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24/12/04 A Family Christmas, 1916 Part II, Christmas in Prison

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by.

Oscar Wilde (1856-1900)
The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Fogs are, no doubt, not peculiar to London. Even Paris itself can occasionally turn out very respectable work in this way, and the American visitor to England will very probably think, in passing the banks of Newfoundland that he has very little to learn on the subject of fog. But what Mr. Guppy called "a London particular," and what is more usually known to the natives as "a peasouper", will very speedily dispel any little hallucination of this sort. As the east wind brings up the exhalations of the Essex and Kentish marshes, and as the damp-laden winter air prevents the dispersion of the partly consumed carbon from hundreds of thousands of chimneys, the strangest atmospheric compound known to science fills the valley of the Thames.

From Dickens's Dictionary of London, by Charles Dickens Jr, 1879 (at

If meteorologists don't always agree on the exact causes of what was - at least until the advent of global warming - "the world's most famous meteorological phenomenon"*, the combination of natural fog and coal smoke (the term "smog" was coined in 1905) provided not only a fast track to the bronchial ward but a unique medium for artists both literary and visual. The thick, concealing, poisonous vapour was particularly useful to the emergent crime novel: typified in Conan-Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Night was no longer the only time for the devil's party party. Transgression could walk abroad at noon and the criminal classes operate 24/7. For Monet, painting in London at the turn of the century, the"mysterious mantle" of the fog was the city's greatest attribute.Lesser artists might paint-in bricks they couldn't see, Monet would take pains (sometimes a hundred trial-runs) to paint the disappearing and partially-perceived reality at the prolonged, asthmatic, carbon-charged birth of the modern world.

Indeed Oscar Wilde, who addressed the fog in Symphony in Yellow and who was, in 1895, before his transfer to Reading, an inmate of Wandsworth Prison, suggested that the London Fog was actually invented by Impressionist painters.

This was not an argument, presumably, that had much truck with the referee of the Spurs v Portsmouth match at Highbury in the London Combination on Saturday December 16th 1916. The match was - no thanks to Turner, Whistler or Monet - abandoned after 15 minutes. Monday's papers were calling it the worst fog since 1902.

It had been around all-day and grew worse in the afternoon. Omnibuses returned to their garages, paid-for theatre seats were not taken up, and the capital became, according to the Daily Mail, a "vast pit of fog, from which eerie figures now and then emerged and into which others disappeared". A Canadian soldier stationed in London and writing home had described an episode of London fog the previous month. He described the city as "dark and weird as a cave". He had also seen groups of soldiers at the station, their uniforms still muddy from the front and was impressed by the trams, "ie street cars" staffed by women and girls.

All Monday's papers were full of the "Success at Verdun" and "Tommy's advance on the Tigris". Among the half a dozen official war photos, a photograph of stricken trees "in a once beautiful spot" at the Ancre.

But amidst reports of allied successes and adverts for Scott's Emulsion ("no cough can resist it") and Miss Bessie Ascough's New Designs (black velvet and taffetas with smoke-grey fox trimming), and kid's cartoons (Teddy fought with his friend Teddy Top in the War of the Roses), one article in particular captured my attention:

From The Daily Mail, London, Monday 18 December 1916:



On a charge of "unlawfully professing to tell fortunes so as to impose on the public" Almira Brockway, described as a "psychic" of Linden-Gardens, Notting Hill, was remanded at West London on Saturday.

Evidence of arrest was given by Detective-Inspector Sanders, to whom the woman said, "I don't tell fortunes I simply get into connection with the spirits - that is if I can get in touch with them. In some cases I don't succeed, as I cannot pick up the spirits."

On the way to the Police Court she said, "Spiritualism will be the universal religion. What are you going to do with those who come to us? If you prosecute them you will have to prosecute more than half London." In her room the Inspector said he found a crystal-gazing glass. The prisoner: I never used that in my life.

It was stated that the accused was an American who had been here six weeks. The house, where she rented one room, was the residence of a German-Swiss, Otto von Bourg, alias Stassiger, who was expelled from the country in July last.

Spiritualism, with its belief in the possibility of contacting the dead, had a very obvious attraction in 1916 to tens of thousands of the recently bereaved (Conan-Doyle, who lost his son on the Western Front, was a believer). But more than anything, I think I sympathise with Almira, arrested in a long seal-skin coat and a seal-skin hat (against the fog), because it seems to me that crystal-gazing is a metaphor for the biographical process:

I simply get into connection with the spirits - that is if I can get in touch with them. In some cases I don't succeed, as I cannot pick up the spirits

Connection is a difficult old business... but wait... I think... I can see something... the fog is dissolving... I'm leaving the city behind... I'm passing rooftops... chimneys... a palace?... no, a... a candle factory... now I'm passing through fields to a... a common... on a hill... I can see some country villas... we're outside the city... but not... not far... there's a castle. Yes, it's a castle. No, no it's not exactly... a school... no. I can hear clanking... bells... no, keys... I can see a man wrapped in canvass. A sailor? No... maybe a prisoner... and I think the letter W., the letter W. is important: Walter?, William?, and G... Perhaps guard? Or Grandfather?... but I'm getting confused... what's this?

A hole in the ice?

It is dissolving, the trail's going cold... it's gone.

And the cops are at the door.


"That the way that the world goes 'round
You're up one day, the next you're down
It's a half-an-inch of water and you think you're gonna drown
That's the way that the world goes 'round"
John Prine, Christmas in Prison


*Peter Ackroyd London the Biography

16/12/04 A Family Christmas, 1916 Part I

Sidney Colvin.jpg

HAMMOCK n. a bed of canvass or rope network, suspended by cords at the ends, used esp. on board ship. [earlier hamaca f. Sp., of Carib. orig.] OED. Introduced into the Royal Navy c. 1600.

PY Betts, in her memoir, People Who Say Goodbye, (see 26/11/04) recalls in Wandsworth at that time a "large lunatic asylum with its own farm, not far from the common" (pp 24-25). She goes on to recount a story told by her mother who would, as a child, visit asylums with her father (PY's g-father) on business. He was a "Commissioner in Lunacy". On one occasion she recalls chatting to a "pleasant young gentleman to whom she had been introduced. They were on an upper floor with a view of the hall below, and when in due course her father came in sight, talking to an official, my mother's companion walked with her to the head of the stairs, where he bowed and took his leave, explaining regretfully that he was unable to accompany her down the stairs as his legs were made of glass and might break."

Sir Sidney Colvin (1845-1927)'s post bag reads like a veritable Who's Who of English Letters and Fine Arts in late Victorian England. John Ruskin had been a family friend when the young Colvin was growing up in Suffolk and London, and, as an adult, Sidney Colvin counted Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad and (most closely) Robert Louis Stevenson among his friends; as well as the artists Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. When RLS set off for the South Seas, SC accompanied him as far as Tilbury docks. Stevenson's letters to Colvin, a journal of his time in the Pacific, were collected and published as Valima Letters: Being Correspondence Addressed by Robert Louis Stevenson to Sidney Colvin, 1890-1894.

Colvin had been appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge at the young age of 28 and from 1883 to 1912 he was Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. Among his own writings are lives of W. S. Landor (1881) and Keats (1887). I greatly enjoyed reading Colvin's autobiography, Memories and Notes of Persons and Places 1852-1912 (the reason I read it will soon, perhaps, become apparent). I got the impression of a lively intelligence and enthusiasm, and an endearing humility, as well as an occasionally modern sensibility (he was "a convinced if reluctant convert from field sports") peering out from behind a rather stiff and formal Victorian art critic and man of letters.

But...but of the incident that interested me, there was no mention - and - I suppose - I wouldn't expect there to be - except perhaps an oblique one.

On 7th September 1916, whilst my maternal g-father's family were still frantically trying to piece together news of their son, missing in action on the Western Front since 3rd September, and the papers were still full of stories about the "Hero of Cuffley" - William Leefe Robinson VC (see 18/8/4 etc.) - who had shot down the first German Zeppelin above the sleepy Hertfordshire town, at the Central Criminal Court of the Old Bailey, William Watson, a "carpenter", originally from Paddington, London, and now aged 32, five foot six with brown hair, was convicted on two counts of housebreaking, and sentenced to five years penal servitude on each indictment to run concurrently.

CCC Calendar of Prisoners for the session commencing on Tuesday, 5th of September, 1916. The Right Hon. Sir Charles Cheers Wakefield, Kt, Alderman, Lord Mayor [PRO ref: HO 140/330]

Particulars of Offence or Offences as charged in the Indictment.

Watson, Langford and Bennett breaking and entering the dwelling-house of Ernest Carrington Arnold and stealing therein a trunk and other articles, his goods; Fairman receiving the said goods, knowing them to have been stolen, Watson and Davies breaking and entering the dwelling house of Ernest Carrington Arnold, with intent to steal therein, and Watson wounding Charles Humphreys, with intent to do him grievous bodily harm or to disable him or to resist the lawful apprehension of him the said William Watson.

Watson and Langford breaking and entering the dwelling house of Edmund Harrington and stealing therein a cigarette box and other articles, his goods, Fairman receiving the said goods, knowing them to have been stolen; Watson and Langford breaking and entering the dwelling house of Sir Sydney Colvin knight and stealing therein a rose bowl and other articles, his property, Fairman receiving the said property, knowing it to have been stolen.

Langford and Davies breaking and entering the dwelling-house of Jane Fleming Baxter and stealing therein 1 pair of ornaments, her goods, and 1 pair of boots, the property of Marie Walters.

Perhaps a rose bowl here or there was not a big deal to a one-time big wig at the British Museum, or perhaps SC felt a certain affinity with his adversaries. After all, the BM is the repository of dodgily-provenanced goods par excellence: a thieves' den of ancient religious statues robbed at rifle point by British soldiers on punishment raids against uppity natives, stone carvings ripped from classical pediments and spirited away under cover of war, spirit vests, gold mummies, tomb trash bling of every conceivable description from every corner of the empire and beyond; taken without the consent, and often without the knowledge, of any one to whom the objects were: of deep religious and cultural significance, priceless, and completely irreplaceable.

Watson, tried before Judge Atherley-Jones, sometime Liberal MP for NW Durham and son of the Chartist, Ernest Charles Jones (1819-1869).*, admitted stealing Sir Sydney (sic) Colvin knight's rose bowl, amongst other things, and pleaded guilty to offences of housebreaking, larceny and unlawful wounding.

Watson also, as the saying goes, "had form" dating back at least18 years to 1898 when he stole a bicycle in west London. In 1900 he was given a three-month sentence for attempting to steal in Portsmouth, under the pseudonym "George Richards". He seems to have been in and out of prison in roughly equal proportions, mostly for stealing, in London, and in 1912 and 13 for "living on the earnings of prostitution" and "assaulting a female". Of the four people he was indicted with, all had "previous". One, George Bennett, aged 43 and an engineer, was discharged and the other three: George Langford, 34, a painter, William Fairman, 38, a butcher and Arthur Davies, 58, a tailor, were all sentenced to between 9 and 15 months hard labour at Wormwood Scrubs.

The loss of a rose bowl and other items in the autumn of 1916 is hardly a big deal in the grand scheme and the old man has understandably greater sadness on his mind when he reflects, in his autobiography, on the modern world:

"Tragic to the direst uttermost would Ruskin himself assuredly have deemed his failure could he have lived to see the events and tendencies of the last few years: the mutual rage of slaughter and destruction between nations, the devastated fields and defaced cathedrals of his beloved France; the cleavage, estrangement, and suspicion subsisting unabated between rich and poor; and in the sphere of art, to name one symptom only, the fury of civic vulgarization in which our would-be grandest thoroughfares has sacrificed all sense and style and fitness to the demon of advertisement, giving to the most massive of architectural piles unmitigatedly absurd and garish, unstructural ground-floor frontages all of glass, the most fragile of things."

Whilst "the fury of civic vulgarisation" points a long finger towards the Prince Charles school for the architecturally-challenged, I do wonder if SC's personal experience as a victim of crime fed - at least a little bit - into his view of: "the cleavage, estrangement, and suspicion
subsisting unabated between rich and poor".

For SC, not unlike the "pleasant young gentleman" recalled by PY Betts, glass has become a fearful material. When he was a child, the Crystal Palace of glass and cast iron was a symbol not just of the scientific Victorians' triumph over nature but of Britain's superiority over the whole world. Only seven years later that triumphalism was dented - the glass dimmed - by rebellion and fear. SC's uncle, John Russell Colvin, Lieutenant Governor of the North West Provinces, died of stress on September 9th 1857 as a result - it was said - of the Indian Mutiny. SC's aunt - so the family history records - never got over her desperate escape on horseback. But if the glass was cracked, it was not broken and Sir George Trevelyan could still talk up the fighting spirit of Colvin's cousin, James, and those like him:

"There is much in common between Leonidas
dressing his hair before he went forth to his last
fight and young Colvin laughing over his rice
and salt while the bullets spattered on the wall like hail."

But after the unprecedented misery of the First World War the symbol of progress and light has become fearful, unstructural, fragile. Millions of young men had found that their legs - if not glass - were just as easily shattered.

The first week of September, 1916 was shattering for my g-father's family as - hoping against hope to the contrary - realisation dawned that a new even more terrible telegram was inevitable.


Meanwhile, William Watson, who appears in the Nominal Register of Admissions in between a soldier given six months hard labour for bigamy and a shoemaker given 25 days or £2 for assaulting a PC, began a five-year sentence at Wandsworth Prison.

*Ernest Charles Jones was jailed for two years for sedition in 1848. A rather fanciful (if cautious) entry in the 1911 Encyclopaedia suggests that while in prison he may have written - "in his own blood on leaves torn from a prayer book" - an epic poem, Ike Revolt of Hindostan.

2/12/04 LONG SHADOW over the Essex Marshes

"Exilé sur le sol"

On Tuesday I cast a long shadow over the Essex marshes. But not by dint of doing anything more complicated than standing at an angle to the flat earth in the low winter sunshine. I had persuaded myself I was working; and mist and milky cloud lifted by mid-morning to reveal a dreamy blue winter sky marked only occasionally with a splodge of uncertain origin (you can see the chimneys of at least three power stations from this part of the river - as well as the oil refinery at Shell Haven).

From Tilbury station to Tilbury Dock - for some reason there was no shuttle bus - I walked past faded, vaguely Eastern European, health spa signs, a traditional barber's with a window display seemingly untouched for decades, a mountain of fridges destined for Africa, a notice on a gate offering computers for £30 a pop (Pentium II) or £60 (Pentium III) and hundreds upon hundreds of new white vans, under miles of netting - like a crop of early summer fruits.

I walked past more building work. The docks are apparently thriving, but money seems to have bypassed Tilbury Town; perhaps it is pumped underground, direct to the City for distribution in Surrey and more affluent parts of the Home Counties.

Finally I walked past The End of the World - a nice looking white weatherboard pub next to Tilbury Fort -well-known to car salesmen, twitchers, re-enactors, second-hand book dealers, dockers, visionaries and albatross catchers of every stamp. Though I should point out that my impression was formed from the outside. It was after all, only 11 o'clock, and I never touch a drop until the sun has gone past the yardarm...well, rarely.

Momentarily, thinking of work, I felt oppressed by the full tidal weight of history pressing in around me. But I ignored it, or rather, pushed it to my peripheral vision, along with the chimneys and landfill.

I pass a couple of fishermen on the river wall and almost immediately cross under the lee of the power station where a pipe is hissing steam and I can hear Tom Waits singing "Like the whole goddamn town's ready to blow"... (9th & Hennepin/Raindogs) This isn't actually an impossibility - apparently.

In the liminal marsh at the river's edge the red samphire has disappeared. Perhaps it was - after all - just a phase; like the socialist docks upriver. But there are various strange plants with tonguelike leaves and samphiresque succulents. Adapting and surviving, finding a home in the cracks of a sinking pillbox or the nutritious spoil of the power station.


At least here it is impossible not to know that you are walking on history. In the slipstream of each passing boat, the newly turned potsherds sing their story to anyone who will stop to listen. Again I hear the old ghosts. A docker bent underneath a case of Spanish oranges, stiff cufflinked arms spooning marmalade whilst sad eyes scan casualty lists in The Times or Daily Mail.

I stop for lunch at Harry's shrine - a premium Memorial bench dressed with cuddly toys, plastic flowers and a fairy wind chime. I wonder, perhaps uncharitably, why it hasn't been vandalised. Perhaps the Christians who nailed the hapless Vikings to the door of Benfleet church didn't, after all, win the battle for hearts and minds. Pagan shrines are not kicked over here; on the windswept desolate marshes where other, older, worldviews linger among the stagnant pools and snaky creeks.

I stopped at Bata Town to kill time on the way home (I had just missed a train) and bought a copy of the Thurrock Gazette. Inside was an interesting modern take on an old story. Thieves had hacked into a computer and stolen the release code for a consignment of microwave ovens. Armed with the code, they presented themselves at the dockside and simply drove off with the container.

The river has always provided a living. Sometimes legal, sometimes not. And everything that lives in its saline margins - the samphire and the water pipit, the fisherman and the albatross catcher; even, perhaps especially, the mudlark; must adapt to survive. Adapt and survive.


Words & Music

North/South/Orphaned Lyrics 2003

tilbury photos

2/12/04 LONG SHADOW over the Essex Marshes

16/12/04 A Family Christmas, 1916 Part I

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