Wednesday, 22 November 2017

From the Communist Party to Peaky Blinders: The Real Jessie Eden by Catherine Hokin

For those of us who like their televised historical fiction with a slag-heap of grit and a soundtrack that favours Nick Cave over luscious strings, this month's return of Peaky Blinders has been like Christmas come early. This recreation of 1920s Birmingham and the truly terrifying gangsters stalking its grimy streets blends fact with fiction: the Peaky Blinders gang existed but wasn't run by the Shelby brothers; Small Heath and the Garrison pub had strong associations with gangs and betting rings between the wars although the satanic-mill factories that form the backdrop were not in such consolidated ownership. Real characters are mixed in with the series' fictionalised family, including appearances by Winston Churchill and Billy Kimber, leader of the Birmingham Gang and vicious enough in real life to make Tommy Shelby seem almost a softy by comparison.

 The Peaky Blinders Women off to listen to Jessie Eden
Part of the series' appeal for me has always been its core of feisty female characters, centred on Helen McRory's Aunt Polly who ran the illicit gambling rings when the men were away being damaged by war. In series four, a new women has been added to the mix: Jessie Eden, a shop steward in one of Shelby's factories who we first encounter putting on her lipstick in the gents' toilet and responding to demands she go somewhere more suitable with the rather cracking: 'You don't have a woman's lavatory on the second floor because no women get this far up."

Publicity round the series suggests Eden has been brought in as a possible love interest for Cillian Murphy's character Tommy. Given the show's track record with its female characters, I think we can hope for something closer to the actual Jessie Eden, who is something of a Brummie, and certainly a trade union, hero. She was born in 1902 and, when we meet her challenging Tommie about female pay in 1925, was actually working at the Joseph Lucas Motor Components Factory where she was a shop-steward for the Transport and General Workers' Union. At the time of the General Strike in 1926, the percentage of unionised women at the factory was tiny and completely over-shadowed by the 10,000 non-unionised women, nevertheless Eden marched the women in her section out to join the strike.

Tanks in the General Strike - Daily Mirror
When she was interviewed by the Birmingham Post on the 50th anniversary of the Strike in 1976, Eden recalled the privations of the period: "We used to take our turns picketing or join the big meetings in the old Bull Ring, which was much larger then. Sacrifices had to be made. We had practically no meat during the strike. We lived on bread, jam and marge.” She also recalled her own brush with the law on the evening of the May Day march which saw a procession of 25,000 people, witnessed by another 100,000. "One policeman put his hands on my arm. They were telling me to go home, but the crowd howled, ‘Hey, leave her alone’ and then some men came and pushed the policemen away. They didn’t do anything after that. I think they could see that there would have been a riot. I was never frightened of the police or the troops because I had the people with me, you see. I don’t know what I’d have felt like on my own."

 The young Jessie Eden
Five years later, Eden really came into her own when she led 10,000 women out of the Lucas factory on a week long strike over new working practices which were driving female workers to the point of collapse. The irony of the story was that the new working speeds intended as a result of the American-designed systems were to be based on Jessie's work-rate as she was judged as an exemplar of efficiency. A further irony was that Eden, now a member of the Communist Party, was one of those who lost her job when a furious management imposed cutbacks. The 1931 strike is credited with starting mass unionisation among women workers but its aftermath was tough on Eden who apparently struggled to find work. She seems to then disappear for a period of two years but was actually in Moscow, rallying Soviet women construction workers employed building the city's metro. No mean feat for a working-class, apparently tiny, woman from Birmingham.

Jessie Eden was a champion of social justice her whole life. She was a key figure in the 1939 Birmingham Rent Strike which brought 49,000 tenants out on strike, successfully winning them rent control in the council and private sector. She stood for the Communist Party in the 1945 General Election and led a march against the Vietnam War in Birmingham in 1969. Graham Stephenson, whose website is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in Eden and union/Communist politics, knew Eden in later life and described her in a recent Guardian interview: "People say that in her prime she was an electrifying speaker, who poured out words from the heart without notes and whose confidence in victory was contagious." That's a tribute I'm sure most of us would love to have and hopefully Peaky Blinders is set to give us a deeper flavour of this woman whose actions made such a difference to the women around her, women who she fought to see treated with dignity, equality and respect. Somehow the time for remembering her seems right.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

When to buy a Leonardo Da Vinci at Christie's (try 1776) by Imogen Robertson

Christie's Auction Room (From the original drawing by Rowlandson)

On 15th November 2017 Salvator Mundi, (very probably) by Leonardo Da Vinci sold at auction at Christie’s New York for $450.3 million. You may have read one of the reports about its rediscovery, restoration and controversial sale and resales - if not take a look at this article in the Guardian, it includes a nifty slider so you can see the effects of that restoration - you may also have picked up on the fact it was bought from an estate sale (pre-restoration) in 2005 for ten thousand dollars, and felt a deep twinge of sympathy for whoever sold it then.

Salvator Mundi - Leonardo Da Vinci (1500)

If that bothers you, my story today might break your heart. Robert Foulis (b.1707) and his brother Andrew were printers to the University of Glasgow and earned a reputation for the accuracy of their printing of Greek texts, and showed considerable critical and commercial sense in their choice of modern authors. In the 1750s they set up an Academy of Fine Art in Glasgow, and made their art collection available to the students who studied there, a collection enhanced with further large purchases of art in 1772. The Academy however seemed to be a terrible financial strain and closed its doors after Andrew died in 1775. 

Early the following year Robert went to London, apparently to sell the pictures. He was advised against doing so by none other than Mr James Christie who apparently told him that the market was glutted with similar paintings. According to the snappily entitled Robert & Andrew Foulis and the Glasgow Press : with some account of the Glasgow Academy of the Fine Arts by David Murray, after expenses Foulis returned to Glasgow with just fifteen shillings of profit and died very shortly afterwards (2 June 1776). 

James Christie
From a print by R. Dighton
(in  Memorials of CHRISTIE’S: 
A Record of Art Sales from 1766 to 1896

Now if Foulis had been trying to sell just one Da Vinci, that would put the pain of the person who sold Salvator Mundi in 2005 into some sort of perspective, but Foulis wasn’t just selling one painting, oh no. The collection he took to London included (according to his three volume catalogue)  SIX works by Leonardo Da Vinci works, as well as numbers of works by Raphael, Titian and Rubens. 

Now it’s true he wasn’t the only one with a stack of Old Masters on hand in 1776. James Christie had in one sale sold pictures by all those artists the previous April, and did so again in March of 1776. In the same issue of the Public Advertiser in which Christie advertised the 1776 sale, Messers Langford in Covent Garden are alerting readers to their own auction which includes Rubens, Rembrandt, Carracci and Titian and Mr Walsh has a selection of Poussin and Corregio up for auction if you aren’t Old Mastered out.

Daily Advertiser (London, England), Monday, March 20, 1775 

Public Advertiser (London, England), Friday, March 1, 1776

Public Advertiser (London, England), Friday, March 1, 1776

Public Advertiser (London, England), Friday, March 1, 1776

But… As we all know only too well the closer you look into history the murkier it all gets. I’m pretty sure Foulis didn’t sell his pictures at all. 

Now, it may be that he intended to do so, and heeded Christie’s advice to wait, or it may be his original intention was to make money out of his collection in another way. Here is the advertisement Foulis ran (with minor variations) from 31 January to 26 May 1776. 

Morning Post and Daily Advertiser (London, England), Wednesday, January 31, 1776

There is no mention of any sale here. Instead he is quite explicitly exhibiting his pictures and charging a shilling a time, and also trying to sell his three volume catalogue of the collection. 

It’s true that auctioneers often exhibited works for a few days before a sale, but I can’t see any example where they did so for weeks. Langford charged people a shilling to come and see what he was selling from 1 March 1776, but he probably wouldn’t have had room to do so before then, giving he had two other old master sales in February. 

For anyone who has tried to tempt Londoners to an event, that fifteen shillings profit looks pretty reasonable now. There is no doubt that Foulis was devastated by the failure of his exhibition. His printer gives a rather harrowing description of him returning home to Glasgow, exhausted and deeply disappointed. 

But his paintings were sold in 1776, only it was in December almost six months after Robert died and by… yes, James Christie himself. Here is the notice:

Public Advertiser (London, England), Monday, December 2, 1776

So why were they sold at this point? The new season has begun, but it's only a couple of weeks old, so it's still early for the eighteenth century oligarchs to have gathered, I’d have thought. Possibly Robert’s death had made his family’s severe financial problems acute and they had to sell as quickly as they could. 

The sale realised £381 8s 6d. It’s tempting to insert a snarky remark about Christies having got a lot better at selling Da Vinci’s since then, but something else must have been going on too as Christie’s sale of M. Le Brun’s pictures in 1775 netted £2,142 and Sir George Colebroke’s collection sold for £4,385 17 shillings. 

Perhaps Christie knew the market was glutted, because he’d glutted it himself.

It is also possible that Foulis’ paintings were being looked at with a sceptical eye. Given that there are under twenty paintings universally accepted as by Leonardo known today, it does seem a little dubious that so many drifted through the London art market at this time. If anyone wants to take advantage of this link to the Foulis catalogue, and match his descriptions to a particular painting, I’d be fascinated to find learn more. I'd also love to know what happened to the pictures after the sale.

Looking at various calculators of relative value, that £381 from the sale could be worth anything between forty thousand pounds and four million today. Even if we take the latter figure, that’s still a hundredth of what someone just paid for one rather beaten up Da Vinci.

So next time you timeslip into the 18th century you know where to go for a bargain.

Monday, 20 November 2017

The Domesday Village – East Meon

In my series of posts on some of the communities of the valley of the River Meon, I have arrived close to the source of the river, at East Meon (Mene or Menes 11th c; Meonis 12th c; East Menes 13th c; Estmune, Estmunes, Moene and Estmeone 14th c; Estmene 15th c; and Estmeane 16th c).

The River Meon rises just south of the village and at first flows north, winding through the village itself before heading off into the countryside towards West Meon, where it turns and flows south, making its short, twenty-one miles, journey through the Meon Valley, to Titchfield and the sea.
For 1,000 years, East Meon was a hundred, a parish and a manor. It was the largest of the estates of the bishops of Winchester, with the magnificent All Saints Church and the bishops’ Court House to reflect its importance. For centuries it knew only one industry, farming, and only one owner, the Diocese of Winchester.
It seems that, initially, no distinction was drawn between East Meon and West Meon (about 4 miles north-west as the crow flies and following the course of the River Meon). East Meon is first mentioned specifically in the mid 11th century, when the then bishop of Winchester, Alwin, granted both Meons to the monks of Winchester, retaining, however, the management of the lands. When Alwin died, in 1047, the manor was held by the new bishop, Stigand, and he continued to hold it after he also became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1052. He was apparently excommunicated for holding both Winchester and Canterbury, though that doesn’t seem to have affected his continuing to be bishop and archbishop. Stigand attended the deathbed of King Edward and the coronation of Harold Godwinson as king of England in 1066, but after Harold’s death, Stigand submitted to William the Conqueror. However, when William was crowned King on Christmas Day 1066, it was the Archbishop of York who carried out the coronation because Stigand’s excommunication meant that he could only assist!
“Here sits Harold King of the English. Archbishop Stigand”.
Scene immediately after crowning of King Harold.
By Norman or English embroiderers
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Stigand was eventually deposed in 1070, but held East Meon until his death probably two years later. At this point, it was seized by William I, and it was he who was holding East Meon in 1086, although, as Domesday tells us, Walkelin (Walchelin), the first Norman (as opposed to Saxon) bishop of Winchester, appointed in 1070, was also holding considerable property in East Meon (6 hides and 1 virgate, with a church). It was Walkelin who, in 1079, began work on a new cathedral church in Winchester, the current Winchester Cathedral, though little other than his transepts and crypt are still extant.

In the Domesday Book the hundred is represented by a single entry under Mene:

The entry shows that, in 1086, the “Mene” Hundred had 138 households, which was a large community of perhaps 500, and six mills, which also seems a lot, but perhaps their number reflects the extent of the Hundred’s lands.
In 1986, to celebrate the 9th centenary of the Domesday Book, the Hampshire Museums Service and the Sunday Times selected East Meon as the “Domesday Village”. In an exhibition at the Great Hall in Winchester, a model of the village was displayed, depicting it as it might have been in 1086. The simulation was created by Edward Roberts, then lecturer in Mediaeval Architecture at King Alfred’s College, Winchester, and Liz Lewis, curator at the Hampshire Museums Service. The model was later transported to Bayeux, where it is on display in La Musée de La Tapisserie, under the same roof as the Bayeux Tapestry. 
This part of the model shows the church and the Court house.Image courtesy of La Musée de la Tapisserie
East Meon continued to be crown property until some time between 1154 and 1161, when Henry II granted it, along with all churches belonging to it, to the diocese of Winchester. From this date, apart from a short period during the Commonwealth, when it was sold with his other lands in 1648 and 1649 as a result of the Root and Branch Bill, East Meon remained with the bishops of Winchester right up to the mid-19th century.

I imagine that it was not untypical that relations between tenants and their lords in English manors were not of the most cordial and, indeed, it is recorded that, in the reign of Edward III, there was a dispute between the then bishop, Adam Orlton, and his East Meon tenants. It seems that, in 1342 and 1343, the tenants wanted “clarification” of entries in the Domesday Book relating to “Menes” (one assumes they felt they were being short-changed in some regard). A century later, in August 1461, when Edward IV went on progress to Hampshire, the tenants of East Meon and elsewhere “in grete multitude and nombre” petitioned the king for relief from certain services, customs, and dues which the bishop, William Waynflete, and his agents were attempting to exact (presumably unjustly). According to one account the tenants seized the bishop, but the king rescued him from his murderous tenants and then arrested and tried the ringleaders, giving judgement in favour of his noble bishop.
East Meon is full of old buildings, including some delightful thatched cottages, strung out along the narrow streets, many of which follow the line of the River. But two of the buildings are of particular note. One is the church, All Saints, described by Nicholas Pevsner as “one of the most thrilling village churches in Hampshire” (The Buildings of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight). The other is the old Court House, the manor house of East Meon, built at the end of the 14th century, which stands opposite the church and is the best preserved of the residences of the bishops of Winchester.

All Saints church
Pevsner doesn’t explain exactly wherein lies the “thrill” of All Saints, but it is certainly a wonderful church. It was built in stages between the 11th and the 14th centuries, the original Norman church with its tower being completed in about 1150. The size and beauty of the church probably reflected East Meon’s importance in mediaeval times, both as a very large manor and as a centre for the bishops of Winchester.

The original church was cruciform in shape, consisting of nave, chancel, and transepts, and the original work is clearly identifiable in the round-topped arches typical of Norman or Romanesque style, and in the West and South doorways. The only major addition to the church was made in about 1230, when the South Aisle and Lady Chapel were added, in the new Early English style, with its pointed arches and larger windows. The spire was probably added at this time too.
All Saints’ greatest treasure is the Tournai font, one of only seven such fonts in the country (another, of the same period, is in Winchester Cathedral). The font was carved in the 12th century by the sculptors of Tournai from the hard blue-black limestone from the banks of the river Scheldt in what is present-day Belgium. The carvings on the four sides are illustrations from the opening chapters of Genesis, together with birds and animals, in a Romanesque style. It arrived in East Meon in around 1150, just as the original church was being completed, and was probably a gift from the then bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois, who was a grandson of William the Conqueror. Henry was King Stephen’s brother, the Chancellor of England and the richest and most powerful man in the country after the king.

I will talk a little more about this font in a future post on some of Hampshire churches’ finest treasures.

The Court House
East Meon was the largest of the bishops of Winchester’s manors in Hampshire, and this manor house reflects that. It perhaps acted as the diocese’s administrative centre as well as being home to a number of monks who played host to the bishop whenever he visited East Meon.
About 20 years ago, an architectural historian called Edward Roberts identified pipe rolls for Court House (those for 1395-6 and 1396-7), which recorded the building of the house. It is thought that the works were carried out almost wholly in 1396, at a total cost of £109 15s 11d, at a time when a labourer’s daily wage was 4d.

The building, consisting of a great hall and a two-storey wing, was a replacement for a similar building, almost certainly Norman, which had stood on the same site. It was commissioned by someone I have mentioned before in previous posts, William of Wykeham, the then bishop of Winchester. His master mason for this building project was William Wynford. It is thought that Wynford might have first met Wykeham when the latter was a provost of Wells Cathedral, where Wynford had gone as master mason. He was made master of works at Windsor Castle in 1364, also under Wykeham. During the 1370s, Wynford worked at Abingdon Abbey, Corfe Castle and Southampton Castle.
When Wykeham founded New College, Oxford (1379) and then Winchester College (1382), it was to Wynford he turned for their design. There is a portrait of William Wynford in the stained glass in the east window of Winchester College. This shows an old man with thinning hair, with the words “Willms Wynfort lathomus” below. His last major work, in the 1390s, was the remodelling of the Norman nave of Winchester Cathedral in the latest Perpendicular Gothic style.
But it was also to Wynford that Wykeham turned for the design of his new manor house in East Meon. The Court House is apparently Wynford’s only surviving domestic (as opposed to royal or ecclesiastical) building.
Broadly, the structure of the original house was of a vast hall at the south end, built onto a wing of the earlier Norman building that contained the chapel and, upstairs, the bishop’s chamber. The hall itself is 48 feet long and 26 feet wide and is over 40 feet up to the peak of the roof. There would have been an open fire in the middle of the floor. The walls are 4 feet thick and 20 feet high and are constructed mainly of white malmstone (greensand) from Langrish (2.5 miles to the north-east) and flints from the downs above the village. The roof was constructed during the same months as the great roof of Westminster Hall. There are corbels set into the eaves of the roof that were carved in Winchester and represent heads of bishops and kings. It is thought that the one of a bishop might be William of Wykeham himself, by then in his seventies.
At the north end of the hall there is a service wing with a chamber above. Two doors lead from the hall into the buttery (where drink was stored and prepared for serving) and the pantry (where food was stored). The kitchen itself, as usual in these times when it would represent a considerable fire hazard, would have been a freestanding building to the east.
Above the buttery and pantry is the great chamber, 30 feet by 15, with a timber roof and a large fireplace. It is accessed by an external staircase. Off the great chamber was the garderobe with a drop down to a latrine below.
The new building survived virtually unaltered through six centuries. Under Wykeham’s successor, Cardinal Beaufort, the earlier wing to the south of the Great Hall, containing the bishop’s chamber and chapel, was rebuilt, but later demolished, probably in the early 17th century, when the timber framed farmhouse wing on the east of the hall was built. The farmhouse, for the 750 acre Court Farm, survives today. 

We must be very grateful to the mediaeval bishops of Winchester for what they brought to East Meon: a glorious manor house, much of which survives unaltered, a “thrilling” church which certainly survives, and of course that magnificent Tournai font. 
And isn’t it extraordinary to ponder upon how very many babies (and adults too) must have been baptised in that font, standing there in All Saints church for over 850 years – not much less than half a century since the writing of the Domesday Book!

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Roman sea-borne trading and the port of Ostia by Alison Morton

The Romans were organised, truly organised in complex ways not seen again until at least the 18th and 19th centuries. Trade was vital to Ancient Rome. The empire cost a vast sum of money to run and trade brought in much of that money. The population of the city of Rome grew to over one million and demand for more and different goods and services to build and maintain a high status lifestyle fuelled trade from further and further afield.

Roman trade routes map (ORBIS, Stanford Uni)

In addition to the 80,000 kilometres of first class roads (as at c. AD 200) built primarily for the movement of military forces, used by the imperial courier service, for government administration and lastly for trade, sea routes crossed the Empire through the Mediterranean from Spain, France and North Africa to Syria, north to Britannia and east to the Black Sea.  They supported trade between a network of coastal cities - Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, Carthage. These cities were serviced by a road network permitting trade within their respective hinterlands. River transport was not so widespread as the major pan-European rivers, the Rhine and the Danube, were military frontiers, not the core of the Empire.

The Romans built lighthouses, harbour complexes, docks and warehouses to further sea trade and make it secure. The Roman navy (classis) tried with varying success to keep the Mediterranean Sea safe from pirates. Although the navy was instrumental in the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean basin, it never enjoyed the prestige of the Roman legions. Romans were a primarily land-based people, and relied partially on other nationalities such as Greeks, Phoenicians and the Egyptians, to build and man their ships. Partly because of this, the navy was never wholly embraced by the Roman state, and deemed somewhat "un-Roman". Unlike modern naval forces, the Roman navy even at its height never existed as an autonomous service, but operated as an adjunct to the Roman army.

Trade was facilitated by a single official currency and no complicating customs dues. Trade developed in complexity and reach  as peace became more established and with more trade, prosperity increased. When the Empire disintegrated in the late AD 400s, overseas markets disappeared, supply and distribution routes became unsafe and trade collapsed. The Mediterranean Sea became a dangerous place for merchants as there were no powers to control the activities of pirates who marauded as far north as the English Channel.

What was acquired from where?
The Romans imported a whole variety of materials: beef, corn, glassware, iron, lead, leather, marble, olive oil, perfumes, purple dye, silk, silver, spices, timber, tin and wine. The main trading partners were in Spain, France, the Middle East and North Africa. Britain exported lead, woollen products and tin. In return, it imported from Rome wine, olive oil, pottery and papyrus.

Bireme (Creative Commons)

Ostia, Rome's port
The most important sea port was Ostia situated at the mouth of the River Tiber and only 15 miles from Rome. According to an inscription, the original castrum (military camp) of Ostia was established in the 7th century BC. However, the oldest archaeological remains so far discovered date back to only the 4th century BC when Rome fought several naval actions. The traditional birth date of the Roman navy is set at ca. 311 BC, when, after the conquest of Campania, two new officials, the duumviri navales classis ornandae reficiendaeque causa, were tasked with the maintenance of a fleet. The most ancient buildings currently visible in Ostia are from the 3rd century BC, notably the castrum. From this point on, Ostia starts to play an important role as a military harbour. When Rome installed a new naval magistracy in 267 BC, one of the officials was permanently based in Ostia. Traders and artisans settled in Ostia to make a living in and around the harbour.

Goods could be quickly moved to Rome in barges up the River Tiber after slaves had unloaded and transferred cargo from merchant ships. The Romans built the world's first dual carriageway, via Portuensis, between Rome and Ostia. In 68 BC, the town was sacked by pirates. During the sack, the port was set on fire, the consular war fleet was destroyed, and two prominent senators kidnapped. This attack caused such panic in Rome that Pompey the Great arranged for the tribune Aulus Gabinius to propose a law, the Lex Gabinia, to allow Pompey to raise an army and destroy the pirates. Within a year, the pirates had been defeated.

Ostia was further developed during the first century AD under the influence of Tiberius, who ordered the building of the town's first forum. Temples, bathhouses, a theatre, shops, warehouses, construction yards, workshops, guilds became an integral part of the town.

Ostia Antica forum (author photo)

With the expansion of the physical city and the demands of the population of Rome, traffic on the river became ever more congested. Manoeuvring became impossible on the 100 metre wide river and silting exacerbated the problem. To guarantee a consistent supply of corn for Rome, the emperor Claudius started to build a new harbour (portus) in 42 AD two miles north of Ostia on the northern mouths of the Tiber.


Two curving moles were built out into the sea. Between the moles, on an island formed by sinking a large merchantman, a four-storied lighthouse was built. This harbour became silted up and around about 110 AD the emperor Trajan enlarged the new harbour with a huge land-locked inner hexagonal basin still visible today. Its form was hexagonal in order to reduce the erosive forces of the waves. The harbours were connected with the Tiber by canals.

Hexagonal basin (Uni Southampton)

The new Trajanic harbour was described as 'Portus Ostiensis' and the council and magistrates of Ostia also controlled the daily life of Portus. The harbours of Ostia continued their function as a major port as can be seen by traces of the many corn warehouses. This development took business away from Ostia itself which acted principally at that time as a river port only and began its commercial decline. One can only imagine the wrangling between the established guilds, merchants and city councillors in old Ostia and the up and coming traders of the modern, specifically designed new Portus.

Ostia and Portus grew to 50,000 inhabitants in the 2nd century, reaching a peak of some 100,000 inhabitants in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Portus was critically important for supplying the ever-growing city of imperial Rome with foodstuffs and materials from across the Mediterranean.  It also acted as both a point of export for supplies and products from the Tiber Valley to the north of Rome, and a major hub for the redistribution of goods from ports across the Mediterranean. It must also have acted as a major conduit for people visiting Rome from around the Mediterranean.

Roman port litho, Seewesen by Walter Muller, 1893

Ostia was to play a major part in the downfall of Rome when Alaric the Goth captured it in AD 409 knowing that this would starve Rome of much needed food. The port began to enter a period of slow decline from the late 5th century AD onwards, although it was the scene of a major struggle between Byzantine and Ostrogothic troops during the Gothic wars (AD 535-553).

Ostia Antica chandler’s floor (author photo)

Today Ostia Antica in an outstanding site for tourists and students alike and noted for the excellent preservation of its ancient buildings, magnificent frescoes and impressive mosaics (

Portus is the centre of an exciting project led by the University of Southampton ( In 2014, a new canal and town wall at Ostia was discovered. In 2016, the Portus Project launched a series of online ‘tours’  (Click the menu bars at the top right to start).

I shall be following the project with great interest…


Alison Morton is the author of the Roma Nova thriller series.
More at

Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Lost Words - Celia Rees

‘Once upon a time, words began to vanish. They disappeared so quietly that almost no-one noticed. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conkers – gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter raven, willow, wren… all of them gone! The words are becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.’

It is this perceived loss that is so eloquently addressed in the current exhibition at Compton Verney by writer, Robert Macfarlane, and artist, Jackie Morris. In this magnificent exhibition and in the wonderful book that they have produced, they draw attention to the danger that these words might be lost to children forever and they endeavour to make good the damage, conjuring back these lost words by the magic of their painting and poetry.

I grew up in the 1950s  and  was lucky enough to be one of the last generation to enjoy a ‘wild childhood’, free to roam woods and parks looking for conkers, pick blackberries in the hedgerows, wade in brooks and ponds looking for newts. I was intensely aware of the passing seasons and what they would bring: the conkers and turning leaves of autumn, bryony beading the hedgerow; the prospect of snow in winter, watching robins and bluetits feed in the garden; snowdrops, celandine and coltsfoot promising spring and the summer to come. We were free to be out all day, only returning when hunger called us home. We were in tune with the world around us: the plants, trees, birds, animals. We took it for granted. I saw ‘the elm tree bole in tiny leaf’ and knew what the poet meant, but that life has gone with the elm trees themselves.

Today’s children rarely go out unsupervised, some rarely go out at all. This exhibition is a response to the shocking research findings that British children are more familiar with Pokemon characters than British wildlife and, as  Robert Macfarlane points out in his article: Guardian - Badger or Bulbasaur - have children lost touch with nature?, all the centuries long associations that native flora and fauna have acquired through legend, myth, folklore and story are lost, too.  

Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris explore The Lost Words from Acorn to Wren. Each bird, plant or animal is shown in the same way. No matter how humble or ordinary, each is reverenced in  an icon: a numinous depiction in gold leaf and exquisite jewellike water colour. It is then  shown within the wider context of its natural world and then, finally, by its absence. This last is particularly powerful and poignant. Starlings are shown by an empty wire,  raven and heron by a fallen feather, the magnificent otter by a line of paw prints. An achingly eloquent expression of loss and impoverishment, both to the world: if this creature had never been, or if we were to lose it, how much poorer would we be? And to the individual: if you don’t know something is there, then it does not exist for you and your world is somehow diminished. 

Jackie Morris’ pictures are accompanied by Robert Macfarlane’s acrostic poems or ‘spells’.

My companion at the exhibition, friend and fellow writer, Linda Newbery , observed that:

'Robert Macfarlane's 'spells' are clever, striking and energetic - not a lazy phrase to be found. As well as being acrostics they also use a formal patterning of repetitions and echoes which makes me think of the Welsh 'cynghanedd' found in Gerard Manley Hopkins. It's especially lovely to hear Robert Macfarlane reading them aloud - they are meant to be spoken, after all.'

Should green-as-moss be mixed with
blue-of-steel be mixed with gleam-of-gold
you'd still fall short by far of the -
Tar-bright oil-slick sheen and
gloss of starling wing.

The two artists make a powerful conjuring.  Not least, because they invite the viewer, child or adult, to go out and do something. To look. To learn.To draw, paint, write what you see. Jackie Morris’ sketch book, watercolours, gold leaf and burnisher are there. As are Robert Macfarlane's pens, pencils, notes and notebooks.

There are drawing and writing materials, paper, crayons and pencils, so young visitors can take inspiration and make their own books. Robert Macfarlane's desk is in the last but one room. When I went in, a child was sitting on a little chair, leaning on this desk, hard at work with crayon and pencil. I'm sure that both the artist and writer would smile to see her there, and consider part of their work done, for the exhibition is an inspiration, an invitation, not just to admire their work, but to go outside and pay attention. 

The Words are not lost, they've gone into  hiding and are still there, waiting to be re-discovered. This exhibition invites us to do just that. Like all great ideas, it is simple.  It contains its own solution. It is no mystery. All you have to do is go out and see what’s there in front of you and around you. To look. Not just down at the ground but up at the sky; not just in the countryside but in every park, garden, on every road, alley, avenue, canal, stream, river and urban wild space. It’s all there. We just have to notice and teach our children to notice. Take a photo. Look it up. There’s bound to be an app...

If you can't get to the exhibition, you can buy the book: The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, published by Hamish Hamilton. It is beautiful and would make a handsome Christmas present for anyone. 
Celia Rees


Friday, 17 November 2017


How does one start to hunt for plants? My own love of plants began with Cecily Mary Barker’s picture-and-verse Flower Fairy books, Yet the works are not pure fantasy: Barker’s charming fairies, first appearing in 1923, were based on drawings of real children in her sister’s kindergarten, while the detailed flowers and settings are painted with meticulous, botanically-accurate skill. The Flower Fairies taught me- and no doubt many others – to find and identify common plants, even though some of those flowers are rarer than they used to be.

However, Barker’s pretty fairies - still hovering around today – can surely only charm a very particular young audience. There’s space for bolder books about the history of the plants and stories for older boys and girls who would welcome tales of adventure.

I was very pleased to come across JACK FORTUNE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE HIDDEN VALLEY, a novel for 8-12 year olds, written by fellow History Girl Sue Purkiss.

Inspired by the lives of 18th century plant-hunters, Sue has written a fast-moving historical adventure story.  Jack Fortune, the young hero, is energetic and most interestingly naughty. Bored, and not allowed to attend school, he can’t resist devising tricks that shame his stern widowed Aunt Constance and horrify her genteel guests.

As a character, Jack is immediately likeable - and trouble! When he accidentally damages a priceless object, Constance summons her  brother, Uncle Edmund, insisting that he take responsibility for his young nephew.

Uncle Edmund refuses; not only is the scholarly bachelor unused to children but he is about to depart on his first plant-hunting trip to India. Jack, hearing this exciting news, wants to accompany the expedition so Uncle Edmund reluctantly agrees, while Aunt Constance, unable to face any more disobedience, agrees despite the dangers.

From this point on Jack and his uncle  and the reader – experience a new life full of challenge and interesting people and places. They sail to Calcutta, cross the Great Plain and travel through the jungle before reaching a high mountain kingdom with a hidden valley. All the way, Jack and his uncle face setbacks and dangers: vagabonds, wild animals, “mountain sickness” and, at last, reports of a huge, legendary being who brings death to any intruders in the Hidden Valley. Moreover, Jack soon realises that an unknown traitor is spoiling the expedition’s food supplies and stirring up problems with local villagers.  Who wishes them ill? Is it Sonam, their guide or Thondup, the heir to the throne who accompanies the party, and whom Jack has begun to admire?  

Sue Purkiss’s plot moves along with plenty of pace and action and just enough description to fix the story in its historical time and place without overloading her young reader’s enjoyment. She also touches lightly and skillfully on darker issues such as servants and colonisation, but lets the bold adventure end as happily as it should.

However, I felt the book was about more than the plant-hunting quest: Jack and Uncle Edmund make a wonderfully odd and warm partnership, and the hardships met on the expedition teach them more about the other.

Bookish Uncle Edmund slowly reveals his bravely determined nature and his passion for plant-hunting. Gradually, Jack sees the burning passion that lies behind Uncle Edmund’s search, and his desperate hope that the plant will bring him fame, fortune and the approval of the influential Sir Joseph Banks when - and if -  they ever return to London.

Meanwhile, faced with real demands and responsibilities rather than endless tea-parties and polite manners, Jack becomes the boy-hero he was meant to be and is even able to accept his own inherited artistic gifts and inheritance.

One of the particular reasons I enjoyed JACK FORTUNE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE HIDDEN VALLEY was that, despite the difficulties Jack and his Uncle face, the adventure is a positive and hopeful experience and one that might encourage children to look beyond everyday life and issues in school and out into a much wider world with all its interweaving histories.

Penny Dolan
ps. Years after the Flower Fairies, my gardening interests led to a set of children’s stories based on the history of British gardening, written for re-telling at RHS Harlow Carr gardens.

NB. Alma Books have also created some downloadable activities to support of this title:  as well as an interview with the author Sue Purkiss: