Royalty; Cricket; chickens and the like; a Bowler Hat; Hot coffee please; Educating at school and a young William Pitt and finish with a sinking ship and a weather report

14th December has a strange place in the comparatively recent life of our British Royal Family and Britain itself.
The Victorian era had two very distinctive ‘lives’ – the one during Prince Albert’s life and the one after his death on this Saturday 14th December 1861. Inside the family there was a withdrawal into sadness and relative privacy while outside Britain grew, invented and progressed.
On the 34th anniversary of the death of Prince Albert – Saturday 14th December 1895 – a great grandson of Queen Victoria was born in York Cottage, a house in the grounds of the Sandringham Estate. That child would be baptised Albert Frederick Arthur George and he would later become King George 6th and the father of our present Queen.
57 years after Prince Albert’s death – on Saturday 14th December 1918 – women of Britain were allowed to vote in a general election for the first time. This was the first election to be held after the passing of the ‘Representation of the People Act 1918’ which had opened up voting for any woman – provided she was over 30 years of age AND met a property qualification. This was also the first General Elections in which all men over the age of 21 could vote.
Up to now General Election voting had spread over two or more days but, to complete a trio of 14th December ‘firsts’; this date saw the first General Election where voting took place on a single day.

On Tuesday 15th December 1903 ‘The Times’ newspaper reported on the previous day’s play in a cricket Test Match between ‘The English team’ and Australia.
Why ‘The English Team’ you might ask. Up to this time all English cricket tours to Australia had been the result of private enterprises – teams put together by individuals or wealthy groups. The Australian cricket authority was the Melbourne Cricket Club and they had been urging London’s Marylebone Cricket Club (the MCC) to take on the responsibility of selecting and managing a team to tour Australia. This Test Match, played at the Sydney Cricket Ground, was the first to be arranged by the MCC. Organising and running overseas English/British cricket tours was a duty that they would hold for over 70 more years!
The ‘Times’ report says: ‘The Englishmen’s total today of 577 is the second highest ever obtained in a Test Match, while R E Foster’s innings of 287 runs beats all records in the test games between England and Australia.’
This was a match for individual high scores all round. Australia batted first and M A Noble scored 133 of their innings total of 285 – the next highest score was 48, while five of the batsmen totalled just 18 runs between them.
In England’s first innings L C Braund scored 102 alongside Foster’s 287 – a one-man topping of the whole Australian total – in their total of 577 runs. Four of England’s batsmen managed to amass just 6 runs between them. The last man in was Wilfred Rhodes, and he contributed 40 not out – and probably would have scored more if Foster had not have been caught out by Noble, the Australian captain.
Australia did much better in their second innings with opening batsman Victor Trumper scoring 185 not out as they totalled up 485 runs. England needed 194 to win and, although the first innings hero Foster only scored 19 in his second innings, an innings of 91 from T W Hayward and 60 not out by G H Hirst took England to 194 for 5 wickets – and victory.
R E Foster’s record breaking innings proved to be the only century he ever made in his Test career.

16th December in various years of my youth: In his younger days, the mid 1930’s, my father worked on a poultry farm. After the war he worked on an arable farm but, at this time of the year, he had a second, evening and week-end, job – plucking fowls for Christmas. My abiding memory of the run-up to Christmas was our ‘out-house’ [technically the wash-house] being full of dead poultry.
Dad would be in there for hours, surrounded on one side by dead but ‘fully clothed’ chickens / cockerels / geese / ducks / turkeys and on his other side the same range of ‘nude birds’ as I called them. Sitting in the middle of all this was dad – knee deep in feathers.
In the morning he went off to his usual job and I went off to school. When I came home all the ‘nudes’ had gone as well as the feathers but, in their place, were more dead birds. I remember asking him one year why he did it. He said there were three reasons – one: he liked doing it; two: we got a darn good cockerel for our Christmas dinner and three: it paid for our summer holidays. That last bit made good sense to me.

Monday 17th December 1849. I was once told that ‘There is limited truth in history – but enough versions of the probable truth to make a story’. This is one of those situations.
In one of the many sources I use I found the ‘facts’ of the following story (which I have summarised): ‘On this day the first bowler hat was sold to William Coke [of Holkham Hall in Norfolk] by Thomas & William Bowler of London. When Coke arrived in London at Lock & Company’s shop to collect his hat, he placed it on the floor and stamped hard on it twice to test its strength. The hat withstood this test and Coke paid 12 shillings for it. In accordance with Lock & Co’s usual practice, the hat style was called the “Coke” hat (pronounced “cook”) after the customer who had ordered it.’
BUT – I then found The Saville Row Bespoke Association’ claiming to have ‘united the founding fathers of the Row with the New Establishment tailors to protect and develop a craft practised in this elite quarter of Mayfair for over two centuries’. This statement goes on to tell me that, in 1850, James Lock & Co invented a Saville Row icon: the bowler hat. The bowler was commissioned by William Coke (a relative of the then current Earl of Leicester) to be worn by his gamekeepers as protection against falling pheasants and poachers’ sticks. The bowler is still called a Coke at Lock & Co.
BUT – I then discovered the following: The first bowler hat was originally created for Edward Coke, the younger brother of the 2nd Earl of Leicester in 1849. It was designed by London hat makers Thomas and William Bowlers for hatters Lock & Co of St James’s. The brief was to create a piece of headgear that could be worn by gamekeepers when they were out riding to protect their heads from low-hanging branches. [There’s nothing about falling pheasants and poacher’s sticks] It is thought [the article says] that before accepting the hat Coke arrived at the shop in London and stamped on the crown twice to check its robustness. He paid 12 shillings for it.
This version goes on to say that it was devised in 1849 by the London hat-makers Thomas and William Bowler to fulfil an order placed by the firm of hatters Lock & Co of St James’s. Lock & Co. had been commissioned by a customer to design a close-fitting, low-crowned hat to protect Coke’s gamekeepers’ heads from low-hanging branches while on horseback. The keepers, it said, had previously worn top hats, which were easily knocked off and damaged. Lock & Co. then commissioned the Bowler brothers to solve the problem.
THEN I FOUND the following on the Wikipedia story of the ‘Bowler Hat’: Especially in Great Britain, most accounts agreed that the customer (and designer of the hat) was William Coke. However, later, a nephew of the 1st Earl of Leicester, provided research that has cast some doubt on this origin story. It is now believed that it was Edward Coke, the younger brother of the 2nd Earl of Leicester, who invented the hat design.
This quotes a Coke Estates Ltd PDF ‘The history of the Bowler Hat at Holkham’ and Bernhard Roetzel’s 1999 publication from Barnes & Noble ‘Gentleman’s Guide to Grooming and Style.’
I leave it with you – I’m going to make myself a cup of tea but, of course, it may end up being a coffee!

Much easier and to the point is the diary entry for this Sunday, 17th December 1911 in Captain Scott’s journal of his last expedition to the Antarctic. He writes:
“Ate the last pony today. Smith keeps our spirits up with his impressions of the Surrey XI of ’07 and his tales of prole-baiting in Esher, but we all feel desperately the need of a really good, hot cup of coffee. White, no sugar, would hit the spot. Left foot has fallen off.”

Thursday 18th December 1902 saw the Education Act in Britain come into force. Its intent was to provide a sound secondary education for children and resulted in schools coming under the control of local authorities. It also incorporated Church Schools into the state system.
Also known as the Balfour Act, it affected education across the whole of England and Wales – Scotland had been brought under the Scotch Education Department in an act of 1872. The 1902 Act provided funds for denominational religious instruction in voluntary elementary schools, and ended the divide between voluntary schools, which were largely administered by the Church of England, and schools provided and run by elected school boards. It was extended in 1903 to cover London. With the benefit of hindsight many argue that the Act was a short-term political disaster for the Conservative Party but a long-term success. It standardized and upgraded the educational systems of England and Wales, and ultimately led to a rapid growth of secondary schools.

On Friday 19th December 1783, at an age of 24 years 205 days, William Pitt ’the Younger’ became – and remains – Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister. It is said that he was almost born to be Prime Minister having become immersed in political life from a young age – apparently expressing parliamentary ambitions at the age of 7. He was educated at home due to his poor health but he later studied at Cambridge University; graduated aged 17; went on to study Law and was called to the Bar in 1780 aged 20. A year later he was returned as MP for Appleby in Cumbria.
In the House of Commons he proved himself a talented speaker and used this talent to join with Whig politician Charles Fox in calling for peace with the Americans.
At age 24 Pitt was appointed Chancellor of Exchequer by the Prime Minister, the Earl of Shelburne in July 1783 while knowing little about his new duties, and even less about the practical business of government. None the less he was leader of the Government in the Commons in all but name and it was on this Friday, 19th December 1783, that he officially became Prime Minister of Britain.
His age predictably caused some public concern: a popular ditty of the time commented that it was ‘a sight to make all nations stand and stare: a kingdom trusted to a schoolboy’s care’. During his first year he suffered a significant number of defeats in Parliament but was undeterred. His popularity rose steadily, and he won a very large majority in a well-timed general election in 1784.

Monday 20th December 1982: At around midnight on the 19th/20th December two Townsend Thoresen ferries – the European Gateway and the Speedlink Vanguard – collided off Harwich during what was described as ‘a raging night storm’. Six people died and one of the ferries sank in the icy-cold North Sea. Helicopters, tugs and sundry other vessels pulled 64 people to safety.
Many of the survivors said that they were unable to find lifejackets on the European Gateway; nor could they find crew members to guide them to the life rafts. Flares lit up the area throughout the search in, what one rescuer called, “a bloody awful night”. Essex County police reported that all the casualties came from the European Gateway which capsized and sank in shallow water about 30 minutes after the collision two miles offshore. The ferries’ owners said that the European Gateway was heading to Rotterdam with a crew of 36 plus 34 trucks & their drivers. Police confirmed that the Speedlink Vanguard was carrying no passengers and that there were no casualties among the 28 crew members.
In researching this story I have gathered over 3,000 words so far with more likely to be added. I don’t feel that this blog is the right place to tell the whole story and its repercussions, but it is something that I’d like to do. With something happening over the next couple of weeks or so I think it will be sometime early in the New Year when the full story will be posted in a separate blog.

Talking of this week/next week postings: in last week’s blog there was a piece from Edith Holden’s ‘Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady’ where she wrote that Thursday 9th December 1906 provided ‘a storm of whirling snowflakes’ followed by ‘bright sunshine and a sharp frost at night.’ On this year’s 9th December weather here, a few miles north of Peterborough, the morning started very frosty; at 12 noon the frost had gone but the cold remained with a gentle but cutting wind and the thermometer reading 360 F. It stayed there until dusk, by which time we had a gusty and biting wind BUT NO SNOW.

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