but the fiction format helped hold my interest.

The final sentence of your review should indicate your overall impression of the book. You may have mentioned both positive and negative points, but which opinion comes out strongest? Some people find it easier to end their review with a rating out of 5 or 10 to indicate how much they enjoyed the book. 

For example:
Cracking the CRM Code has the potential to be a big hit with small business owners and business consultants. (3/5 Stars)


Below are a few examples of book reviews I have written over the past few months.

Larry, Bush Pilot by Jordan Mierek (2020)

Jordan Mierek, also known as Jordan Elizabeth, usually writes for young adults, but after many requests, she has published her first children’s book. Larry, Bush Pilot is a collaborative effort between Mierek and her father, Lawrence Mierek, who grew up on a dairy farm. Larry, a ten-year-old boy, also lived on a farm during the 1970s with his father, who owns an aeroplane. Despite his age, Larry’s father taught him to fly, which came in handy when his father suffered an accident in the middle of nowhere.

This short story loosely reflects Lawrence Mierek’s childhood. As a teenager, his father taught him to fly a plane on the airstrip behind their barn. The narrative is likely an imagined scenario, placing a young boy in a precarious situation, which many children would not have the means to solve. Only through extreme determination and courage is Larry able to rescue his father.

Larry, Bush Pilot is a short story intended for primary school children. The few illustrations between chapters make it an appropriate step between picture books and teenage novels. Larry’s life on the farm allows modern children to learn about the world before digital technology and the importance of a family working together. The story also tells the reader that if they believe in themselves and their abilities, they can achieve great things.

Jordan Mierek has stepped into the world of children’s literature and proved that she is more than capable of writing for several age groups. Larry, Bush Pilot is the first in a series called Flying Acres, and we look forward to joining Larry on his next adventure. (4/5 stars)

Home at Last: Your Journey of Faith in Challenging Times by Ruth Pearson (2020)

Ruth Pearson wrote Home at Last during the pandemic for those who have felt discouraged and afraid about the future. Suggesting Covid-19 could be a sign of the Second Coming, Pearson focused on three questions to prepare the reader for such an event. 1. How important is God in your life? 2. Do you have a personal relationship with God? 3. Where are you planning to spend eternity?

Using examples from the Bible, Pearson explores the idea of a journey of faith. Several characters in the Bible went on journeys that brought them closer to God. Pearson uses the Parable of the Prodigal Son to explain the notion of “coming home” to God. Readers may have drifted away from the creator, but He will welcome them back with open arms. The story of Ruth and Naomi explores faith, and the story of Joshua and Rahab features truth, about which Pearson also writes.

Whilst the ideas in the book are worth pursuing, the written narrative is poor. Pearson is either more confident verbalising her thoughts, or the English language is not her strong point. Frequent spelling and grammatical errors make the book difficult to read, and it is hard to follow the author’s thought process.

Pearson claims she wrote the entire book in 48 hours, and I believe her. Although some editing must have occurred, it needs a lot more work to make it a successful seller. It appears the author tried to conclude the narrative several times but thought of more to say. Chapter Nine ends by informing the reader that the next chapter is the last. Chapter Ten concludes the book, only for the reader to turn the page to find another chapter headed “Conclusion”.

It is a great shame the quality of writing lets the book down because the ideas could potentially help many new and old Christians. Although she does not reveal her denomination, Pearson’s beliefs suggest she is a Seventh-Day Adventist and emphasises the Second Coming. Some readers may be uncomfortable with this, but Pearson’s ideas are suitable for all types of Christians. (3/5 stars)

This Shining Life by Harriet Kline (2021)

Ollie’s Dad died. Richard had an incurable brain tumour, and before he passed away, he sent everyone a special present. He also told Ollie that “being alive was like a puzzle and it was all falling into place.” Ollie is autistic. He thinks his father left him a puzzle to solve. Could it involve the gifts? Why won’t anyone help him solve the puzzle?

This Shining Life by Harriet Kline is a heartbreaking tale about a family coming to terms with death. Told from several people’s point of view, Kline explores different portrayals of grief. Ollie’s mum wants to stay in bed; his aunt wants life to carry on; his maternal grandmother tries to exert control; his paternal grandmother wishes she could understand her grandson; and his grandfather has no idea what is going on. No one has time for Ollie and his obsession with his puzzle.

Before Richard’s death, Ollie dominated family life. Ollie had a strict routine, always had a few spare pairs of socks with him because he hated dirty ones, and had meltdowns if his parents used the “wrong” tone of voice. Without his familiar habits, Ollie’s life was a mass of confusion – an apt metaphor for the grief the rest of the family experienced.

With a contemporary novel such as This Shining Life, there is no “happy ever after”. People do not come back from the dead. There is no answer to the meaning of life. Grief is a long process and different for everyone. It causes depression, anger and confusion, but hidden under all these negative feelings is love.

Harriet Kline takes death and grief seriously but adds a touch of humour to the narrative for the reader’s benefit. It is not a light read, nor is it markedly profound. Instead, This Shining Life is painfully honest, and for that reason, it is beautiful. (4/5 stars)

Nine Ways to Die by Jordan Elizabeth (2021)

Fifteen-year-old January “Jan” hates the new town she has moved to but loves her new boyfriend, Jean. Her parents are never home, and her sister is in hospital, so she spends the summer days with her new friends. The only people she meets are around her age, and she never comes across any adults. The buildings are decrepit and old, almost like a ghost town. The more time Jan spends with her friends, the more peculiar the town, Memoir Falls, feels.

Nine Ways to Die is a short story by versatile writer, Jordan Elizabeth. The details about Jan’s past gradually emerge until Jan, along with the reader, discovers the truth about the strange town and its inhabitants. There are clues everywhere, but like Jan, readers fail to notice them until they come together in a sudden climax.

Through Jan’s eyes, readers experience the town as though they are also new inhabitants. Although it is a short story, there is so much on offer: suspense, romance, thrills, and the supernatural. For those familiar with Jordan Elizabeth’s work, this is a welcome addition to her vast collection of books. For newbie readers, this is a tempting taste of the author’s full potential. (4/5 stars)

Cracking the CRM Code by Limesh Parekh (2021)

Ancient Indian knowledge and wisdom have been expressed through storytelling for thousands of years. With this in mind, Limesh Parekh wrote his first business book Cracking the CRM Code in fiction format. CRM, which the author fails to define in the book, stands for Customer Relationship Management and is a useful process for businesses to interact with their customers.

Rather than produce a mundane manual about how to purchase and use CRM software, Parekh writes a story about four friends and their journey with CRM. Liladhar Shastri, a successful business owner, is encouraging his friends, Anubhav, Jagdeep and Irshad to consider using CRM to improve their businesses. What follows is a lengthy discussion about buying CRM, using CRM and getting the most out of the software.

As the Indian entrepreneur, Rashmi Bansal writes in the introduction, Limesh Parekh is “not a salesman but a friend.” The author gives advice through the voice of Liladhar, and the other three friends express the reader’s questions and concerns. The book is written for small businesses with the potential to grow with the help of CRM. The story analyses what the friends do wrong and what they need to change.

Cracking the CRM Code is written for business-minded people who understand the jargon and acronyms, many of which are unexplained. As a layperson, some of the information went over my head, but the fiction format helped hold my interest. English is presumably not the author’s first language, hence the sentences do not always flow, and the punctuation is far from perfect. At times, it is difficult to work out which character is speaking, making it a little confusing to follow.

Many business books and manuals are nondescript and boring, whereas Limesh Parekh keeps the reader engaged with anecdotes, stories and quotes. Rather than learning how to use CRM, the characters show the process of purchasing and using the software, which is far more enlightening than a step-by-step guide. Cracking the CRM Code has the potential to be a big hit with small business owners and business consultants. (3/5 stars)

The Boy I Am by K. L. Kettle (2021)

Imagine a world where women are safe from men. Imagine a world where women are in charge. Imagine a world where men no longer reduce women to something to flirt with or dismiss as beneath them. This is the way of life in K. L. Kettle’s dystopian novel The Boy I Am. War has left the Earth in ruins, and it is no longer safe to go outside, yet humanity is surviving in tall, secure tower blocks overseen by the Chancellor. Men and boys are confined to the basement floors as a punishment for their behaviour during the war. To earn their right to live on the upper floors, they must learn to behave like a gentleman, and never look at a woman’s skin without their permission.

The protagonist, Jude, is running out of time to earn the right to live amongst the women. If he does not gain a sponsor, he faces a future in the dangerous mines. Yet, Jude is not sure he wants to live with the women, who have demeaned him for his gender since his birth. He has seen another side to them and believes the Chancellor has killed his best friend. Jude wants to escape, risk the poisonous fog outside and search for a better life. To do this, the Chancellor must die.

The way women treat men and boys is uncomfortable to read. Female readers, in particular, may have experienced similar treatment at the hands of men. Feminists desire an equal world, but there is the risk of going too far the other way. Yet, as Jude discovers, it is not as black and white as Female versus Male. An underground gang of women known as Hysterics are also trying to escape. They want to save themselves and the boys from a society not run by women, but by the elite.

K. L. Kettle explains her intentions behind the novel in a letter to the reader at the end of the book. She quotes Lord Acton’s (1834-1902) proverb “absolute power corrupts absolutely” and questions if everyone is equal, does everyone have the ability to abuse the power they have? What may have seemed a good idea for humanity after the war, has become an oppressive state where no one is safe from those in power, not even the women. The Chancellor controls everyone, but Jude and the Hysterics are determined to take that power away from her.

Telling the story from Jude’s perspective highlights the faults in today’s societies. Many are unaware of the belittling behaviour happening around them, but when the roles are reversed, they are obvious. The Boy I Am is both thrilling and eye-opening, challenging gender roles and power dynamics in general. Those who have read books such as Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman are guaranteed to enjoy K. L. Kettle’s novel. (4/5 stars)

In Picardy’s Fields by Hannah Byron (2020)

Told from two perspectives, In Picardy’s Fields is the story of two brave young women during the First World War. Set mostly in France, the two women put gender stereotypes to one side to help the allied soldiers. Baroness Agnès de Saint-Aubin, a young surgeon from Paris, follows her teacher, Dr Alan Bell, to the Château de Dragoncourt on the front lines in Picardy to help her friends, Jacques and Elle de Dragoncourt care for the injured soldiers. Meanwhile, the youngest Dragoncourt child, Madeleine, is determined to escape from her finishing school in Switzerland to play her part in the war effort.

The author, Hannah Byron, accurately describes the devastation and dangers the characters faced both in Paris and at the front. Flowing seamlessly from scene to scene, Byron paints a dark picture of life in war-torn France at the same time as weaving a captivating story. Agnès is a reticent but strong woman, a stark contrast from the stuck-up Madeleine, used to getting her way. Yet both characters develop, forced to face horrifying circumstances. While Agnès becomes more confident, Madeleine uses her head-strong determination to secretly help the allied soldiers, even if it means putting herself in danger.

Whilst the war is the main feature of the novel, the author weaves themes of friendship and romance into the narrative. Although only two people narrate the story, In Picardy’s Fields shows the importance of working together and putting aside prejudices. The undercurrent of a developing romance brings a sense of hope that everything will end happily, yet the reader also knows nothing is safe during wartime. With each turn of the page, disaster could befall the characters, which makes for a gripping read.

Hannah Byron admits she is not a medic or war expert, yet she undertook extensive research to make In Picardy’s Fields as accurate as possible. She also confesses it is unlikely a female doctor went to the front lines, yet as a work of fiction, this does not matter, especially as Agnès’s profession is key to the story.

Authors have written novels about the World Wars ad nauseum to the point that writing an original story seems impossible, but Hannah Byron proves this assumption wrong. In Picardy’s Fields feels almost modern in some respects, despite being set in the 1910s, which adds a freshness to the story. These women, these characters are just like you and me, living in a time we could not possibly understand.

In Picardy’s Fields is a fantastic debut novel and Hannah Byron is a writer to keep an eye on. (4/5 stars)

The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel by Amanda Hope Haley (2021)

“Finding Noah’s ark … would be fun, but it wouldn’t be instructive… wouldn’t teach us about God or each other.” This is the view of Amanda Hope Haley in The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel, a book about the author’s travels in the land of the Bible. As a Harvard-trained biblical archaeologist, Haley spent time in Israel excavating areas of land where Jesus once walked. Her goal was not to unearth evidence of Jesus but to discover what life was like for the everyday person during Christ’s time on Earth.

Only the first couple of chapters mention items and foundations Haley found on her digs. After that, Haley describes her holiday in Israel with her mother, father and husband. She writes honestly, admitting to tourist errors she and her family made. She describes the places she visited as though speaking to a reader who plans to make the trip too. Yet, it is far from a holiday diary.

In each location Haley visited, she describes the history of the place, the biblical references, the antagonism between the Jews and Muslims, and its current state. She discovers why Jesus chose to preach in certain areas, locates towns and cities mentioned in the Bible, and notes how much places have changed since the 1st century.

It is interesting to learn how the three religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, both merge and alienate each other. Haley visited areas that banned Jews, yet as a Christian, she could enter. She paints Israel as a dangerous place but also highlights its beauty spots.

The title, The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel, is misleading because there is little physical digging mentioned. Haley only documents a few of her finds, and readers do not learn a great deal from them. On the other hand, Haley’s metaphorical dig into the history of Israel proves fruitful, enhanced from her first-hand experience.

Those looking for a book about archaeology may be disappointed with The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel but those wishing to learn more about the biblical land of Israel, past and present, will appreciate Haley’s knowledge. For Christian readers, this book will enhance their understanding of the Bible. (4/5 stars)

The Diamond Courier by Hannah Byron (2020)

Twenty years have passed since the end of Hannah Byron’s World War One novel In Picardy’s Fields. It is now 1939 and the Second World War is just beginning, but all seems peaceful in Kent, England where the narrator, Lili Hamilton, lives with her parents. War is the last thing on Lili’s mind as she contemplates how to get out of an arranged marriage and pursue a career in journalism.

The surname Hamilton may be familiar to those who have read the previous book but Lady Madeleine has left her war achievements far behind in The Diamond Courier where she plays the role of a prim and proper lady of the house. Her daughter, Liliane, feels trapped by her sensible parents’ expectations who thwart her plans to be a political journalist. Yet Lili, encouraged by the handsome leader of the British Communist Party Leo Oppenheim, perseveres, thus estranging herself from her family.

Lili soon learns living in London with Leo is not the life she desired, but feels it is too late to back out, especially after witnessing the treatment of Jews on the continent. The Jewish community need someone to bring their precious diamonds to safety before the Germans get their hands on them, and they believe Lili is the best person for the job. Unless, of course, she gets caught.

The Diamond Courier is much darker than Byron’s previous book. Naturally, war is not a happy topic, but the sense of hope felt in In Picardy’s Fields is missing in this novel. The story is divided into two sections, “Leo” and “After Leo”. The former is lengthier, drawn-out, and not always pleasant to read. The latter, on the other hand, is packed with danger, excitement and adventure.

For Lili, Communism is something new and exciting, which she desires to pursue. The party has clear views about the war, with which all members must agree. Yet, when faced with the horrors of war, Lili realises she must cast aside her political opinions. Whether Communist, Jew, sympathiser or resistance member, no one deserves the terrible treatment delivered by the Nazis.

Although this is a work of fiction, Byron remains faithful to the true nature of the Second World War. She does not gloss over any of the atrocities and, whilst the reader keeps their fingers and toes crossed that Lili will get her “happily ever after” ending, this cannot be possible for everyone in the novel.

Aiming to show the strength of women living in a “man’s world”, Byron has created female characters of whom to be proud and respected. Whilst the storyline may not always be pleasant, it is a gripping narrative that immerses the reader into Lili’s life and experiences. Hannah Byron has a way with words that keeps the reader engaged throughout. She is an author to keep an eye on. (4/5 stars)


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Lady Unknown

Many may have heard of Thomas Coutts (1735-1822), or at least the bank he founded, Coutts & Co., but how many know the name of his granddaughter? After Coutts and his wife died, his granddaughter Angela inherited his fortune, making her the wealthiest woman in Britain. Rather than spend the money on herself, Angela used it to help others in less fortunate circumstances. Whilst Angela may have been “the richest heiress in England”, she was also the most generous.

Angela Georgina Burdett was born on 21st April 1814 to Sir Francis Burdett, 5th Baronet (1770-1844) and Sophia Coutts (d. 1844), the daughter of Thomas Coutts. She was the youngest of six children, five girls and a boy called Robert, who inherited the baronetcy. Sir Francis was an English reformist politician and opponent of the prime minister William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806). He frequently came into conflict with parliament and was imprisoned for three months in 1820 for “composing, writing, and publishing a seditious libel” about the Peterloo Massacre. On his release, Sir Francis and the family moved into a house at 25 St James’s Place, London.

Sophia was one of three daughters of Thomas Coutts, nicknamed the “The Three Graces”. Due to her beauty, Sophia was sought after by a few painters, including Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), the fourth president of the Royal Academy. She married Sir Francis in 1793, bringing with her a fortune of £25,000. Sir Francis and Sophia were very much in love and remained so for their entire marriage. When Sophia passed away on 13th January 1844, Sir Francis became inconsolable. After refusing to eat for several days, he died on 23rd January 1844.

When Angela’s grandfather died in 1822, his estate went to his second wife, Harriot Beauclerk, Duchess of St Albans (1777-1837). She thought carefully about the recipient of Coutts’ fortune upon her death and settled on Angela as her heiress. In her will, she stipulated three conditions: Angela’s 50% share in the bank must be held in trust; she must take the name Coutts; and thirdly, she must never marry a foreigner. So, she legally changed her name to Angela Burdett-Coutts.

Upon receipt of her inheritance, 23-year-old Burdett-Coutts became a subject of public curiosity. Many speculated about what she would do with the money, and many men made marriage proposals. For a while, Burdett-Coutts’ wealth elevated her to celebrity status, although she did little with her money during the first few years after receipt. So well known was she that the Reverend Richard Harris Barham (1788-1845) referred to her as “Miss Anja-ly Coutts” in a ballad written for Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) coronation in 1837. The poem is part of The Ingoldsby Legends, named after the author’s pen name, “Thomas Ingoldsby of Tappington Manor”.

Burdett-Coutts began to donate money to various causes, prompting author Charles Dickens (1812-70) to write to her in 1846. He expressed his desire to open an asylum for “fallen women” where they could be rehabilitated, find jobs and gain property. Dickens was concerned about the growing number of prostitutes in London and wished to help them. He wanted to find a suitable property but needed funding, which Burdett-Coutts agreed to provide. The following year, Dickens purchased Urania Cottage in Shepherds Bush, which Burdett-Coutts helped him organise ready for opening that November. The home provided the women with food, shelter and education. They learned to read and write, and learn the trades of housekeepers, gardeners and seamstresses. Although the inhabitants did not pay to live there, they helped cook meals and keep the house clean. They also produced meals for the local poor relief.

As well as Urania House, Burdett-Coutts founded churches and schools around the country and in other areas of the British Empire. In 1847, she helped fund the bishoprics of Cape Town, South Africa, and Adelaide, Australia. Ten years later, she provided the same support for British Columbia, Canada.

In 1862, Burdett-Coutts erected a public fountain in Victoria Park in what is now the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. It was designed by the Mancunian architect Henry Astley Darbishire (1825-99), costing £5000 (approximately £647,000 today). Around 10,000 spectators turned up to witness the unveiling of the gothic-style granite fountain. Shaped like an octagon, it is 28 feet (8.5 m) wide with 60 feet (18 m) high red granite columns. Its purpose was to provide drinking water to everyone in the vicinity and was given a Grade II* listed status by Historic England in 1975. This means it is a structure of particular importance and interest. Since the refurbishment of Victoria Park in 2011, the fountain is no longer in public use and is now known as the Baroness Burdett Coutts Drinking Fountain.

Two years later, Burdett-Coutts donated £500 to fund the first Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem. Undertaken by Charles William Wilson (1836-1905), an officer in the Royal Engineers corps of the British Army, the survey produced the first accurate map of the city. Burdett-Coutts agreed to finance the project because she wished to help provide a better drinking water system for the inhabitants. Unfortunately, her wishes were not granted until the following century. Yet, the survey proved useful in other ways, such as helping the Church Mission Society collect information about place names, buildings and points of interest, which, in turn, helped scholars understand the geography of parts of the Bible. For the first time, archaeologists were able to explore the underground features of Temple Mount.

Turning her attention back to her home country, Angela Burdett-Coutts concerned herself with improving housing in the East End of London. This project received the support of Charles Dickens and resulted in the founding of Columbia Market in Bethnal Green to provide local people with affordable and nutritious produce. Burdett-Coutts purchased part of the slum area of Bethnal Green and paid for the construction of an undercover food market containing 400 stalls, which opened in 1869. She also constructed a gothic building called Columbia Dwellings, which was able to house dozens of families. The buildings have since been demolished, but traders continue to set up market stalls in the streets every Sunday.

During the 1860s, Burdett-Coutts also became a supporter of the London Ragged School Union. For two decades, the union had provided destitute children with free education, but it relied heavily on volunteers, many of whom had very little money to give. Considerable donations from Burdett-Coutts and other wealthy sponsors helped establish 350 more ragged schools by 1870, which coincided with the passing of the first Education Act. This resulted in the creation of School Boards and paved the way for compulsory free education for every child.

In recognition of Burdett-Coutts’ ongoing philanthropy, Queen Victoria bestowed upon her a suo jure peerage as Baroness Burdett-Coutts of Highgate and Brookfield in the County of Middlesex. Although her father was a baronet, Burdett-Coutts did not inherit the baronetcy because that always went to the first-born son. Usually, a woman only became a baroness through marriage or if her father only had daughters. Yet, the Queen had the power to give someone the title of baroness suo jure, which means baroness “in her own right”. Burdett-Coutts joined the relatively short list of suo jure titles, featuring Eleanor, Duchess suo jure of Aquitaine (1122-1204), and Anne Boleyn of England, Marquess of Pembroke suo jure (1501-36).

Following this honour, Burdett-Coutts became the first woman to be presented with the Freedom of the City of London at the Guildhall on 18th July 1872. Established in the 13th century, the Freedom allows recipients several obsolete privileges, including the right to drive sheep and cattle over London Bridge, the right to carry a sword in public, and the right to be sent home in a taxi rather than arrested for drunken behaviour.

Burdett-Coutts continued donating money to good causes during the 1870s. First, she founded the Ladies Committee at the RSPCA, which aimed to improve the welfare of animals by encouraging children to join a group called ‘Band of Mercy’. She realised education was needed to teach children how to look after animals and encouraged them to enter an essay competition titled Our duty to animals. Over 275,000 children took part, and Queen Victoria personally attended the award ceremony.

As part of her work with the RSPCA, Burdett-Coutts travelled the country giving talks to farmers about the welfare of their animals. On her travels, she learned of a Skye Terrier called Greyfriars Bobby (1855-72), who spent 14 years guarding the grave of his deceased owner, John Gray. Moved by the dog’s story, Burdett-Coutts commissioned sculptor William Brodie (1815-81) to make a bronze statue of the animal. Sadly, the dog died in January 1872 before the sculpture was complete, so it was unveiled as a memorial the following year near the entrance to the graveyard Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. Reflecting Burdett-Coutts passion for providing accessible drinking water for everyone, the statue of Greyfriars Bobby sits upon a water fountain, once furnished with two bronze drinking cups attached by a chain. Today, there is no water supply, but the structure remains a memorial to the faithful dog.

In 1874, Burdett-Coutts became the first woman to receive the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh. The honour was likely in response to her generous donation of the Greyfriars Bobby memorial, which held her in high esteem with the people of Edinburgh.

Burdett-Coutts received another honour in 1877, this time for helping Turkish peasants and refugees during the 1877 Russo-Turkish War. After posting an advert in the Daily Telegraph, Burdett-Coutts raised £50,000 to form and run the Turkish Compassionate Fund. She volunteered her secretary William Ashmead-Barlett (1851-1912) to serve as Special Commissioner and oversee the organisation and administration of the charity, which helped thousands of refugees. Both she and Ashmead-Barlett received the Order of the Medjidiyeh by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Only two women have received this honour since its institution: Burdett-Coutts and Queen Victoria.

With Ashmead-Barlett overseeing charity work abroad, Burdett-Coutts refocused her attention to issues closer to home. During 1865, the construction of the Midland Railway, which ran to St Pancras Station, caused damages to neighbouring areas, particularly the burial ground for St Giles-in-the-Fields. The Catholic graveyard was the preferred resting place of French émigrés, but their bodies were dug up and moved to make way for the railway. This project was overseen by the author Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), who at that time worked as an apprentice architect. Hardy later wrote a poem called The Levelled Churchyard, in which he imagined the ghostly voices of souls he dug up.

After the construction of the railway, only the grandest of tombs remained, such as those belonging to Sir John Soane (1753-1837) and his wife (d. 1815). In 1875, the remaining land was purchased by the St Pancras Vestry for use as public gardens, which officially opened in 1877. To coincide with this, Burdett-Coutts commissioned a memorial sundial to commemorate the graves disturbed by the railway. Designed by George Highton of Brixton and manufactured by H Daniel and Co., the granite and marble Gothic sundial features relief carvings of trefoils, St Giles and St Pancras, and two figures representing the sun and moon. Carved into a marble panel are the Beatitudes listed in the Gospel of Matthew 5:3-9.

The sundial features a dedication in “memory of those whose graves are now unseen, or the record of whose names may have become obliterated”. Three marble panels list the names of those whose graves were disturbed to make room for the Midland Railway. Names include Chevalier d’Éon (1728-1810), a French spy of questionable gender; Simon François Ravenet (1706-64), an assistant to the painter William Hogarth (1697-1764); and the British composer John Danby (1757-98). On the surrounding railings, a plaque honours Johann Christian Bach (1735-82), who is buried in a pauper’s grave in the vicinity.

Back in the 1860s, Burdett-Coutts gave financial aid to the southwest of Ireland, which continued to struggle with the aftereffects of the famine years between 1848 and 1849. She also established relief stores and encouraged the expansion of the fishing industry. Through the profits made, the Irish gradually repaid their debt to Burdett-Coutts. Unfortunately, in 1880 there were still many impoverished people. The money made from the fishing industry benefitted those in charge more than the workers. Burdett-Coutts suggested giving the British government £250,000 to supply Ireland with seed potatoes to help feed the poor and offer them an alternative means of income. This caught the attention of the Irish government who did not want to rely on the support of other countries. As a result, they agreed to improve the living and financial conditions of their people.

Ever since inheriting her fortune in 1837, Burdett-Coutts gained a never-ending list of marriage proposals. She continued to turn them down knowing they were only attracted to her wealth. Yet, in 1881, Burdett-Coutts surprised everyone by getting married. Not only was she 67 years old, the marriage broke the terms of her step-grandmother’s will, thus she forfeited three-fifths of her income to her sister. The will stipulated Burdett-Coutts could not marry a foreigner, yet she chose to marry her 29-year-old American secretary William Ashmead-Barlett. Fortunately, Ashmead-Barlett agreed to change his surname to Burdett-Coutts, since the rest of the will prevented Angela from changing her name.

Burdett-Coutts’ husband, who became the MP for the London constituency of Westminster in 1885, continued to act as her secretary and helped her organise and fund several charities. Despite having significantly less income, Burdett-Coutts did not lessen her philanthropic work. Her main concerns were for animal and children organisations, for instance, the British Beekeepers Association of which she was president from 1878 until her death.

In 1884, Burdett-Coutts co-founded the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children with Lord Shaftesbury (1801-85), which later became the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in 1889. The society campaigned for a law to protect children from abuse and neglect, similar to the way the RSPCA fought for animal rights. The first child protection law was passed in 1889, which prompted the name change of the organisation. In 1891, the League of Pity was founded, which encouraged children to engage with the NSPCC and participate in fund-raising activities.

In recognition of Burdett-Coutts’ mission to “prevent and relieve sickness and injury, and to act to enhance the health and well-being of people anywhere in the world”, Queen Victoria made her a Lady of Grace of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem on 17th December 1888. This was the first year the award was initiated, so Burdett-Coutts is likely the first woman to receive the honour. Another notable recipient was Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) in 1904.

One of Burdett-Coutts’ final projects involved compiling a book called Woman’s Work in England for the Chicago Exhibition in 1893. Rather modestly, she made no mention of herself in the publication. To rectify this, the Duchess of Teck (1833-97) arranged for a second publication in which she included a section about Baroness Burdett-Coutts. “Great as have been the intrinsic benefits that the baroness has conferred on others, the most signal of all has been the power of example an incalculable quantity which no record of events can measure. She has ever sought, also, to increase the usefulness of women in their homes, to extend their opportunities of self-improvement, and to deepen the sources of influence which they derive from moral worth and Christian life.”

At the age of 92, Angela Burdett-Coutts contracted acute bronchitis and passed away on 30th December 1906. Over the next two days, approximately 30,000 people came to pay their respects, often leaving tributes on the street outside her house at 1 Stratton Street. Her funeral took place at Westminster Cathedral on 5th January 1907, where she was laid to rest in the nave. The thousands who attended the funeral ranged from the royal family to the poorest of people Burdett-Coutts supported during her lifetime.

Angela Burdett-Coutts used her considerable wealth to help a great number of people. Many of her contributions paved the way for charities and organisations today, for instance, the RSPCA and NSPCC. She made schools and education more available, both in England and abroad and did all she could to improve people’s quality of life, for instance, providing cotton gins in Nigeria and encouraging the fishing industry in Ireland. Providing clean water for the public was high on Burdett-Coutts agenda, and she even arranged a drinking fountain for dogs. Her money was also spent purchasing new bells for St Paul’s Cathedral, constructing buildings and commissioning memorial statues. She was keen on keeping the memories of the departed alive, hence the sundial, honouring those whose graves were destroyed.

Despite all her work and generosity, very few recognise the name, Angela Burdett-Coutts. She gave so much but received very little in return and is at risk of being forgotten entirely. This is, unfortunately, the case for many women of her era. In the 21st century, someone like Angela Burdett-Coutts would have celebrity status, yet instead, she is confined to the depths of the internet where only a few will stumble across her name.


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The Great Arctic Explorer

Question: Who was the first person to cross Greenland on skis?
Answer: Fridtjof Nansen

Who?

Norwegian-born Fridtjof Wedel-Jarlsberg Nansen was a polymath and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who led the first crossing of Greenland in 1888. Although he gained fame in his home country for achieving the feat, Nansen also had a reputation in the fields of science, diplomacy and humanitarianism. Yet today, Nansen is fairly unknown, and his achievements no longer celebrated.

Nansen was born in Store Frøen, near Norway’s capital city, Christiania (now Oslo), on 10th October 1861. He was the second child of lawyer Baldur Fridtjof Nansen and Adelaide Johanne Thekla Isidore Bølling Wedel-Jarlsberg, although his older sibling died in infancy. Despite living in Norway, his father’s family originated in Denmark, where his ancestor Hans Nansen (1598-1667) was a burgomaster and had close dealings with the Danish royal family.

Nansen in 1865 (age 4)

Store Frøen, despite being near the capital city, was a rural area and Nansen spent much of his early life swimming in the summer and skiing in the winter. He enjoyed exploring the forests where he pretended to be the castaway Robinson Crusoe from the novel by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731). Through these activities, Nansen became self-reliant, as well as a proficient skier and ice skater. Sadly, at the age of 15, Nansen had to leave his idyllic countryside for the city following the death of his mother. Fortunately, he continued participating in sports at school and broke the world one-mile skating record at 18.

The following year, Nansen took “…the first fatal step that led me astray from the quiet life of science.” The zoology department at the university proposed a five-month voyage aboard the seal-hunting boat Viking to study Arctic animals. Nansen jumped at the chance to travel and spent the trip searching for seals in Greenland and Spitsbergen, Norway. Before returning home, Viking became trapped in the ice near the unexplored territories of Greenland. Whilst he could not go ashore, Nansen envisaged a potential exploration journey across the Greenland icecap.

On returning to Norway, Nansen left university and started working as a curator in the zoological department of the University Museum of Bergen. He worked there for six years, except during 1886 when Nansen spent a 6-month sabbatical touring Europe. During this trip, Nansen met Gerhard Armauer Hansen (1841-1912), the physician who discovered a leprosy-causing bacteria. This meeting encouraged Nansen to continue the research he had recently begun on the neuroanatomy of marine creatures. Nansen published a paper of his findings at the end of his sabbatical and, the following year, he completed his doctoral thesis, The Structure and Combination of Histological Elements of the Central Nervous System.

While working on his thesis, two men attempted to cross the Greenland icecap: Finland-Swedish aristocrat Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (1832-1901) in 1883 and American explorer Robert Peary (1856-1920) in 1886. Both set out from the western coast and traversed approximately 100 miles before turning back. Nansen, who had planned to return to Greenland since his university trip, analysed these previous attempts. He believed he could do better by starting the trek on the opposite side of the land. There were a few settlements on the west coast, and Nansen thought it safer to travel towards them rather than away from them into the unknown.

Unlike the previous explorers who brought a large team and heavy equipment with them, Nansen planned his expedition for a small party of six and purchased lightweight sledges to carry their belongings. The team needed suitable clothing, sleeping bags and cooking facilities, many of which were hand made to suit the Arctic climate. Norwegian critics expressed negative views about Nansen’s plans and claimed he only had a one in ten chance of surviving the trip. The Norwegian government refused to support Nansen financially, but Danish explorer, Augustin Gamél (1839-1904), came to his rescue with a considerable donation.

Ravna, Sverdrup, Nansen, Kristiansen, Dietrichson, Balto

As for his team, Nansen needed experienced skiers and began advertising in newspapers. The first to respond was Oluf Christian Dietrichson (1856-1942), a military officer skilled in plotting maps and determining distances. Soon after, Otto Sverdrup (1854-1930), a proficient skier and sailor, was recruited as the ship commander. No one else came forward, but Sverdrup recommended his friend, Kristian Kristiansen (1865-1943), a cross-country skier.

Nansen still needed another two recruits and consulted Nordenskiöld, one of the previous explorers to attempt the crossing, about who he should ask. Nordenskiöld suggested contacting the Sami people in Lapland, Finland because they were generally reliable skiers and familiar with frozen landscapes. After sending a telegraph to the country, Nansen found two suitable candidates, Samuel Balto (1861-1921) and Ole Nilsen Ravna (1841-1906). Finally, Nansen’s team was assembled.

Postcard featuring of the members of Nansen’s Trans-Greenland Expedition

Nansen initially considered using dogs or reindeer to pull the sledges but rejected the idea because neither he nor his team had used animals before. By redesigning the Norwegian skikjaelke (low hand sledge), Nansen made several sledges from ash wood, which is both lightweight and strong. The six explorers boarded a boat with their sledges, skis, reindeer-skin sleeping bags, tents, woollen clothing, cooking stove, pemmican (dried meat), biscuits, tea and coffee, and sailed to Edinburgh in Scotland. They then boarded a Danish mail boat to Iceland, where they awaited their ship to carry them to Greenland.

On 3rd June 1888, the Norwegian whaling vessel Jason picked up the team and their equipment from the Icelandic port of Ísafjörður. After a week of sailing, they finally spotted Greenland in the distance, but the number of icebergs made it impossible for the Jason to sail to the coast. Using several small boats, the men set out to traverse the remaining 12 miles. Unfortunately, severe weather conditions made it difficult to navigate, and they spent more time sitting out storms on icebergs rather than sailing. After two weeks of battling the waves, Nansen and his team eventually reached Greenland on 29th July, having travelled approximately 240 miles, 20 times further than intended. Too far south to begin their expedition, Nansen ordered his men to rest then return to the boats. Over the following 12 days, they fought their way north up the coastline, stopping to rest at an Eskimo encampment along the way. They eventually reached their intended destination, Umivik, on 10th August.

After resting for a few days and making their final preparations, Nansen and his team set off in a north-westerly direction on 15th August. They aimed to traverse 370 miles of frozen land, eventually reaching the town of Christianhaab on the other side of the island.

“…we advanced rather rapidly for two days; then we were stopped by a storm from the north, with heavy rain, and we had to stay in our tent lying down in our sleeping-bags for three days, while the ice melted rapidly under us, and the rain poured down above.”

The last ship was due to leave Christianhaab by mid-October, and Nansen feared they would not make it in time. Crevasses made skiing dangerous, and progress was slow. Several snowstorms also delayed the teams and made pulling the sledges difficult. Eventually, Nansen proposed taking a shorter route to the capital Godthaab, now known as Nuuk, on the western coast. The team readily agreed to the new plan, which shortened their journey by 93 miles.

Nansen was the first explorer to bring a camera on an expedition. He managed to take about 150 photographs, which documented their journey across Greenland. These images reveal the size of the sledges the men dragged along with them and the types of clothing they wore. They harnessed themselves to the front of the sledges and allowed the wind to help push them in the right direction. Going uphill was always difficult, but downhill was just as dangerous. They had to be careful they were not mown down by the falling sledges.

Despite the snowy weather, the men were blinded by the sun, which reflected off the white ground. Nansen devised some snow goggles with a narrow slit for each eye. Whilst this prevented direct sunlight and reflections from obscuring their sight, it stopped the men from seeing their feet. When wearing the goggles, the men needed to be extra careful to avoid crevices and uneven ground.

The men faced many trials during the journey, including snowstorms that buried them inside their tents. Fortunately, on 11th September, they reached the highest part of their journey, approximately 8,921 ft above sea level. From here on, the route was downhill, and the team were able to put their skiing skills to good use. They still needed to cope with freezing temperatures, which reached as low as −45 °C, but the quicker pace helped keep them warm, and they enjoyed skiing while the northern lights shone overhead. This leg of the trip was by no means less dangerous. They still had crevices to navigate and fresh snowfalls to dig through, but their spirits rose as they neared their destination.

On 26th September, Nansen and his team reached the Ameralik fjord, 50 miles away from Godthaab. The men rejoiced at seeing water again, but they looked warily at the mountains separating themselves from the capital. Nansen decided the remaining journey would be easier by sea, alongside the edge of the fjord. Using the sledges, the men built a boat, using a tent as sails. Unfortunately, it could only carry two people, so Nansen and Sverdrup left the others sheltering in the remaining tents and set off on 29th September, navigating around ice flows and other obstructions. Finally, on 3rd October, the two men reached Godthaab, thus ending their 49-day journey across the land.

Nansen and Sverdrup were warmly welcomed by the Danish town representative who invited them into his home. They were overjoyed to wash off the two months worth of black grease and dirt from their bodies whilst some of the natives set off to rescue the remaining four explorers. Dietrichson, Kristiansen, Balto and Ravna finally reached the city on 12th October. “The expedition was finished, and Greenland was crossed for the first time.” Unfortunately, they were still 240 miles away from their original destination and had no way of making it to the final ship home. A skilled kayaker managed to send news of their success to the ship before it embarked, along with letters from the men to their families and friends. With no more ships due until the spring, the team spent the next seven months living with the Inuits. Eventually, on 15th April 1889, the Danish ship, Hvidbjørnen arrived to take them to Copenhagen. “It was not without sorrow that we left this place and these people, among whom we had enjoyed ourselves so well.”

Nansen reached Copenhagen on 21st May 1889, where crowds greeted him and his companions as heroes. News of their landing spread quickly, and by the time they reached Christiania a week later, almost forty thousand people lined the streets. This was approximately one-third of the city’s population. The university offered Nansen the position of curator of the Royal Frederick University’s zoology collection, which he accepted, but spent the majority of his working hours writing up an account of his expedition. In the summer, the Royal Geographical Society invited Nansen to London, where he met the future King Edward VII (1841-1910). The society awarded him with the Founders Medal “for having been first to cross the inland ice of Greenland … as well as for his qualities as a scientific geographer”.

Fridtjof Nansen and Eva Nansen in autumn 1889

On 11th August 1889, Nansen announced his engagement to Eva Sars (1858-1907), a mezzo-soprano singer and pioneer of women’s skiing. They married the following month, on 6th September. Eva, like her husband, was a competent skier and became the first woman to cross the Hardangervidda mountain plateau in Norway on skis in 1892. She also campaigned for the right for women to participate in winter sports on equal terms with men.

Nansen had not been home for long before he started planning his next expedition, this time to the North Pole. He presented his ideas to the Norwegian Geographical Society in 1890, arguing that recent failed attempts were due to starting the trips from the west rather than the east. His proposition received similar reactions to his plans for crossing Greenland. Many members of the society were involved in the search for the missing Franklin expedition and viewed the potential trip as “an illogical scheme of self-destruction”. Nonetheless, Nansen’s fame worked in his favour, and he secured a grant from the Norwegian parliament.

For the journey, Nansen needed a suitable ship to navigate the icy waters. He commissioned the Norwegian naval shipbuilder Colin Archer (1832-1921) to construct a fast and manoeuvrable vessel, which he christened Fram, the Norwegian word for “forward”. Nansen advertised for people to join his expedition team and received over 1000 applications. From these, he selected a party of twelve, including Otto Sverdrup, who Nansen appointed as second-in-command.

Thousands lined the harbour to watch the Fram launch on 24th June 1893. The plan was to sail the ship as close to the North Pole as possible, after which they would complete the rest of the journey with dog sledges. They stopped for some time on the Norwegian island of Vardøya, which they eventually left on 21st July. Unfortunately, fog and ice made sailing difficult, and occasionally they came to a complete standstill. It was not until 10th September that they passed the most northerly point of the Eurasian continent, Cape Chelyuskin.

Despite their determination, the journey became tediously slow. The Fram began to drift in the wrong direction, and it took four months to turn the ship back on course. By 22nd March 1894, Nansen had predicted it would take the ship five years to reach the North Pole. The Fram barely travelled more than a kilometre per day, so Nansen felt compelled to devise a new plan. Using the dogs to help pull the sledges, Nansen suggested travelling over the icy sections on foot and use kayaks to navigate the stretches of water. Over the next few months, the men practised dog-driving on the patches of ice they passed while the ship made her painstakingly slow journey through the icy water. By November, Nansen was sure of his plans, and the crew spent the remaining winter months building kayaks and preparing clothing and equipment. Only Nansen and dog-driving expert Hjalmar Johansen (1867-1913) planned to travel overland. The rest of the team were to stay on board until the ship broke through the ice into the North Atlantic Sea.

Preparations for Nansen and Johansen’s polar trek, 14 March 1895

Nansen and Johansen began their journey on 14th March 1895. They had a 410-mile trip ahead of them, which Nansen predicted would take 50 days. Unfortunately, uneven surfaces made progress slow, and Nansen considered turning back. On 4th April, they decided to turn south and travel to Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago, instead of the pole. Progress was still slow, but they felt safer travelling towards civilisation rather than into the unknown.

After several stops and starts to repair equipment, they reached the edge of the pack ice on 6th August. By then, all their dogs had died, either from injury or necessity (i.e. food). “At last the marvel has come to pass—land, land, and after we had almost given up our belief in it!” To reach the distant land, Nansen and Johansen needed to travel over water in their kayaks. As they approached, Nansen identified it as Cape Felder on the western edge of Franz Josef Land, but they were still many miles off. The weather gradually turned colder, and Nansen decided to make camp on an uninhabited, small island for the rest of the winter. They erected a small hut from stones and moss, where they lived on bear, walrus and seal meat for the following eight months. Finally, the weather conditions began to improve, and they resumed their journey on 19th May 1896.

Staged photo of the Nansen–Jackson meeting near Cape Flora, 17 June 1896

The two men had to stop again on 17th June after being attacked by a walrus, an event that turned out to be serendipitous. They hauled their kayaks onto an island and were shocked to hear voices. They were surprised to come across British explorer Frederick Jackson (1860-1938), the leader of an expedition to Franz Josef Land, who revealed Nansen and Johansen were reported lost, presumed dead.

After taking a few days to recuperate at Jackson’s camp on the nearby island of Cape Flora, Nansen and Johansen boarded Jackson’s supply ship Windward and sailed to Vardøya. They hoped to hear about the safe return of the Fram but there was no news. Crestfallen, they began to make their way south, eventually reaching Hammerfest, the most northerly town on the Norwegian mainland on 18th August. Whilst they were there, they finally heard some news about the Fram. She was sighted heading towards Tromsø in north Norway, having failed to reach the pole. Nansen and Johansen immediately set out to reunite with their crew.

Despite failing to reach the North Pole, Nansen and his men were hailed as heroes at every port they stopped at on their homeward journey to Christiania. When they arrived in the capital, the harbour was packed with the largest crowd they had ever seen, and they were greeted by King Oscar II (1829-1907), who invited the men and their families to stay at the palace for several days as special guests. Although they had not achieved what they set out to do, the Fram expedition was deemed a success. No one had died during the journey, and Nansen had made “almost as great an advance as has been accomplished by all other voyages in the nineteenth century put together.” (Edward Whymper, 1840-1911)

During the months after his return, Nansen wrote 300,000 words about his journey, which was translated into English and published as Farthest North in January 1897. After this, he started accepted a professorship in zoology at the Royal Frederick University and became the director of the International Laboratory for North Sea Research. He also helped to found the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and his recently published book helped some Italian explorers reach the North Pole.

Fridtjof Nansen Institute at Polhøgda

Before Nansen set out on the Fram expedition, his eldest daughter Liv was born. In the years after his return, Nansen and his wife had three more children, Kåre (1897), Irmelin (1900) and Odd (1901-73). To accommodate his growing family, Nansen used the profits from his expedition to buy a plot of land on the outskirts of the capital and designed a large house. The building, which Nansen christened Polhøgda (“polar heights”), featured a mix of styles, including Italian renaissance and English manor house. The family began living there in 1902, and Nansen’s fifth and final child, Asmund (1903-1913), was born the following year. The house is now the location of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI).

Although he was not a politician, the Norwegian government respected Nansen’s opinions. In 1905, Norway voted to become independent from Sweden, which was ruled by King Oscar II. Subsequently, Norway needed a new king and ally, so Nansen was sent to Copenhagen to persuade a Danish prince to take up the seat. Nansen’s quest was successful, and on 22nd June 1906, Prince Charles of Denmark became Haakon VII (1872-1957) of Norway.

Due to his success, the government appointed Nansen Norway’s first Minister in London. This involved spending considerable time in England, where he was popular with the people and the king. His main task concerned the Integrity Treaty, which would guarantee Norway’s position among the major European powers. The Treaty was passed on 2nd November 1907, and believing his work was complete, Nansen resigned from his post. At the invitation of King Edward VII, Nansen stayed in the country for a couple more weeks, but after receiving news that his wife was seriously ill with pneumonia, he rushed back to Norway. Sadly, Eva had passed away before he reached home.

Following a period of mourning, Nansen resumed working at the university but decided to focus on oceanology rather than zoology. Nansen participated in several oceanographic voyages, exploring the north Atlantic ocean, the North Polar Basin and the Kara Sea. He continued these trips until the outbreak of World War One when he declared his neutrality and became the president of the Norwegian Union of Defence. After the war, Nansen arranged for the repatriation of around half a million prisoners, of which 300,000 were in Russia, where civil war was rife. When seeing the physical and mental state of these people, Nansen said, “Never in my life have I been brought into touch with so formidable an amount of suffering.”

The Nansen passport allowed stateless persons to legally cross borders

Horrified by the suffering of Norwegian prisoners of war, Nansen determined to help other people in similar situations, particularly Russian refugees. Many of these people had no documents or passports, so Nansen devised the “Nansen passport”, which permitted refugees to cross borders. The passport was a success and adopted by more than 50 governments. He also helped to repatriate hundreds of thousands of refugees after the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. In 1922, Nansen won the Nobel Peace Prize for “his work for the repatriation of the prisoners of war, his work for the Russian refugees, his work to bring succour to the millions of Russians afflicted by famine, and finally his present work for the refugees in Asia Minor and Thrace”. He donated all the prize money to international relief organisations.

Before winning the prize, Nansen married his life-long friend Sigrun Munthe in 1919. Unfortunately, his children resented this, and the marriage became strained. Throughout the 1920s, Nansen spent most of his time abroad, partly avoiding his wife but mostly helping victims of the Armenian genocide. Nansen also hoped to travel to the North Pole by airship, but the war resulted in a severe lack of funding. Instead, he kept his hand in politics, becoming a member of the anti-communist Fatherland League. This also involved many trips away from his hometown, speaking at rallies around the country.

In 1925, Nansen was elected Rector of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, the first foreigner to hold the honorary position. The students chose him from a list of candidates to replace the previous Rector, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). Rectors were invited to serve for three years, so Nansen held the position until 1928. At his inaugural address, Nansen encouraged the students to go out into the world. “We all have a Land of Beyond to seek in our life—what more can we ask? Our part is to find the trail that leads to it. A long trail, a hard trail, maybe; but the call comes to us, and we have to go. Rooted deep in the nature of every one of us is the spirit of adventure, the call of the wild—vibrating under all our actions, making life deeper and higher and nobler.”

Nansen remained a keen skier for the rest of his life and took several trips into the mountains in between his various duties and events. In February 1930, at the age of 68, he struggled to keep up with his friends on the slopes and tired easily. He returned home and spent several weeks in bed battling influenza. He had many visitors during this time, including King Haakon VII.

The illness left Nansen weak, and he never fully recovered. On 13th May 1930, he suffered a fatal heart attack, resulting in numerous tributes across the world. British lawyer Lord Robert Cecil (1864-1958) remarked that Nansen rarely put his interests and health first. “Every good cause had his support. He was a fearless peacemaker, a friend of justice, an advocate always for the weak and suffering.” Nansen received a non-religious state funeral, and his children spread his ashes under a tree in the garden of their childhood home, Polhøgda.

Nansen’s trips to Greenland and the Arctic helped shape future expeditions. He devised new methods of travel, for instance, the “Nansen sledge” and new cooking methods, the “Nansen Cooker”. His experience on the ice led to improved clothing and lightweight equipment, which made it easier for explorers to travel. Nansen also influenced the science world and is recognised as one of the founders of modern neurology and oceanographical science.

Due to Nansen’s work with refugees, he repatriated and found homes for around 1 million people. Those who continued with his work under the “Nansen Office” received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938. Since 1954, the Nansen Refugee Award is given by the United Nations to an individual or group “for outstanding work on behalf of the forcibly displaced.” Winners include Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), the “people of Canada”, Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007), and Greek Volunteers of the Hellenic Rescue Team.

Many organisations have honoured Nansen by giving his name to several geographical features, including the Nansen Basin and the Nansen-Gakkel Ridge in the Arctic Ocean, Nansen Island in the Kara Sea, Nansen Land in Greenland and Nansen Island in Franz Josef Land. Unfortunately, outside his home country and Arctic areas, Fridtjof Nansen is not a well-known name, and his achievements are largely unrecognised. Yet, he is certainly a man worth learning about; not only was he the first man to cross Greenland, but he also helped save so many refugees. Nansen did not set out to become famous, his actions were usually selfless, and that is what makes him such a commendable individual.


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Ain’t I a Woman?

Sojourner Truth, 1870

Ain’t I a Woman? was the title of a speech given by the American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth at a Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Not only did Truth fight on behalf of women, but she also fought for the rights of African Americans. In her biography, Nell Irvin Painter wrote, “At a time when most Americans thought of slaves as male and women as white, Truth embodied a fact that still bears repeating: Among the blacks are women; among the women, there are blacks.” Truth was born into slavery but managed to escape, after which she set about improving lives for black people. Her determination won her a place in the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time” listed by the Smithsonian magazine in 2014.

Born Isabella “Belle” Baumfree in 1797 on a slave trader’s estate at Swartekill, New York, Sojourner Truth was one of a dozen children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree. Her parents belonged to Charles Hardenbergh, thus Truth and her siblings automatically became slaves at birth. When Hardenbergh died in 1806, Truth, known then as Belle, was sold to another slave owner, John Neely from Kingston, New York.

As a young child, Truth only spoke Dutch, but John Neely required his slaves to speak English. Neely was a cruel master and beat Truth and the other slaves daily. It was a welcome release when Neely sold her in 1808 to Martinus Schryver, a tavern owner in Port Ewen. Eighteen months later, Schryver sold Truth to the abusive John Dumont, who repeatedly raped her and made her life very difficult. As a result, Truth gave birth to two children, James, who died in infancy, and Diana (1815).

While working in the fields belonging to Dumont, Truth met a slave called Robert, who belonged to the owner of the neighbouring land. Robert’s master, the landscape artist Charles Catton the younger (1756-1819), forbade his slaves from having relationships with people belonging to other traders. Nonetheless, determined to be together, Robert sneaked over to visit Truth. Unfortunately, Catton discovered this and beat Robert to within an inch of his life. Truth never saw Robert again. Later, she met a man named Thomas, a slave belonging to her master. They married and had three children, Peter (1821), Elizabeth (1825), and Sophia (1826).

As well as picking cotton in the fields, Truth spent hours spinning wool and damaged her hand as a result. Dumont had promised to release Truth from slavery in 1826 “so long as she would do well and be faithful”, but he claimed her injury prevented her from being productive. Angry about this treatment, Truth plotted her escape and, taking her newborn daughter Sophia with her, walked away from the estate and never looked back. Truth knew that the emancipation of slaves would begin the following year and, so long as she was not caught, she would soon be a free woman. Unfortunately, her older children needed to work until they reached their twenties before being emancipated. She feared if they were caught escaping, the children would be beaten or killed, so she left them behind.

Issac and Maria Van Wagenen

Truth walked ten miles while carrying her daughter before she found someone willing to help her. Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, a white couple from New Paltz, offered Truth and the baby a place to stay. Learning of her predicament, Isaac insisted on employing her until the state’s emancipation took effect. Whilst this made Truth the Van Wagenens slave, she and Sophia were safe. Grateful for the protection, Truth became a devout Christian.

After living with the Van Wagenens for some time, Truth learned that Dumont had illegally sold her eldest son Peter to a slave owner in Alabama. With the Van Wagenen’s help, Truth took the traders to court where, after a lengthy battle, seven-year-old Peter was returned to his mother. Never before had a black woman gone to court against a white man and won.

In 1829, Truth moved to New York City with Peter and Sophia, where she found work as a housekeeper for a Christian Evangelist, Elijah Pierson (1786-1834). Her boss often preached about God’s powers and, after his wife died in 1830, attempted to raise her from the dead. Despite failing to resurrect his wife, Pierson began referring to himself as “Elijah the Tishbite”, believing he was the biblical prophet and a miracle worker reborn. Through Pierson, Truth met and worked as the housekeeper for Robert Matthews (1788-1841), known as the “Prophet Matthias”. Matthews believed he was the resurrected Matthias from the New Testament who replaced the apostle Judas in the Acts of the Apostles. While working for Matthews, Pierson died from poisoning. Both Matthews and Truth were arrested but later acquitted of the murder.

Truth’s life took a turning point in the 1840s, beginning with the possible death of her son. Peter worked on a whaling ship called the Zone of Nantucket. When the ship returned to port in 1842, Peter was not on board. She never heard from him again. In 1843, Truth joined the Methodist church and officially changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She claimed on Pentecost Sunday that God spoke to her, asking her to speak the truth. She told her friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go”, and packed a pillowcase of her meagre belongings and headed north.

While travelling through New York, Truth joined Millerite Adventist groups who followed the teachings of Baptist minister William Miller (1782-1849). Miller strongly believed Jesus would reappear before the end of 1843. He studied the Bible carefully and based his calculations on verse fourteen of the eighth chapter of Daniel, which said, “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Miller assumed this cleansing referred to the events written about in the Book of Revelation. Sojourner Truth and many other millerites latched onto this belief, yet when Jesus failed to return as Miller had predicted, Truth and thousands of other members left feeling disillusioned.

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry

In 1844, Truth travelled to Massachusetts, where she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. The organisation supported women’s rights and religious freedom, which appealed to Truth. Most importantly, it was set up by a group of abolitionists. The organisation set up a commune looking after livestock and ran a sawmill and a silk factory. While living there, Truth helped in the laundry department and met several people who had also grown up in slavery, most notably the abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1817-95). She also befriended the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79). With their encouragement, Truth gave her first anti-slavery speech.

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry disbanded in 1846, and Truth found work as a housekeeper for George Benson (1808-79), the brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison. Around this time, she began writing her memoirs, which Garrison published in 1850 with the title The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave. The book offers a glimpse into the world of slavery in northern states of America, which, unlike the southern states, remains largely undocumented. Truth recounted her separation from her family and the years spent travelling as a preacher. She also described her aims to counsel former slaves and end the struggles for racial and sexual equality.

Following the publication of her book, Sojourner Truth purchased her first home for $300 in Florence, Massachusetts. Growing in fame for her preaching talents, Truth was invited to speak at the first National Women’s Right’s Convention later that year. The meeting aimed “to secure for [woman] political, legal, and social equality with man until her proper sphere is determined by what alone should determine it, her powers and capacities, strengthened and refined by an education in accordance with her nature”. The convention was attended by over 900 women and men, both white and black. Truth’s friends, Douglass and Garrison, spoke on behalf of women, as did several other abolitionists and suffragists.

News of the National Women’s Rights Convention reached the United Kingdom and inspired British women to petition for woman suffrage and present it to the House of Lords. In 1851, female philosopher Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-58), the wife of John Stuart Mill (1806-73), wrote The Enfranchisement of Women. Later that year, Harriet Martineau, the first female sociologist, wrote to the organisers of the convention, saying, “I hope you are aware of the interest excited in this country by that Convention, the strongest proof of which is the appearance of an article on the subject in the Westminster Review … I am not without hope that this article will materially strengthen your hands, and I am sure it can not but cheer your hearts.”

In May 1851, Sojourner Truth attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, organised by Hannah Tracy (1815-96) and Frances Dana Barker Gage (1808-84). While there, Truth realised that many feminists and suffragists fought for the rights of white women and did not take into account the difficulties black people faced. This prompted Truth to stand up and give her most famous speech, now known as Ain’t I a Woman? Since the oration was unplanned, Truth did not have any written notes about the matter, and historians rely on accounts and transcripts by those in attendance, which contain many differences. Yet, they all agree that Truth demanded equal human rights for all women, both white and black. She spoke about her life as a former enslaved woman and combined her call for women’s rights with abolitionism.

The term Ain’t I a Woman stems from the phrase “Am I not a man and a brother?”, which British abolitionists coined during the 18th century. In the early 19th century, feminist abolitionists rewrote the phrase to read, “Am I not a woman and a sister?” It is likely Truth came across this saying in the American abolitionist newspaper Genius of Universal Emancipation, where it was printed alongside an image of a female slave. Alternatively, Truth may have heard speeches given by the African-American campaigner Maria W. Stewart (1803-79), who frequently used the term.

Truth’s speech inspired many people, and both the New York Tribune and The Liberator provided the general gist of Truth’s words a few days later. One attendee, Reverend Marius Robinson, printed a transcript of the speech in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, but it did not feature the phrase “Ain’t I a woman?” Twelves years after the event, Frances Dana Barker Gage printed another version of the transcript, which she likely embellished with ideas of her own. Gage frequently repeated the phrase, which in turn became the name of the speech. Gage also made Truth sound like a southern slave, but Truth was born in New York and spoke Dutch for much of her childhood, so she never picked up southern nuances.

Robinson quoted Truth as saying, “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have ploughed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?” Gage, on the other hand, wrote, “And a’n’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a’n’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear de lash as well! And a’n’t, I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And a’n’t I a woman?” Not only did Gage indicate a dialect that Truth did not use, but she also claimed Truth had 13 children, whereas official records suggest she only had five. Nonetheless, the speech is celebrated and often quoted as an example of black feminism.

Over the following ten years, Truth continued to speak at meetings of feminists and abolitionists. She frequently referred to Biblical characters, particularly Esther, to emphasise why women deserve the same rights as men. Truth used her experiences to demonstrate the unfair treatment of both women and slaves. “When Black women like Truth spoke of rights, they mixed their ideas with challenges to slavery and racism. Truth told her own stories, ones that suggested that a women’s movement might take another direction, one that championed the broad interests of all humanity.” (Martha Jones, 2020)

Sojourner Truth and President Abraham Lincoln photographed together for their one and only meeting

In 1864, Truth started working for the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington, D.C. She worked tirelessly to improve conditions for African-Americans and, later that year, she was honoured to meet President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), who shared her aims to end slavery. Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves the previous year. He also passed the 13th Amendment in the Constitution that prohibited slavery or any involuntary servitude in the United States. Yet, many slave owners refused to obey these new laws and those who were freed found it difficult to integrate into society.

During the American Civil War (1861-65), Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. She is credited with writing a song for the 1st Michigan Colored Regiment called The Valiant Soldiers. Written to the tune of John Brown’s Body, the song begins:
We are the valiant soldiers who’ve ‘listed for the war;
We are fighting for the Union, we are fighting for the law;
We can shoot a rebel farther than a white man ever saw,
As we go marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah, as we go marching on.

In 1867, Truth gave a speech at an American Equal Rights Association meeting, where she received a warm reception. She spoke about the rights of black women, saying that the push for equal rights had led to black men winning new rights, and it was only fair that women received them too. She insisted, “We should keep things going while things are stirring,” fearing that it would take people longer to consider women’s rights if left. Truth focused on the lack of voting rights, pointing out that she owned a house and paid taxes just like men. She ended the speech by saying, “Man is so selfish that he has got women’s rights and his own too, and yet he won’t give women their rights. He keeps them all to himself.”

On New Year’s Day in 1871, Sojourner Truth spoke at the Eighth Anniversary of Negro Freedom. She talked about her own life, particularly her early years when she often questioned God why he had not given her good masters. She admitted to hating white people, but after escaping from slavery, Truth said she met her final “master”, Jesus Christ, who taught her to love everyone. She regularly prayed for the emancipation of slaves and felt it her duty to help out as much as she could. Truth felt her prayers were answered with the abolition of slavery but acknowledged the southern states had far to go before they became safe areas for people of colour. Later that year, Truth spoke at the Second Annual Convention of the American Woman Suffrage Association, arguing that women deserved the right to vote “for the benefit of the whole creation, not only the women, but all the men on the face of the earth, for they were the mother of them”.

In her later years, Sojourner Truth was cared for by her daughters, Elizabeth and Sophia. She had at least two grandchildren, James and Sammy, who lived with her in Michigan during the 1860s. In 1867, Truth moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she lived for the rest of her life. In 1883, a reporter interviewed Truth for the Grand Rapids Eagle, noting that “Her face was drawn and emaciated and she was apparently suffering great pain. Her eyes were very bright and mind alert although it was difficult for her to talk.” Sojourner Truth passed away a few days later, in the early hours of 26th November 1883, at age 86. Her funeral took place three days after her death at the Congregational-Presbyterian Church, which almost 1000 people attended. Frederick Douglass provided a eulogy, noting all her hard work and achievements. “Venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion, devoted to the welfare of her race, she has been for the last forty years an object of respect and admiration to social reformers everywhere.”

Since her death, many memorials and statues have been erected in memory of Sojourner Truth across the United States. Near her home in Battle Creek, a stone memorial was placed in Memorial Park in 1935. To mark the centenary of her birth, a 12-foot tall bronze statue of Sojourner Truth was also added to the park. In Ohio, a stone marks the spot where Truth gave her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. There are also sculptures in California and Massachusetts that celebrate the former slave.

Meredith Bergmann sculpture of Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in Central Park

New York State contains the most memorials to Sojourner Truth. A life-sized terracotta statue at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park Visitor’s Centre celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, and a bronze statue of Sojourner Truth as an 11-year-old girl stands in Port Ewen, where she worked as a slave. The most recent statue of Truth was erected in Central Park in 2020 to mark Women’s Equality Day. Known as the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument, the sculpture depicts Truth alongside Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), who were pioneers in the battle for women’s rights.

Sculpture by Artis Lane Bronze 2009 Emancipation Hall, Capitol Visitor Center

Since 2009, a bust of Sojourner Truth sits in the Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Centre. Truth was the first African-American woman to be put on display in the Capitol. Designed by Black Canadian sculptor Artis Lane (b. 1927), the statue depicts Truth wearing her signature cap and shawl.

Several schools and libraries are named after Sojourner Truth, such as the Sojourner Truth Library at the New Paltz State University of New York. In 1969, a political group called the Sojourner Truth Organization was established to represent the left-wing black people of America. The 1997 NASA Mars Pathfinder was named Sojourner in her honour, as was the asteroid 249521 Truth in 2014.

On 4th February 1986, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative, 22-cent postage stamp featuring Sojourner Truth as part of their Black Heritage. She has also been honoured with a Google Doodle and features on the lists of the top 100 Americans in history.

Sojourner Truth did not have an easy childhood. She grew up hating white people, but through her strong Christian faith, she learned to love everyone equally. Truth witnessed the injustices of the world first hand, both by being an African American and by being a woman. She believed that just as Jesus loves every one of us, all humans, no matter their colour or gender, should receive the same rights. While campaigning for the end of slavery and equal rights for black people, Truth also wanted women, including white women, to live on the same terms as men. Some civil rights activists caused trouble by implying black lives mattered more than white, but Sojourner Truth made it clear that all lives mattered. Despite everything she went through, Truth wanted everyone to live in harmony. If only there were more people like Sojourner Truth in the world today.


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Stamps: A Brief British History

The history of the British postal system dates back to the 12th century when King Henry I (1068-1135) appointed messengers to deliver letters to and from members of the government. Since then, the country has developed an efficient national service, which inspired countries around the world to do the same. Britain also takes credit for the first postage stamp, the Penny Black, which revolutionised the method of sending letters both in Britain and across the planet.

Monarchs followed in Henry I’s footsteps, utilising messengers to carry letters. Henry III (1207-72) gave his men uniforms to show they were on official business for the King. The general public could hire messengers, but these men had no distinguishing clothing. Many households sent kitchen boys or other servants to deliver notes across the city or to neighbouring towns.

Messengers often travelled for several days to deliver the monarch’s messages to recipients in other counties or countries. Although some went on foot, most had horses to speed up the journey. During the reign of Edward I (1239-1307), stations, later known as post houses, were set up in or between various towns where mounted couriers could change horses or rest for the evening. Centuries later, these establishments developed into post offices.

Although postage stamps did not emerge until the 19th century, post markings developed as early as the 14th century. Urgent letters often featured handwritten notes, such as “Haste. Post haste”, which let the courier know to make the delivery a priority. During the 16th century, the Privy Council of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) developed a “gallows” symbol to indicate the degree of urgency. The contents did not necessarily concern the gallows or execution, but it let the messenger know it was a letter of extreme importance.

In 1516, Henry VIII (1491-1547) appointed Brian Tuke (d.1545) as the “Master of the Postes”, thus creating the Royal Mail. At this time, only the royal family and members of the court could use the postal service. Tuke oversaw all the post to and from the royal court and arranged for couriers to make several deliveries during one journey. For this, Tuke received £100 a year and received a knighthood. Tuke also served as High Sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire and owned manors in South Weald, Layer Marney, Thorpe, and East Lee.

During the reign of Charles I (1600-49), the Royal Mail became available to the public. The King instructed chief postmaster Thomas Witherings (d.1651) to arrange “a running post or two to run day and night between Edinburgh and Scotland and the City of London, to go thither and come back in six days”. Thus, the Post Office came into being. Witherings also oversaw the construction of six “Great Roads” and employed a postmaster to take charge of each one. The postmaster’s duties included providing new horses at every two and a half miles for the couriers.

In 1661, Charles II (1630-85) replaced the “Master of the Postes” with the Postmaster General. The King appointed Henry Bishop (1605-91) as the first man with this title and gave him the responsibility to oversee the handling and delivery of the Royal Mail. Since the service was made available to the public, the number of people sending letters rapidly increased. As a result, it took longer for letters to arrive. After a series of complaints, Bishop devised the first postmark “that is putt upon every letter shewing the day of the moneth that every letter comes to the office, so that no Letter Carryer may dare detayne a letter from post to post; which before was usual.” This postmark, which was first used on 19th April 1661, quickly became known as the “Bishop Mark” after its creator. It consisted of a small circle of 13 mm diameter with the month abbreviated to two letters in the lower half and the day in the upper. Bishop also increased the delivery routes across the country, with post offices in each town. Eventually, unique postmarks developed for each area to show from whence the post came.

Letters and parcels were usually paid for by the recipient on receipt. Some people complained about the expense, particularly about letters sent over short distances. To improve the system, an English merchant, William Dockwra (1635-1716), with the help of his assistant Robert Murray (1635-1725), devised the London Penny Post in 1680, which allowed inhabitants of London to send mail across the city for one penny. To use this service, the senders took their letters to a local post office and paid the penny fee rather than relying on the recipient to pay the charge.

Whilst the London Penny Post was successful, the rest of the country were charged per distance, weight or amount of paper used in their letters. People came up with ways to avoid paying the steep charges, such as writing extra small or, if the letter was not prepaid, reading the message and handing it back to the postman. After many discussions, the Great Post Office Reform of 1839 and 1840 set about reversing the financial losses of the service as a result of this misuse. The Reform aimed to nationalise the penny post, a concept championed by Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879). After much debate, Royal Mail adopted Hill’s suggestion of charging one penny to send an envelope of up to half an ounce in weight anywhere in the country or two pence if the fee was collected from the recipient.

The Post Office felt sceptical about lowering the price of postage to a fixed rate of one penny, but Hill rightly pointed out that it would encourage more people to send letters. This sparked the worry that post offices would soon become the busiest establishments in British towns and cities, which inspired Rowland Hill to devise a new means of sending mail. Rather than paying for each letter at a post office, Hill suggested selling prepaid adhesive labels to stick on envelopes. This meant people could buy several labels in one go and reduce the number of trips to the post office. Instead, they could place their letters in the provided post boxes. Thus, the world’s first stamp was born.

The world’s first stamp, the Penny Black, came into use on 6th May 1840 and allowed letters of up to half an ounce to be sent anywhere in the country. Rowland Hill first proposed the idea in 1837, although it took some time for the Post Office to agree to it. Eventually, Hill received permission to begin the project and announced a design competition for the new stamps. Over 2,600 people submitted entries, but they were all impractical. Finally, Hill chose a simple design featuring the profile of Queen Victoria (1819-1901).

Hill commissioned the engraver Charles Heath (1785-1848) to engrave the image of the Queen based on a sketch by Henry Corbould (1787-1844). The size of the stamp was 3/4 inch wide by 7/8 inch tall (19 x 22 mm), which allowed room for the portrait as well as the words “Postage” and “One Penny”. The two upper corners on the design featured the Maltese Cross, and the bottom corners denoted the position of the stamp in the printed sheet. A printed sheet held 240 stamps in 20 rows of 12 columns. The stamps on the top row contained the letters AA, AB, AC and so forth, and on the bottom row, TA, TB, TC etc. The stamps were printed in shades of black, hence its name.

Two days after the Penny Black came into use, the Post Office issued a Two Penny Blue for the postage of letters weighing up to an ounce. The stamps were an immediate success, but the Penny Black soon began to cause problems. After receiving letters, post offices marked the stamp in red ink to show it had been used. Due to the darkness of the Penny Black, the red ink did not show up well and was easily washed off. Learning of this, many people were able to reuse the stamps. By February 1841, the Penny Black had been replaced with the Penny Red, and post offices used black ink to mark used stamps.

Whilst purchasing several stamps on one sheet was useful, the only way to separate them was to cut them out with scissors. This inefficient method inspired printers to develop more practical ways, such as perforation, which became standard practice in 1854. Lines of small holes along the edges of each stamp allowed the user to tear them apart without causing any damage.

The Penny Red and Two Penny Blue were a great success, but people also wanted to send letters and parcels that weighed more than one ounce. Some letters arrived at their destination with more than one stamp affixed to the envelope. This encouraged the Post Office to issue stamps for higher values. Between 1847 and 1854, they produced three new stamps: 1 shilling (12 pence), 10 pence and 6 pence. They were green, brown and purple respectively, and featured a watermark with the letters V R. Unlike the red and blue stamps, these embossed postage stamps were octagonal and could only be printed one at a time.

In 1855, a new method of printing allowed for the production of cheaper stamps. Surface printing, which is still used today to print wallpaper, is an automated printing method that quickly transfers an image to the paper using very little ink. A large reel of paper is threaded through the machine, which in the 19th century resembled a Ferris wheel. Whilst the first stamp printed in this method was a 4 pence stamp, printers were soon churning out halfpenny and penny halfpenny stamps.

The first halfpenny postage stamp was the Halfpenny Rose Red, first issued on 1st October 1870. Nicknamed “Bantams” due to their small size, the stamps were only 17.5 mm × 14 mm (0.69 in × 0.55 in), half the size of a Penny Red. These were intended for the sending of newspapers and postcards, which usually weighed less than letters. The stamps featured the engraved portrait of Queen Victoria with “12d” printed on either side. They were printed 480 to a page and watermarked with the word “halfpenny”. After ten years, the Halfpenny Green replaced the Rose Red.

On the same day as the Halfpenny Rose Red, the Post Office issued the Three Halfpence Red, also known as penny halfpennies. Printed in a similar colour as the halfpenny, the Three Halfpence was suitable for sending letters that weighed more than half an ounce but less than one ounce. The stamps featured the profile of Queen Victoria surrounded by the words “Three Halfpenny Postage”.

Larger stamps, including 5 shillings (25p), 10 shillings (50p), £1 and £5 also appeared in the 1870s and 1880s. Around the same time, the contract with Messrs. Perkins, Bacon & Co, who printed the Penny Red, came to an end. The stamps were temporarily replaced by surface printed Penny Venetian Reds but new laws resulting from the Customs and Inland Revenue Act of 1881 necessitated the words “Postage and Inland Revenue” on the stamp, so the Post Office commissioned a new design resulting in the Penny Lilac.

The Penny Lilac broke with the traditional design of stamps, which had rectangular designs. The new stamp, whilst printed on perforated rectangles, featured the profile of Queen Victoria inside an oval containing the words “Postage and Inland Revenue” and “One Penny”. Early versions of the Penny Lilac had 14 dots in each corner, but later versions had 16. Unlike the previous stamps, the engraved design was printed in purple while the background remains blank. This meant the stamps could be printed with less ink, allowing Royal Mail to save on expense.

All the other stamps needed new designs due to the Customs and Inland Revenue Act. Printers decided to use the same colour purple for the lower valued stamps (1 12d, 2d, 2 12d, 3d) and green for the higher (4d, 5d, 6d, 9d and 1s). The choice of colours was chosen to prevent forgers from reusing the stamps. People frequently washed red and blue stamps to remove postmarks, but the new purple and green inks would fade in contact with water.

Many complained about the new designs because they were simple in comparison to the original stamps. This was due to the rush to create them after the 1881 Act. The 2d, 2 12d, 6d, and 9d stamps were a horizontal format, which also received complaints. Due to this, the Post Office considered revamping the designs.

The Post Office commissioned their designers to produce unique designs for each existing stamp from a halfpenny to one shilling. With Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee approaching in 1887, they aimed to print them that year in her honour. Collectively, these stamps are known as the “Jubilee Issue” and have a more elaborate design than the lilac and green stamps. Despite celebrating the Queen’s 50th year on the throne, they decided to continue using the original profile picture of the 18-year-old Victoria. Some of the stamp designs contained two different colours to make them easier to tell apart.

Happy with the new designs, the Jubilee stamps remained for the rest of Victoria’s reign. When her son, Edward VII (1841-1910), succeeded the throne in 1901, new stamps became necessary. By reusing the frames for the Jubilee stamps, the Post Office quickly issued new versions featuring the profile of the new king. To prevent people from reusing the stamps, they were printed on chalk-surfaced paper, which was designed to smear if anyone attempted to remove the postage mark.

When George V (1865-1936) became king in 1910, the stamp design remained relatively the same, but in 1924, the United Kingdom released its first commemorative stamp. Featuring the King’s profile on one half and a lion on the other, the stamps commemorated the British Empire Exhibition held in Wembley Park from 23rd April 1924 until 31st October 1925. Of the 58 territories in the British Empire, only Ghana and Gibraltar did not participate. Each country brought items to exhibit and sell based on their cultures, which they displayed in unique pavilions. Malta’s pavilion, for example, was modelled on a Maltese fort and the Australian pavilion displayed a 16-foot diameter ball of Australian wool.

The next major change in stamp design occurred after the death of George V. In 1936, Edward VIII came to the throne, prompting the Post Office to issue a set of four stamps ready for his coronation. Unfortunately, Edward VIII abdicated, and the stamps were only used for a few months. In comparison to previous designs, the Edward VIII stamp was rather simple, only featuring the profile of the king, a crown, the denomination and the word “Postage”. The design was suggested by 18-year-old H.J. Brown and the portrait of Edward was photographed by Hugh Cecil (1889-1974). To prevent forgeries, the stamp was watermarked with the symbol of a crown and “E8R”. The 12d green, the 1 12d brown and the 2 12d blue were issued on 1st September 1936, followed by the Penny Red on 14th September.

George VI’s (1895-1952) stamps were relatively simple in comparison to its predecessors, yet they were more ornate than Edward VIII. The new stamp featured an image of the King based on a plaster cast by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953). They were printed on a solid colour background with the words “Postage” and “Revenue” written on either side of the King’s profile. In the corners, a flower represented each of the countries that made up the United Kingdom: a rose for England, a thistle for Scotland, a daffodil for Wales and shamrocks for Northern Ireland. In 1937, the stamps became lighter in colour because the printers wished to save money on ink in anticipation of the Second World War.

In 1940, the Post Office released commemorative stamps to celebrate the centenary of the postage stamp. At double the size of the usual stamps, the centenary stamps featured the portrait of Queen Victoria and George VI side by side. A total of six different designs were produced, one for each of the denominations from 12d to 3d. Other commemorative stamps printed during George VI’s reign celebrated the king’s silver wedding, the liberation of the Channel Islands, the 1948 London Olympic Games, the Universal Postal Union’s 75th anniversary and the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

New stamps were once again needed when Elizabeth II (b.1926) succeeded her father in 1952. The image of the Queen was taken from a photograph by Dorothy Wilding (1893-1976), who had worked as a royal photographer since 1937. In the photograph, the Queen wears the State Diadem, which Queen Victoria wore in her portrait for the Penny Black. Over 75 designs were considered for the stamp before deciding upon five that resembled the much-loved stamps of the past. Eighteen different values of stamps were printed featuring the new Queen whose face was half turned to the viewer rather than in profile.

During Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, there have been hundreds of commemorative stamps, for example, the Coronation in 1953 and the World Scout Jubilee Jamboree in 1957. Yet, until 1964, the only people to feature on stamps were members of the royal family. In celebration of his 400th birthday, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) became the first “commoner” to have his face on a British stamp. A series of five stamps were designed for the occasion, one of which displayed the playwright’s face alongside the Queen. The other designs contained the Queen and an illustration portraying a scene from a Shakespeare play.

Whereas the profiles of previous monarchs were easy to reproduce as a silhouette to print on other items and commemorative paraphernalia, the Queen’s half-turned face caused problems. This prompted a redesign of British stamps in 1967 using a profile image made by English sculptor Arnold Machin (1911-99). Rather than an ornate design, the stamps were reduced to a coloured background, profile image of the Queen and the denomination in the bottom left-hand corner.

In 1970, the stamps needed editing again after Great Britain adopted decimal currency. New denominations appeared in the corners of the stamps, such as, 10p, 20p and 50p. In 1972, the Post Office issued £1, £2, and £5 stamps and later the odd values of £1.30, £1.33, £1.41, £1.50 and £1.60.

The new prices of stamps were confusing for many people, so the Post Office restricted the higher denominations to £1, £1.50, £2 and £5. In 1988, they issued four new designs featuring illustrations of castles from each country in the United Kingdom, based on photographs taken by Prince Andrew (b.1960). A small version of the Queen’s profile sat in the corner of each stamp alongside the image of Carrickfergus on the £1 green stamp, Caernarfon on the £1.50 brown, Edinburgh on the £2 blue and Windsor on the £5 brown.

Due to inflation, prices of stamps increased, which caused many difficulties for designers and printers. To work around the problem of fast-changing rates, the Post Office released non-denominated postage stamps, known as 1st class and 2nd class. These stamps remain in use today, and the prices can change without affecting the design. In 1993, self-adhesive stamps were printed, meaning people no longer needed to lick the back of a stamp to stick it to the envelope. In 2009, two ellipsoidal panels were added to each stamp to make them harder to remove and reuse.

Every Christmas, the Post Office releases festive-themed stamps, which always feature a small profile of the Queen in one corner. Hundreds of commemorative stamps are also printed each year, some of which cost more than the standard rate. People who have been commemorated include Princess Diana (1961-97), the Queen Mother (1900-2002), Winston Churchill (1874-1965), Inigo Jones (1573-1652), William Morris (1834-96), Roald Dahl (1916-90), Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and the gold medal winners of the 2012 Olympics. Significant events, such as the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the millennium, received special stamps, as have the anniversaries of buildings and organisations, including Westminster Abbey, the NHS and Great Ormond Street. Even fictional characters have featured on British stamps, for instance, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter and Winnie the Pooh.

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The Phoenix of America

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera

All she wanted was to read, learn and write in peace without being dictated to by the misogynistic Mexican society. Juana Inés de la Cruz lived during Mexico’s colonial period when women were not allowed to attend university. Despite this, Juana educated herself through books and began writing her thoughts about love, feminism and religion. Yet, Juana could not avoid the advances of men who believed she should settle down and marry. She sought the safety of a nunnery, which allowed her to continue writing until her opinions upset (male) members of the clergy. This is the story of the first feminist in the Americas, the “Phoenix of America”, who rose from the ashes of “religious authoritarianism”.

Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was born on 12th November 1648 in the village of San Miguel Nepantla near Mexico City. Although she had older sisters, Juana was an illegitimate child because her parents never married. Her father, a Spanish captain called Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, abandoned the family shortly after Juana’s birth. Her mother was a Criolla woman called Isabel Ramírez. The Corillo people were Latin Americans with Spanish ancestors, which gave them more authority in Colonial Mexico, which belonged to the Spanish Empire. Juana’s father was Spanish, and her maternal grandparents were Spanish, thus making her a Criolla.

Hacienda Panoaya in Amecameca, Mexico is where Sor Juana lived between 1651 and 1656

Despite the lack of care from her biological father, Juana grew up in relative comfort on her maternal grandfather’s Hacienda, the Spanish equivalent of an estate. Her favourite place was the Hacienda chapel, where Juana hid with books stolen from her grandfather’s library. Girls were forbidden to read for leisure, but this did not prevent Juana from learning to read and write. At the age of three, Juana followed her sister to school and quickly learned how to read Latin. Allegedly, by the age of 5, Juana understood enough mathematics to write accounts, and at 8, wrote her first poem.

By her teens, Juana knew enough to teach other children Latin and could also understand Nahuatl, an Aztec language spoken in central Mexico since the seventh century. It was unusual for those of Spanish descent to speak the native languages. The Spanish aimed to replace the Mexicano tongue with their Latin alphabet, so it was almost with defiance that Juana went out of her way to not only learn Nahuatl but compose poems in the language too.

Juana finished school at 16 but wished to continue her studies at university. Unfortunately, only men could receive higher education. Juana spoke to her mother about her aspirations, suggesting she could disguise herself as a man to attend the university in Mexico City. Despite her pleading, Juana’s mother refused to allow her daughter to attempt such a risky plan. Instead, Isabel sent Juana to the colonial viceroy’s court to work as a lady-in-waiting.

Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo

Under the guardianship of the viceroy’s wife, Leonor de Carreto (1616-73), Juana continued her studies in private. Yet, she could not keep her ambitions secret from her mistress, who informed the viceroy of Juana’s intelligence. Rather than reprimanding her, the viceroy Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo (1622-1715) took an interest in Juana’s education. Wishing to test Juana’s intellect, the viceroy arranged a meeting of several theologians, philosophers, and poets and invited them to question the young girl. The men quizzed Juana on many topics, including science and literature, and she managed to impress them with her answers. They also admired how Juana conducted herself, and she remained unphased by the difficult questions they threw at her.

News of the meeting spread throughout the viceregal court. No longer needing to hide her writing skills, Juana produced many poems and other writings that impressed all those who read them. Her literary accomplishments spread across the Kingdom of New Spain, which covered much of North America, northern parts of South America and several islands in the Pacific Ocean. Yet, female scholars and writers were an anomaly at the time, and rather than attract praise, Juana drew the attention of many suitors. After refusing many proposals of marriage, Juana felt desperate to escape from the domineering men. She wanted “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail [her] freedom to study.” The only safe place she could find where she could continue her work was the Monastery of St. Joseph, so she became a nun.

Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana

Juana spent over a year with the Discalced Carmelite nuns as a postulant, then moved to the monastery of the Hieronymite nuns in 1669, preferring their more relaxed rules. The San Jerónimo Convent, which became Juana’s home for the rest of her life, was established in 1585 by Isabel de Barrios. Only four nuns lived in the building at first, but they soon grew in number, becoming one of the first convents of nuns of the Saint Jerome order. They based their role in life on the biblical scholar Saint Jerome (342-420), who translated most of the Bible into Latin. Known for his religious teachings, Jerome favoured women and identified how a woman devoted to Jesus should live her life. During his lifetime, Jerome knew many women who had taken a vow of virginity. He advised them on the clothing they should wear, how to conduct themselves in public, and what and how they should eat and drink.

Sor Juana, by Juan de Miranda (circa 1680)

Despite taking on the title “Sor”, the Spanish equivalent of sister, Sor Juana’s main aim was to focus on her literary pursuits. Whilst she followed the ways of the Hieronymite nuns, she spent all her spare time writing. Juana’s previous employers, the Viceroy and Vicereine of New Spain became her patrons, helping her publish her work in colonial Mexico and Spain. Sor Juana also received support from the intellectual Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645-1700), who shared her religious beliefs as well as her passion for literature. Sigüenza, who claimed, “There is no pen that can rise to the eminence … of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” also encouraged Juana to explore scientific topics.

Sor Juana dedicated some of her works, particularly her poems, to her patrons. Those written for Vicereine Leonor de Carreto often featured the name Laura, a codename assigned by Juana. Another patron, Marchioness Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga (1649-1721) was “Lysi”. Juana also wrote a comic play called Los empeños de una casa (House of Desires) for Doña Maria Luisa and her husband in celebration of the birthday of their first child, José.

The first performance of Los empeños de una casa took place on 4th October 1683 and contains three songs in praise of Doña María Luisa Manrique: “Divine Lysi, Let Pass“, “Beautiful María” and “Tender Beautiful Flower Bud”. The protagonist, Doña Ana of Arellano, resembles the marchioness, who Sor Juana held in high regard. The play features two couples who are in love but cannot be together. Mistaken identities cause the characters much distress and the audience much hilarity. By the end of the final scene, everyone pairs up with the right partner, except one man who remains single as a punishment for causing the initial deception. In terms of theme and drama, Los empeños de una casa is a prime example of Mexican baroque theatre.

Another play by Sor Juana premiered on 11th February 1689 to mark the inauguration of the viceroyalty Gaspar de la Cerda y Mendoza (1653-97). Sor Juana based Love is but a Labyrinth on the Greek mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Theseus, the king and founder of Athens, fights against the half-bull, half-human Minotaur to save the Cretan princess Ariadne. Although Theseus resembled the archetypal baroque hero, Sor Juana portrayed him as a humble man rather than proud.

Sor Juana also demonstrated Baroque literature in her poetry. Often full of philosophical ideas, Juana explored themes of the deceptiveness of appearances and female intelligence. In Hombres necios (Foolish Men), for example, the nun reveals the illogical behaviour of men towards women, treating them as objects of passion rather than human beings. In other poems, Juana wrote about the disillusionment of love and the pain it caused.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Arguably, Sor Juana’s best poem is Primero sueño (First Dream), 975-lines about the torturous quest of the soul for knowledge. As night falls and the body sleeps, the soul separates from the body and dreams. The soul contemplates the world and the existence of everything from flowers to human life, taking into account all the details and mysteries of each object. Yet, it fails to grasp the overwhelming abundance of the universe, and the sun rises once more, forcing the soul back into the body.

Critics interpreted Primero sueño as Sor Juana’s dreams or thoughts, which were highly philosophical compared to the average person. She explored themes of Neoplatonism, the idea that the world is divided into hierarchies, and Scholasticism, which combined Christian theology with classical philosophy, particularly that of Aristotle (384-322 BC). The latter believed every living organism had more than one purpose or cause, which Aristotle split into ten categories: substance; quantity; quality; relatives; somewhere; sometime; being in a position; having; acting; and being acted upon. It is likely Sor Juana came across Aristotle’s Categories during her studies, either in her grandfather’s library or the San Jerónimo Convent.

Sor Juana’s writings, poems and plays covered many of her interests, such as religion, philosophy, mathematics and science. She also enjoyed music and studied the theory of instrumental tuning, on which she wrote a treatise. Sadly, this work is lost, but evidence suggests she wrote some of her poems, intending to set them to music.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Not all of Sor Juana’s writings were intended for public consumption. In 1690, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz (1637-99), the Bishop of Puebla, published Sor Juana’s critique of a sermon by the Jesuit priest Father António Vieira (1608-97). Titled Carta Atenagórica (Athenagorical Letter or a letter “worthy of Athena’s wisdom”), Juana expressed her dislike of the colonial system and her belief that religious doctrines are the product of human interpretation. She criticised Father António Vieira for his dramatic and philosophical representation of theological topics. Most importantly, Juana called the priest out for his anti-feminist attitude.

Alongside Sor Juana’s critique, the Bishop of Puebla published a letter under the pseudonym Sor Filotea de la Cruz, in which he admonished the nun for her opinions. Ironically, the bishop agreed with many of Sor Juana’s thoughts, but he ended the letter by saying Sor Juana should concentrate on religious rather than secular studies. Whilst the critique focused on a religious sermon, Sor Juana included colonialism and politics in her argument, which the bishop felt were inappropriate topics for a woman, let alone a nun.

Carta Atenagórica

“Sor Filotea expresses the admiration she feels for Sor Juana, but at the same time reproaches her for exercising her talent in profane subjects instead of devotional literature. Although Sister Filotea does not declare herself against the education of women, she does express her dissatisfaction with the lack of obedience that some already educated women might demonstrate. Finally, she recommends Sor Juana to follow the example of other mystical writers who dedicated themselves to theological literature, such as Santa Teresa de Ávila or San Gregorio Nacianceno.”

Sor Juana responded to Sor Filotea, the Bishop of Puebla, in which she defended women’s rights to education and further study. Whilst she agreed that women should not neglect their duties, in her case her obedience to the Church and God, Juana pointed out that “One can perfectly well philosophise while cooking supper.” By this, she meant women could balance their education and everyday tasks. She jokingly followed this with the quip, “If Aristotle had cooked, much more would have been written.”

In her response, Sor Juana quoted the Spanish nun St Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) as well as St Jerome and St Paul to back up her argument that “human arts and sciences” are necessary to understand sacred theology. She suggested if women were elected to positions of authority, they could educate other women, thus alleviating a male tutor’s fears of being in intimate settings with female students.

The nun’s controversial response caused a lot of concern amongst high-ranking (male) officials who criticised her “waywardness”. They were angry with Sor Juana for challenging the patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church, and for claiming her writing was as good as historical and biblical texts. As a result, the San Jerónimo Convent forbade Juana from reading and sold her collection of over 4,000 books and scientific instruments for charity. With no one on her side, Sor Juana relented and agreed to renew her vows. The convent also required Juana to undergo penance, but rather than signing the penitential documents with her name, she wrote: “Yo, la Peor de Todas” (I, the worst of all women).

From 1693 onwards, Sor Juana focused solely on her religious orders. Never again did she pick up a pen to write or a book to read. Instead, Juana spent her time either in prayer or tending the sick, which led to fatal consequences. After nursing other nuns stricken during a plague, Sor Juana fell ill and passed away on 17th April 1695.

Before she was silenced, Sor Juana penned over 100 works, the majority of which went unpublished. Unfortunately, many were lost, and only a handful remain. Those that survived were compiled into an anthology. Several writers, including the Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz (1914-98), have studied Juana’s life and writings, focusing on the difficulties women faced while trying to thrive in academic fields. Several scholars argue that Juana’s advocacy of intellectual authority is one of the first recorded instances of feminism. Some liken her to the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-54), although Juana was ahead of her time – a protofeminist.

Monument of Sor Juana in Chapultepec.

Although Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is almost an unknown entity in the non-Spanish speaking world, her work and reputation live on in Mexico, where she remains a national icon. Her former cloister is now the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana, which the Mexican government founded in 1979. During the renovations, builders discovered bones believed to belong to the nun. Due to a lack of ancestors, tests cannot be carried out on the bones to confirm the identity, but a medallion similar to the one depicted in portraits of Juana found in the same place is enough evidence for some.

Feminist movements of the past and present have adopted Sor Juana as a symbol, along with Frida Kahlo. Some also link both women to LGBT movements, although Sor Juana never disclosed her sexuality. Evidence suggests Sor Juana became a nun to avoid marriage, but others argue she was an “Indigenous lesbian”. As part of her penance, Juana cut her hair, which some interpret as an attempt to masculinise her appearance, likening it to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940).

Statue of Sor Juana Inés in Madrid, Spain.

Sor Juana is also a religious symbol of Mexican identity, both in relation to Catholicism and Aztec beliefs. The latter is due to Juana’s choice to write some of her poems in the indigenous Nahuatl language. She also wrote a play, El Divino Narciso (Loa to Divine Narcissus), which features two Indigenous people named Occident and America, discussing their religious beliefs with two Spaniards, Religion and Zeal. Yet, her devotion to the Virgin Mary is evident in other work by Sor Juana, as is her decision to take her vows at the San Jerónimo Convent.

Juana Ines de la Cruz in art by Mexican artist Mauricio García Vega.

Sor Juana continued to inspire and influence people in Mexico and Spain in the 20th century. She appears as characters in literature, such as Yo-Yo Boing! by Puerto Rican author Giannina Braschi (b.1953), which debates the greatest women poets, including Sor Juana and Emily Dickinson (1830-86). In 1962, Telesistema Mexicano broadcast a mini-series based on Sor Juana’s life; and in 1990, the film Yo, la peor de todas (I, the Worst of All) premiered, based on Octavio Paz’s book about the Mexican nun.

In the 21st century, Sor Juana’s fame finally made its way into English speaking countries. In 2004, Canadian author Paul Anderson published a novel based on Sor Juana’s life called Hunger’s Brides, which won the Alberta Book Award the following year. In 2007, Margaret Atwood (b.1939) published a book of poems, including Sor Juana Works in the Garden. In the music world, American composer John Adams (b.1947) used two of Sor Juana’s poems in the libretto for the oratorio-opera El Niño (2000). In 2015, the Royal Shakespeare Company performed Helen Edmundson’s (b.1964) play The Heresy of Love as part of the Spanish Golden Age season. Finally, in 2017, Google honoured Sor Juana with a Google Doodle to mark her 366th birthday.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has yet to earn her place among the greatest women in the world outside of Spanish speaking countries, but her ideas are gradually making their way into contemporary works. Sometimes referred to as the “The Tenth Muse” and “The Phoenix of America”, Sor Juana is an inspiration to everyone who faces adversity, particularly in terms of human rights and education. Fortunately, life for women has drastically improved since Sor Juana’s time, but the necessary changes only began 100 years ago. Sor Juana was not afraid to point out the inequalities in her society. Yet, with no one to back her up, there was nothing she could do to change things during her lifetime. If Sor Juana could see the world today, she would be pleased with our progress.


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The Greatest Composer of All Time

In 2019, BBC Music Magazine named Johann Sebastian Bach as the greatest composer of all time. The magazine asked 174 current composers to vote for their favourites, of which Bach came out on top. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) followed second, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) third, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) fourth, and Claude Debussy (1862-1918) a respectable fifth. Why does Bach stand head and shoulders above all the other composers that have been and gone throughout history? He came from a family that produced over 50 musicians in 200 years, yet J.S. Bach surpassed them all to become the nation’s favourite.

Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 61) – Elias Gottlob Haussmann

Johann Sebastian Bach was born on 31st March 1685 in Eisenach in the duchy of Saxe-Eisenach, Germany. He was the eighth and youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach (1645-95), the town musical director, and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt (1644-94). Bach’s father taught him to play the violin from a young age, and his uncle, Johann Christoph Bach (1645-93), taught the young boy how to play the organ. Bach had several uncles and cousins who played various instruments and worked as organists or composers, all of whom had a great impact on Bach’s childhood. Sadly, his parents died when Bach was ten years old, leaving his older brother Johann Christoph (1671-1721) as his guardian.

Johann Christoph worked as the organist at St. Michael’s Church in Ohrdruf, where he also taught Bach everything he needed to know about the instrument. His brother also gave him lessons on the clavichord and introduced Bach to some of the top composers of the day, including Johann Christoph’s former tutor, Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706).

Whilst living with his brother in Ohrdruf, Bach attended a local school where he studied theology, Latin, Greek, French, and Italian. In 1700, Bach enrolled at St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg, which extended his music knowledge as well as providing a prestigious academic education. Bach joined the school choir and took organ and harpsichord lessons from Georg Böhm (1661-1733), a German Baroque organist and composer at the local church.

Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Kirche

After graduating from St Michael’s School in 1703, Bach found a position as a court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst III (1664-1707) in Weimar. Still in his teens, Bach used the opportunity to develop his reputation as an organist. After seven months, rumours of his skill spread to neighbouring towns, including Arnstadt, located 19 miles from Weimar. A new protestant church in Arnstadt invited Bach to inspect their organ and give a harpsichord recital to mark the opening of the building. In August 1703, Bach became the official organist at the church, which until 1935 was known as New Church. Today, it is called Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Kirche because of its association with the composer.

As the church organist, Bach worked with other musicians and a choir. After a couple of years in the post, Bach grew from a teenager into a self-important man who was not afraid to raise his opinion. Bach disliked the singing standard of the choir and, on one occasion, described one member as a “Zippel Fagottist” (weenie bassoon player). The man retaliated by attacking Bach with a stick and, although Bach complained, the man was not reprimanded. Instead, the authorities advised Bach to lower his expectations of the choir.

Bach continued to assert his self-appointed authority on those who he deemed beneath him, including his employer. In 1705, Bach requested four weeks leave to visit the Baroque composer and organist Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707) in the city of Lübeck. This involved a 280 miles journey, which Bach mostly travelled on foot over several days. Bach failed to return after his allotted four weeks, returning after four months instead. The 21-year-old organist most likely lost his job as a result.

Portrait of the young Bach (disputed)

In 1706, Bach started working as the organist at Divi Blasii, a Gothic church in Mühlhausen. Bach received a higher salary and was no doubt pleased with the better quality of the choir. He also convinced the church to renovate the organ, a task that needed much fundraising. After four months in his new job, Bach married his 23-year-old second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach (1684-1720).

Whilst working in Mühlhausen, Bach composed a cantata for the inauguration of the new council held on 4th February 1708. Gott ist mein König (God is my King), consists of seven movements written for “four separate instrumental ‘choirs’, set against a vocal consort of four singers, an optional Capelle of ripienists and an organ.” The lyrics are based on Psalm 74, in which the author expresses the pleas of the Tribe of Judah in Babylonian captivity. Although Bach only intended the cantata for the festival, it became his first published work later that year. It is also Bach’s only known cantata published in his lifetime.

In 1708, Bach moved back to Weimar, where his wife gave birth to their first child, Catharina Dorothea (1708-74). Two years later, they welcomed a son, Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-84), who inherited his father’s talent. Unfortunately, Wilhelm earned very little for his future compositions and died in poverty. In 1713, Maria gave birth to twins Johann Christoph and Maria Sophia. Unfortunately, Johann died on the same day, and Maria passed away twenty days later.

Whilst in Weimar, Bach worked as an organist and composed many keyboard and orchestral works. Bach later compiled many of his preludes and fugues from this time to form The Well-Tempered Clavier. Each piece in the collection is in a different key, totalling 24 key signatures: C major, C minor, C sharp major and so on. The outcome remains one of the most important works in the history of classical music. Bach also studied Italian composers and transcribed some of Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) works for the organ and harpsichord.

In 1714, Bach welcomed another son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-88), who almost surpassed Bach’s musical legacy. Haydn (1732-1809), Beethoven and Mozart admired his work greatly, particularly the latter who said, “Bach is the father, we are the children.” The same year as Carl’s birth, J.S. Bach became the Konzertmeister (director of music) at the ducal court in Weimar. His boss, Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar (1696-1715), required Bach to compose one cantata each month for the court chapel service. Bach also transcribed many of Prince Johann Ernst’s violin concertos for the harpsichord and organ.

Bach’s sixth child, Johann Gottfried Bernhard (1715-39), was born in 1715, the same year that Prince Johann Ernst passed away. Bach continued working as Konzertmeister but soon fell out of favour with the musicians and choir under his command. In 1717, his employers tried to dismiss Bach from his position. After stubbornly refusing to leave, Bach found himself arrested and confined to the County Judge’s place of detention for a month. On his release, he begrudgingly accepted his discharge.

Despite Bach’s unfavourable dismissal, Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen (1694-1728) hired Bach as Kapellmeister. Prince Leopold had an ear for music and recognised Bach’s talents. Unlike his previous employer, Bach had a good relationship with the prince and made him the godfather of Leopold Augustus (1718-19), who sadly died in infancy. The prince paid Bach well but disapproved of elaborate organ music in churches. As a result, most of Bach’s compositions from his time in Köthen had a secular nature. Nonetheless, Bach respected his employer’s taste, saying, “He was a gracious Prince, who both loved and knew music.”

As Kapellmeister, Bach frequently joined the prince on his travels. In 1720, while away in Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic), Bach’s wife unexpectedly died. Bach described her untimely death as the worst event in his life. Fortunately, he found love again the following year with the soprano singer Anna Magdalena Wilcke (1701-60). She also worked for the prince, and the couple married on 3rd December 1721. Anna instantly took up the role of stepmother and raised Bach’s children as though her own.

Die Leipziger Thomaskirche 1749

In 1723, Bach accepted the position of Thomaskantor (Cantor at St. Thomas). This involved moving to Leipzig to direct the Thomanerchor, a choir of boys aged 9 to 18 who attended St Thomas boarding school. Bach’s employer also expected him to teach Latin but allowed the composer to appoint others for this task. Bach was also expected to compose cantatas for Sunday services, of which he produced more than 300. The majority of the cantatas reflected the Gospel readings in the weekly lectionary.

During his first six years in Leipzig, Bach fathered six children. Due to the lack of medical care, many of Bach’s children did not survive infancy. Christiana Sophia Henrietta (1723-26), for example, died at the age of three, Christian Gottlieb (1725-28) at two, Regina Johanna (1728-33) at five, and Ernestus Andreas (1727-27) shortly after his birth. Two of the six children lived to adulthood. Gottfried Heinrich (1724-63) learned to play the keyboard well and showed the potential of “a great genius, which however failed to develop”. Writings of the time suggest Gottfried had a mental handicap of some sort and relied on his sister, Elisabeth “Liesgen” Juliana Friederica (1726-81), for all his adult life. Liesgen married one of her father’s pupils, Johann Christoph Altnickol (1720-59), who worked as an organist, composer and teacher.

In March 1729, Bach took over as director of the Collegium Musicum, a musical society that specialised in secular performances. The position, which he held for ten years, allowed Bach to broaden his repertoire, which, until then, was constricted to liturgical compositions. The extra work did not prevent Bach from his Thomaskantor duties because of Bach’s proactiveness in producing six years worth of cantatas during his first three years in Leipzig. He also continued to grow his large family, although the child mortality rate remained high. Three babies born in the 1730s did not reach childhood: Christiana Benedicta (1730-30), Christiana Dorothea (1731-32) and Johann August Abraham (1733-33).

In 1732, Bach welcomed a son who managed to survive childhood and follow in his musical footsteps. Johann Christoph Friedrich (1732-95), known as the ‘Bückeburg’ Bach to differentiate him from his father, became a concertmaster in Bückeburg, where he was also a renowned harpsichord player. The Bückeburg Bach composed hundreds of pieces for the keyboard, as well as chamber music, choral work and symphonies. Unfortunately, a lot of J.C.F. Bach’s manuscripts were destroyed during the Second World War.

Johann Christian Bach – Thomas Gainsborough

Another of Bach’s sons earned the epithet “The London Bach” because he established his reputation in England as the music master to Queen Charlotte (1744-1818). J.S. Bach was already 50 years old at Johann Christian’s (1735-82) birth and did not live to witness his son’s success. Nonetheless, J.C. Bach’s talent emerged from a young age, and his father spent a few years teaching him how to play the keyboard. Later in life, J.C. tutored the 8-year-old Mozart in composition, who often credited the “London Bach” for his success. On hearing of J.C. Bach’s death in 1782, Mozart lamented, “What a loss to the musical world!”

In 1736, J.S. Bach received the title of “Royal Court Composer” from Augustus III of Poland (1696-1763), the Elector of Saxony. At this time, Bach was working on his first publication of German Organ Mass, which he eventually published in 1739. The collection includes a triple fugue in E flat major, which is understood to represent the Trinity. “The first fugue is calm and majestic, with an absolutely uniform movement throughout; in the second the theme seems to be disguised, and is only occasionally recognisable in its true shape, as if to suggest the divine assumption of an earthly form; in the third, it is transformed into rushing semiquavers as if the Pentacostal wind were coming roaring from heaven.” (Albert Schweitzer, 1905)

Following the birth of his final two children, Johanna Carolina (1737-81) and Regina Susanna (1742-1809), Bach’s music style shifted. He adopted stile antico from the 16th century and combined it with the music of his contemporaries, for instance, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Handel and Bach were born in the same year, yet they never met. Bach attempted to visit Handel in 1719, but he had moved to London. Bach incorporated several of Handel’s arias into his version of the St Mark Passion, composed in 1747.

In mid-1747, Bach visited King Frederick II of Prussia (1712-86) in Potsdam, who introduced Bach to the fortepiano. This new instrument was an early version of the piano built by Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753). Bach had come across Silbermann’s earlier constructions and criticised them heavily. Yet, the fortepiano impressed Bach and inspired him to write a collection of keyboard canons and fugues, which he published under the title The Musical Offering. Many musicologists consider this work one of the first piano compositions in history.

Although Bach continued to compose, often returning to and adapting older works, his eyesight rapidly deteriorated. He stubbornly refused to step down as Thomaskantor, but his employer made arrangements to hire another composer to start working “upon the eventual … decease of Mr Bach”. By 1750, Bach was almost completely blind due to cataracts and underwent eye surgery by the British eye surgeon John Taylor (1703-72). Unfortunately, Taylor was a charlatan and permanently blinded Bach as a result. He also blinded the composer Handel and up to 100 other victims. Sadly, Bach passed away on 28th July 1750 from complications due to the unsuccessful operation.

Not much is known about Bach’s funeral other than he was buried in an unmarked grave at Old St. John’s Cemetery in Leipzig. Yet, he did not die a poor man. An inventory drawn up at the time claims Bach owned five harpsichords, two lute-harpsichords, three violins, three violas, two cellos, a viola da gamba, a lute and a spinet. Whilst his funeral remains a mystery, Bach’s life is recorded in detail in a Nekrolog (obituary) written by his son Carl and one of his students, Johann Friedrich Agricola (1720-74).

Image of the Bach memorial erected by Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig in 1843

During his lifetime, Bach was highly regarded amongst his colleagues. Yet, those outside his social circle were not so familiar with his compositions. As a result, only a limited number of people played Bach’s music. It is thanks to Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47), who conducted a famous performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion on 11th March 1829, that Bach is popular today. Mendelssohn later erected a monument to the composer in Leipzig. Also credited with reviving Bach’s compositions is Bristol-born Samuel Wesley (1766-1837), the son of the famous hymnodist Charles Wesley (1707-88). At the beginning of the 19th century, Wesley, sometimes known as “the English Mozart”, occasionally performed some of Bach’s organ pieces in London concerts.

In 1850, the Bach-Gesellschaft (Bach Society) was founded by Moritz Hauptmann (1792-1868), a cantor of the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, to promote Bach’s music. Around that time, musicians referred to Bach as one of the Three Bs, a term coined in the Berliner Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung to represent Bach, Beethoven and Hector Berlioz (1803-69). Later, a German conductor replaced Berlioz with Johannes Brahms (1833-97), saying “I believe in Bach, the Father, Beethoven, the Son, and Brahms, the Holy Ghost of music.” (Hans von Bülow, 1880) Since then, the English composer David Matthews (b.1943) has proposed adding Benjamin Britten (1913-76) to the legacy, making them the Four Bs.

Bach’s popularity continued to rise during the 20th century with the appearance of several organisations and awards in his name. Choirs and orchestras, including the Bach Aria Group, Deutsche Bachsolisten, Bachchor Stuttgart, and Bach Collegium Japan, have developed and performed various Bach Festivals around the world. Every two years, the Bach-Archiv Leipzig holds the Internationaler Bach Wettbewerb Leipzig (International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition); and the Royal Academy of Music in London awards the Royal Academy of Music Bach Prize to “an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the performance and/or scholarly study of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.”

So, why is Bach the nation’s favourite composer? Admittedly, it is a matter of personal taste, but Bach may come out on top due to his versatile style of compositions. Whilst Bach usually wrote for organ and other keyboard instruments, he also produced concertos for the violin and music for orchestras. Bach composed hundreds of religious works, making him popular in churches, but he also wrote secular music, which is enjoyed by people of all faiths and none. Bach wrote something for everyone, and it is this, alongside his expertise, that earns him the title “The Greatest Composer of All Time”.

Some of the compositions mentioned in this blog are available on YouTube through the following links:
Gott ist mein König (BWV 71)
The Well Tempered Clavier: Book I: Prelude and Fugue No.1 in C Major (BWV846)
German Organ Mass : Vater unser im Himmelreich (BWV683a)
Prelude in E-flat Major (BWV 552/i) – Representing the Trinity
Six-voice ricercar from The Musical Offering (BWV 1079)
Opening to St. Matthew Passion (BMW 244)


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