Tuesday, 19 February 2019

The Terminators By L.J. Trafford

In a previous post I examined just how damn dangerous it is being a Roman emperor (click here).
You have a whoppingly high chance of an unnatural death and within that category you are far more likely to be deathed unnaturally by assassination than by any other way. 

 Given the high number of assassinations I thought it might be interesting to examine a few to see if they had anything in common, any key themes or motivations they all shared. I wanted to look at the how, the who and the why of the subject.

Then realising there are 24 emperors who met that end, I decided that we may need a bigger boat in the shape of a Part Two to this subject.

So welcome to Part One of The Terminators.

1) Julius Caesar

No piece on assassination in Ancient Rome is complete without looking at the most famous assassinations of all time; that of Julius Caesar. It’s so famous that it has become part of our cultural conversation. Phrases like “Et tu, Brutus?” and “Beware the Ides of March” are bandied around. That Shakespeare bloke write a play about it. Novelists continue to use it as the pivotal dramatic scene in their books. Who can blame them when it presents such epic themes.

The How

It was, as we all know, the Ides of March (aka 15th March 44 B.C.) Caesar had gone to the Senate House. The stage direction in the Shakespeare play is very to the point, several sharp points that is: 

CASCA first, then the other Conspirators and BRUTUS stab CAESAR 

Plutarch goes into far more detail:

Tullius tore Caesar's robe from his shoulders with both hands, and Casca, who stood behind him, drew his dagger and gave him the first stab, not a deep one, near the shoulder. Caesar caught the handle of the dagger and cried out loudly in Latin: "Impious Casca, what doest thou?" Then Casca, addressing his brother in Greek, bade him come to his aid.

And now Caesar had received many blows and was looking about and seeking to force his way through his assailants, when he saw Brutus setting upon him with drawn dagger. At this, he dropped the hand of Casca which he had seized, covered his head with his robe, and resigned himself to the dagger-strokes.

The conspirators, crowding eagerly about the body, and plying their many daggers, wounded one another, so that Brutus also got a wound in the hand as he sought to take part in the murder, and all were covered with blood. 

The assassination of Julius Caesar, painted by William Holmes Sullivan, c. 1888

The Who 
There were in total sixty conspirators. Which is rather a lot of people to keep a secret this big. But keep it they did.
The two you will have heard of are Cassius and Brutus. But the others we have names for are: Quintus Ligarius, Basilus, Casca, Casca Longus, Decimus Brutus, Cimber, Trebonis, Cassius’ brother Longuinus, Parmensis, Caecilius, Ruga, Spurius, Naso, Aquila, Petronius, Turullius, Laebeo

The key thing to note here is that all of these men are of good families, they are men of high standing who’d held the highest positions in Roman society. Cassius for example was a war hero, a member of Marcus Crassus’ doomed invasion of Parthia. After Crassus and the best part of three legions were exterminated by the Parthians it was Cassius who led the survivors of the slaughter to safety and held the enemy off from over running Syria.

Cimba had been the governor of Bithynia and Pontus.

Trebonius had served as Caesar’s legate in Gaul and held the governorship of Spain. Five months before taking part in the assassination Caesar had appointed him Consul, the highest position available.

Brutus was a close family friend to Caesar, his mother Servilia was Caesar’s long term mistress.
Decimus Brutus was even remembered in Caesar’s will.

Several of the conspirators had served with Caesar. Others had been on the wrong side of the recent civil war between Caesar and Pompey. Yet Caesar had forgiven them and appointed them to positions in government.

There’s a big question hanging in the air. Let’s answer it.

The Why
It’s the Why that makes Caesar’s assassination so interesting to the likes of Shakespeare and Robert Harris.
Caesar had returned to Rome the victor of the civil wars. He’d been given the title of Dictator. This was a position handed to others in the past, but on a purely temporary basis. Caesar had been made Dictator for life.
Rome had been ruled by Kings but the last of them, Tarquin had been cruel and tyrannical. He’d been killed by another Brutus, ancestor of our Brutus.
That Brutus had sworn that they would : “never tolerate Kings in Rome evermore, whether of that family of any other."  Livy.
Coin issued by Brutus two years after Caesar's murder

That killing had ushered in the Roman Republic, a system without kings where power was deliberately minimised and shared out so that no one man could overwhelm like Tarquin had.
The conspirators believed that Caesar wanted to make himself King and destroy the Republic. They aimed to get rid of him before he could do so. An anticipatory assassination to preserve the political system they had sworn to serve, to free the Roman people from a future tyranny.

It makes for good dramatic scenes as Brutus and co torment themselves with the terrible task they must complete to save Rome and her people from one man rule.

The Aftermath
With Caesar’s bloody corpse on the floor Brutus, himself saturated in blood, attempted to talk to the Senators present in the house. Unsurprisingly they are pretty freaked out by events and leg it. The conspirators then went to the Capitol Hill. They held up their bloody hands and daggers and declared liberty. Brutus began to make a speech.
And from that point on it all went wrong......

Because although Caesar might have annoyed at least 60 of the posh types of Rome, he was very popular with the people. They weren’t keen on him being murdered, particularly when Caesar’s will was read out and they heard that he’d left every person in Rome a sum of money. Also Caesar, as a successful all conquering general, was held in great esteem by the army too.

Moving down to the Forum for further appeals they faced an increasingly hostile crowd. So hostile they were forced to flee.
The people continued demonstrated their displeasure with Caesar’s death with enough vigour that in the end the conspirators were forced to flee Rome.

Caught up in ideals of their own noble torment they had totally misread the mood. They had assumed that they would be congratulated on their act, that it would be recognised as the great noble deed it was. They’d anticipated a tyranny and acted. But they’d never anticipated or even considered that there might be an opposition. Certainly they hadn’t considered an opposition that might be more eloquent than they were, in the shape of Mark Antony, who might actively seek to punish them for murdering his friend.
They soon found themselves hunted down by Antony and, another beneficiary of Caesar’s will, his great nephew Octavius. They were both fully intent on avenging Caesar. Brutus and Cassius were both killed at the Battle of Philippi.

Was the assassination a success? 
The motivating aim of the assassination of Julius Caesar was to prevent him making himself king and destroying the Republic.
What followed Caesar’s assassination were a series of civil wars that resulted in one man, Caesar’s great nephew Octavius ruling Rome under the name of Augustus and forming a dynasty. The Republic as it had been was over. Rome was now a monarchy in all but name.
So no, it was not a success. It was an utter failure, hastening what it sought to prevent.

2) Caligula

Julius Caesar was assassinated for what he might become in order to preserve the state. Our next assassination is lacking noble ideals. Rome’s third Emperor Caligula had ruled Rome for 3 years and 10 months when he was assassinated at the age of 29. This is an interesting one because the reign is so short. Caesar took decades to build up sufficient resentment to be offed. Caligula manages to really annoy in 3 years and 10 months. Which I think we should take a moment to appreciate.

Right appreciated.

The How 

Suetonius has the tale for us.:

On the ninth day before the Kalends of February at about the seventh hour he hesitated whether or not to get up for luncheon, since his stomach was still disordered from excess of food on the day before, but at length he came out at the persuasion of his friends. 
In the covered passage  through which he had to pass, some boys of good birth, who had been summoned from Asia to appear on the stage, were rehearsing their parts, and he stopped to watch and to encourage them; and had not the leader of the troop complained that he had a chill, he would have returned and had the performance given at once.  
From this point there are two versions of the story: some say that as he was talking with the boys, Chaerea came up behind, and gave him a deep cut in the neck, having first cried, "Take that," and that then the tribune Cornelius Sabinus, who was the other conspirator and faced Gaius, stabbed him in the breast. Others say that Sabinus, after getting rid of the crowd through centurions who were in the plot, asked for the watchword, as soldiers do, and that when Gaius gave him "Jupiter," he cried "So be it," and as Gaius looked around, he split his jawbone with a blow of his sword. 
As he lay upon the ground and with writhing limbs called out that he still lived, the others dispatched him with thirty wounds; for the general signal was "Strike again." Some even thrust their swords through his privates. 

It’s a bloody death isn’t it? Deliberately brutal – note the thrusting swords into his groin. 
Caligula really managed to piss people off, but who were they?

The Who 
Two are named by above, the Tribune Cornelius Sabinus and commander of the Guards, Cassius Chaera. Though you’d have thought the suspicious Romans wouldn’t have trusted a man named Cassius with their personal security. Suetonius says these two succeeded thanks “to the cooperation of the most powerful freedmen and the Guards’ Commanders” 
Bust of Caligula in the Louvre.
Photo by Clio20
I smell a bit of palace intriguing and plotting. Cassius Dio has a little more detail:
“There were a good many, of   course, in the conspiracy and privy to what was being done, among them Callistus and the prefect.

Practically all his courtiers were won over, both on their own account and for the common good. And those who did not take part in the conspiracy did not reveal it when they knew of it, and were glad to see a plot formed against him.” 

Callistus was Caligula’s secretary. See here for an article I wrote examining his slippery life.
So pretty much everyone knew it was going to happen within Caligula’s inner circle. But nobody took any steps to stop it.

The Why
Caligula is the poster boy for the demented ruler. A young man utterly unsuited to ruling who gets steadily more demented, steadily more autocratic and steadily more cruel.
A couple of anecdotes will suffice to give a flavour of Caligula’s rule and why people might want him dead:

At Puteoli, at the dedication of the bridge that he contrived, as has been said, after inviting a number to come to him from the shore, on a sudden he had them all thrown overboard; and when some caught hold of the rudders of the ships, he pushed them off into the sea with boathooks and oars. 

He was no whit more respectful or mild towards the senate, allowing some who had held the highest offices to run in their togas for several miles beside his chariot and to wait on him at table, standing napkin in hand either at the head of his couch, or at his feet. 

If you really want to know more I’d recommend Mary Beard’s documentary for the BBC or alternatively the soft porn film Caligula starring Malcolm McDowell. It’s terrible in the sort of eye popping way Caligula’s court probably was. 

To recap Caligula was possibly mad, definitely cruel and getting rid of him was for the public good. But is that really the why of the situation? No, no its not.

Let us look at chief assassinator and aptly named Cassius.

Chaerea was an old-fashioned sort of man to begin with, and he had his own special cause for resentment. For Gaius was in the habit of calling him a wench, though he was the hardiest of men, and whenever it was Chaerea's turn to command the guard, would give him some such watchword as "Love" or "Venus” 
Cassius Dio

And here’s Suetonius:  

For Gaius used to taunt him, a man already well on in years, with voluptuousness and effeminacy by every form of insult. When he asked for the watchword Gaius would give him "Priapus" or "Venus," and when Chaerea had occasion to thank him for anything, he would hold out his hand to kiss, forming and moving it in an obscene fashion. 

There’s your why for you.
And a good life lesson. Never taunt or humiliate the man who is responsible for your personal safety. Oh and who carries a sword as part of his job

The Aftermath
The only people seemingly not in on the plot were Caligula’s German bodyguard. Who realising their epic job fail tried to make amends by a general massacre. First up were Cassius and Sabinus and their fellow dagger welders. Then some “inoffensive senators” as Suetonius puts it. RIP inoffensive senators.
Then random people, our sources don’t indicate whether they were offensive or not.

In the style of Caesar’s assassins Caligula’s murderers had given absolutely no thought to what happened next. Which I think underlines the personal nature of the assassination, this is not about politics or an unsuitable ruler. It’s about revenge.
Revenge doth not run a government and in the chaos that followed Caligula’s death there were two very different views of what should happen

The Senators rushed to the Senate House and declared the Republic should be restored and there no longer be emperors. Hadn’t Caligula’s rule showed in fully bloody horror the evil of a one man rule?

The Praetorian Guard had in the meantime found Caligula’s uncle Claudius hiding behind a curtain and made him Emperor. 

Proclaiming Claudius Emperor by Lawrence Alma-Tadema{{PD-US}}
Was it a success?

If Cassius’ aim was to inflict revenge and pain on the man who’d taunted him then yes it was an amazingly successful assassination.
Also for all those freedmen like Callistus who involved themselves in the plot they rid themselves of a demented boss.
The lesson from Caligula’s assassination is that if you set the bar low for the outcome of your plot, then you can consider it a wild success.

3) Domitian 96AD

Rome’s 11th Emperor fared much better than Caligula in clocking up 15 years of rule before annoying enough people to get killed. 
Statue of Domitian
Photo by Steerpike

The How
In order to assassinate a ruler you need to get close to him. In Caesar’s case his killers knew his schedule and waited for the optimum time and place to get their daggers in. With Caligula it was his own Guards who assassinated him, so they were by his side anyway. In the case of Domitian the ‘how to get close’ part of the plot is really quite ingenious and thought out:

“To avoid suspicion, he wrapped up his left arm in woollen bandages for some days, pretending that he had injured it, and concealed in them a dagger. Then pretending to betray a conspiracy and for that reason being given an audience, he stabbed the emperor in the groin as he was reading a paper which the assassin handed him, and stood in a state of amazement. “ 

Element of surprise rating 8/10. Domitian really did not see this coming. Had the event ended there it would have been an incredibly neat affair. But Domitian wasn’t going quietly.

“The emperor grappled with Stephanus and bore him to the ground, where they struggled for a long time, Domitian trying now to wrest the dagger from his assailant's hands and now to gouge out his eyes with his lacerated fingers.” 

Ouchy. Several other conspirators then rushed in and helped finish Domitian off in a very messy way.
If you’re wondering how we know all this . Well there was a witness . One of the Imperial slaves, a young boy, was tending to the household shrine when it all kicked off.

The Who

The man who did the stabbing was Stephanus, a former steward of Domitian’s exiled niece.
But he was far from the only one involved. Helping him finish off Domitian were Clodianus, Maximus, Satur and a gladiator from the Imperial school. All of them were palace staff.

They were the do-ers but they weren’t the plotters. They were much higher up the Imperial ladder:
Parthenius, Domitian’s chamberlain
Sigerus, another chamberlain
And Entellus, head of petitions.

We know a little bit about Parthienus, for the poet Martial courts his influence in the hope of getting his poems before the Emperor.


This is that toga much celebrated in my little books, that toga so well known and loved by my readers. It was a present from Parthenius; a memorable present to his poet long ago; in it, while it was new, while it shone brilliantly with glistening wool, and while it was worthy the name of its giver, I walked proudly conspicuous as a Roman knight. 

Martial even writes a poem to celebrate the birthday of Parthienus’ infant son, Burrus.
So here we have three senior members of Domitian’s staff planning his murder and employing other members of the palace staff to enact it.
I think we need to know why.

The Why
Though a capable administrator Domitian had become increasingly paranoid. Though justifiably so given in 89AD a Roman General named Saturnius had initiated a revolt against him. That was fairly easily suppressed but it clearly left its mark on Domitian, not least in his party hosting, which had taken a turn towards macabre: 
Bust of Domitian
Photo by Jastrow

He prepared a room that was pitch black on every side, ceiling, walls and floor, and had made ready bare couches of the same colour resting on the uncovered floor; then he invited in his guests alone at night without their attendants. 

And first he set beside each of them a slab shaped like a gravestone, bearing the guest's name and also a small lamp, such as hang in tombs. Next comely naked boys, likewise painted black, entered like phantoms, and after encircling the guests in an awe-inspiring dance took up their stations at their feet. 
After this all the things that are commonly offered at the sacrifices to departed spirits were likewise set before the guests, all of them black and in dishes of a similar colour. 
Cassius Dio

Yikes. Senators were executed, relatives exiled and a Vestal Virgin buried alive under Domitian’s increasingly paranoid rule: 

He used to say that the lot of princes was most unhappy, since when they discovered a conspiracy, no one believed them unless they had been killed. 

Domitian had a particularly bad relationship with the Senate. The writers Tacitus and Pliny the Younger both served in the Senate under Domitian and it’s clear from them just how frightening it was. Nobody knew when he might pick on them.
But, as we’ve seen, the blow when it came, came not from the persecuted Senators but rather his closest advisers. We are supplied with the reason: 

He had first banished and now slew Epaphroditus, Nero's freedman, accusing him of having failed to defend Nero; for he wished by the vengeance that he took on Nero's behalf to terrify his own freedmen long in advance, so that they should venture no similar deed. Yet it availed him naught, for he became the object of a conspiracy in the following year 
Cassius Dio

Epaphroditus was a freedman of Nero, who had accompanied the emperor on his final flight from Rome. As the soldiers had closed in on Nero, Epaphroditus had assisted him into suicide. This was 27 years before. That’s quite a statement. Clear as glass. And aimed directly at his own staff.
What we can conclude from their actions, particularly Parthienus the recipient of Martial’s kind poems, was that they saw it as a him or us scenario.
This is born out by this little tale:

He invited one of his stewards to his bed-chamber the day before crucifying him, made him sit beside him on his couch, and dismissed him in a secure and gay frame of mind, even deigning to send him a share of his dinner. 
The message was clear. It could be any of them. So they acted.

The Aftermath

Stephanus and the others who had physically attacked Domitian were instantly slain by the Guards.
There was undoubtedly a bit of chaos but the very same day that Domitian was murdered, Marcus Cocceius Nerva was proclaimed by the Senate as Emperor. Take a moment to take that in. THE VERY SAME DAY. 
Statue of Nerva
Photo by Carole Raddato

Was it a Claudius behind the curtain scenario or something quite different? Nerva was 66 years old, an experienced feature of the government and very firmly loyal to the Flavian dynasty of which Domitian was the last. Had he been lined up before hand by Parthienus, Sigerus and Enntellus?

Cassius Dio says yes:

They discussed the matter with various men, and when none of them would accept it (for all were afraid of them, believing that they were testing their loyalty), they betook themselves to Nerva. For he was at once of the noblest birth and of a most amiable nature 

It would certainly explain the speed of the ascension.
Nerva ruled for 2 years, dying naturally at age 67. He became the first of what Edward Gibbon called the Five Good Emperors, an era of prosperity and peace.

So it was a success then? 
As with the other assassinations let us go back to the principle aim. The conspirators were motivated by fear for their lives from an increasingly paranoid boss.
That boss was removed. So a tick for that one.
However did it save their lives? Not Stephanus it didn’t. He was instantly killed. And the chief plotter Parthienus? He lasted incredibly until October the following year when the Praetorian Guard who’d been firm supporters of Domitian stormed the palace and insisted Nerva hand him over.
Domitian had been wildly popular with the army, mainly because he had massively increased their pay, so the question here is surely why did it take so long for them to revenge their emperor?

The answer is quite chilling: because they didn’t know Parthienus was involved. Remember he was the plotter, he didn’t actually take part in the killing. Domitian’s former Chamberlain spent a whole year knowing what he had done and no doubt wondering whether that would be uncovered. That’s got to be stressful. We have to wonder whether he was betrayed by someone on the inside, another palace employee letting the great secret slip?

Nerva was given little choice in the matter, held at knife point by soldiers
Parthienus was handed over. He was executed in a particularly horrible way.

So no it did not save Parthienus’ life for long either. Though maybe if he hadn’t been betrayed we might never have known the man who brought Martial a toga was also behind an Emperor’s murder.

Here we end part one of The Terminators......

L.J. Trafford is the author of the Four Emperors series. Of which assassination and general massacres feature highly.

Monday, 18 February 2019

When is Spring? In Celebration of Imbolc - Celia Rees

St Brigid's Cross - Ancient Symbol of Imbolc
Today, I went out walking and marked the year's turning from darkness to light, from dormancy to life. 

8:05 15th February, 2019, Leamington Spa
We are not so far removed from our ancestors.  Until very recently we were all ruled by the eternal rhythms of sunset and sunrise.

Planet Earth at Night - wikipedia
Now, we have flooded the world with light. We love it so much that it is there 24 hours a day, you can even see it from Space. We are warned not to look at bright screens last thing at night because the brain simply won't know that it is time to sleep. Our love of light and dislike of darkness have changed the natural pattern of our lives, but still we feel it on our pulses, the turning of the year.

We still keep to the ancient calendar that is ruled by the sun. The winter solstice might have been christened Christmas but we are really celebrating the point when the sun begins its slow return. It's an act of faith more than anything. The mornings are still dark, night still comes early. The trees are bare and nothing is growing. Many of us feel 'down' at this time of year, depressed. The third Monday in January, has been designated Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year.  Electric lights are not enough, screens are not enough. We need the sun.

Then there is a day, often in late January or early February,  when the morning is lighter,  evening  comes later, the sun is brighter, stronger, there's a change in the air.  That's why I think we should re-instate the ancient Celtic Festival of Imbolc. It was traditionally celebrated on 1st of February, but the day was not exact, it could come a fortnight on either side of that date, depending on seasonal variations, the onset of lambing, the blooming of the blackthorn. It was adopted by the Christian church as St Brigid's Day, Brigid herself a christianised version of the Celtic goddess, Brigid. It is immediately followed by Candlemas on 2nd of February, a Christian festival associated with the Virgin Mary. Clues there as to its importance in the Pagan Wheel of the Year and its strong association with the Goddess. 

Imbolc and Candlemas have slipped from our calendar and our consciousness. The nearest date of note is Valentine's Day with its rampant commercialism, tawdry cards and heart shaped balloons. A time, supposedly, for lovers, but how many of us are? The traditional anonymity of the exchange of cards and tokens disappeared a long time ago and  for those of us who are not in a relationship for any number of reasons,Valentine's Day can eclipse Blue Monday as the most depressing day of the year. 

How much better to celebrate the coming of Spring. Not when it has already arrived on 21st March and the daffodils are everywhere, but when we can sense its approach in the lighter mornings and evenings and the drifts of snowdrops carpeting the bare ground. 

6:45 15th February, 2019 Leamington Spa

Snowdrops in Jephson Gardens

Sunday, 17 February 2019

A Tale of Time, Cakes and Travel, or how Bettys came to Harrogate, by Penny Dolan

This is Harrogate, and a queue lines up under a glass shop-canopy that protects them from the brisk, damp Yorkshire weather.

These patient people are waiting for a table within Bettys Tea Rooms where, served by waitresses in starched pinnies, they intend to enjoy morning coffee, lunch, or afternoon tea in a genteel, well-heeled style. Meanwhile, at the shop counters, everyday customers can call in and buy bread, cakes or pastries, or a wide range of tea, coffee and chocolate confectionery.

Like The Stray, the stretch of open grassland that runs round part of Harrogate, Bettys is part of the local tourist industry that likes to offer an image of a stylish spa town, still flaunting the somewhat faded flag of its early twentieth century elegance.

Across the town centre, the antique shops and rare booksellers are few, the plate-glass store-fronts stand empty, the trendy restaurants have come and gone and the town hall has been sold off for luxury apartments so in some ways, Bettys represents a kind of permanence in Harrogate. This is, I feel, a suitable state of affairs as Bettys - the company – reaches its hundredth birthday this year.

Unlike poor Patisserie Valerie and her too-many premises, Bettys has always held tight to her Yorkshire roots and limited the number of its cafes. There are, even now, only six: on Parliament Street in Harrogate; at Harlow Carr Gardens, Harrogate: in Ilkley and in Northallerton; at Stonegate in York and also at St Helen’s Square in York, which boasts an interior inspired by the famous cruise liner, the Queen Mary.

As in all traditional stories, Bettys begins with a poor orphan child, born in 1885. though not in Yorkshire. 

Little Fritz Butzer, the son of a miller and master-baker, was born in Switzerland, His mother Ida died when he was an infant and not long after, fire destroyed his father Johann’s mill. Although his older sister was adopted by relatives, Fritz, only five-years-old, was sent back to the family village to be fostered.

He lived with a farmer who, despite promises, neglected the boy’s care and education and used him as a farm labourer. As soon as possible, Fritz left the farm and went to work as an assistant baker. Over the next years, he worked his way around Switzerland and then into France, learning about confectionery and the skills needed to be a chocolatier.

Even so, how - given his next move - can he have learned so much within what must have been about eleven years? Because, in 1907, at twenty-two, Fritz set off for England, unable to speak much of the language.

Unfortunately – or fortunately - on reaching London, he’d lost the paper giving the address of his destination. All he remembered – says the story - was that the place sounded like “Bratwurst”, a kind of sausage so Fritz was put on the train to Bradford. As an area of Bradford is still called Little Germany, this may not have been as random a suggestion as it sounds and, besides, many were seeking work in the industrial towns of the North. Fritz was employed by Bonnet and Sons, a Swiss confectioner in the city, but he was clearly an ambitious young man.

He moved on to the prosperous Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate, an “Inland Resort” that catered for a variety of visitors, who came to stay for health cures, rest and relaxation, shopping and entertainment and – of course – indulging in the best of food and drink. Originally, the annual visitors came as a diversion during the late-summer Yorkshire hunting season but, by the twentieth century, Harrogate was an upper-class destination all year round. The town’s most glittering season came in 1911, when it was visited by Queen Alexandra and various members of European and German royalty. Offering elegant hotels, prestigious musical performances inside the gilded Kursall, both Winter Gardens and Valley Gardens as a place for sociable promenades, Harrogate was a busy enough place for the enterprising young baker to make his mark.

Fritz married Claire Appleton, his landlady’s daughter, and before long had wisely changed his name to the more anglicised Frederick Belmont. In the summer of 1919, financed by his wife’s family, he set up the first Bettys bakery in Harrogate and in the 1920’s, but the tearooms he established were in Leeds and Bradford.

Then, in 1937, rather boldly, Frederick Belmont chose York for his new venture. It was already the home of three famous Quaker chocolate companies - Rowntrees, Terrys and Cravens – and site he chose was in the heart of the city, directly opposite the Terry’s cafe in St Helen’s Square.

The York Bettys flourished, and like all his other tearooms, would have prided itself on the quality of its offerings, the elegance of its catering, the impressiveness of its window displays, the superiority of its music and the luxury of the private reception rooms. Bettys was distinctive, and at at time when women could not meet away from home in pubs or bars, a valued female environment.

However, during WWII, Bettys in York took on a different character: a smart cocktail bar was installed upstairs and, away from the need for blackout, a bar down below the stairs. At that time, Yorkshire was home to many local air-bases and Bettys became popular with the bomber boys and the Canadian and American pilots. A framed mirror, where the airmen inscribed their names with a diamond pen, is still on show in the York tea-rooms. Not many of those boys would make a return visit to Bettys bar.

Nevertheless, throughout the war, Betty’s survived both bombs and the threat of army requisitioning. Did the supposed glamour of the local aircrews attracted the ire of the military? Or, behind the scenes, did the RAF high-ups defend Mr Belmont’s accounts of the number of meals he served, and the menus he simplified to fit rationing standards - and so keep their favourite Bettys bar open?

Eight years after the end of the war in Europe, Frederick Belmont died. His nephew, Victor Wild, took over as a managing director and oversaw the next decades. There were changes: although Bettys in Leeds became an espresso bar in the 1950’s, it did not survive the era of the mods and rockers and Bettys in Bradford closed too, bringing an end to the cafe in the industrial cities. It was followed by a time of expansion: in 1962, Wild heard that C.E.Taylors, the Yorkshire tea and coffee merchants, was for sale, Wild took action and Bettys became “Bettys and Taylors”. The Wild family remains involved in the company which, after trading for a century, flourishes online, through diversifying into Bettys Cookery School and cookbooks and publications, and, at an everyday commercial level, through the nationwide “Yorkshire Tea” and similar products.

Put together, the Bettys tale does read rather like a novel but there is rather a nice twist to the tale. When the new company was created, two establishments changed hands and brands. Over in Ilkley, the then-Taylor’s Tea Kiosk became another Bettys.

The other change was more significant: it fulfilled the dream Fritz Butzer had dreamed a hundred years before. The Imperial Cafe in Harrogate, which was then owned by Taylors, became a Bettys Tea Room, which is where, when a treat is needed, you can enjoy the most delicious cakes.

I must warn you that visiting Bettys is not at all cheap, but as a wise and rational friend once explained as we sat having a lovely, long and all too rare book chat. “Don’t think of the tea and scones as expensive. Just think of it as renting a table for a couple of hours.” And that, now and again, works for me.

As for the mysterious Betty? There are several ideas as to whom she might have been within the history section of Betty’s website - thank you for all the information -, but there’s also doubt as to whether she even existed. 

With Fritz’s own life-story being as full as this – an orphaned immigrant travelling through France, becoming a baker and confectioner on the journey and creating cafes up here in the North of England - maybe Betty doesn't really need a tale of her own, even for if this year is her hundredth birthday? 

Although it is very tempting to make another one up. . .  Once there was a young orphan girl . . ?

and, additionally, 
in my mind,
all those neat waitresses and waiters in their black and white uniforms,
and the busy shop staff
and all the Bettys-behind-the-scenes bakers,
and the workers and packers in the Taylors factory
deserve a very, very loud cheer and more too.
Hope they will be having a great and grand party sometime this hundredth year too!

And in response to any pedantic queries about the missing apostrophe?
Bettys doesn’t have one.  Officially.

Penny Dolan


Saturday, 16 February 2019

Marianne North at Kew - by Sue Purkiss

I first came across Marianne North when I was doing the research for my children's book, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley. Jack is a boy who goes plant hunting in the Himalayas with his uncle at the end of the 18th century. It's an adventure story, but it's also about facing up to your fears, and about respect for tthe environment and for other cultures.

I wasn't able to get to the Himalayas, so I had to find gardens that would give me a sense of the kinds of vegetation found there. Also, Sir Joseph Banks, who had a great part to play in the early development of Kew, is a character in the book - so it made sense to visit Kew, take a turn round the tropical house and the alpine garden, and see if they had any useful books in the shop.

While I was in the shop, I noticed some rather beautiful postcards, with plants and flowers shown in detail in the foreground, and views of landscapes from all over the world in the background. The colours were jewel-like and brilliant, and I had seen nothing like them before. They were by Marianne North, and the originals were in a specially built gallery within the grounds of Kew.

I'm not certain now whether I didn't go to see them because we were on the way out, or whether the gallery was closed for refurbishment - I think it was the latter. Anyway, I didn't go, but I did read up on Marianne, and found that she was a very resourceful Victorian lady, who when her father died and left her comfortably off, decided to devote the rest of her life to travelling to the most far-flung corners of the world in order to paint and study plants. She must have been an incredible character. She knew Sir Joseph Hooker, the director of Kew, and when she had accumulated hundreds of paintings, she offered to pay for a purpose-built gallery at Kew to house them. She oversaw the placing of the pictures, and this is the result: they're all very close together, and each one is stunning.

That first time, I bought a pack of postcards of her pictures. One of them is of number 270: Distant View of Kinchenjunga from Darjeeling. In the foreground luxuriant vegetation clothes a steep ravine, and in the distance are the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas. It's a beautiful picture. The mountains, framed by the foliage seem like an unattainable image of loveliness. I remembered this picture when I came to the point in the book where Jack's Uncle Edmund, having travelled thousands of miles to reach Hakkim, is told by the Maharaja that he will not be permitted to travel any further. Edmund glimpses this view, and Jack sees on his face a look of longing and despair that makes him determined to somehow overturn the Maharaja's decision, for the sake of his uncle: it's really a turning point in the book - the first time that Jack becomes properly aware of other people's needs and desires.

Well, so yesterday a friend suggested going to see the annual orchid festival at Kew, and I realised that here was my chance to visit the Marianne North Gallery and see it for myself. It was one of those warm, sunny days that you sometimes get in February: perfect. First we went to see the orchids. Apparently orchids grow on every continent, and each year, the festival focuses on a different region. This year it's Colombia, where scientists from Kew have a number of projects on the go. The colours were extraordinary, and there were quirky touches, like this sloth, and the hats perched on top of the cacti.

I don't think Marianne would have approved of the hats, but she would have loved the colours of the flowers.

After the orchids, we  went to look at the Hive, which is this intricate metal structure which mimics the complexity of a beehive. It shimmered beautifully in the sun, but I would love to see it at night, when the hundreds of tiny LED lights must make a glittering display.

And finally we arrived at the gallery. There is another gallery beside it now, which had exhibitions of botanical art, and we looked at this first. This picture of an ancient oak tree is one of a series of graphite drawings by Mark Frith, called A Legacy of Ancient Oaks. The photograph really doesn't do justice to the detail; they are huge, and exquisite, and utterly different from Marianne North's work, which we came to next.

I don't know of anywhere else where paintings are displayed in such a way as they are here. There are hundreds of them, all very close together: they're somehow not overwhelming, but of course you can't take them all in at one visit. I was searching for my special picture, the one of Kanchenjunga, and it took me a long time to find it. On the way I saw landscapes from South America, from Australia, from South America, from Malaysia - from all over the world. And I realised that they don't just show the plants. They show what the world was like in the second half of the 19th century: there are people there too, and the places they lived in. She saw so much, and she captured so much. 

Marianne North

Incidentally, if you look at the cover of Jack Fortune, you may see that there's a reference to Picture Number 270, just in the layout of the cover image. This pleases me very much!

Friday, 15 February 2019

Women and the Railways in World War 2: an interview by Fay Bound Alberti

Susan Major, pictured at York Railway Station
For this week’s blog I talked to Dr Susan Major, who has written a fabulous book about women working on the railways during World War 2. This book is important because although we know that women took on many traditional men’s roles during the war, very little has been published on women in the railways. Railways were a reserved occupation, so in theory men continued to work on the railways while their counterparts in other industries were sent off to war. In reality, the men working on the railways were often old and disabled. The issues confronted by women workers were those that existed in other activities:  economic, sexual, social and temporal, their lives being changed by the new habits and relationships brought by the war, as well as its ending. Susan’s book is a welcome addition to our understanding of the lives of working women in the Second World War, as well as its gender politics. 

About Susan Major
Susan Major completed a PhD with the Institute of Railway Studies & Transport History at the University of York in 2012. Drawing upon material from the National Railway Museum and the British Library, she focused on early railway excursions. Her book based on this research, Early Victorian Railway Excursions, was shortlisted for the Railways and Canal Historical Society Book of the Year Awards 2017. Her latest book, Female Railway Workers in World War II, was published by Pen & Sword in 2018. Susan was a programme consultant for the BBC series Railways: the Making of a Nation, taking part in the episode on leisure. She is retired and lives in York.

Fay: “So Susan, what drew you to the subject of women on the railways?” 

Susan: “Well I completed my doctorate, which later became a book, on Victorian railway excursions. Later, when doing some research about railway voices I discovered the National Archive of Railway Oral History at the Railway Museum, which contains many different  interviews with  people working on and associated with the railways. Quite a lot of this material has been digitised and indexed and transcribed. Among all the men recorded, there were some women and I realised that their voices had not really been listened to. And there were enough women talking about the wartime period, and about working in what were commonly perceived as ‘men’s jobs’, to form the basis of a book. And remember that even so-called ‘women’s’ jobs in those days, like working as a clerk, had been men’s jobs when in the railway context. And I wanted to know not only what everyday life was life for those women, but also how they were looked at by other people, by the companies who were employing the women as well as commentators in newspapers of the time.” 

Fay: “ Are there any particular women that stand out for you?Any stories that were especially memorable?” 

Susan: “There was a female porter at York station, when it was bombed in 1942. A train was also bombed on its way into the station, and these were terrible conditions to work in. The social conditions could be difficult too; she tells a story of a parcel foreman that the female workers had problems with and they sorted him out by giving him some chocolate, which happened to be laxative chocolate.”

(Pause for laughter!)

Fay: “What can you tell us about the kind of women in these roles, their age or class for instance?”

Susan: “Well it’s a very select sample, dependent on who was chosen to interview. And these women would all have been young at the time, because the older women would have died by the time the stories were recorded. And they described liking the companionship of other women, the responsibility, and, unlike factory, work the variable and different activities involved.”

Fay: “Were the women all unmarried? I’m thinking about other roles of the time, which had very strict union rules”.  

Susan: “Yes. If you got married you had to leave. Most of these women were aged between 16 and 22 and often they met a railway man and got married and that was the last we hear of them. By contrast the newspaper reports were keen to tell readers about those women who might have 12 children and still carried out a role. And there was a sense that a woman wasn’t quite acceptable in publicity unless she had some link to a railway man. Women were not treated as individuals in their own right.” 

Fay: “Were most of these women working class women?”

Susan: “not necessarily. Many were working class though there were also reports of quite posh women working on the railways. The ones that were interviewed were mainly ordinary women, who had a clear sense of their roles and their relationships with other women and you get a real sense of the culture of the workplace through the stories that they tell. Compared to other work, like factory work, the duties could be varied and interesting”.

Fay: “What do these interviews say about how it was to be a woman in a traditionally male environment?”

Susan: “There is some discussion about workplace harassment, much of which was taken for granted. For instance one of the accounts describes the experience of a typistThey had to go down and check their work with one of the men in the office. She said “And there were never enough chairs. So we used to share a chair with a man. And I think the feminists these days would be horrified. They'd probably be having all the men done for harassment. But we used to call it fun”

Fay: “Ah. So these women would have to sit on their boss's lap.” 

Susan: “Yes, or share the chair. And there are a lot of examples of that. And women would talk about how they worked all day while their male supervisors stood around talking about sport. And at the end of the working day the women would get ready to go home and the men would say “overtime now”. And the men got paid more for the overtime, while the women had often families to get home to.There was also this concept of the “railway family”, which other historians have written about. Employees were encouraged to think of the railway as a family, and there were magazines prompting this image. And there was a sense that you could only get a job in the railways if your father put you forward, for instance, and while that wasn’t necessarily so in practice, it was how people thought about the railways as paternalistic employers”. 

Fay: “After the war did these women get sent away from the jobs, as they did in other industries?” 

Susan: “They were dispensed with, yes. Although I’ve focused on women working, the last chapter of my book is called: “and then the men came back”, which draws attention to the way women workers were dismissed. One woman, a guard, was sent a letter thanking her for her service. Only it wasn’t sent to her but to her boss. She had to travel a long way on the train to get to his office after a long shift, where she was shown this piece of paper, which he then kept, before trekking all the way home again”. 

Fay: “Thank you for a fascinating introduction to the book, which one of our lucky readers will win”. 

Prize Question: 

What TWO jobs were women railway workers NOT allowed to undertake during World War Two?
  1. Engine drivers 
  2. Porters 
  3. Switchboard operators
  4. Firemen
  5. Parcel workers 
  6. Signal operators 
  7. Manual labourers 

Please answer in the comments below. The lucky winner will be drawn at random. 


Since Susan was a founding member of the award-winning Clements Hall Local History Group in York, and remains very active in the local community, I couldn’t let her go before asking her about her book on Bishy Road, a bank of independent shops whose success has caught the eye of The Guardian and other national publications. 

Fay: “Before we finish I wonder if you could say something about your work on Bishy Road, which is another subject you have written about?” 

Susan: “When I started looking at the shops for a local history project, I was surprised that nobody had looked at their history. So I started with local directories, census records, and oral history accounts to build up a picture of their development over 150 years. And though the name “Bishy Road” is quite controversial for some people, who think it is disrespectful to the name “Bishopthorpe Road, the local shops, which are still mostly independent, are regarded quite affectionately by the people who live and work there.”

I particularly enjoyed the way Susan records the social history of York through the shops that populated Bishy Road. From Chinese laundries to Teddy Boy tailors, the history of the shops is a history of social, political and economic change of the country as a whole. Which is the best kind of local history!

Bishy Road 2018: A Shopping Street in Time is available at Waterstones

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Love and the Courtesans of the Floating World - by Lesley Downer

The time to see the Yoshiwara to the best advantage is just after nightfall, when the lamps are lighted. 
Algernon Mitford, 1871

Living only for the moment, giving all our time to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking sake, caressing each other, just drifting, drifting; never giving a care if we have no money, never sad in our hearts, only like a gourd bobbing up and down on the river’s current; that is what we call ukiyo - the Floating World.
Asai Ryoi, 1661

Tayu (Kyoto courtesan) playing a kokyu

Courtesan promenading in the Yoshiwara,
 Utagawa Yoshitora (died 1880) 1859
In old Japan the man in search of love and romance knew exactly where to go - the pleasure quarters. There, so the saying went, the women all told their customers, ‘I’m crazy about you’, while the customers told their lovers, ‘I will marry you.’ Neither were to be believed.

The most famous pleasure quarters of all was the Yoshiwara. It offered far more than sex. For men it was like Las Vegas crossed with Hollywood, full of marvellous things to see and do, where you could play out your fantasies and where the normal rules of life did not apply. It was known as the Nightless City, because there the lights never went out. It was a sort of never never land, where a man could say and do pretty much anything he liked and start again with a clean slate the next day - a dream of romance with no strings attached.

Going to the Yoshiwara

Japan Dyke by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858)
The Yoshiwara was a good safe distance outside the great city of Edo, now Tokyo, well away from the everyday world of work and family. Pleasure seekers left at sunset, taking a boar’s tusk boat up the River Sumida along the eastern side of the city or going on foot or on horseback. Then they walked across the marshes along the Japan Dyke. From there you could make out the lights of the Yoshiwara glimmering enticingly in the distance like a fairy city, much as, so they say, you can see the neon of Las Vegas twinkling across the desert.

Finally they’d glimpse the Looking Back Willow and the crooked road that led down to the Yoshiwara - crooked to ensure that no one could see into that magical place from outside. They’d cross the Ditch of Black Teeth and arrive at the Great Gate and leave their swords with the gatekeeper. In front of them was the broad main street lined with latticed rooms where the lowest level of women sat like goods in a shop window, waiting to be chosen, like in the red light district in Amsterdam.

Latticed room in the Yoshiwara - Night Scene
by Katsushika Oi (Hokusai's daughter) - before 1860
A Courtesan Parade

Then, if they were lucky and their timing was good, they’d hear the tootle of flutes, the thump of drums and the clanging of metal rings at the top of staffs. They’d see masked dancers cavorting and lantern-bearers advancing with measured tread as a huge procession of retainers, attendants and gorgeously-apparelled lower-level courtesans appeared, making its way very slowly along the street. The crowds would draw back, whispering. It could only be one of the oirans - the courtesans - on her way to a teahouse.

And finally they’d see her undulating along, a good head above her attendants on foot high wooden clogs. Resting her hands on the shoulders of two sturdy male attendants, she’d swing her foot out to one side and scrape the edge of her clog along the road, then bring it in front of her, then slowly, deliberately do the same with the other foot in the famous ‘figure of eight walk’, named not after our ‘eight’ but the Japanese ‘eight’ which is a bit like a circumflex. She performed the whole complex routine with her hips thrust forward, with ineffable coquetry, fully aware of her magnetic appeal. Her face was painted stark white, her teeth lacquered black, her lips bright red and she wore a vast ornate headdress, glittering with ornaments.
 Courtesan procession from J.E. de Becker,
History of the Yoshiwara Yukaku, 1905

For the crowds shoving to catch a glimpse of her it was like seeing a movie star on Oscars’ Night. But unlike a movie star her body was not on display. It was hidden under layer upon layer of lavishly embroidered kimonos, all wrapped around with a huge brocade obi. While other women and geisha too wore their obis tied at the back, the courtesan’s was tied at the front in an enormous knot, the message being that if a man was brave and rich and patient enough, he might - just might - get to untie it.

The only part of her body on view was her little bare feet in their clogs poking out from under her skirts. It was the most erotic sight. It sent a shiver down all the spectators’ spines.

Where a low class merchant might imagine himself a prince
Yoshiwara Matsubaya oiran. 
The green brocade 'apron' is her obi.

But unless a man was incredibly rich, patient, good looking and lucky, that was the closest he’d get. The courtesan was to be seen, not touched. For her it was all performance, highly choreographed. She was an artiste justly proud of her artistry.

Like les grandes horizontales of Paris in the mid nineteenth century or the Venetian courtesans of the 16th century, Japanese courtesans were the most accomplished women of their day. The courtesan parading so grandly down the street hosted literary salons which the great writers of the day competed to attend. She was beautiful, witty, brilliant. She wrote poetry, painted and danced, was an adept of tea ceremony, conversed delightfully, and could talk knowledgeably about politics if the customer so desired. She had a lavish wardrobe of kimonos for every season and every occasion, paid for by wealthy admirers and occasionally laid out to view. And she was demanding and proud, she held court like a queen.

Such a woman does not come cheap. In fact some of the most famous courtesans never slept with anyone. It would have lowered her value were she to make herself too freely available.
'Completely out of his league ...' - customer with oiran

If a man was brash enough to want to spend the night with such a woman, he’d first need an introduction. If he was new to the district he would be turned away, no matter how rich, famous or well-connected he might be. He would have to go to the teahouse where he was a regular to book her, where he would be told he’d have to wait several days. He’d order food, drink, hire entertainers, then order food for the entertainers. All this cost money. Only a big spender, a generous man prepared to throw around his money would be worth her consideration.

Then the next day or the day after he might be able to meet her and sip sake with her and make an appointment to meet her again another day - if she so chose. The patient wooer could imagine he was a lovelorn Prince Genji exchanging poems with a beautiful princess and forget that in reality he was a despised merchant and she a sex worker. She would flatter and flirt, and, if the man ever got the chance to find out, he’d discover she was most likely brilliant in bed.
Oiran at the Yoshiwara Matsubaya 

She was in fact completely out of his league, were it not for the fact he was paying vast amounts for it all. Money would buy this extraordinary woman, her smiles, her caresses, her swooning interest in everything he said. This gorgeous creature would persuade him he was brilliant, handsome, that she was madly in love with him. What man wouldn’t go for that?

Working women

Meanwhile the women of course were working. The courtesan’s job was to make the customer fall in love with her but to keep him at arm’s length so that he would visit more and more frequently and spend more and more money. Everything was there to enhance his pleasure. The pleasure quarters were where you went to find aphrodisiacs - charred newt, eel, lotus root, dried rings of sea slug to fit over the penis. Grilled viper was also an aphrodisiac, as was the toasted fin of the fugu, the famous blowfish whose liver, kidneys, ovaries and eyes are deadly poisonous. There was always a titillating link between sex and death.

Courtesans wrote beautiful love letters. Some would offer a lock of their hair or a finger nail as proof of her love. And when the customer left the pleasure quarters in the morning she would escort him to the gates and be ostentatiously wiping away tears as he turned at the Looking Back Willow to feast his eyes one last time.
Yoshiwara oiran surrounded by attendants 1910 - courtesy 
University of Victoria, Canada, via Wikimedia Commons

For the women the difficult balance was between playing at love without ever falling in love. If they did fall in love it was invariably a disaster. It was always the wrong man, not the rich client who’d become her patron and support her but a son whose father had marriage plans for him and who would disinherit him if he disgraced the family by running away with a courtesan or, even worse, a young poor clerk. When that happened many couples decided that the only way out was to commit ‘love suicide’, to this day still considered the ultimate demonstration of love.

The Yoshiwara reached its height in the eighteenth century. By the early nineteenth century it was already becoming a little seedy. Geisha with their pared down chic replaced the overblown courtesans and the prohibition of prostitution in 1872 was the final blow. From having been a government sponsored pleasure quarters the Yoshiwara went underground and was taken over by yakuza gangsters. It’s still there, however. If you study a map of Tokyo you can make out the legendary Five Streets, beyond Asakusa in the north east of Tokyo, though the Yoshiwara is not actually named on the map. You can even go and visit.

My novel The Courtesan and the Samurai is set largely in the Yoshiwara of the mid nineteenth century. There’s also lots about geisha and courtesans in my Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World.

My latest novel, The Shogun’s Queenan epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback.

For more see www.lesleydowner.com.

Woodblock prints and old photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photographs mine.