Slow Train to Switzerland by Diccon Bewes


In 1863, a young single woman from the North of England went on Thomas Cook’s first Conducted Tour of Switzerland.  Group tours meant it was OK for her to go without a chaperone – hooray!   And, during one of her group’s excursions, they got caught in a storm and took refuge in a mountain hut.  I love how Chalet School-esque that is, over sixty years before the Chalet School opened!    I also love the fact that the author of this book, who retraced her journey -with his mum – is called Diccon, rather than rather than Rick or Rich or Ricky.  It sounds very Frances Hodgson Burnett.  And I’m extremely impressed by just how much Victorian tourists – we’re talking middle-class tourists going for a few weeks, not the wealthy upper-classes who could afford to wander round Europe for months on end and see everywhere at a leisurely pace – got through during their trips.  I like to keep on the go when I’m on holiday, but getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning and not getting to the next hotel until midnight, especially whilst dressed in crinolines and corsets, really would be going a bit far.

The idea of this book was that Diccon Bewes (a British travel writer living in Switzerland) and his mum were going to retrace the journey described in the journal of Jemima Morrell.  She’s always referred to as “Miss Jemima”, because the members of the group (which started off with 130 people but was down to seven by the end, some of its members having only gone as far as Paris or one of the resorts on Lake Geneva) had agreed to call each other “Miss Jemima”, “Mr William” (her brother) etc, rather than Miss/Mr/Mrs Surname.  They were obviously well into holiday mode – even if they did have to don formal dress for their evening meals.

Back in 1863, tourism in Switzerland was just starting to take off – and it was mainly a British thing.  The book tells us a lot about the character of the people who went on these tours, and also about Switzerland and how it was changed by tourism.  We think of Switzerland as a wealthy country, but, in 1863, it really wasn’t.  It wasn’t until I saw this BBC documentary in 2014 about children in Switzerland being used as indentured farm labourers even well after the Second World War, that I realised just how recently it is that Switzerland’s become so wealthy. And it was in no small part the growth of the tourist industry that kick-started that.

Diccon Bewes is a very entertaining writer, and the book’s very readable.  I’m not going to recount all his travels, or Miss Jemima’s, but I thought I’d list a few of the points that particularly struck me, in the hope that someone might read them and that they might find them interesting too!  Some of them are pretty obvious, but the fact that something’s obvious doesn’t mean that it’s not interesting .

  1. Miss Jemima being able to travel abroad with no travelling companion/chaperone.  And the development of group tours in general, making travel available to people who just wouldn’t have had the chance otherwise.  Then as now, people can be snotty about group tours, but I’d have missed out on a lot of the best experiences of my life without them.  So would she.
  2. The tourist industry being the impetus for railway building in Switzerland. Quite an interesting concept when you come from Lancashire and have grown up with the idea that railway building was all to do with the Industrial Revolution!
  3. The difference in types of travel hassle between then and now!  OK, Victorian travellers did not have to pass through body scanners or have their luggage rummaged through by security staff.  But they did have to have their luggage paid at every single railway station where they broke their journey, and pay for it.  And Miss Jemima’s cousin, Miss Sarah, another member of the party, was charged 50 cents at the Douane in Dieppe for carrying Yorkshire curd tarts.
  1. And they didn’t have to go through passport control. No passports required.  Individual British passports weren’t introduced until 1915.  I knew that, but I didn’t know that, prior to that, it was advisable to get a group passport for your party, which listed all the men by name but only gave the total number of women!  Huh!!5. As I said, just how much they did!  Usually a different place every day.  Well, sometimes several different places every day.  A different hotel every night would be a better way of putting it – and this was at a time when travel meant going by trains that took far longer than today’s trains do, diligence (stagecoach), steamer, and, in some areas, mules.  And a lot of walking.  Especially for blokes.  If there weren’t enough mules to go round, women got first dibs.  Eighteen hour days, sometimes.  I’ve done some fairly tiring tours, but I don’t think any of them were as tiring as the ones these Victorian travellers did.  How were they not exhausted?  Oh, and Diccon wondered (and so did I) what they did about toilet stops, but, sadly, Miss Jemima’s journal doesn’t mention anything so indelicate!

    6. Environmental issues.  I often wish I could have visited places in the days when they were less crowded – which is totally hypocritical, seeing as I’m part of the crowds.  And before everything was so globalised.  I’ve got nothing against McDonald’s or Starbucks, but I don’t really need to see them everywhere when I’m looking for an Austrian coffee house or a French patisserie.  But, although I get upset every time I hear that Venice has been flooded again, I’ve never really stopped to wish that I could have seen a glacier in the days when it was far bigger, or to be sad that they’re in retreat.  I will do from now on.

    7. The traumas of the mountain weather never change, though!  You’ve been promised one of the best views in the world.  On the day you’re meant to see it, the clouds are so low and so thick that you can hardly see a thing.  As you’re on an escorted tour on a tight schedule, rather than a Grand Tour lasting twelve months, you can’t come back another day.

    8. The British links to the development of Swiss winter sports.  At this point, the British were keener on winter sports than the Swiss were. Thomas Cook even introduced a skating tour of Switzerland in 1905.   The Cresta Run, built in 1884, was a British idea.  We should really be winning medals galore at the Winter Olympics!  Hmm.

    9. The importance of appreciating the simple things.  I do actually do this!   Getting excited over an Alpine flower meadow, rather than wanting to be going bungee jumping off a bridge or the side of a dam.  Obviously Victorian British tourists did not have the option of doing bungee jumping, but some of them were weirdly obsessed with the idea of climbing the Matterhorn.  I’m with Miss Jemima and the Alpine flowers on this one.

    10.And, of course, taking shelter in a mountain hut during a storm.  Annoyingly, this bit was actually in France – whilst visiting the Mer de Glace near Chamonix – rather than in Switzerland, but never mind.  All these years, I’ve been reading Chalet School books and wondering how likely it was that people stranded in a storm would actually have been able to find a mountain hut that was conveniently open.  Evidently, it really did happen!

So there.  This is a light-hearted book, but there’s plenty of stuff in it that’ll really make you think.  Very enjoyable.


Gentleman Jack – BBC 1


Anne Lister’s diaries have been described as “the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history”.  They’re on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, and include commentary on the major national and international events of the day as well as details about her personal life.  Anne was also a successful businesswoman, a traveller, a climber (and a social climber!), responsible for a huge amount of work at her family home, Shibden Hall near Halifax, and married (“celebrated marital commitment with”) her final partner, Ann Walker by their taking communion together on Easter Sunday in 1834.   She went against everything that society expected of women of her time and her class, but she seems to have been completely comfortable in her own skin – and her own masculine-style black clothes.  What a fascinating character!  Ann Walker’s also interesting, although her story’s much sadder: she suffered from depression and, after Anne’s death, was tricked into leaving Shibden Hall, declared insane and taken to (as it would then have been called) an asylum. Suranne Jones, Sophie Rundle and the rest of a strong, Northern-led 🙂 cast are doing an excellent job of portraying their story.

I did wonder if – this being the cosy Sunday 9pm period drama slot – the scriptwriters might be tempted to make Anne Lister into a much nicer person than she actually was.  Admirable, yes – likeable, not so much!  And if they might be tempted to turn her relationship with Ann Walker into a fairytale romance.  It wasn’t!  But no – it was pretty much warts and all.  Well done to Sally Wainwright and the rest of the scriptwriting team!

Black mark for anachronistic language, though.  People in the 1830s did not go around saying “Either way works for me” or “They’re a handful”.  But, especially after ITV 1’s Victoria had Robert Peel sounding like he came from the East Midlands rather than Bury, gold star for getting most of the characters in this Halifax-based series genuinely sounding like they came from Yorkshire!

The series opened in 1832, when Anne was 41, so there’s a huge amount about her life that we’re not going to get to see.  Maybe an opening for a prequel some time?  We won’t see her having affairs with other girls whilst at school.  We won’t hear her thoughts on the Peterloo Massacre.  We won’t see her travels to the French court.   But, hey, you can only fit so much into eight hours!

In 1832, she was returning to Shibden Hall, which she’d inherited from her uncle, after a long time away.  I went to Shibden Hall on Saturday, and so I particularly enjoyed seeing the house and gardens on TV on Sunday.  It was really nice to see a TV series that was actually filmed where it was set, rather than Budapest filling in for Virginia or whatever!   Immediately, we got the impression that Anne was a real force of nature – everyone was all of a doodah about her return!

And then we saw so many different facets of her fascinating personality that every scene seemed to bring something different.  She was a snob – talking about “shabby little Shibden” (having seen what the panelling was like before she did it up, she had a point, but still!) and clearly feeling that she belonged in far higher social circles than those she’d be mixing in there.  She was a proto-feminist – and made an interesting point about the 1832 Reform Act enshrining in law the fact that women were debarred from voting because of their gender, a point that was to be made repeatedly in the 1901-1914 era, when there was talk of bringing in universal male suffrage without giving the vote to any women.  She showed affection for her family, yet her main concern about the death of her groom seemed to be scientific interest in how death actually came about.  She also showed her affection for her horse, but was tough enough to put him down when it was necessary – shooting him herself when her new groom couldn’t bring himself to do so.

She was a businesswoman, seeing new opportunities such as developing coal mines, and so hard-headed that she had no compunction about evicting an elderly tenant whom she felt was unable to farm efficiently.  And she was fine about collecting the rents herself, and even sitting in the pub to do so.  Yet we saw how deeply she could feel, and how she was broken-hearted that her former lover had dumped her in order to marry a man.

We saw that through flashbacks.  I’m never sure that flashbacks really work in period dramas, but Pride and Prejudice used them, so I suppose they’re OK!  We also got moments when we just got Anne’s thoughts as a monologue, as if she were addressing the viewer – which was a bit weird, but I don’t know how else we could have “seen” her thoughts.  She wrote everything down.  In code.  Brilliant!  And what a good job, from a historian’s viewpoint, that the code was cracked, and that the relative who first read her journals decided not to get rid of them – as he was advised to do by a friend who thought that they might bring scandal on the family.

Being broken-hearted didn’t stop her from spending the night with another former lover.  She had rather a lot of them!   But she wanted a wife.  A couple of days ago, there was a protest march calling for equal marriage in Northern Ireland.  One of the women marching summed it up very well when she told a Sky News reporter that no-one was asking for special treatment, just that everyone should have the same rights as everyone else.  Anne Lister wanted to find a life partner, and she wanted that partnership to be a formal commitment, and she saw that the fact that that would be with a woman rather than a man shouldn’t be an issue –  at a time when the word “lesbian” didn’t exist and so many gay (to use the modern term) people ended up in heterosexual marriages.  She wanted a wife.

Just going back to the issue of the relationship between her and Ann Walker not being a fairytale romance, I’d like to  think they did genuinely love each other, but Ann Walker’s money was certainly a big attraction – as this first episode made crystal clear.  And it’s known that they argued over finances, that Ann felt neglected because so much of Anne’s time was taken up with business and politics and that Anne wasn’t as understanding as she might have been about Ann’s bouts of depression.

I feel rather sorry for Ann, and I was glad to see that the programme did deal sympathetically with her.  We didn’t really get much idea of her from herself, it was all about what other people thought about her, but that was probably quite accurate.  She was very vulnerable – a wealthy single woman, prey to fortune hunters and without the strength and confidence that she probably needed, and struggling with depression.  Sophie Rundle played her very well – and the supporting cast were excellent too.  We met various Lister and Walker relatives, and two of Anne’s former lovers.  And we also got to see the lives of the tenants and the servants – which is a staple of period dramas theswe days, but wasn’t always.  But it was always Anne Lister around whom everything revolved.  Emotional one minute, hard-headed the next.  What a complex and intriguing personality.

However, one big facet of her personality wasn’t shown, and that was her religious side.  She’s known to have had a strong Anglican faith, and evidently found no problem with being a practising Christian and being in a same sex relationship.  Nearly two centuries later, the subject of religion (not just Christianity, but religion generally) and sexuality is still contentious, despite all the progress made in gay rights in other areas of life.  It’s something which causes a lot of distress to a lot of people, and is an area in which little progress seems to be being made.  In that respect, Anne Lister was ahead of our times, never mind her own.  I really hope the BBC aren’t going to pussyfoot around this.  Maybe it’ll come up next week.

Sadly, Anne died aged only 49 and only six years after her marriage to Ann, of a fever caused by an infected insect bite whilst travelling in Georgia (the one in the Caucasus, not the one in America!).  By the terms of Anne’s will, Ann should have had a life interest in Shibden Hall – which she deserved because it was her money that paid for it to be done up, as well as because of her relationship with Anne! – before it passed to some Lister cousins.  However, Ann, who struggled with mental health problems, found it difficult to cope with the pressure of running both Shibden Hall and her own property, and probably also with the gossip about her relationship with Anne.  She was forcibly removed from Shibden Hall by her own family and the local constable and taken to an asylum in York, before eventually returning to her childhood home.

So there isn’t going to be a happy ending to this story – but (as well as the Shibden Hall estate, which is rather a nice place for a half-day out) there’s Anne Lister’s legacy to history, which is an important one.  That’s recognised by the fact that there are blue plaques commemorating her life both at Shibden Hall and at the church in York where she and Ann Walker had their ceremony.   And this series is about to make her very well-known.  Just spare a thought for Ann as well, eh?  But Anne’s the character who grabs your attention, and Suranne Jones really did a very good job of portraying that.  This looks set to be an excellent series.




Victoria (series 3) – ITV 1


Oh dear. This was all very dramatic, and made for entertaining Sunday night TV; but it completely misrepresented the Chartist movement, Lord Palmerston, Queen Victoria’s relationship with her half-sister, and even the sort of clothing worn by the little princes. I’m rather annoyed about the portrayal of the peaceful Chartists as a baying mob hammering on the gates of Buckingham Palace. As for Palmerston looking thirty years younger than he was, Feodora being turned into a jealous schemer in scarlet lace and the idea that the viewing public wouldn’t be able to cope with seeing little boys wearing dresses … come on, ITV, give us a break!!  Entertaining, yes; but an accurate portrayal of events and personalities would have been equally entertaining, and a lot less frustrating for historians!

According to this, Victoria resented the fact that her half-sister, Princess Feodora of Leiningen, had left Kensington Palace to get married, Feodora was jealous of Victoria’s position, and Feodora randomly turned up in London in the middle of the 1848 Revolutions, got on everyone’s nerves, and went around wearing scarlet lace dresses. Er, no. Victoria and Feodora got on extremely well, and Feodora, after her marriage, lived out her life at the Schloss Langenburg in Germany. For an accurate portrayal in fiction of their relationship, see the excellent books by Jean Plaidy and Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.  Come on, ITV, this is supposed to be a programme about Queen Victoria, not Dallas or Dynasty! Oh, and we’ve also got a fictitious duchess who’s going to have an affair with a footman, but at least that won’t be misrepresenting someone who really existed!

Palmerston would probably be quite flattered at being shown as a raffish man about town in his forties, when he was actually nearly seventy at the time, but it’s hardly very accurate! In the first series, Lord Melbourne was also shown as being a lot younger than he was. Do the scriptwriters have a problem with men past a certain age? The Victorian establishment certainly didn’t: the Duke of Wellington was in charge of dealing with any unrest in London in 1848, and he was getting on for eighty. My first ever encounter with Palmerston was in the context of his nearly dragging Britain into the American Civil War, which would not have been a good idea; but I’ve got quite fond of him since then, because of his support for Greek independence, reform in Central Europe, and Don Pacifico. And there’s certainly an argument that the Crimean War might have been avoided had he been Foreign Secretary in the mid-1850s.

There was certainly controversy over his outspoken support for the 1848 revolutions, but this programme made it look as if he was saying that everyone should go around chopping off monarchs’ heads, whereas he was actually speaking in favour of self-determination. As a sensible, liberal person, he realised that the nation state was, and is, the most successful and effective form of political unit ever known.  Being trapped in “a prison of nations” leads to instability, economic disparity, and an often violent break-up.  And, OK, he might have been fond of the ladies, but there was no need to suggest that he was some sort of pervert and no woman was safe in the same room as him.  Apparently Daisy Goodwin was trying to make him seem like Boris Johnson!  He didn’t seem anything like Boris Johnson, but he didn’t seem very much like Lord Palmerston either.

There were some annoying minor inaccuracies, as well. Someone was surprised that the Duchess of Devonshire had let her footman leave. There was no Duchess of Devonshire in 1848! The Duke wasn’t married, and his mother was long since dead. The first name of Cuffay, the leader of the radical faction of the Chartists wasn’t Samuel; it was William. Uncle Leopold had written to say that he was under threat from the revolutionaries. Seeing as there wasn’t a revolution in Belgium in 1848, I don’t think so. Then there was the thing with the boys’ clothes. Affie, being much too young to have been breeched, and probably Bertie as well, would have been wearing dresses, as little boys did in 1848. Instead, they were shown wearing kilts. In London. Apparently, the scriptwriters thought that viewers would have been confused by seeing boys wearing dresses. What??!! This isn’t a debate about gender identity: it’s a simple matter of what a particular section of the population would have been wearing at the time.

Irritating as that was, what really got to me was the way that the Chartists, who – admittedly apart from the radical wing led by William Cuffay, but their plans for armed insurrection didn’t actually come to anything – were a peaceful movement, looking for reform and certainly not revolution, were shown as an angry mob hammering on the gates of Buckingham Palace and throwing bricks through the Palace windows. And, for added drama, Queen Victoria was shown as going into labour in the middle of it all! (Princess Louise was actually born several weeks before the Chartist mass meeting of 1848, which was nowhere near Buckingham Palace anyway.)

What a load of rubbish! To be fair, the programme did initially stress that Chartism was generally peaceful and sought reform through constitutional means – universal male suffrage (female suffrage, annoyingly, doesn’t seem to have come into it), the secret ballot, equal constituencies, annual Parliaments, the abolition of property qualifications for MPs, and payment for MPs to enable people who actually had to work for a living to sit in Parliament. The first People’s Charter was presented to Parliament in 1838, the year of the great Chartist meeting on Kersal Moor (I had to get that in!), the second in 1842, a year which also saw a series of strikes, especially in Lancashire and Cheshire (had to get that in as well!), and the third in 1848. A large meeting was organised in London, to form a procession, leaving from Kennington Common, to present the Charter to Parliament.

Unfortunately, it was all a bit of a damp squib in the end, not helped by the fact that some of the signatures were fake (some things never change). But it certainly wasn’t violent. Yes, there was some unrest later in the year. I like telling people that the only place in England which actually joined in with the 1848 Revolutions was Ashton-under-Lyne! But that was a fairly minor thing. There was also some talk of an uprising in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and, yes, in London. As happened after the original French Revolution in 1789, the authorities panicked and brought in legislation meant to stop public meetings and supposed plotting, and people were rightly angry about it. But to show radical Chartists attacking Buckingham Palace is completely inaccurate, and I think it was really quite wrong to do that: it gave a completely misleading impression of an organisation which played an important part in the move towards bringing democracy to our country.

I don’t think what happened abroad was portrayed accurately, either. OK, this wasn’t meant to be a documentary on European history, but it made it sound as if it was all about trying to overthrow monarchies. And, yes, Louis Philippe did take refuge in London, but he tried to keep a low profile: he certainly didn’t move into Buckingham Palace! The July Monarchy in France was overthrown, and replaced by the Second Republic. Which only lasted a few years, before the Bonapartists were brought back. Bourbons, republic, Napoleon, Bourbons again, Orleanists, Napoleon’s nephew, another republic … they never seem to be able to make up their minds in France! There were also uprisings in several German states, and in Austria. But not really in Belgium.

Reforms in Denmark and Switzerland. An uprising in Ireland, which wasn’t mentioned – although, to be fair, it wasn’t until later in the year. I’ve been doing some Hungarian history revision recently, and the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 went on for eighteen and a half months, before being crushed by Austrian and Russian forces. There were also uprisings in Austrian-ruled Northern Italy, Bourbon-ruled Southern Italy, German-ruled Poland, Austrian-ruled Ukrainian Galicia, Moldavia (Moldova) and Wallachia, It’s hard to think of anything comparable. The fall of communism in 1989, maybe. Or the “Arab Spring” might be a better comparison – promising a lot but sadly achieving very little.

And it wasn’t all about upheaval and violence, which was how the programme made it sound. It was liberal. It was the Springtime of Nations: it was about self-determination. To be fair, both Palmerston and Prince Albert were shown expressing some sympathy for the “revolutionaries”, but it still all came across as being about violence and chaos. Not impressed.

Sadly, most of the 1848 Revolutions were crushed. But, in Britain, the campaign for parliamentary reform went on. Now we can all, regardless of socio-economic status or gender, elect MPs. That was supposed to be the answer to everything. Many of the leaders of the 1848 Revolutions admired the British parliamentary system and wanted one like it. And look what a mess the bunch of idiots we’ve got in the House of Commons now are making of everything . But that’s beside the point. The point is that, whilst this was great entertainment, and whilst anything that gets people talking about history is welcome, it was chock-a-block with inaccuracies, and it will have given people unfamiliar with the period completely the wrong impression of what was going on. Black mark, ITV!

I was glued to every second of it, though … .

Some other posts about Queen Victoria 🙂 :

Victoria (series 1)

Queen Victoria’s Letters

Queen Victoria and her tragic family


London: 2000 years of history – Channel 5 (episode 3 – gin and sewage)


There is a vile stench in the House of Commons. It’s so bad that people are having to cover their noses. Meanwhile, the well-being of the working-classes is being completely ignored. I’m talking about 1858, obviously. I wouldn’t normally watch a programme about sewage (!), but, by talking about the railways, the “Great Stink” during the exceptionally hot summer of 1858 and the long overdue introduction of a proper sewerage system for London, this made some very good points about the importance of health and sanitation in history. I really want to write about Edwin Chadwick and James Kay Shuttleworth, and I’m having to make a huge effort to make myself write about London instead! There was also a lot of talk about gin and shopping. Not a hint of politics, and not much talk about economics. This was definitely different.

This episode actually started with the Great Fire of London, and the rebuilding of the city afterwards. This was pretty familiar stuff, but it then moved on to the growing division of London between the wealthy West End and the working-class East End, and how areas that weren’t affected by the fire lost out during the rebuilding; and then, in early Georgian times, grand houses for the well-to-do were built in the Mayfair area. Whilst the ton were living it up, the poor were turning to gin. OK, that’s a ridiculous generalisation – and it’s Channel 5’s, not mine! – but the expression about gin being the quickest road out of [any city you care to name] lasted well into the 19th century, and there was a particular increase in gin consumption in the first half of the 18th century, blamed for an increase in anti-social behaviour, until the Gin Act of 1751 made gin more difficult to obtain.

There followed some discussion of the development of the West End as a shopping area. It was also mentioned that London was full of professional criminals, and the need for security provided the impetus for the building of professional docks. So London was full of drunks and criminals. I’m not saying that: Channel 5 said it 😉 . And then on to the Industrial Revolution. I get extremely excited at any mention of the Industrial Revolution, but most people are familiar, from Bill Sikes drowning in a ditch if nothing else, of the pollution which it created, and of the appalling living conditions associated with it. I want to write about Engels now, but I’m trying hard to stick with London, seeing as that’s what the programme was about!

Then something I’d never really thought about very much – how, in the early days, the government intervened to stop railways from going right into the centre of London. So we have to get off at Euston or wherever, and get the Tube to wherever we want to go. It actually went on the technicalities of railway-building in rather a lot of detail, but, hey, some people probably found that interesting! The point was that the railways were moving out to areas beyond the city centre, meaning that people didn’t have to live close to where they worked.

Finally, the Great Stink, which I thought was probably the most interesting part of the programme. I’m not sure what that says about me! But vast numbers of people had died in a number of cholera outbreaks in the 1830s and 1840s, and it took a while for people to realise that that was because of drinking contaminated water, and not because of “miasma”. Even once doctors had provided clear evidence, the powers that be weren’t very interested. Sewage, slaughterhouse waste and industrial effluent continued to be dumped in or on the banks of the Thames. And nothing was done … until the very hot summer of 1858 created the “Great Stink”, and, with the smell in the House of Commons having become unbearable, a proper sewage system was finally built.

I feel like saying that the lesson from this is that, if we want anything done, we need to stink out the House of Commons! Seriously, though, this programme got from the 1660s to the 1850s without making even one reference to the Glorious Revolution, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Jacobites, the Seven Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Great Reform Act of 1842 or the Corn Laws. Instead, it talked about gin and sewage. And, do you know what? It was really interesting! Well worth a watch.

A Very British History – BBC 4


This was a four-part series looking into the experiences in 20th century Britain of four different groups of people – “Romany gypsies” in the Home Counties, “Black Brummies”, “the Jews of Leeds”, and “Ugandan Asians” in the East Midlands.    Each programme in the series was presented by a member of the community in question, rather than the BBC pushing its own agendas, and, although there was sometimes a bit too much focus on personal family history rather than broader community history, it generally worked very well.

A BBC-led series would probably have focused largely on prejudice, in a way that attacked the wider community.   This didn’t, although obviously the issue of prejudice and how it was faced did come up.  There were old BBC films (with subtitles where people were speaking in Cockney accents!) of people making negative comments about gypsies.  I’m not entirely comfortable with using the word “gypsies”, because we’re usually told now that it’s offensive, but the presenter said that he was OK with it.  People who’d moved to Birmingham from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s spoke about struggling to get mortgages, and of the abuse suffered by couples in mixed-race relationship.  Jewish people who’d lived in Leeds during the inter-war years talked about being called “Christ killers” at school (the old religious prejudice that’s now largely been replaced by other manifestations of anti-Semitism) and of Oswald Mosley trying to whip up trouble in areas with large Jewish communities.  And we were shown photographs of notices issued by Leicester council, saying that Ugandan Asians shouldn’t move to their city.

But there was overall a fairly positive feeling, with the Jews of Leeds and the Ugandan Asians in particular speaking about their pride in being British. One of the Black Brummies said that he felt that a lot of prejudice was due to ignorance and fear of the unknown; and that’s why programmes like this are important.  I know I’m always harping on about soap operas, but I think it makes such a difference when they include characters from minority groups!  TV can do a lot.  Only the Black Brummies programme said much about the influence of the culture of different groups on British culture in general – music, food, language etc – though, although the Jews of Leeds programme did mention Michael Marks and Montague Burton and their influence on the British fashion industry and British retail in general.  I’d like to have heard more of that, but I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour.

There was a lot of talk about socio-economic issues, and how all four groups had to some extent struggled with poverty. The Ugandan Asians who came to Britain had generally lived affluent lifestyles in Uganda, and then came here and initially had to take what jobs and houses they could get, before improving their situation through hard work.  British Jews have a very diverse cultural heritage, something that’s very rarely discussed on TV; but the family of the man presenting this programme had moved to Leeds from Eastern Europe in the late 19th/early 20th century, which is perhaps typical of the majority of British Jews, coming from very little to very little, and worked their way up the socio-economic ladder from there.  I’d take issue with the historian who said that their main reason for coming here would have been economic opportunity, rather than discrimination and persecution, though.  People from the Caribbean did move to Birmingham in the hope of better economic opportunities, though – and it was interesting to see film of smiling, very smartly-dressed people disembarking from a plane … but, having come here with high hopes, many of them initially found themselves in low-paid jobs and poor accommodation, as the Jews of Leeds had before them.

The Romany gypsies were in a different position, having done the same jobs for years but then being forced to change their way of life as technological change took away many of their traditional jobs on the land, and – an issue that’s also being faced by Bedouins in the Middle East – the authorities increasingly tried to discourage nomadic/travelling lifestyles. Barbara Cartland, who was a councillor in Hertfordshire, spoke out in support of Romany people in the Home Counties, which I never knew!  This was at a time when there were major problems over agreeing on sites where Romany people living in caravans could base themselves.

Government involvement played a big role in the experiences of both Romany gypsies and Ugandan Asians. Quite a lot of the Ugandan Asian programme was about the initial arguments about whether or not Ugandan Asians, expelled from Uganda in 1972, should be allowed to settle in the UK, and the belated organisation of an airlift, followed by the organisation of camps for people to live in until they found homes and jobs.  We saw pictures of noticeboards giving the names of areas in which jobs were available, and were told that the presenter’s family had ended up in Scunthorpe because that was where her dad found a job, and that other relatives had ended up in Leicester.

It was very different from the experiences of the Jews of Leeds and Black Brummies, who’d gravitated to areas where there was work but also, except for the very first to arrive, where there were already established communities. The Windrush Generation were encouraged to come here, “pull factor”, whereas Jews in Leeds had been looking for somewhere to go, “push factor”, but in neither case had the government really got involved in where people went when they got here – which was very different from the experience of the Ugandan Asians.

This issue came up quite recently, over the question of refugees from the civil war in Syria coming to Britain. The idea was that each local council should agree to take a small number of people.  I can see the reasons for that, because large numbers of people, regardless of ethnicity or language or religion or anything else, settling in one area at once is going to put a strain on housing and public services; but it’s not the way that immigration has traditionally worked, in Britain or anywhere else.  It didn’t really work with the Ugandan Asian refugee programme, either, with the vast majority of those concerned eventually ending up in either London or Leicester.

Some of what was said did wander off the point a bit. The programme on the Jews of Leeds got as far as the Second World War and then turned into Who Do You Think You Are, with the presenter visiting Vilnius, where his great-grandmother had come from, and learning that some of her cousins had been amongst the Jews massacred in 1942 in a village, now part of modern Belarus, about 80 miles away.  It was very interesting – I’ve been to the Vilnius Jewish Museum myself, and he was able to speak to an elderly lady who’d been living in the village at the time and remembered what had happened – and of course it was an important story to tell; but the programme was supposed to be about Leeds.   And the programme on Ugandan Asians tackled the issue of whether or not Asians in Uganda might have to some extent brought their expulsion on themselves.  It was brave of the presenter to tackle her own relatives and family friends about their attitudes towards black people, but, again, the programme was supposed to be about people’s experiences in Britain.   The other two programmes did stick more to being what the series title said, with the Romany gypsy programme showing coverage of the Appleby Horse Fair, and the Black Brummies programme discussing all sorts of things from hairstyles to dominoes to language.

Quibbles aside – hey, there are always going to be some quibbles! – , all four programmes were well worth watching, and I’m hoping there’ll be a second series at some point, covering the experiences of other communities.  British Chinese people seem to be very under-represented on TV.  There’s been a lot of immigration from Poland to the UK in recent years, but it’d be interesting to see a programme about Polish immigration to the UK in the aftermath of the Second World War.   There’s a long and varied history of Somali immigration to the UK.   There’ve long been communities with Armenian, Greek or Italian heritage in Manchester and elsewhere.   I’ve just been reading about Hungarian refugees who fled the suppression of the 1956 Uprising.  And, of course, Irish immigration to Britain has had a huge influence on British society.   And that’s to mention just a few groups.

It’s not helpful when organisations omit the word “Easter” from Easter egg hunts, and it’s not helpful when people start shrieking about “cultural appropriation” because a chef has served a dish or a singer has sung a song from a culture to which they don’t have a personal genetic link. However, it is helpful when programmes like these, explaining and celebrating the culture and heritage of the different groups within the British population, are shown.  And it’s also very interesting.  Good series.

Edwardian Britain in Colour – Channel 5 (second episode)


Whilst the first episode focused on daily life, the second episode was more about big events – starting with tramway inaugurations and football matches (and I am so put out that, when I was expecting the Burnley v Newton Heath match, they showed Burnley v Spurs instead!), and then moving on through crime scenes and protest marches to the harrowing film of Emily Wilding Davison’s fatal injury at the 1913 Derby, and finishing with poignant scenes of young men waving cheerfully as they went off to fight in the Great War, probably thinking that they’d be home by Christmas. There was far more chat than in the first episode, which was annoying – I’m sure we all know what the First World War, the suffragette movement, the police force and the FA Cup are, without needing to have them explained to us! – but the films themselves were absolutely fascinating.

It started with the opening of the tram system in Wigan, and it was interesting to see the huge crowds there. These days, we only get excited about historic public transport, but you could see what a big thing it was for the people of the town.  It must have made such a big difference, to be able to get about your town/city without having to walk everywhere.  I remember my grandad telling me stories about him and his friend getting the tram to work, which must have been in the early 1930s: only 35 years earlier, that wouldn’t have been possible.  Changing times.

Then we got the Burnley v Spurs match, in the Cup. As I said, I am extremely put out that they didn’t show the film of the Burnley v Newton Heath match, even though I’ve seen it before!   But it was still exciting to see the players and the crowds, and to think about how incredibly important football had already become to people … and to heave a little sigh of nostalgia for simpler times, before money played such a big part in the sport.  Next up, an open water swimming gala in Tynemouth, with the commentators apparently very amused by the Edwardian swimming costumes.  Did we really need quite so much talking, though?  I wanted to see the films, not modern day presenters chatting away in a studio!

This was followed by film of the police – here in Manchester, hooray! Just like you imagine Edwardian policemen, with truncheons, notebooks, whistles and handcuffs.  It was interesting to hear that policemen had to be of a minimum height, so that they’d look imposing, and that they weren’t supposed to have more than two children and, as late as the 1980s, had to get the police force’s permission to marry – but, again, more film and less talking would have been nice!

From then on, it was mainly coverage of big news events. The Siege of Sidney Street – with Winston Churchill, as Home Secretary, turning up in the middle of it all, instead of leaving it to the police to deal with.  We think of today as being the age when everything’s captured on camera or film, but would anyone be allowed to film that sort of situation these days? The presenters focused on the presence of Churchill, possibly not wanting to go too much into the difficult subject of East End gangs and some of the more extreme press reaction at the time.

Another subject which is difficult to talk about, because you don’t want to risk saying anything that might be open to misinterpretation or misuse, is that of sectarianism in Northern Ireland. We saw coverage of Unionist marches in Belfast.  I still think that, if Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill of 1893 hadn’t been scuppered by the House of Lords, things could have turned out differently in Ireland.  By the end of the Edwardian period, it was probably too late.  And, by then, there was so much uncertainty, especially for Unionists in Northern Ireland.  Uncertainty is a bad thing.

Easier to discuss were the protests and demonstrations by striking workers calling for better wages and better working conditions, some of them holding placards demanding a reduction in working hours from their present fourteen hour day.  They were brave enough to strike even though they could well have been sacked for doing so.  This was the age of the Taff Vale case, and then the 1906 Trade Disputes Act.  It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come since then.  Trade unions and the Labour Party stood for something important and inspiring in those days.  Sorry, I seem to be in a ranty mood today!

Another area in which we’ve come a long way, but still have a long way to go, is that of women’s rights. It’s always inspiring to see film coverage of the WSPU marches.  Nice banners, like I was going on about last week.  And the hats!  I know it sounds silly, but the hats really grabbed my attention.  We also saw film of NUWSS marches, with men (nice to see that some of them were local, from Radcliffe!) as well as women holding banners in support of women’s suffrage.  And some shocking film coverage of police attacking WSPU protesters – nothing I hadn’t seen before, but it was still shocking to see it again.

Too much talk, though!   I didn’t need to hear a load of different presenters going on about women “reclaiming” things and using “PR” and a load of other modern-day terms.  The pictures spoke quite well for themselves.  Especially the very powerful film of Emily Wilding Davison being struck by the king’s horse as she tried to attach two suffragette flags – it was made clear that, contrary to what’s often said, she probably didn’t intend to die – to his bridle.  The presenters, including Dr Helen Pankhurst, did a lot of talking about “bravery” and “sacrifice”.

I’m a great admirer of the suffragettes, and always going on about how proud I am of the connections of my old school and the city of Manchester in general with the suffragette cause, but I found what the programme said about Emily Wilding Davison all rather one-sided. It was tragic that she lost her life, but she could easily have caused the death of the jockey, who had nothing to do with politics, as well.  Not to mention the horse – they were all very scathing about the fact that the press seemed so concerned about the horse, but it was hardly the poor horse’s fault that the government wouldn’t give women the vote, and why should he have been put in danger?   It also showed the coverage of her funeral.   It was very impressive that 5,000 suffragettes walked behind her coffin and another 50,000 lined the streets of London to watch the funeral procession pass, but there was something uncomfortable about how stage-managed it all was.  Emily Wilding Davison was a very brave woman who played an important role in the campaign for women’s suffrage, spent time in Strangeways and was one of those subjected to the horrific process of force-feeding, but I would like to have seen more balanced discussion about the events surrounding her death.

That was in 1913. I forget the exact wording he uses, but I think RL Delderfield says something about the summer of 1914 being the end of the old world.  The outbreak of the Great War seems to have taken most people completely by surprise.  Its causes have been debated long and hard, and will carry on being debated long and hard, but there’s no way that most people could have seen it coming.  The focus switched back to Lancashire for this, and we saw happy, cheerful pictures of a sports event at a Southport college in the July, no-one dreaming of what was to come all too soon.  How many of the lads taking part in the events were to be killed or injured over the next four years?  Then we saw, in Morecambe, men marching off to war, crowds cheering them as they went, and then men on trains, excited looks on their faces, waving handkerchiefs out of the windows.  And then film of people working for the war effort, pulling together.

It can’t all have been like that, even in the early days. It wasn’t all wild enthusiasm.  Plenty of people must have realised that, as Sir Edward Grey said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”.  For all the talk in this episode, they didn’t really have any proper discussions/debates about any of the issues raised.  But, certainly, all the accounts at the time talk about there being a great deal of enthusiasm, and of most people genuinely believing that the war would be over, with victory gained, in a matter of months.

The first episode and the early part of this episode focused on the ordinary lives of ordinary people, so often neglected. And it wasn’t so long ago, was it?  I’m actually getting a bit upset, thinking that it is actually over 100 years ago.  Those lives, everyone’s lives, were turned upside down by the outbreak of war.  The war to end all wars – if only it had been.  A very interesting point was made at the end – that the Edwardians are sometimes remembered as a lost generation, because of the war (slightly muddled theory, because more than one generation lived through the Edwardian era and the Great War, but you get the idea), and that, instead, we should remember everything that they fought for – women’s rights, and workers’ rights.   Very good point.  And two very interesting hours of TV.

Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (final episode)


I’m going to sound like a grumpy old dinosaur here, but I found parts of this episode extremely annoying.  Traditional teaching methods were summarily dismissed as being “far from inspirational”.  What an insult to generations of hard-working teachers!  Instead, apparently, pupils need virtual reality simulators, to enable them to form an “emotional connection” with Second World War fighter pilots.  Is no-one encouraged to use their imagination any more?  And who’s supposed to pay for all these things?!  Also, they need to be educated in a “non-threatening way” to eat cinnamon.  Since when was cinnamon threatening?   And PE lessons need to be like Pokemon Go challenges – well, that’d certainly be better than hockey or netball, but it’s hardly very practical.  The kids and most of the teachers have been great throughout this series, and made some very interesting points during this episode, but the BBC is just so obsessed with pushing its own agenda.  Oh, and, apparently, the reason I’m too fat is not my fault.  It’s Maggie Thatcher’s.  So there!  It did get better towards the end of the episode, though!

The episode started with Sara Cox saying that the kids should all be doing brilliantly in history lessons, now that they’ve lived through it all.  OK, OK, it was only a joke, but it still got on my nerves!  Could we get past this idea that history lessons all need to be about the 20th century, please?  Then into all this idea that lessons in which teachers do the talking are bad.  No discussion – just the BBC saying so.  This series has continually pushed the idea that all kids want to stand up in front of the class and speak out all the time.  No.  They do not.  And, quite frankly, it used to get very annoying when teachers did let certain kids – and it was always the same teachers, and the same kids! – talk about their experiences and opinions all the way through the lesson, and we didn’t actually learn anything!   Everything in moderation 🙂 .

The idea of this episode was to look at ideas for how schools might develop in the future, but apparently some schools have already got these virtual reality things.  The example here involved video coverage of fighter jets in 1943 being turned into some sort of computer simulation thing.  I was just waiting for Marty McFly and Bill and Ted to turn up, because, apparently, kids are unable to understand history unless they can feel that they’ve actually lived through the past.  It’s the only way they can form an “emotional connection”.  What??  There’s certainly room for watching videos in class, although maybe more so in geography and RS lessons than history lessons – although my A-level group did have great fun watching the Helena Bonham Carter and Cary Elwes film about Lady Jane Grey – and I can see how these computer games would be fun, but you don’t need IT to be able to understand things.   Apparently, the VR simulator enabled the kids to understand that fighter pilots might have been scared.  Well, could they not have worked that out anyway?!

And how much must these things cost?  This series has continually pushed the use of IT in schools.  This episode again went on about robots in schools in the 1980s.  We did not have robots in schools in the 1980s, OK!   And, yes, of course IT’s important, but the Department of Education has not got a money tree!   See, I said I was being grumpy!  But most of my textbooks at school – used by teachers, who, yes, actually talked to the class! –  were years, even decades, old.  Who’s going to fund all this technology?!

Next up, food!   This involved a session in which kids were blindfolded and put pegs on their noses so they had no idea what they were eating, and tried different things.  I would actually hate that, because I won’t eat anything unless I know what it is, but I can see how that would be fun.  I keep using the word “fun”, but the BBC does seem to think that education should be all about making lessons “fun”!   The idea was to encourage people to expand their tastes in food.  Yes, that sounded great – but the BBC then had to turn it into yet another excuse to have a go at the governments of the 1980s and early 1990s.  The reason that so many people in the UK are overweight is apparently all because school dinners in the ’80s and early ’90s were unhealthy.  Seriously?!

I’m just going to have a brief rant here about food prices!  It was my birthday on Monday, so I was supposed to take cakes into the office.  I considered taking in some fruit as well.  However, a punnet of seven (seven!) strawberries costs £3 in Tesco.  For £3, I could get eight chocolate eclairs.  OK, February is not the best of times for buying fruit, but even so.  Maybe everyone would eat more healthily if healthy food wasn’t so expensive./rant

Anyway.  People’s food choices are governed by many things.  What they used to get for school dinners are not generally amongst them.

Then on to PE.  One kid observed that PE lessons are “just for fun”.  You get that attitude in Girls’ Own books, where PE lessons are regarded as being all jolly hockey sticks, as opposed to academic lessons.  Maybe if you’re slim and fit and sporty.  Not if, as I was, you’re fat and useless and completely self-conscious!   The “futuristic” idea in this was for kids to run round town/city centres, navigating on their smartphones, and touching in at certain points, a bit like Pokemon Go.  I certainly think that would appeal more than hockey and netball and so on, but not everyone’s got a state of the art smartphone, and there’d always be issues with kids whom other kids didn’t want on their teams.  And, again sounding old and grumpy, I’m not sure that having groups of kids running round town would really work for everyone else!  But it was an interesting idea.

Then some talk about gender stereotyping.  The boys in this have been really good about talking about equality.  OK, they probably daren’t say anything else, when it’s being filmed, but most of the boys I knew at school were horrendously sexist!!   Hopefully they’ve all grown out of that now 🙂 .

Next came the ongoing issue of to what extent education should be geared towards equipping children for the workplace.  This is a very interesting and important area, and it’s hard to find an answer to it – but the BBC has continually criticised traditional academic education and praised vocational education, rather than trying to present a balanced view.  They did that again here, when talking about the idea of University Technical Colleges – but most of the pupils and teachers actually disagreed, saying that specialising too early could present a lot of problems.  It’s very difficult.  Employers keep saying that schools and universities are not equipping children with the appropriate skills for the workplace, but at what point do you make career choices?  And shouldn’t education be about more than looking towards the world of work?  But then everyone needs to earn their living, and workplaces need people who have the appropriate skills.  Every generation grapples with this issue, and this series has done a good job of showing that.

Finally came the idea of lessons being taught by Artificial Intelligence, with each child having a computer which tailored lessons to their individual needs, fed back a load of data to the teacher, and even monitored kids’ facial expressions and then generated algorithms to adapt the work accordingly!   My first reaction was that this was ridiculous, but then I thought that, hey, maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.  A fundamental problem with education is that every child is different and there is no curriculum or teaching method that’s going to get the best out of everyone, and no way that a teacher can give their full attention to each of thirty or so pupils at once.  I think it’d be a bit weird, though.  You’d end up feeling completely detached.  Neither the kids nor the teachers were that keen.

The series finished with the children saying that it had made them feel grateful for the opportunities they’d been given, and the teachers saying that it had helped the children to bond, which was lovely.  It would have been much better had the BBC not tried so hard to politicise it, but it’s still been a great series, and I’ve enjoyed watching it.