Posts Tagged 'history'

Unusual trades: ever met a congreve maker?

Having recently caught the genealogy bug, I have been diving into my family history. It’s astonishing what you can turn up these days, without ever leaving your computer desk. I’ve now got a pretty complete picture of my family back through five generations – and have traced one particular line back to 1580.

What is particularly fascinating about the censuses, from 1851 onwards, is that they usually show the occupation of the person named. And of course, in the nineteenth century, the great majority of working folk had some sort of craft or trade.

Among my forebears I found a book-binder, a cabinet-maker, a boat-builder, a brick-maker, a miller, a sawyer, a backsman (foreman in a coal-mine), a straw-plaiter (for hat-making), a bombazine-weaver, a dress-maker – and quite a number of plain ‘labourers’.

One job particularly intrigued me. My great-grandfather had, as his neighbour in Norwich, a man who was listed as a ‘Congreve maker’, while his son was a ‘Slive maker’. What on earth was a congreve? A kind of coat? A bottle? I decided to do some research.

It turns out that during the Napoleonic Wars there was a certain artillery officer named Sir William Congreve who invented a kind of military rocket for firing at the enemy. When the wars ended, in 1815, it seems likely that he turned the pyrotechnic skills he had acquired to the invention of an early kind of friction match – which was known as a congreve. And that’s what my ancestor’s neighbour was making, using sulphur, potassium chlorate and antimony sulphide. A pretty explosive mixture, I would have thought.

And a ‘slive maker’? I can only think that this is a variant, or a mis-spelling, of ‘sliver’ – a thin strip of some kind (there is an old verb ‘to slive’ meaning to split). So my guess is that the son was making the match-sticks – for Dad to put the heads on.

Incidentally – have you noticed how many people say ‘slither’ when thay actually mean ‘sliver’?

Postscript: I have now discovered that, although Sir William did indeed invent a great many things, it was actually a John Walker, a chemist in Stockton-on-Tees, who invented the friction match – but he named it after Congreve, presumably because of his fame as a rocket pioneer.

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Dealing with dictators

I rarely comment on political matters (I nearly wrote ‘issues’, but it is a word that is grossly over-used these days), but the other day I attended a talk by Roy Hattersley (a former British politician, now a writer and journalist) and it did make me think. His theme was the period between the two World Wars – the Twenties and Thirties – and he particularly deplored the way theĀ  Great Powers, the victors of WW1, turned a blind eye to the activities of the dictators – Hitler, Mussolini and Franco – thereby encouraging them in their excesses, and making a second world war eventually inevitable.

It made me wonder how far history is repeating itself: extreme and repressive regimes, such as those in Zimbabwe, in Burma, in Iran, are allowed – by the international community, as it is now called – to flourish. If Hattersley is right, they should be checked, as Hitler should have been checked, before they go too far. But, on the other hand we have the unedifying example of Iraq. A brutal dictator was indeed stopped in his tracks, but the outcome has hardly been what was hoped for; a peaceful, liberal democracy in that country still looks a long way off.

I don’t pretend to know the answer. I suppose, as an old man, I am of the view that, if history teaches us anything, it is that there is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ solution; but if one country does decide to intervene in the affairs of another it should do so only with an in-depth understanding of what is at stake, and with very detailed plans for what will follow victory. Fail on those points, and a great deal of suffering follows.

Boyhood recalled

A nostalgia piece today – something I wrote to try and re-create the feelings of a nine-year-old boy during the Blitz. Just history to many, but very real to those of us who lived through it.

From my bedroom window (1941)
There was a raid last night. As soon as the siren started to wail, Dad called out: “Come on, children – downstairs!” I put on my dressing gown, without turning on the light, and peep out between the bedroom curtains. Searchlights are fingering the sky. I hurry downstairs, with my sister Joan close behind.
The bed on the larder floor is already made up. Joan and I snuggle under the eiderdown – like sardines, with our heads at opposite ends. Dad says this is the best place for us, because the larder window has no glass (it’s made of that metal with little holes in it) and the ceiling is the smallest in the house, if it should fall.
Mum and Dad have a sort of mattress thing under the kitchen table. Dad keeps his special air-raid tray close by. It has a torch, in case all the lights go out; a candle and some matches, in case the torch doesn’t work; four corks, for us to bite on so that we don’t bite our tongues off when the bangs come; four little brown envelopes with our ear-plugs in, so that our ear-drums won’t burst; and a little bottle of brandy – “just in case”, says Dad. Mum says he’s a very methodical man.
Soon we hear the throbbing of the bombers overhead. Some of the boys at school reckon they can tell the difference between a Junkers and a Dornier. I just pretend that I can. Now there comes the crack of ack-ack guns, and the deeper crump of distant bombs. When the raids first started Joan and I thought it was all rather exciting, but now we just want it to be over so that we can go back to sleep.
Eventually the all-clear sounds and, after a bit, Dad says: “Well, I think that’s it for tonight. Might as well all get back to bed.” We trail upstairs again, and Dad comes into my bedroom with me. After checking that the door is closed, so that no light would show, he opens the curtains and we look across the Downs to the north. There is a reddish glow in the sky. “Looks like the City caught it again,” says Dad. “Right, lad – back to bed!”
Now it’s morning, the sun is shining and I’m looking out across the back garden. I hardly notice the barrage balloons hovering in the distance. My thoughts are all on the big walnut tree that stands in the corner of the lawn. Its trunk forks near the ground. I’ve been climbing the right-hand side for ages; I know every branch and twig. But the left-hand trunk is different: it’s smooth and bare for several feet and quite unclimbable. The only way to get into that side of the tree is to leap, like Tarzan, from a crotch on the other side, catch hold of a horizontal branch and swing yourself up so that you can hook your legs over. I’ve been thinking about this for days. I wonder if, today, I’ll have the courage to do it…..