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.

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

A Thunderbolt and a Broken Cross

For so tiny a place, the Cotswold village of Taston, or more accurately ‘hamlet’, has more than it’s fair share of interesting features.  None can be so dramatic – in the most understated of ways – than the lump of rock hurled in rage by the Norse God, Thor and now wedged between the roadside and a wall.Taston (1) copyright

The Thorstone (from which the village’s name is derived) is one of a number of standing stones that litter this part of the Cotswolds.  They range in size from the extensive Rollright Stone Circle to the single unnamed stone that can be found in the town centre of Chipping Norton.Rollright Stones (5) copyrightChipping Norton Stone copyright

Close to the Thorstone are the remains of a medieval preaching cross.  Many were destroyed during the Puritans time of Cromwell (mid 1600s) but their base, as here, still remain.Taston - Broken Cross copyright

Ancient stone houses, many of them listed by English Heritage, line the three narrow streets of Taston.  Exploring on foot is the best way to see them and to absorb the villages tranquil atmosphere.  It is highly unlikely that you will meet others doing the same! Taston (2) copyrightTaston (4) copyright

It is on foot, that you will find, tucked away beneath the trees, the memorial fountain to Henrietta, Viscountess Dillon.  Built in 1862 of limestone, granite and pink sandstone, it has the words In Memorium in a decorative arched band beneath its spire.Taston (5) copyright

Taston lies 4 miles southeast of Chipping Norton and 1.5 miles north of Charlbury.