No Place Like Home – Channel 5


I get very excited whenever a TV programme mentions the Cotton Famine, my dissertation topic, as this one did!!  I don’t usually watch this series, but I made an exception to see Victoria Derbyshire revisiting her childhood haunts in Bury, Rochdale and Littleborough, and enjoyed every minute of it.

It started by talking about a tannery works in Littleborough, which was founded by Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and produced two-thirds of the leather used in Army boots during the Second World War.   Then it was on to central Rochdale, for the familiar stories of cotton mills, the Cotton Famine, Frederick Douglass’s visit to the town, and the mill workers’ support for Abolitionism.   The woke brigade are always so busy trying to make out that Britain was always linked with slavery that it was heartening to get this reminder of how strong Abolitionism was in mid 19th century Lancashire.

Then finally it was on to Bury, to visit the wonderful Bury Market, Victoria’s old school – Bury Grammar – and the Peel Tower, and also Warth Mills in Radcliffe, which was used as an internment camp as depicted in The Girl in.the Pink Raincoat.  All in all, it was a fascinating trip round some areas which I know very well, and made for very entertaining watching.


The Girl in the Pink Raincoat by Alrene Hughes


This isn’t a particularly well-written book, but it was on a cheap Kindle offer; and there’s an awful lot of local interest in it for anyone from the Manchester area.   It includes some very evocative scenes of the Manchester Blitz.  It also covers the largely-forgotten story of the internment camps at Warth Mills (in Radcliffe, near where Newbank Garden Centre is now), where many members of the local German/Austrian-Jewish and Italian communities were taken during the Second World War, and how many of them were tragically killed when the SS Arandora Star, taking them to Canada, was torpedoed.   There are also some vivid descriptions of Heaton Park before the war, of town, and of the factories both in the Strangeways area and in Trafford Park.

The storyline’s not particularly convincing, but it’s all right.   Gracie Earnshaw works in a raincoat factory, where she becomes involved with the boss’s nephew, Jacob Rosenberg.   His family aren’t keen, because he’s Jewish and she isn’t, but the two agree to marry … only for him to be taken off to an internment camp just as she was waiting at the registry office.   Without wanting to post spoilers, the story then develops with two other men, with an unlikely switch from war work to working in the theatre, and with a secret long kept by Gracie’s mother.

It’s not the best of books, as I said, but it’s worth reading for the descriptions of the local area and the local communities, and also for the inclusion of the story of the Warth Mills camp.  The author makes good use of real events, and her descriptions of Manchester are very much Manchester.  Overall, not bad!

Who Do You Think You Are (Ralf Little) – BBC 1


  A bit of self-indulgence here!   I was delighted to find that much of this episode revolved around Manchester city centre, the Manchester suburb of Prestwich (where I live) and Chirk, a place I love to visit.   I just couldn’t believe that they never mentioned that Ralf’s  footballer great-grandfather had played in the same Chirk and Wales teams as the great Billy Meredith, whose name was clearly visible on the documents shown.   Ralf’s mentioned it in media interviews, but maybe the BBC producers didn’t realise just what a big name Billy Meredith is to Manchester football fans!

Anyway, how exciting that Ralf’s grandparents lived in Prestwich, and got married at the church next door to my old primary school.   Apart from the odd name check in Coronation Street,  individual suburbs don’t generally get mentioned on TV!   They met whilst working at Prestwich Hospital.  Back in the day, Prestwich was best-known for being home to a large psychiatric hospital, and to some extent still is.  When I was a kid, before there was the respect for mental illness that there hopefully is now, you could usually guarantee that someone would yell “Oi [name of kid they wished to annoy], you’ve missed your stop,” as the school bus passed the hospital building.   Ralf’s grandad was local, but it was interesting to hear that his grandma had moved here from Chirk because the hospital had such a big workforce then that it attracted people from outside the area.

We then heard about his grandad’s war service, first as a medic in Orkney, and then as an engineer on board an aircraft carrier in the Far East, and how he took part in the Battle of Okinawa, on board the first British ship to be attacked by kamikaze pilots.   The celebs this series do seem generally more knowledgeable and less hysterical than those in previous series: Ralf was impressed but not overly emotional, and clearly knew about kamikaze pilots rather than having to be given an explanation.

Hearing about his Welsh great-grandfather’s local and international football career was fascinating for football fans, but what a disappointment – well, Ralf said that it was, and I’d have felt exactly the same in his shoes – that he gave it up during the short-lived religious revival!   We heard about how people had burnt footballs, tickets and football shirts, as the revival held that sport was some sort of danger to the soul.  Good job that Billy Meredith never got involved in all that!  We all know that Oliver Cromwell wasn’t keen on football, but the 1904-05 religious revival doesn’t get a lot of coverage.  Hmm, Wikipedia informs me that it was once featured in the BBC series “Bread of heaven”.  Yep, that’ll have been named after the hymn to which we used to sing “We’ll support you ever more” in school assembly, whilst the headmistress sang “Feed us till we want no more”.   No danger of anyone I know giving up football for the sake of religion!

He then looked into his dad’s family, who, apart from being related by marriage to Nottinghamshire gentry, had been amongst the great 19th century Manchester families who were involved in planning and sanitation … might not sound very glamorous, but it was a big thing as the city grew so rapidly.   And it was good to see how pleased Ralf was to find out that his family had played a part in the development of our beloved city.

I really enjoyed this episode.   I’ve enjoyed all of them, but anything local particularly resonates with me, as it clearly did with Ralf too.

Calico and Silk by Christine Evans


This is the final book in Christine Evans’s “Gorbydale” (Rochdale?  Or maybe Oldham?  Or somewhere in the Rossendale Valley?) trilogy – completed not long before the author’s tragic sudden death last January.  The Cotton Famine and the American Civil War are long over – although we see how the effects of an economic shutdown last for many years – and there’s not that much history in this final book; but it’s a very readable family saga.  And it’s interesting to see Elizabeth Blackwell and her sister Emily make appearances, and also to see disabled character Matt lead a fulfilling personal and professional life.

There are more daft names (Hadrian) and slightly daft plots (man thought to have been eaten by alligators comes back from the dead but then collapses and dies of alcohol poisoning in the street, wife accidentally kills husband with laudanum overdose).  The alligators are in Louisiana, BTW: there are no alligators in Rochdale.  At least, I hope there aren’t.  But it’s generally a good read.

If you haven’t read the first two books in the series, it might be rather confusing, especially as there are two different families involved, and two different branches (plus assorted relatives by marriage) of one of those.  But all three taken together aren’t bad, and there are so few books about the Cotton Famine (my dissertation topic) that I get very excited whenever I find one!   I was just so sorry to hear about Christine’s sudden death, and am glad that she was able to see her work, or at least the first two-thirds of it) published whilst she was alive.  I was also very sorry to hear about the recent death of Sharon Penman, one of my all time favourite authors.  Sad news.  But their books live on, at least.

Britain’s Most Historic Towns: Manchester – Channel 4


This was one of the best programmes I’ve seen all year.  There should be programmes like this on every day.  On every channel.  At prime viewing time.  What more could anyone ask for than to watch a TV programme which says that “Manchester is as great a human exploit as [ancient] Athens” (Disraeli), talks about Manchester “pumping the rich blood of economic vitality and revolutionary identity around Britain” and points out that Frederick Douglass was “fascinated” by Manchester because of the number of people here working to change the world for the better?  And it showed a picture of Old Trafford.  (OK, OK, it also showed a picture of the Etihad, but never mind that.)  And it talked about the Cotton Famine.  The Cotton Famine was my dissertation topic.  I get very excited when people talk about it.

We got Peterloo.  We got the Anti Corn Law League.  We got the Manchester to Liverpool Railway (the Huskisson incident was not mentioned).  We got Engels and Marx meeting up at Chetham’s (the fact that Engels’ office was in what’s now Kendals, which always amuses me, was sadly not mentioned).  And, of course, we got the suffragettes.  I just need to mention for the ten billionth time that I went to the same school as Christabel Pankhurst and her sisters.  Then, at the end, we were shown a picture of Marcus Rashford.  Marcus, being a very modest young man, is probably rather embarrassed at being mentioned alongside the likes of Richard Cobden, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emmeline Pankhurst and the organisers of the meeting which sadly ended in the Peterloo Massacre, but I thought that that was rather lovely.

This really was brilliant.  Alice Roberts was so enthusiastic and so totally biased in favour of all the radicals and reformers of 18th, 19th, 20th and now 21st century Manchester.  I got all excited, like I did when I was a teenager reading books by Asa Briggs et al about the role of Manchester in the Industrial Revolution.  Yes, I really, genuinely am that sad and that weird.  Always have been, always will be.  Indulge me, OK.  Christmas has just been cancelled.  I needed cheering up.  This cheered me up.  So has United beating Leeds 6-2.   Well, somewhat.

We started off with canals, cotton mills and railways – and a drone flying over the city to take pictures.  This was obviously filmed recently, but they managed very well with social distancing – Alice Roberts met various historians, but only one at a time, and they stood well apart.  Then we heard about the difficult conditions under which the mill workers lived and worked, and then moved on to the mess which was the constituency system pre 1832, and, of course, the electorail system too.

That, obviously, brought us on to Peterloo.  We heard about the radical press here, notably the Manchester Observer, and then about the Massacre itself. If Mike Leigh hadn’t made such a mess of the film, we might hear a lot more about Peterloo: I’m still narked about that.  Anyway.  Even now, we get people saying that it wasn’t really a peaceful protest, or that it wasn’t really that bad.  This, using documents from the time, kept in the wonderful John Rylands Library, made it quite clear that, yes, it was a peaceful protest, and, yes, what happened was that bad.  We heard about the Peterloo Relief Fund set up to help the injured and the families of the dead.  And we heard about the “fake news” put out about it all.  It was all very, very much on the side of the peaceful protesters.  And quite rightly so!

Strangely, there was no mention of the Chartists.  That was a very odd omission.

However, we did hear about Richard Cobden and the Anti Corn Law League.  Possibly a teensy bit of political agenda pushing here, the only bit of the programme I wasn’t keen on.  Or maybe I imagined it.  But let’s ignore that, and focus on the fact that the Anti Corn Law League eventually succeeded in bringing down food prices – at a time when, even during the Potato Famine, landowners were only interested in keeping prices up, and never mind the fact that people were going hungry.   And, oh, how I wish that the Free Trade Hall had never been sold off and turned into a hotel!  It’s such a big piece of our history. We used to have school Speech Day in there.  It was always very boring, very hot, and at the same time as a crucial match at Wimbledon, but the fact that it was in the Free Trade Hall rather than the school hall was rather exciting.

On to Marx and Engels, and the interesting point was made that Elizabeth Gaskell probably did more to draw public attention to “the condition of the working classes” than Engels did.  Lucky Alice Roberts got to visit her house, and also Chetham’s Library: both are sadly closed to the public at the moment 😦 , thanks to bl**dy Tier 3 regulations.  Charles Dickens also got a mention, but I find Hard Times unspeakably annoying.  Mrs Gaskell’s books are much better.  And, yes, they would have reached a far wider audience than the Engels book did.  Both them were rather patronising, quite honestly, but those were different times.

Then on to the Cotton Famine.  I’ve just read an utterly ridiculous book which claimed that everyone in the Lancashire textile areas supported the Confederacy.  It also said that the Confederacy only had six states, when it had eleven, so the author was clearly pretty clueless.  And he said that Prince Albert was gay, which seemed a rather odd comment.  But it annoyed me that a supposed history textbook has gone on sale spouting such rubbish.  Yes, there was some support for the Confederacy, but the general feeling in the Lancashire textile areas (I’m saying “textile areas” because it was a whole different ball game in Liverpool) was pro-Union because of the slavery issue.  Whether the war was actually about slavery or about states’ rights is a debate for another time, but there’s that famous letter sent to Abraham Lincoln from “the citizens of Manchester”, and the equally famous reply.  And there’s a statue of Lincoln in the city centre … close to where one of the Christmas markets should currently be being held.  Given the damage done to the regional economy by the Cotton Famine, that was a very big thing.

We were also told that Frederick Douglass was fascinated by Manchester. Well, of course he was.  Anyone would be 🙂 .  But I love the fact that he was.

And then to the suffragettes.  Emmeline Pankhurst, of whom there is, finally, now a statue in town.  Alice spoke to a woman who’d actually changed her surname to Pankhurst!   That’s rather extreme fangirling, but it’s fascinating that someone does find Emmeline Pankhurst so inspirational that she’d do that.  And we saw the Manchester – First in the Fight” banner which now lives in the People’s History Museum.

First in the Fight!   “We are a city of changemakers.”  “Greatest Hits of Radical Movements.”  I actually Googled Alice Roberts to see if she had Manchester connections, but, as far as I can see, she hasn’t.  She was just being gloriously pro-Manchester.  We take all this as a compliment, obviously!   We are very proud of being involved in the Repeal movement and the Suffragette movement and everything else.  And, as I said, I thought it was rather lovely that that picture of Marcus Rashford was shown.  We’re having a tough time at the moment.  But we’ve had tough times before.  We’ve come through those and we’ll come through this.

And this programme was brilliant.  Not that I’m biased or anything …



Twist of the Thread by Christine Evans


This is the sequel to Song of the Shuttle.  Much like that, it’s well-researched and quite entertaining, but a little far-fetched!  I’m not sure how realistic it is that a housemaid from a Lancashire mill town would persuade a former Confederate soldier to marry her, and then take over the running of his ruined plantation, insist on paying all the former slaves a fair wage, and become close friends with all the former slaves, giving everyone else in their district of Louisiana a salutary lesson in race relations and equality, during Reconstruction.  Nice idea, though!  The fictional town of Gorbydale doesn’t match up exactly to anywhere, but it’s probably closer to Rochdale than anywhere else, and Rochdale was particularly well-known for its anti-slavery stance.

Meanwhile, the dodgy husband tried to murder his wife’s ex-employer’s cousin, accidentally murdered her friend instead, spent a lot of time gambling on Mississippi riverboats, faked his own death, and then turned up in Liverpool.  As you do.  As I said, it wasn’t particularly realistic, but, apart from a quibble over the demography of Cheetham Hill, and possibly some confusion over the date of the opening of Strangeways (I’m not quite sure what year it was meant to be in the book by then), the actual history was fairly accurate.  And it was a good read.  I need distracting, at the moment.  I’m sure we all do.

This was meant to be a series, but, sadly, the author died suddenly.  She’d written the third book before her death, but obviously there won’t be any more.  There wasn’t as much history in this book as in the first one – that, despite the rather bonkers storyline, appealed to me because it was about the Cotton Famine, my dissertation topic, and the American Civil War, one of my great and long-term historical loves, but this one was more about the personal lives of the characters.  As well as the story of Dolly, the housemaid, we heard about Jessie, the main character in the first book, and how she coped with having a disabled child, and also about Jessie’s friend Honora (whom Dolly’s husband tried to murder!) and her medical studies in America.  It was all quite interesting, but a bit more about Gorbydale’s recovery from the Cotton Famine would have been nice.

During the Famine, of course, there was state assistance via the Public Works Acts, but there was also a huge privately-organised relief effort, with money being raised from all over the world, and local committees distributing it, and organising, for example, sewing schools, which feature in this book.  With Andy Burnham launching the OneGM fund today, and Marcus Rashford doing so much to raise money to provide meals for disadvantaged children, I’ve been thinking a lot about this.  And my house is built on the site of what was a Cotton Famine Public Works programme.  Anyway, that’s beside the point.  This isn’t the greatest book ever, but, as a 99p Kindle download, it was well worth reading!


Manchester Happened by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Facebook group reading challenge)


This is a collection of short stories by a Ugandan author living in Manchester, about the experiences of Ugandan immigrants in and around our city.  If you know the area, you’ll recognise all the street names 🙂  :when the author first moved here, she lived near Platt Fields Park.  I’m not normally keen on short story collections, but this one works really well because it makes the point that everyone’s experience is different.  The author herself is from a middle-class family who suffered at the hands of Idi Amin, and some of the stories are about upper-middle-class Ugandans who grew up in big houses with servants, and were sent to Britain by parents who felt that there were few opportunities in Uganda and that a degree from a British university would set them up for life, but fully expected them to come back after a while … which most of them didn’t.  That’s probably not most people’s typical image of immigration from East Africa to Britain, but the book is making the point that there can’t really *be* a typical image.

The stories in the second half of the book are mostly about Ugandan people who’ve settled in the Manchester area going back to Uganda, either permanently or to visit – and finding it difficult, especially if accompanied by a partner and children who’d never been there before.  Once you move away, to a different society, can you go back?   This isn’t something which is often discussed.  There used to be the idea of, say, moving from southern Italy to America to make your fortune and then moving back, but migration to Britain has historically been permanent, unless it was for a particular job or course of study.  It’s interesting reading.

It’s a lovely book.  The style of writing’s very informal, which isn’t really for me, but that’s an observation, not a criticism.  There’s no agenda, very little politics, and plenty of humour.  It’s just telling the story of the different experiences of different people.  It’s very positive: the characters’ main quibble about Manchester, and Britain in general, is the weather!   And, whilst it’s specifically about Ugandans in Manchester, so much of it applies to any group of immigrants moving from any one place to any other place – getting used to a new home and a new way of life, and trying to find your place in amongst two different cultures.  And that place is going to be different for each individual person.

Within most waves (for lack of a better word) of immigration, there are people from different countries.  That does seem to be being forgotten.  How often do you hear anyone talk about “the Ugandan community in Manchester” or “the Ugandan community in Britain” (unless they’re talking about Ugandan Asians, which this book isn’t doing), rather than “the black community” or “the Afro-Caribbean community”?  There are people from different regions and cultures within those countries, and, within those sub-divisions, from different socio-economic classes.

If we’re looking at immigration into Manchester in the 19th century, are we going to take the story of a person leaving rural Ireland because of the potato famine, a middle-class German professional coming here for work reasons, a working-class Bessarabian Jewish person fleeing a shtetl because of the pogroms, a middle-class Austrian Jewish person leaving a Viennese suburb because of concerns about prejudice and an Italian person moving away from the Mezziogiorno because of poverty, and talk about  “the white immigrant experience” or even just “the immigrant experience”?  No.  And we shouldn’t be doing it with immigration in the second half of the 20th century or in the 21st century either, and that’s what she’s saying.  In one of the stories in this book, a white British woman is concerned about how her Ugandan husband’s family will receive her when she goes to Uganda for the first time, and is told that, yes, she’ll be seen as an outsider, but no more so than if she were black British or Nigerian.  The cultures are completely different.

There are people who want to move permanently and people who intend to return.  There are people who move to a new country as children, people who move as young adults, and people who move as older adults: I’ve known families where siblings have had completely different experiences because the younger ones have gone to school in the new country but the older ones haven’t.   And there are people who want to assimilate into the culture of the new country, and people who want to continue to live by the culture of the old country – there’s a story about the Manchester born and bred son of a Ugandan man and a British woman choosing to go to Uganda for an adult circumcision ceremony – and prefer to socialise only with people with the same heritage, and want their children to do the same.  People even within one nuclear family can feel completely differently.

There may also be many different waves of immigration within a community.  In this book, we’ve got, amongst others, a war veteran who moved here in the early 1950s, an upper-middle-class girl who moved here in the 1980s, and a family who came here as illegal immigrants in the 2010s.  There’s also one story told from the viewpoint of a dog, which I could have done without, but never mind!

There’s a lot of general human interest, as well – like the story about the woman who found out that her husband had another wife back in Uganda.  And, whilst it’s specifically about Ugandan people, a lot of it’s about the general issues of settling into life somewhere completely different.  It took the man who came here in the early 1950s a while to realise that you could tell a lot about someone’s background from their clothes and from their accent.  So much of it would apply to any minority group, such as being in a crowd of people and looking around for someone whom you can tell or sense is from the same cultural group as you are.

And the positivity’s great.  One of the big problems we’ve got at the moment is people who seem to think that the way to prove how “woke” they are is to abuse Britain or America or France or any other Western country.  Those sort of keyboard warriors really won’t like this book, because it doesn’t do that!   That then puts other people’s backs up, and just creates more problems.  Another problem is people who expect everyone from a particular ethnicity or culture to act in a particular way, and abuse them when they don’t, as we’ve seen with the Guardian‘s racist attacks on Priti Patel.  As this book shows, everyone’s different, and everyone has their own way.

But most people want to belong, and that can be very challenging when you’ve moved to a new country.  Which way do you go?  Integrate and assimilate?  “Stick to your own kind,” to quote West Side Story.  And, if you’ve only moved temporarily, how easy will it be to fit in when you go back?  The answers are going to be different for everyone: you can’t generalise.  Books like this, where the focus is narrow, where it’s about people from one country moving to one city, are a very effective way of reminding us of that.

There used to be a lot of immigration novels.  OK, most of them were about people moving to New York, but there were also plenty about people moving to British cities. They seem to be increasingly rare these days, though.  That’s a shame.  This is a great book.  It’d be good to see more like it.

Song of the Shuttle by Christine Evans


This is local history month, and, in any case, I’m always on the lookout for books about the Cotton Famine, my university dissertation topic.  There aren’t many of them around, so I was very pleased to find this one.  The author had obviously done a huge amount of research into the subject: there was a lot of information in this, and a lot of lovely descriptive passages as well.  The storyline got rather far-fetched, with everyone whizzing backwards and forwards across the Atlantic in the middle of a war, and marrying people from different backgrounds, and there were a few other niggles too, but, overall, it was an entertaining read, for a 99p Kindle download.  My house is built on the site of an old reservoir, which was constructed as one of the Public Works projects which provided employment for people who were out of work as a result of the Cotton Famine.  That has got absolutely nothing to do with this book, but I like telling people about it 🙂 .

Our characters live in a town called “Gorbydale” (odd choice of fictional name!), somewhere on the moors near either Oldham or Rochdale.  There are a lot of references to an old Roman fort, and the only one I can think of round there is at Castleshaw, near Oldham; but the fact that it’s a weaving area rather than a spinning area, the use of “dale”, and the reference to an outing to Hollingworth Lake suggest that it’s more the Rochdale side.  And some of them live in “Doveton”, which I think’s meant to be more towards Oldham, maybe round the Delph area.

Whilst I’m not entirely convinced that a family of weavers would have been entertaining guests in the parlour and serving tea in the best china cups – although you never know, as wages in the cotton industry were pretty high in the 1850s, and this family was clearly meant to be relatively prosperous -, there were some excellent descriptions of the town, the mills, the homes, and Methodism which was (and is) quite big in the area.  Our heroine is Jessie, the daughter of the family.  Also featured are the family who own the local mills, which have glorious names like Invincible Mill and Endurance Mill.  Perseverance Mill was the more common one, but same general idea!  The millowners have got a handsome but idle son, Robert, and a spirited niece, Honora living with them.

There’s an unpleasant sub-plot in which an American business associate visits the millowners, and rapes their maid, who becomes pregnant.  The narrative makes out that it was all the maid’s fault.  Whilst that’s how people would probably have seen it at the time, I wasn’t very impressed that the narrative seemed to go along with that.  Another niggle was the mis-spelling of Fort Sumter as “Fort Sumpter”, but that can be forgiven.  The attitude towards Dolly the maid can’t.  One of Jessie’s brothers, Arden, is wrongly accused of being the father of Dolly’s baby … whereupon he takes off to America to fight for the Union, the war having begun by this point.

OK, there were certainly cases of men from Lancashire going to fight in the war.  So that was fair enough.  Less realistically, Robert, who’s got a bit involved with Jessie, then also takes off to America, to run the blockade and get himself to Louisiana, so that he can get some cotton and bring it back!   Twice.  This was where it started getting rather silly.  He then gets press-ganged into the Confederate army, is seriously injured, makes his way to the rapist business associate’s plantation, and is cared for by the slaves there.

Back in Gorbydale, it’s all rather more realistic – and very well-portrayed, with a lot of narrative about the problems caused by the infamous Surat cotton, and also about the establishment of sewing schools for unemployed women.  Jessie and Honora both get involved with a local sewing school and become friends.  They then head off to America, to look for Arden and Robert!   They just happen to find Arden.  Then they find the rapist business associate, who’s lurking around Washington as a spy, and help Allan Pinkerton to catch him.  And then they volunteer as Union nurses … despite the fact that Dorothea Dix was after women who were plain, over 30, and, presumably, American.  To be fair, it did mention that they didn’t exactly meet the requirements!  And who should somehow end up in their hospital but, you guessed it, Robert.

Robert recovers, and returns to England with Jessie (chaperoned by one of the former slaves, who then goes back to America.  There wasn’t half a lot of to-ing and fro-ing across the Atlantic, in the middle of a war!), everyone is apparently OK about him marrying a mill girl, and they get married.  Honora stays on in America to train as a doctor, as you do, and gets together with Arden.

By this time, it’d all got so far-fetched that I wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid if Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S Grant and Robert E Lee had all rolled up in Gorbydale, to be served tea in the best china cups in the parlour.  However, it was a nice enough read, and the information about the effects of the Cotton Famine, the damage that it did it to the regional economy and the efforts that were made to ameliorate them, had obviously been researched in a lot of detail.  It really isn’t easy to find novels set during the Cotton Famine, and, for 99p, this one was certainly worth a go.



How the Victorians Built Britain (Blackpool!!) – Channel 5


There’s a song by The Beautiful South which goes “Blackpool help me out, Scarborough see me through”.  There’s no football, there’s no tennis, National Trust tea rooms are closing, theatres and cinemas are closed, Tesco are no longer opening 24 hours (and they included an important reminder in their e-mail about how this is a very difficult time for their staff, and saying a few extra “thank you”s would be much appreciated) and Coronation Street‘s going down to three episodes a week.  No toilet roll is one thing, but no sport and no National Trust scones … this is serious. However, we still have the seaside.  And, if you’re not going out at the moment, there are some lovely videos on You Tube showing scenes of Blackpool through the ages.  But to get back to this programme, which was on before all this really started …

The other episodes in this series were about things like trains and bridges and ships, which are very nice, especially if you’re technologically-minded (which I’m not) … but this one was about Blackpool, which was far more exciting. The Victorians democratised the seaside. If you watched the ITV version of Sanditon (if you didn’t, don’t bother, because it really wasn’t worth it), you will have seen lots of posh Georgians (some minus their swimwear) frolicking about on the beach, but not an ordinary working person anywhere in sight. It was the Victorians who turned the seaside into a place for everyone – and it was great fun watching Michael Buerk discover how such incredibly important institutions as Blackpool’s piers, the Illuminations, the Winter Gardens, the Tower and Empress Ballrooms, the Tower itself, the trams, and, last but not least, Blackpool rock, came into existence.

First up, a lot of it had to do with the railways. Well, there were charabancs as well, but they were more for day trips. And then there were wakes weeks – which were still going strong when I was a kid, but sadly seem to be dying off now. So, off everyone went to Blackpool, for some nice healthy sea air! And, back in the 1860s, when the first two piers were built we had a bit of class … well, not class conflict, but there were class issues. To this day, the North Pier’s the “posh” pier. There was a really nice tea room there for a while, but it closed down 😦 . However, it does still have a sun lounge where you can listen to music, and deckchairs to lounge on. The Central Pier (the South Pier came much later) is the fun pier, though … and also the, shall we say, “less posh” pier. That’s where there are rides and stalls. And it’s where you get the best chips. They don’t sell chips on the North Pier.

And, also up at the north end, is the Imperial Hotel, for those who don’t want to stay at one of the less expensive hotels. Very nice. I went there for a posh afternoon tea as a birthday treat, once. And the Victorians had a sort of Turkish bath set-up there, which was forgotten about for years but has now been rediscovered. It looks amazing!

Anyway, hopefully we’re past the seaside class conflict stuff now. Blackpool is for everyone! But sometimes it’s cold and wet, so you may prefer to go indoors – and they didn’t have all those arcade machines in Victorian times, so they opened the Winter Gardens. And it gets dark at night, when it’s not high summer, so, in 1879, the Illuminations started. Yep, 1879!  “Blackpool’s artificial sunshine.” Making excellent use of electricity!  Six years later, the trams, the first electric tramway in the British Isles, opened. How clever were the Victorians? They’d never have got into all this mess over HS2, I’m telling you. Furthermore, they didn’t go around mithering that everything you were eating was bad for you. Victorians liked sugar. So they invented rock.

So, by the early 1890s, you could head there on the train, ride around by tram, go on the beach, walk along the pier, go in a Turkish bath if you were too snotty to join the crowds down by the sea, eat lots of rock, look at the Illuminations, and go in the Winter Gardens. But the symbol of Blackpool is the Tower. Even now, at my advanced age, I get excited when the Tower first comes into view as I head along the M55. When it opened, in 1894, it was the tallest man-made structure in the British Empire. High-rise buildings were not a thing in the 1890s! How amazing for people to be able to go up the top of Blackpool Tower and look all around them. And it’s perfectly safe, even in nasty storms like the ones we’re getting at the moment. The Victorians built things to last!

Then, rather amusingly, there followed what Michael called “the Battle of the Ballrooms”, as the Tower Ballroom and the Winter Gardens’ Empress Ballroom vied to outdo each other. They’re both amazing. So ornate and glamorous. I’d love to dance in both of them, although, if I had to choose, I’d go for the Tower Ballroom. No offence, Winter Gardens.  They look as if they should be in some grand royal palace somewhere … but they’re in Blackpool, for us.

And that’s Blackpool. If you want glamour, you can have glamour. If you want chips on the pier, you can have chips on the pier. However down I’m feeling, Blackpool always cheers me up – and I am so chuffed that Channel 5 devoted an hour’s TV to talking about how the Victorians invented the modern seaside resort.  Yes, trains and bridges and ships are very important, but, hey, where we would be without our seaside resorts 🙂 ?  Loved every minute of this!

The Co-operative Revolution: A Graphic Novel (Facebook group reading challenge)


I have to admit that I don’t really understand the fashion for graphic novels and film adaptations of them.  They make me feel as if I’ve gone back to primary school and am reading “Mandy” or “Nikki”.  However, not wishing to shirk a reading challenge 🙂 , I decided to make it as appealing as possible by finding one about local history.  Well, at least, that’s what I was expecting.  In the end, only part of it was about the Rochdale Pioneers.  The rest of it was about, well, everything from jellyfish to Richard Dawkins to FC Barcelona … and how to change the world by making biscuits in Crumpsall, which is certainly an interesting idea.  And the prospect of a spaceship travelling from Rochdale to Mars, which is an even more interesting idea.  I suppose I did enjoy reading it, and it gets a big gold star for mentioning the Cotton Famine, but graphic novels just aren’t for me.  A page of pictures doesn’t say anything like as much as a page of words, and I didn’t feel like I’d read very much.  But, to be fair, I enjoyed what there was.

There were a few pages of cartoons (sorry, graphics) about the Rochdale Pioneers, and how they famously set up the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society in Toad Lane in 1844.  The author (author? artist?) got rather carried away with going on about the “corrupt, dictatorial” order, but I didn’t mind that because it meant that he went on about the Peterloo Massacre and the Chartists as well as the actual issues of dodgy shopkeepers ripping people off.  As everyone knows, I love to talk about the Peterloo Massacre and the Chartists … nearly as much as I love to talk about the Cotton Famine, which also got a mention.  Minor black mark for referring to Angel Meadow as “Angel Meadows”, but never mind.

However, it then went on about other co-operative movements, which I hadn’t really been expecting.  Some of this involved pictures.  Some of it involved things that were handwritten rather than typed: I’m not quite sure what the idea of that was. But it was quite interesting.  FC Barcelona.  Indian snake catchers.  Bees, of course.  And Portuguese men o’war, which are apparently made up of different parts which all work together as a co-operative … or something like that.  And a lot of comments about nature and Darwinism and Richard Dawkins, and how it’s better to operate as a co-operative than to work on the principle of the survival of the fittest.  I think it would have been better to have stuck to the Rochdale Pioneers, New Lanark, et al, TBH, but I think that people who are into graphic novels are probably more likely to be scientifically-minded than historically-minded.  Then there were more cartoons, this time showing a spaceship heading off from Rochdale to Mars to mark the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society.

By this point, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or just to put the book down – but then, hooray, at the back, there was a nice historical timeline.  No graphics, no spaceships, no jellyfish – just a proper historical timeline, including interesting facts such as the fact that the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) Factory in Crumpsall was the first biscuit factory in the UK to introduce an 8 hour day, and the first ship to sale the length of the Manchester Ship Canal was the CWS’s SS Pioneer.  I really enjoyed reading that bit, but it did rather prove that, with all due respect to the writers and readers of graphic novels, I am better with the ordinary printed word!