“Understanding yesterday, for the benefit of  today and tomorrow”

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7th SEPTEMBER 2017

The first meeting of the our season was a series of short talks by members which demonstrated how history is made more memorable and colourful when linked to personal stories.

The talks covered a wide range of topics. A seaside memento of a lighthouse was the starting point for a talk about Grace Darling and the remarkable incident where she and her father (a lighthouse keeper) set out in an open boat in a storm to try to rescue survivors from a wrecked paddle-steamer, the Forfarshire, which had run aground off the Northumberland coast. While contemporary Victorian accounts over-dramatised the events, it was certainly a very brave action and deserved to be remembered. The rescue took place on 7th September 1838; the date of the meeting was 7th September - a fitting anniversary.

A first and favourite doll, still treasured, brought to mind a story from 1939. The doll was brought from France (although its clothes suggest it was Dutch) and was a father’s gift for his daughter following a trip to France in the months before the outbreak of war. A photograph, also from 1939, was a reminder of days before the Second World War changed everything. The photograph was taken in a tea room in Wansford and showed a rather more formal approach to afternoon tea than is usual today: people had taken care to dress up for the occasion. Poignantly, the photograph was taken on 3rd September 1939, the day war was declared.

The discovery of papers and objects belonging to a much-loved grandfather was the focus for another talk. William Westhead was a pharmacist in Leicester at the People’s Dispensary in Bond Street and during World War Two he was an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden. Among the objects was a tobacco tin, specially designed to fit a hip pocket, containing his official warden identity card: a very real connection to the role of civilians in the war. An indication of William Westhead’s life as a pharmacist in the years before World War Two was the discovery of several, hand-written sheets recording his recipes (or formulas) for the various items he dispensed - a glimpse into the working arrangements of a practising pharmacist.

While history is often the record of changes it can also be a record of continuity. The unchanging moral dilemmas which have affected people over centuries was another topic. A thimble was the trigger for a memory of how close family relationships can lead to strong moral dilemmas. The thimble belonged to a relative who had been entertaining a cousin and noticed that, as the visit continued, more and more of her treasures seemed to disappear. But in any close family accusations of theft could cause a major rift. Is it easier to lose a few treasures than jeopardise family harmony?

Many social advances have resulted from deeply-held personal principles enthusiastically pursued and a gold wedding ring was a reminder of the impact an individual can have when following these principles. In the early 20th century in the mining community near Radstock in the Somerset coalfield (now long-gone and largely forgotten) the actions of a local headmistress in supporting families of miners and assisting them in their disputes with the coal mine owners were regarded as so helpful that when the headmistress married, the local miners arranged with Welsh miners to present her with a wedding ring made from Welsh gold. The headmistress’s daughter continued the work for social reform and the ring was passed between generations as a symbol of the constant need for social improvement.

Coal mining was the theme of another talk, about a visit to an English deep coal mine in the early 1970s, recalling how important this now defunct industry was to the British economy: in the early 1970s coal mining employed over 200,000 people and accounted for around 67% of all electricity production. The talk was a reminder that even in the early 1970s a deep coal mine was a dirty and dangerous place to work, with narrow seams and noisy and dusty conditions. A few months before the visit in 1973 an accident in a Yorkshire pit had killed 7 miners.

The final, very different, talk came from an American visitor to the History Society. Chris Iliff, with other family members, was visiting Kibworth to explore possible family connections in the village as Iliff is a family name with long associations with Kibworth. He told the story of James Iliff who was the son of an early settler. In the American Revolutionary Wars of the 1770s James Iliff remained loyal to the British Crown and even tried to recruit men to his cause. He was captured by supporters of George Washington and sent to Washington’s HQ where he was tried for treason and executed. An irony that by being loyal to the legitimate authority he was condemned for treason against a country which didn’t legally exist.  

Eric Whelan

5th OCTOBER 2017

Francis “Tanky” Smith

“Top Hat Terrace” (pictured left) is on London Road in Leicester (opposite Saxby Street) and is a physical reminder of one of Leicester’s earliest and most celebrated policemen, Francis “Tanky” Smith.

As George Weston explained Leicester’s police force was established in the 1836 with around 45 constables, 5 sergeants and an Inspector (the equivalent of a Chief Constable). Smith was an early recruit and quickly rose through the ranks. He was appointed as a detective in 1840 and was famous for the number of criminals he arrested and particularly for the use of different disguises to infiltrate criminal organisations. On the front of Top Hat Terrace there are 16 medallions of heads wearing hats, mostly top hats, which are said to represent the many disguises adopted by Smith.

Smith’s methods of adopting disguises, allied to a study of human nature, was said by one Conan Doyle expert to have been used by the author in his creation of the character of Sherlock Holmes.

Smith’s most famous case involved James Beaumont Winstanley of Braunstone Hall, a former High Sheriff, who disappeared without warning in 1862. Winstanley’s family asked the police for help and Smith managed to track Winstanley’s movements to Calais and then through France and in to Germany but here the trail went cold. Before Smith had reached Germany a body had been pulled from the River Moselle and buried locally. Following a hunch, Smith persuaded the authorities to exhume the body. Although the body had no identification papers, it was later identified from some monogrammed cufflinks. It was Winstanley.

Winstanley’s family showed their appreciation for Smith’s dogged efforts with a financial reward. This enabled Smith to retire from the police force and set himself up as a private detective. It also allowed him to invest in property (hence Top Hat Terrace). He continued to thrive and was successful in his property business and lived in Albert Villa in Francis Street, Stoneygate, another property development.

Why the nickname “Tanky”? It was said that when Smith made arrests he often “tanked” or clubbed the suspect with his truncheon. A not very pc PC.   

Eric Whelan

2nd November 2017

The role of women in history is usually under-recorded, often unrecorded and rarely promoted but in her talk on Ladies of Leicestershire Virginia Wright sought to correct this situation. Leicestershire has many examples of the important roles played by women in English history.

The stories of 3 of these women illustrate why their stories should be better known:  Alice Hawkins, Elizabeth Rowley Frisby and Mary Linwood. Alice Hawkins and Elizabeth Rowley Frisby were both very active in the women’s suffrage movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Alice Hawkins was a worker in the boot and shoe industry and mother of 6 who was very committed to obtaining the vote for women. She was imprisoned several times for her suffragette activities and was instrumental in attracting Sylvia Pankhurst to visit the Leicester shoe factories to urge women to support the action of the suffragettes.

Elizabeth Rowley Frisby was equally committed to women’s suffrage and was involved in the burning down of Blaby railway station as part of the suffragette campaign and she was arrested several times but her later story was one of change from Activist to Establishment: she was involved in local politics, became a JP and finally was Leicester’s first woman Lord Mayor.

Mary Linwood’s story is largely forgotten although in her time she was nationally and internationally famous. Mary came to Leicester when her mother opened a school in Belgrave Gate (a school Mary continued to run until her death).

Mary’s fame came from her talent in a form of needlework. She was famous for reproducing copies of Old Master paintings in worsted or crewel embroidery, a technique using dyed woollen threads sewn on to “tammy” cloth (a worsted woollen fabric). Mary was meticulous: she used threads of different lengths and specially dyed (in Leicester) which were said to mimic the artists brush strokes and she produced copies of artists such as Raphael, Rubens and Gainsborough.

Her work was admired by Queen Charlotte (wife of George III), the Tsarina of Russia and Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon was such an admirer that he invited her to Paris in 1803 for a presentation. Her work was admired nationally and a permanent gallery of her work existed in London for over 30 years until her death in 1845. Despite her acclaim Mary remained in Leicester and ran her school.

When Mary died the local shops were closed and crowds lined the funeral route. However, fashions change and after her death her creations were no longer desired and many works ended up in museum store-rooms. She was largely forgotten in Leicester’s history: a school was named after her but this has since disappeared.

Eric Whelan