Laurence Housman

In 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled a statue of the Suffragist leader, Dame Millicent Fawcett, in Parliament Square, London. Sculpted by Gillian Wearing, it honours the centenary of (some) women winning the right to vote. It is the first statue of a woman to stand in Parliament Square and honours not just Fawcett but 63 other people who supported women’s suffrage, too. The names are inscribed on the plinth next to a small engraving of each person, including four men. One of the men is Laurence Housman, an English playwright, writer, illustrator, and founding member of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and the Suffrage Atelier.

Laurence Housman was born on 18th July 1865 in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, to Edward and Sarah Jane Housman. He was one of seven children, including Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936), who became a classical scholar and poet, and Clemence Housman (1861-1955), an author and illustrator. Housman’s father worked as a solicitor and tax accountant, but his mother passed away in 1871. Edward Housman remarried a cousin, Lucy.

Housman had a close relationship with his siblings, particularly Alfred and Clemence, with whom he enjoyed creative pastimes, such as putting on theatrical performances and creating a family magazine. Meanwhile, Housman’s father turned to drink as his business floundered, leaving the family in financial distress. Fortunately, the Housman brothers received scholarships to study at Bromsgrove School, a local boarding school that allowed day students.

In 1882, Housman attended an art class with his sister, Clemence. The following year, they each inherited £200 from a relative, which they spent on art courses at the Lambeth School of Art and the Royal College of Art in London. Housman’s interest in illustration led to positions at London publishing houses, where he produced the artwork for several books, including Christina Rossetti‘s Goblin Market (1893) and his sister’s novella, The Were-Wolf (1896). The latter was an erotic fantasy featuring a female werewolf.

Housman also dabbled in writing and published several poems, hymns and carols during the 1890s. By the turn of the century, Housman’s eyesight began to fail, so he concentrated entirely on writing. He had already published several fairytales, such as A Farm in Fairyland (1894), but his first major literary success was the novel An Englishwoman’s Love-letters (1900), which he published anonymously. The book initially caused a scandal until the public discovered it was written by a man rather than an Englishwoman.

Many of Housman’s works contained Christian undertones. Aside from novels, Housman penned plays such as Bethlehem (1902), Angels and Ministers (1921), and Little Plays of St. Francis (1922). Once again, Housman caused a scandal for depicting biblical characters on stage, and many plays were only performed privately. Another play, Victoria Regina (1934), caused problems because the Lord Chamberlain, Rowland Baring, 2nd Earl of Cromer (1877-1953), ruled that “no British sovereign may be portrayed on the stage until 100 years after his or her accession.” As a result, Victoria Regina could not be performed until the centenary of Queen Victoria’s accession on 20th June 1937, when it opened at the Lyric Theatre, London.

During his career, Housman published around 100 pieces of work, including an autobiography, The Unexpected Years (1937), in which he discussed his controversial writing. He did not mention much of his personal life in the book due to his homosexuality, which was illegal at the time. Despite this, Housman was quite vocal about his sexuality and invested time in helping homosexuals who were stigmatized by society. Housman joined the Order of Chaeronea, an underground organisation for homosexuals. Housman also founded the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, which later became the British Sexological Society.

Housman identified as a feminist and devoted himself to the women’s suffrage movement, for which he is remembered on the plinth of the Millicent Fawcett statue. In 1909, Housman and his sister Clemence founded the Suffrage Atelier with the artist and author Alfred Pearse (1855-1933), known under the pseudonym “A Patriot”. The Atelier accepted artists and illustrators, primarily women, who wished to use their skills to assist the campaign for women’s suffrage.

The Suffrage Atelier was not the only group producing artwork for the suffrage movement, yet it was the only one to pay its workers. Working as a studio rather than a party or union, the Atelier produced illustrations and designs, which they sold to groups of suffragists or suffragettes. The Suffrage Atelier primarily worked with the Women’s Freedom League, an offshoot of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

One of the posters designed by the Suffrage Atelier emphasised how unfair it was to deny women the right to vote. At the time, women could run for mayor, work as nurses, doctors, teachers and factory hands, or be stay-at-home mothers, yet not vote in parliamentary elections. Conversely, men who had been convicts, “lunatics”, proprietors of white slaves, unfit for military service, or drunkards still retained their voting rights. This poster and many of the Atelier’s publications could be quickly reproduced and circulated using block printing, such as woodcuts and linocuts. Despite limited colours, the pamphlets, posters and banners helped spread the women’s cause across the country.

Housman allowed the Suffrage Atelier to use his house at No. 1 Pembroke Cottage Kensington in London as their base. The building also became a central hub for the suffrage movement, offering women writing lessons and hosting talks by motivational speakers. In 1911, Housman opened his doors as a safe house for women participating in the Census Boycott. Led by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), women declined to partake in the census by either refusing to fill in the census forms or staying out of the house on the designated night. Participants of the boycott used the slogan, “If women don’t count, neither shall they be counted,” to put pressure on the anti-suffrage Liberal Government.

In 1911, Housman compiled a book called An Anti-Suffrage Alphabet, using illustrations by several members of the Suffrage Atelier. Housman aimed to raise money for the suffrage movement through sales of the book, which mocked negative views of women with a short rhyme for each letter of the alphabet.

“R are the reasons why women can’t vote – Lord Carzon has plenty from which you can quote. “Irrefutable reasons,” but while you are quoting don’t mention the countries where women are voting.”

“W’s the washing which woman must do day in and day out, on polling day too. If she wants a day off you had better say “Bosh” and tell her such fanciful notions won’t wash.”

Housman also designed the “From Prison to Citizenship” banner, which the WSPU carried during a procession on 17th June 1911, a few days before the coronation of George V (1865-1936). Known as the Women’s Coronation Procession, the WSPU demanded women’s suffrage in the coronation year. The procession was “the largest women’s suffrage march ever held in Britain and one of the few to draw together the full range of suffrage organisations”. Around 40,000 people joined the march from Westminster to South Kensington, with Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) and Flora Drummond (1878-1949) leading on horseback. Housman’s banner was carried by the suffragettes who had spent time in prison for their militant actions.

Aside from the artwork Housman created, he began dedicating his writing to the suffrage movement. He also edited other people’s work to give it a feminist twist. Housman wrote several newspaper articles that urged women to join the campaigns and penned a series of poems for Votes for Women, the official newspaper of the WSPU. Housman set several of his fictional works in a future where the women’s campaigns, particularly the Census Boycott, were successful.

To persuade other men to support women’s suffrage, Housman formed the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage with several other writers and journalists, including Gerald Gould (1885-1935), H. N. Brailsford (1873-1958) and Israel Zangwill (1864-1926). The league produced a monthly paper through which they persuaded a handful of men to write “Votes for Women” on their ballot papers at the 1910 general election.

Housman frequently spoke at rallies and participated in protests, which resulted in his arrest on more than one occasion. At one rally, Housman read Rudyard Kipling’s (1965-1936) poem Tommy (1890), replacing every instance of “Tommy” with “Women”. ‘O it’s Women this, an’ Women that, an’ “Women, go away.”

Following the First World War, after women over 30 gained the right to vote, Housman and his sister left the capital and settled in Ashley, Hampshire. With less focus on women’s suffrage, Housman concentrated on writing novels, short stories and plays, as well as overseeing the recently established British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology. In 1921, Housman became the Vice-President of the Ethical Union (now Humanists UK), of which many members had belonged to women’s suffrage groups, including the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. The organisation aims to represent “people who seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs”. Housman, who had previously written about Biblical characters and hid Christian themes in his novels, may have seemed like a peculiar candidate for the Vice-President, yet his main focus was improving schools and education, which in some instances had been restricted by the Church.

In 1924, Housman and Clemence moved to Street, Somerset, which remained Housman’s home for the rest of his life. He continued to support the Ethical Union, remaining Vice-President until 1957. On 25th September 1929, Housman delivered a lecture at Conway Hall on The Religious Advance Towards Rationalism. He explained, “while society advances toward rationalism, it should also advance toward religion, but to a religion different from past forms. This religion will derive from human experience … Experience has actually led us, along the path of science, to perceive the limits of scientific understanding: to see that science cannot explain the origin of existence. Science leads, then, to a primordial sense of mystery, which can be called a religious sense. Also, the gospel story, whether historically true or not, advocates love, and love is permanently relevant to mankind.”

In 1945, Housman opened a bookshop in Shaftesbury Avenue, London. Although the shop shares his name, it was founded by the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) in his honour. The PPU promoted pacifism and was closely connected with the Ethical Union. Housman desired the shop to promote “ideas of peace, … human rights and a more equitable economy by which future wars, and all their inherent suffering, might be avoided.” The shop moved to Kings Cross, London, in 1959, where it remains one of the longest-running radical bookshops in the country. Over time, it has started stocking new and used books on feminism, anarchism, anti-racism, anti-fascism, LGBTQIA+ politics, socialism, and nonviolence. It remains a non-profit bookshop and is managed by a trust.

Housman and his sister continued living with each other in Somerset until Clemence’s health began to fail. Housman and his neighbours initially cared for Clemence at home until they had no choice but to send her to a nursing home in Glastonbury. Clemence passed away on 6th December 1955, aged 94. Housman continued to live in their house in Street without his lifetime companion, eventually passing away at age 93 on 20th February 1959.

Following Housman’s death, The Times posted an obituary describing him as an “idealist and iconoclast… a figure of versatile and idiosyncratic distinction.” Whilst Housman did not entirely reject Christianity, the newspaper portrayed him as agnostic. In Housman’s autobiography, he wrote, “One hears a good deal of talk nowadays about the decay of religion; and the Victorian age is spoken of as though it had been an age of faith. My own impression of it is that it combined much foolish superstition with a smug adaptation of Christianity to social convention and worldly ends.” Housman still believed in something, but not the form of Christianity imposed during the Victorian era and used against women’s suffrage campaigners and homosexuals.

Despite Housman’s decades-long campaign for reform, his fame diminished over time, although he has remained an inspiration for humanist organisations. The Millicent Fawcett statue has unearthed Housman’s name, but it is unlikely he will ever receive the same recognition as the suffragists, suffragettes and other campaigners.

Housman wrote at least ten novels, 25 short stories, 55 plays, and several poems and works of non-fiction, the majority of which are now out of print. Housman’s play, Victoria Regina, was adapted for American television in 1961, starring Julie Harris (1925-2013) as Queen Victoria and James Donald (1917-93) as Prince Albert. Unfortunately, there have been no revivals and adaptations of his works since.

I have had pleasures and disappointments; but though the disappointments are perhaps more numerous and present to my recollection than the pleasures, I continue to find life worth having.
– Laurence Housman, The Unexpected Years (1937)


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House of Frankenstein

When thinking about the city of Bath, the author that usually comes to mind is Jane Austen, but she is not the only writer celebrated in the city. A couple of doors down from the Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street is Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein, which explores the world of Mary Shelley and her best-known fictional character. Shelley briefly lived in Bath in 1816, but the city did not leave a significant impression or influence on her work as it did with Austen. Nonetheless, the interactive museum pays homage to the author and the impact her imagination has had on the world.

Mary Shelley was the second child of Mary Wollstonecraft, the British writer and women’s rights activist, who died shortly after Mary’s birth on 30th August 1797. Mary and her half-sister Fanny were brought up by her father, William Godwin (1756-1836), a political philosopher who endeavoured to keep his late wife’s achievements and memory alive. For the first few years of Mary’s life, her father fought to make ends meet, often leaving her in the care of the housekeeper, Louisa Jones. Eventually, Godwin’s financial situation forced him to look for a wealthy new wife.

In 1801, Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont (1768-1841), who already had two children, Charles and Claire. Most of Godwin’s friends disliked his new wife, and Mary hated her. Godwin’s hope of avoiding debts also backfired. Godwin and his wife set up a children’s publishing firm called M. J. Godwin, but it did not make a profit. Godwin only avoided going to debtor’s prison through the help of some friends and devotees.

Mary’s father did not have enough money to provide her with formal schooling, but he tutored her in a range of subjects at home. The children spent a lot of time in their father’s library or talking to his intellectual friends, such as the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). As Mary got older, Godwin started to feel guilty for not educating his daughters in the manner their mother would have wished. With the little money he had, Godwin provided his children with a governess and allowed them to read books from his failed publishing company, particularly Roman and Greek histories. In 1811, Mary spent six months at a boarding school to complete her schooling. By 15, she was “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.”

In June 1812, Godwin sent Mary to Dundee, Scotland, where she stayed with the radical philosopher William Baxter. Godwin instructed Baxter to educate her in philosophy, per her mother’s wishes. During the holidays, Mary returned to London and became acquainted with poet-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), who had agreed to help her father pay off his debts. When Mary moved home after her second trip to Scotland in 1814, Shelley, now estranged from his wife, had upset his family by denouncing the traditional models of the aristocracy. As a result, he no longer had access to the money he had promised Godwin.

Despite her father’s anger at Shelley, Mary began meeting the poet secretly in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, near her mother’s grave. Mary, then only 16, began to fall in love with the 21-year-old radical, and on 26th June 1814, they both declared their love for one another. When Godwin discovered the relationship, he attempted to put an end to the pair’s liaisons. Confused, Mary argued that Shelley was an embodiment of her parents’ liberal and reformist ideas and that Godwin had once said that marriage was a repressive monopoly. By this time, Mary had lost her virginity to Shelley, who was still legally married.

Unsure what else to do, Mary and Shelley eloped to France on 28th July 1814, taking Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont (1798-1879), with them. Mary’s stepmother followed them, trying to convince Mary and Claire to return home, but they refused. For a few months, the trio travelled on foot, carriage and donkey through France to Switzerland, where they eventually ran out of money. With no other choice, they returned to England, landing at Gravesend, Kent, in September 1814. Godwin refused to have anything to do with his daughter, so Mary, now pregnant, and Shelley moved into Claire’s lodgings in London.

Mary suffered poor physical and mental health throughout her pregnancy, not helped by her lover’s growing infatuation with her stepsister. Although Mary believed in free love, she was jealous of Shelley and Claire’s relationship. Mary also disapproved of Shelley’s hints that she should begin an affair with his friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg (1792-1862). Eventually, Shelley ended his love affair with Claire, who quickly found herself another lover, the poet Lord Byron (1788-1824). Unfortunately, Mary had no opportunity to feel happy about Shelley’s return because, on 22nd February 1815, she gave birth to a two-month premature daughter, who only lived for a few days.

Throughout the spring, Mary suffered from acute depression, often seeing ghostly visions of her deceased daughter. By the summer, she had conceived again, and the hope of a new child greatly improved her mental health. Around the same time, Shelley received some money from his late grandfather, so he treated Mary to a holiday in Torquay. Following this, Shelley rented a cottage in Bishopsgate, where Mary gave birth to a son, William, on 24th January 1816.

In the summer of 1816, Shelley, Mary and their son travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, to spend time with Lord Byron and his pregnant lover, Claire. The weather in Europe remained wet and dreary throughout the summer months, and the four friends spent many an hour sitting around a log fire at Byron’s villa, telling German ghost stories. Byron proposed that they write their own stories to share during the evenings. Mary initially struggled to think of a concept, but during a late-night discussion about galvanism, the theory that electricity could animate body tissue, Mary imagined using electricity to reanimate a corpse. Thus, Mary penned the first draft of her famous novel.

With encouragement from Shelley, Mary expanded her ghost story, which she published anonymously as Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818. Shelley provided the introduction for the first edition, which led many people to assume he had written it. Mary’s name did not appear on the cover until 1821, but it took much longer for readers to accept her as the author.

Returning to England in September 1816, Mary, Shelley, and Claire took up residence in Bath, where they tried to keep Claire’s pregnancy secret. While there, Mary began receiving desperate letters from her half-sister, Fanny. Fearing for her mental health, Mary sent Shelley to check on Fanny at her home in Bristol, but he arrived to find her dead beside a bottle of laudanum and a suicide note. Two months later, Percy Bysshe Shelley learned of the death of his estranged wife, who drowned herself in the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park, London. Wishing to assume custody of his children, Eliza (1813-76) and Charles (1814-26), Shelley’s lawyers advised him to marry Mary, which he did on 30th December 1816.

In March 1817, the court ruled Shelley was too morally unfit to take custody of his children. The Shelleys still lived with Claire Clairmont, who gave birth to a daughter, Alba, in January. Following the court’s ruling, the Shelleys and Claire moved to Albion House at Marlow, Buckinghamshire, where Mary gave birth to her third child, Clara. Soon, financial difficulties caught up with Shelley. Fearing he would lose Mary’s children too, he moved Mary, Claire and the children to Italy.

Lord Byron, who lived in Venice, agreed to help raise his daughter, Alba, so long as Claire stayed away. He also changed the child’s name to Allegra. Byron initially placed Allegra with a foster family but later moved her to a Roman Catholic Convent, where she contracted malaria and died aged 5. With one less child to worry about and believing Alba/Allegra would be safe in Byron’s hands, Claire remained with the Shelleys on their roving existence, moving from place to place without staying anywhere for long.

Tragedy struck the Shelleys again in 1818 and 1819, when both children, William and Clara, died within months of each other. The loss of all her children had a profound effect on Mary, who found solace in her writing. Mary wrote, “May you never know what it is to lose two only and lovely children in one year, and then at last to be left childless and forever miserable.” The birth of Mary’s fourth child, Percy Florence Shelley (1819-89), was the only thing that managed to lift Mary’s spirits.

While living in Italy, Mary Shelley wrote two novels, Matilda (1820) and Valperga (1821-23), and two plays, Proserpine (1820) and Midas (1820). The first of the two novels, Matilda, was not published until after Mary’s death, but the money she earned for Valperga helped alleviate her father’s financial difficulties. Despite the family rift, Mary still deeply respected her father.

In June 1822, Mary suffered a miscarriage that nearly killed her if it had not been for her quick-thinking husband. The doctor was too far away from the Shelleys’ residence on the Italian Riviera, so fearing Mary would die from blood loss, Shelley placed her in a bath of ice to staunch the bleeding. When the doctor finally arrived, he commended Shelley’s actions. Unfortunately, neither Shelley nor the doctor could prevent the depression brought on by the loss of another baby. To make matters worse, Shelley began spending more time with other women than his wife.

Mary remained devoted to her husband despite his many affairs and questionable behaviour. For years, Mary followed him around Italy without hope of settling down and tolerated his immoral behaviour. Whilst Mary suffered from depression following her miscarriage, Shelley found himself a new plaything – a sailing boat. On 1st July 1822, Shelley and his companions set off along the coast to Livorno to see Lord Byron. After staying there for a week, Shelley set off for home but never reached his destination. Mary did not know when Shelley planned to return, so she did not worry until she received a letter addressed to Shelley saying, “pray write to tell us how you got home, for they say you had bad weather after you sailed Monday & we are anxious.” Ten days after the storm, Shelley’s corpse washed up on the shore.

Following Shelley’s death, Mary lived with the poet Leigh Hunt (1785-1859) and his family in Genoa for a year. Mary spent time transcribing her husband’s poems, which she later published in 1839. Unfortunately, Mary’s financial situation prevented her from staying in Italy, so Mary returned to England with her son in 1823. Initially, she stayed with her father and stepmother in London until her father managed to find her some lodgings nearby. Mary also asked Shelley’s father, Sir Timothy Shelley, for help. The Baronet said he would only help if his grandson, Percy Florence, was handed over to an appointed guardian. Naturally, Mary refused to relinquish her only surviving child but persuaded Sir Shelley to provide an allowance of £100 a year. The amount increased to £250 following the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s son, Charles.

Mary continued to focus on writing for the remainder of her life. In 1826, she published the novel The Last Man and contributed to biographies about Shelley and Byron. Between 1827 and 1840, she wrote The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837) and contributed to a ladies’ magazine. Her primary concern was the welfare of her son, which prompted her to sell the rights to Frankenstein for £60 in 1830. She also persuaded Sir Timothy Shelley to help pay for Percy Florence’s education. The young Percy attended the prestigious Harrow School before studying at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Percy Florence remained devoted to his mother and returned to live with her after completing his university studies. In the 1840s, mother and son travelled around the continent, gradually putting together the book Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843. The following year, Sir Timothy Shelley passed away, leaving his estate to Percy Florence, who became the 3rd Baronet of Castle Goring, Sussex. For the first time in her life, Mary was financially stable.

Now that she had some money, Mary became the target of blackmailers, who threatened to publish various letters that could ruin her reputation or the memory of her late husband. Mary purchased a few letters but ignored other claims, such as someone posing as Lord Byron’s illegitimate son. These threats did not appear to have too much of an impact on Mary’s life. She remained living with her son, even after his marriage to Jane Gibson in 1848. Unfortunately, Mary’s final years were blighted by illness, and she passed away on 1st February 1851, aged 53, from a suspected brain tumour.

Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein devotes one floor of the building to the life of Mary Shelley. Her history is crammed into four rooms, leaving the rest of the museum to explore Mary Shelley’s most famous creation, Frankenstein’s monster. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a fictional scientist who is determined to create a sapient creature through unorthodox scientific experiments. Frankenstein stitches together the body parts of recently executed criminals to create a creature and brings it to life using electricity. Scared of the monster he created, Frankenstein runs away, and the beast spends years trying to find a place for itself in the world.

Frankenstein received mixed reviews after its publication in 1818. Some praised the author for introducing the science-fiction concept to the Gothic horror genre, but others wrote disparaging reviews about the novel. The novelist William Beckford (1760-1844), who lived in Bath, called Frankenstein “The foulest toadstool that has yet sprung up from the reeking dunghill of the present times.”

Despite some early criticism, there have been over 100 dramatisations of Frankenstein and several films. The first theatrical production, titled Presumption! Or, The Fate of Frankenstein opened in 1823. It included music and songs, and while it remained faithful to the storyline, the play was shown from the perspective of a new character, Fritz. In the show, Fritz was Frankenstein’s assistant, who later became the basis for the hunchbacked Igor in subsequent films. The monster, known as the Creature, was played by Thomas Potter Cooke (1786-1864), who wore a wig of wild hair and pale green face paint.

Since the first production of Frankenstein, the monster has usually appeared with green skin and scars, eventually developing a flat head held onto the neck with two bolts. The character is easily recognisable throughout the world and has become a commercial medium, with merchandise ranging from rubber ducks to flower pots. The monster or creature is definitely the most famous of Mary Shelley’s characters, leading to the frequent error that it is called Frankenstein, rather than that being the name of the scientist.

Mary Shelley never intended the monster to look like a green-skinned zombie. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein describes his creation as something quite different from the commercialised version. “His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.” Shelley also revealed the creature was 8-foot tall (2.4 metres).

For the first time, a model of Mary Shelley’s monster has been authentically produced as she described. The formidable animatronic creature is located in the laboratory on the second floor, whilst other rooms feature unusual artefacts and vintage objects, which set the scene for the world’s first science-fiction novel. On the top floor, visitors are invited to watch a handful of short films showing the first few appearances of the monster on screen.

Those feeling brave can visit the basement, where they can probe dark rooms accompanied by the unnerving hum of electricity and screams of torture. The more daring visitors can enter “The Cage” and try to find their way to freedom through a twisted metal maze, where there is no choice but to push past the bodies of The Cage’s previous victims. This exhibit is not suitable for young children or those of a nervous disposition.

For an extra fee, Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein opens the doors to the attic, where families and friends can race against the clock to solve clues and escape from Frankenstein’s quarters. Based on the popular Escape Room games, visitors experience the mind of a madman who wants to harvest their organs to complete his latest maniacal quest. This feature is also included in the birthday, hen, and stag party packages.

Tickets to Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein cost £15.50 per person, although some concessions apply, including children and over 60s. The house is open every day but special attractions must be booked in advance.


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Alexander: The Making of a Myth

Alexander the Great built an empire that stretched across the world and rode across the sky on a flying chariot, or so the legends say. This winter, the British Library is exploring the myths surrounding one of the most famous figures of the ancient world. With objects and books from 25 countries, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth examines the narratives that made Alexander a universal icon.

Alexander was born in Macedonia in 356 BC and died aged 32, by which time he had built a vast empire stretching from Greece to India. Legends about the great leader only began circulating after his death, making it difficult to extract the truth from the fiction. Even Alexander’s name does not remain constant in the legends and stories. In some cultures, he is called Iskandar or Sikandar, from which the anglicised “Alexander” developed. There are also many discrepancies in his appearance. A bust dating from the first or second century BC depicts Alexander as a beautiful youth. In contrast, an illustration in Johann Hartlieb’s Das Alexanderbuch (The Alexander Book, c.1444) shows Alexander with two prominent tusks rising from his lower jaw.

Plutarch, a Greek historian, compiled one of the earliest biographies of Alexander around AD 100. Originally written in Greek, copies were translated into Latin and spread across Europe. From these, writers developed the “Alexander Romance”, which contains a largely fictional account of Alexander’s life. The text includes invented letters from Alexander to his teacher, Aristotle (384-322 BC), describing the fantastical beasts he met in the East.

The earliest surviving illustrated copy of the Alexander Romance dates to the 13th century. It was written an estimated 1,800 years ago in Greek before being translated into many languages, including Coptic, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Syriac and Hebrew. By the publication of the first illustrated version, the lines between fact and fiction had long disappeared. One artwork in the Historia Alexandri Magni kept in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, shows Alexander entering Rome on horseback, with bowing senators welcoming him on one side and the public waving palm leaves on the other. Whilst it is plausible that Alexander received a hero’s welcome, the palm leaves suggest the writer or illustrator wanted to elevate Alexander to the same level as Jesus Christ, who received a similar welcome in Jerusalem.

Alexander’s parentage differs between stories. Today, the consensus is Alexander was the son of Philip of Macedon (382-336 BC), the 18th king of Macedonia. The Alexander Romance claims the serpent-magician Nectanebo tricked Alexander’s mother, Olympias (375-316 BC), a Greek princess, into bed by disguising himself as the dragon-like Egyptian god Amun. Nectanebo II ruled as the pharaoh of Egypt from 358 BC until his deposition in 340 BC. Yet, the Persians regarded Alexander as the half-brother of King Darius III (380-330), making Alexander the legitimate heir of the Achaemenid Empire. With at least three possible fathers, different cultures believed Alexander was the rightful heir to either Macedonia, Egypt or Persia. Incidentally, Alexander conquered all three places during his short life.

Another half-truth, half-fiction legend about Alexander involves his horse, Bucephalus. Many artworks depict Alexander riding into battle on a fierce war-horse, which not only symbolises Alexander’s victories but also his physical feats and training to become a military commander. When Alexander first met Bucephalus, named after a type of branding mark anciently used on horses, the horse was a savage, man-eating beast. According to the Alexander Romance, King Philip locked the animal in a cage, where 15-year-old Alexander later discovered him. Immediately, the horse bowed before Alexander, acknowledging him as his master.

An alternative story claims that whoever rode Bucephalus would be king of the world. Many had tried and failed to tame the beast before Alexander, who realised the horse was afraid of its own shadow. Turning Bucephalus towards the sun so that his shadow fell behind him, Alexander stroked Bucephalus soothingly before jumping onto his back. The tale suggests Bucephalus immediately became tame, but regardless of whether it was instant or took time, Alexander rode Bucephalus during all his military campaigns, including in Greece, the Middle East, and India.

It is not certain who tutored Alexander in the art of warfare and military leadership, but between the ages of 13 and 16, Alexander received an academic education from Aristotle. Philip considered other scholars, such as Isocrates (436-338 BC) and Speusippus (408-339 BC), before settling on Aristotle. For a classroom, Philip provided Aristotle with the Temple of the Nymphs at Mieza, in ancient Macedonia, and agreed to rebuild Aristotle’s home town of Stageira in place of payment. During Philip’s earlier campaigns, he raised Stageira to the ground and enslaved or exiled the inhabitants.

Alexander spent most of his school days in Mieza with other children of Macedonian nobles, such as Ptolemy (367-282 BC), Hephaistion (356-324 BC), and Cassander (355-297 BC). Known collectively as the “Companions”, these friends became Alexander’s future generals. Hephaistion was “by far the dearest of all the king’s friends; he had been brought up with Alexander and shared all his secrets.” Several writers refer to Alexander and Hephaistion’s relationship in a similar vein to the mythical Achilles and Patroclus, suggesting they may have been more than friends. Ptolemy became pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt and Cassander the king of Macedonia following Alexander’s death.

Aristotle taught Alexander and his companions about medicine, philosophy, religion, logic, and art. Alexander developed a passion for the works of the Greek poet Homer, particularly the Iliad, which references the aforementioned relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Alexander also learned quotes from memory, such as lines written by the Greek playwright Euripides (480-406 BC). As for politics, Alexander picked up most of his knowledge by talking to Persian exiles at his father’s court. Philip granted Persian nobles protection after they opposed his enemy, Artaxerxes III (359-338 BC).

Philip of Macedon passed away in 336 BC, making his son the new king of Macedonia. Within ten years, Alexander expanded his empire and became the inspiration for many rulers over dozens of centuries. Alexander’s first major success was the defeat of the Persians at the battles of Granicus and Issus in present-day Turkey, followed by conquering Egypt and finally overthrowing King Darius in 331 BC. In Egypt, Alexander left his greatest legacy: the foundation of the city of Alexandria. This was the largest of the twenty-or-so cities named after Alexander throughout his empire. Stories also claim he erected the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

When Alexander first set his sights on Egypt, it was under the rule of Persia. Although King Darius controlled all of Persia, he delegated areas to his governors. Alexander defeated the Egyptian governor, was greeted as a liberator and was crowned the new Pharoah. Naturally, Alexander’s actions riled Darius, who met Alexander in battle at Gaugamela in modern-day Iraq in 331 BC. This was the final meeting between Alexander and the Persian armies. Realising he was outnumbered, Darius fled from the scene, only to be injured by two of his men. According to legend, when Alexander caught up with Darius, he ordered the two men’s execution and comforted the mortally wounded king. During his final moments, Darius allegedly asked Alexander to look after his family, marry his daughter Roxana and preserve the Zoroastrian religion.

Despite Alexander’s supposed distress over Darius’ death, he continued to capture the remaining parts of the Persian empire. In 326, Alexander reached Punjab, India, where he defeated King Porus. Some legends claim Alexander spared Porus’ life, who then made Alexander a subordinate ruler as a way of thanks. Other stories allege that Alexander killed Darius and continued his journey to China, although some scholars do not believe Alexander travelled so far east.

Regardless of the outcome, all the stories about Alexander’s army in India involve facing colossal war elephants. A coin dating to 323 BC depicts King Porus sitting on the giant animal while Alexander, riding Bucephalus, attacks him from behind with a spear. Different versions of the story propose a variety of ways Alexander overcame the army of elephants. The Shahnameh (15th century), the longest poem ever written by a single author, suggests Alexander ordered his blacksmiths to build 1,000 oil-filled iron horses, which he set alight in front of the advancing Indian army. Terrified of the flames, the elephants fled, taking their riders with them. Das Alexanderbuch contains an alternative account in which Alexander used red-hot pokers to scare the elephants.

Alexander did not spend all his time fighting but also focused on spreading peace throughout his conquered lands. While in India, he met the Brahmans, a group of priests who believed “greed is the root of all evil and we will leave this world naked and without our possessions.” In many illustrated versions of Alexander’s history, the Brahmans are naked, while Alexander and his men dress in ornate clothing. Fictitious dialogues between Alexander and Dindimus, the king of the Brahmans, suggest the king convinced Alexander there was no point waging war when the Brahmans had no possessions to lose.

In China, if indeed Alexander reached the country, he defeated two champions, Tengu and Kanifu, the latter of whom turned out to be a woman. On his way home from China, Alexander received news that the Russians had captured Queen Nushabah of Persia, so he immediately changed his route to liberate the queen and defeat her captors. After seven violent battles, Alexander defeated the Russian leader and returned Queen Nushabah to her native country.

With so many countries now part of his empire, Alexander became associated with many cultures and religions. The Egyptians acknowledged Alexander as the son of the Egyptian god Amun or the former Pharoah Nectanebo. He also appeared in Christian, Jewish and Islamic texts. Despite promising King Darius to preserve the Zoroastrian religion, many Persians accused Alexander of destroying the religion. According to the Persian poet Nizami (1141-1209), Alexander tore down the temples, burned the sacred texts and introduced Islam to Persia.

In the Babylon Talmud, a primary source of Jewish law, Alexander bowed down before the High Priest, Simon the Righteous. Also known as Simeon the Just, the priest went to Antipatris to meet Alexander as he marched through the Land of Israel in 332 BC. Alexander’s men criticised their leader for bowing to the priest, but he assured them he had received instruction to do so in a dream. Alexander went on to demand a statue of himself placed in the Temple, but Simon explained this was impossible. Instead, the High Priest promised that all the sons born of priests in that year would be named Alexander.

According to the Sefer Alexandros Mokdon (Tales of Alexander the Macedonian), Alexander attempted to get into the Garden of Eden. After being told “No heathen or uncircumcised male may enter,” Alexander was secretly circumcised. This claim demonstrates Alexander wanted to conform to Jewish practices, or at least this is what the Jews chose to believe. Yet, in the 18th-century Ethiopian Zena Eskender (The Story of Alexander), the writer claims God chose Alexander to be a prophet. “For I have set thee to be a prophet unto Me by reason of the purity of thy body, and through thy prayers which have come unto Me.”

In the Qur’an, Alexander is associated with the story of Dhu’l-Qarnayn, whose name means “two horns”. The name coincides with the idea that Alexander had two prominent tusks rising from his lower jaw. According to the story, Dhu’l-Qarnayn (or Alexander) travelled to the end of the world, where he built a wall to separate the barbarous peoples of Gog and Magog from the righteous. Gog and Magog also appear in the Hebrew Bible, where they are viewed as enemies to be defeated by the Messiah.

Regardless of Alexander’s religious status, he believed in polygamy and had several wives, most notably Roxana and Stateira. Scholars also question Alexander’s sexuality, referencing his close relationship with his companion Hephaistion and a slave called Bagoas. During his campaigns, Alexander met many powerful women, including Queen Nushabah, who he rescued from the Russians, and Kanifu, who he defeated in China.

Alexander first met Roxana after the death of her father, Darius. Their marriage was celebrated across the empire, and some accounts claim Alexander was captivated by his new wife’s beauty. Soon after, Alexander married another of Darius’ children, Stateira. Roxana, besieged by jealousy, never got on with Stateira and killed her after Alexander’s death in 323 BC. Another story reveals Alexander received the daughter of King Kayd of Hind (India) as a tribute to avoid war. The author writes that Alexander married her “according to the Christian religion”.

Over time, Alexander’s legendary feats have become more mythical with the insertion of fantastic beasts, such as griffins and dragons. The Alexander Romance claims four griffins carried Alexander and his chariot across the sky, and a Persian poem by Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) describes Alexander’s adventure to the bottom of the ocean in a glass diving bell. To make this all the more unbelievable, a French version of the Alexander Romance reveals he travelled with a cockerel to tell him the time and a cat to purify the air. While submerged in the water, Alexander came face-to-face with monstrous creatures, including giants with sword-like horns. Various stories also tell of Alexander’s victory over a dragon, which he fed several poisonous cows.

Alexander desired to become immortal, but many oracles foretold his death, such as the Trees of the Sun and the Moon, which told him he would die soon and never see his mother again. While in Punjab, the risk of a mutiny urged Alexander to return to Babylon. On his arrival, the still-birth of a half-human, half-creature was taken as an omen of Alexander’s pending death. Soon after, Alexander fell terminally ill and passed away in June 323 BC, aged 32. No one knows the cause of Alexander’s death, although some suggest typhoid fever.

Different cultures and religions continue to debate over Alexander’s final resting place. According to Persian tradition, his funeral procession was conducted as per Alexander’s wishes, with one arm hanging loose to show that he went to the grave empty-handed. Other stories talk of an elaborate carriage that carried Alexander from Babylon to Egypt. Historians believe the original plan was to take the body to Macedonia, but for reasons unknown, the funeral procession took a different route. The Persians wanted Alexander’s body to be interred in Iran, but the Greeks insisted he should be brought to them. Finally, an oracle allegedly decided, “His remains belong in Alexandria.”

The Bibliotheca historical, written by the historian Diodorus Siculus between 60 and 30 BC, describes Alexander’s funeral carriage as having a golden roof, a net curtain, statues, and four iron wheels. Sixty-four mules pulled the carriage while roadmenders, mechanics and soldiers accompanied the procession to ensure it all went smoothly. Artists have used this description as a base for paintings, such as André Bauchant’s (1873-1958) Les Funérailles d’Alexandre le-Grand (1940), which depicted Alexander’s companion, Ptolemy, as a pharaoh at the head of the procession.

The whereabouts of Alexander’s body remains a mystery, despite many quests to find it. Historians and authors have professed many theories, including the mistaking of Alexander’s bones for St Mark, but there is no concrete proof. Writings about Alexander’s death and burial are largely fiction, as is the majority of his life. Yet, Alexander has been and remains an inspiration for many leaders, from Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) to Henry VIII of England (1419-1547) and Louis XIV of France (1638-1715).

For someone who conquered so much land during a short period, there is relatively little information about Alexander the Great. It is also debatable whether he deserved the epithet “the Great”. In capturing so many countries and defeating other rulers, he left a lot of destruction in his wake. In dying so young, Alexander did not have time to rebuild ruined cities and place his mark upon the world in the form of architecture. Nor did he dramatically change the various cultures and religions in his Empire, except for mythical stories, the majority of which appeared long after his death.

The British Library tells the story (or stories) of Alexander the Great through a range of media. Books and illustrations from the past centuries reveal the different cultural beliefs and varying histories of the young emperor. Videos and audio, such as George Frideric Handel‘s (1685-1759) opera Alessandro, demonstrate the impact of the legendary man up to the present day. For those who know very little about Alexander, the exhibition provides a wealth of information, but visitors may come away with more questions than answers.

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is open until Sunday 19th February 2023. Tickets cost £19, although over 60s can visit for £9.50 of Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays (excluding holidays).


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The Astronomers’ House

In the back garden of 19 New King Street, Bath, a German-born British astronomer doubled the known size of the solar system when he discovered a new planet in 1781. Initially named Georgium Sidus after the King, the discovery earned the astronomer instant fame across Europe and the attention of King George III, who hired him as the astronomer of the Court. The man in question was William Herschel, and the planet is known today as Uranus.

In 1981, 19 New King Street opened as a museum about William Herschel and his family, exactly 200 years after he discovered Uranus. The house forms part of a terrace originating from 1764. Whilst it is not pretentious like some neighbouring buildings (the Royal Crescent and the Circus), the house has five floors, including a basement. Although very little documentation exists of the house’s original decor, careful research into the era revealed the style and fashions of the day, which the William Herschel Society used when returning the interior of the building to the 18th and 19th century. Today, the museum is open on Tuesdays to Sundays for those wishing to see where the astronomer once resided.

Born in 1738, Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel grew up in Hanover, Germany. He was the fourth of ten children born to Issak Herschel and Anna Ilse Moritzen. As a keen oboist, Issak encouraged his children to study music and enrolled a couple of his sons as musicians in the Hanoverian Guards regiment. When war with France seemed imminent, Isaak sent Wilhelm and another son, Jakob, to England, where Wilhelm changed his name to the English equivalent, Frederick William Herschel.

Known mostly by his middle name, William quickly learnt English and earned money playing the oboe, violin, harpsichord and organ. In 1761, he acquired the position of first violin in the Newcastle orchestra and started writing symphonies. He wrote a total of 24 symphonies and several concertos during his career as a musician. In 1766, Hershel took on the role of organist at the Octagon Chapel in Bath and encouraged one of his younger sisters, Caroline, and three brothers, Dietrich, Alexander and Jakob, to join him in the city. Together, they performed many concerts, with Caroline singing soprano solos. Later, in 1780, Herschel became the director of the Bath orchestra.

Herschel’s interest in music led to his fascination with astrology. After reading Harmonics, or the Philosophy of Musical Sounds (1749), by the mathematician Robert Smith (1689-1768), Herschel came across another work by the same author. Entitled A Compleat System of Opticks (1738), the book explained how to build a telescope, which led Herschel to seek more information on the subject. A local mirror-builder gave Herschel lessons, which helped Herschel develop light-gathering surfaces for use in his hand-built telescopes. He dedicated many hours of the day to grinding and polishing mirrors, often assisted by his brother, Alexander.

At the time of Herschel’s developing interest in astronomy, he and his sister, Caroline, lived at 7 New King Street, a few doors down from the current Herschel Museum of Astronomy. Caroline, who took on the role of housekeeper, despairingly wrote, “It was to my sorrow that I saw almost every room in the house turned into a workshop.” Although Herschel continued to practice music, giving students lessons in various instruments, he spent his spare time working on his telescope.

In 1774, Herschel and his sister moved to Walcot in the suburbs of Bath, where there was plenty of space to build a large telescope. Here, Herschel began studying the rings of Saturn and the Great Orion Nebula, noting his observations in an astronomical journal. Unfortunately, the location proved too far from the centre of Bath, where Herschel and his sister still performed in concert halls and churches. In 1777, they returned to New King Street, taking residence at number 19. The house had a larger garden than it does today, making it a perfect spot for Herschel’s telescope. Unfortunately, he also crammed his instruments into every room of the house, much to Caroline’s disgust. Since Herschel used horse dung for his telescopic mirror moulds, Caroline can hardly be blamed for her protestations.

In 1779, the Herschels briefly moved to 5 Rivers Street, although it is unclear why. Whilst it was closer to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Bath, where Herschel hoped to become a member, the house had no garden. Herschel set up his telescope in the street, where he quickly drew attention. Whilst some saw Herschel and his telescope as a fascinating landmark, horse-drawn carriages had difficulty navigating around him.

Herschel moved his telescope back to 19 New King Street in March 1781, where on the night of the 13th March, he made a discovery that changed the world. The discovery of Georgium sidus, later Uranus, earned Herschel the Copley Medal and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. The following year, George III appointed him “The King’s Astronomer”. Herschel and Caroline moved to Datchet, near Windsor, to be closer to London, where he could focus on his astronomy career. By this time, Caroline was more than a housekeeper. In Bath, she became her brother’s assistant and helped him record his findings, which resulted in three catalogues of stars and nebulae. Caroline made a few discoveries of her own, using a telescope built for her by her brother. (For more information, see my blog about The Lost Heroine of Astronomy.)

The Herschel Museum of Astronomy explores William Herschel’s life in Bath and his achievements throughout his career. It also recognises Caroline as an astronomer in her own right and includes the work of John Herschel, William’s son. Herschel married Mary Pitt in 1788, with whom he had one son in 1792. John proved just as intelligent as his father and studied mathematics at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he won the Copley Prize in 1812. Despite embarking upon a legal career, John abandoned this in favour of his father’s passion, astronomy.

In 1820, John Herschel became one of the founding members of the Royal Astronomical Society, and after his father’s death in 1822, completed William Herschel’s catalogue of nebular stars with the help of documentation kept by his aunt, Caroline. John is also recognised for his pioneering work in the field of photography, in which he worked closely with William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77) at Lacock Abbey. He coined the words “positive” and “negative” concerning photography and developed a fixing agent.

Like his father, John Herschel also had a passion for music and often played the flute or violin in concerts. Later in life, he became the Master of the Mint, a post once held by the scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Failing health put an end to his career, and John passed away in 1871. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

John Herschel never lived at 19 New King Street, but his portraits currently feature on the walls of the ground-floor reception room. The room also houses illustrations by John, which he produced while using a camera obscura. Other objects include mirrors made by William Herschel and a model of the 40-foot telescope he made when living at the Observatory House near Windsor.

Also situated on the ground floor is the dining room. Handprinted wallpaper gives visitors the impression of 18th-century fashions, as do the framed maps and cartoons. The wooden table in the centre of the room was once part of a larger extending table from the Observatory House. At some stage, the table was divided by various members of the Herschel family, most likely during an inheritance dispute.

Not all the objects in the dining room date to the time of William Herschel’s time in Bath. A longcase clock made by John Roberts of Bath dates to the early 19th century, as does a stick barometer made by Jacob Abrahams. Nonetheless, Herschel likely owned similar items because they would have been of use during his nocturnal observations of the sky.

William Herschel used the first-floor drawing room as a study and workshop. It is also surmised that he slept in the room amongst his machinery and tools. Most of the items on display relate to astronomy and are on loan from the Greenwich Royal Observatory and the Royal Astronomical Society. A brass drum orrery made by George Adams around 1782 demonstrates the movements of the planets in relation to each other. This particular machine includes Uranus and its moons. Whilst some people, such as George III, used orreries as playthings, Herschel and other scientists found them useful for practical demonstrations during talks and lectures.

The drawing room leads into the music room, where scientific instruments resting on the harpsichord indicate Herschel’s fascination with astronomy encroached on his musical career. John Bernard (1756-1828), an actor who received singing lessons from Herschel, recalled, “His lodgings resembled an astronomer’s much more than a musician’s, being heaped up with globes, maps, telescopes, reflectors etc, under which his piano was hid, and the violoncello, like a discarded favourite, skulked away in a corner.”

The basement of the house features a typical Georgian kitchen, complete with an early 19th-century cooking range. With the help of a servant, Caroline prepared food here for her brother, whilst in the next room, Herschel used a furnace and smelting oven to make his telescopic lenses. When setting up the workshop, Herschel had the foresight to create two exits. According to Caroline’s diary, Herschel and one of his brothers attempted to pour 538 pounds of molten metal into a handmade mould, but the liquid splashed onto the ground, causing bits of stone flooring to fly in all directions. Both men survived after hastily escaping through separate doors. The cracks on the workshop floor are still visible today.

The basement leads out into the garden, which is below street level. It is hard to imagine a large telescope in the considerably shortened garden, but its original length is what initially attracted Herschel to the property. When the Herschels lived at 19 New King Street, they benefitted from an orchard at the back of the house. The current layout, designed by the Bath Preservation Trust, features cypress trees and maintained borders.

Within the garden is a statue of William and Caroline Herschel by Vivien Mousdell. Commissioned for the 250th anniversary of the birth of Herschel, the stone sculpture depicts Herschel gazing up at the sky whilst Caroline holds a quill pen in one hand and a piece of paper in the other, on which is drawn the solar system with Uranus at the centre. The statue was unveiled by Sir Patrick Moore (1923-2012), the president of the British Astronomical Association. Another sculpture, entitled Seedhead by Ruth Moillet, represents the position of Uranus in the solar system.

A small extension at the rear of the house contains a small exhibition and a few hands-on activities for children. These include simple arts and crafts and a toy version of an orrery. During half-term and end-of-term holidays, the museum hosts specific events targeted at children to teach them about the universe.

The Herschel Museum of Astronomy provides an insight into Herschel’s life and discoveries. It also allows people to imagine life in 18th and 19th-century Bath. Whilst other museums in the city, for instance, No. 1 Royal Crescent, explore the lives of the rich and their servants, William Herschel’s former residence introduces the typical home of the general population. Yet, Herschel was by no means an ordinary man. His genius, passion and perseverance earned him a place in British and international history.

The Herschel Museum of Astronomy is open Tuesday to Sunday between 10am and 5pm. Tickets cost £9.50 for adults and £4.50 for children, except during the Summer Holidays (£11.50 and £5.50).


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Black Lives Matter (Part 5)

These articles were initially posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.

This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.

Believe Like Thurgood

Thurgood Marshall is famous for being America’s first black Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. As well as serving as a lawyer, Thurgood campaigned for civil rights, believing that racial discrimination went against the Equal Protection Clause of the US constitution. 

Born in Baltimore, Maryland on 2nd July 1908, Thoroughgood “Thurgood” Marshall learned how to debate from his father, William Canfield Marshall, who worked as a railway porter. At family meals with his father and mother, Norma Arica Williams, Marshall participated in discussions about current events, which fuelled his desire to become a lawyer. Marshall recalled his father “turned me into one. He did it by teaching me to argue, by challenging my logic on every point, by making me prove every statement I made.”

In 1925, Marshall graduated from the Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore within the top third of his class. After this, he attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he became the star of the debate team. Marshall involved himself in sit-in protests against segregation and joined Alpha Phi Alpha, the first fraternity founded by and for blacks. During this time, Marshall paid little attention to his studies and found himself suspended twice for his behaviour.

Marshall’s attitude changed after he married Vivian “Buster” Burey (1911-55) in 1929. His wife encouraged Marshall to be a better student, and he graduated with a BA in American literature and philosophy the following year. To become a lawyer, Marshall enrolled at Howard University School of Law in Washington DC, for which his mother pawned her wedding and engagement rings to pay for the tuition. In 1933, Marshall graduated at the top of his class.

After graduating, Marshall began a private law firm in his home town and represented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which he joined in 1936, in various lawsuits. In one court case, Murray v. Pearson, Marshall represented black students who wished to attend the University of Maryland Law School, which at that time only admitted whites. Not only did Marshall win, but he also created a legal precedent making segregation in Maryland illegal.

At the age of 32, Marshall founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which supported many civil rights cases before the Supreme Court. Of these cases, Marshall won 29 out of 32, most notably Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which paved the way for integration in schools. For some of the court cases, Marshall had the support of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972), the 1st Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Marshall and the FBI particularly wished to discredit civil rights leader T. R. M. Howard (1908-76), whose policies went against the NAACP. Howard also believed in legalising prostitution, arguing that “man’s sinful nature made it impossible to suppress the sex trade”. 

In February 1955, Marshall’s wife Vivian passed away from lung cancer on her 44th birthday. Later that year, Marshall remarried Cecilia “Cissy” Suyat (b.1928), a civil rights activist of Filipino descent from Hawaii. They went on to have two sons, Thurgood Marshall Jr. (b.1956), who was the White House Cabinet Secretary under Bill Clinton (b.1946), and John William Marshall (b.1958), the longest-serving member of the Virginia Governor’s Cabinet.

Marshall’s successful career attracted President J. F. Kennedy (1917-63), who appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1961. This was a new seat created by the president, which Marshall held until 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-73) appointed him as the first African American United States Solicitor General. This also made Marshall the highest-ranking black government official. Marshall called his position as Solicitor General “the best job I’ve ever had.”

Following the retirement of Tom C. Clark (1899-1977) in 1967, Johnson appointed Marshall as the 96th Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, the first black man to hold the post. When questioned about his success as an African American, Marshall said, “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.”

Marshall served on the Supreme Court for 24 years, during which time he fought on behalf of black citizens. As well as civil rights, Marshall campaigned for abortion rights and the end of the death penalty. He also fought against anything that made women unequal to men. When Marshall retired in 1991, he expressed the wish that President George H. W. Bush (1924-2018) did not use race as a factor when deciding on his successor. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas (b.1948) to replace Marshall, the second black man to hold the position of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

Many accused Marshall of resigning over disagreements with the new conservative approaches of the Supreme Court, but in truth, his declining health was the reason for the decision. Less than two years later, Marshall passed away from heart failure on 24th January 1993 at the age of 84. The Supreme Court honoured Marshall with a lying in state at the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington DC, followed by a burial at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

There are several memorials dedicated to Thurgood Marshall, including an 8-ft statue in Lawyers Mall, Maryland. The airport in Baltimore renamed itself the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in 2005, and in 2009 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church added him to the liturgical calendar, designating 17th May as his feast day. Marshall’s life is the topic of the 2017 film Marshall, starring Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020) as the first black Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. 

Challenge Like Rosa

Many people know Rosa Parks as the black girl who refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus. Even Doctor Who portrayed the story in a recent episode, but how many people know Rosa’s background? How many people know more about her than the bus incident? She is a recognisable name in the Civil Rights Movement, but is that all – just a name?

Born Rosa Louise McCauley on 4th February 1913, Rosa grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, until her parents, Leona and James, separated. Rosa moved to Montgomery with her mother and younger brother Sylvester, where she lived on her grandparents’ farm and attended the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Rosa’s mother taught her how to sew, and by the age of ten, Rosa had completed her first quilt. She continued to sew while studying academic courses at the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, making herself dresses to wear. Although Rosa enrolled at a high school set up by the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes, she dropped out when her grandmother became unwell.

In 1932, Rosa married the barber Raymond Parks, who belonged to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Rosa took on jobs as a domestic worker, but her husband encouraged her to complete her high school education, which she achieved in 1933. A decade later, Rosa joined the NAACP, becoming its first female secretary. For some time, she was also the only female member. As part of her role, Rosa investigated false rape claims against black men and the gang-rape of Recy Taylor (1919-2017), a black woman from Abbeville, Alabama. The Chicago Defender called the resulting campaign concerning the latter “the strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade.”

Rosa experienced “integrated life” while briefly working for the Maxwell Air Force Base, which did not condone racial segregation. This made her realise the extent of the differences between the lives of blacks and whites. Rosa also worked as a domestic and seamstress for Clifford (1899-1975) and Virginia Durr (1903-99), a white couple who encouraged and sponsored her attendance at the Highlander Folk School to learn more about civil rights in 1955.

To travel to and from work and school, Rosa used public buses, which since 1900 had specific seating areas for blacks and whites. The front four rows were for whites only, and blacks were encouraged to sit at the far end of the bus. Over 75% of passengers were black, which made the rear of the bus very crowded. Blacks also had to use the back door of the bus, but on one occasion, it was too crowded for Rosa, so she used the front entrance instead. After paying, the driver insisted she leave the bus and enter through the back door. As soon as Rosa had stepped out of the bus, the driver sped away.

Rosa avoided that bus driver until 1955 after a long day at work. She did everything right: she entered the bus through the back door and sat in the first row of seats designated for black people. During the journey, crowds of people entered the bus, meaning many people had to stand, including white people. Seeing this, the driver asked those in the first row of black seats to stand up so the whites could sit. Whilst three blacks got up and moved, Rosa remained seated. The driver demanded her to move, and when she did not, he called the police. The police arrested Rosa and charged her with a violation of Chapter 6, Section 11 segregation law of the Montgomery City code. The NAACP bailed her out of prison that evening.

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” – Rosa Parks, Rosa Parks: My Story, 1992

Rosa Parks was not the first to refuse to give up her seat, but her actions inspired the NAACP to organise a bus boycott. On 5th December 1955, the day of Rosa’s trial, campaigners distributed 35,000 leaflets saying, “We are … asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial … You can afford to stay out of school for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off the buses Monday.” That day, over 40,000 black people walked to work instead of getting the bus. Some had to walk more than 20 miles through the driving rain.

As Rosa’s trial continued, so did the bus boycott. For 381 days, black people in Montgomery avoided using the bus. Since they made up at least 75% of commuters, the bus companies suffered from a loss in bus fares, forcing the city to repeal its law about segregation on public transport. Rosa did not wish to take credit for this success, and Martin Luther King Jr agreed that Rosa was not the cause of the boycott but the catalyst. “The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices.”

Although Rosa became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, she suffered as a result. She received many death threats, disagreed with King’s approaches, and both she and her husband lost their jobs, prompting them to move to Hampton in Virginia in search of work. Rosa found a position as a hostess but soon moved to live with her brother in Detroit, Michigan. Her brother believed the discrimination against blacks to be less severe in the northern states, but Rosa failed to see any improvements.

When African American John Conyers (1929-2019) stood for Congress, Rosa gave him her full support and convinced King to do the same. After Conyers’ election, he hired Rosa as his secretary and receptionist, a position she kept until she retired in 1988. She visited schools, hospitals and facilities with and on Conyers’ behalf, plus attended Civil Rights marches across the country. During this time, she became an ally of Malcolm X. She later took part in the black power movement.

Rosa continued to support the Civil Rights Movement in various ways, although she never took a leading position. During the 1970s, she helped organise the freedom of several prisoners whose actions of self-defence had landed them in police custody. Unfortunately, Rosa could not contribute much later that decade due to the poor health of her family, although she donated what little money she could to the cause. In 1977, both her husband and brother passed away from cancer. Following these losses, she broke two bones after slipping on an icy pavement, prompting her to move in with her elderly mother in an apartment for senior citizens. Her mother passed away in 1979, aged 92.

With renewed vigour, Rosa returned to the Civil Rights scene, co-founding the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation to provide scholarships for college students. When asked to speak at various organisations, Rosa usually donated her speaking fee to her scholarship foundation. Later, she established the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which aimed to “educate and motivate youth and adults, particularly African American persons, for self and community betterment.”

In her later years, Rosa faced several challenges. At 81, a man broke into her house and demanded money. When she refused, he attacked her, landing her in hospital with facial injuries. Rosa suffered severe anxiety after the attack and moved to a secure complex. Whilst she felt safe there, her fragile mind made it difficult for her to manage her finances. In 2002, she received an eviction notice due to a lack of rent payment. When members of the public found out, the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit raised funds to pay the rent on her behalf, allowing her to remain in her home for the remainder of her life.

Rosa Parks passed away at age 92 on 24th October 2005. Before her funeral, a bus, similar to the one on which she refused to stand, drove her casket to the US Capitol in Washington DC, where she became the first non-government official to lie in honour in the rotunda. At her memorial service, the United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (b.1954) said she believed that if it had not been for Rosa Parks, she would not be Secretary of State today.

At her death, Rosa left an extensive list of legacies, which continues to grow. Long before she passed away, places were named in her honour, such as Rosa Parks Boulevard in Detroit, and she received many medals and awards: Martin Luther King Jr. Award (1980), Presidential Medal of Freedom (1996), Congressional Gold Medal (1999), and several honorary doctorates. Since her death, the Rosa Parks Transit Center has opened in Detroit; Michigan renamed a plaza Rosa Parks Circle; the asteroid 284996 Rosaparks was named in her memory, and the Rosa Parks Railway Station opened in Paris. Americans also remember Rosa Parks with a statue in Montgomery, unveiled in 2019.


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Black Lives Matter (Part 4)

These articles were initially posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.

This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.

Speak Like Frederick

“I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” These are the words of American social reformer, writer, and statesman Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in Maryland to become a national leader of the abolitionist movement. Many found it astonishing that such a successful orator was once a slave, proving false the misconception that slaves lacked the intelligence of independent Americans. Douglass believed everyone was equal regardless of their skin tone and heritage. He was also an active supporter of women’s suffrage.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born on a plantation in Maryland to Harriet Bailey, a woman of African and Native American ancestry. His father was white, possibly European, but Frederick never knew him or knew on which day or year he was born. Historians estimate his year of birth as 1818, and Frederick chose 14th February as the day to celebrate his birth. Separated from his mother at a young age, the infant Frederick lived with his grandparents, Betsy, a slave, and Isaac, a free man.

At the age of six, Frederick’s master transferred him to another plantation, but two years later, he moved again to a household in Baltimore. Despite being the property of Hugh Auld, his master’s wife Sophia ensured Frederick was well fed and clothed. When he was about 12 years old, Sophia taught him to read and write until her husband put an end to their lessons. Yet, Frederick continued to teach himself in secret, often observing the white children in the city. He believed “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.”

In 1833, Frederick went to work for Edward Covey, a farmer who repeatedly whipped him. Frederick attempted to run away, but his master caught him. In 1837, he met and fell in love with Anna Murray (1813-88), a free black woman who encouraged him to have another attempt at escaping. On 3rd September 1838, Frederick succeeded by sneaking onto a train to Harve de Grace dressed as a sailor. He then made his way to New York to meet up with Anna.

Frederick and Anna married on 15th September 1838, initially adopting the surname Johnson. Inspired by the poem The Lady of the Lake by Walter Scott (1771-1832), Frederick changed their surname to Douglass after the principal characters. They joined the independent African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and Frederick became a preacher in 1839. Soon after, at the approximate age of 23, Frederick Douglass gave his first speech about his experiences as a slave at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention.

From then on, Douglass involved himself with many anti-slavery protests and conventions, resulting in physical attacks from slavery supporters. One occasion caused irreparable damage to Douglass’ hand. He exclaimed, “I have no love for America, as such; I have no patriotism. I have no country. What country have I? The Institutions of this Country do not know me—do not recognize me as a man.” Yet, he continued to fight to put an end to slavery. As well as oration, Douglass published many works, including his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845, My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881.

In 1845, Douglass travelled to Ireland and England, where he was amazed at the different treatment he received, not “as a colour, but as a man.” Focusing on the abolition of slavery, Douglass gave many speeches in churches and chapels, drawing large crowds. He met with Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), who had campaigned for the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Most importantly, while in Britain, Douglass legally became a free man.

With £500 from English supporters, Douglass returned to the USA in 1847 and established his first abolitionist newspaper, the North Star. The paper adopted the motto “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren” to attract a diverse readership. Meanwhile, Douglass and his wife helped over four hundred slaves escape on the Underground Railroad network managed by Harriet Tubman.

Douglass was the only African American to attend the first women’s rights meeting in New York. Douglass said he could not accept the right to vote as a black man until women also had the opportunity. “Discussion of the rights of animals would be regarded with far more complacency…than would be a discussion of the rights of women.” Unfortunately, Douglass received criticism when he paid more attention to the campaign to allow black men the right to vote, but he maintained he was never against women’s rights. He feared linking black men’s suffrage with women’s suffrage would result in a failure for both; it was better to focus on one at a time.

During the Civil War, Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) to discuss the treatment of black soldiers. This meeting led to the declaration of the 13th amendment, outlawing slavery. After the assassination of Lincoln, Douglass met with President Andrew Johnson (1808-75) on the subject of black suffrage. In 1868, the 14th amendment gave blacks equal protection under the law, and in 1870 they finally won the right to vote. 

Due to his achievements, Douglass received several political appointments, including president of the Freedman’s Savings Bank and chargé d’affaires for the Dominican Republic. In 1872, Douglass became the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States, although he was nominated without his knowledge. The same year, he was the presidential elector at large for New York.

Douglass and Anna had five children during their marriage of 44 years. Their eldest, Rosetta Douglass (1839-1906), was a founding member of the National Association for Colored Women and also helped with her father’s newspaper business, as did Lewis Henry Douglass (1840-1908) and Frederick Douglass Jr. (1842-92). Their youngest son, Charles Remond Douglass (1844-1920), also helped with the papers and was the first African-American man to enlist in the military in New York during the Civil War. Annie Douglass, their youngest child, passed away at the age of ten.

Anna passed away in 1882, and two years later, Douglass remarried suffragist Helen Pitts (1838-1913). This caused controversy and upset Douglass’ children because Helen was twenty years younger than their father. She was also white. Douglass responded to criticism by saying his first marriage was to a woman of his mother’s colour and his second to someone of his father’s colour.

Douglass continued to speak at meetings across the USA and further abroad. In 1888, he became the first African American to receive a vote for President of the United States. President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) won the election and made Douglass the consul-general to the Republic of Haiti. 

On 20th February 1895, Douglass attended a meeting with the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C, where he received a standing ovation. That evening after returning home, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Thousands of supporters attended his funeral, and four years later, they erected a statue in his memory. He was the first African American to be memorialised in this way. Frederick Douglass continues to receive such honours today. Statues of Douglass stand in the United States Capitol Visitor Centre, Central Park, and the University of Maryland.

Educate Like W.E.B

W.E.B Du Bois was the leader of the Niagara Movement, a group of African-American activists campaigning for equal rights. Through his campaigns and essays, Du Bois documented the widespread racism in the United States of America. Ultimately, Du Bois wished to put an end to prejudices, and in the process, educated many people about the inaccuracies of American history that painted blacks in a bad light.

Born on 23rd February 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to Alfred and Mary Silvina Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois grew up in a tiny black population. His father left when Du Bois was only two years old, and his mother raised him alone. Fortunately, Great Barrington had a large European American community that treated Du Bois well, and his school teachers encouraged him to pursue his academic studies at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee.

Du Bois experienced little racism until his time at university, where he came face to face with the harshest bigotry. Fortunately, this had little impact on his education, and after Du Bois graduated in 1888, he attended Harvard College, paying his tuition by taking on summer jobs and accepting loans from friends. In 1890, Du Bois graduated with a degree in history. Yet, this was not the end of his education. After another year at Harvard studying sociology, Du Bois received a fellowship from the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen to attend the University of Berlin. While in Berlin, Du Bois observed the differences in the treatment of black people. “They did not always pause to regard me as a curiosity, or something sub-human; I was just a man of the somewhat privileged student rank, with whom they were glad to meet and talk over the world.” Racism, he noted, was much worse in the USA. On returning home, Du Bois earned a PhD from Harvard University, the first black person to do so.

Following this extensive education, Du Bois received many job offers, including a teaching job at Wilberforce University, Ohio. After working there for two years, Du Bois married one of his students, Nina Gomer, on 12th May 1896 and moved to Pennsylvania to work as an assistant in sociology. Whilst there, Du Bois worked on the study The Pennsylvania Negro, which noted the treatment blacks received in the area. He rejected Frederick Douglass’ idea of blacks integrating into white communities, believing instead that they needed to embrace their African heritage while contributing to American society. He published the latter in his article Strivings of the Negro People in The Atlantic Monthly

In 1897, Du Bois moved to and accepted a job as a professor of history and economics at Atlanta University. The US government gave Du Bois a grant to research African-American workforce and culture, which he did alongside hosting the annual Atlanta Conference of Negro Problems. In 1900, Du Bois flew to London to attend the First Pan-African Conference, which implored the USA to “acknowledge and protect the rights of people of African descent”. Later that year, Du Bois attended the Paris Exposition, where he organised The Exhibit of American Negroes for which he won a gold medal.

By the early 20th century, Du Bois was a respected spokesperson for his race, second only to Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). Du Bois disagreed with many of Washington’s ideas, which asked blacks to submit to white supremacy in exchange for fundamental education. He expressed his criticism of Washington in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. Du Bois believed blacks should fight for equal rights and opportunities. 

In 1905, Du Bois met with other civil rights activists in Canada, near Niagara Falls. Together, they established the Niagara Movement, which aimed to reach out to other black people through magazines such as The Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line. Unlike periodicals owned by or sympathetic to Washington, The Niagara Movement encouraged African Americans to stand up for their rights rather than submit to humiliation and degradation.

It was not just the Niagara Movement that changed the minds of the African American population. In 1906, President Roosevelt (1858-1919) dishonourably discharged 167 black soldiers for allegedly committing crimes. Following this, riots broke out in Atlanta, where black men received accusations of assaulting white women. Rioters attacked any man with dark skin, resulting in at least 25 deaths. 

Fuelled by these events and his growing support, Du Bois continued to write about the dangers of white supremacy. He was the first African American invited to present a paper by the American Historical Association. Unfortunately, most white historians ignored his work, and the association did not invite another African American speaker for three decades. 

In 1909, Du Bois joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and accepted the post of Director of Publicity and Research the following year. This entailed editing the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis, which denounced the US government and introduced the principles of the Socialist Party. Du Bois endorsed Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) in the 1912 presidential race, extracting from the future president the promise to support black rights.

When the First World War broke out, the NAACP established a camp to train African Americans to serve in the US Army. The government promised 1000 officer positions for blacks, but riots broke out across the country in opposition. Only 600 black officers managed to join the Army. Nonetheless, Du Bois saw this as a success and interviewed many African American soldiers during the first Pan-African Congress. Unfortunately, he discovered many officers served as labourers while the white men went out to fight.

Du Bois was more determined than ever to fight for equal rights. “But, by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if, now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.” Race riots continued to take place across the country, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of black people. As well as wishing to end this unnecessary violence, Du Bois wanted to educate black children about their heritage, teaching them that they did not deserve the racist treatment. As a result, Du Bois published the textbook The Brownies’ Book, which was full of black culture and history. 

After working with the NAACP, Du Bois resigned from his post in 1933 and returned to an academic position at Atlanta University. This allowed him to continue his research, documenting how black people were central figures in the American Civil War and Reconstruction. His magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America, was published in 1935 and is still perceived as “the foundational text of revisionist African American historiography.” 

In 1936, Du Bois embarked on a trip around the world, where he received amicable treatment from people of all races. This was a stark contrast to the treatment of blacks back home. Du Bois admired the growing strength of Imperial Japan and was at first opposed to America joining the Second World War because he thought this would undo Japan’s fight to escape white supremacism. He was also disappointed that blacks only made up 5.8% of the US army.

Du Bois openly discussed his strong views in his books and papers, which eventually got him fired from his position at Atlanta University. Fortunately, scholars intervened, and Du Bois received a lifelong pension and the title of professor emeritus. Other universities offered Du Bois teaching positions, but he turned them down and rejoined the NAACP. Du Bois was one of three members of the NAACP to attend the 1945 conference in San Francisco, which oversaw the establishment of the United Nations.

The NAACP continued to fight for civil rights, submitting several petitions to the UN. Although the NAACP supported socialism, it made it clear the association had no involvement with Communism. Yet, Du Bois showed sympathy towards the Communist Party, resulting in the loss of his passport. He eventually regained his passport in 1958 and travelled the world with his second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896-1977), who he married in 1951. Nevertheless, when the US upheld the Concentration Camp Law in 1960, requiring all Communists to register with the United States Attorney General, Du Bois joined the Communist Party in protest. At this time, he was 93 years old.

In 1960, Du Bois travelled to Africa to celebrate the creation of the Republic of Ghana and to attend the inauguration of the first African governor of Nigeria. The following year, Du Bois took up residence in Ghana to work on the creation of a new encyclopedia of the African diaspora, the Encyclopedia Africana. By this time, Du Bois’ health was declining, and he passed away on 27th August 1963, not long after the US refused to renew his passport. On hearing of his death, thousands of Americans honoured Du Bois with a minute’s silence. Almost a year later, the US passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, representing many of the things Du Bois campaigned for during his long life. 


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!

Black Lives Matter (Part 3)

These articles were originally posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.

This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.

Think Like Garvey

Founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican political activist leader who influenced Rastafarians, the Nation of Islam and other activists, such as Malcolm X. Although often controversial, his ideas and dreams about the unification and empowerment of African-American people have become known as Garveyism.

Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr. was born on 17th August 1887 in the Colony of Jamaica. Although it was an ethnic country, there was a colourist social hierarchy and Garvey’s family, with their very dark skin, were at the lowest end. Garvey’s grandparents had been born into slavery and had taken on their Irish owner’s surname. Despite this, Garvey’s parents were considered well-off in the peasant community. His father, Malchus Garvey, was a stonemason and his mother, Sarah Richards, was a domestic servant.

As well as a stonemason, Malchus Garvey was a layman at the local Wesleyan Church, so it was only natural that Marcus attended the church school. At 14, Garvey left school due to a lack of funds and was apprenticed to his godfather, who ran a printing business. Until then, Garvey had not fully felt the effects of racism. He had friends with various skin tones, including a white girl, and he never thought his race would be a problem.

In 1905, Garvey moved to Kingston to work at P.A. Benjamin Manufacturing Company, where he became the first Afro-Jamaican foreman. He was able to provide for his mother and sister, who had moved in with him after leaving his father. Sadly, an earthquake struck in 1907, destroying his home. The family were forced to sleep in the open for several months, and his mother died the following year.

Whilst living in Kingston, Garvey converted to Catholicism. He also started to voice his opinions, which led to him being sacked from the manufacturing company. By this point, he was very angry with the inequalities in Jamaican society. After getting a job as the first secretary of Jamaica’s first nationalist organization, the National Club, Garvey enrolled in elocution lessons with Bahamian-born clergyman Dr Robert Love (1831-1914) and began entering public speaking competitions.

Between 1910 and 1914, Garvey travelled abroad, beginning with Costa Rica, where he worked as a timekeeper on a large banana plantation. He also briefly set up his own newspaper Nation/La Nación, in which he expressed his strong opinions. Garvey gradually worked his way through Central America, moving from job to job until he decided to travel to London in the hopes of improving his education.

In London, Garvey found a job as a labourer in the city docks. His sister, Indiana, came over to join him and found herself a position as a domestic servant. Garvey noted there were not many black people in the city, and those he came across were usually some form of labourer. Garvey visited the House of Commons during his stay and was impressed by the politician David Lloyd George. He also visited Hyde Park Corner and began to regularly speak there.

In 1913, Garvey got a job at the African Times and Orient Review as a runner and began writing for them the following year. After a brief trip through Europe, during which he had a short engagement with a Spanish-Irish heiress, Garvey had run out of funds and decided to return to Jamaica. During the journey, he met and spoke to an Afro-Caribbean missionary who inspired Garvey to envision a movement that would unite all black people of African descent.

This idea formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, commonly abbreviated as UNIA, which Garvey launched in July 1914 with the motto “One Aim. One God. One Destiny”. The association aimed to establish a brotherhood among the black race, to promote a spirit of race pride, to reclaim the fallen and to assist in civilising the backward tribes of Africa.” The association got off to a very slow start but Garvey was enthusiastic and attended many meetings, including with the Queen Street Baptist Literary and Debating Society, where he met Amy Ashwood, with whom he secretly became engaged.

Having failed to gain many members in Jamaica, Garvey moved the UNIA to the USA, where he initially lodged with a Jamaican expatriate in New York City. He travelled the country lecturing, having been inspired by black Baptist and Episcopal preachers. Back in New York, Garvey targeted his speeches at Afro-Caribbeans as well as African-Americans. Membership of the UNIA began to grow rapidly.

Within 18 months of its establishment in the USA, the UNIA had branches in 25 states as well as some Central American countries. It is not certain how many people became members of the association, but at one point, Garvey boasted over 2 million members. Unlike other activist groups, the UNIA had a blacks-only policy, so Garvey was often accused of hindering attempts at racial integration. Things came to a head when Garvey called the writer Cyril Briggs (1888-1966) and other members “white” because of their mixed heritage.

In October 1919, a vendor of Negro World attempted to assassinate Garvey, who survived with a couple of gunshots to his legs. The shooter, George Tyler, was arrested but died attempting to escape from prison. With his mortality in mind, Garvey married Amy Ashwood at a private Roman Catholic service on Christmas Day. Sadly, the marriage lasted little more than three months, and they soon separated.

Garvey moved on to new and bigger ideas, including the Black Star Line, a ship for black people run by black people. The ships travelled between Africa and the Americas, and after a few monetary problems, began to do quite well. Unfortunately, many people were beginning to dislike Garvey for his views, and he was often booed at his speeches.

In 1922, Garvey and three other UNIA officials were charged with fraud involving the Black Star Line. Their finances were in a mess and contained many inaccuracies, so it was difficult for them to defend themselves. Garvey was found guilty and imprisoned for five years. On his release in 1927, Garvey was deported to Jamaica.

Garvey continued to work with the UNIA, but people were confused when he collaborated with organisations like the KKK. Garvey reportedly claimed he respected white supremacists because they acted on their word, unlike other white people. As a result, Garvey lost a lot of support within the Black population.

In 1935, Garvey moved to London, where he died after a series of strokes in 1940. By this time, he was far less popular than he had been a decade ago, but in 1964, Jamaica hailed him as a national hero. Although he alienated a lot of people through his radical beliefs and actions, he was the spark that influenced many civil rights activists, for instance, Malcolm X. Most of his Black Nationalist views have been ignored, but his key messages live on, particularly “Black is beautiful”.

“We must canonize our own saints, create our own martyrs, and elevate to positions of fame and honour black men and women who have made their distinct contributions to our racial history … I am the equal of any white man; I want you to feel the same way.” – Marcus Garvey

Build Like Madam C.J.

Madam C.J. Walker was the first female self-made millionaire in America; she was also the first black female millionaire. Despite racism being rife in the country, Madam C.J. built an empire from nothing, developing a line of hair and beauty products for black women. She is also remembered for being a civil rights activist.

Born on 23rd December 1867 in Louisiana to Owen and Minerva Breedlove, Madam C.J. was originally known as Sarah. She had one sister and four brothers, the elder of whom were born into slavery. Sarah was the first Breedlove child born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1862. Sadly, her mother passed away from cholera in 1872, and her father died the following year.

From the age of ten, Sarah was brought up in Mississippi by her much older sister Louvenia and her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell. Around the same time, Sarah began working as a domestic servant. As an orphan, she had no time or money to go to school, and the only education she received was at Sunday school before the death of her parents.

Sarah had a rough time living with Louvenia. Jesse was an abusive man, and Sarah took the first opportunity to escape from the household: getting married. Sarah was only 14 years old when she married Moses McWilliams in 1882. Three years later, Sarah gave birth to a daughter, A’Lelia (1885-1931), but in 1887, their lives were shattered by the death of Moses.

To earn money, Sarah moved to St Louis, Missouri, where her brothers lived to work as a laundress. She was determined to earn enough money to send her daughter to school, which was a difficult task earning less than $1 a day. Sarah also wanted to live an educated life and was jealous of the educated women at the African Methodist Episcopal Church she attended.

In 1894, Sarah married John Davis, but their marriage was not a happy one, and she left him in 1903. Meanwhile, Sarah was battling severe dandruff, leading to baldness, which was a common problem for black women at the time. Hair products were made for white-skinned customers and were unsuitable for African-Americans.

Sarah knew a little about haircare from her brothers, who were barbers, but she was determined to do something about the quality of products available for black women. In 1904, she became an agent for Annie Malone (1877-1957), a black inventor and businesswoman, who specialised in cosmetics. Using the knowledge she gained working for Malone, Sarah began to develop her own products. Meanwhile, she continued to work for Malone in Denver, Colorado, where she had moved in 1905. When Malone found out about Sarah’s products, she accused her of stealing the formula despite it having been around for centuries. From then on, Sarah and Malone were rivals.

In 1906, Sarah married a newspaper advertising salesman, Charles Joseph Walker (d.1926), and took on his name. Soon she was known as Madam C.J. Walker, a name under which she marketed her products. To begin with, Sarah sold her products door-to-door whilst her husband began to arrange advertising and promotion. When business improved, A’Lelia became involved with the business, setting up a mail-order operation in their home. Charles and Sarah travelled to the southern states to promote the business, eventually moving to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to set up a beauty parlour and training college.

A’Lelia joined Madam C.J. in Pittsburgh in 1907 and persuaded her mother to open a beauty salon and office in New York. In 1910, Madam C.J. relocated to Indianapolis, where she established the headquarters for the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company and began hiring staff to help with the management.

Despite the competition, Madam C.J.’s products were popular because they helped hair to regrow and prevented them from becoming brittle. Between 1911 and 1919, she employed thousands of women and trained over 20,000 people. Unfortunately, Charles and Sarah divorced in 1912, meaning she lost her business partner.

As well as training her staff in haircare, she taught black women how to build their own businesses and become financially independent. In 1917, she established the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents, which welcomed 200 people to its first annual conference. This was also the first-ever conference for businesswomen in the USA.

“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there, I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.” This is what Madam C.J. told the National Negro Business League (NNBL) when she spoke at one of their meetings in 1912. As well as concentrating on her business, Madam C.J. involved herself in many good causes, wishing to put her well-earned money to good use.

Madam C.J. helped to raise funds for the YMCA and donated money to various churches and schools. She also became a patron of the arts and became friends with notable people, such as the author Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). In 1917, she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the following year, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC), making sizable monetary donations to both.

Around this time, Madam C.J. began to suffer from kidney failure and hypertension, passing away on 25th May 1919 at the age of 51. At her death, she was worth an estimated one million dollars, making her the wealthiest African-American woman in the country. Her daughter took over the company as its president, which continued to operate until 1981.

Madam C.J. Walker has been honoured several times since her death, including in recent years. Her company’s building in Indianapolis has been designated a National Historic Landmark, which now houses the Madam Walker Legacy Centre. In 2006, American actress and playwright Regina Taylor wrote The Dreams of Sarah Breedlove about Madam C.J.’s journey from rags to riches. Her most recent honour occurred in 2016 when the French beauty company Sephora launched a line of hair products called “Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture”, which are suitable for many different hair types. 

Not only did Madam C.J. Walker create a successful business at a time when black people were struggling for equality, but she also improved the lives of thousands of others. Thanks to her, black women were able to start their own businesses, thus helping them escape poverty and oppression. Madam C.J. was also a huge inspiration for future hair care and cosmetic businesses and will continue to be looked up to in years to come.


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Black Lives Matter (Part 2)

These articles were originally posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.

This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.

Fight Like Malcolm

Malcolm Stuart Little, or Malcolm X as he was better known, was an African American nationalist and civil rights activist. Malcolm was born on 19th May 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, to Baptist lay-preacher Earl Little and Louise Helen Little, who were both involved with the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). They taught their children to stand up for themselves and be proud of their heritage and black skin. Yet, the family were constantly targeted by the racist group, the Black Legion, forcing them to move twice, firstly to Wisconsin, then to Michigan.

Malcolm’s father died when he was only six years old. The official ruling was Earl had been involved in a streetcar accident, but Malcolm’s mother was certain it had been murder. In 1937, by which time Malcolm was 12, his mother suffered a mental breakdown and Malcolm and his siblings were separated and placed in foster care.

Malcolm did well at school but was deterred from going on to study law by a teacher who told him it was not a realistic career for a black man. As a result, Malcolm looked for jobs but never settled anywhere for long, eventually falling in with the wrong crowd in New York. For some time, Malcolm was involved with drugs, gambling, pimping and robbery until he was arrested for the latter in 1946.

While in prison, Malcolm was introduced to the Nation of Islam, a religious movement founded in 1930 that aimed to improve the lives of African Americans. On his release, Malcolm contacted the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, who helped him convert to Islam and encouraged him to join the movement. All members were instructed to leave their family names behind and replace them with the letter X. Malcolm was more than happy to leave the name “Little” behind, which had been given to his ancestors by a slavemaster. Thus, he became known as Malcolm X.

In 1953, Malcolm became the assistant minister at a temple in Detroit, where he proved to be a skilful speaker and encouraged many people to join the Nation of Islam. Amongst Malcolm’s recruits to the Nation of Islam was the boxer Cassius Clay, who adopted the Muslim name Muhammad Ali. The FBI opened a file on Malcolm after he declared himself a communist. His popularity amongst the movement’s members increased the FBI’s concerns.

Malcolm married Betty Sanders in 1958, who renamed herself Betty X after joining the Nation of Islam. They had six daughters who they named after notable Muslims: Attallah (Attila the Hun), Qubilah (Kublai Khan), Ilyasah (Elijah Muhammad), Gamilah Lumumba (Gamal Abdel Nasser and Patrice Lumumba), and twins: Malikah and Malaak, named after Malcolm, who took on the Muslim name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

Teaching the movement’s followers that all white people were bad, Malcolm made himself a public figure, turning up at police stations to protest the wrongful arrests of several black people. His comments on various issues were published in magazines or reported on radio and television. Topics included the Nation of Islam’s beliefs that black people were the original people of the world. They believed white people were devils, blacks were superior to whites, and the demise of the white race was imminent. These statements alarmed many people of all races, particularly followers of Martin Luther King Jr, who wanted blacks accepted as equal to whites.

Between 1962 and 1963, Malcolm began to reassess his involvement with the Nation of Islam. He began to disagree with some of Elijah Muhammad’s choices and disapproved of Muhammad’s involvement in extramarital affairs, which went against the movement’s teachings. By 1964, Malcolm believed the movement had gone as far as it could, and felt restricted by its rigid teachings. Although he wanted to remain a Muslim, Malcolm wanted to support other civil rights leaders, which Muhammad had actively discouraged.

After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm converted to Sunni Islam, which focused more on the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Later that year, he took the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, where he met Muslims of “all colours, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans,” which made him realise there was not a superior race, but that everyone was equal.

Having completed his journey to Mecca, Malcolm visited several African countries where he gave many interviews and television appearances. Following this, he visited France and the United Kingdom, where he involved himself in national debates. On his return to the USA, he was invited to speak at various universities and public spaces, encouraging people to fight for their rights and support one another.

As time passed, Malcolm received many death threats, and not only from anti-black organisations. The Nation of Islam branded Malcolm a hypocrite and wished to “bump him off”. Despite warning many people of the threats against his life, no one was able to prevent gunmen from advancing on him during a speech. He was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm on 21st February 1965, having suffered 21 gunshot wounds. The assassins were identified as members of the Nation of Islam, but only Talmadge Hayer was convicted. Hayer refused to name the other men, and, to this day, they remain unknown. The case continues to intrigue people, and earlier this year (2020), Netflix aired the docuseries Who Killed Malcolm X? which launched a new investigation into the assassination.  

After Malcolm’s death, Martin Luther King Jr got in touch with his wife, saying, “While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race.” Even those who were against Malcolm’s beliefs and ideas were shocked at his death.

Malcolm X has been described as one of the most influential African Americans in history. Although many did not approve of his tactics and beliefs, his actions stirred black communities into action to fight for the lives they deserved. As one biographer put it, Malcolm X “made clear the price that white America would have to pay if it did not accede to black America’s legitimate demands.”

Write like Maya

Maya Angelou was one of the most influential black poets of the 20th and early 21st century, writing on themes of racism, identity, family and travel. She was also a civil rights activist and worked with Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X. She was showered with awards and over 50 honorary degrees, but her life was not always plain sailing.

Born Marguerite Annie Johnson on 4th April 1928 in Missouri to Bailey and Vivian Johnson, Maya was given her nickname by her older brother, Bailey Jr. Unfortunately, her parents’ marriage was not a happy one, and they separated when she was three years old. Rather than take responsibility for his children, her father sent them to Arkansas to live with their grandmother, Annie Henderson. They remained there until Maya was seven when they moved home to live with their mother.

Sadly, living with their mother also meant living with their mother’s abusive boyfriend, who raped Maya when she was only eight years old. The man was arrested and locked up for one day but was murdered four days later, most likely by Maya’s uncles. The abuse greatly affected Maya, who became mute for five years, even after moving back in with her grandmother. Fortunately, her school teacher helped Maya to regain her voice whilst also feeding her passion for reading, introducing the young girl to authors who would influence her future career.

When Maya was 14, she rejoined her mother, who was then living in California. At 16, she became the first black female cable car conductor in San Francisco, where she worked whilst also attending school. Unfortunately, she got herself in trouble, and no more than three weeks after graduation, she gave birth to a baby boy, Clyde.

In 1951, Maya married a Greek electrician called Tosh Angelos, despite her mother’s disapproval. At that time, interracial marriages were unusual. Maya began taking dance lessons and dreamt of a career in a dance team. In an attempt to increase her prospects, Maya, Tosh and Clyde moved to New York for a year, where she studied African dance. For reasons unknown, in 1954, not long after returning to San Francisco, Maya’s marriage ended.

Having to fend for herself financially, Maya began dancing in local clubs, such as The Purple Onion, under her professional name, Maya Angelou. In 1954-5, she toured Europe by acting in the opera Porgy and Bess and, in 1957, wrote and recorded an album called Miss Calypso. In every country she visited, Maya made a point of learning the language, quickly becoming proficiently multilingual.

In 1959, African-American author John Oliver Killens encouraged Maya to focus on writing songs and poems rather than solely performing. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild and soon became a published author. The following year, she met Martin Luther King Jr and was inspired to organise a concert for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) called Cabaret for Freedom

Maya had a brief relationship with South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make and moved with him to Cairo in 1961 along with her son, who had renamed himself, Guy. The relationship only lasted a year, after which Maya moved to Ghana, where her son enrolled at university. While Guy was studying, Maya worked as a freelance writer for The African Review and Radio Ghana. 

Whilst living in Ghana, Maya met Malcolm X, who was touring Africa. He encouraged her to return to the USA in 1965 and help him set up the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Shortly after, Malcolm X was assassinated, and Maya, at a loss, moved to Hawaii, where her brother lived and refocused on her singing career. Not long after, she returned to Los Angeles to resume her writing career.

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr approached Maya for help organising a march. Tragically, in a similar fate to Malcolm X, King was assassinated on Maya’s 40th birthday. After a bout of depression, Maya resumed writing and published her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Initially, the publishers were unsure whether to publish the book, but it went on to become a bestseller, earning Maya international recognition. 

In 1972, Maya became the first black woman to write a screenplay, which was filmed in Sweden and released under the name Georgia, Georgia. She also wrote the soundtrack for the film. The following year, she married the Welsh carpenter Paul du Feu, who had once been married to the radical feminist Germaine Greer. For the next decade, Maya continued writing articles, screenplays, poems and books and became close friends with Oprah Winfrey. Unfortunately, her second marriage ended in divorce in 1981.

Returning to the southern states, Maya accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, becoming one of the first black women to be a full-time professor. She taught on a variety of themes that interested her, including philosophy, ethics, writing and theatre, but also continued to write.

In 1993, Maya Angelou recited one of her poems at the inauguration of Bill Clinton – the first poet to do so since John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. This televised event increased her fame across the world and earned her a Grammy Award. In 1996, she finally achieved her goal of directing a film (Down in the Delta) and, by 2002, she had published her 6th autobiography. 

Hillary Clinton, during her campaign for the Democratic Party 2008 presidential primaries, used Maya Angelou’s endorsement in her advertisements. After Obama won the primary, Maya gave him her full support. When Obama became the first African-American president, Maya said, “We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism.”

Maya published her 7th and final autobiography in 2013 called Mom & Me & Mom, focusing on her relationship with her mother. The following year, on 28th May 2014, Maya passed away after her health deteriorated. Despite cancelling a few events, Maya Angelou was working and attended events until her death. Tributes flooded in as soon as the news was made public, and her first biography instantly became the number one bestseller on Amazon. A public funeral was held at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she had been a member for 30 years. 

As well as the Grammy Award for her poetry recital at Clinton’s inauguration, Maya Angelou received several awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, two more Grammys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and over 50 honorary degrees. Although these were awarded for her talents, they were also a sign that she overcame her past and did not let racial inequalities stand in the way of her success.


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Jane Austen’s Bath

Situated at 40 Gay Street in Bath is a museum dedicated to Jane Austen, her writings and her experience in the City of Bath. All six of Jane’s completed novels mention the city, and two, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, are set in Bath. Although Jane Austen only lived in Bath for a short period of her life, the city had a huge impact on her interests and writing.

Jane Austen was born on 16th December 1775 at Steventon, near Basingstoke in Hampshire. She was the seventh child of George Austen (1731-1805) and Cassandra Leigh (1739-1827), who married in Bath in 1764. George Austen was a rector and began taking in boarding pupils at the rectory in Steventon a couple of years before Jane was born. Although Jane attended a boarding school for a couple of years, most of her education came from her father and older brothers.

Jane had seven brothers, James (1765-1819), George (1766-1838), Edward (1767-1852), Henry Thomas (1771-1850), Francis (1774-1865) and Charles John (1779 1852), and one sister, Cassandra (1773-1845). For reasons unknown, Jane was the only sibling not given a middle name. Neither Jane nor Cassandra married and relied on six of their brothers for money later in life. The second-eldest brother, George, had little to do with family matters and was sent to live with a relative due to his mental disabilities. References in Jane’s letters to talking “with my fingers” suggests George may have been deaf or unable to communicate verbally.

In late 1797, when Jane was 21, she visited Bath for the first time with her mother and sister. During the six weeks they spent in the city, Jane experienced a different lifestyle from the quiet village life to which she was accustomed. Social events were high on everyone’s agenda in Georgian Bath, which Jane’s letters home described as exciting scenes. “I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath when I am home again – I do like it very much.”

Two years later, Jane returned to Bath with her brother Edward, who wished to “take the waters” to aid his ill-health. The Roman Baths in the city centre were renowned for their healing properties, as was the experimental electric shock treatment provided by local physicians. Jane took the opportunity to learn about the area, which helped form the setting of her first completed novel, Northanger Abbey

Jane, Edward and their mother stayed at No. 13 Queen’s Square for a couple of months, during which time Jane worked on her novel. She had started writing a book called Susan before coming to Bath for the second time and continued working on it while in the city. Despite selling it to a publisher for £10, the book was never published during her lifetime. After her death, Jane’s brother Henry published it under a different title, Northanger Abbey.

There are similarities between Jane Austen and Catherine Moorland, the protagonist of Northanger Abbey. Both young women grew up in the countryside and experienced Bath as innocent, inexperienced girls. Like Jane, Catherine was enthralled by the hustle and bustle of the fashionable city and exclaimed, “Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?”

Several notable locations are mentioned in Northanger Abbey, which Jane experienced during her first two visits to the city. Catherine Morland met her love interest, Mr Tilney, by the River Avon in what is now known as the Parade Gardens. This was the location of the Lower Assembly Rooms in Jane’s time, to which she referred in her novel. Catherine attended services nearby in Bath Abbey and visited the Pump Room daily. “As soon as the divine service was over, the Thorpes and the Allens eagerly joined each other; and after staying long enough in the Pump-room to discover that the crowd was insupportable, and that there was not a genteel face to be seen, which everybody discovers every Sunday throughout the season, they hastened away to the Crescent.

The Royal Crescent is one of the most iconic sights in Bath, as is the Circus, which was built between 1754 and 1756. Jane had friends living in the round circle of terrace houses, so it was only natural to refer to the area. Jane also mentioned the Upper Assembly Rooms, where she enjoyed attending dances and performances. The fictional Catherine also visited the Rooms for similar entertainment. Today, it is the location of Bath’s Museum of Costume.

In 1801, Reverend George Austen surprised his family by announcing his retirement and decision to move to Bath. They moved to 4 Sydney Place, a recently built Georgian townhouse in the Bathwick area of Bath. The nearby Sydney Gardens supplied public breakfasts, which Jane regularly attended. The breakfasts included tea, coffee, and rolls, and towards midday, they served Sally Lunn buns, followed by music and dancing. During the summer, galas were held in the gardens in honour of the King and Prince of Wales’ birthdays and the annual Bath races. During Austen’s time at 4 Sydney Place, André-Jacques Garnerin (1769-1823) took off from the gardens in his hot air balloon in September 1802. Garnerin was well-known for his balloon demonstrations and visited Bath as part of his tour of England.

The Austens remained in Sydney Place until the lease expired in 1804. Her father quickly sought cheaper lodgings, and the family moved to No. 3 Green Park Buildings East. Jane often complained about the dampness in the building but still declared it was “so very desirable in size and situation”. Unfortunately, Jane’s father died suddenly in January 1805 and Jane, Cassandra and their mother were forced to seek smaller accommodation.

The Austens found temporary accommodation at 25 Gay Street, not far from where the Jane Austen Centre is today. In the summer of 1805, they moved to a cheaper address in Trim Street, a less fashionable region of Bath. Although Trim Street boasts luxurious apartments in the 21st century, in Jane Austen’s time, prostitutes frequented the area. Needless to say, the Austens did not remain there long before deciding to leave the city for Southampton.

Despite witnessing the poorer side of Bath, Jane never lost her love of the city. During her time in Southampton, she wrote Elinor and Marianne, which she published under the title Sense and Sensibility in 1811, shortly after moving to Hampshire. Although the novel was set in Sussex and London, the characters reference their “earnest desire” to go to Bath.

In 1813, Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice and finished writing her next novel, Mansfield Park. Both these stories mention minor characters visiting the city of Bath, as does Emma, which was published in 1815. “If she is really ill, why not go to Bath Mr. Weston?”

Nine years after leaving Bath, Jane Austen started working on Persuasion. At the beginning of the story, the Elliot family move to Bath to settle in a cheaper home until their financial situation improves. The protagonist, Anne Elliot, a 27-year-old unmarried woman, is unsure she will like the city but cannot upset her parents by making a fuss. Jane was a similar age when she moved to Bath, but she had already a favourable impression of the city from her visits in her early 20s. To write from Anne’s point of view, Jane imagined how she would have observed Bath and its social customs for the first time as a mature woman.

Several locations in Bath are written about in Persuasion, for instance, Milsom Street, where Anne first meets her ex-fiancé Captain Wentworth in the city. Jane set the encounter in Molland’s sweet shop, which, whilst no longer there, must have held significant memories for Jane. Gay Street, where Jane briefly stayed after her father’s death, also receives a mention. Although Gay Street contained cheaper housing, it still had a genteel atmosphere.

Behind the back gardens of Gay Street is a gravel walk known as Lover’s Lane during Jane Austen’s time. Young lovers used to meet for a romantic stroll along the lane, making it the perfect setting for Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth to have a romantic encounter. Other locations in Persuasion include Camden Crescent, where Sir Walter Elliot lived. The houses with their position on a hill symbolise Sir Elliot’s lofty views of his self-importance. Dowager Lady Dalrymple and the Honorable Miss Carteret, cousins of the Elliots, lived in Laura Place, one of the most prestigious groups of houses in Bath. Their way of life greatly contrasted with the general public.

Jane started feeling unwell in 1816 but tried to make a start on another novel, Sanditon. After twelve chapters, she gave up and moved to Winchester with her sister Cassandra and brother Henry for treatment. Unfortunately, Jane passed away a couple of months later, on 18th July 1817, at the age of 41. Jane’s cause of death is still debated today due to Jane’s letters in which she made light of her symptoms. The two most accepted diagnoses are Addison’s disease and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer.

The Jane Austen Centre at No. 40 Gay Street focuses on Jane’s relatively short time in Bath. Visitors are given a talk by members of staff dressed up as well-known Jane Austen characters, such as the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and remain in character throughout the visit. The talk covers Jane’s family background, her trips to Bath, the inspiration for her books, and her untimely death.

A short film provides a brief tour of Regency Bath, particularly the locations relevant to Jane Austen and her books. A map of the tour is provided in the souvenir guide, so visitors can explore the area if they wish. The rest of the museum contains images, books and letters written by or concerning Jane Austen. There is also an opportunity to dress up in Regency clothing and pose next to a Colin Firth-look-a-like wax figure of Mr. Darcy. Before leaving, visitors are invited to try writing with a quill pen and visit the Regency Tea Room for tea, cake, scones and sandwiches.

One of the highlights at the Jane Austen Centre is the waxwork model of the author. A small watercolour painting by Cassandra Austen is the only existing image of Jane, but it was described as “hideously unlike” Jane by another family member. Fortunately, there are many written descriptions of Jane’s physical appearance from friends and contemporaries, which the forensic artist Melissa Dring used to bring Jane Austen to life.

Melissa Dring unveiled her drawing of Jane Austen in 2002. Nine years later, the Jane Austen Centre commissioned the portrait sculptor Mark Richards to produce a waxwork model of the artwork. Working with Dring, the hair and colour artist Nell Clarke, and costume designer Andrea Galer, Richards spent three years carefully crafting the model until he revealed it to the world on 9th July 2014. Many visitors to the centre comment on Jane’s height of 5 ft 8 in. Cassandra’s portrait of her sister led people to assume Jane was a short woman, but several accounts record her as “tall and slender”.

The Jane Austen Centre is open every day of the week. Due to popularity, booking is strongly advised with the option of reserving a table for afternoon tea. Adult tickets cost £12.50, but there are various concessions for children, students and the over 60s. Tickets are available on the Jane Austen Centre website.


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!

Black Lives Matter (Part 1)

These articles were originally posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.

This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.

Dream like Martin

Martin Luther King Junior was an American minister who became the spokesperson and leader of the Civil Rights Movement in 1955 until his assassination in 1968. He is a hero and inspiration for the recent Black Lives Matter campaign and was instrumental in combating racial inequality in the United States.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on 15th January 1929, he was originally named Michael, although his father, Reverend Michael King Snr, claimed this to be a mistake. Apparently, his mother, Alberta, gave him the name Michael, which a physician entered onto the birth certificate without consulting the father. Nonetheless, after a trip to Germany in 1934, where he learnt about the German professor Martin Luther, Michael King Snr began referring to himself as Martin Luther King and his son as Martin Luther King Jr. On 23rd July 1957, Junior’s name was officially changed on his birth certificate.

King and his two younger siblings grew up listening to bible stories and lived in harmony with black and white children until they began school. Only then did King notice the difference in treatment between black and white. King had no choice but to attend Younge Street Elementary School for black children and was no longer allowed to play with his white friends. His father refused to accept segregation laws and led protests and marches in Atlanta.

King Jr began to resent racial humiliation during his teenage years. He had grown up memorising bible passages and hymns, but his experiences as a black boy made him question the authenticity of Christian beliefs. Fortunately, his mentor at college, a Baptist minister, who also became his spiritual mentor, encouraged King to follow in his father’s footsteps. After graduating from college, King enrolled at Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania.

In 1951, King began his doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University, and the following year he was called as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Whilst studying in Boston, King met Coretta Scott, who he later married on 18th June 1953. Over the next decade, the Kings became the parents of four children: Yolanda King (1955–2007), Martin Luther King III (b. 1957), Dexter Scott King (b. 1961), and Bernice King (b. 1963).

In 1955, a schoolgirl, Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her seat for a white man in protest of the enforced racial segregation laws. King, who was in the Birmingham African-American community, looked into the case, but it was eventually dismissed on account of Colvin being a minor. Later that year, a similar incident occurred when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat. As a result, King led a boycott of the buses in Montgomery, which lasted 385 days until King’s house was bombed. Although King was arrested during the campaign, it resulted in the end of racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses.

In 1957, King and some other black ministers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which aimed to encourage black churches to conduct nonviolent protests in the name of civil rights. The conference was inspired by Reverend Billy Graham, who, despite being white, had befriended King and shared his sentiments. During the SCLC’s 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom demonstration in Washington, King made his first public speech to the nation.

The following year, King published his book Stride Toward Freedom. During a book signing in Harlem, he was stabbed in the chest with a letter opener. He narrowly escaped death with the help of surgeons and was hospitalised for three weeks. The attack was not deemed a racial offence as the perpetrator was a mentally ill black woman called Izola Curry, who believed King was conspiring against her with a group of Communists. 

After recovering from his near-death experience, King returned to the fore of the Civil Rights movement and led several non-violent protests and marches. These aimed to provide black citizens with the right to vote and provide labour and civil rights, most of which were granted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

King and the SCLC involved themselves with uprisings around the country. In Albany, Georgia, King was arrested at a peaceful demonstration in 1961 and again in 1962. The following year in Birmingham, Alabama, King was arrested again for campaigning against racial segregation and economic injustice. This was his 13th arrest, and by the end of his life, he had been arrested 29 times. Nonetheless, he remained undeterred and joined or organised protests in New York and Florida in 1964.

Martin Luther King Jr’s most famous “I have a dream” speech took place during the March on Washington in 1963. The march demanded the removal of racial segregation in schools, a law to prevent racial discrimination at work, a minimum wage for black workers and protection from police brutality, amongst other things. King’s speech has since been listed as one of the finest speeches in the history of America.

“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

King continued to organise marches, speeches and protests and, in 1967, involved the SCLC with the protests against the war in Vietnam. Not only was King concerned about black rights, but he also spoke strongly against the USA’s involvement in the war in general. Following this, in 1968, King organised the “Poor People’s Campaign” to address the issues of economic justice across America. By then, some circumstances had improved for black people, and King emphasised that black and white were equal and everyone deserved the same rights.

On 29th March 1968, Martin Luther King Jr went to Memphis, Tennessee, to support the strike of black sanitary public works employees, where he delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.

“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The following evening, whilst standing on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel where he was staying, Martin Luther King Jr was fatally shot in the face by James Earl Ray. Despite being rushed to hospital, King passed away an hour later. His death resulted in mass riots in cities across America until, on 7th April, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a national day of mourning for the Civil Rights leader. Just days after his death, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was passed to prohibit discrimination in housing and housing-related transactions based on race, religion, or national origin.

Despite dying at the age of 39, Martin Luther King Jr’s actions and legacy changed the lives of black people forever. The struggle was by no means over, but black and white were beginning to live in harmony. His dream that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character” was finally coming true.

Lead like Harriet

Araminta “Minty” Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland but later escaped and became one of the leaders of the “Underground Railroad”, which led hundreds of slaves to freedom. It is not certain when Harriet and her eight siblings were born, but it is estimated to be between 1815 and 1825. Plantation owners owned her parents, Harriet “Rit” Green and Ben Ross, and some of their children were sold to other plantations in other states.

Physical violence was a common occurrence for Harriet and her family, particularly in the form of whipping. Harriet carried scars on her back for the rest of her life. On one occasion, when she refused to do something, Harriet’s overseer threw a two-pound weight at her head, knocking her out. This led to seizures, headaches and narcolepsy, which Harriet suffered for the rest of her life. On the other hand, the seizures caused her to fall into intense dream states, which she believed to be religious experiences.

Harriet’s father became a free man at the age of 45, but having nowhere to go, he remained working on the plantation in slave-like conditions. He did not feel he could leave his family, who remained in the plantation owner’s possession. Even when Harriet married John Tubman, a free man, in 1844, she was not released from slavery.

In 1849, Harriet made her first trip from South to North following a network known as the Underground Railroad. Following the death of her owner, Harriet decided to escape from slavery and run away to Philadelphia. On 17th September 1849, Harriet and two of her brothers began the long journey, but after they learnt that Harriet was being sought in the papers for a reward of $300, the boys had second thoughts and returned home. Harriet’s husband had also refused to go with her and later took on a new wife.

Continuing alone, Harriet travelled almost 90 miles to Philadelphia, where she finally entered a Free State. “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” But this was not the end of Harriet’s story. No sooner had she arrived, she returned to the South to help more than 300 people escape from slavery. Between 1850 and 1860, Harriet made 19 trips, the first being to help her niece Kessiah and family flee from the harsh conditions. 

Things became harder when the Fugitive Slave Law came into practice, stating that escaped slaves could be arrested and returned to their owners even if they were living in Free States. Nonetheless, Harriet persevered, rerouting the Underground Railroad to Canada.

Harriet had a prophetic vision about the abolitionist John Brown, who she later met in 1858. Although Brown advocated violence, he ultimately wanted the same result as Harriet, and they began working together. Unfortunately, Brown was arrested and executed, for which Harriet praised him as a martyr.

During the Civil War, Harriet entered the Union Army as a cook and nurse, although she ended up working as an armed scout and spy. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the war, which resulted in the liberation of over 700 slaves in South Carolina.

In 1859, Harriet bought a small piece of land near Auburn, New York, from fellow abolitionist Senator William H. Seward. Ten years later, she married Civil War veteran Nelson Davis and, in 1874, adopted a baby girl called Gertie. They lived happily in their own home, despite never being financially secure. Friends and supporters endeavoured to raise money for her. One fan, Sarah H. Bradford, wrote Harriet’s biography and gave her all the proceeds.

In 1903, Harriet opened her land to the African Methodist Episcopal Church and, five years later, opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. Sadly, Harriet’s health was not good. The physical abuse received as a slave caused her severe problems, resulting in brain surgery to alleviate some of the pain. She died in 1917 from pneumonia and was buried at Fort Hill Cemetery with military honours.

At the end of the 20th century, Harriet Tubman was named one of the most famous civilians in American History, and she will soon be the face of the new $20 bill. Yet, outside of America, Harriet remains unknown, although, in 2019, a film was released titled Harriet, which documents her life as a conductor of the Underground Railroad. A Woman Called Moses from 1978 also documents her career. 

To be continued…


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