Tuesday, 23 May 2017

How Hitler REALLY came to power, by Leslie Wilson

Photo: Bundesarchiv

People keep saying: 'Hitler came to power by democratic means.' Well, did he? I'm grounding this blog on a reading of Richard J Evans's impressive book 'The Coming of the Third Reich,' published in 2003. I thought it was time to revisit the 1932-1933 era, and what I find is not what I expected, which shows that it's worth checking facts before rushing into virtual print. I had always understood that  left and centre parties failed to grasp the threat Hitler represented, and to unite against him. That was an element in the problem, but the narrative is a good deal more nuanced and complex than that - and contains some frightening resonances with our own times.

The Wall Street crash and subsequent depression hit Germany's fragile economy harder than it hit others, partly because of the withdrawal of US money from Germany business. A fifth of the German male population were out of work: this is probably a conservative estimate, as women weren't included. If you want to read a fictional account of this situation and how hopeless it felt, you can't do better than Hans Fallada's 'Little man, what now?' Or else consider the photograph which I have seen of people queuing up to have their pets put to sleep (by a charity) because they could no longer even afford to feed their children. Consider the men who trudged along Germany's roads from city to city, in a fruitless search for work, sleeping rough, in growing despair.
Unemployed men, by Walter Maisak

Many of  those workers turned to the Communist party, and the sudden rise of Communism, which saw the situation as a crisis of capitalism which might lead to its ultimate fall, terrified many middle-class Germans. At the same time, Nazism, which had been a small fringe party, also started to grow. The large number of unemployed men with nothing to do, were a reservoir on which the extremist parties could draw. Nazis and Communists clashed in street battles; the Nazis were at least as violent as the Communists, but the Communists often got all the blame. It has to be said, however, that the extreme left were just as keen to destroy the democratic system as the extreme Right were.

The Social Democratic party, the original workers' party, had lost credibility due to their cooption of right-wing forces, when they were in power, to suppress Communists. However, in 1930, when in coalition with the People's Party, the Social Democrats refused to support cuts to unemployment benefit which the People's Party wanted (because the country needed to try and balance the books). That was the end of the coalition, and it meant that the ageing aristocrat President Hindenburg and his political allies saw a chance 'to establish an authoritarian regime through the use of the Presidential power of rule by decree.' The army, which had previously reported to the cabinet, had been given the right to report directly to the President. This meant that Hindenburg, himself a World War 1 military hero, had the troops at his personal disposal. Evans sees 1930 as the beginning of the end of Weimar democracy. 'Rule by decree' meant that legislation could be imposed directly, by the President, without having to go through the Reichstag.

There was still a Chancellor, however, Heinrich Brüning, a monarchist (and not a constitutional one) and allied to the increasingly authoritarian Catholic Centre party. To clarify; he represented those forces in German society who had been hostile to democracy from 1918, when the German revolution unseated the Kaiser.
Heinrich Brüning: Bundesarchiv

By 1930, as the extremist representation in the Reichstag grew, proceedings were often unable to go forward because '107 brown-shirted and uniformed Nazi deputies joined 77 disciplined and well-organised Communists, chanting, shouting, interrupting, and demonstrating their total contempt for the legislature at any juncture.' In February, 1931, the Reichstag dissolved itself for six months due to the impossibility of carrying on.

'Power,' Evans says, 'drained from the Reichstag with frightening rapidity.' It shifted to Hindenburg's circle, and to the streets, where violence was escalating. My mother remembered, as a child, mattresses being put into the windows at her grandfather's house, because the bullets were flying in the street. My grandfather, who was a policeman, was regularly deployed to suppress these riots. (One thing Evans doesn't mention is that though in other parts of Germany the police tended to support the Nazis, in Upper Silesia, where my grandparents lived, this was not the case. Given that the Nazi vote was consistently low in that province, this is perhaps not surprising, and my grandfather found himself having to control his men when they wanted to beat up the Nazis. He was a Social Democrat himself, and firmly believed that the role of a policeman was to keep order.)

Meanwhile, Brüning was imposing savage cuts. One of Germany's problems was the payment of reparations under the Treaty of Versailles. However, in 1931, the Hoover Moratorium suspended those payments. This should have given the political leeway for government job-creation schemes, and now the far right couldn't assert that any tax increase would only go towards the reparations. But Brüning, obsessed with fear of inflation, did nothing, and continued with his programme of cuts, saying publicly that the Depression could be expected to last till 1935. He became known as the 'Hunger Chancellor.' Brüning's successor, Von Papen, was equally addicted to austerity.

The Nazi vote continued to grow, helped by an astute propaganda campaign masterminded by the propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. It had its effect - not surprisingly, when you consider that postwar advertisers studied Goebbels's methods. One can imagine what he would have done with the Internet and social media. 'What the Nazis succeeded in doing' says Evans, 'was to reduce political dialogue to a series of slogans. Voters were confronted 'with a stark choice: either the old forces of betrayal and corruption, or a national rebirth to a glorious future…Visual images, purveyed not only through posters and magazine illustrations, but also through mass demonstrations and marches in the streets, drove out rational discourse and verbal argument in favour of easily assimilated stereotypes that mobilised a whole range of feelings, from resentment and aggression to the need for security and redemption.' (Evans). They yelled about 'November criminals,' 'red bosses,' 'Jewish wire-pullers', the 'red murder pack.'
Goebbels: Bundesarchiv

Perhaps this sounds familiar? I find it deeply worrying, because it demonstrates how easily people can be morally stampeded by snap phrases, and manipulated through their fear of complex understanding and analysis. ''I'm delighted at Hitler's lack of a programme,'' one woman wrote in her diary, ''for a programme is either lies, weakness, or designed to catch silly birds. The strongman acts from the necessity of a serious situation and can't allow himself to be bound.'' At a time when 'strong stable leadership' is being offered to British voters as an inducement, it should give us pause for thought. Of course, Hitler did have a programme, as anyone who could wade through the turgid pages of Mein Kampf could find out, and as the world found out when it was too late.
ballot paper for Presidential election

However, when Hitler stood for the Presidency against Hindenburg, he lost (less catastrophically than the Communist, Thälmann, who got 10% in the final vote. Hitler got 37%, and Hindenburg 53%. The Social Democrats supported Hindenburg, because there was no-one else they could support. This did no good either to their morale or their credibility, nor did it help when, in order to support law and order in the country, they withdrew their opposition to the cuts. Meanwhile, the new chancellor was as determined to create an autocracy as Hitler was.

'Papen's self-appointed task,' writes Evans, 'was to roll back history, not just Weimar democracy but everything that had happened in European politics since the French Revolution, and re-create in the place of modern class conflict the hierarchical basis of ancien regime society.' One of his government's first acts, having abolished the guillotine as a means of execution and restored the axe instead, was to ban left-liberal and social democratic newspapers. They lifted a previous ban on the brownshirts, hoping that they would thus be 'tamed' and could be used as an auxiliary army. Instead the street battles quickly reached record new levels. When my grandparents looked at the situation, they must have thought the country was on the verge of civil war.

In 1932, Von Papen's government suspended the Social Democratic government of Prussia on the grounds that it was no longer capable of maintaining law and order (in the face of the brown violence that Papen himself had unleashed). The Social Democrats accepted this, mainly because it was against their principles to use violence. If the leftist Reichsbanner organisation (which the Nazis later accused my grandfather of belonging to; I have no way of knowing if he actually did) had taken up arms - well, they might have been smashed by Rightists. Or there might have been civil war. Easy to condemn the Social Democrats when you have the benefit of hindsight, and when you aren't facing that decision yourself. They tried to use the legal route to protest, and the law supported them in part. But they were restricted to representing Prussia in the Upper Chamber, to the irritation of the Right. In any case, the Social Democrats had suffered severe electoral defeat, and they knew they couldn't mobilise their trades union membership against Papen, because there were so many unemployed men who could have been brought in to break strikes.

'After 20th July 1932, the only realistic alternatives,' writes Evans, 'were a Nazi dictatorship or a conservative, authoritarian regime backed by the army.'
President Hindenburg

And yet, by election time in November 1932, Nazi support was waning. They had over-extended themselves and run out of funds, and, more dangerously as far as they were concerned, the Depression was bottoming out. Von Papen had resigned and had been replaced by General Kurt von Schleicher. 'By this time, the constitution had in effect reverted to what it had been in the Bismarckian Reich, with governments being appointed by the Head of State, without reference to parliamentary majorities or legislatures… Yet the problem remained that any government which tried to change the constitution in an authoritarian direction without the legitimacy afforded by the backing of a majority in the legislature would run a serious risk of starting a civil war.' And the largest party in the Reichstag were the Nazis.

So: did Hitler came to power by democratic means? I hope that this blog shows that it's a bit more complicated than that. The final decision to offer the chancellorship to Hitler (he had refused to take any lesser role in a coalition government) was driven by the realistic fear of a coup by the paramilitary Steel Helmets organisation (Stahlhelm), supported by landed interests and industrialists who wanted to continue wage and benefit cuts and feared a nationalisation of the steel industry by Schleicher. Some expected Schleicher himself to stage a coup, after he asked President Hindenburg to give him extra-constitutional powers to overcome the crisis, and was refused. Hitler's appointment as Chancellor did at least confer a shred of constitutionality on the decision Hindenburg made.
Hitler's cabinet. Goering is to his left. Papen standing to his right. Bundesarchiv

The Nazis did not fill this new government: Hitler was Chancellor, Wilhelm Frick was Minister of the Interior, and Hermann Goering was Reich Minister Without Portfolio and Acting Prussian Minister of the Interior, which gave him control over the police. This meant that the Nazis had control over law and order - or, as it soon turned out, lawlessness and violence. The Right felt that they could control Hitler. History shows they were wrong. But the real seizure of power followed the Reichstag fire, and the wave of terror that was then unleashed on Germany was anything but democratic.

Is there a lesson here for us? Over-simplistic parallels are the kind of things the Nazis dealt in, that Donald Trump, for example, deals in. But I would say this. By the time Hitler took power, Germany was already primed for him.In my lifetime, since Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of Britain, I have seen politics move steadily to the Right, and the further they move in that direction, the more the mainstream political parties chase them rightwards. Policies which were once the preserve of the National Front are now mainstream conservative discourse. The Nazis' success was partly fuelled by sloganism and rabble-rousing, which also dominate the modern political scene. The other parties tried adopting punchy slogans and visual images, but they couldn't equal the Nazis in this respect.

Perhaps the principal lesson is that economic hardship and austerity bred Nazism; this should definitely serve as a warning to us today.

A footnote: Though the Nazis had a majority of seats in the Reichstag, this did not translate, ever, into a majority of the vote. The best they ever did was in the final election of March 1933, after the Reichstag fire, when voter intimidation was in full swing, and they polled 43.9%. But considering the authoritarian inclinations of some of the other parties, this would hardly indicate any great liberal resistance to Nazism. There were liberals,though, in the political, rather than the economic neo-liberal sense of the word. Many of them were dragged into camps and prisons, and many were murdered there. Some emigrated. A few went undercover to resist as best they could. We may honour their names, but the years leading up to 1933 were catastrophic, for many people who would otherwise have been decent human beings, either out of fear, or persuasion, or apathy, were sucked into supporting a filthy and murderous political system which was to lead to the death of millions. Most human beings are not as heroic as they'd like to believe they could be.
Social democrats in Oranienburg concentration camp. Bundesarchiv.

Monday, 22 May 2017

King Charles III and the Importance of Writing Things Down by Catherine Hokin

“But now I’ll rise to how things have to be.
The Queen is dead; Long live the King — that’s me.”

 Tim Piggot-Smith as King Charles, BBC 
"Mike Bartlett's play is a reminder that, even for Republicans, the Queen's death will loom large." This was the Guardian's comment on Bartlett's 'foreboding' play King Charles III, screened just a few days after a twitter melt-down over a Buckingham Palace press-statement so shrouded in anticipation that the Sun 'newspaper's' website pre-empted the news of Prince Philip's retirement with the announcement of his death. Sometimes you can't help but long for the days when even discussing a royal demise was treason and punished as such.

If you haven't had a chance to see the play (airing on the BBC in the UK and Masterpiece in the US), it is a remarkable thing. Written in blank verse to deliberately underline its Shakespearean-style machinations and betrayals, the play concerns the accession of Prince Charles and the consequent constitutional crisis which develops as he tries to find more meaning than mummery in his role. It is plausibly-played and, since it was written in 2014, seems to have found new layers of meaning as revelations have broken over the 'black-spider memos' and the two princes have spoken publicly about the toll their mother's death has taken. 

 The House comes tumbling down, BBC
Without giving too much away, the plot hinges on the United Kingdom's lack of a constitution and the ramifications of that 
if a monarch decides not to play ball. The moment when the Commons realises how powerless they really are against the heavy knock on the chamber door is chilling and was not helped for me by my American husband's response to my horrified outrage: 'that's what you get if you base your country on a gentlemen's agreement.' Given the amount of stick he's taken over Trump and the idiocy of our failure to actually enshrine the "set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is governed [which] make up, i.e. constitute, what the entity is” in writing, I had to suck it up. 

 Sophia of Hanover
Constitutional monarchy (where the monarch acts as head of state within the parameters of a democratically-derived constitution) has its roots in the Magna Carta and was enshrined following the 1688 'Glorious Revolution' and the 1701 Act of Settlement which passed the crown to the family of Sophia, Electress of Hanover. In Europe, 
Napoleon Bonaparte is considered as the first constitutional monarch as he proclaimed himself as an embodiment of the nation, rather than as a divinely-appointed ruler in contrast to the Divine Right following French Kings before him. The role of the British monarch is understood as a ceremonial and politically neutral one: the current Queen holds weekly (closed and undocumented) meetings with the Prime Minister and can suggest/advise on policy matters and she gives the royal assent to bills and to the appointing of prime ministers but, since the passing of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act in 2011, she can no longer use the royal prerogative to dissolve parliament.

Ah, the royal prerogative - a strange and wonderful beast sometimes exercised by ministers (it was used by Margaret Thatcher to go war over the Falklands) and still available to the monarch (although, obviously, we can trust them not to do anything silly with it). The royal prerogative has been described as a notoriously difficult concept to define adequately (Select Committee on Public Administration, 16 March 2004) and originates in the time of King Alfred as the personal power of the monarch as gifted by God. Curbing the extent of this prerogative in favour of a democratic voice has been a central theme throughout British history and tracing the efforts to stop the monarch dissolving the parliaments trying to stop the monarch is like watching a wonderful game of historical cat and mouse.

 Political Cartoon 1832
The last monarch to physically march into parliament and dissolve it was William IV in 1831. William IV succeeded his brother George IV to the throne on 26th June 1830 at the age of 64. At that time the death of a monarch required a general election: Lord Grey was elected, began trying to push electoral reform through, was defeated and went to the King to ask him to dissolve parliament so it could be better built with his supporters. The descriptions of the King marching into parliament, putting on his crown as he went are astonishing: The Times said it was "utterly impossible to describe the scene ... The violent tones and gestures of noble Lords ... astonished the spectators, and affected the ladies who were present with visible alarm." Lord Londonderry was seen brandishing a whip, threatening to thrash government supporters and had to be forcibly restrained, violent riots erupted and the King's carriage was pelted with rubbish. Bartlett uses this episode as the precedent to Charles's actions in the play and and the spreading shock is palpable.

Could this happen again and art play itself out as history? It would be a risky move and the Windsors are nothing if not brilliant at survival. However, the extent of royal prerogative remains unclear and suspension and summoning seems still to be within the monarch's power even if dissolving is not. The current Queen is very adapt at keeping her feelings hidden despite the media looking for constant hints - the speculation over her attitude to Scottish independence stirred up a hornet's nest - but Charles is certainly a lesser-known, or perhaps too well-known, quantity. For outsiders and republicans like me whose interest in a royal family is purely historic, the relationship between Britain and its its royal family is a curious one. A lot of its 'loyalty' (as Bartlett uses in his play) seems to be tied up with the Queen herself - perhaps, given that 83% of us have spent our whole lives with her as Queen and she has kept well away from controversy, there is an inbred sense of trust. However, when the news blackout and the twitter-storm really does herald the big sea-change, I wonder how many of us will come to regret that those rather ambiguous powers were recorded as starkly as the black-edged announcement. We can't say we weren't warned...

Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Secret of a Clear Head by Imogen Robertson

Sorry, I don’t really know what the secret is. Drink less? Sleep more? Retire to the woods with a lot of canned food and medical supplies and ride out the coming apocalypse among the forest creatures? Possibly. No, the click-bait title for this blog post comes from an advertising slip I just found in an old second-hand bookshop frenzy purchase. The book is Essays by Leigh Hunt, edited by A. Symons. And here is the slip:

Thanks to the wonders of archive.org, I did read some of The Secret of a Clear Head and so can tell you that it has something to do with ‘true and worthy forms of gratification’, ‘the priceless virtue of patience’, and also share the news that ‘it is a convincing token of nothingness and emptiness to be without resolute purpose and lacking in energy. Such people are nobodies and have nothing to hope for.’ 


Do feel free to read the rest here while I continue to enjoy ‘the essentially low tone of morals which forms the key-note of social enjoyment.

Actually, if you have come here in search of a Clear Head, I do have one recommendation. More than that it's one of those hissing-and-clutching-your-lapels-and-staring-wide-eyed-at-you-from-uncomfortably-close recommendations my friends and family have learned to love -  Deep Work by Cal Newport. It’s a possibly life changing book about valuing concentration and focus and switching off the distractions of the modern age. And if you can’t concentrate long enough to actually read it, you can listen to Newport discuss it on the Ezra Klein show while playing Candycrush and scrolling through your twitter feed for cat memes. I actually did that. Then I read the book and by following the advice I've doubled my daily word count, and even better it's been daily.

But now I'm ferreting about on the internet, so I had a hopeful look at Why Smoke and Drink from the Every Day Help Series too. Unfortunately it turns out to be an anti-smoking and drinking tract. So anti in fact it provoked this response: 

More appealing, but I think nowadays the scientific consensus is against both John Fiske and me. 

Leigh Hunt, engraved by H. Meyer from a drawing by J. Hayter

Anyway back to the book in which I found the slip: Leigh Hunt was an essayist who introduced Keats to Shelly and was the model for Harold Skimpole in Bleak House. 

Knowing that makes one read his essays in a different and harshly illuminating light, but they are pleasant, fanciful early 19th century easy reading. The introduction from Arthur Symons does some serious damning with faint praise though, saying ‘he is never quite without attractiveness’, which makes me a feel a lot better about some of my Amazon reviews. They are also full of certain turns of phrase and small domestic scenes which I think would make them a treasure trove if you are writing anything set in the 1820s. 

I also noticed the address of the publisher, Walter Scott, was given as Paternoster Square. This pleases me as that the square was the centre of the publishing industry for centuries, so after a little light googling I can offer you the following.

1. This isn’t the Walter Scott. This Walter Scott was a wrestler from Cumberland who became a successful building contractor and then a publisher ‘bringing classic literature to the masses’. 

2. As well as the ‘Every-Day Help’ series, and various elegant but keenly priced novels, essays and poetry, Walter Scott was one of the early publishers of Tolstoy and Ibsen in this country.

3. The short introduction to one of his Ibsen volumes was written by my great-great-grandfather, Philip Henry Wicksteed.

Now time to clear my mind, close all the open internet tabs and get back to the Deep Work with a Clear Head.... 

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The “industrious” Meon Valley

At this time of year, my daily walk takes in three of the “industrial” features of this lovely part of Hampshire, the Meon Valley: the River Meon itself, the long defunct Meon Valley Railway and the remnants of a royal hunting ground, the Forest of Bere.

The River Meon at St Clair’s, Soberton
Photo © Carolyn Hughes
The peace and beauty of the Meon’s landscape – with its gently flowing stream, the occasional heron or egret fishing for trout at the river’s edge; the lush water meadows, sometimes occupied by grazing cattle; the odd rushing weir; and the few surviving stone and brick arch bridges that span it at various points along its length – somewhat belie its powerful past. The railway once played its part in bearing passengers and goods from leafy Hampshire to noisy London (and had an important role in World War Two). And the forest – particularly lovely at this time of year, when the bright green foliage is just beginning to clothe the branches of the beech trees, yet is still sparse enough to allow the sun to light up the glades of bluebells – is but  a small part of a much greater forest that has a long and important history.

Map by William J Blaeu,
Amsterdam, 1645.

The River Meon is not a grand river, only twenty-one miles in length, and, for much of that length, a somewhat shallow chalk stream – in summer months, at any rate. The river rises in the South Downs, near the village of East Meon, and winds and meanders through the other villages of the Meon Valley, until it rushes, broader and deeper, out into the sea, the Solent, to the south of Titchfield.

The early form of the name, Mēon, is Celtic or pre-Celtic. The meaning and etymology seem unclear, but it may be associated with a word that means ‘damp’ or ‘to wash’.1 Yet that seems unromantically mundane, and I prefer to think of the lovely Meon simply as the river that meanders…

But despite the apparently gentle, meandering nature of the Meon, it nonetheless has power.

The River Meon in flood in the 1950s. 
Within the past few years, villages at either end of the Meon’s length – East Meon and Titchfield – have experienced severe flooding when the river burst its banks and overwhelmed their roads and houses. In 1953, the flooding in East Meon was the worst seen for forty years.

More helpfully, for centuries, the steep gradient of the terrain over which the upper reaches of the river flow has enabled the water to be exploited for a surprising variety of manufacturing processes – iron working, cloth processing, paper making, tanning, and flour milling.2

Until the 17th century, the Meon was navigable as far as Titchfield, which at that time was a significant port, and the area was heavily involved in the woollen industry and also produced iron, tanned goods and cloth. Eventually, silting restricted the passage of ships and, in 1611, to ensure that Titchfield could remain a port, the Earl of Southampton, Thomas Wriothesley, had a canal built directly from the sea to the town, and the Meon estuary was blocked off. Some say that, at one time, boats could come up the river as far as Soberton, where smuggled goods were unladen and hidden in the church vault, though one does wonder at the veracity of this romantic tale.3

Soberton Mill 
Photo © Carolyn Hughes
There were mills all along the River Meon, from one end to the other, including ones at Titchfield, Funtley, Wickham, Soberton, Droxford, Meonstoke, and East Meon. Many buildings survive, although they are not necessarily original. The mills were mainly used for grinding grain, although at Warnford was one of the very earliest paper mills in Hampshire, and at Funtley there was an iron mill in the 17th century. The water mill below Bere Farm in Soberton Heath – Soberton Mill – was probably, in the 16th century, a fulling mill, where cloth was scoured (cleaned and whitened) and milled (felted and then rinsed), before being stretched. Later, into the 20th century, Soberton was used as a flour mill. 

Chesapeake Mill, Wickham
Photo © Richard Thomas
Chesapeake Mill in Wickham replaced an earlier watermill on the site.4 The present mill was built in 1820 using timbers from HMS Chesapeake, the former United States Navy frigate USS Chesapeake, captured by the Royal Navy in 1812. The outside of the mill is of brick, but the beams, joists, and floors are built from the ship’s deck timbers, still, apparently, blood-stained from the ship’s fighting days. The mill, used for producing flour, remained in operation until 1976.

Both Chesapeake and Soberton mills sit not only on the river but also alongside the defunct Meon Valley railway line, now just a woodland track, on which you can walk (or trot or cycle) all the way from Wickham through Soberton to West Meon.

Bridge at Mislingford
Photo © Carolyn Hughes
The Meon Valley Railway opened in 1903 and ran for 22.5 miles (36.2 km) between Alton and Fareham, closely following the course of the River Meon. It was intended to be part of a through route from London to Portsmouth, but it never fulfilled its purpose. The line passed through the Forest of Bere before heading across the water-meadows at Wickham on an embankment. The meandering course of the River Meon, the constraints of the landscape and the railway’s ruling gradient meant that the railway needed five under-bridges within half a mile (1 kilometre), three to cross the Meon and two to cross roads in Wickham.

In the early days of the railway, it was used for shipping local agricultural and horticultural produce, including watercress (from the still active watercress beds at Warnford), fruit (especially strawberries and apples), milk and cattle. Local residents and businesses apparently had high hopes for the railway, and an inn was built next to Droxford station in the hope of accommodating tourists and travellers.

The Meon Valley Railway trail
Photo © Carolyn Hughes
People were impressed by the line’s speed, the scale of its engineering works, the high quality of the stations and the beauty of the scenery it passed through. Unfortunately, the expected London through-traffic never materialised, and after only fifty years passenger traffic was cut in 1955. The line was closed altogether in 1968, and subsequently, 17.5 km (11 mi) of the route was made into the trail for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders.
However, the Meon Valley Railway did have an important role to play during World War Two. During the build-up to D-Day, men and equipment had to be moved to the south of England, and large numbers of tanks were moved by rail to Mislingford goods yard, from where they were then dispersed to local lanes and fields for temporary storage.

Old loading gauge at Mislingford
(As an aside, I’ve a small tale to tell… I’m not really a particularly mystical individual, but I’ve often sensed “something” at this spot… Ghosts perhaps of those D-Day soldiers disembarking from the trains? In fact, there’s a timber yard quite close by, so maybe it has only ever been the noises from there, the clanking of machinery, and the sound of workmen’s voices that I’ve heard…? Or maybe not…)

Droxford station in July 1975
Photo by Nick Catford
The railway’s most famous wartime role came on 2nd June 1944, when Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet met General Eisenhower, General de Gaulle and other Allied leaders in a special train parked at a heavily guarded Droxford station. Their mission was the final preparations for the D-Day landings. The station was only a short car journey from Eisenhower’s invasion headquarters at Southwick, and, being mostly hidden, was considered a safe location for the crucial meeting.

If the river and the railway run alongside each other, so the railway line also runs alongside the remains of the Forest of Bere where it lies within the parish of Soberton.

Forest of Bere, near Soberton Heath
Photo © Carolyn Hughes
Bere Forest was once very extensive, stretching from Romsey, south towards Southampton, east to beyond the Sussex border, and as far north as Winchester. It is presumed that the Norman kings used Bere Forest for hunting, as well as the New Forest over in Dorset, and it is reputed that Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles I also hunted here.

But the Forest of Bere was not just a royal hunting ground.

Evidence of a Roman bloomery, a type of furnace once widely used for smelting iron, was found during excavations for one of the forest’s car parks in Soberton Heath. For centuries, the oak woods provided timber for building and acorns for pigs. Villagers of the southern part of the village (Soberton Heath) had rights to turn their cattle into the forest, including horses and pigs but not sheep. The deer that roamed the forest – which we often still see these days both in the forest and on the road – were not of course for the common people.

In the 13th century, oaks were cut in quantity to repair warships and build bridges, and for building work in Winchester. At the beginning of the 14th century the size of the forest began to decline, presumably because of the amount of timber being taken. In Tudor times, the timber was reputedly used extensively for Henry VIII’s shipwrights, including perhaps the building of the Mary Rose, which in 1545 would sink in the Solent at the far end of the Meon Valley, and can now be seen in all its wonderful glory at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth. In the 17th century, Cromwell, Lord Protector, reputedly used a vast quantity of Bere Forest timber to repair his ships, then, in the later 18th, there was so much work for Portsmouth dockyard associated with the Napoleonic Wars that, by 1815, there was apparently no suitable oak left!! Replanting didn’t start until 1855.

Crater pond in the Forest of Bere
Photo © Carolyn Hughes
Great quantities of timber were again felled during the First World War and then again over the period of WWII, this time for the building of aircraft, using beech wood. During WWII, two land mines were dropped on the forest – the enemy was probably looking for the railway – creating two large and very deep ponds. Alongside the involvement of the railway in the war effort, our lovely forest was also used, both to hide tanks within the trees, and to shelter people who, during the worst of the bombing, came out from Portsmouth to find a degree of safety.

It’s somehow wonderful, and somehow humbling, to remember, in these places where I take my walk, and where I sometimes stop to stand and stare, how very many men and women have been here in the centuries before me. 

  1. From “Saxons in the Meon Valley: A Place-Name Survey” by Dr Kelly A. Kilpatrick, Institute for Name-Studies, University of Nottingham, Sept 2014. http://www.saxonsinthemeonvalley.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/MeonValleyPlaceNameResearch_Sep2014.pdf
  2. The River Meon, National Rivers Authority, Southern Region, July 1993. http://www.environmentdata.org/fedora/repository/ealit:3872/OBJ/20003280.pdf
  3. Stories of the river, railway and forest can be found in The Story of Soberton and Newtown by Ann Pendred (1999)
  4. From The Warship and the Watermill https://web.archive.org/web/20081030083543/http://www.chesapeakemill.co.uk/historypdf001.pdf

Picture references

Friday, 19 May 2017

The Old Droving Trade by Susan Price

Highland Cattle: Attribution: © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0
Can you imagine spending two months of every year walking 150 miles (242 kilometres) over challenging terrain, scrambling up steep, rocky hills, trudging miles across moors, fording rivers, lakes and even stretches of sea?

For company, you’d have a large herd of long horned cattle: unpredictable, dangerous beasts. Most nights, you would sleep on the ground beside them.
At journey’s end, having sold the cattle, you’d earn extra money by working at the local harvest before walking all the way home again. You would do this year after year, in hot sunshine, clouds of midges and pouring rain.

To us, with our comfortable, mostly indolent lives, this seems almost unbelievable, but it’s simply a description of the droving trade which went on for centuries. Highland regions, such as the Welsh and Scottish mountains, were best suited to pastoral farming, but to make a decent profit the beasts had to be brought to market in more prosperous regions, where higher prices were paid for meat.

No railways existed until the 1830s. There were no road vehicles capable of transporting large numbers of cattle, and no useable roads for such vehicles in any case. A huge amount of freight transport went by sea and river, but the task of transporting several hundred unhappy steers by small boats was expensive and difficult. And once landed, the cattle were still a long way from the best markets.

The simplest solution was to walk the beasts to market, step by step. Pigs, sheep and geese were also droved, with the geese fitted with sturdy boots for the journey by dipping their feet in tar.

I researched the droving trade for my book, The Drover’s Dogs. My knowledge is slanted towards the Scottish trade, especially the journey from the Hebridean island of Mull in the west, to Lowland Scotland’s great ‘Tryst’ or cattle market in Falkirk in the east. (‘Tryst’ means ‘meeting place’ and, at the cattle trysts, sellers and buyers from all over Scotland met to do business.)
The drover's road from Mull to Falkirk, from The Drover's Dogs

A ‘drover’ could mean a herdsman who walked alongside the cattle with his dog and perhaps owned a couple of the driven beasts, to a wealthy man whose main business was droving. Quite often, like Lachlan in my book, they were crofters themselves who drove their own beasts to market and earned extra income by taking some of their neighbours' cattle too.

The drover might buy his neighbours' cattle outright, or he might simply promise to sell the cattle at the best price he could, and pass on the money to the crofter, minus an agreed cut.

In about May of each year, a drover would start enquiring among his neighbours: Who wanted to send beasts to market and how many? Roughly around June, the drovers began herding the cattle together in one place. A man might gather together a large herd, and had to remember who the owners of them all were, and what agreement he'd made with them. Later, he'd have to remember how much the beasts sold for. Some drovers could read and write. Many were illiterate and probably used tally-sticks to help them keep account. They also, undoubtedly, developed accurate and sharp memories.

Highlanders didn’t have a good reputation throughout most of the period and drovers were reputed to be lazy, drunken, dirty and stupid. They were called lazy because they often slept late at their ‘stances,’ the overnight camping places chosen for the water, shelter and grazing they provided. Drovers were seen sitting over their fires, eating breakfast and chatting until mid-morning. And even once started, they dawdled along.

This wasn’t laziness. Hurried cattle lost weight and became less valuable. People who called the drovers ‘lazy’ had obviously never experienced or considered the hardness and danger of the drover’s life. To come from Mull, the cattle were first driven to Grass Point on Loch Spelve and loaded on to boats which carried them across the strait to the island of Kerrera. The cattle were unwilling. Drovers could be gored, trampled or crushed.

After disembarking on Kerrera, the cattle were driven the length of the island and then swum across the narrow stretch of sea to the mainland at Oban. Many men stripped off and swam with the cattle: another dangerous enterprise.

Once the mainland was gained, they walked the cattle up into hills and crossed Loch Awe and the sea loch, Loch Fyne. They were still only half-way. They had to skirt Loch Lomond, journey along the shores of Loch Katrine and even then there were miles to walk before they reached Falkirk. This is a lot easier to write down and read than it was to do it in 1800 or earlier!

In earlier centuries, the cattle might have to be defended against robbers, though this was less likely in 1800, when my story is set. 

The drovers’ diet for this arduous journey was mostly oats, onions and whisky. Dry oats were mixed into cold water. The onions were probably eaten as we would eat an apple.  For a little more protein, they might open one of the bullock’s neck veins and mix the blood into their porridge.

So the accusation of laziness doesn’t stand, but drovers were certainly dirty, at least while droving, since they slept rough or in the notoriously unsavoury inns of the Highlands. There was probably also some substance to the accusation of drunkenness. If I had to live like that, I would make the most of the whisky too.

But stupid? Many reasons probably underlay this insult. The drovers were usually considered illiterate, uneducated farm-hands. They were also Highlanders too and in 1715 and 1745 Highlanders had risen in rebellion against the British state. The last Jacobite uprising had taken place a mere 55 years before my story is set: within living memory.

The Highlanders first language was Gaelic and they were mostly Catholic, so they were divided by language, culture and religion from the English and from Lowland Scots who, at best, considered Highlanders to be ‘noble savages.’ At worst, they thought them
a lower form of life: dishonest, dangerous, treacherous and stupid.

But a successful drover needed a sharp intelligence. Success depended on bringing the cattle to market in good condition and perhaps even better fed on grazing along the way than they had started. To manage this, a drover needed not only expert knowledge of cattle but a weather eye and close acquaintance with every stance along the way. Would the tracks ahead be muddy and impassable: was it worth taking another way through the hills? Was it worth hurrying the cattle a little to reach the next stance before another drove who might leave nothing to graze?

He had to be able to manage men, and have a phenomenal memory for places, people and the deals he’d made. Even if illiterate, he likely had great quickness with numbers. I'm reminded of an Italian
woman I once knew who was illiterate in both English and Italian, but to assume from this that she was stupid would have been a big mistake. For one thing, she understood numbers, prices and weights very well, and added, subtracted and divided long lists of numbers with a speed and accuracy that made me dizzy. Lord help anyone who tried to short-change her. I imagine that, from long practice, the drovers had the same facility. In short, to be sure of finding a fool at a drovers' stance, you had to take one with you.

Drovers were also honest, or as honest as any trader can be. Most business at the time was conducted on a handshake and a dishonest man would soon have had no business at all. Again, I offer a modern parallel. I have family connections with a small island where a great deal of business is still conducted on trust because nearly all families are interconnected and everyone knows, or knows of, everyone else.

Any incoming clever-clogs who try to take advantage of this trusting ‘naivety’ soon find that no locals will do any business with them at all. Suddenly, no credit is to be had and credit cards aren't accepted. If they need an electrician, decorator, plumber etc, it's impossible to find one who isn't solidly booked up. Word has gone round and that word can, and has, wrecked businesses. I imagine that any drover who tried to cheat the crofters would soon have found himself with no trade and no friends.

Although probably as old as agriculture, the droving trade prospered with the rise of urban living. Demand for meat grew with the population and wealth of towns. Prices rose in those markets that supplied urban areas and it was more profitable to undertake the arduous droves to those markets than sell or barter your cattle more locally.
     The real hey-day came in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. Towns continued to grow and wars in Europe meant a steep rise in demand for beef from the Army and Navy.

A Welsh bank note
The increase in droving stimulated the development of banking. Returning drovers often carried large, heavy sums of cash across lonely moors and mountains. So banks set up near the Trysts. The drover could place his cash in their strongboxes and receive in return a paper ‘note’ which was lighter to carry and less temptation to robbers. On reaching the end of his journey, he took this note to another branch of the bank and ‘cashed it.’ Payment was sometimes accepted in these signed and co-signed notes, fore-runners of paper money. The one illustrated above seems to be a cross between paper-money and a cheque. The value of £2 seems to have been printed on the note, so I guess that banks had stocks of notes printed for them, with different values. But the note has also been signed in the bottom right-hand corner, like a cheque.

Many of these banks, such as Llandovery’s Black Ox Bank, took an ox or bull as their symbol, in honour of their connection with the droving trade. The Aberystwith and Tregaron, above, has a drawing of sheep.

The end of the droving trade was brought about mainly by two things: peace and steam.

The Drover's Dogs by Susan Price
The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, meant a great fall in the demand for beef. At the same time, agricultural improvements meant that greater numbers of cattle were kept alive over winter and larger, fatter cattle were bred, in greater numbers, close to towns where demand was greatest.

And then came steam which ‘carried away the droving trade.’ By the 1840s, railways had spread throughout west Scotland (and the rest of Britain.) Tracks could extend to depots almost at the dock-sides. Cattle could be shipped in the large holds of sturdy, iron steam-ships and then loaded into cattle trucks which were dragged away by steam-train. Drovers arrived at market to find that all demand had been satisfied by cattle who’d arrived more speedily by train.
The Sterkarm Handshake

The ancient droving trade had been a hard one, but it had been one way a highland crofter could earn hard cash to pay his rent. Its end pushed many crofters into hardship and emigration.

Susan Price is the Carnegie medal winning author of The Ghost Drum and The Sterkarm Handshake.
The Drover’s Dogs is her first entirely original self-published book.

We are grateful to Susan for this Reserve post.