Tag Archive: History

Dec 24 2016

Book review: Roman Chester by David J.P. Mason

roman_chesterI recently realised that I live in a city with rather remarkable Roman roots. Having read Mary Beard’s book, SPQR, about the Roman’s in Rome, I turn now to Roman Chester: Fortress at the Edge of the World by David J.P. Mason.

The book starts with a chapter on the origins of the study of the Roman origins of Chester, and some background on Roman activities in Britain. The study of the Roman history of Chester begin back in the 18th century, with the hypocaust under the old Feathers Inn on Bridge Street a feature promoted by its owner. The Spud-u-like on the site now similarly boasts of its Roman remains. The original Roman east gate was still standing in the 18th century, and there exist several drawings of it from that period. The Victorians were keen excavators of the Roman archaeology, and formed the Chester Archaeological Society in 1849, and built the Grosvenor Museum in 1883.

A recurring theme of the book is the rather wilful destruction of substantial remains in the 1960s to build a couple of shopping centres. The Roman remains on the current Forum Shopping Centre site were destroyed after the rather fine Old Market Hall had been knocked down.

The core Roman activity in Chester was the fortress, established in 75AD under the reign of Vespasian. The fort is somewhat larger than other similar forts in England and the author suggests this was because it was, at one time, intended as the provincial governors base. Vespasian died shortly after the building of the Chester fortress started and the work paused. At the time of its Roman occupation Chester had a very fine harbour, the local sandstone was suitable for building, a brickworks was setup at Holt, further up the River Dee, and there was metal mining in North Wales and there was salt sourced from Northwich – all very important resource at the time.

Standing on the river Dee meant Chester could serve as a base for the further conquest of Britain and Ireland – although these plans did not come to fruition.  The evidence for this is some unusual buildings in the centre of the old fortress, and the rather more impressive nature of the original walls than the average Roman fort, and the discovery of rather classier than usual lead piping.

The book continues with a detailed examination of the various parts of the Roman fortress and the buildings it contained: the public baths, granaries and barracks. This is followed by a discussion of the surrounding canabae legionis, including the amphitheatre, the supporting Roman settlement and the more detached vicus. This includes the settlement at Heronbridge which was excavated relatively recently.

The third part of the book travels through time, looking at the periods c90-c120 in which the fortress was rebuilt, c120-c210 when the legion stationed at Chester was sent elsewhere to fight leaving the fortress to decline significantly. c210-c260 when the original impressive buildings at the heart of the fortress, not initially completed, were finally built. c260-c350 when the fortress fell and rose again. To finish in the period c350-c650 when Britain became detached from Rome, and fell into decline. The Roman fortress was robbed to provide building stone for the medieval walls and other structures including the cathedral.

Roman remains are visible throughout modern Chester. The north and east parts of the modern city walls follow the line of the walls of the Roman fortress. Some pillars are on display in front of the library, the hypocaust found under the Grosvenor shopping centre can now be found in the Roman Gardens, the amphitheatre is half exposed, parts of the walls particularly near Northgate and parallel to Frodsham street are contain Roman elements, the mysterious “quay wall” can be found down by the racecourse.

The book finishes with some comments on the general character of the investigations of Roman remains in Chester, and suggestions for further investigations and how to better exploit Chester’s Roman history. On the whole Chester has done moderately well in its treatment of the past, study started relatively early but much material has not been published. These days archaeology is mandated for new developments in the city but these tend to be rapid, keyhole operations with little coherent design.

Roman Chester is a rather a dry read, it is written much I would expect an article in a specialist archaeology journal to be written. The book could have done with a full double page map of modern, central Chester with the archaeological sites marked on it. As it was I was flicking between text descriptions and Google Maps to work out where everything was. Perhaps a project for the Christmas holiday!

If you are a resident of Chester then the book is absolutely fascinating.


I’ve started making a map of Roman Chester on Google Maps.

Aug 17 2016

Book review: The Book of the Edwardian & Interwar House by Richard Russell Lawrence

edwardiandI’m currently working on providing some data for domestic properties, mainly for the purpose of making the process of getting a buildings insurance quote easier. One of the parameters the insurance industry is interested in is the age of a home.

And so I came to The Book of the Edwardian & Interwar House by Richard Russell Lawrence. I picked the book up partly out of curiosity but I also hoped to pick up some ideas as to how I might date a house based on the information to hand.

The book starts with some general comments about the period and what had gone before, leading to a discussion of Edwardian architecture. This is followed by a similar discussion of interwar architecture. The book finishes with a whole load of short chapters on individual elements of the home, bricks, tiles, lighting, wireless and telephone and so forth. As well as simple domestic architecture there is some discussion of high end homes of the period.

The second half of the 19th century saw the expansion of British cities, driven by industrialisation and enabled by the growing railway system and, for the capital, the London Underground. This led to the building of an awful lot of terraced houses at high densities, generally to be rented to workers. The 1877 Model Bye-laws Act and the 1878 Building Act set some requirements on how houses could be built in terms of their size, distance from facing houses and sanitary facilities.

This situation continued into the beginning of the 20th century, with a growing middle class looking for better homes than the terraces offered. The First World War brought house building to a complete stop, after the war there was a housing shortage of something like 850000 properties and a fear in government that there would be fighting on the streets if “Homes Fit for Heroes” were not supplied. The Interwar period saw a huge increase in home ownership, the building of 4 million homes (the majority semi-detached) and the first council houses. Public housing was built following the specifications of the Tudor Walters Report (1918), which specified a minimum size of 760 square feet, a maximum density of 12 houses per acre and preferred wider houses, semi-detached or in short terraces. Private housing sought to differentiate in stall from public housing but could scarcely offer poorer specifications.

This is interesting because sizes and spacings of buildings can be determined from the Ordnance Survey’s mapping data.

Earlier regulations, following the Great Fire of London, had banned the building of timber-framed houses in cities and windows had to be recessed in their openings for similar reasons. This, and details such as how bricks are laid, can give further information on building age but they are not readily amenable to automation or determinable from public data.

Gross style seems to be of relatively little help when dating buildings, many Edwardian and Interwar houses were built in neo-Georgian style which as the name implies can look very Georgian. Also popular was Tudorbethan which emulated an old English style with mock, black wooden beams painted or nailed to a white exterior. Chester’s city centre is rife with an elaborate form of this style, mainly built in the Edwardian or very late Victorian period, although there are some examples of the genuine article.

Internally, the period saw the evolution of the kitchen, scullery and kitchenette as new-fangled gas and electric ovens replaced old ranges. There was also a discussion as to whether buildings for workers should have a separate parlour and living room. I’m well aware that my grandparents generation would often reserve a room for “best”, which as family did not get invited into.

It struck me as I read The Book that houses I would have been fairly confident were post-Second World War I now suspect are interwar. It surprised me that modest houses started to get a garage as an option as early as the 1930s, the big increase in car ownership had started before the First World War, a bit earlier than I expected.

I learnt some new useful vocabulary, a “catslide” roof is one on a two storey house which terminates at the top of the first storey. A “hipped” is one that has slopes on more that two sides, rather than having gable ends (previously I’d have called this a “roof”).

This is something of a coffee-table book, with lots of photographs, I found the text in the early part more readable than the long litany of descriptions of individual architectural details. I have a few ideas to try out on the dating of houses.

Aug 05 2016

Book review: The Company by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

the_companyThe Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge is indirectly related to my reading of the history of science and technology. The commercial world impinges on stories such as that of the development of the railways, the story of Mauve and Lord Kelvin’s work on telegraphy. Scientific expeditions were motivated, in part, and supported logistically by merchant interests. The “search for the longitude” was driven by needs of merchants and navies. 

The Company is particularly concerned with the limited liability joint-stock company, created in approximately its current form by the 1862 Companies Act in the UK but repeated across the world. In this system, the owners only risk the money they put into a venture (rather than all their worldly possessions), and shares in that company can be traded on the stockmarket.

The book starts with some prehistory, there is some evidence in Mesopotamia as back as far as 3000 BC for arrangements which went beyond simple barter. And by Roman times there were various forms of company used for collecting tax, for example. The Romans also had a developed legal system. These arrangements tended to be relatively short lived and in the form of partnerships, where the owners were the managers and if things went wrong they could lose the toga off their backs.

The Middle Ages saw the rise of “corporate persons” in Western Europe which included guilds, monasteries and corporations. The Aberdeen Harbour Board, founded in 1136 can lay claim to be the oldest still existing. In China there was a tendency towards large, long-lived state corporations. Italy had compagnie literally “breaking bread together” with shared total liability, and thus requiring high levels of trust. Banchi were the campagnies banking equivalents, often built around family ties. The relationship between banks and companies is a theme throughout the book.

England and France were scarred, separately, by the collapse of the South Sea Company and the Mississippi Company in the early 18th century. Created in the spirit of the East India Companies, monopoly corporations with a Royal Charter, they came to grief through rampant speculation and dubious government decisions on debt.

The railways provided the impetuous for the reform of company law. They required substantial investment, once formed they needed substantial workforces and management structures. In the early days each railway company had to make its case in parliament to gain its charter, this was a costly, slow undertaking. And so there were reforms culminating in the 1862 act.

A quote attributed to Edward Turlow in 1844: “Corporations have neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned, they therefore do as they like”, encapsulates an ongoing concern about companies. This from a lawmaker but a similar concern was echoed by economists of the time, they thought that a partner or manager/owner was going to do better job of running a company than a servant of shareholders.

The Company compares developments in the US, UK, Germany and Japan in the latter half of the 19th century. The US forte was in professionalising management, enabling them to build ever bigger companies. The UK had a more developed stockmarket but positively spurned professional management (a blight that has afflicted it since then). Germany had strong oversight boards from the beginning, complementing the management board. These included workforce representation, and companies were seen as a social enterprise.

This is the second tension in the company: whether it is solely interested in its shareholders or whether it is responsible to a wider group of stakeholders which might include its employees, the local community, environment and so forth.

The book continues with developments in the latter half of the 20th century, closing in 2002. These include the wave of privatisations across Europe (the French keeping substantial government control), and the decline of many big companies. In the case of Enron and WorldCom these were precipitous declines in disgrace but there were also leveraged buyouts and subsequent dismantlings. Another theme here is the balance between transaction costs and hierarchy costs. Companies succeed when the cost of running a hierarchy is lower than the savings made by carrying out transactions in aggregate. These costs and savings change over time, transaction costs have recently been much reduced by technology.

I was surprised by the recency of the commercial world we see today. The modern company and the stockmarket only really came into being in the final quarter of the 19th century with the great corporations rising to dominance in the first quarter of the 20th century. Harvard’s business school was only founded at the beginning of the 20th century. This is little more than a lifetime ago.

The same is true of trade tariffs, they were initially introduced by the US and Germany in the 1880s with Britain and the Netherlands holding out as “free-traders” until 1932. One wonders whether this is the origin of Anglo-Dutch conglomerates such as Unilever and Shell. The book is not explicit on the differences between tariffs and customs duties and taxes – a clarification which I would have found useful.    

The authors are clearly enthusiasts for capitalism in the form of the company. The book is short and readable, and I felt enlightened for having read it. The bibliography has some good pointers for further reading.

Jul 07 2016

Book review: SPQR–A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

A little diversion for me next: straightforward classical history. I’ve read spqrSPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. SPQR Senātus Populusque Rōmānus  is the motto of the city, meaning “The Senate and People of Rome”, it has been used since antiquity and is still in use now.

The book starts with the story of Cicero and Catiline in 63 BCE, Cicero revealed Catiline’s plot to overthrow the Roman government. It is presented as the first events where there was significant documentary evidence from multiple sources. Proper history, if you like. Even then what survives should not necessarily be read as gospel truth. Rome prior to this was seen in fragments.

Beard returns to this theme of what the evidence is and how much we can trust it throughout the book. As I read through I discover that the earliest copies of Roman writings date from about 500 AD, anything written before then has been transcribed perhaps several times. Some of this writing sounds like it is in the form of what we would understand as contemporary books but other parts are the selected, edited letters of important people. In neither case are they published and promoted in the way we see modern publishing. In terms of contemporary texts, the inscriptions on tombs and monuments provide a second source of material. In earlier years these inscriptions were limited to the most important but in the first century CE there was a huge expansion of tomb inscriptions from what appear to be relatively ordinary people. There is some writing preserved in wall paintings and less formal graffiti in rare places, like Pompeii. There is some material from the Vindolanda tablets, found at Hadrian’s Wall. We also learn of the books that are lost from references and quotes in other extant works.

The book then returns to cover the history of Rome in chronological order. Starting with the founding myth of Romulus and Remus, purportedly raised by wolves. Subsequently Romulus killed Remus over an argument about where to found the city which was to become Rome. The founding story of Romulus and Remus and fratricide can be seen as a retrospective “justification” for the almost continuous civil war within the Roman Empire. Archaeological evidence shows settlements on the site of modern Rome from around 800BCE. A second theme of the myths of early Rome is the way in which the city grew by assimilating neighbours, you didn’t need to be born in the city to be a Roman, you didn’t even need to live there. The city welcomed incomers.

Rome ran through a sequence of political structures, starting with the Regal Period (of kings) which was replaced with the Roman Republic, where two elected consuls ruled, in 509 BCE. During this period trying to re-introduce a monarchy or calling yourself “king” was seen as anathema. The consuls were finally replaced with Emperors in 44 BCE after the Roman Empire had reached almost its greatest extent. It was experimenting with ways of being a state, in the sense that the prevailing organisations at the time were on a city basis rather than a country. We take the nation-state and its political and bureaucratic structures pretty much for granted these days, for example, we have courts and police forces and so forth. In the years of the Roman Empire these structures were not well-established, and much of SPQR describes Romans feeling their way in establishing political structures.

It’s easy to project the modern world onto the Roman Empire but really it is very different. 20% of the population were slaves, newborn children were fairly casually abandoned. There was no effective system of justice in terms of an established police force or a court system designed to address simple crimes of property or violence against the ordinary person. The great majority of the written record of Rome refers to “Great Men” but Beard writes a couple of chapters on what can be inferred about women and the poor. Strikingly the poor were more likely to "eat out" than the wealthy – they couldn’t afford kitchens of their own.

I pleased to learn that the Emperor Caligula was named for his “Bootikins”, he was taken on military campaigns as a child and dressed in a soldiers uniform with “little soldier’s boots” – caligula. And a Roman writing from Britain writes of the Brittunculi – the Little Britons. Rather relevant to current affairs is the tombstone of a British woman, Regina, born north of London whose husband, Barates from Palmyra in Syria, commissioned the monument, placed near South Shields in the first century CE.

The book ends in 212 CE when the Emperor Caracalla grants everyone in the Roman Empire citizenship. This falls approximately a 1000 years after the founding of Rome, the Roman Empire in the East was to last another millennium but Beard leaves this story to another writer.

At first sight this is an intimidating tome but it reads well, and clearly. It revealed sufficient of the underlying methodology of classical scholars to pique my interest.

Feb 17 2016

Book Review: The Honourable Company by John Keay

thehonourablecompanyI’ve been reading a lot of books about naturalists who have been on great expeditions: Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin, Joseph Banks and the like. This book, The Honourable Company by John Keay, is a bit of a diversion into great expeditions for commercial purposes. Such expeditions form the context, and “infrastructure” in which scientific expeditions take place. The book is a history of the English East India Company, founded in the early 17th century with a charter from the English sovereign to conduct trade in the Far East (China, Japan, Java) and India.

It is somewhat chastening to realise the merchants had been exploring the world for one hundred years (and the Spanish and Portuguese for nearer 200 years) before the scientific missions really got going in the 18th century.

The book is divided into four parts each covering periods of between 40 and 80 years, within each part there is a further subdivision into geographical areas: the East India Company had interests at one time or another from Java, Japan and China in the Far East to Calcutta, Bombay and Surat in India to Mocha in the Middle East.

The East India Company was chartered in 1600, following the pattern of the (slightly) earlier Muscovy and Levant Companies which sought a North West passage to the Far East and trade with Turkey respectively. At the time the Spanish and Portuguese were dominating long distant trade routes. The Dutch East India Company was formed shortly after the English, and would go on to be rather more successful. The Company offered investors the opportunity to combine together to fund a ship on a commercial journey. The British Crown gave the Company exclusive rights to arrange such trade expeditions.

Initially the aim was to bring back lucrative spices from the Far East, in practice the trade shifted to India initially and in its later years, to China and the import of tea. The Dutch were more military assertive in the Far East where spices like nutmeg and pepper were sourced.

Once again I’m struck by the amount of death involved in long distance expeditions. It seems western Europeans had been projecting themselves across the oceans with 50% mortality rates from sometime in the early 16th century to the end of the 18th century. For the East India company, many of their factors – the local representatives – were to die in their placements of tropical diseases.

In the early years investors bought into individual expeditions with successive expeditions effectively competing with each other for trade, this was unproductive and subsequently investment was in the Company as a whole. Although it is worth noting that even in the later years of the Company in India the different outposts in Madras, Bombay and so forth were not averse to acting independently and even in opposition to each others will, if not interests. Alongside the Company’s official trade the employee’s engaged in a great deal of unofficial activity for their own profit, this was known as the “country trade”.

The East India Company’s activities in India led to the British colonisation of the country. For a long time the Company made a fairly good effort at not being an invading force, basically seeing it as being bad for trade. This changed during the first half of the 18th century where the Company became increasingly drawn into military action and political intrigue either with local leaders against third parties or in proxy battles with other European powers with which the home country was at war. Ultimately this lead to the decline of the Company since the British Government saw them acting increasingly as a colonial power and saw this as their purview. This was enacted in law through the Regulating Act in 1773 and East India Company Act of 1784 which introduced a Board of Control overseeing the Company’s activities in India.

Keay is very much focussed on the activities of the Company, the records it kept and previous histories, so it is a little difficult to discern what the locals would have made of the Company. He comments that there has been a tendency to draw a continuous thread from the early trading activities of the Company to British India in the mid-19th century and onwards but seems to feel these links are over-emphasised.

India is the main focus of the book despite the importance of China, tea and the opium trade in the later years which is covered only briefly in the last few pages. I must admit I found the array of places and characters a bit overwhelming at times, not helped by my slightly vague sense of Indian geography. Its certainly a fascinating subject and it was nice to step outside my normal reading.    

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