Charles Dickens in Staffordshire

Charles Dickens visits the Potteries in the early 1850s…

PUTTING up for the night in one of the chiefest towns of Staffordshire, I find it to be by no means a lively town.

I have paced the streets and stared at the houses, and am come back to the blank bow window of the Dodo [Inn]; and the town clocks strike seven. I have my dinner and the waiter clears the table, leaves me by the fire with my pint decanter, and a little thin funnel-shaped wine-glass and a plate of pale biscuits – in themselves engendering desperation.

No book, no newspaper! What am I to do?

The Dodo Inn was actually a lightly disguised name for the Swan in Green inn, Gate St., Stafford. He merely visited a small bit of the Potteries for part of a day, taking the train from Stafford. The tradition obviously started early, of a London journalist spending a few hours here and becoming an ‘instant expert’ on the district, and then writing a ‘knocking’ newspaper article.

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Portraits of Erasmus Darwin

The three best portraits of Erasmus Darwin, that aren’t cloistered away in some obscure museum. Large size, two of them newly colourised.

The last not ideally colorised, but perhaps “reading by moonlight”.

With thanks to the Wellcome Library.

Found: three more novels set in Stoke

I’ve found another three novels set on Stoke-on-Trent.

1) Annie Keary’s children’s novel Sidney Grey: A Tale of School Life (1857), written while raising her children in Trent Vale. Her fiction was well regarded, and the survey book Masterworks of Children’s Literature states the novel was written for her own children and… “dealt with their [north] Staffordshire region and its brick kilns”. The novel was also a “picture of grammar-school life” in the 1850s, with a disabled boy hero. I’m guessing that the school would then have been in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and that the novel drew its impetus from the tensions between school life and life in the brickyards. The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English calls it a “notable children’s book”. For some reason there’s no free copy on either Archive.org, Hathi or Gutenberg.

2) Cedric Beardmore‘s Dodd the Potter (1931) has an embossed board cover that “depicts an industrial building with chimneys” according to an unillustrated record page for the V&A collection. The novel is apparently a frank Potteries coming-of-age story with what were — in those days — some titillating aspects. A syndicated review in an Australian newspaper remarked…

“Dodd is an employee at a pottery. So are some of the other people — most of them in fact — and their life story, if it is correctly shown by the author is suggestive of curious social relationships in the well known ‘five towns’.”

Beardmore was a Stoke lad, so it was evidently drawn from life. Arnold Bennett was the author’s uncle, though the novel was written without Bennett’s help. After the war Beardmore went south and into children’s comics. He wrote at least one Dan Dare story for the famous Eagle comic of the 1950s, but his mainstay was writing Belle of the Ballet for Girl comic (the girls’ equivalent of Eagle).

3) Under the pseudonym ‘Cedric Stokes’ Cedric Beardmore also published a historical novel titled The Staffordshire Assassins (1944), set around Bucknall in the 19th century. The Sydney Morning Herald review stated…

“This strange story of an ancient family and a band of renegade monks depends for its interest upon a macabre atmosphere and psychological abnormalities.”

He wrote many other popular novels, and it’s possible that some of those also draw on his life in Stoke-on-Trent.

The Microcosm

“IN the autumn of the year 1765 the ladies and gentlemen of Chester and the country round about were in a state of great excitement over the Microcosm, a mechanical exhibition of moving pictures. The movements of the figures, both men and animals, were considered highly ingenious, and the various motions of the heavenly bodies were represented with so much neatness and precision that the gay life of the city was almost suspended, while the exhibition was crowded day after day by the nobility and gentry, who could talk of nothing else for weeks.” (from Doctor Darwin, 1930, by Hesketh Pearson)

Clocks in the British Museum (1968) states… “‘the microcosm’ was made by Henry Bridges” and suggests it was “probably finished shortly before 1734.” By the time it reached Chester the Microcosm had then been on the road for some years, visiting Lichfield among other places. The poet Pope wrote a poem its praise in 1756. It was made by… “the eldest son of Henry Bridges of Waltham Cross, architect and builder of the amazing Microcosm Clock.” Very little more can be found about it, if a quick search of Google Books and Google Scholar is anything to go by.

Sir Gawain as an audiobook: the options

I see that the 2006 BBC Radio adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is now free on Archive.org. At the climax of the story Gawain crosses from Cheshire, somewhere around Congleton, rides past Leek and then takes a road up into the Staffordshire Peak District, so in part Gawain is a local tale and the poet was a man of the northern part of the West Midlands. Be warned that the BBC’s reading was from the Simon Armitage ‘modern vernacular’ version, and was radically abridged down to just 42 minutes. Still, it’s probably a good introduction for older children who might not listen to anything longer and who would be confused by thee‘s and thou‘s and other archaic language.

In comparison other free readings run far longer, usually around 2.5 hours. Such as the best Archive.org/Librivox version which is Tony Addison’s steady reading of the early translation by Jessie Laidlay Weston. Hers was a spritely early translation published at the turn of the 20th century, and was only very occasional sprinkled with thou and ye, quoth and bade.

Tolkien’s translation, probably the best available in terms of a listening experience despite also having many thee‘s and thou‘s, is available as a 2006 HarperCollins audiobook. It’s professionally read by Terry Jones in around 2.2 hours, not including Tolkien’s 15 minute scholarly introduction. Jones sounds a little fast and sibilant/breathy. For me his reading works best when played in the free Impulse Media Player, which on a desktop PC allows real-time pitch shifting and other tweaks. Slow him down by -10, and use the following graphic equaliser settings, and see if he improves for you…

We need online map services to accept OS grid numbers

It’s surprisingly difficult to find any online map service which accepts Ordnance Survey grid references, even the OS-based footpathmaps.com which one of the quickest-loading map services in the UK. Surely the UK government should require that the OS licence a grid reference option ASAP, to all the major map services? A little drop down box, input your OS GR number… and off you go. How difficult can it be?

Thankfully that’s exactly what the National Grid Reference Redirect has made. It’s blissfully simple and works. Sadly it doesn’t speed up the incredibly slow-loading and generally crappy online map services, but it works with Google Maps and Bing Maps and more.

You just have to make sure you use the format SJ882359. That means if you have a more precise four-number grid reference like SJ882?359? then you’ll need to lop off the last ‘?’ number in each block of four.

In future it would be great to see it work with the excellent footpathmaps.com. The other great UK mapping service maps.nls.uk can already handle OS grid reference input, although only for historic maps, and it’s often as slow as all the others (bar footpathmaps.com).

Old Hannah’s Cave as the Green Chapel in Gawain

The famous early 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight describes a place known as the Green Chapel, in the following words…

“a mound as it might be near the marge of a green, a worn barrow on a brae [slope] by the brink of a water, beside falls in a flood that was flowing down; the burn [fast stream] bubbled therein, as if boiling it were. He urged on his horse then, and came up to the mound, there lightly alit, and lashed to a tree his reins, with a rough branch rightly secured them. Then he went to the barrow and about it he walked, debating in his mind what might the thing be. It had a hole at the end and at either side, and with grass in green patches was grown all over, and was all hollow within: nought but an old cavern, or a cleft in an old crag; he could not it name aright. … Then he heard from the high hill, in a hard rock-wall beyond the stream on a steep, a sudden startling noise. How it clattered in the cliff, as if to cleave it asunder”.

The Green Chapel has been commonly assumed to be the atmospheric and accessible and large Lud’s Church, located about a mile from the Ship Inn at Wincle. Yet the nearby Old Hannah’s Cave (above, from Wardle’s article) was certainly known for the remarkable noises described in the poem, noise that were apparently the result of blowhole and possible gaseous action due to the river dropping underground for most of the year and the river-bed drying up. These “explosions which take place in the limestone” were amply and reliably documented by Sir Thomas Wardle in the North Staffordshire Field Club, Annual Report and Transactions of 1899, with eyewitness accounts from both locals and geologists. As such it seems rather curious the no-one has made the very obvious connection to Gawain before now.

Further, the National Speleological Society Bulletin of January 1982 reported of the cave entrance that…

“The adjacent wall of the Redhurst Gorge contains several smaller solutional openings”

… which might seem to match Gawain‘s description of the Green Chapel that it “had a hole at the end [entrance] and at either side”. It seems quite logical that someone using this cave as a redoubt would make a barrow-like mound in front that would encompass both the real entrance and “smaller solutional openings”, so as to confuse approaching strangers about the real entrance. The explosions would also serve to enhance privacy by keeping away strangers.

The Green Chapel is, in Gawain deemed the home of a green giant, described by his local guide as…

“the worst wight in the world in that waste dwelleth; for he is stout and stern, and to strike he delights, and he mightier than any man upon middle-earth is, and his body is bigger than the four best men”

His size means that there is a further curious alignment of local fact with Gawain. Late Victorian antiquarian diggings in the cave, as recorded in the same 1899 article by Sir Thomas Wardle, found that…

“All the adult bones [in Old Hannah’s Cave] are large, and some especially so, considerably larger than those of an average man of the present day, the vertebrae and hip-bones being those of an individual above the average height.”

That was the professional opinion from a “Mr. Newton, of the Museum of Practical Geology, Jermyn Street, London, the best authority on recent and extinct bones”, to whom the cave’s excavated bones were sent by Sir Wardle. Wardle also recounts the local story about the old firewood collectors (the valley was wooded before the sheep came) who knew the inhabitant of the cave by the name of “Hob! Hob! the King of the Woods”.

In his article Wardle nowhere mentions Gawain in the context of the cave. He was interested in the cave’s geology, the archaeology of its floor surfaces, and gives some bits of local folklore relating to the noises. Which means that he was not trying to massage the facts in order to ‘claim’ Gawain for North Staffordshire.

Thus there are a number of clear points that suggest Old Hannah’s Cave as the model for the Green Chapel: 1) the general topographic description fits very well, other than the steepness of the terrain for a horse to reach it if coming up from below; 2) the explosive and unusual noises heard there, which bounce and leap around the gorge as Gawain describes; 3) the finding of ‘giant’ human bones in the cave; and 4) the general agreement among scholars that the wider topographical journey as described in Gawain can only be somewhere in this fairly small area. So far as I can tell from online sources, I’m the first to suggest Old Hannah’s Cave as the spot.

Part of a 1910-20 picture of the road to Wetton Mill, showing the cave site in the distance. Compare with Wardle’s photo of the site, above. Today the old view from the road appears to be totally masked by trees, though it may be different in winter.

A 1934 caving survey (Yates, Yorkshire Ramblers’ Club Journal, Vol. 6, No. 21) made an enthusiastic survey of the valley and found the whole of this “curious limestone hummock [meaning, the rock in which Old Hannah’s Cave or Hole sits] literally riddled with holes, but as they are quite small affairs there is no necessity for lighting. It is highly amusing exploring this petrified sponge as one is apt to emerge at most unexpected places.” Today the site appears to be part of a large tract of National Trust estate land.