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.
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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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The chatter over how this should be marked has already started. There’s no point putting any links in here. You can Google the debate easily enuff, with government ministers, historians and assorted pundits all offering various views. These basically split into
a) It was horrible and futile,
b) It was horrible but necessary, or,
c) This fence is hurting my bum.
The problem with the horrible and futile school is that it’s a bit old hat, and that the ‘Oh What a Lovely War!’ or ‘Blackadder Goes Fourth’ viewpoint oversimplifies things. The generals weren’t all idiots, and by 1918 Britain had produced a thoroughly professional sort-of-citizen army which comprehensively defeated the Germans in the field.
The other issue with horrible and futile is that the knee-jerk leftist take on it is that the vile upper classes squandered the lives of the working classes. Not really; the most dangerous thing to be in the trenches was a public school educated junior officer.
The horrible but necessary school has been winning ground recently by pointing out that Germany was run by militaristic semi-autocratic regime which was the aggressor. It therefore had to be stopped by more decent and democratic powers.
Uh-huh. This begs the question of how much better Britain was (let’s leave France and America and Tsarist or Communist Russia out of it for now). Britain at this time was a highly stratified society run by a Conservative/Liberal oligarchy which in 1914 was in dread fear of socialism and trade unions, and which, by the way, didn’t think much to the idea of giving women the vote either. As for German aggression, well they thought (with good reason) that they were threatened by France and Russia and needed to strike first.
It all very well to take the view that we were better than the Germans, but if you actually read up on the rhetoric used by politicians and soldiers at the time, it is couched in terms of King and Empire, two things that very few Britons would be prepared to die for – and more significantly, kill for – nowadays.
So on the whole, me personally, while I can’t imagine a German victory being all that wonderful (though you can create counterfactuals in which it’s not that bad, and perhaps even prevents WW2), I’m mostly with the horrible and futile school. The more so since the war resolved nothing and was re-fought all over again in 1939-45, which really was horrible but necessary.
Mostly horrible and futile, I said … The one thing you can say is that the Great War brought about massive social change in Britain, and all of it for the better.
I’m currently working on a book about Bristol’s home front in WW1, which may not sound all that interesting but which actually turns out to be fascinating. Part of the problem we have with the Great War is that popular memory is almost exclusively bound up in mud, trenches, war poets and the tragedy of a generation of young men dying.
We tend to think very little about what happened at home, beyond perhaps some vague ideas that lots of women went to work in factories. The real story is far richer than that; this is a time of suffering and privation at home, but it is also a time of huge social change and of real advances in the conditions of working people in general and of women, too. On a day to day basis, though, there are also some fascinating stories, some of them awful, some of them rather funny. The middle class moral panics over the behaviour of the lower orders, for instance.
Moral panics because people are being paid better wages (and spending them on pianos, my dear!), because women have slightly more freedom, and with it other career options than just becoming servants. Returning servicemen knowing with utter certainty that newspapers tell lies. And coming back, in quite a lot of cases, actually, to eventually get decent housing. “Homes fit for heroes” was an empty promise for some, but it was fulfilled for many.
The War helped achieve real advances in most people’s lives, though again folk memory deceives us into believing that the 1920s and 30s were times of unalloyed deprivation for the working classes. They were in many places, and the 1926 General Strike was a genuinely revolutionary situation, but most people’s lives in most places most of the time were far better than they had been in a time of greater deference to one’s social betters.
(I’d also love to be able to stand up my completely unproven hypothesis that the cenotaph in Bristol’s city centre was sited there and not on College Green because the old establishment feared it would be a rallying point for trade unionists and socialists who had served in the war… War memorials don’t have to be conservative/establishment icons, you know,)
The Great War is part of the folklore of every family. Many of us still have diaries, letters, photos and medals from relatives who served. Some of us still have a bronze plaque awarded to the families of those who had lost their lives. Popularly known as the “dead man’s penny”. That’s the one for my great uncle, C/SM Patrick Byrne in the pic.
It’s more of a part of our lives than many of us realise. Perhaps 2014 will see it taking its proper place in popular memory, alongside WW2, of which we take rather more positive view.
Horrible and futile it was, but that should not diminish or demean those who lived and died in it. We should honour their memory, and make a decent account of what they went through, and of what they achieved.
In Bristol, much of the 2014 commemorations are being co-ordinated by Bristol 2014. You might want to look at their Facebook Group, which has lots of links to the debate, and loads of interesting little local stories.
M Shed are also looking for family mementoes for their big 2014 exhibition. See http://mshed.org/about-us/news/what-did-your-relatives-do-during-the-first-world-war/
Plenty more of this in the months to come. BTW, I just this morning put up a wee pic of the YMCA “Dug Out” for servicemen in Bristol in 1917 on the FB group. If anyone out there has any idea of the relationship between this place and the famous local nightclub of later decades, I’d love to know. Cheers.
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I officially become editor of the Post’s Bristol Times this week, following the retirement of Gerry Brooke. He’ll be a hard act to follow as he really does know everything about Bristol’s history.
BT is the Bristol Post’s local history/nostalgia section and it’s in the middle of the paper every Tuesday.
This week’s includes articles by me on the day Prince Albert (not the male jewellery) came to launch the ss Great Britain, the new edition of the Dictionary of Bristle and the rise and fall of Inmos, a local firm set up by the government (a company set up by the British government!) in the 1970s, and which played a small but influential part in what people used to call the microchip revolution.
I’m chuffed to bits to be taking this on for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, it’s a great excuse to continue putting off the novel I’ve been successfully putting off for ten years now.
It also means I get my grubby paws on the archives of one of the country’s leading regional newspapers; it’s probably too much to hope that we’ll find a photo of the Lord Mayor greeting the deputation from the Hitler Youth that visited in the 1930s with a Nazi salute, but there’s all sorts of other cool stuff down there. Whatever does turn up will be in the Post every Tuesday, so I’d place a regular order with your newsagent now if I were you.
And then there are the readers. BT gets loads of feedback from Bristolians of all ages; memories, stories, yarns and family legends. Not to mention the expert input from individuals with the most encyclopaedic knowledge of recondite subjects (especially anything with engines).
So that’s me. In local history spod heaven. If you have any ideas, requests, suggestions, information etc. you know where I am.
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A couple of years back Bristol was covered in life-size fibreglass gorillas, all of which were done out in different colours. Everyone loved the gorillas. Children got all excited whenever they spotted one, and even adults could be seen traipsing all over town to tick off every one of the 61 primates on the list. The whole thing was done to mark Bristol Zoo’s 175th birthday and it all raised a load of money for charity.
So this summer we have Gromits. As in Wallace and. As in Aardman Animations being a Bristol firm, and Gromit being one of their most loved creations, and so forth. Anyways, there’s a load of Gromits all over town, each with a different sponsor, and each decorated by a different artist.
The Gromits will be even more popular than the gorillas. You’d want to be some kind of weirdo not to love them, or at any rate not to love the way that kiddies squeal in delight every time they spot a new one.
Here’s one outside the Victoria Rooms, Clifton, photographed at 7.30 this morning. So we have a fibreglass model of an animated comedy character covered in gold mosaic tiles right next to a statue of King Edward VII. The statue, by the way, was unveiled 100 years ago this summer by his son George V. George didn’t want the Bristol statue of his dad to be on a horse (as is the normal etiquette with statues of kings) as it might be better than the one he was putting up in London.
Either way, one’s a flattering representation of a worthless parasitic sybarite who in later life was so corpulent he had to have a special chair made so that he could be serviced by his mistresses, and the other one’s a plasticine dog who’s brought innocent pleasure to millions. (This is the first and, I imagine, the only occasion on which I’d had some grounding in postmodern philosophy, so’s I could say something clever here.)
So foreigners, visit Bristol this summer, why don’t you? You can spot all the Gromits. They beat the living bejeezus out of 90% of all the other public sculpture in Bristol, and indeed the rest of the world. More here: http://www.gromitunleashed.org.uk/
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Doing the old tall tales & urban legends walk Sunday week for the Bristol Civic Society. Your money goes towards making Bristol more lovely, and not towards making my bank balance more lovely, so cough up. Just for a gratuitous plug, here be one of my favourite Bristol seafaring yarns, yarr, belike (etc.). Even though this one’s actually true.
So it’s the early 1700s, and Britain is in the war of Spanish Succession fighting France and Spain. As was the practice back then, the government doesn’t just use the Royal Navy to prey on enemy shipping, but privatises the war effort by licensing merchant ships to do the same. Which is how come certain businessmen in ye port of Bristol fitted out two privateers, the Duke and the Duchess to interrupt the enemy’s commerce in the hope of profit. This, in other words, is state-approved piracy, and, by the way, some of it was bankrolled by those oh-so-nonviolent Quakers. Just saying.
This resulting expedition was the stuff of legend. Captain Woodes Rogers and his navigator William Dampier took the two ships, crewed for the most part by the dregs and sweepings of the docksides and prisons (few real sailors wanted to go on such a hare-brained romp), and came home with a vast fortune in treasure, plundered goods and ships taken as prizes.
Not only that, but they had circumnavigated the globe and returned with most of their scurvy crew more or less alive. It was the greatest feat of Bristolian seamanship ever.
AND they rescued this bloke from a desert island. His name was Alexander Selkirk, and his adventures became the basis for ‘Robinson Crusoe’, a yarn written up by a seedy and unscrupulous hack named Daniel Defoe.
But here’s my favourite bit … Along the way one of the ships they captured was a Spaniard called the “Marquiss” (presumably Marqués) which, they were told, carried a fabulously valuable cargo. Eagerly our oak-hearted men broke into the hold, where they found …
Well, let Woodes Rogers explain: “We found in the Marquiss near 500 bales of Pope’s Bulls, 16 reams in a bale.”
What he means is papal indulgences. Certificates which gave the holder a certain amount of time off Purgatory, the place where Catholics believed most people went to be “purged” of their sins when they died before they could enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Purgatory is not a nice place, and you want to spend as little time there as poss., so if you gave the Catholic Church some money, they would see to it that your time there would be reduced.
Rogers said: “These bulls are imposed on the people, and sold by the clergy from 3 rials to 50 pieces of eight each, according to the ability of the purchaser.”
This is indeed a cargo of immense value to the Catholic Spaniards. But to our Protestant Bristolian cut-throats eager for gold and jewellery?
Rogers: “We threw most of them overboard to make room for better goods, except what we kept to burn the pitch of our ships’ bottoms when we careened them.”
And the moral of the story is that pieces of paper are only as valuable or as useful as consensus agrees them to be. Banknotes are the same, what?
I’ll tell you this one all over again on the walk, and a bit else besides. So cross the Civic Society’s palm with pieces of virtual eight, ye lubbers. If you all manage to keep up with me on the day I’ll also show you where Princess Diana’s assassination was masterminded. No, really.
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‘Some People’ is out on DVD on May 20th. It’s not been on telly that often, and is unlikely to feature in anyone’s top 100, or even top 1000, greatest movies of all time, but it’s an interesting little piece of social history. It’s also a real treat for Bristol history spods, and indeed older Bristolians who were around at the time.
Directed by Clive Donner and released in 1962 it was a cheap and cheerful teen drama (with a bit of music) which was actually intended as propaganda for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Scheme. A bunch of teens in Bristol are hanging out, getting up to no good and headed for a future of problems with the law until the Scheme channels their energies in more constructive directions.
This is British youth just on the eve of the Beatles, and moments before the Sixties begin to swing. But this isn’t about neets or deprived youth; quite the opposite. One of the intriguing things you need to get your head around is that it’s prosperity, and not unemployment, that’s being blamed for their delinquency. These kids have jobs, and at one point a magistrate opines that the problem with youth today is that they have it too good, and that easy credit in the form of hire-purchase (ask your grandmother) is making the kids irresponsible.
It’s got an interesting cast, too. The young Ray Brooks and David Hemmings are very nice to look at, as are Angela Douglas and Anneke Wills (later famous as one of Dr Who’s assistants). Kenneth More, a British film megastar at this time, also gets a look in (he apparently did it for a minimal fee as he thought it was a good cause, and didn’t have any other work on at the time). Mind you, most of them have trouble doing a convincing Bristol accent; More is excused from having to do it because he’s a manager, and therefore his character is posh (and probably not from Bristol). The one who gets the accent wrongest of all is Harry H. Corbett (later famous as Harold Steptoe from the TV comedy Steptoe & Son). That said, there are plenty of real Bristolians in small roles.
Bristol is also a star of the movie, and you can have all sorts of fun spotting the locations or getting the occasional handle on the life of the city at the time. So here’s the water tower on the Downs being a meet-up point for bikers, and here’s a nicely-done illegal bike race out along the Portway. You get Christmas Steps, Filwood (I think) swimming pool, lots of Lockleaze, all the usual landmarks, and some glimpses of the City Docks when they were still at work. There’s even some footage of one of BAC’s now-forgotten experimental aircraft, the Bristol 188 “Flaming Pencil”. I could go on about this, or show you some of the photos I took of it at the RAF Museum at Cosford, but let’s leave that for now…
That’s ‘Some People’, one to get now, or file away for the Christmas list for the older Bristolian in your life. Someone put a bit of it on YouTube, so here’s a taster.
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