Danse_macabre_by_Michael_WolgemutHere’s another one of my favourite Bristol WW1 tales; a favourite because it contains a great big unanswered, and possibly unanswerable question.

Bubonic plague. Scary stuff because that’s, like, what the Black Death was about. The thing that killed maybe as much as half the population of Europe in the 14th century.

It’s always been around, though, and still hasn’t gone away. So in Britain in 1914 the authorities in sea-ports were always on the lookout for it. It did sometimes enter the country carried by seafarers or rats on ships.

So, common enough, but still alarming.

In the summer of 1916, responding to lurid rumours of an outbreak in the city, the local Medical Officer of Health, Dr D.S. Davies, issued a statement that there was no epidemic, but that three patients – two men and a boy – had presented with a “mild form” of the disease. They had been isolated at Ham Green hospital and all, he said, were making a good recovery.

Inquiries traced the infection to rats at Avonmouth, but Dr Davies later told a meeting of the council’s Health Committee that he did not believe the rats had come into the port on a ship. He suggested that plague-infested rats may have been deliberately introduced to Bristol over land.

Dr Davies oversaw a team of over 30 men disposing of potentially infected material at the warehouse, principally 200 tons of rags (presumably destined for paper manufacture). The dock workers involved in this task were each paid £5 – over a fortnight’s wages – each day and had to go to Ham Green for a disinfectant bath at the end of each shift. By September, after several hundred rats had been caught and tested at a special laboratory set up in Avonmouth, Dr Davies declared Bristol plague-free.

Whether we’ll ever know if enemy agents tried to give Bristol a serious dose of Black Death in 1916 is another matter.

All this and more in ‘Bravo, Bristol! The City at War 1914-18′ by Byrne and Burlton, in local shops and on tinternet soon.

Come to the launch do if you fancy it; it’s free, but you need to book: http://www.ideasfestival.co.uk/2014/events/bravo-bristol/


The B-word


Just got back from collecting copies of the latest book what I wrote. They look smashing.

‘Bravo, Bristol! The City at War 1914-18′ is co-authored by Clive Burlton and me. Even if I say so myself, it’s rather splendid.

It’s actually much easier to brag about things you’ve co-written because of course you’re not claiming all the credit. As a researcher and as expert on the military side, Clive reached parts I couldn’t have hoped to reach. We will be nagging you to buy it more in due course.

‘Course the problem with old-school booky books is that once they’ve gone to the printers you can’t change ‘em. And in the case of Bristol’s part in WW1 we’ve been finding out loads of great new stories ever since. So I’ll regale you with a few of them in the coming weeks. Be a pity to lose them.

Here’s the first one:

This concerns a man named John Flynn, who kept a newspaper shop on the Horsefair.

In October 1914, with the war getting under way and people starting to get killed, he was selling leaflets with a short eight-verse poem on them titled ‘A Call to Arms’.

Someone complained that it was obscene and the police paid him a visit. Flynn readily admitted selling the leaflets and handed over his stock of around 1,000 copies.

Police returned some time later with a search warrant, but found no more copies, and no other objectionable material. Nonetheless, the decision was made to charge him with selling indecent materials and he was up before the beaks a few weeks later.

The case turned on whether or not the verse was, in fact, indecent, and this came down to the use, several times in the poem, of a certain word.

Appearing for his defence was the solicitor Edward Watson, a person so amazing we’re going to have to save him for some other time. “E.J.” Watson conceded that the poem was rather coarse and vulgar but, he said, it could not possibly be said to have any corrupting effect. On the contrary, yer honour; it could only arouse patriotic feelings in the reader.

He then quoted various literary passages, including bits of Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, which had used the offending word.

The magistrates dismissed the case, provided Mr Flynn destroy all copies of the leaflet. So we don’t know how the poem went.

But we do know what the rude word was:


A whole different world, I tell ya. So different you really ought to remember to buy a book about it when it gets into the shops. That story’s not in it, but there’s plenty of others…


Are you ever SHAMED by your IGNORANCE of BRUNEL?

Do you ever find yourself EXCLUDED from the DINNER PARTY CONVERSATION because you know nothing of his GAZ ENGINE or cannot have an INFORMED DISCUSSION about the BROAD GAUGE?

Do you find your FACE REDDENING when your WEEKEND GUESTS ask you to explain the PRINCIPLES behind the SUSPENSION BRIDGE?


Are you seeking an ANGLE to FILL SPACE or AIRTIME for the ONGOING STORY about the collapse of the TRAIN LINES at DAWLISH?


Ever wondered that that THING he HAD GOING with the HAT was about?


Did you ever wonder why your FELLOW CITIZENS voted Isambard Kingdom Brunel the SECOND GREATEST BRIT OF ALL TIME in a BBC poll in 2002?


Want to know how MARC BRUNEL, a French engineer, inventor and ASYLUM SEEKER went about TIGER-PARENTING* his boy Isambard to TURN HIM into a HIGHLY-EFFECTIVE ADULT?


How would you like to KNOW MORE about one of the greatest ENGINEERS in HISTORY, a man who had STYLE and SHOWMANSHIP in SPADES, who pioneered RAILWAYS and took time out to build the FIRST REAL MODERN SHIPS, a guy who could knock up a FLAT-PACK HOSPITAL with one hand while designing the WEIRD-LOOKING ROYAL ALBERT BRIDGE with the other?

If your answer to any of the above was:

“Hell, yeah!”

“Probably” or,

“Oh, I suppose so.” …

Then you need your own personal copy of


The latest book by Eugene Byrne

This is a quick and painless guide to the life and times of IKB. It tells you all about Brunel and his dad, and all his brilliant, visionary schemes, the triumphs and failures. It has loads of stories which people used to tell one another about Brunel, but which aren’t necessarily true, because that’s the kind of larger-than-life geezer he was.

It’s published by the History Press in their new POCKET GIANTS series and costs £6.99.

This is a trivial price to pay for all the future social prestige you will enjoy from knowing your Brunel. If I were selling them in the street I don’t doubt you’d hand over a £20 note and invite me to keep the change.

More details here.

Me talking to BBC History magazine about it here (2nd half of podcast).

Amazon page here.

(* He wouldn’t have used the expression “Tiger Mom” or “Tiger Dad” as it wasn’t in vogue at the time. Also, he was French, and since the emblematic French animal is the Gallic cock, we’re not going there.)

coandaThis is Henri Coandă. Handsome devil, ain’t he? He was damn clever, too.

He was born in 1886 and invented a recoilless gun, prefabricated houses and a solar-powered system of desalination, among many other things.

He is best-known, however, as one of the leading early pioneers of aviation. He designed several experimental aircraft including (though the claim is highly contentious) what is said to be the world’s first jet aircraft. The Coandă effect, the tendency of fluid jets to be attracted towards the nearest surface, is named after him.

The fact that he designed a disc-shaped experimental plane in the 1930s and that he was forced to collaborate with the Germans while living in France during the War is what underpins tales of Nazi flying saucers so beloved of so many conspiracy theorists.

Earlier in his career, though, Henri Coandă worked in Bristol. He joined the British & Colonial Aircraft Company in 1912, just two years after its foundation, as its Technical Director, and worked there for three years.

To cut a long story short, he made several key contributions to the company in its early years, not only helping ensure its commercial survival, but playing his part in building a firm which by 1914 was capable of turning out well-designed aircraft which played a critical role in winning the First World War.

Coandă had been born in Bucharest, and died there in 1972 after returning to Romania in his old age. Bucharest’s international airport is named after him.

This is one of the places where British news reporters have been hanging out lately, desperately looking for Romanians planning to come over here, steal our jobs and our benefits and randomly stab themselves in order to get free treatment on the NHS.

The next time (and it’ll be soon) you see or hear any of this spiteful, pig-ignorant drivel pumped out by rags owned by people who’d prefer you to hate hard-working foreigners rather than bankers or their own tax-dodging proprietors, remember that without one particular Romanian immigrant, Bristol might not have its aerospace industry.

And that we’d all be speaking German.

(Actually, that last bit is a slightly massive exaggeration, but you get the idea.)

LibraryFrom John Latimer: The Annals of Bristol in the 17th Century (William George’s Sons, Bristol, 1900)

A highly interesting donation to the city was offered to the Council on December 7th. Mr. Robert Redwood, a wealthy Bristolian living in St. Leonard’s parish, proffered his “lodge near the Marsh” for conversion into a library for the benefit of the citizens; and the gift was thankfully accepted.

With one exception — at Norwich — this was the first public library established in England. The donor had probably been in correspondence with Dr. Tobias Matthew, Archbishop of York, born over the shop of his father on Bristol Bridge, and may have been induced by his grace to take the step just recorded. At all events, the Archbishop hastened to forward a number of books drawn from his extensive library, which he desired should be preserved “for the free use of the merchants and shopkeepers of the city.”

In January, 1616, the Council resolved that “40s yearly should be allowed to him that now keepeth the new erected Library.” In a few years the institution became so popular as to require extended accommodation, and in April, 1634, the Corporation determined on its enlargement, “for which, purpose,” says the minute, ” Mr. Richard Vickris hath freely given a parcel of ground adjoining the said Library.”

A vote of not exceeding £30 was then granted “as well for new building the addition to be made as for repairing the old house,” the money being handed over to a gentleman charged with superintending the work, whose tragic fate was then undreamt of — “Mr. George Butcher” (or Boucher).*

In 1640, when the extension had been completed, an ironmonger was paid £3 17s 6d. “for 15 dozen and a half of book chains for the Library, “a mode of protection against thieves that, having regard to the portliness of most of the volumes, seems somewhat superfluous.

So then, Bristol’s library service, 400 years old today. Two days after the mayor decided that the two lower floors of the Central Library, built for the benefit of Bristol and all Bristolians, should be handed over to a selective “free school” that has lobbied behind the scenes – and in front of them with the help of a public relations firm which, by the way, you’re paying for – in what is one of the most shameless and brazen local land-grabs in Bristol’s recent history.

I could go on.

(* The undreamt of tragic fate was that Boucher was later hanged for plotting to hand Bristol over to the Royalists during the Civil War.)

I mention this in honour of this weekend’s forthcoming Bristol Con, which I can’t make. I know how much they all like weird Bristol yarns.

But it’s also in honour of the forthcoming half-millennium anniversary of the death of a very important Bristolian, or an utterly insignificant one (delete according to taste).

This is Thomas Norton, a real, genuine, honest-to-goodness, actual alchemist. Bristol’s own alchemist. A man of whom we know not very much, and much of what we do know may be nonsense. All kinds of tales get told about alchemists and, to make matters worse, he was involved in a number of legal disputes in which it suited both him and his enemies to tell a lot of fibs.

In 1466, his father Walter Norton left most of his lands in Worcestershire and Bristol to a son named Thomas, possibly the product of a later marriage. This meant that our Thomas was very cross, and had to seek a career, hence the alchemy. He spent the 1470s on the fringe of the court of King Edward IV, who was interested in alchemy, but Norton probably wasn’t as important as he liked to pretend he was. He ended up in a ferocious dispute with Bristol’s council over some land he claimed that the king had given him. He was also sheriff of Gloucestershire for a year and was employed by the crown to seize the property of one John Stacy, who was accused to practising witchcraft against the king.

In 1479 he charged the mayor of Bristol with treason. The mayor and council fought back, claiming Norton had swindled his younger brother Thomas out of his estates, and had imprisoned him, driving him from country and causing him to drown on the sea voyage as a result. Historians have indeed found records stating that Norton later owned the lands which had originally been left to his brother.

Norton was also said to be a drunkard who never went to church. The dispute reached such a pitch that the King personally intervened – on the council’s side, telling Norton to shut up or else.

Norton’s footnote in wider history is as author of a book called ‘The Ordinal of Alchemy’, a handbook for alchemists written in verse, and full of deliberately obscure references and allusions. This was either a) because he didn’t know jack about turning base metal into gold or b) because – as he put it – alchemy wasn’t for any old pleb; you had to be morally perfect and divinely approved to access the “subtile science of holi Alchymye”. The book was still in use over a century later, and like many alchemists, Norton takes a small amount of credit for inventing chemistry by saying that you should experiment, and observe your results. As he put it: “With due proofe and with discreet assaye, wise men may learn new things every day.”

And so to the Norton yarn… He is supposed to have claimed to have discovered the elixir of life (of course) but that it was stolen from him by a woman. The great Victorian Bristol storyteller Joseph Leech, either riffing on some now-forgotten local legend, or maybe just making it all up, fleshed the tale out. The thief, said Leech, was no less than the wife of William Canynges, the fabulously wealthy merchant. Canynges, good medieval gentleman that he was, took his obligations to church and society seriously, and gave away huge amounts of money to St Mary Redcliffe church.

Mrs Canynges, now that she had the elixir of life, was not at all pleased about this. If she was going to live for ever, she would need all her husband’s money to keep her in suitable style.

Anyway, she and Canynges had a screaming, shouting, crockery-throwing row about this, and she got so worked up that she had a seizure.

Don’t panic, she thinks, just go and get the vial of elixir nabbed from Master Norton …

Only when she gets there, the vial is empty. The elixir has been completely dried up by no less than the Virgin Mary herself, who doesn’t want this greedy baggage taking the money that is meant for the church dedicated to her.

And so perished the wretched Mistress Canynges.

Thomas Norton died on November 30 1513, and in honour of this occasion I think we should do something to commemorate him. Probably too late to organise a major Festival of Alchemy now, but perhaps people could meet up on the site of his house – it was in what’s now castle park, next to the water by the ruined St Peter’s Church – and maybe try and turn some base metal into gold, or perhaps concoct some elixirs.

Cah. Start out with the best of intentions and then you get sidetracked. Not looked at or done anything with the blog since the summer.

So you come back and see that 19 comments are pending and waiting approval. And they all say how marvellous this blog is and how much they love what “you guys are doing.” Which is nice, even if it is all spam.

I’ve been very busy with a lot of things, Bristol in World War One included. So here’s a story.

One of the things which unarguably put Britain on the side of the Good Guys in WW1 was that it started out trying not to conscript people into the army. It was also the only major combatant to permit conscientious objection to war service, difficult though this process was.

By 1918, though, we had full-blown conscription, and any man of military age who wasn’t in uniform because he was performing some other vital work needed an exemption certificate.

In March 1918 a man was called before the Bristol military service tribunal. He was the male half of a husband-and-wide acrobatic act called The Bells, who were then performing at the Hippodrome.

The man’s solicitor, Mr F.E. Metcalfe, explained that the act had previously been two men, but when one of them was called up to the army, the man had trained his wife to take the man’s place in less than eight weeks.

Naturally, the tribunal wanted to know why on earth a man who was performing as a music hall acrobat wasn’t in the army.

Mr Metcalfe said that his client had made four attempts to join the forces but had been rejected as Grade III – unfit. In desperation, the man, who spoke fluent French and German from his time as a travelling performer, had offered to join the Army as a physical training instructor. This offer, too, had been turned down.

Mr Metcalfe explained that although his client was an accomplished stage gymnast, the Army did not want him because: “He has a fractured skull, due to falling 75 feet whilst performing, a fractured ankle, a loose cartilage, flat feet, and is blind in one eye.

“His father was a gymnast, his grandfather was a gymnast and his brother, who was one of the few cases of a man continuing alive with a broken neck, was also a gymnast.”

The tribunal granted six months’ temporary exemption.



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