‘When Emperor Haile Selassie came to Milebrook House’ – LHS talk 19.9.18

Keith Bowes travelled from Bath to share his researches on the former Emperor Haile Selassie, and specifically on the visits that he made to our area and his link with the explorer Wilfred Thesiger.

Thesiger was born in Addis Ababa, when his father was in the British embassy there, in 1910, so that the Emperor would have known him even as a small boy. In 1924 Haile Selassie came to visit Britain with a gift of two lions for the king, and invited Thesiger, by then at Eton, to return to Ethiopia, for his coronation. In 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia, renaming it Abyssinia, and Haile Selassie appealed to the League if Nations. However, governments, including the British one, did not intervene. Large crowd met him on his arrival in London, sympathising with this exotic refugee, but it was said that Baldwin hid under a table!

He went to live in Bath, and later moved from hotels there to Fairfield House with his household of about 25 people. In 1937 Italian ‘black shirts’ slaughtered many local people but there was still no governmental aid, so he relied on people like the suffragette Sylvia Pankhust.

He visited Milebrook House, the Thesiger home, at least once in 1948, and later Walpole Hall and hosts Ronald and Noel Stephens. Photographs of the time show his apparel had changed from his signature capes to rather more British coats and caps. It was said that as his years of exile wore on he was visibly depressed. Another visit was to the Bible College of Wales whose founder, Rees Howells, had been interceding for Ethiopia since its fall to the Italian Fascists. Rees Howells and his family remained close friends with the Emperor until his death in 1975.

He met Thesiger again during WW2 when the latter was fighting in Sudan, and when he regained his throne he helped Thesiger in his plans for exploration. In 1948 he left his Bath house to the city and called his Ethiopian summer house ‘Fairfield’ in its memory. Sadly, from having been a progressive leader in his early reign, he lost touch with his people and was overthrown, and ultimately killed on the orders of the new regime.



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LHS tour of Pitchford Hall 12.5.18

Pitchford Hall-1

This huge Elizabethan house had been empty for 25 years until the present owners whose family had been forced to sell, bought it back and are beginning to restore it after the neglect.  We were greeted by the owner and two of her children, one carrying an African hedgehog.

Pitchford Hall-4

The lost contents were documented in a sales catalogue and included a fine drawing by the 13-year-old Princess Victoria who visited three times before her coronation.  The stripped back house gave us a different and fascinating insight into the structure of the house.  We were allowed into the vast attics where we stepped carefully to avoid holes in the floor and were able to see the roof timbers of an earlier house which had been incorporated into the building.

Pitchford Hall-20

The house boasted a large priest hole, used by Prince Rupert.  This, unusually, had an exterior window.  The window was cleverly placed so that anyone from outside saw a view of a cellar from the lower half of the window and would have to climb to see more.  It was protected by ingenious sliding panels which would have done justice to a children’s adventure book.

Pitchford Hall-31

Delights for children continued outside where a C17 listed treehouse sat squarely in an ancient tree.  It was grand enough to have a plasterwork ceiling.#

Pitchford Hall Tree House-4

The house had been home to two Prime Ministers and intended as a refuge for the royal family had they had to flee in the Second World War.

One previous resident moved from the house to the Orangery and sometimes the tree house as she found its proximity to the stream too noisy.  Later wartime planes flying past precipitated a move to a gypsy caravan in a lane on the estate.

We may go back for one of Pitchford’s ghost tours.

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LHS trip to Birmingham Coffin works and Tipton Cemetery

Shiny new Birmingham is in your face, but look carefully, starting at Snow Hill station cheaply rebuilt after an inept closure in the Beeching era.  You can spot little bits of the old station walls and, most joyfully, the old cast iron toilet still sitting under the old railway arches.

We dived down under the modern road system to follow the Birmingham and Fazeley canal to Newman Brothers coffin works.

The last owner was a lady, who joined the firm’s office as a young girl and worked her way up to the top.  When the market for expensive elaborate coffin fittings dwindled, she decided in 1998 that, rather than make a small fortune by selling the site, she would help set up a trust to keep the building and much of the stock and machinery intact.

The Victorian industrial processes were explained to us and some demonstrated.  Much of the work was difficult and dangerous.  The working day was 12 hours long and woe betide any worker whose concentration lapsed – it was very easy to lose the odd finger.  When a worker had to leave his machine before his fellows, he had to disengage the mechanism as a safety precaution by knocking the leather drive belt off hence the phrase ‘to knock off work’.

Steve and Liz listen to Cornelius explaining the metal press used by women workers

There were baths filled with heated sulphuric and nitric acid into which young lads dipped the metal products- very gently to minimise the chance of splashing the body or clothing, all the while holding their breath to avoid the noxious fumes.

The Shroud room had rows of old sewing machines at which up to 17 girls made these strange garments, some still displayed awaiting a sale.  Our guide explained that the products of this factory were bought for the very wealthy, (Princess Diana and Winston Churchill for example).  The poor were buried in the ground, the rich with their expensive fittings and shrouds, were laid above ground in mausoleums.  Not so hygienic we’re told- hence ‘The stinking rich’. We were also told that the deceased poor have left us another ghoulish phrase – relatives of the dead would burn their old wooden clogs.  The wood went pop, pop as they burned, hence ‘Pop your clogs.’

We ate our lunch in the Victorian pub on the corner nearby and got back on the train to Tipton.  The Victorian civic authorities sited Tipton cemetery well away from most of the population to avoid the ‘harmful miasmas’ thought to emanate from the newly dead. The cemetery is still in use and is a fascinating monument to changing fashions, with some very poignant memorials including the 19 girls, one only 13, who were killed in an explosion.  They were taking old shells apart.  The metals were to be sold as scrap, the gunpowder discarded in a pile on the floor.  The weather was very cold, and the brazier was lit.  A spark flew out and ignited the powder.

JC (pictures EK)

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‘How the Other Half Lived’ : Health & Housing in Ludlow

Talk by Dr Derek Beattie

50-60 Society members were present

Dr Beattie described the changes from 1850 to 1960 in some of the social conditions in Ludlow, particularly in relation to health & housing. He noted that most of the poor people had left no direct evidence of their lives & living conditions behind them. In his recent book and in his talk he wished to ‘bring these back to life’. Conditions for the poor had been very hard; they aged prematurely – particularly women.

In the 1800s spring water was provided by 4 to 5 conduits brought to the centre of town. This was relatively clean water for drinking & the conduits were in use through to the 1860s. However, due to increasing demand in 1820 water was pumped from the river. Because this was a polluted source it was meant to be used only for washing etc. In 1875/76 there was a serious outbreak of typhoid. In Corve St. alone there were 95 deaths. It was recognised that this may have been due to sewage polluted water from the river so from 1884 to 1901 a new single water supply system was made available to Ludlow.

Sewage systems were very primitive. There were many cess pits in the yards behind properties, some up to 20 ft. deep. When full the solids were dug out. The fluids seeped into the ground but many overflowed. Some of the seepage entered cellars. Between 1862-66 a sewerage system was installed which discharged into the R. Corve. Households were encouraged to connect to this but at a price so only the rich responded. The River Pollution Act [1897] called for the introduction of water closets. However progress in Ludlow was slow & in 1907 there were still 500 privies in the town. The number of privies slowly reduced but 12 were still in use in 1920. The privy solids were removed by ‘night soil men’. Nevertheless the introduction of water closets led to some improvement in community health.

In the mid to late 1800s mortality rates in Ludlow were very high. There were only 11 towns in England & Wales with higher death rates than Ludlow. The housing conditions for the poor were dreadful because of serious overcrowding. In Ludlow there was a boom in the glove-making industry with the work being outsourced. To accommodate the inflow of workers property owners built poor quality dwelling cheaply in rear yards/gardens of their larger houses. These brought increased rentals for the landlords. Such developments happened all over Ludlow. These cramped buildings with small or no windows admitted virtually no sunlight. Due to the large number of children & extended families [old without pensions & young members] there was gross overcrowding leading to extremely unhygienic conditions. Dr Beattie gave several examples of 8 or more children sharing 2 bedrooms with parents. Some landlords did not even provide a privy so from such households chamber pots were emptied into the street.

It is unsurprising that infant mortality in the 1890s was so high in Ludlow – well above the national average. There was a turning point in 1923 when Shropshire County Council opened a Child Welfare Clinic & this halved infant mortality.

Diphtheria & scarlet fever were 2 of the main killers. In 1921 88 deaths from diphtheria & 66 from scarlet fever were recorded. The only solution at the time to contain these diseases was isolation but Ludlow Borough Council would not send patients to an out of town isolation hospital because of the cost. It was only in 1923 the Ludlow isolation hospital was built. Tuberculosis was also a killer, with unpasteurised milk the main source. No cure was available until after the 2nd world war. The suggested treatment before this was sunshine, rest & fresh air but what chance of this for the poor living in dark overcrowded dwellings.

In 1931 there was a major housing debate & an investigation into the squalor that lay behind the elegant frontages of Ludlow. The Housing Act, 1931, allowed rehousing of slum dwellers into council housing but it was only after the 2nd world war that Ludlow authorities responded fully to this.

The situation improved greatly with the introduction of the NHS & council housing. However there were not enough council houses but availability of up to 100% government grants to bring existing properties up to modern standards made a major contribution to social welfare.

In view of the present level of affluence in Ludlow Dr Beattie’s excellent presentation of its social history in the 19th & early 20th century was an eye-opener to most of the audience, There were many questions & contributions from members.


WBW 29.04.18

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Derek Martin LHS Chair 2015-2019

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Derek Martin after a short illness.  Derek was our chair for almost four years.  He engaged in the role with enthusiasm, bringing a gentle calm leadership to the committee.  Two of his major achievements were the completion of arrangements for the transcription of Parish registers and the commissioning of a model of Roman Leintwardine which has already become a significant local attraction.  We offer our sincere condolences to his wife, Maggie and their family.

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‘Who do the English think they are?’: From Anglo-Saxons to Brexit, a talk by Derek Taylor

Derek Taylor is a former ITN correspondent who has been our speaker before and came to summarise the substance of his latest book. Many copies were snapped up at the end of his talk.

He began by expressing the confusion that exists between the terms ‘English’ and ‘British.’ Even as far back as Lord Nelson who sent a signal that ‘England expects every man to do his duty’ quite omitting the Welsh!

So who are the English? Does British identity exist?

After the departure of the Romans c410 the remaining inhabitants sought help and according to legend the brothers Hengest and Horsa arrived at Ramsgate in longships and then overwhelmed the Ancient Britons. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes brought the names of their gods into the days of our week, and Anglo-Saxon words which tend to guttural monosyllables. Then in 793 AD Vikings invaded and settled in the north-east, bringing place name endings such as ‘wick.’ And then, of course, the Normans invaded in 1066. By 1199 England was a backwater in a French empire, governed from Anjou. All those in power were French and spoke French; it was questionable whether the English and their language would survive.

The turning point was the reign of King John (1199-1216) who lost Normandy to the French and thus the barons, owning allegiance to both their Norman and English lands, had to decide which side to support when the kings on both sides of the channel were at war. They decided for England, the monarchy became exclusively English, and the English nation was reborn! The language itself was reformed with French and Anglo-Saxon mingling and producing dual phrases, such as ‘rack and ruin,’ ‘will and testament.’ In later centuries Henry Vlll established the English church, rejecting Papal rule. Over time, we established our own traditions and distinctive characteristics eg eccentricity and inventiveness, a ‘stiff upper lip’ and tenacity, a love of democracy and the rule of law. Some might say there are less attractive traits: arrogance, snobbishness and being straight-laced. Each of these Derek traced to a period in our history. For example, reverence for law stems from Magna Carta, love of democracy from de Montfort’s demand for a ‘parlement.’and he argued that the most important was being able to laugh at ourselves.

In the question time after Derek averred that people who come to live here must subscribe to our distinctiveness.  His statistics regarding DNA evidence for English origins were also discussed, as one study, of 200 English people whose grandparents abode in the same area, showed that 45% of their DNA was from France, not from the Normans, but from the Ancient Britons before the last Ice Age. And if we wished to know more, we should buy the book!

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Noted for Narcissus, The Marches’ Daffodil Decades 1907-1964, a talk by Catherine Beale

Nobody knows where our native daffodils originate but it is suspected they come from the Iberian Peninsula. It was Pliny the Elder who first used the name. The bulb was so toxic that it was used by Roman soldiers as a ‘cyanide’ pill in the event they felt the need to terminate their own life. The ones considered as natives to our island are the Tenby daffodil and the Lent Lily. There is no agreement on the number of species but RHS currently says there are 64, with 13 different cultivars. They were not bred until the 19th century and the Midland Daffodil Society was formed in Birmingham in 1898. The original list of daffodils was a slim paper compiled in 1884, but nowadays the same catalogue is doorstop-sized.

In our area, there were four Presteigne breeders. They were Gwendolyn Evelyn, Dr Nynian Lower, Sir John Arkwright of Kinsham Court, and Alexander Wilson of Middlemoor. In 1909 Presteigne was a very small society and all these were connected in some way.

Miss Evelyn was born at Kinsham Court and moved to Corton when her father died. During WWI Corton was variously a home for Belgian refugees and then a VAD hospital where Miss Evelyn nursed and Dr Lower was the medical officer. Stephanie Arkwight, wife of Sir John, and Miss Evelyn’s aunt was a nurse there, and Mr Wilson was a benefactor.

These four contributed 470 varieties of new daffodils. Consider that it takes between 3 to 6 years from pollination to producing a new flower, and this is a considerable achievement. Plants wore muslin bonnets to prevent cross-pollination.

Dr Lower (1872-1926) lived at St David’s House in Presteigne and amongst the 66 varieties he produced were some with local names, like ‘Beauty of Radnor’ and he gained 5 Awards of Merit. His son, who followed his father as president of the Midland Daffodil Society, gave a cup in his father’s memory.

Sir John Arkwright  (1872-1954) was visited by a Dutch bulb grower who recorded his visits to the miniature daffodils at Kinsham Court, and Sir John’s own servant wrote from the trenches to thank him for the gift of a daffodil seedling, which ‘brought him a little nearer home.’. After his war service (including writing the remembrance hymn) Arkwight returned to Presteigne and began cross-breeding in earnest. Kinsham Court is still open annually to show its 60 daffodil varieties.

Mr Alec Wilson of Middlemoor (1863-1953) previously grew bulbs in Devon valued at £12,000 until they were unfortunately diseased with eelworm. Moving to Presteigne he produced 371 varieties and raised a cut-flower business. The daffodil production was extensive with fields of flowers grown and packaged and sent by train overnight from Presteigne to Covent Garden, until the closure of the branch line in 1964. His collection was given to his daughter Helga Gourlay (mother of Sir Simon). His most famous cultivar was ‘Snipe’ and he had many with local names of which only ‘Felindre’ survives.

There were two more producers in our area. Firstly, Sarah Backhouse of Sutton St Nicholas who spent her life trying to breed a flower with a pink trumpet and white petals; she bred 600 new varieties plus snowdrops and lilies.

And lastly, Major Habershon ( 1887-195) of Hesterworth in nearby Hopesay who had one of the finest amateur collections in the country. These people who bred, showed and judged daffodils, together contributed 10% of daffodils known in 1950. Nowadays, galanthamine, found in daffodils, is being used to slow the development of Alzheimer’s Disease.


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