December 6, 1768 The Murderer’s Dictionary

Among the entire catalog of works there is no tale so queer as the Oxford English dictionary, and the convicted murderer who helped to bring it into being.  From an insane asylum, no less.

For the great reference works of the English language, the beginnings were often surprisingly modest. Encyclopedia Britannica was first published on this day in 1768 in Edinburgh, Scotland: part of the Scottish enlightenment. Webster’s dictionary got its beginnings with a single infantrymen of the American Revolution, who went on to codify what would become the standardized system of spelling for “American English“.  In Noah Webster’s dictionary, ‘colour’ became ‘color’, and programme’ became ‘program’, a novel concept at a time when the thought of a “correct“ way of spelling, was a new and unfamiliar idea.

Among the entire catalog of works there is no tale so queer as the Oxford English dictionary, and the convicted murderer who helped bring it into being.  From an insane asylum, no less.

Dissatisfied with what were at that time a spare four reference works including Webster’s dictionary, the Philological society of London first discussed what was to become the standard reference work of the English language, in 1857. The work was expected to take 10 years in compilation and cover some 64,000 pages.  The editors were off by sixty years.  Five years into the project, the team had made it all the way to “ant“.

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Dr. William Chester Minor

William Chester Minor was a physician around this time, serving the Union army during the American Civil War.   

The role of this experience in the man’s later psychosis, is impossible to know. Minor was in all likelihood a paranoid schizophrenic, a condition poorly understood in his day.

As a combat surgeon, Minor saw things that no man was ever meant to see.  Terrible mutilation was inflicted on both sides at the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness.  Hundreds were wounded and unable to get out of the way of the brush fire, burning alive those sufferers too broken to move, before the horrified eyes of comrades and enemies, alike.  One soldier would later write:  It was as though “hell itself had usurped the place of earth“.

Dr. Minor was ordered to brand the forehead of an Irish deserter, with the letter “D”.  The episode scarred the soldier, and left the doctor with paranoid delusions that the Irish were coming to ‘get him’.

As a child born to New England missionaries working in Ceylon, Minor was well adjusted to the idea of foreign travel, as a means of dealing with travail. He took a military pension and moved to London in 1871, to escape the demons who were by that time, closing in.

One day, Minor shot and killed one George Merritt, a stoker who was walking to work.  He believed the man had broken into his room.  The trial was published widely, the “Lambeth Tragedy” revealing the full extent of Minor’s delusional state, to the public.

Minor was judged not guilty on grounds of insanity, and remanded “until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known”, to the Broadmoor institution for the criminally insane. Victorian England was by no means ‘enlightened’ by modern standards, and inmates were always referred to as ‘criminals’ and ‘lunatics’. Never as ‘patients’. Yet Broadmoor, located on 290 acres in the village of Crowthorne in Berkshire was England’s newest such asylum, and a long way from previous such institutions.

Minor was housed in block 2, the “Swell Block”, where his military pension and family wealth afforded him two rooms, instead of the usual one. In time, Minor acquired so many books that one room was converted to a library.  Surprisingly, it was Merritt’s widow Eliza, who delivered many of the books.  The pair became friends, and Minor used a portion of his wealth to “pay” for his crime, and to help the widow raise her six kids.

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Broadmoor asylum for the criminally insane

Dr. James Murray assumed editorship of the “Big Dictionary” of English in 1879, and issued an appeal in magazines and newspapers, for outside contributions. Whether this seemed a shot at redemption to William Minor or merely something to do with his time is anyone’s guess, but Minor had nothing but time. And books.

William Minor collected his first quotation in 1880 and continued to do so for twenty years, always signing his submissions: Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire.

The scope of the man’s work was prodigious, he himself an enigma, assumed to be some country gentlemen.  Perhaps one of the overseers, at the asylum.

In 1897, “The Surgeon of Crowthorne” failed to attend the Great Dictionary dinner.  Dr. Murray decided to meet his mysterious contributor in person and finally did so, four years later.  In his cell. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall, when this Oxford don was ushered into the office of Broadmoor’s director, only to learn that the man he looked for, was an inmate.

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Dr. “Murray at work in his scriptorium, a dedicated room filled with books, at Oxford University (date unknown)”. H/T allthatsinteresting.com

Dr. Minor would carefully index and document each entry, which editors compared with the earliest such word use submitted by other lexicographers. In this manner, over 10,000 of his submissions made it into the finished work, including the words ‘colander’, ‘countenance’ and ‘ulcerated’.

By 1902, Minor’s paranoid delusions had crowded out his mind.  His submissions came to an end.  What monsters lurked inside the man’s head is anyone’s guess.  Home Secretary Winston Churchill ordered Minor to be removed back home to the United States, following a 1910 episode in which Minor emasculated himself, with a knife.

The madman lived out the last ten years of his life, in various institutions for the criminally insane. William Chester Minor died in 1920 and went to his rest in a small inauspicious grave, in Connecticut.

Over seventy years in compilation, only one single individual is credited with more entries to the greatest reference work in the history of the English language, than this one murderer, working from a home for lunatics.

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Oxford English Dictionary

Feature image, top of page:  Dr. Murray and his Oxford University editorial team, 1915.  H/T allthatsinteresting.com

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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December 1, 2013 The Sacred Soil of Flanders Fields

I’ve long believed that we can’t be participating citizens of a self-governing Republic, we can’t know where we want our nation to go, if we don’t understand where it’s been.  It’s one of the principle reasons for examining history.  It’s why I think something wonderful happened five years ago, and I don’t think many of us heard about it.

November 11, nineteen short days ago, marked the one-hundred year anniversary of the end of World War One.  Before they had numbers, this was “The Great War”.  The “War to end all Wars”.

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Passchendaele

There is barely a piece of 20th or 21st century history, which cannot be traced back to it.

International Communism was borne of the Great War, without which there would have been no cold war, no Korean War, no war in Vietnam. The killing fields of Cambodia would have remained mere rice fields.  The spiritual descendants of Chiang Kai-shek’s brand of capitalism would be running all of China, instead of only Taiwan.

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The current proportions of the Middle East arose from the Great War. While the region’s tribal alliances and religious strife is nothing new, those conditions would have taken a different form, had it not been for those boundaries.

World War II, an apocalypse which left more dead, wounded or missing than any conflict in world history, was little more than the Great War, part II. A Marshall of France, on reading the Versailles Treaty formally ending WWI, said “This isn’t peace. This is a cease-fire that will last for 20 years”.  He was off, by about 36 days.

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I’ve long believed that we can’t be participating citizens of a self-governing Republic, we can’t know where we want our nation to go, if we don’t understand where it’s been.  It’s one of the principle reasons for examining history.  It’s why I think something wonderful happened five years ago, and I don’t think many of us heard about it.

Over the summer of 2013, more than 1,000 British and Belgian schoolchildren visited seventy battlefields of the Great War.  Ypres.  Passchendaele.  Verdun.  The Somme. This was a singular event.  Never before had the Commonwealth War Graves Commission permitted the excavation of these battlefields.

All over Northern France and Belgium, the region known as “Flanders”.  There these children collected samples of the sacred soil of those fields of conflict.

The soil from those battlefields was placed in 70 WWI-style burlap sandbags, each stenciled with a red poppy, where it came from, and the dates.  Those sandbags began their journey with a solemn Armistice Day ceremony at the Menin Gate of Ypres, that memorial to the 56,395 British and Commonwealth soldiers who fought and died on the Ypres salient of the Great War, and whose bodies were never found or identified.

The sacred soil of Flanders Fields transported to London aboard the Belgian Navy frigate Louisa Marie, and installed with great care at Wellington Barracks, the central London home of the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards.

There the soil of the Great War would nourish and support a garden, inscribed with the words of Doctor John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields”.  Ready for the following year, a solemn remembrance of the centenary of the War to end all Wars.

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That day, December 1, 2013, was for the Flanders Fields Memorial Garden, the first full day of forever.  I cannot think of anything more fitting than that it was children, our future and posterity, who retrieved the sacred soil of Flanders and installed it in that garden.

It is now for that posterity to keep our history alive, and never to let it fade, into some sepia-toned and forgotten past.

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November 21, 1916 Miss Unsinkable

Floating on the still, frigid waters of the north Atlantic, Violet Jessop must have wondered about Captain Smith.  This was not their first cruise together, nor even their first shipwreck.

The maiden voyage of the largest ship afloat left the port of Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, carrying 2,224 passengers and crew. An accident was narrowly averted only minutes later, as Titanic passed the moored liners SS City of New York and Oceanic.

Both smaller ships lifted in the bow wave formed by Titanic’s passing, then dropped into the trough. New York’s mooring cables snapped, swinging her about, stern-first. Collision was averted by a bare 4-feet as the panicked crew of the tugboat Vulcan struggled to bring New York under tow.

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Titanic Captain, Edward Smith

By the evening of the 14th, Titanic was 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, conditions clear, calm and cold. There were warnings of drifting ice from other ships in the area, but it was generally believed that ice posed little danger to large vessels at this time.  Captain Edward Smith opined that he “[couldn’t] imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”

Lookout Frederick Fleet alerted the bridge of an iceberg dead ahead at 11:40pm. First Officer William Murdoch ordered the engines put in reverse, veering the ship to the left. Lookouts were relieved, thinking that collision had been averted. Below the surface, the starboard side of Titanic ground into the iceberg, opening a gash the length of a football field.

Violet_jessop_titanicThe ship was built to survive flooding in four watertight compartments. The iceberg had opened five. As Titanic began to lower at the bow, it soon became clear that the ship was doomed.

Those aboard were poorly prepared for such an emergency. The ship was built for 64 wooden lifeboats, enough for 4,000, however the White Star Liner carried only 16 wooden lifeboats and four collapsibles. Regulations then in effect required enough room for 990 people. Titanic carried enough to accommodate 1,178.

As it was, there was room for over half of those on board, provided that each boat was filled to capacity.  So strictly did Royal Navy officer Charles Lightoller  adhere to the “women and children first” directive, that many boats were launched, half-full.  The first lifeboat in the water, rated at 65 passengers, launched with only 28 aboard.

Lightoller himself survived, only by clinging to the bottom of an overturned raft.

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Violet Jessop was among those first to leave, clutching someone’s forgotten baby.  As ship’s nurse, she was there to look after the comfort of the White Star Line passengers.  Now, this small boat full of confused and disoriented women were being lowered into the cold and darkness of night, while all aboard the great ship was light, and warmth.

Denial is a funny thing, that psychological defense mechanism described by Sigmund Freud, in which a person rejects a plain fact too uncomfortable to contemplate.  There was denial aplenty that night, from the well dressed passengers filing onto the decks, and from Violet Jessop, counting the lighted portholes as the boat creaked ever downward.  One row, then two:  every abandoned stateroom a tableau.  Three, and four:  feathered hats on dressers, scattered jewels on table tops.  Five and then six:  each lighted circle revealing a snapshot, soon to slip out of sight.

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Floating on the still, frigid waters of the north Atlantic, Jessop must have wondered about Captain Smith.  This was not their first cruise together, nor even their first shipwreck.

The White Star Line’s RMS Olympic set sail for New York seven months earlier, with Captain Edward Smith, commanding. Violet Jessop was on duty as the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hawke performed mechanical tests, on a course parallel to the trans-Atlantic liner. Something went wrong and the tiller froze, swinging the bow of the Edgar-class cruiser, toward the liner. Hydrodynamic forces took over and the two ships collided, just after noon. The hull of the cruiser was smashed, two great gashes carved into the side of Olympic, one below the water line.

Two compartments flooded, but the watertight doors did their job. Olympic limped back to Southampton for repairs. Captain Smith and Violet Jessop moved on to the maiden voyage of her sister ship, the unsinkable RMS Titanic.

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Denial turned to horror that frigid April night in 1912, when six rows of lights became five and then four, and Titanic began to rise by the stern.  RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene around 4am in response to distress calls, and diverted to New York with survivors.  Four days later, a crowd of 40,000 awaited the arrival of 705 survivors , in spite of a cold, driving rain.  It would take four full days to compile and release the list of casualties.

Violet Jessop survived that night.  Captain Smith, did not.

Back in 1907, Director General of the White Star Line J. Bruce Ismay planned a series of three sister ships, to compete with the Cunard lines’ Mauritania, and Lusitania. What these lacked in speed would be made up in size, and luxurious comfort. The three vessels were to be named Olympic, Titanic and Gigantic.

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One of Britannic’s funnels, in transit to the ship

That last name was quietly changed following the Titanic disaster and, on December 12, 1915, the newly christened Britannic was ready for service.

Four years later, the world was at war. Nurse Jessop was working aboard HMHS (His Majesty’s Hospital Ship) Britannic.  On November 21, 1916, HMHS Britannic was on station near Kea in the Aegean Sea, when she was struck by a German mine, or torpedo.  Violet Jessop calmly made her way to her cabin,  She’d been here, before.  There she collected a ring, a clock and a prayer book, and helped another nurse, collect her composure.

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After the Carpathia rescue, Jessop complained to friends and family that she missed her toothbrush. Her brother Patrick had jokingly told her, next time you wreck, “look after your toothbrush”.  This time, she didn’t forget it.

Britannic should have survived even with five watertight compartments filled, but nurses defied orders and opened the windows, to ventilate the wards.   In fifty-five minutes, HMHS Britannic replaced her sister ship Titanic, as the largest vessel on the bottom of the sea.

Fortunately, daytime hours combined with warmer weather and more numerous lifeboats, to lessen the cost in lives.  1,035 were safely evacuated from the sinking vessel, keeping the death toll in the Britannic wreck, to thirty.

Violet Jessop survived three of the most famous shipwrecks of her age, and never tired of working at sea. She returned to work as stewardess aboard RMS Olympic after the war, before retiring to private life and passing away, in 1971.

John Maxtone-Graham, editor of “Titanic Survivor”, the story of her life, remembers one last story about “Miss Unsinkable”. Fifty-nine years after the wreck, the phone rang late one night, during a violent thunderstorm. A woman’s voice at the other end asked “Is this the Violet Jessop who was a stewardess on the Titanic and rescued a baby?” “Yes” came the reply, “who is this?” The woman laughed, and responded “I was that baby.”

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

 

November 12, 1912 Frozen in Time

Over a hundred years later you can still feel anguish from the man’s diary: “The worst has happened…All the day dreams must go…Great God! This is an awful place”.

Roald AmundsenAs long as he could remember, Roald Amundsen wanted to be an explorer.  As a boy, he would read about the doomed Franklin Arctic Expedition, of 1848.  A sixteen-year-old Amundsen took inspiration from Fridtjof Nansen’s epic crossing of Greenland, in 1888.

The period would come to be called the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration.  Amundsen was born to take part.

Not so, Robert Falcon Scott.   A career officer with the British Royal Navy, Scott would take a different path to this story.

Clements Markham, President of the British Royal Geographical Society (RGS), was known to “collect” promising young naval officers with an eye toward future polar exploration.  The two first met on March 1, 1887, when the eighteen-year old midshipman’s cutter won a sailing race, across St. Kitt’s Bay.

In 1894, Scott’s father John made a disastrous mistake, selling the family brewery and investing the proceeds, badly.  The elder Scott’s death of heart disease three years later brought on fresh family crisis, leaving John’s widow Hannah and her two unmarried daughters, dependent on Robert and his younger brother, Archie.

Now more than ever, Scott was eager to distinguish himself with an eye toward promotion, and the increase in income which came with it.

RobertFalconScott.jpgIn the Royal Navy, limited opportunities for career advancement were eagerly sought after, by any number of ambitious officers.  Home on leave in 1899, Scott chanced once again to meet the now-knighted “Sir” Clements Markham, and learned of an impending RGS Antarctic expedition, aboard the barque-rigged auxiliary steamship, RRS Discovery.  What passed between the two went unrecorded but, a few days later, Scott showed up at the Markham residence, and volunteered to lead the expedition.

The Discovery expedition of 1901-’04 was one of science as well as exploration.  Despite a combined polar experience of near-zero, the fifty officers and men under Robert Falcon Scott made a number of important biological, zoological and geological findings, proving that the Antarctic continent was once, forested.  Though later criticized as clumsy and amateurish, a journey south in the direction of the pole discovered the polar plateau, establishing the southernmost record for its time at 82° 17′ S, only 530 miles short of the pole.

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Kathleen Bruce Scott

Discovery returned in September 1904, the expedition hailed by one writer as “one of the great polar journeys”, of its time.  Once an obscure naval officer, Scott now entered Edwardian society, and moved among the higher social and economic circles, of the day.

A brief but stormy relationship ensued with Kathleen Bruce, a sculptress who studied under Auguste Rodin, and counted among her personal friends, the likes of Pablo Picasso, Aleister Crowley and Isadora Duncan.  The couple was married on September 2, 1908 and the marriage produced one child, Peter Markham Scott, who went on to found the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The elder Scott would not live to see it.

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Ernest Shackleton, ca 1909

The “Great Southern Journey” of Scott’s Discovery officer Ernest Shackleton, arrived at a point 112 miles short of the pole on January 9, 1909, providing Scott with the impetus for a second attempt, the following year.  Scott was still fundraising for the expedition when the old converted whaler Terra Nova departed Cardiff, in South Wales.  Scott joined the ship in South Africa and arrived in Melbourne Australia in October, 1910.

Meanwhile, and unbeknownst to Scott, Roald Amundsen was preparing for his own drive on the south pole, aboard the ship “Fram” (Forward).

It was in Melbourne that Scott received the telegram: “Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic Amundsen“.  Robert Falcon Scott now faced a race to the pole.

Unlike Amundsen who adopted the lighter fur-skins of the Inuit, the Scott expedition wore heavy wool clothing, depending on motorized and horse-drawn transport, and man-hauling sledges for the final drive across the polar plateau. Dog teams were expected to meet them only on the way out, on March 1.

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Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano, in the world. Robert Falcon Scott took this photograph in 1911

Weak ponies, poorly acclimatized to the wretched conditions of Antarctica, slowed the depot-laying part of the Scott expedition.  Four horses died of cold or had to be shot, because they slowed the team.

Expedition member Lawrence “Titus” Oates warned Scott against the decision to locate “One-Ton Depot” 35-miles short of the planned location at 80°.  “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.”  His words would prove prophetic.

Scott Expedition

Unlike the earlier attempt, Robert Falcon Scott made it to the pole this time, only to find that Amundsen’s Norwegian team had beat him there, by a mere five weeks. Over a hundred years later you can still feel anguish from the man’s diary: “The worst has happened…All the day dreams must go…Great God! This is an awful place”.

Defeated, the five-man Scott party turned and began the 800-mile, frozen slog back from the Pole on January 19, 1912.  Team member Edgar “Taff” Evans’ condition began to deteriorate as early as the 23rd. A bad fall on Beardmore Glacier left the man concussed on February 4, “dull and incapable”.  Another fall two weeks later, left Evans dead at the foot of the glacier.

Man-hauled sledges

Dog teams failed to materialize at the appointed time.  Within days, Titus himself was severely frostbitten, concerned that his incapacity would become a threat and a burden to the team. He left his tent for the last time and limped into a blizzard on March 17, saying “I am just going outside and may be some time”.  He never returned.

Noble as it was, Lawrence Oates’ suicide, came to naught.  The last three made their final camp on March 19, with 400 miles yet to go.   A howling blizzard descended on the tents the following day and lasted for days, as Scott, Henry “Birdie” Bowers and Dr. Edward Wilson wrote good-bye letters to mothers, wives, and others.

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Starving and frostbitten, Robert Falcon Scott wrote to his diary in the final hours of his life “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.” In his final entry, he worried about the financial burden on his family, and those of the doomed expedition: “Last entry.  For God’s sake look after our people”.

The lowest ground level temperature ever recorded was −128.6° Fahrenheit at the Soviet Vostok Antarctic Station, in 1983.  Meteorological conditions for those last days in the Scott camp, went undocumented.

The frozen corpses of Robert Falcon Scott and his comrades were found on November 12, 1912, that last diary entry dated March 29.  A high cairn of snow was erected over it all, that final camp becoming the three men’s tomb. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribing on it the names of those lost: Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans. A line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, was carved into the cross:

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.
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Defeated by only weeks, the Scott party spends a moment at the south pole, before turning for the frozen, 800-mile slog, back.

It was eleven miles short of the next supply depot.

On hearing the fate of his rival, Roald Amundsen said “I would gladly forgo any honor or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death”.

A century later, ice and snow have covered the last camp of the southern party.  Pressed ever downward by the weight of snow and ice, their corpses are encased seventy-five-feet down in the Ross Ice Shelf and inching their way outward, expected to reach the Ross Sea sometime around 2276.  One day to break off and float away, at the heart of some unknown and nameless iceberg.

Feature image, top of page:  Last Camp of the Southern Party, of Robert Scott Falcon

November 4, 1918 Soldier Poet

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was working as a private English tutor in Bordeaux, when the “Great War” broke out in 1914.

800px-Memorial_to_the_Artists_Rifles,_Royal_Academy,_LondonAt first in no hurry to sign up, he even considered joining the French Army before returning home to England, to enlist in the Artists Rifles Training Corps, in October 1915.

Originally formed in 1859, the Artists Rifles was a British special forces regiment, raised in London and comprised of painters, musicians, actors and architects, and symbolized by the heads of the Roman gods Mars and Minerva.

It must have felt a natural place.  Wilfred Owen was a poet, a talent first discovered about ten years earlier, at age ten or eleven.

Owen was commissioned Second Lieutenant after six-months training, and posted with the Manchester Regiment of line infantry.  An application to the Royal Flying Corps was rejected in 1916 and he was shipped to France, joining the 2nd Manchester regiment near Beaumont Hamel, on the river Somme.

He was contemptuous of his men at first, considering them to be louts and barbarians.  He wrote home to his mother Susan in 1917, describing his company as “expressionless lumps”.  The war would soon beat that out of him.

Owen was close with his mother, his letters home telling a tale of mud and frostbite, of fifty hours spent under heavy bombardment, sheltered only by a muddy, flooded out dugout, of falling through shell-shattered earth into a cellar below, earning him a trip to the hospital.  It would not be his last.

Owen was caught in an explosion during the bitter battle of St. Quentin, blown off of his feet and into a hole, there to spend days fading in and out of consciousness amidst the shattered remains of a fellow officer.

d6d65d6After this experience, soldiers reported him behaving strangely. Owen was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia or shell shock, what we now understand to be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, for treatment.

There, Dr. Arthur Brock encouraged Owen to work hard on his poetry, to overcome his shell shock.  There he met another patient, the soldier and poet, Siegfried Sassoon. The chance meeting would elevate Wilfred Owen to one of the great war poets, of his generation.

Owen’s work was qualitatively different before this time, vaguely self important but never self pitying. Never a pacifist – he held those people to ridicule – Owen’s nightmares now brought forth a brutal honesty and a deep compassion for the burdens of the ordinary soldier.  Tales of trench life:  of gas, lice, mud and death, of Hell and returning to earth, steeped in contempt for the patriotic sentimentality of non-combatants and the slurs of cowardice, so lightly dispensed by the women of the “White Feather” movement.

Anthem for Doomed Youth, is a classic of the period:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

wilfred-owenOwen continued to write through his period of convalescence, his fame as author and poet growing through the late months of 1917 and into March of the following year. Supporters requested non-combat postings on his behalf, but such requests were turned down. It’s unlikely he would have accepted them, anyway. His letters reveal a deep sense of obligation, an intention to return to the front to be part of and to tell the story of the common man, thrust by his government into uncommon conditions.

Wilfred Owen well understood his special talent.  He wanted a return to front line combat, made all the more urgent when Sassoon was once again wounded, and removed from the front.

He was back in France by September 1918, capturing a German machine gun position on the 29th, for which he would be awarded the Military Cross.  Posthumously.

On October 31, Owen wrote home to his mother, from the cellar of the Forrester’s house, at Ors.  It was to be the last such note she would ever receive,  “Of this I am certain: you could not be surrounded by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.

The forty-four mile Sambre-Oise Canal flows through the Meuse river basin, a network of 38 locks directing the water’s flow and connecting the Netherlands and Belgium with the central waterways of France. Forces of the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex forced the canal on November 4, in coordination with elements of the 2nd Manchester Regiment and the Lancashire Fusiliers. British forces were to cross surrounding fields lined with high hedges, then to cross the canal by portable foot bridges, or climbing across the lock gates, themselves.

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The battle of the Sambre–Oise Canal was one of the last Allied victories of the Great War, and not without cost. Lock houses on the opposite side formed strong points for German defensive fire, from small arms and machine guns.

Wilfred Owen was at the head such a raiding party, when the bullets from the German machine gun tore into his body. He died a week nearly to the hour, from the armistice which would end the war.  He was twenty-five.

The church bells of Shrewsbury rang out in celebration that day in 1918, as Owen’s parents Tom and Susan, received the telegram.  The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

“Deeply regret to inform you, that…”

“Dulce et Decorum Est”

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen, 1917

October 21, 1774 First Flag

“…Steadfast, in Freedom’s Cause, we’ll live and die,
Unawed by Statesmen; Foes to Tyranny,
But if oppression brings us to our Graves,
and marks us dead, she ne’er shall mark us Slaves”

The Mayflower set sail from England on September 6, 1620, and fetched up on the outer reaches of Cape Cod in mid-November, near the present-day site of Provincetown Harbor.

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Mayflower, historic reproduction

One was born over those 66 days at sea, another died.  They were 101 in all, including forty members of the English Separatist Church, a radical Puritan faction who felt the Church of England hadn’t gone far enough, in the Protestant Reformation.

There the group drew up the first written framework of government established in the United States, 41 of them signing the Mayflower Compact on board the ship on November 11, 1620.

With sandy soil and no place to shelter from North Atlantic storms, a month in that place was enough to convince them of its unsuitability. Search parties were sent out and, on December 21, the “Pilgrims“crossed Cape Cod Bay and arrived at what we now know, as Plymouth Harbor.

Fully half of them died that first winter but the rest hung on, with assistance from the Grand Sachem Massasoit (inter-tribal chief) of the Wampanoag confederacy, in the form of the emissaries, Samoset and Squanto. The Mayflower returned to England in April 1621, with half its original crew.

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British Red Ensign

Three more ships arrived in Plymouth over the next two years, including the Fortune (1621), the Anne and the Little James (1623). Those who arrived on these first four ships were known as the “Old Comers” of Plymouth colony, and were given special treatment in the affairs of “America’s Home Town”.

A short seventeen years later, members of the Plymouth Colony founded the town of Taunton twenty-four miles inland, and formally incorporated the place on September 3, 1639.

In 1656, the first successful iron works in Plymouth Colony and only the third in “New England” was established in Taunton, on the Two Mile River. The Taunton Iron Works operated for over 200 years, until 1876.

The town was once home to several silver smithing operations, including Reed & Barton, F.B. Rogers, and Poole Silver. To this day, Taunton is known as the “Silver City”.

Taunton also has the distinction of flying what may have been the first distinctly American flag, in history.

united_states_taunton_flag_liberty_and_union_1774_coffee_mug-rf4e479fc61a14108aaef1be92fcbb695_x7jgr_8byvr_512First raised above the town square on October 19, 1774, the flag’s canton featured the Union Jack, on the blood red field of the British Red Ensign. The Declaration of Independence lay two years in the future for these people.  They were, after all, still British subjects.

Between hoist and fly ends were written the words “Liberty and Union”, a solemn declaration that the colonies were going to stick together, and that their rights as British citizens, were not about to be violated.

Not so long as they had something to say about it.

On October 21, 1774, the Taunton Sons of Liberty raised the flag 112-feet high on a Liberty Pole, and tacked the following inscription on that pole:

“Be it known to the present,
And to all future generations,
That the Sons of Liberty in TAUNTON
Fired with Zeal for the Preservation of
Their Rights as Men, and as American Englishmen,
And prompted by a just Resentment of
The Wrongs and Injuries offered to the
English Colonies in general, and to
This Province in particular,
Through the unjust Claims of
A British Parliament, and the
Machiavellian Policy of their fixed Resolution
To preserve sacred and inviolate
Their Birth-Rights and Charter-Rights,
And to resist, even unto Blood,
All attempts for their Subversion or Abridgement.
Born to be free, we spurn the Knaves who dare
For us the Chains of Slavery to prepare.
Steadfast, in Freedom’s Cause, we’ll live and die,
Unawed by Statesmen; Foes to Tyranny,
But if oppression brings us to our Graves,
and marks us dead, she ne’er shall mark us Slaves”.

The Taunton flag is considered to be among the oldest distinctly American flags if not the oldest, in history. The city officially adopted it on October 19, 1974, the 200th anniversary of the day it was first raised above Taunton green. Stop and see it if you ever get by.   It’s there on the Liberty Pole, directly beneath the Stars and Stripes of the Star Spangled Banner.

AR-150926822

.If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 17, 1814 The Great London Beer Flood, of 1814

Nine people lost their lives altogether, including one man who died of alcohol poisoning, apparently leading a heroic one-man effort to drink the entire flood.

On April 1, 1785, the Times of London reported: “There is a cask now building at Messrs. Meux & Co.’s brewery…the size of which exceeds all credibility, being designed to hold 20,000 barrels of porter; the whole expense attending the same will be upwards of £10,000”.

013-giant-beer-barrel-q75-1364x1616The Meux’s Brewery Co Ltd, established in 1764, was a London brewery owned by Sir Henry Meux. What the Times article was describing was a 22′ high monstrosity, held together by 29 iron hoops.

When completed, this would be one of several such vats, each designed to hold 3,500 barrels of brown porter ale.

Ministry_of_Information_First_World_War_Official_Collection_Q28331The brewery was located in the crowded slum of St. Giles, where many homes contained several people to the room.

On October 17, 1814, storehouse clerk George Crick noticed one of those 700-pound iron hoops had slipped off a cask. This happened two or three times a year, and Crick thought little of it, writing a note to another employee, to fix the problem.

It was a bad decision.

The explosive release of all that hot, fermenting liquid could be heard five miles away, causing a chain reaction as the other vats went down like exploding dominoes.

323,000 imperial gallons of beer, equivalent to two-thirds of an Olympic swimming pool, smashed through the brewery’s 25-foot high brick walls and gushed into the streets, homes and businesses of St. Giles. The torrent smashed two houses and the nearby Tavistock Arms pub on Great Russell Street, where 14-year-old barmaid Eleanor Cooper was buried under the rubble.

the_manor_house_of_toten_hall_1813.gif.CROP.cq5dam_web_1280_1280_gifOne brewery worker was able to save his brother from drowning in the flood, but others weren’t so lucky.

Mary Mulvey and her 3-year-old son Thomas were drowned, while Hannah Banfield and Sarah Bates, ages 4 and 3, were swept away in the flood. Both died of their injuries. Nine people lost their lives altogether, including one man who died of alcohol poisoning, apparently leading a heroic one-man effort to drink the entire flood.

As the torrent subsided, hundreds of people came outside carrying pots, pans, and kettles – whatever they had on hand to scoop up some of it. Some just bent low and lapped at it like dogs, as all that dirty, warm beer washed through the streets. Meanwhile, several injured were taken to the nearby Middlesex Hospital, where a near-riot broke out as other patients demanded to know why they weren’t getting some of it, too.

london-beer-floodIn the days that followed, the crushing poverty of the slum led some to exhibit the corpses of their family members, charging a fee for anyone who wanted to come in and see. In one house, too many people crowded in and the floor collapsed, plunging them all into a cellar full of beer.

The stink lasted for months, as the Meux Brewery Company was taken to court over the accident. Judge and jury ruled the flood to be an ‘Act of God’.  The deaths were just a ‘casualty’, leaving no one responsible. Meux & Co. survived, though the financial loss was made worse by the fact that they had already paid tax on the beer. The company successfully applied to Parliament for a refund, and continued to brew beer on the same site.

The brewery was closed in 1921 and demolished the following year. Since 2012, a London tavern called the “Holborn Whippet” (www.holbornwhippet.com) marks the event with its own vat of porter, specially brewed for this day. Cheers.

 

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Holborn Whippet Pub Sicilian Ave, London
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.