Jan 16 2021

Book Review: History of Britain in Maps by Philip Parker

history_of_britain_in_mapsI’ve always been a fan of maps, so the History of Britain in Maps by Philip Parker is right up my street.

The book is ordered chronologically with each map getting a short page of text facing a page of the map, with some maps earning an additional double page spread. Except for the earliest periods the maps are contemporary.

The book has the air of written as a set of separate map captions with some repetition between maps relating to the same period.

There are some recurring themes through the book, maps for the pleasure of maps seem to play a role, as do military maps showing defensive positions or explaining military actions. Maps of ownership are also common. Finally there are maps for travel, first by road and then later by canal and railway. Also apparent is the evolution of mapmaking skills.

Aside from the exceedingly schematic representations of Britain on the Roman Rudge Cup from 130AD the earliest maps of Britain date to the medieval period and Matthew Paris, a Benedictine monk who was active around 1250AD. There are religious Mappa Mundi from slightly earlier but Britain is very much on the edge of these schematic representations of the religious world with Britain perched at the very edge, if visible at all.

The earliest map of Britain that looks like a map is Matthew Paris’s map of 1250AD. The shape of coast is heavily distorted but some names recognisable to the modern eye appear (such as my home county of Dorset). Rivers are prominent most likely because they were the key method of transport over longer distances. There is a strand of maps that portrays the nations of the British Isles, the counties within them and cities, particularly London which are about place, belonging and power rather than navigation or even defence. Towards the end of the 16th century such maps start to look very much like modern maps, they are relatively accurate and follow modern mapping conventions (rather than being panoramic views or schematic views).

Also produced by Paris is an "itinerary map" showing the progression of towns a pilgrim to the Holy Land would pass through on their trip from Britain. This type of map is a recurring theme through the book, it is not interested in the details of the landscape, it is not a plan view, it is a linear track with distances. This is highly relevant to the traveller who is constrained to travel along the roads rather than view the landscape from above, as a bird does. In some respects this path turns full circle with Beck’s highly schematic but very clear London Underground map.I was interested to learn that road signage was not introduced until 1696.

Although there are earlier examples of coastal maps Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century which led to open season being declared on Britain by the Pope, produced a number of coastal maps of the South of England. These are a recurring theme. The monarch, and his counterparts in Europe, were both keen to map the defences of the South Coast. Similar maps were produced during the Napoleonic Wars and the Second World War. Also falling into the military remit are the various maps of military engagements of the Civil War. The earliest work of what was to become the Ordnance Survey in Scotland in the mid-18th century and then in Kent related to military interests (the clue is in the name).

Maps of ownership are another recurring theme, these start in the early 15th century typically establish the land and rights of the monasteries. Later maps, in the early 19th century, show the results of the Enclosure Acts which took from Common land from everyone and gave to the wealthy now-landowners. Similarly the tithe system whereby a tenth of the produce of an area was owed to the parish was converted to a land taxing system where money was given instead.

There are the 19th century "social" maps of cholera by Jon Snow’s, deprivation by Charles Booth and the census of 1841 by August Petermann. Fi

The book ends with a map of the votes cast in the 2016 EU referendum, a bitter topic as I write in January 2021. 

Obviously as a fan of maps, I enjoyed this book. It is a nice skim through British history if you don’t want anything too heavy going, it is also a good overview of what types of maps people were making and when. I’d seen quite a few of the maps shown in other books, you can get a flavour of these here on the maps tag of my blog.

Dec 29 2020

Book review: The Address Book by Deirdre Mask

the_address_bookNext up is The Address Book by Deirdre Mask, this book is work related but to be honest I’d be reading it anyway. I work for a company, GBG, which provides address lookup services, it takes addresses typed by consumers and matches them to the definitive address data to provide a "clean" deliverable address. This means I have contemplated the structure of addresses, how they vary from country to country and how important they are for our day to day life.

The Address Book starts with some motivational chapters around why we should be interested in addresses, starting with a description of the situation in West Virginia where consistent street addressing was only introduced in the 1990s, and the problems that arise from this! Also included in this section are reports from Kolkata and Haiti.

In Kolkata the focus is on Addressing the Unaddressed, a charitable organisation which provides those living in slums with an "address" which enables them to access services. We often use an address as part of the identity of a person, a name is not enough. There are a number of Ian Hopkinson’s in the UK, and indeed around the world but I am the only one living at my address. In fact the Addressing the Unaddressed addresses are based on Google’s Plus Codes, these are not traditional street addresses, rather shorthand for latitude-longitude pairs. What3words provides a similar, closed source service. Mask discusses the shortcomings of such systems towards the end of the book. Essentially they provide no sense of community around living in shared labelled spaces.

In Haiti the discussion is around an outbreak of cholera, ultimately linked to the UN forces there to support the country after the 2010 earthquake but it starts with a discussion of Jon Snow and his famous work on the Broad Street pump. The importance of addressing is that when Snow was doing his work In London the General Registry Office had relatively recently (1837) started recording births and deaths, including the address at which they took place. This type of epidemiological study is not possible without street addressing, certainly not at that time. Nowadays we can use GPS devices to pinpoint deaths in the absence of addresses.

Addressing starts with street names, and in the UK, and other European countries street names started with function. Main Street, Church Lane are the more socially acceptable examples. However, as cities grew duplicate names became a problem. In 1853 London had 25 Victoria Streets and 25 Albert Streets. The pressure to add numbering to street names comes from centralised governments, if you want to take a census of your population to tax them or raise an army or plan services then numbered street addresses are pretty much essential. Registration of land ownership is also important. Such censuses generally started in the 18th century. Following on from this was the introduction of cheap, universal postage – which also requires street addressing. Requiring citizens to have surnames was part of the same process of enumerating the population.

The common scheme of using odd numbers on one side of a street and even on the other was invented by Clement Biddle in 1790, it is not the only system. There are other ways though, in Japan numbering is often by date of construction i.e. newer buildings have higher numbers. The Czech Republic has a dual numbering system, each address has a number used for navigation and a number used for government registrations. There are also systems where numbering is based on distance along a road.

The American scheme of numbering rather than naming streets, or at least naming them in a very systematic and often anodyne fashion dates back to Philadelphia and the Quakers involved in its founding. Quakers were not enthusiastic about naming things after people – hence the numbering system.

Circling back to street names, these are often intensely political, Mask talks about naming and commemoration in South Africa, America, Iran and Germany. In South Africa and America these disputes revolve around race, for South Africa it is to what degree figures from the apartheid era are celebrated, and what actions should exclude someone from commemoration in a street name. In America it is the celebration of Confederate figures that stirs passions. Iran likes to celebrate revolutionaries in its street names, and the case Mask cites is Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker – an uncomfortable topic for me as someone who is English (and grew up during the IRA bombing campaign in the seventies). Germany is included for its Nazification/De-Nazification process – after the Second World War many streets and places simply reverted back to pre-Nazi names. There are a surprising number of "Jew Streets" in Germany, Jewish people have long been restricted to living in particular places.

Naming and addressing are deeply personal, efforts to number houses are often resisted or treated with suspicion. The removal of long standing place names causes a sense of dislocation, the selection of names can cause distress. We’ve seen some of this in the UK with our branch of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In New York City there is a process for buying street addresses, so developers will pay money to get an address on a desirable street even if their building is not accessible from that street!

This is an enjoyable read, written in an approachable manner about a fascinating subject.

Dec 03 2020

Book review: Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga

black_and_britishSince October was Black History Month I thought Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga would make a very appropriate read. Although, to be honest, I bought it before I realised and in all likelihood by the time you read this Black History Month will have finished.

The first thing that struck me about this book was the Preface where Olusoga writes about his motivation for writing the book. As a British-Nigerian this is visceral, the talk by Enoch Powell of “sending back” non-white citizens of Britain meant he feared he would be separated from his family as a boy. When the National Front were hounding people out of their homes, it was he who was being hounded out. This is absolutely in no way a criticism of Olusoga, or a reason to ignore the contents of this book. It is to contrast with my own detached, academic position as a white British reader.

Following an introduction which gives an outline of the contents of the whole book, the chapters proceed in chronological order with some themes relating to the same time covered in separate chapters. I’ve listed these out at the end of this review as a reminder to myself as much as anything.

There have been black people in Britain for thousands of years, the very first were identified during the Roman occupation. The ancient Romans and Greeks knew of Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, and the nature of the Roman Empire was that its subjects were mobile to a degree. After the fall of the Roman Empire, access to Africa was via the Arab/Muslim empire across North Africa with little contact with Europe. As a consequence European knowledge of African was limited to myths. The story picks up again in the 15th century with the Portuguese exploring the West African coast, they also started the slave trade in black Africans. The British took the first tentative steps in the “triangular slave trade” in the 16th century. The triangle trade saw the movement of manufactured goods from Britain to Africa, slaves from Africa to American and raw materials, sugar, tobacco, and cotton back to Britain.

At this time the West African states were powerful, and experienced in trade with the Portuguese and before them the Arabs. European explorers and merchants suffered large loses to disease – a situation which persisted into the 19th century. Black Africans were found as translators, and sailors, even courtiers in Britain. In Lisbon they made up as much as 20% of the population in the 16th century. They were the subject of curiosity, apparently little specific malice due to their colour, but lived under the Christian view that whiteness represented purity, and blackness the opposite.

British involvement in the slave trade picked up as it acquired colonies in the West Indies and US, the production of sugar and tobacco was lucrative if you had a good supply of cheap (slave) labour. It is at this point that black African slaves are dehumanised, the 1661 Barbados Slave Code puts this in writing. Plantation owners in the West Indies cannot see black Africans as human, they are too numerous and too economically valuable to be seen as such. The Royal African Company is formed as an exclusive vehicle for the slave trade in Britain, and is to take up to 75% of the slave trade in the late 17th century and early 18th century.

In Britain the situation is a bit different, there are a growing number of black people, often brought as the property of wealthy slavers, traders and plantation owners. But their legal status in Britain is hazy, and kept deliberately so for much of the 18th century. In the second half of the 18th century Granville Sharp started a campaign to release slaves in Britain, and later to campaign against slavery itself.  There was a degree of romanticism in the view that British air was too pure for a slave to breathe, so that none were slaves whilst at the same time profiting massively from slavery. From this start the Abolitionist movement grew, first ending British involvement in the slave trade (with Wilberforces 1807 bill), ending slavery in the West Indies in 1838 and then going on to try to end slavery globally.

This was seen as a moral crusade by the British, although there was a lively circuit of African-American speakers promoting the cause in Britain. Olusoga points out that the British have always been much more willing to talk about Abolition than slavery. In this context black Africans are still not seen as equal people, at least by some Abolitionists, but rather they wish to end slavery in the same way as they wish to see the end of cruelty to animals and children.

Freetown in Sierra Leone became an important location in the story, former slaves played a part fighting on the side of the British in the American Revolution, and their payment was freedom. Britain was squeamish about giving them their freedom in Britain. Some went to Nova Scotia, but there was also a plan to establish Freetown in Sierra Leone. The first attempt at this failed abysmally but eventually a colony was established there and the traces of that early history still remain in the modern city.

The British public appeared fairly well disposed towards black people in the first half of the 19th century but in the second half of the century there was a rise in Social Darwinism and scientific racism. Black people were increasingly spoken off as being mentally inferior, often child-like. These ideas grew from Darwin’s theory of evolution but they were motivated by a desire for conquest. In the final 30 years of the 19th century the white European powers colonised 90% of Africa in the “Scramble for Africa”. A theme that was to recur through the 20th century was an aversion to inter-racial relationships, specifically children fathered by black men with white women.

Britain’s attitude to black men for the two world wars was ambivalent, in both cases they were desperate for soldiers but, particularly in the First World War, very keen that black men should not fight white men – worrying this would give them unhelpful ideas when they returned to their homes in the minority white run colonies. In the Second World War the key feature was the huge influx of African American GIs to Britain, and the greatest issue was the treatment of Africa American GIs by their white colleagues (it was atrocious). British civilians were appalled by this. However in the aftermath of both wars there were racially motivated attacks on black men by organised white mobs. The motivation for this, at least in part, was that demobilised white men felt that black men had jobs that were rightfully theirs and economic times were hard. The official response to this was unhelpful to say the least, largely treating the black men as the transgressors. This treatment echoes down the years, and was part of the mis-trust of the police that fuelled the riots of the early eighties and, if we are honest, is still current today.

The book finishes with the post-war period, looking at the passengers on the Empire Windrush and the rise of Enoch Powell. The cry started by Powell in the seventies was to “send them back”, and picked up by the National Front. Powell was a culmination of a tacit program by governments of both stripes to justify the exclusion of black immigrants which had been ongoing since the Second World War. It was during the sixties that the public started to think the same way in larger numbers.

For West Indians and Africans from a number of modern states, Britain is the “home country”, in the same way as it is for white Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians. The difference is that immigrants from these countries are broadly officially welcomed and have been since the end of the British Empire. Black people have not been given that welcome.

Black and British is quite a long read, it packs a lot in but it is well-structured and readable. For me, as a white British middle class man, Olusoga presents from quite a different viewpoint. This is sometimes uncomfortable but I think necessarily so. It helps make more sense of the recent Black Lives Matter movement, but also the racism of the 1970s and the riots of the early eighties, in Britain, with smaller recurrences more recently.

Chapter Themes

  1. Sons of Ham – black people in Roman Britain and onwards, the start of the British slave trade in the 16th century;
  2. Blackamoors – black people in Tudor Britain, the development of the slave trade through to the end of the 18th century to service the tobacco and sugar plantations in the West Indies and America;
  3. For Blacks or Dogs – black people in Georgian Britain, the overspill of the slave trade;
  4. Too Pure an Air for Slaves – Granville Sharp and the start of the Abolitionist movement in the late 18th Century;
  5. Province of Freedom – Africa Americans and the American Revolution, leading to the foundation of Freetown in Sierra Leone;
  6. The Monster is Dead Рthe path to Abolition with the trade banned in 1806 and slavery  in the West Indies banned in 1838;
  7. Moral Mission – British mission to end slavery around the world in the Victorian period, with black speakers touring Britain. Minstrelism;
  8. Liberated Africans – the West Africa Squadron, aiming to abolish slavery by military means, the conquest of Lagos;
  9. Cotton is King – the US civil war and its impact on the cotton mills of northern England;
  10. Mercy in a Massacre – the rise of Social Darwinism and scientific racism in the second half of the 19th century;
  11. Darkest Africa – the 30 year Scrabble for Africa, when the Europeans colonised all but Ethiopia and Liberia. The rise of human zoos;
  12. We are a Coloured Empire – World War I and the black British Empire;
  13. We Prefer their Company – World War II and African American GIs;
  14. Swamped – immigration to post-war Britain;

Sep 22 2020

Book review: The clock and the camshaft by John Farrell

camshaftThe clock and the camshaft by John Farrell is the story of technology through the Middle Ages which went on to support the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution.

The book is structured by invention, and although some of the inventions are technologies as we would generally understand them there are also chapters on universities and monasteries, and languages. Each chapter looks at the ancient antecedents of a technology, where there is one, before looking at its place in the Middle Ages and how it played on to the Renaissance that followed. The antecedents are typically in the Roman Empire, China and the Middle East. The overall structure of the book is reminiscent of the technology “trees” one finds in a certain sort of computer game (Civilisation/Age of Empires).

There was a huge drop in population after the end of the Roman Empire in Europe in the 5th century CE until the 9th or 10th century. People no longer lived in towns or cities, and the art of building with stone appears to have been lost across much of Europe.

Food is a core concern at anytime and there were a couple of technological developments during the Middle Ages which helped here. The plough, used in the Mediterranean, was developed to better suit heavy Northern European soils. Horses were adopted to pull ploughs through the development of horse shoes and suitable harnesses.

In the Middle East water wheels were used in irrigation, from several centuries BCE. In Northern Europe irrigation was not quite such a concern but water wheels for power, in the first instance for milling wheat were important. This is not a simple technological development, for most individuals working the land it is convenient to hand mill wheat for your own consumption – a water powered mill is not worth the effort in maintenance or in initial capital outlay. This is where feudalism and monasteries get involved, feudal barons and monasteries can build and maintain a mill economically and they have subjects whose grain can be milled, for a price. Feudal masters obliged their subjects to use their mills, and pay a tariff to do so and under threat of punishment if they were found to be milling their own grain.

Once you have something that goes round and round, driven by a water or wind mill, then the next step is something that goes forwards and backwards. Or, more prosaically, converting rotation motion to linear motion. This might be to power a saw, or more often, to hammer things. Hammering things is important in the production of cloth (fulling), paper (pulping), and metal (crushing ore).Who would have thought hammering things was so important?

Paper is another key technology, the earliest writing is found in clay which was then superseded by papyrus – produced almost exclusively in Egypt. For rough notes codexes were used – parallel thin pieces of wood tied together. In Europe, after the fall of the Roman Empire, parchment made from the skins of goats or calves was used but this required a lot of dead animals. Meanwhile in China paper made from rags was being developed. This innovation was developed in Europe too, this arrival was key for new businesses. Now tradespeople could write things down relatively freely, critical for banking, and important in other businesses.

The challenge with clocks is to allow an power source to release its energy at a steady rate, this is done using an “escapement” mechanism. The first mechanical clocks were recorded in Europe towards the end of the 13th century.

Having forgotten how to build with stone at the end of the Roman Empire the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, built mostly in the 12th and 13th centuries were a sign that the skill of building with stone had been rediscovered. They were an evolution of Roman designs for grand buildings which allowed for much greater light through the insertion of windows. They followed the stone built castles of the Norman period around 1000 CE. Cathedrals are a rather more complex building than a castle but castles provided a good training ground.

Religion provided the impetuous for collecting manuscripts from the Arab world, during the 12th and 13th centuries with a view to improving their astronomic determinations of the date of Easter. Along the way they collected other manuscripts, returning to Spain and Italy to translate them.

Eye lenses were introduced in the first half of the 12th century, and appeared to evolve from glass used to display relics. There were antecedents of lenses found in ancient Egypt even back to the Bronze Age. The Venetians were early specialists in glass making, founding a guild in 1320. There was also expertise north of the Alps in Nurembourg but the quality of ground lenses dropped from 1500 with the first telescope makers towards the end of the century making their own lenses rather than buying them.

Monasteries, and monks, played an important role in carry knowledge across the Middle Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. They were also important players in the material world, taking the part of a sort of feudal lord in some instances. Universities were in some senses a spin off from the collision between the Church and the Secular state, they arose originally as a place to study law – a topic which came to the fore in disputes between the Church and secular states over which had legal authority. Universities and monasteries are both examples of legal entities which were not people, an important innovation in law.

The book finishes with a chapter on lodestones which lead to the development of compasses for navigation, astrolabes and boats. Astrolabes were designed for astronomical measurement but also served as timekeepers, their design fed into the layout of the clock face. Boats were another technology which evolved as it moved north, the key innovation was switching to a skeleton-based design where the keel and ribs were laid down first, and then planks attached to them.

I liked this little book, much of what I’ve read in the history of science covers a later period – from the 17th century onward – The Clock and the Camshaft provides useful background, and is also very readable.

Aug 22 2020

Book review: A house through time by David Olusoga & Melanie Backe-Hansen

olusogaI’ve recently enjoyed watching A house through time, a series presented by David Olusoga tracking the history of a single house and its inhabitants across the years. The most recent series looked at house in Bristol, the city where I was an undergraduate. A house through time by David Olusoga and Melanie Backe-Hansen is the book of the series.

Rather than focus on a single house, as the TV series does, the book is a much broader sweep which looks at the history of the domestic dwelling back to Roman times, research methods and some social history which gives the “why” behind the houses.

This is a busman’s holiday for me, a large chunk of my job over the last few years has been to build a property database to help answer buildings insurance application questions. One of these questions is the property age, and it has been the cause of greatest pain for me. A house is a good background to this type of work, it provides the type of context which can be really helpful in understanding the data I come across. The issue for me though is that A house is written for those wishing to understand their own homes, rather than work out property age for 25 million or so dwellings but this is a niche interest and shouldn’t be taken as a criticism.

The book starts with a chapter on methods: how do you find out about your house? This is supported by an extensive set of links and a bibliography which strikes the happy medium between not providing any references, and referencing alternate words. The Census, and various surveys conducted before and during World War II are core to this, although these are ostensibly about people they provide evidence that an address existed at a point in time give or take variability in addresses and levels of details in addresses. Numbering of houses, as opposed to names, only started to rise in the middle of the 18th century. Also relevant are Ordnance Survey’s historical maps.

I was a bit surprised that there was very little mention of the listed building data, English Heritage and its partner organisations in Wales and Scotland aim to list all building built in the Georgian period and before. The data provides descriptions of the listed structures, this is the entry for 10 Guinea Street, Bristol which featured in one of the TV programmes.

There then follows a set of chapters on different periods, working forward in time covering the pre-Georgian, Georgian, Victorian, Interwar and post-war periods. These are the divisions I use in my work with the insurance industry (with the addition of a modern period starting in 1980).

There are a number of themes threaded through the book, much of the technological development of home building was relatively early. After the Roman’s left Britons reverted to living in wattle-and-daub or timber buildings for 400 years. The next significant technological developments were the discovery, and widening use of the chimney in the late 14th century followed by the re-discovery of brick making in the later 15th century. After that the next clear developments in building were in prefabricated and high-rise buildings post-Second World War.

A second theme is the legislative framework in which buildings wear built, these are two-fold there are “public safety” acts which are used to try to ensure safer buildings are built, these include the laws put in place after the Great Fire and those used to address the unsanitary conditions in Victorian slums in the later 19th century. These acts often specified a limited number of “model” properties and wonder whether these can be used for dating. There were also acts relating to taxation: window and brick taxes. It is the brick taxes that led to the standardisation of bricks, originally bricks were taxed by number so people made larger bricks so as to reduce their tax bills!

It is perhaps inevitable that the Victorian period running from 1837 to 1901 takes a large chunk of the book. This was a time during which there was a great move to the cities in support of the industrial revolution and a degree of “push” with the Inclosures Acts, Slum dwelling grew common, sanitation and urban clearances were initiated to relieve the slum conditions and the suburbs grew – supported first by omnibuses and then by railways. Although overcrowding and insanitary conditions were recognised early in the Victorian period addressing them took some time, with major improvements in the sewerage system happening towards the end of the 19th century. Often “improvement” schemes were more about sweeping aside the poor with no regard as to where they might live.

Towards the end of the Victorian period the suburbs started to grow, enabled by omnibus and then rail transport. It is at this time that semi-detached properties started to become common. The early suburbs gave me the impression of more rural aspects than modern suburbs. Some of the homes built in the late 19th century are very similar to those built in great numbers between the wars. It was only after the First World War that state intervention in building homes became widespread, the green shoots of this movement started in the late 19th century.

Sadly there is little scope for me to apply these methods to my own homes, I have nearly always lived in late sixties or seventies homes oddly they have had house numbers clustered around 30. In Bristol, as a student I lived in a basement flat close to the developments by Benjamin Stickland built around 1850.

I found A house really readable, it would be a great starting point if you were looking into the history of your own house or were just interested to understand how the domestic built environment came into being in the United Kingdom.

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