A conspiracy at the crossroads

DUNCHURCH IN WARWICKSHIRE is located where the old road between Oxford and Leicester crosses that between London and Holyhead. This charming village was a place where, in its heyday, up to forty carriages a day stopped to change their horses for a fresh team. This was done at the various coaching inns in the village. One of these hostelries, which is still in business today, is The Dun Cow, where we ate a good English breakfast. Some of this inn’s previous guests included the engineer George Stephenson (1781-1848) and his son, another engineer, Robert (1803-1859), who dined at the hotel on the 23rd of December 1837. Their dinner was to celebrate the completion of the Kilsby Tunnel on the Birmingham to London Railway, a project supervised by Robert.

While we were wandering around the graveyard of Dunchurch’s St Peters Church, which dates back to the 12th century, we asked a gardener working there about where one of Dunchurch’s former famous characters had once stayed. He told us that he had no idea. Half-jokingly but with some earnestness, he added: “…we could do with another one like him.”

Guy Fawkes House in Dunchurch

The man about whom we were asking had associates, who were staying at the village’s former inn, The Lion Inn, in the early 17th century, the year 1605 to be exact. It was in early November of that year that those waiting at The Lion in Dunchurch were wondering about their colleague who was 79 miles away in London.

The fellows at The Lion were waiting to hear whether their co-conspirator Guy (Guido) Fawkes (1570-1606) had been successful in blowing up the House of Lords in London. He was not, and the conspirators waiting in Dunchurch were arrested. Had the plot to blow up Parliament and along with it the Protestant King James I succeeded, the men at The Lion were to have travelled to nearby Combe Abbey to seize Princess Elizabeth (1596-1662), who became Queen of Bohemia. As an informative website (www.ourwarwickshire.org.uk/content/article/rugby-school-science-teaching-around-1900-2) explains:

“In 1605 the monarch was James I; the Princess Elizabeth was his eldest daughter and sister to the future Charles I. In 1605 she was nine and being educated by Lord Harington at Coombe Abbey. She wasn’t a Catholic, but the conspirators planned to convert her and use her as their figurehead … Her main importance with regard to British history is that one of her grandsons (the son of her youngest daughter Sophia of Hanover) became King George I.”

The man about whom we were chatting with the gardener was neither of the Stephensons, who dined at The Dun Cow, nor the Duke of Wellington, who also stayed in the village, nor Lord John Douglas-Montagu-Scott (1809 – 1860), whose statue stands facing The Dun Cow. He was referring to Guy Fawkes, but this time a Guy Fawkes who completes the job before being arrested!

The former inn, a lovely half-timbered edifice is now a private house, named ‘Guy Fawkes House’, even though the famous man never lived there. The rest of the village contains several old thatched cottages, a thatched bus shelter, and the old village stocks. Close to the town of Rugby, this village is well worth a visit.

Sir Harry loses his head

LOSING AN ELECTION is probably one of the worst things that happens to politicians today. Several centuries ago, a politician risked facing a far worse fate: decapitation. Such was the ending that was suffered by a 17th century politician who chose to live Hampstead in north London, close to Westminster yet surrounded by countryside.

Sir Henry Vane (c1612-1662) is often referred to as ‘Henry Vane, the Younger’ or ‘Harry Vane’. Born into a wealthy family, he completed his education in Geneva, where he absorbed ideas of religious tolerance and republicanism. His religious principles led him to travel to New England. Between May 1636 and May 1637, he served as the 6th Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While in America, he raised a large amount of money to be used for the establishment of what is now Harvard University. Soon, he came into conflict with other colonists. Barratt, an historian of Hampstead, wrote:

“…he soon found that his own ideas of religious independence and those of his friends were not in harmony. Their “tolerance” was shown in a cruel and rigid intolerance of everything that did not fit in with their own narrow Calvinistic views; Harry Vane stood for a larger humanity.”

Harry returned to England and became a Member of Parliament as well as a Treasurer to the Royal Navy (in 1639). He was knighted by King Charles I in 1640.

When the conflict between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians broke out in about 1642, it was hoped that Harry would stick with the Royalists, but he did not. He became a solid supporter of the Parliamentarians. During the Commonwealth that followed Cromwell’s victory in the Civil War (1642-1651), he regained his position of a treasurer to the navy. Harry’s views on various things differed from those of Oliver Cromwell. By this time, Harry had moved to a house in Hampstead, Vane House, where, it is believed, he used to meet with Cromwell, Fairfax, and other prominent Parliamentarians. The poet Milton was also a visitor at Vane House. Barratt relates that when the question of executing King Charles I was being decided:

“…Vane refused to be a party to the sentence, and retired to his Raby Castle property in Durham, one of the estates his father settled on him on his marriage in 1640.”

Vane had married Frances Wray, daughter of Sir Christopher Wray, who was a Parliamentarian.

Harry became concerned when Cromwell barred him from the dissolution of the so-called ‘Long Parliament’ in 1653. Let Barratt expand on this:

“When Cromwell violently broke up the Long Parliament, his most active opponent was Sir Harry Vane, who protested against what he called the new tyranny. It was then that Cromwell uttered the historic exclamation, “O Sir Harry Vane! Sir Harry Vane! the Lord preserve me from Sir Harry Vane!” Vane was kept out of the next Parliament, and, still remaining at Raby, made another attack on Cromwell’s Government, in a pamphlet entitled ‘The Healing Question’. This was a direct impeachment of Cromwell as a usurper of the supreme power of government, and led to Vane being summoned before the Council to answer for his words.”

Harry’s actions led him to be imprisoned on the Isle of Wight.

Following Oliver Cromwell’s death in 1658, Harry returned to public life and his home in Hampstead. He was striving for Britain to become a republic rather than a continuation of the dictatorial Protectorship established by Cromwell and continued by his son Richard.

When King Charles II was restored to the throne, ending the Protectorship, Harry, who had not been party to, or in favour of, the execution of Charles I, was granted amnesty and hoped to live in retirement, contemplating religious matters that interested him, in his Hampstead residence. But this was not to be. Although the King was happy to forgive Harry, some of his advisors were concerned that, to quote Barratt:

“Vane’s ultra -republicanism was probably more objectionable to Charles II. than it had been to the Protector, and Charles had not been established on the throne more than a few months when the arrest of Sir Harry Vane was ordered.”

Harry was taken from his garden in Hampstead by soldiers on an evening in July 1660. After a short spell in the Tower of London, Harry spent two years as a prisoner on the Isles of Scilly. In March 1662, he was brought back to the Tower and faced trial at the King’s Bench. The charge against him was:

“…compassing and imagining the death of the king, and conspiring to subvert the ancient frame of the kingly government of the realm…”

The judges in this unfair trial had no option but to find him guilty. He was executed at the Tower.

I would not have been aware of this remarkable man had I not spotted a brown and white commemorative plaque in his memory on an old brick gate post on Hampstead’s Rosslyn Hill. The gatepost and a short stretch of wall are all that remains of Harry’s Vane House, which was has been demolished. It was still standing in 1878, by which time it had been heavily modified and:

“…occupied as the Soldiers’ Daughters’ Home. Vane House was originally a large square building, standing in its own ample grounds.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp483-494).

This was connected by a covered arcade to a school for soldier’s daughters. The building which housed the school still stands on Fitzjohns Avenue and has been renamed Monro House. The heavily modified Vane House, in which Sir Harry resided, was demolished in 1972. Its only remains are as already mentioned.

Once again, seeing a small thing whilst strolling around in London has opened a window that has given me a first view of an aspect of history that was almost, if not completely, unknown to me.

A clock on a wall

I NOTICED THAT A CLOCK on the south wall of the nave of St Mary’s Church in Ashwell (in Hertfordshire, north of Baldock) bore the makers name “JJ Dison, Potton”. Being by nature curious, I wondered whether any trace of JJ Dison remained in Potton, a small town in Bedfordshire, about nine miles north of Ashwell. So, off we went to Potton, and what we found there was delightful.

In the tenth century, the town’s name was ‘Potun’ and in the Domesday Book (1086), it was listed as ‘Potone’. These names are derived from the Old English meaning ‘farmstead where pots are made’. During the Middle Ages, the Tudor, and Stuart eras, the Market at Potton was one lof the largest in Bedfordshire. This declined after the Great Fire of 1783 during which much of the centre of the town was destroyed. In 1797, the Shambles (a market area including brick buildings) were erected, but these fell into decline in the 1930s. A smaller version of the market building was constructed later, and this now serves as the town’s library. The two women working there were friendly but knew nothing of the clock makers of Potton They sold me three fascinating books that contain historic photographs of Potton.

Today, Potton, which once had its own brewery, is now a commuter town. Its station, first built in 1850, is on the former Great Northern Railway. Currently, commuters can travel into London on trains that terminate at London St Pancras.

We wandered around Potton looking at various old buildings and enjoying a coffee at a pleasant café that had only just reopened after several months of having been closed because of the covid19 pandemic. A pleasant walk along Church Causeway brought us the parish church of St Mary’s, perched on the highest spot in the town. Its construction began in the 13th century and many additions were made in the centuries following. As with so many churches we have visited recently, it was locked up. We walked around its exterior, admiring the many decorative gravestones in the crowded cemetery that surrounds it. We returned to the centre of Potton along the causeway, crossing a couple of fast-flowing streams along the way. These waterways are part of the Potton Brook network, tributaries of the River Ivel, which is itself a tributary of the River Great Ouse which flows into The Wash.

Well, enough about Potton: you must be wondering whether I have forgotten JJ Dison. I have not, but there is not much to say about him, but more than I had expected to discover. James Jeremiah Dison thrived in the early 19th century. His exact dates are not known. Amongst the Potton churchyard inscriptions (pottonhistorysoc.org.uk), there is one for ‘Jeremiah James Dison’, dated 29th September 1844, when Dison was aged 35. His wife, Jane (née Edwards) died in 1840, aged 31. The couple had two children, named George and Sarah.   

Dison is listed (www.clockswatches.com) as working both in Cambridge and Potton. The British Museum contains a beautiful printed watch paper (an ornamental paper place inside a watch case by the maker or repairer of a watch) which informs us the JJ Dison was a ‘silversmith and jeweller’ as well as a ‘clock & watch maker’. It also mentioned ‘jewellery &c carefully repaired’. In a directory of Potton (in a “Directory of Bedfordshire”) dated 1839, JJ Dison is listed as a watch and clock maker at Bull Street. There was another member of his trade, Mr Henry Reynolds, at Moon Corner.

The National Archives in Kew contains an undated will prepared by JJ Dison, which has within its wording:

“Jeremiah James Dison of the towne of Cambridge in the county of Cambridge watchmaker…”. Whether Dison lived both in Potton and Cambridge, it is not clear. However, the watch paper and the clock in Ashwell’s church suggest that at the very least he worked there. Also his burial in Potton, rather than Cambridge, suggests that his main residence might well have been Potton. That he worked in Cambridge is suggested by a post placed on a watch collecting website (https://mb.nawcc.org/) in which the collector noted that he had acquired a watch “…sold by John Dison Cambridge…”.  Another website (i.collector.com) listed:

“Late 18th Century pair cased Pocket Watch, J J Dison, Cambridge, number No 570, the pierced and engraved cock to a Roman enamel dial with later hands, both cased marked for London, 1789, Makers mark W L …”

It might be coincidence or possibly more than that, but James Jeremiah was not the only Dison working on timepieces in the east of England. There was Joseph Dison of Whittlesey and Thomas Dison of Biggleswade. Biggleswade is close to Potton and Whittlesey is just north of Cambridge.

The clock at St Mary’s in Ashwell is a product made by JJ Dison in Potton. A small plaque, which I was unable to read, the clock being too high above the ground, suggests that the timepiece was a donation to Ashwell’s church. Whatever its origin and story, seeking out its maker has been fun and introduced us to a pleasant town not far from London, which we hope to visit again.

Houses of Parliament

westmin

 

Recently, I attended an event, a performance of Albanian polyphonic singing by the ‘Grupi Lab’ ensemble from Vlore (Albania), in a room in the Palace of Westminster in the heart of London. For those who are unfamiliar with the Palace of Westminster, this enormous building contains the two Houses of Parliament.

To enter the Palace, it was neccessary to weave around the barricades put up to limit the activities of the Extinction Rebellion climate change activists. The public entrance is in Cromwell green, close to a statue of Oliver Cromwell. After a series of security checks that resemble those at Heathrow Airport, we followed a path that leads into the huge Westminster Hall. Although restored in parts, this hall dates back to 1097 AD. Its marvellous hammer beam timber roof  was built in the 14th century. Much of the timber is original, but some of it had to be replaced after a bomb struck in 1941.

After the concert, we decided to visit the public gallery of the House of Commons. After a short wait, we were issued with tickets and then escorted to another security check point. The examination here was very thorough. 

The public gallery overlooks the chamber in which Members of Parliament debate and make speeches. When we arrived at about 5.30 pm on the 14th of October (2019), there were more people in the public gallery than in the chamber. A Labour MP was delivering a lengthy, dull speech. Nobody seemed to be paying him the slightest attention.  After what seemed an eternity – actually, about ten minutes – he stopped. He was followed by a Conservative MP, who made an interesting speech, concisely and powerfully phrased. Again, this did not appear to interest anyone else in the chamber. During the couple of speeches we heard, we could see the few other MPs present sitting quietly, many of them fiddling with their mobile telephones or tablets. This, my first ever visit to a sitting of the House of Commons, was interesting but hardly scintillating.

What impressed me most about my visit to the Palace of Westminster was the staff. Everyone we encountered was not only helpful, but also kind and couteous. The ‘pomp and circumstance’ of the Palace did amaze me, but not nearly as much as the superb staff.

Taking a plunge

blog Plunge

Whatever happens in the UK’s current tumultuous parliament, it is more likely than not that the UK will leave the European Union (‘EU’). Whether this happens on the 31st of October 2019 or later, the UK is certainly taking a plunge into a possibly frightening unknown. When a majority of the British people voted in favour of leaving the EU, nobody could foresee the problems that we are now facing and will face as time moves on. Sadly, many of those who voted (largely without understanding what is involved and often for xenophobic reasons) for ‘Brexit’ will suffer the consequences more than many who voted not to leave the EU. Our present Prime Minister is optimistic about the future of the UK outside the EU, but as Boris Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill wrote:

There is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away. The . . . people can face peril or misfortune with fortitude and buoyancy, but they bitterly resent being deceived or finding that those responsible for their affairs are themselves dwelling in a fool’s paradise.”

(Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, Vol. 3 [1951])

Fifth November

GUY FAWKES

Fifth November, Guy Fawkes Day

let’s  recall:

a Parli-ament saved

 

[In the UK, the 5th of November is remembered as being the day that many centuries ago the Houses of Parliament were saved from being blown-up by plotters led by Guy Fawkes  (1570-1606)]