Black abolitionists in Westminster

WESTMINSTER ABBEY IS costly for tourists to enter. Currently (November 2021) the entrance ticket ranges in price from £10 for a child to £24 for a full-price adult ticket. Without doubt, the Abbey is well worth a visit, but if you do not feel like spending so much money, its neighbour, the St Margaret’s Church is also full of interest but charges no entry fee.

Because the present Abbey was once the church attached to a monastery, St Margaret’s was built in the 11th and 12th centuries to provide a place of worship for the (non-ecclesiastical) residents of Westminster. When the residential population of the area declined, it became what it is now, the parish church for The House of Commons. The first church on the site was built in the Romanesque style, but when this deteriorated in the 14th century, it was replaced by the present structure built in the Perpendicular (gothic) style. Since then, like many old churches it has undergone various modifications over the centuries.

Amongst the many fascinating things within the church, which are described in an excellent booklet by Tony Willoughby and James Wilkinson, several things particularly attracted my attention. First of all, several of the windows in the south wall of the church contain superb modern stained glass designed by the painter John Piper (1903-1992) and created by Patrick Reyntiens (1925-2021). The were installed in 1966 to replace Victorian windows that were destroyed during WW2. Piper’s windows alone are a good reason to visit the church.

Another thing that caught my eye is a pair of doors on the north side of the church. These are covered with red leather, each one embossed in gold with a portcullis, surmounted by a crown, the symbol of Parliament. Some of the prayer kneelers are also decorated with this symbol.

Amongst the many tombs and funerary memorials within the church, there is one to the artist Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677). Born in Prague, he left the city when the Emperor Ferdinand the Second ordered Bohemian nobility to convert to Roman Catholicism or leave the country. A highly prolific and much-admired artist, creator of many works including detailed views of London, he died a poor man in Westminster. His monument is on the north wall.

Amongst the many memorials on the south wall there is an oval plaque commemorating the fact that in 1759, Olaudo Equiano (aka Gustavus Vassa) was baptised in the church when he was a slave owned by a sea captain, Michael Henry Pascal. Equiano (c1745-1797) was a black African slave, who gained (purchased) his freedom in 1766. After numerous adventures, which he related in his autobiographical work “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”, published in 1789 in London, he became active in the nascent movement to abolish the slave trade. In addition to his book, he wrote a great number of pamphlets and letters to the press.

Whereas I was able to spot the plaque for Equiano with no difficulty, I was unable to see the grave of another abolitionist, also a former slave, Ignatius Sancho (c1729-1780), who was born on a slave ship and is buried in the churchyard of St Margaret. He married a West Indian woman, Anne Osborne, in St Margaret’s, ran a grocery shop in Westminster, acted, composed music, and wrote against slavery using the pseudonym “Africanus”. He was the first black Briton to vote in a parliamentary election. He cast his vote both in 1774 and 1780.

In addition to these two black abolitionists, the church contains memorials to two men who tried to alleviate the suffering of slaves in the Americas, Richard Burn (c1744-1822) and Thomas Southerne (1660-1746). The latter was one of the first writers in English to denounce slavery.

I hope that what I have written above will help to distract you from the idea of visiting only Westminster Abbey and to encourage you to make plenty of time to explore St Margaret’s.  

Fallen leaves amongst the fallen: Field of Remembrance

I HAVE LIVED in London for well over 60 years, but it was only this November (2021) that I first became aware of, and experienced, something that has been happening annually on the north side of Westminster Abbey since November 1928 (www.poppyfactory.org/about-us/history-timeline/#). For eight days following the Thursday preceding Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday closest to Armistice Day, the 11th of November, the day on which WW1 ended, the field bounded by Westminster Abbey and its neighbour, the church of St Margaret’s Westminster, is covered with a myriad of mostly tiny wooden memorials hammered into the grass. The memorials are mostly cross-shaped, but some are in the form of crescents, six-pointed stars, and other shapes including some that bear the Sanskrit symbol representing ‘aum’ (or ‘om’). Each of these tiny wooden items commemorates a fallen service person or other victim of war. The shapes of the wooden pieces denote the religion of the person or persons being remembered, be they Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Moslem, Jewish, or of no religion. Many of the wooden memorials have red poppies attached. Oddly, few if any of the Islamic crescents had poppies on them. The small wooden memorials are arranged in groups, according to which service or regiment or organisation the remembered people were members of, or associated with. The whole ‘event’ is organised by The British Legion Poppy Factory. This annual garden of memorials is called The Field of Remembrance.

The Poppy Factory, a charity, was founded in 1922 by Major George Howson (1886-1936) to provide employment for veterans injured during WW1. He bought a site in Richmond (south-west London), where he established a factory to manufacture Remembrance poppies and other related items to be sold to raise money for The British Legion’s Red Poppy Appeal, a charity that supports the Armed Forces community.

Apart from the small wooden memorials, there are many badges and emblems of the groups in which those remembered were members. Looking at these and the small wooden memorials is both fascinating and extremely moving. The fascination lies in the huge variety of regiments and organisations, too many to list, which lost people during military conflicts (and terrorist incidents) since the onset of WW1.

One group of memorials interested me because of their emblem that incorporates a heraldic creature, which has fascinated me for several decades. The creature is the double-headed eagle (‘DHE’), currently used as an emblem by countries including Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, the Indian state of Karnataka, and Russia. The DHE appears on the crests of some of the various regiments of The Royal Dragoon Guards. The Dragoon Guard regiments were first established in the 18th century, in 1746, and consist of mounted infantry. While the Austro-Hungarian Empire existed, it also used the DHE. In 1896, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria (1830-1916) of Austria-Hungary was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards, some of whose members are remembered in the Field of Remembrance. The emperor allowed the regiment to wear his empire’s emblem (https://web.archive.org/web/20130303033912/http://www.qdg.org.uk/pages/Uniform-1843-Onwards-81.php), the DHE. In addition, the regiment adopted “The Radetzky March” as one of its official march tunes; it is still used today. It was sad that in 1914, Franz Joseph, became the ruler of one of the powers against whom Britain and its allies were fighting. Some of those who fought in the British Royal Dragoon Guard regiments with the DHE on their headwear were killed by allies of the emperor in WW1, who had earlier been appointed their C-in-C. They are commemorated the Field of Remembrance. Judging by the small wooden memorials planted in the Royal Dragoon Guard’s section of the Field of Remembrance, members of at least four religions fell while serving in these regiments. I wondered why the DHE was retained even after Austria-Hungary became one of Britain’s opponents in war.

Returning to the Field of Remembrance as a whole, it is a poignant sight to behold. Although war is both horrific and ugly, this annual memorial is both moving and beautiful. The Field is laid out beneath trees lining its northern edge. Seeing the dead leaves from these trees lying fallen amongst the thousands of tiny memorials to victims of war seemed most apt to me.

Wall of sorrow

PARLIAMENT’S HOME IS OPPOSITE a wall that runs along the northern edge of the grounds of London’s St Thomas’s Hospital. The wall is separated from the River Thames by a walkway, the embankment between Westminster and Lambeth bridges. Almost every square inch of the river facing side of the wall, which is about 440 yards in length, is covered by hand-painted hearts of various sizes and in various shades of red and pink. Many of the hearts have names, dates, and short, sad messages written on them.

Each of the many thousands of hearts painted on the wall (by volunteers) represents one of the huge number of people who died because of being infected with the covid19 virus. The wall is now known as The National Covid Memorial Wall and work on the painting commenced in March 2021. The mural that records the numerous tragic deaths was organised by a group known as Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice. The names and other information added to the hearts is being done by people who knew the bereaved person being remembered. When we walked past the wall today, the 27th of October 2021, we saw a young lady carefully writing on one of the hearts. Seeing this and the wall with all its reminders of the pandemic-related deaths was extremely depressing. On our return journey, I insisted that we crossed the river and walked along the opposite embankment on which the Houses of Parliament stands. Even from across the river, the reddish cloud of hearts on the wall is visible. Certainly, this would be the case from the riverside terraces accessible to those who work and govern within the home of Parliament.

It is ironic (and maybe deliberately so) that the wall with its many tragic reminders of deaths due to covid 19 is facing the Houses of Parliament (The Palace of Westminster), where had different decisions been taken, sooner rather than later, many of the names on the wall might not have needed to be written there.

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.

Hall of fame

CAXTON blog

Caxton Hall is close to major London landmarks such as Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, St James Park, and Buckingham Palace. Yet, it is hidden away in Caxton Street, not only from the casual visitor but also from the attention of contemporary London life. However, this has not always been the case.

Built as Westminster’s Town Hall in 1878-82, it was designed by the architects W Lee and FJ Smith. Its architectural style has been described as an “Ambitious but coarse essay in Francois I style”.[1] It is distinctive looking building that attracts the eye.

The Town Hall contained two large public spaces known as the Great and York Halls[2]. Prior to the 1930s, these halls were used for a variety of gatherings including political meetings. Between 1933 and 1979, Caxton Hall became a registry office where weddings (often of celebrities) were held.

In 1900, the first Pan African Conference was held in Caxton Hall. From February 1906, it was the venue for meetings of The Women’s Social and Political Union, which was founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst, a fighter for women’s suffrage. Being close to the Houses of Parliament, Caxton Hall was a convenient place for the women to gather before their regular marches to the home of Parliament.

On the 1st of July 1909, Sir William Hutt Curzon Wyllie was shot dead at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington by an Indian nationalist, Madan Lal Dhinghra, from the Punjab. On the 5th of July[3], four days after the assassination, many Indians gathered at Caxton Hall to condemn the actions of Madan Lal Dhingra. Although most of those attending supported the motion “ that those present at the meeting and all the communities of Indians both in India and Great Britain express horror and condemnation of the murders of Curzon Wyllie …”, there was at least one person who opposed it as this extract from my book “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets” describes:

“When the Chairman announced that the resolution had been passed unanimously, Veer Savarkar, who was in the audience, shouted:

No, not all!

Thereupon, mayhem broke out. People were filled with fear as many of them knew Veer’s connections with revolution and bomb-making . Many shouted that he should be thrown out and a few chairs were brandished angrily. A Mr Edward Palmer[4], of mixed British and Indian ancestry, took it upon himself to:

“… plant a truly British blow between the eyes of Savarkar who had raised a chair to fell me… ”

Tirumal Acharya, who helped to defend Veer from further attacks by Palmer, first thrashed Palmer and then began helping his friend get away from the hall .  Before this, VVS Aiyar had threatened Palmer with a gun, but Veer winked at him to restrain him . A few days later, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, who was unable to attend the meeting, wrote to the London Times, saying that if he had been present, he would have supported Veer’s objection even at the risk of being thrown out . He added that although he objected to the resolution and believed in the right to express one’s own opinion, he did not consider that assassination and anarchism was the right way to achieve the independence of his country.”

For those who do not know, Veer Savarkar (VD Savarkar: 1883-1966) has assumed great importance in today’s India. He was a prolific writer, an Indian nationalist and freedom fighter, and helped formulate the concept/philosophy of Hindutva, which is part of the foundation of Hindu Nationalism.

Although Savarkar did not remain in the UK for much longer after this meeting, seeing Caxton House, now converted to luxury dwellings, and knowing its connections with those people I have researched in some detail sends a shiver down my spine.

“IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS”

by Adam YAMEY

is available from:

Amazon, bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and Kindle

Notes to the text of the blog:

[1] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1357266

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caxton_Hall

[3] Much detail from Times (London) 6 July 1909

[4] Edward Palmer was of mixed Indian and British descent. Maybe, it was he who founded Veeraswamy’s Restaurant in London in the 1920s (see: https://erenow.net/biographies/white-mughals-love-and-betrayal-in-eighteenth-century-india/1.php, and https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-British-Curry/, both accessed 15 June 2019)

The months of May are ending

197px-Theresa_May_portrait

Cameron has gone,

May will be ending,

Can Brexit now be resolv’d?

 

 

Image source: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/588948/The_United_Kingdoms_exit_from_and_partnership_with_the_EU_Web.pdf