Mother’s Hero: Arthur Rainsford Mowlem

When I published my article on ‘The Man Who Never Was’, the story of Operation Mincemeat, a year ago, I hadn’t realised that a film was to be released in May 2022.  Perhaps, if I had I would have delayed the publication by a few months!  In it, I described the rather tenuous connection with my father’s cousin, HAL Fisher.  The interest and comments I received made me explore deception used as a weapon during World War II.  It was this that led me to learn about the use of plastic surgery to change people’s appearance for the purpose of espionage. 

Arthur Rainsford Mowlem 1902-1986

Although surgery to alter appearance has been carried out to a limited extent throughout history it was during the Second World War that it began to be developed in earnest.   A popular reason given for this was the desire to treat badly injured pilots who had survived their aircraft being shot down.  However, there was a far more secret purpose being carried out too – to assist the SOE (the UK’s Special Operations Executive) in their missions behind enemy lines.  In released official documents, the procedures – known euphemistically as ‘permanent make-up’ – are listed as casually as one might write a shopping list: ‘plastic operations to forehead’, ‘surgical operations to ears’, and so on.  Once war was over some of the recipients began to talk about their treatment which, although disapproved of by the Government, were not silenced.

“An excellent agent and a dependable officer” – before and after surgery

Arthur Rainsford Mowlem, born in New Zealand in 1902, came to England in the late ‘20s to further his development as a medic.  In 1936 he joined the practice of Sir Harold Gillies, also a New Zealander and described as ‘the father of modern plastic surgery’.  Here they worked alongside pioneering new methods of treatment.  It is unknown when or how Mowlem and other surgeons were enlisted to help the SOE and Mowlem never spoke of it during his lifetime.  However, in correspondence between him and the SOE he discusses the prospect of surgery to alter the appearance of a French agent.  How Mowlem felt about operating on these healthy men is unknown but an un-named surgeon tells of how the work now required of them “was a mockery of all that they had trained for”.

My mother, Rachel Oberzanek: 21st birthday portrait

My mother’s career with Odeon Cinemas had progressed rapidly throughout the war and by 1944 she was heading the Licencing Department with a team of assistants.  Odeon had, by then, evacuated their offices from London to the small, riverside town of Marlow in Buckinghamshire.  She was accommodated in a lovely and old country house in the nearby village of Well End.  Living at the Old Malt House must have seemed a different world from the London’s West End where she had been brought up and she would tell of how she would lean out of her bedroom window to pick fruit from the grapevine that grew on the house walls.  With extensive grounds, a cook and a housekeeper and the use of a chauffeured car it must have been a life of relative luxury that she would have been unused to.  It was here that she also met her future husband – my father – so a very happy and untroubled time for her.  All that changed in an instance when, on the first day of December 1945 during the black-out, her car was involved in a head-on accident. 

The Old Malt House, Well End – grapevines cover the front of the building – c1943

In those days of cars with no seat belts, my mother had taken the full force of the crash and had been catapulted through the windscreen.  Unconscious, she was taken by ambulance to Wycombe Hospital and with multiple facial and head injuries unexpected to survive the night. Fortunately, Odeon proved to be excellent and supportive employers, driving her parents down from London and accommodating them so that they were able to visit her regularly.  On Christmas Day she came out of the coma unaware of what had happened over the past month.  She would tell of how she had first heard singing and, opening her eyes, saw a blurred vision of people dressed in white that she though must be angels.  They were, of course, her nurses singing a carol!  Badly scarred and with broken nose and cheekbones she was finally released from hospital unable to work and embarrassed about being seen in public.  In her memoir, she described the first day she had to enter a crowded room and how it fell silent when she appeared, a humiliating and distressing moment. 

My mother, in the grounds of The Old Malt House, and looking so happy, just before the accident that changed her life – and her appearance

Six months after her accident, Odeon who had been caring for her as well as paying her salary all this time arranged for her to be taken to London to see a doctor at The London Clinic in Harley Street.  The doctor was surgeon Arthur Rainsford Mowlem; in mother’s words, “a charming man who promised me he would do all he could.”   There followed a series of operations over many weeks where he reconstructed the badly damaged side of her face, repaired the cheekbones, and rebuilt her badly broken nose using part of her hipbone.   Looking at her wedding photograph, taken such a short time after in the autumn of 1946, his skilful work is quite extraordinary although my mother kept the picture hidden away; all she could see was a face that didn’t quite belong to her.  Nowadays, I imagine, she would have received some sort of counselling but then it was just a case of ‘getting on with it’.

My parents on their wedding day – just weeks after her face had been reconstructed

Living well into her 90s, mother’s issues with discomfort in her neck and head waned over time only to be replaced by a later source of (bemused) irritation.  When visiting hospitals there would be a succession of doctors and nurses wanting to look at her facial surgery for none had seen such early reconstruction and to see how it had fared over seventy years.  She had been told that she was the first civilian to receive plastic surgery and for the remainder of her long life she was eternally grateful to Odeon Cinemas who had cared for her and paid for her treatment.  Most of all, she was grateful to Rainsford Mowlem, without whom she would have had a lifetime of disfigurement; to her he was, indeed a hero.

Mum on her 90th birthday – and seventy years after the facial reconstruction

To read the story of Operation Mincemeat and The Man Who Never Was click here

References:
Wikipedia   Arthur Rainsford Mowlem

Amin, Kavit   Rainsford Mowlem: An unsung father of reconstructive surgery

Bailey, Roderick.   Special Operations: a hidden chapter in the histories of facial surgery and human enhancement    (CC BY 4.0) 

EDIT: Today, 21st June, I was delighted to receive this lovely email in response to this blog post from The London Clinic where my mother received her revolutionary treatment 70 years ago. They are happy for me to share it with you – you may need to click on the image of the email to make the typeface clearer

A Walk With Dinosaurs and Romans

One of the perks of getting older is retirement or, in my case, semi-retirement.  Suddenly, I no longer need to keep checking my watch to see if I have enough time to do things without racing onto something or somewhere else.  It has given me time to re-visit some of the pleasures that I enjoyed in the past. One of these is walking.  When I was much younger I used to walk the long-distance footpaths and trails that were then just beginning to be created.  Now there are literally dozens of them to be enjoyed varying in length from a few dozen miles to several hundred.  I’m not up to the lengthy walks of my youth yet – the longest took a fortnight to complete.  At present, I’m content to be out for a few hours and, hopefully, the mileage will increase over time. 

England is criss-crossed by public footpaths and longer trails

The other day my partner and I decided to visit the Roman villa at North Leigh not far from the small, Cotswold town of Woodstock.  Unlike the Roman villa where you rarely see anyone, Woodstock is visited by thousands of international visitors every year, for it is where Blenheim Palace, a World Heritage Site, is located.  The two houses, six miles apart in distance but fifteen hundred years apart in their building, are very different.  Whereas the Palace is full of priceless treasures, all that is left of the villa are the foundations and a single mosaic floor.  At its peak in 300AD, the villa was one of the largest in Britain with suites of rooms, many mosaics and several baths.  Now it is quiet, wildflowers scramble over the walls and it is set in glorious countryside close to the River Evenlode.  With parking close-by, this was the starting point for the walk.

The Roman Villa, once busy – now a haven of peace and quiet
Wildflowers scramble over the ruins of the Roman villa

The path to the villa and those leading away from it are well maintained and marked, making the trail easy to follow.  Most of the route we took was on the network of public footpaths that criss-cross England, most of them dating from the time when all travel was either on foot or horse.  At one point, the paths joined the Oxfordshire Way, a path of 66 miles in length.  This in turn links to other long-distance paths so how long you walk for is entirely up to you!  After ten minutes or so, the Evenlode was reached and crossed.  Originally known as the Blade, its present name is relatively modern, first being recorded in use in the 1880s.  It meanders through the Cotswolds for nearly fifty miles before entering the River Thames. Crossing the river, the path turns to the west and the country changes in character with steep grassy banks rich in wildflowers rising high to our right, the river to our left.  Here we’re walking along Akeman Street, an ancient Roman road, once busy but now a quiet, grassy track.

The paths cross meadows until the river is reached

“The tender Evenlode that makes her meadows hush to hear the sound of water…”

Before long, the character of the path changes once more.  The Evenlode changes in character too for there is a wide ford – perfect for wild swimming.  Various paths meet here but we walked the steep path towards the village of Stonesfield, known locally for its history of making the stone rooftiles that are a feature of old Cotswold properties.  In pre-history, the Cotswold Hills were submerged by a warm sea and now fossils can be found quite easily; they can even be seen occasionally in the stones that have been used to build the houses.  It was in the Stonesfield loose and flaky rock that the very first dinosaur fossil to be found anywhere in the world was discovered.  Close to where it was found, a steel bench inscribed with the words of the French poet Hilaire Belloc has recently been placed – welcome indeed, after clambering up the steep path that leads from the ford to the village.

The view of the river from the ford
The rocks around the village of Stonesfield yielded the world’s first dinosaur fossil
The steel bench engraved with the words of Hilaire Belloc

After a short walk along the edge of the village, our path left the Oxfordshire Way to descend steeply through meadows before reaching a strip of woodland, Stockey Plantation.  Although there are firs planted there, there are also many native beech trees which are, arguably, at there most glorious at this time of year.  The newly unfurled leaves are of the most intense green which, along with the deep blue of bluebells and the yellows of other spring flowers are almost too bright for the eyes to bear.

The descent to the woods becomes more gentle as it crosses the meadow
The path through the beechwood
The intense colours of the beech leaves and bluebells almost hurt the eyes

Leaving the woodland we reach the Evenlode ford once more but this time cross it – there is a footbridge, so no need to get wet – before striking off across the fields again to return by an alternative route to the Roman villa and the car beyond.  The walk probably took no more than a couple of hours and is relatively easy.  The weather, this April has been very dry.  At other times, the paths can be muddy and so sensible, walking shoes or boots are recommended.  The route we chose does have some steep hills to climb but these can be avoided for there are many paths that keep to the level ground.  An Ordnance Survey map of the area is handy to work out routes – I used the app on my phone but paper maps covering all parts of the UK are readily available. 

The sun seemed to shine brighter in the water than overhead
In the damper woodlands Ramsons, the wild garlic, carpeted the floor

To see more photos of the Roman villa and read of its history take a look at one of my earlier posts by clicking on the link here.

To read the full text of Hilaire Beloc’s poem of the Evenlode river click here

Not So Mad After All

“ As mad as a March hare” so the old saying goes and at this time of year they certainly seem to be a little bonkers with their racing around, boxing and generally erratic behaviour.  However, it isn’t spring madness but sex that is on their minds – rather than being ‘a little bonkers’ it is their desire for a little bonking that drives them to the verge of insanity.

Here in the secret valley, as elsewhere, the hare population in some years is greater than others.  It looks as if 2022 is going to be a good year for them for there were eight in the field by our house a couple of days ago.  This gave great opportunities to watch them from relative comfort as they hurled themselves at one another and galloped around the field at great speed.  Of course, as soon as I reached for the camera they disappeared almost as if they thought that filming hare porn was rather distasteful and embarrassing.  After a while I realised there was one keeping well-hidden watching me. 

The hare forgot to hide its ears…

This ability to disappear has over the years given rise to many superstitions and old wives’ tales.  They were thought to have mystical properties too and I did on one occasion experience this myself.  I was visiting the ancient, subterranean earthwork, New Grange in Ireland.  If ever you were going to have a mystical experience it would be here for you enter the tomb by a long, low and very narrow passageway before entering a large stone chamber.  With almost no natural light it takes a while for your eyes to grow accustomed to the semi-darkness.  The friend that I was with said that she thought she’d fleetingly seen two hares which, of course, was impossible for we were blocking the only exit.  Back outside, we came to the spot where the two hares should be and there, at our feet they rested, two baby leverets, completely unafraid of our presence.

The entrance to the prehistoric burial chamber at New Grange
The two baby hares were nestling in the grass…

The hare has been revered and feared in equal measure throughout the world.  It was considered an ill-omen to meet one upon the road; there are myths concerning the cycles of the moon and the hare both connected to lunacy.  It has been much connected with ancient art and can be found in prehistoric rock paintings; in England in the Cotswold town of Cirencester (originally a Roman town known as Corinium) we have the magnificent Roman Hare mosaic now on display in the local museum (link here).  Discovered fifty years ago, it dates from 400AD and shows the animal feeding.

Hares are considered to be very nervous and flighty animals that also have the capacity to do huge amounts of damage if they should enter gardens or orchards.  Some years ago, one took up residence in a garden I cared for and I found, at least in this instance, that this was quite untrue.  Admittedly, if anyone entered the garden it would quickly hide but It accepted me as part of the garden and would hop around my feet quite happily.  It must have been feeding within the garden but I never found this to be a problem.  It is always a huge privilege when a wild creature trusts you and to be able to observe one at such close quarters especially so.  I always hoped it would raise a family there but I was more than satisfied with having just the one.

‘My’ hare would rest beneath a flowering jasmine but come out to join me in the garden
The hare would hop around my feet…

My’ recent hares finally couldn’t resist returning to their antics. Outrunning one another with their great speed and ultra-quick turns they, at last, didn’t notice me reaching for the camera. Although tricky to capture on film I finally succeeded.  As I did so, I thought of the thirteenth-century poem that I was supposed to recite to avoid bad luck.  The Names of the Hare, written in Middle English, lists seventy-eight names – With no memory for lengthy poems, I had to rely upon my previous friendship with the hare and the hope that would hold me in a special, protected place.  It seems to have done so but just as the myths claim, today when I went to bid them ‘good-day’, not a hare was in sight.

Success!
Time to go!

.

2021: A Year in Review – part 2

Three weeks into the new year and Christmas and 2021 already seems the distant past. A new year brings new hopes and plans, not least of all a Covid-free one where holidays and meeting up with friends and family can be carried out without the fear of cancellation. The past couple of years have been challenging and difficult for many people and blogging topics sometimes reflected this as well as the importance of family. Few people can be as tough and courageous as one of my ancestral cousins nor as unfortunate for another to be remembered because of his underwear. There were trials and tribulations for the people of Chipping Norton too, the nearest town to my secret valley and, elsewhere in the Cotswolds, the building of a great country estate to provide training in endangered skills for local people. These stories are a reminder that however large the challenge or the struggle, the end result is more often, very worthwhile.

1876: HMS Alert – with my cousin aboard – icebound as well as homeward bound

In July I wrote about the extraordinary story of Welsh vagrant Glyndwr Michael who famously became known as ‘The Man Who Never Was’. His body was used in an elaborate hoax to fool the Germans during WW2. The ruse worked, saving many lives, partly thanks to the use of my cousin’s underwear. Sounds intriguing? Well, if you want to discover why and also how my Polish grandmother fits into the plot you will need to click on the link here to read all about it.

False papers of Major William Martin, RM [Source: Wikipedia]

August and September was also a tale of an ancestral cousin who in the May of 1875 set sail for the Arctic. As bizarre as it seems now, the expedition was searching for a ‘lost Eden’. for there was a popular belief that beyond the ice, at the North Pole, they would find a sub-tropical paradise. The expedition created worldwide interest and excitement and was widely reported in the newspapers. When the Royal Family began to take an interest, huge crowds descended on Portsmouth eager to see not just the Queen but ordinary members of the crew. My cousin, John Langston Saggers, a young man aged just 23, could have experienced nothing like it before as they were wined and dined and with no expense spared. To read about the preparation for the voyage and to discover the personal gift from a Royalty concerned that the men may suffer from cold ears click on the link here.

The dinner for the Officers given by the Mayor of Portsmouth the week before departure [Source: BNA]
Sitting out the Arctic winter

When the ships became icebound, they had to sit out the Arctic winter in total darkness. That, however, did not stop the men from making the most of what they had. Aboard ship they had a full-size theatre where they produced plays and outside on the ice, despite the freezing temperatures and inadequate clothing they created a skating rink and played hockey. Their heroism – and despite (unsurprisingly) not finding a warm paradise – the men returned home to a hero’s welcome. However, the star of the expedition wasn’t human at all. To find out about Nellie and how she very nearly became a coat for an Eskimo chief’s wife click on the link here.

Mid-day, Thursday, 9th November 1876: HMS Alert & HMS Discovery enter Portsmouth Harbour
Nellie, who almost became a coat

Next month will be the 150th anniversary of the Great Fire at Chipping Norton, one of the gateway towns of the Cotswolds. Although not as popular with tourists as some of the ‘chocolate box’ villages and towns in the region, it boasts one of the Cotswolds most iconic images – that of Bliss Tweed Mill. The mill, that has become so well-known now, rose like a phoenix out of the ashes of the earlier mill which was razed to the ground early one February morning. The story of the fire and how the mill was rebuilt to exacting standards in less than two years is told in October’s blog post. Built to resemble a great house with the most modern technology of the day, it was the pride of the town. The jubilation wasn’t to last and a strike was called which took eighteen months to break. You can read all about the mill and see through numerous photographs how it has been transformed into luxurious apartments; a haven of peace and tranquillity within the town centre by clicking on the link here.

For November, we remained in the Cotswolds to explore the creation of another outstanding property and its gardens. In 1906, Claud Biddulph commissioned the building of a house with “the feel of a cottage in the country”. In so doing, he created one of the finest Arts & Crafts house in Britain, albeit one with seventy-four rooms, so hardly a cottage! Every item used in its creation and furnishing had to be of the best quality and hand-made; one of the reasons why the house took so many years to complete and why it is so exceptional today. Part of the house was dedicated to teaching local people the dying skills required and, more than an hundred years later, craft workshops and exhibitions are still held there. Open regularly to the public so why not take a tour of the house and garden? If you can’t visit physically, you can do so digitally by clicking on this link here.

Rodmarton Manor seen from one of the ‘garden rooms’

And so we come to December, the year end and the start of this review – you can read what happened during the months of January to June by clicking the link here. I hope that your 2021 hasn’t been too troublesome – now the year is past we can look forward to this one with renewed hopes and aspirations. No doubt there will be challenges ahead but as we know from our own experiences, as well as hearing of those of our ancestors, life continues apace regardless. Sending all my readers, wherever you are in the world (and, my goodness, you’re a scattered bunch!) best wishes for 2022 and with the hope that it will be a happy and healthy one.

2021: A Year in Review – part 1

With restrictions on movement and socialising for much of the year, 2021 was definitely the year to remember times past, be it visits to favourite haunts or thinking about friends and family. As it was in the real world so it was in the blogging world.

In January my memories took me across the sea to Ireland and a visit to Clonegal, in Co. Carlow. Ireland is a beautiful country with an ancient history. The visit to Huntington Castle, very much still a family home, was very worthwhile as the building itself was interesting, and the gardens, perhaps because they weren’t ornate, relaxing to walk around. A visit to the cellars is a must for it is now a Temple dedicated to Isis. The Fellowship of Isis, started by members of the family, was recognised as a world faith in 1993. I found the ornate decoration rather too theatrical for my taste, reminding me of a scene from an Agatha Christie novel. Take a look at the post by clicking on the link here and tell me what you think.

Huntington Castle in the south of |reland

By February the earliest signs of the forthcoming spring are beginning to show. In the garden snowdrops and aconites are in full flower; in favoured spots early daffodils are starting to bloom. In the hedgerows hazel catkins hang in clusters shedding clouds of their golden pollen in the slightest breeze. Hazel, a native shrub, is also a useful one to grow in the garden. It’s pliable stems can be used in a myriad of ways – cut as pea-sticks, or growing into intriguing living tunnels. February’s blog post concentrated on these uses and looked at the ancient art of coppicing – a method of extending the life of the plant and providing plentiful cover for wild birds, animals and flowers. Described as an art, it is however, a very simple technique. Click on the link here to find out more.

Catkins or Lamb’s Tails – harbingers of Spring

International Women’s Day occurs in March and I focused on the life of Lettice Fisher, the founder of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother & Child in 1918. Later, the charity changed its name to Gingerbread. A suffragette and economist, Lettice was also a cousin of my father and so family history came to the fore in this post (link here). Later in the year, the focus turned to her husband, H A L Fisher and his story but for March Lettice was the rightful star of the show.

Lettice Fisher, an ancestral cousin

In April, I was able to visit friends for a long weekend, a real treat after all the restrictions. I took the opportunity to go for a long walk in beautiful countryside. Rutland is England’s smallest county and was also the home of the poverty-stricken ‘peasant poet’ John Clare born in 1793. The walk took me past the old lime kiln where he worked and the village where he was raised – his poem The Ruins of Pickworth can be read in the blog post (link here) and there are lots of photos of the ruins as well as views along the paths and byways I walked. Several hours later, when I returned to my friend’s home, I was especially thrilled to have seen a group of wild fallow deer which included amongst them, a rare white hart,

The ruins at Pickworth were familiar to John Clare, the Peasant Poet

By May, spring is well and truly established and plants in the garden are flourishing. Everything is growing so fast that it can become overwhelming and with so many tasks to carry out, early supporting with canes and twigs can easily be forgotten until it is too late. Although this can’t be done to every tall plant in the garden, the Chelsea Chop is a drastic but very successful method of treating herbaceous plants so that they don’t need staking at all. The biggest hurdle to overcome with this technique is finding the courage to actually do it! By clicking on the link here you will find a step-by-step guide. Even if you don’t do it to many plants, I would highly recommend that you do it to the Ice Plant, Sedum spectabile which always collapses just as it comes into flower – once you have, you’ll wonder why you’ve never done it before.

Sedum, the Ice Plant – the perfect candidate for the Chelsea Chop

For June, it was back out into the countryside to check the state of a venerable old ash tree. Ash Dieback is a serious, recently imported disease that threatens to eradicate one of the most important trees in the British landscape. Younger trees in our parts of the Cotswolds are already showing signs of it, some much more severely than others. The farm where we keep our horses has one ancient tree that has stood sentinel over the adjoining fields for centuries (lots of pictures on the link here). It’s trunk is hollow and owls and bats roost within it; it must have seen generations of them leave its shelter at night. Likewise, it must have sheltered in the day many a farm labourer seeking shade during hot, summer harvests. It will be a sad day when it dies and we just have to hope that it may show some resistance to this new disease. I, all too well, remember as a child when a similar fate overtook elm trees and changed the English landscape forever. Let’s pray that it doesn’t come to that.

We ride past an ancient ash tree most days

If it sounds as if this review is ending on a sad note, don’t despair – July to December will be following shortly and there’s plenty of posts on an upbeat note there. My family’s fascinating exploits feature in some of them. Covid restrictions have given me plenty of time to root out the old stories of them – to be honest, I never knew what an interesting and, sometimes, brave bunch they are!!

The Arts & Crafts Splendour of Rodmarton Manor

In 1906 Claud, the youngest son of politician Sir Michael Biddulph, commissioned a house to be built on land gifted by his father.  The commission was given to Ernest Barnsley who specialised in design and building in the Arts & Crafts style.   In the spirit of the movement, all materials had to be sourced locally and hand-crafted with no machinery used.  Claud stated that the house should have the feel of “a cottage in the country”, somewhat of an understatement by the time the building was completed in 1929.

Rodmarton Manor seen from one of the ‘garden rooms’

The house, which has a total of seventy-four rooms, was built as three angled sections with a sweeping driveway and circular lawn to the front courtyard.  The family lived in one wing, servants in another (now converted into flats) and the central section was to be used as a community space where local villagers could meet and learn skills and craftsmanship.  In this way, the Biddulphs were instrumental in maintaining age-old traditions that were in danger of dying out. 

Rodmarton Manor

The mansion, still family owned and open to the public, retains much of its original furniture and furnishings.  Listed as a Grade 1 building by Historic England it has been described as “the single best example of the Arts & Crafts movement”.  On the day of my visit the house was closed but I was able to explore the gardens which are also listed and have been created in the same style.

Old stone urns and troughs frame the entrance

Close to the house, the gardens consist of a series of room-like areas enclosed by stone walls and hedges.  Lichen encrusted pots, urns and troughs, along with precisely clipped topiary give a timeless feel to the garden and also ensures that there is plenty of interest during the winter months. The aptly named Long Garden comes as a surprise after visiting other areas, for although very much of the style, it is relatively narrow in width.  A flagstone path emphasises its 75-metre length and leads to a delightful pavilion, a small pool and a seating area.  Divided by clipped yew hedges and bordered by densely planted herbaceous borders it was, for me, the highlight of the garden. 

The Long Garden at Rodmarton Manor in June
The Pavilion at the far end of the Long Garden

It was disappointing not being able to see the craftsmanship of the interior of the house.  However, the exterior of the building revealed many surprises.  What I liked most of all was the exquisite detail of the rainwater downpipes proving once and for all that even when something is utilitarian it can still also be beautiful.

Even the practical is made to look beautiful exquisite detail of the rainwater downpipes
Every downpipe detail differs

Rodmarton Hall is situated midway between the Cotswold towns of Cirencester and Tetbury and is open to the public throughout the summer months on selected days.  There are additional garden open days in February to view the snowdrops of which there are over 150 varieties.  To find out more click on the link here

Chipping Norton Bliss

Chipping Norton, my local town, is something of an anomaly in the Cotswolds.  It’s very much a working town whereas many of the Cotswold centres of commerce rely heavily upon tourism for their trade.  Politically, it is a Labour enclave surrounded by the most conservative and Conservative Tory constituencies.  Environmentally it differs too – Its common land – wide, green, open public spaces held for posterity – reach deep into the town centre: it is not unusual to see cattle grazing within a few hundred yards of the main shopping streets.  The Common also frames Chipping Norton’s most iconic and photographed view, the Bliss Tweed Mill.  Seen in its peaceful setting today it is difficult to remember that its history has been quite turbulent.

Bliss Tweed Mill today viewed from across the Common

In the early hours of Wednesday 7th February 1872 fire was discovered on the fourth floor of the mill.  By the time the blaze was brought under control the whole building had been destroyed along with the livelihoods of the workforce.  The calamity for the town was so great that it was reported in the national press, the Manchester Evening News claiming that the flames were so fierce that “the fire was visible in the [city of] Oxford, a distance of twenty miles from the scene of the catastrophe.”  By Friday the press reported that three lives had been lost and three hundred made unemployed.  The Bicester Herald gave even more detail: “the fire was discovered by a farm servant around five o’clock in the morning…while a number of men were endeavouring to rescue some books and papers a wall fell, and three of them were killed and several others severely injured.”  The article describes how the relatively new, six storey building collapsed and the losses estimated to be £70-100,000, a vast sum in those days. It also reported with restrained understatement that the fire “created the greatest excitement.” 

The inquest into the deaths of the three men took place in the town at the Fox and Hounds Inn two days later, on Friday 9th.  They were named as Thomas Cook, aged 35 and married, Thomas Peachey, aged 25 and married, and Richard Boscott, a twenty-year-old single man.  Although the cause of their death was known the jurors had to ascertain whether they had been instructed to enter the building.  It confirmed that they and others had entered an office situated away from the fire to rescue papers when the mill wall collapsed onto the roof of the office and crushing the men who were unaware of the danger.  Several witnesses told of their own miraculous escape from the collapse, the noise of which was heard five miles away.  One, James Compton, told how his hat was knocked off his head by flying debris but he remained unhurt.  It was found that there had been no instruction to enter and as no one person could be held culpable for the fire, the verdict was “accidental death.”   The newspapers continued to report daily noting that the first Wednesday market day after the fire, the town was far busier than normal due to the large numbers of visitors, reaching several thousand, walking to the mill to view its smouldering ruins.

Three men were killed when the mill wall collapsed

Fifteen months later in July 1873, William Bliss, the owner of the tweed mill was able to address his workers and thank them for all their hard work and co-operation over what had been a very challenging time for everyone.  The new mill, the present building, was built although wouldn’t be in full production for several more weeks.  However, he was able to announce cessation of night work; permission for twenty-four-hour cloth production had been sought and granted by the Factory Inspectorate.  He was able to claim that “we may boast of having one of the handsomest and most complete mills in the Kingdom” and, indeed, it was.  Out of the ashes had grown a mill building more akin to a country house in appearance.

No wonder they were proud! Looking more like a stately home than a working tweed mill

Designed by the architect George Woodhouse, the main building – the spinning house – was five stories high and faced with local limestone.  With its roof surrounded by stone balustrades and the corners of the building topped with stone urns it looked every part the grand residence.  Of special pride was the tall chimney built above the circular steam powerhouse.  Now a local landmark, it rises as a Tuscan column out of a domed cupola to a height of 165feet (50m).  Now a listed (protected) building by HistoricEngland (who aren’t known for their hyperbole), they describe it both as “an exceptional design” and “a remarkable opulent design in a park-like setting.”

No detail was too costly to add to the building
Soaring to a height of 165feet the chimney has become a local landmark

The buildings interior was, and still is, equally impressive with its high ceilings and architectural features.  Cast iron columns support the vaulted brick ceilings, held with remarkable grace.  Even the spiral staircases built into the corners of the building have a balance of style and functionality that is beautiful in its simplicity.

Despite its grandeur and the enthusiasm of the workforce for their new building more trouble arose over the years. By 1889 complaints were being made about the pollution of the millpond both by the growing towns sewage being discharged into the river and the effluent from the mills dye tanks.  It was claimed that when the millpond had been emptied the stench was overpowering.  Ten years later water issues arose again; this time there being a shortage of water supplying the town’s growing population.  As a result, piped water was only available for three hours a day and the mill only able to work two days out of six. 

130 years ago complaints were made about the pollution of the millpond. Now it’s crystal-clear.

The most disruptive problem for the mill arose when just before Christmas 1913 part of the workforce came out on strike.  A local branch of the Workers’ Union had been formed a few weeks earlier and when several men joined, they were promptly fired.  The strikers marched through the town where they were addressed by their leader.  He advised them on how to conduct themselves: no fighting or bad language, no alcohol, just light-hearted singing and a little banter was all that was needed.  As with all strikes, the good humour didn’t last long and there were prosecutions for intimidation of non-striking workers.  During the spring of 1914, concerts were being given in the Town Hall and donations requested in aid of the Strike Hardship Fund.  Eighteen months after the strike had begun, it ended, broken by the steadfastness of the mill’s management.  The 160 now impoverished workers who had remained on strike became officially unemployed and had to seek work elsewhere.

The newspapers followed every detail of the strike

With the advent of World War One later that year, the nation had new concerns.  The war, as it happens, also helped the mill recover from the effects of the strike as large orders from the army for khaki cloth were received.  Finally, in 1980, the mill closed permanently and a few years later converted into luxury apartments.  Although the looms have now been silent for over forty years, Bliss Tweed is remembered as being at the forefront of British woven cloths.

The weaving sheds
Bliss Tweed Mill samples [Source: Pinterest – Oxfordshire in 50 Objects]

References

British Newspaper Archive: Manchester Evening News, Bicester Herald, Gloucestershire Chronicle, Oxford Weekly News, Oxford Times

Wikipedia

Pinterest: Oxfordshire in 50 Objects

Voyage of Discovery – part 2

The Ex-Empress Eugenie (Bonaparte) was so concerned about the men keeping their heads warm that she had made for the sailors of the British Arctic Expedition of 1875 “special woollen wigs” to wear.  Nellie, the ship’s Labrador Retriever, would have preferred the same concern for her welfare.  It was only when Captain Nares, the leader of the Expedition, enquired further that he realised that the “Esquimaux” [sic] chief wanted her as a gift.  Nellie’s black coat had grown thick and luxurious in the freezing temperatures –a jacket made from it would be the most perfect present for his wife.  He assured the captain that the meat wouldn’t go to waste either.  The image below, shows Nellie rescued and safely returned to England the following year. 

Her Majesty’s Ships, HMS Alert and Discovery had left England to rapturous applause.  The Expedition to reach the North Pole had captured the imagination, not just of Queen Victoria and the British people but was causing a sensation world-wide.  The newspapers had explored every detail of the ships from their build to the foodstuffs they would be carrying, their planned route, the sailors, and the most exciting prospect of all: finding a sub-tropical paradise hidden beyond the ice packs.  (To read the story about the ships departure and the build-up leading to it can be read by clicking this link here). The journey would, of course, discover little else other than ice.  Sailing away from port in May 1875 to the sound of cheering and gun salutes the men were in high spirits.  These must have given way to deep trepidation when the two ships parted company from one another to sit out the Arctic winter separately amongst the ice floes.

Sitting out the Arctic winter

The ships had followed the coastline of Greenland northwards before crossing the sea in fine weather to Cape Isabella.  Here the weather changed and they picked their way through floating ice in thick fog.  Reaching Lady Franklin Bay, in the northernmost tip of Arctic Canada on 27th August, the Discovery set anchor for the winter, the Alert continuing its journey for another five days before being unable to progress further.  When the sun finally disappeared below the horizon on October 12th they would be in total darkness for 142 days.  For the sailors, hearing only the sounds of wind and creaking ice, the sense of isolation must have felt all-encompassing.  To make matters worse, the sledging crew that had been dispatched to reach the Discovery to give word of the Alert’s position had returned defeated by the weather.  They had been out on the ice for twenty days, the last two of which they had travelled in total darkness.  Riven with scurvy and affected by frostbite, several of the men needed amputations.  To make matters worse, they reported they had seen no land whatsoever.

Camping overnight on the ice

It would be interesting to know the feelings of sailor John Langston Saggers during this time and whether he was selected to be one of the sledging party.  Saggers – who is my ancestral first cousin – was aged 18 when he joined the Royal Navy and his conduct had been exemplary.  Five years later he would be aboard the Discovery sailing for the Arctic, perhaps chosen for both his military record and because he had served on Victoria’s royal yacht, HMY Osborne, the ship he would return to in later years.  One can only imagine the tales he must have told in his later years of his Arctic adventure.

Extract from the naval Register for John Langston Saggers [Source: Ancestry UK]

Great care had been taken prior to departure over the welfare of the men.  Apart from warm clothing and adequate food provisions, the sailors were given facilities and equipment to keep them amused during the long winter months.  The ships both had theatres for the men to stage plays and they also had equipment to enable them to venture outdoors.  The men of the Discovery built a theatre on the ice with a 60ft x 27ft stage which they named after Alexandra, the Princess of Wales. They opened it on her birthday, 1st December with a farce, ‘My Turn Next.’  They also created a skating rink by pouring melted water over the ice which refroze to form a smooth surface.  The image below shows the skating rink with HMS Discovery locked in the ice in the background.

The sun reappeared on February 29th and plans were immediately put in place for further sledging expeditions.  With over one hundred degrees of frost recorded, one officer was badly affected by the cold.  He was returned to the Alert, his comrades taking turns to lie alongside him in an attempt to maintain his body temperature.  Although he survived the journey, he died soon after his two badly frostbitten feet had been amputated.  A week later, a small party of men led by Lieutenant Rawson reached the Discovery to tell them all was well.  The newspapers on hearing of it, reported with special pride that as the men’s frostbitten noses, cheeks and fingers were being treated Rawson jovially said, “at least the cheers from Southsea beach [on their departure from England] have now been fairly earned.”

Inevitably, there were a number of deaths amongst the sledging parties

In April the sledging parties started in earnest with small groups of men travelling in every direction.  On board the ships only the chaplains, medical officers and the sick remained alongside half a dozen essential crew members.  Exploring further north than any previous expedition, yet separated from one another, the groups remained unaware of the suffering and deaths of one another.  Although unsuccessful in reaching the North Pole they brought home with them detail of the birds and animals that they found along their way.  Of greater importance for future expeditions, they confirmed for the first time that there was “no open sea” or “an ocean teeming with life” or any “Elysian Fields”, only “an icy desert where all life ends.”  Finally, at the end of July 1876, the Alert broke free of the ice to rejoin the Discovery and together they began their battle through the slowly thawing sea on the start of their long journey home.

The sledging parties prepare to leave

The return of HMS Alert and HMS Discovery to England on Thursday 9th November 1876 was greeted with as much excitement as their departure.  Sailing into Portsmouth they were greeted by the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet, the Lord Mayor, cheering crowds and massed bands.  The crew were allowed on shore that evening; the papers reporting proudly that “their behaviour has been excellent.”  The following day, back aboard ship, the men received three weeks’ leave and a month’s advance of pay. Over the following weeks the public continued to arrive in the town to visit the ships and an exhibition of the trip. 

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HMS Alert icebound as well as homeward bound

For the sailors of the Expedition there was still more celebration to come.  In early December the Lord Mayor of London entertained the officers and crews to a banquet at the Mansion House.  The newspapers noted that “all kinds of wines, and pheasants and plover were served, just as if Her Majesty’s Ministers were present.”  The wives and children watched the proceedings from the galleries of the ‘sumptuous” surroundings of the Egyptian Room.  At the end of the evening, the men were presented with gifts of pipes and tobacco.  Queen Victoria also relayed her gratitude to the men, thanking them for their dedication to service, their heroism and commiserating for the loss of life.  She also commanded that “… a medal be granted to all persons of every rank and class who were serving on the Alert and Discovery during the Arctic Expedition of 1875-76…”  For the ordinary seaman and his family, it must have been a sight so beyond their usual experience and one that would never be forgotten.   Records show that Cousin John Langston Saggers received his medal, albeit with an error engraved into the spelling.  Whether it is now in a private collection or still held by a member of his family or has been lost is unknown.

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Mid-day, Thursday, 9th November 1876: HMS Alert & HMS Discovery enter Portsmouth Harbour

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Of special interest to my American readers

Captain Nares of the Alert stopped at Polaris Bay, Canada to hoist the American ensign and fire a gun salute.  He also erected a brass tablet the expedition had brought with them which read, “Sacred to the memory of Captain F C Hall of the U.S. ship Polaris, who sacrificed his life in the advancement of science on Nov, 8th 1871.  This tablet has been erected by the British Arctic Expedition of 1875, who, following in his footsteps, have profited by his experience.”

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Over the years there would be many more attempts to reach the North Pole.  It would not be until 12th  May 1926 that Roald Amundsen scientifically proved that he had succeeded.

*

Sources

Ancestry UK

Royal Navy Registers of Seamen’s Services 1848-1939

British Newspaper Archive: The Norwich Mercury, The South London Chronicle, Shetland Times, Fife Herald, The Illustrated London News, Luton Times & Advertiser, The Graphic

British Polar Exploration and Research: A Historical and Medallic Record with Biographies 1818-1999

Wikipedia

Voyage of Discovery – part 1

May 29th 1875, the official birthday of Queen Victoria, was a day of huge national importance. Excitement had increased over many months and now, the anticipation of spectacular success even more assured with the realisation that departure was coinciding with Oak Apple Day, the traditional day of celebrating the Restoration of King Charles II [see footnote i] to the throne.  It seemed that the world had descended on Portsmouth, Britain’s premier Naval town to witness the sailing of Her Majesty’s Ships, the HMS Alert and HMS Discovery for the Arctic, and indeed it had.

The ships making their way through a narrow channel in the ice – the Discovery leading. [Source: BNA]

The interest of the Monarchy in the ships preparation for travel had culminated with a visit from the Ex-Empress Eugenie [Bonaparte] and her son, the Prince Regent on the 22nd.  There they had greeted the men who would be sailing the following Saturday.  Once the Royal party had left, the sailors marched through the town led by bandsmen to Portland Hall, Southsea, where the Mayor entertained them to dinner. The hall, which had hosted the Officers two days earlier had been decorated with models of the ships complete with icebergs and banners.  After dinner, Captain Nares of the Alert, and leader of the expedition, made an appearance to “thunderous applause”, followed by many of the men’s wives who were entertained at a separate table.

The dinner for the Officers given by the Mayor of Portsmouth the week before departure [Source: BNA]

Amongst the diners that day was John Langston Saggers, who for the past few months had been serving on Queen Victoria’s Royal Yacht, the HMY Osborne.  He had joined the Navy five years earlier and his record had been exemplary from the start.  Perhaps of greater importance, he was well within the criteria to be aboard the Arctic Expedition ships: at 5’ 4” (163cm) tall he was five inches below the maximum height and he had the fair complexion common to almost all those on board, a feature noted by newspapers eager to report on every facet of the trip.  Single and aged just 22 years old, he was about to embark on an adventure unlike any other – the quest to reach the North Pole before other competing nations.

Extract from the naval Register for John Langston Saggers [Source: Ancestry UK]

Attempts to reach the Pole in the past had always ended in failure with ships and crew either being lost at sea or unable to find a passage through the ice.  A belief held by many was that, if a way through could be found, the Pole may be the centre of a land with a benign climate where plants and animals flourished and potential minerals could be mined.  After all, they argued, had this not happened before with the discovery of the Americas?  This seems such an extraordinary thought in our now enlightened times that the full text can be read in footnote ii.

Map showing the route taken by the two ships through the northern waters [Source: BNA]

By Friday 28th, the men were on duty and only essential non-crew allowed aboard.  Of particular concern were the “Welch and Boucher’s Portable Lifebouys” – life rafts that had a central sealed food reservoir, the rations being sucked up through flexible feeding tubes.  They were also fitted with lanterns so that, at night, any man overboard could (as they assumed) swim to safety. These and hundreds of other items were carefully checked and tested.  Ex-Empress Eugenie had been especially concerned about the men having adequate warm clothing and had made, for each man, “comfortable, woollen-knitted wigs” for which the Expedition was “indebted.”

Newspapers reported every detail: “Implements and apparatus for the Arctic Expedition” [Source: BNA]

On the 29th, the departure ceremonies started early in the day.  The Royal Standard was raised and the men and officers all wore sprays of oak leaves in their button-holes as an expression of their loyalty.  Every ship in the dockyard was dressed from stern to stern with their signal flags, all fluttering in the gentle north-westerly breeze.  The Alert and the Discovery, ready to depart, differed from the other ships by only hoisting the St George ensign.  Piped aboard, the Lord Admirals of the Fleet carried out their final inspection before shaking hands with each of the Officers.  As they left, Mr George Ward Hunt, First Lord of the Admiralty, turned to acknowledge the crew before saying quite simply, “Good-bye, men” to which they responded with loud and excited cheering.

Plans had been made to keep the crew amused during the long hours of Arctic winter darkness Here they are shown putting on a play aboard the Alert [Source: BNA]

On Southsea Common a long line of field guns and troops from the Royal Engineers, the Royal Artillery and other regiments stood facing seawards.   The massed bands became silent at 11.30 and soon after, the first deafening volley of gun salutes echoed across the water to be answered by volleys from the ships and three other places along the coast.  The ceremony concluded with a march past of the massed troops reported with patriotic zeal, “…the perfection of precision for which British troops are so remarkable.”

[Source: BNA]

On the beach and pier, thousands of well-wishers gathered to see the boats depart.  They had travelled from all over Britain with special trains being laid on for the occasion.  Wives and “sweethearts” of the crew were allowed into the dockyard and crowded onto the piers.  Amongst them, and consoling them, were the wives of Scottish trawlermen who fished close to the Arctic ice; their reassurances belying the dangers and losses that they sometimes endured.  On board, Captain Nares read out a telegram from the Queen: “I earnestly wish you and your gallant companions every success, and I trust that you may safely accomplish the important duty you have so bravely undertaken.”  The Queen also sent aboard two large parcels, one for each ship, with the order that they were only to be opened at sea.  I have yet to discover what they may have held.

The time had come to depart, the Alert being the first to leave, followed by the Discovery. Escorting them were flotillas of ships and smaller craft as well as excursion steamers carrying passengers, all bedecked with flags.  From the thousands of spectators onshore and from those on the small boats came cheer after cheer and shouts of “God speed” to be answered with cheering from the crew of both ships.  The newspapers noted that “…four hundred miles – as far as from London to Edinburgh only – is all that stands between him [Captain Nares] and Arctic immortality.  Every Englishman will devoutly pray that he may secure it, and return safe and sound.”

 I discovered the intriguing story of the Arctic Expedition when researching the life of John Langston Saggers, my ancestral 1st cousin. The outcome of the Arctic Expedition, the fate of the Alert and Discovery, and that of John Langston Saggers will follow shortly in my next post. Edit: This is now published and can be found by clicking this link.

The Queen’s yacht, HMY Osborne; the ship where John Langston Saggers had served prior to the Arctic Expedition [Source: Wikipedia]

Footnote i.  Oak Apple Day, also known as Restoration Day or Royal Oak Day, commemorates the day in 1660 when King Charles II returned from Exile to be restored to the British throne.  He had fled to Europe following the execution of his father, Charles I during the English Civil War.  Why an oak to commemorate the day?  It was said that he alluded capture by hiding in an oak tree. The tradition of wearing oak leaves has mostly died out but there are several villages in England where local ceremonies still take place.

Footnote ii.  “…the flora of Greenland has three hundred flowering plants.  What may not that of the North Pole number?”  “ …within 400 miles of the Pole man, Esquimaux [sic], has been found.  [May not} a race be found uncontaminated by the vices of the known world, and yet with some of its ingenuity?  …May we not find some ‘Arcadian Retreats,’ some ‘Happy Valleys,’ or perhaps the ‘Lost Ten Tribes?…’

Sources

Ancestry UK

Royal Navy Registers of Seamen’s Services 1848-1939

British Newspaper Archive: The Morpeth Herald, The Derby Mercury, The Standard, The Nuneaton Advertiser, The Illustrated London News

Wikipedia

Grandma and The Man Who Never Was

Grandma was full of sayings that either puzzled us as children, made us laugh or made us think “silly, old Grandma” – often it was all three.  One was that you should always go out wearing clean underwear in case you got run over by a bus.  The story below just goes to prove that, as always, Grandma was right, well almost right.

Grandma was full of funny sayings & superstitions

Herbert Fisher (HAL Fisher), husband of Lettice Ilbert – whose own, remarkable story can be read here – was on his way to work during a WW2 blackout.  Warden of New College, Oxford and Chairman of the Conscientious Objectors Tribunal, he was in London for the latter when hit, not by a bus but by a lorry.  He died in hospital several days later on the 18th April 1940.  Little would he have thought, or Grandma for that matter, that his underwear would play a prominent part in the history of defeating Nazism.

HAL Fisher [Source: Ancestry]

About the same time as Fisher’s demise, in south Wales, the mother of Glyndwr Michael also died.  Michael had always lived with her but now homeless, he made his way to London.  It was here, aged 34 and depressed, penniless, and hungry, that he was found two years later in an abandoned warehouse.  He was dying from having eaten rat poison, the bait having been left, smeared on bread.  The phosphorus in the poison when ingested reacts with the naturally acting stomach acids to produce phosphine gas.  The slow death made his body ideal for the purpose that lay ahead.

The British Security Service had been waiting for some time to obtain a body that could be used in an elaborate hoax against the Germans.  Operation Mincemeat, as the top-secret plot became known, intended to release false papers on the body of a drowned officer of the British Army.  The aim was to deceive the German Military Intelligence into believing plans for the invasion of Greece and Sardinia, whereas in reality, the intention was to invade Sicily.  However, it was not felt possible to use the body of a serving officer whilst maintaining the secrecy required.

Major William Martin RM, as Glyndwr Michael’s corpse was to become, was released into the sea off the coast of Spain on the 30th April 1943 for the tide to carry him ashore.  About his person were various personal effects: letters and a photograph from his fiancée, theatre tickets and identity papers.  A briefcase had been attached to him carrying the false invasion plans, all with the purpose of making the Germans believe that he had been drowned at sea whilst delivering documents to a British General.  The ruse worked and the invasion of Sicily was carried out with considerable ease.

False papers of Major William Martin, RM [Source: Wikipedia

Major Martin was buried with full military honours on the island of Huelva, Spain, the deceit engraved into the grave’s headstone.  Over the years that followed rumours spread about the true identity of the body.  In 1996, an amateur historian Roger Morgan, discovered documents in the Public Records Office and it was later confirmed that the body was indeed that of Glyndwr Michael.  Soon after, an additional inscription was added to the headstone:  Glyndwr Michael Served as Major William Martin, RM.  Back in his hometown of Aberbargoed, Wales his name was added to the war memorial along with the name in Welsh by which he had become known – The Man Who Never Was.

Grave of The Man Who Never Was, island of Huelva, Spain [Source: Wikipedia]

Back to Grandma’s warning and HAL Fisher.  One of the problems in maintaining the secrecy of Operation Mincemeat was how to find clothing for Major William Martin.  Army uniform was not a problem to obtain but how could they find undergarments of suitable quality for someone of middle rank yet without risking a breach of security?  HAL Fisher’s New College rooms had been left untouched since his death where items of the required quality could be removed without raising suspicion.  If Grandma had lived long enough to have heard the tale, she would have been even more surprised, that HAL Fisher had married into her grandson’s family.  He may only have been a distant cousin of my father, but I can imagine her kvelling with pride and nodding with satisfaction.  There is no doubt that she would also have given a huge sigh of relief that HAL had heeded her advice.


Sources: Wikipedia, Ancestry, Commonwealth War Graves Commission