Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Month: October 2023

Children of the Second World War

Last week I watched Dramakarma’s production of Two Thousand Days at the Merlin Theatre. Dramakarma is a community-based project in Frome providing drama classes for young people and staging performances based on historical events in the town.

Two Thousand Days told the story of the evacuation of The Coopers’ Company’s School from Bow, in East London, to Frome in Somerset, where the school remained for the duration of  World War Two.

On 3rd September 1939 Britain and France had declared war on Nazi Germany; two days earlier Operation Pied Piper had been instigated. This undertaking, named ironically, if not inappropriately, after the menacing German folk tale, aimed to remove schoolchildren, and mothers with infants, from urban  locations, where there was a high risk of enemy bombing, to safer rural areas. During the first three days of the operation one and a half million people were moved, of whom 827,000 were school age children.

The government had decided to billet the evacuees in private homes rather than special camps. The hosts in reception areas were paid a weekly allowance but fined if they refused to take evacuees. The billeters, as they were known, were identified by the space available in their homes rather than by their suitability to care for children. Unsurprisingly, while some hosts were kind and welcoming, others were resentful. For some children, the experience was an adventure leaving them with fond memories of their surrogate parents with whom they retained contact. Others were miserable, homesick, and treated with indifference.

The Coopers’ Company’s School, founded in 1536, had remained in London even during the Great Plague, but on 1st September 1939 their pupils gathered at the school, each carrying one small suitcase, an overcoat, and a gas mask. Like all evacuees they marched to the local railway station and boarded trains to an unknown destination. Only after they had arrived was the school telegraphed and a notice pinned up telling parents where their children were.

Things did not always run smoothly, and the pupils, who were supposed to have been evacuated to Taunton, somehow found themselves in the Wiltshire hamlet of Ramsbury where the residents,  expecting a small number of women and babies, were faced instead with over 380 schoolboys. The cots which the villagers had decorated with pink and blue ribbons were superfluous to requirements.

After three weeks, during which they were accommodated in barns in Ramsbury and surrounding villages,  the school moved to the market town of Frome. Occupying  buildings previously used by Frome Grammar School which had moved to new premises, The Coopers continued in Frome for 2000 days, until 19 July 1945.

Dramakarma adapted the memoirs of pupils,*  and the effervescent cast of 13- 18-year-olds brought them to life. The memories were not always happy ones, and we witnessed the agony of children waiting in the community hall to be “picked” by the billeters, then facing callous treatment: locked out of their new “homes” during the daytime, and eating separate, inferior meals from their host families.

For most of the time however the mood, in line with the published reminiscences, was upbeat. Alongside their traditional curriculum the boys learned to repair shoes, they put on plays, and developed new skills as diverse as book binding and ballroom dancing. There may have been no gas, electricity or running water in some of their billets, but there were plentiful supplies of elderberry wine, and entertainment was to be had exploring the old quarry workings and, unknown to the schoolmasters and the billeters, midnight swims in the lake at Orchardleigh. They had close encounters with herds of bullocks on the country roads, sat on boxes playing chess on the frozen lake in the harsh January of 1940, and learned to wrap a brick  which had been in the fire all day in a cloth bag for warmth in bed at night.

Above all they had the most extraordinary freedom, trespassing cheerfully on the neighbouring estates, and on their bikes exploring the surrounding towns of Bath, Warminster, and Wells. When the bombing was not bad the headmaster allowed them to cycle home to London, a distance of some hundred miles, during holidays. Leaving Frome one Good Friday three lads cycled through the night without lights in the blackout, returning the following Monday. The unmitigated euphoria vouchsafed only to inadequately supervised teenagers, free to roam with their mates, radiated from the stage, and everyone came away from the production smiling.

It is a measure of the affection with which they came to hold Frome that the evacuees continued to visit the town throughout their lives, holding reunions,  looking up old friends and those who had welcomed them with kindness. In 1951 they donated two teak seats, set in St. John’s churchyard, to the town. When the the seats eventually fell victim of the weather,they replaced them in 1999 with a bench made of Portland stone.

Bench donated by the Coopers’ Company’s school

Given in gratitude to the people of Frome

who generously opened their homes

to schoolchildren evacuated from London

during the war 1939-45

Twenty Old Boys and the ninety-year-old former school secretary were present at the dedication ceremony. Few of them remain now, but Richard Beer, who first arrived in Frome as a twelve year old evacuee, was guest of honour when Two Thousand Days was first performed as part of the Frome History Festival in May this year.

It isn’t a grave, but the bench serves the same purpose, remembering the boys who for 2000 days made Frome their home, and the townsfolk who welcomed them, a life time ago.

*The Coopers’ Company’s School in Frome 1939-45 edited by George S. Perry.

Tipu: The Sultan, his Tiger, and his Mausoleum

The Victoria and Albert has always been my favourite museum, and Tipu’s Tiger one of my favourite exhibits. Made from Indian jack wood carved and painted, the Tiger straddles a near life-size, red coated British officer. French engineers at Tipu’s court constructed the tiger’s mechanism which is operated by a crank handle causing the soldier’s arm to lift as he wails and squeals in response to the tiger’s mauling, while the latter grunts.

Tipu’s Tiger Savages a Redcoat

Tipu Sultan (Sultan Fateh Ali Sahab Tipu, 1751-1799), also known as the Tiger of Mysore (Sher-e-Mysuru), became the Muslim ruler of the Kingdom of Mysuru in South India following the death of his father, Hyder Ali, in 1782. He fought against the  British East India Company in the four Anglo-Mysuru Wars, seeking to check the Company’s advance into southern India.

The tiger was Tipu’s state symbol: an apocryphal story has him face to face with one who pounced while he was out hunting; when his gun failed Tipu killed the tiger with his dagger. What is certain is that  tiger motifs and stripes decorated the walls of his palaces and the uniforms of his soldiers. In the summer palace, Daria Daulet Bagh, at Srirangapatna,  his golden throne set with rubies and diamonds stood on a life size wooden tiger and was embellished with tiger head finials. The hilts of his swords, his rings, his cannon, the pole ends of his palanquins all flaunted tigers. And in his music room sat the magnificent automaton.

Tipu had built his summer palace  after the Second Anglo-Mysuru War. Lavish decoration covers the interior with floral designs on the ceiling and murals of his campaigns on the walls. The depiction of the victory of Hyder Ali and Tipu over the English under Colonel Bailee at the battle of Pollilur in 1780 shows a nervous looking Bailee cowering in his palanquin despite being surrounded by his redcoats.

Scene from Second Anglo-Mysuru War
Bailee in his pallanquin surrounded by redcoats…
…but still looking very nervous

The Third War  however ended in defeat for Tipu when the Nizam of Hyderabad, seeing which way the wind was blowing, changed sides and signed a subsidiary alliance with the British East India Company. He is portrayed alongside a cow and a pig; the reference is not designed to be complimentary.

The Nizam of Hyderabad is pointedly portrayed accompanied by a pig and a cow

Tipu was forced, by the Treaty of Srirangapatna 1792, to  surrender half of his kingdom to British East India Company  and its allies, and  two of his sons were handed over to Cornwallis as hostages until he paid indemnities. A painting displayed in the palace, today a museum, shows the children with their custodian and Tipu’s Ambassador to France, Mir Ghulam Ali, who accompanied them to Madras (Chennai). Alongside are portraits of Tipu himself, one by  an unknown Indian artist and one  by Zoffany.

The sons of Tipu Sultan, accompanied by Mir Ghulam Ali, were sent to Cornwallis in Madras (Chennai) as hostages until Tipu paid indemnities to the British
Tipu Sultan painted by an unknown Indian artist
Tipu painted by Zoffany

Seven years later Tipu’s defeat and death at the hands of  the British  when they breached the city walls at  the Siege of Srirangapatna, brought the fourth Anglo-Mysuru war to an end. When his advisers urged him to escape via secret passages, Tipu responded: “Better to live one year as a tiger, than a thousand years as a sheep.”(or, in some versions, a jackal)

His death was celebrated with a public holiday in Britain, and the soldiers plundered his palace before the “formal” distribution of loot was organised by the “prize committee,” with the most senior officers  receiving the most valuable treasures. The magnificent Tiger Throne was broken up and the parts distributed to the Company’s officers. Some of the most precious items were sent to the British royal family, including three hunting cheetahs. The mechanical tiger was housed in the museum of the East India Company and when the company was dissolved, and the museum closed, its artefacts were divided between the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert. And so the tiger came to South Kensington.

Tipu’s body, recovered from where it lay near the Hoally Gateway of the fort, was buried beside his parents in the Gumbaz (mausoleum) which he had built for them. A majestic structure, built in the Persian style with an elevated platform supported by black granite pillars, it is surrounded by landscaped gardens.

Tipu’s body was found near the Hoally Gateway of the fort at Srirangapatna
Tipu’s Gumbaz (Mausoleum) at Srirangapatna

Tipu’s wife and sisters did not quite merit admission to the Gumbaz but are buried in the gardens.

Tipu’s Wife
One of Tipu’s sisters

Robert Tressell and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

The bus headed  north from the centre of the city, and as it reached Walton the lack of investment in this deprived and battered suburb of Liverpool  was apparent.  Through the dirty windows  I watched the shuttered shops and red brick terraces passing by.  Walton is mentioned in the Doomsday Book as a town in its own right but by the late nineteenth century it had been swallowed up by the advance of Liverpool. Not quite sure where I was going I got off at the Clock Tower. It is an impressive, if daunting and forbidding structure, built in 1868 as the centre piece of the Union Workhouse. In the twentieth century the workhouse became Walton Hospital. Since the latter was demolished the clock tower building alone remains looming over a new housing estate.

But this was not what I had come to see. I knew that somewhere nearby was the Liverpool Parochial Cemetery, opened in 1851  as the growing population overwhelmed the central churchyards, and that there  Robert Tressell was buried.

As I turned down Rawcliffe Road an unexpected delight awaited me, for the cemetery is no longer in use and has been taken over by the Rice Lane City Farm. The graves have been tidied up and the  farm,  established by the local community 40 years ago, is open to all every day of the year. Small children ran around delighted by the ducks, pigs, sheep, goats, and Ness, the donkey. Scattered groups sat in the weak spring sunshine eating picnic lunches, and Walton suddenly seemed a happier, more cheerful place.

But what of Robert Tressell? The man I was seeking was born in Dublin but emigrated to South Africa where he was employed as a housepainter and sign writer. Following a failed marriage, he returned to England with his daughter Kathleen, and they settled in Hastings where he pursued his trade. He was a founder member of the Hastings branch of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation but is most remembered for writing what has been described as the first working class novel in England: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. It was as author of this book that Robert Noonan assumed the pen name Tressell, a word play on the trestle table with which painters work.

Set in 1906, the partly autobiographical novel is a clarion cry for Socialism. It describes a group of painters and decorators  employed to restore a house in a world of stagnant wages and soaring profits. The poverty and near starvation in which the workers live, without proper food and clothing for themselves or their children, in cold cheerless homes, a prey to sickness, the workhouse, and early death, contrasts with the wealth and ease which their employers enjoy. Such is the precarious nature of the workers’ existence that a man murders his children rather than see them starve, an incident which Tressell based on a real case.

Owen, the main character,  refers ironically to his fellow workers as philanthropists because they  hand over the results of their labour to their employer without question, accepting that there is a natural order of rich and poor, of rulers and ruled. They are working class Conservatives, voting in ignorance, relinquishing self-respect and dignity, accepting that they should have only the necessities of existence, that “leisure, books, theatres, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food” are not “for the likes of them.”

Owen tries to explain Socialism to his fellow workers, to make them understand that the pathetic measures, such as smoking in the bosses’ time and minor pilfering, by which they attempt to “get some of their own back,” will change nothing. Revolutionary change, the proper valuing of labour power and the elimination of hereditary wealth is needed, he argues, to alleviate inequalities for good. But even Philpot, a good man who would happily pay another halfpenny on his rates to provide food for hungry school children,  cannot countenance the possibility of  changing the system.

Sometimes the novel becomes didactic as Owen lectures his fellow workmen on Marxist theory. At other times it is sentimental. But  the chapters which portray the men’s home lives, their troubled relationships, their children’s games, their friendships, their weaknesses, the accidents at work, the lure of the public house, and the annual beano, are vivid and real. And with echoes of William Morris, he portrays the frustrated craftsmanship with which the workers seek to express their personalities in lieu of the “scamping,” the cheap, rushed jobs required by their employers to maximise profits.

Tressell  hoped that by publishing the novel  he might convert his fellow workers and, knowing that he had tuberculosis,  provide money for his daughter if he died. But the handwritten manuscript was rejected unread. In 1910  he decided to emigrate to Canada in search of a better life, aiming to send for Kathleen once he was established. Aged forty, he fell ill and died of TB in Liverpool Infirmary while waiting for a ship. Kathleen had neither the money to pay for her father’s funeral nor the means to attend it. Tressell was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.

In 1914 Kathleen sold the novel to a publisher; since then it it has never been out of print, and it is frequently credited with helping to win the 1945 election for Labour.

In 1970 the historian Alan O’Toole used cemetery records to locate the grave where Tressell lay with twelve other paupers buried on the same day. Local Socialists and Trade Unionists unveiled a stone  in 1977. Made of Swedish granite donated by Swedish Trade Unions, it bears a portrait of Tressell,  the names of the twelve others buried with him, and an extract from William Morris’ poem The Day is Coming.

Robert Tressell’s grave surrounded by woodland on the edge of the cemetery,which now houses a city farm
Robert Noonan aka Robert Tressell
The stone bears the names of twelve others buried on the same day in a paupers’ grave
and an extract from William Morris’ poem The Day is Coming

Through squalid life they laboured, in sordid grief they died,

Those sons of a mighty mother, those props of England’s pride.

They are gone; there is none can undo it, nor save our souls from the curse;

But many a million cometh, and shall they be better or worse?

It is we who must answer and hasten, and open wide the door

For the rich man’s hurrying terror, and the slow-foot hope of the poor.

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