Guest post: The evacuated teachers of the Second World War by Gillian Mawson

 

Evacuation of Gateshead School Children 1939 courtesy Gateshead Libraries
School children evacuated 1939. Courtesy Gateshead Libraries

As many of my regular readers know, I have recently written about the loss of my mum. I have delayed publishing this wonderful guest post from historian Gillian Mawson because it is a story that resonated so closely with my mother’s experience as a child during WW2 that I found it quite hard to comment on it. At the age of just 10, with her 6-year-old brother, my mum was evacuated out of London to Bedfordshire and was so traumatised by her experience at the hands of the woman who took them in that even in old age she would recognise similar abusive traits in others. It would bring back all those unhappy memories, and when she felt most vulnerable it caused her a great deal of distress, even in her 80s. Gillian has written a number of books describing, often in their own words, the wartime experience of evacuees. Some had a wonderful time, but others, like my mum, were less fortunate and it is important that all their stories are heard. So I am thrilled Gillian has written this post for my blog, focusing on the teachers’ experience, and the responsibility they felt towards their young charges. Full details of Gillian’s latest book can be found at the end of the post. Do take a look – the immediacy and freshness of some of the memories are heartrending.

During the Second World War, thousands of British teachers were evacuated with their pupils, yet we hear their stories far less often than those of child evacuees. These men and women took on a great responsibility. Cut off from their own families, they not only educated the children in their care but did their best to monitor their health and happiness, providing comfort when their pupils were homesick or distressed.

Maureen Brass described preparations at St Dominic’s Infant School, London

‘The week before the evacuation, we gave parents lists of what the
children should bring with them, made labels showing their names,
the name of the school and the school number. Ours was school
number 0302. On the morning of September 1st 1939, the children
assembled in school around 7.00am. The staff had arrived at 6.00am.
At 8.00am we set out from the school, waved off by tearful mothers,
grandmothers and others. The groups, Seniors, Juniors and Infants,
with staff and helpers, walked in fours to Kentish Town West Station.
We all boarded a train that was waiting for us and set out into the
unknown.’

Mary Richardson taught at Cork Street School, Camberwell, and recalled the school’s arrival in Kent;

‘Each teacher was assigned 10 children and after a long train journey,
we arrived at Sevenoaks where we were neatly put into cattle pens
to be counted. We then caught another train and arrived at Brasted
station, which is quite a distance from the village, so when we
arrived at the church hall we were a sorry sight – tired, thirsty and
afraid. Mothers came and chose us and I was seized upon by the
lady at the village shop and bakehouse. We had promised to try to
keep families together but with four Peabody girls and four
Sparrowhawk boys, this proved impossible. Some of the younger children had head lice, some had wet themselves and their clothing was dirty,
ragged and unsuitable. However, the Kent ladies were brilliant, extra
clothing was found, menus were changed to accommodate townies
who never ate ‘greens’ and cuddly toys given to comfort the weepy ones.’

Guernsey children and teachers arrive July 1940 in Disley Cheshire
Guernsey evacuees and their teachers arrive in Cheshire, 1940

When the children arrived at their new billets, they wrote their new address on a postcard, together with a short message for their parents. Their teachers advised them to write phrases which would cheer up their anxious parents, such as ‘Dear Mum and Dad, am living with nice people. I am very happy. Don’t worry about me.’ However, this had tragic consequences for one little boy and his family. He left his new billet, placed his postcard, with the above message, in the letter box then went for a walk. Sadly he fell into a canal and drowned. His family were advised of his death that evening, but two days later, his postcard with its poignant little message arrived at their home.

In many cases, whole schools were evacuated to open air camps in the countryside. When Derby School was evacuated to Amber Valley in Derbyshire, the teachers became virtual ‘foster parents’ to 200 boys. Elisabeth Bowden’s father was the Headmaster of Derby School and she moved into the camp with her parents;

‘Mum, Dad and I lived in a bungalow whilst the pupils and the other teachers
were billeted around the camp in large wooden huts. It was a huge responsibility
for those adults, in charge of 200 boys. Mother had some petrol because
she drove the emergency vehicle. Several times she had to take boys
with broken arms, limbs and that sort of thing, to hospital.’

Although many evacuees received loving care from their wartime foster parents, others did not. Children endured physical and mental cruelty at the hands of unsuitable hosts because billets were not fully vetted before the children were placed there. Children were sometimes ‘rescued’ from these situations because their teachers noticed their unhappiness or observed bruises and marks.

Peggy and Betty White were evacuated to Oxford and were very happy in the home of Mr and Mrs Murphy. However, when Mrs Murphy was due to have a baby, the girls had to move out and, as Peggy recalls, their next billet was very different;

‘We moved in with Mrs Fisher who turned out to be the most wicked
woman we had ever met. From the very next day, we were beaten
and made to do all the housework before going to school. We had to
get up at five each morning and we were sent to bed as soon as we
got in from school. As an extra punishment we would be shut, one
at a time, in a dark coal-shed all night. We lived there for about a year,
which to us seemed like forever. One day Betty’s teacher, Mrs Payne,
saw the terrible bruises on her. She questioned us both, and we said that Mrs
Fisher would kill us if we ever told anyone. Mrs Payne took us back to the
house and told us to pack our belongings in a suitcase while she had words
with Mrs Fisher. Then we all left. As we walked along the road in
the gathering dusk, with our battered suitcase balanced precariously on
Mrs Payne’s bicycle, she said, ‘Where would you like to live most of all?’
Betty and I cried in unison, ‘With Mrs Murphy.’ She replied, ‘That’s just
where we are going.’ We skipped the rest of the way there. Mrs Murphy
cried when she saw us and so did we.’

The teachers who remained with their evacuated pupils carried a huge burden of responsibility during the war. Miss Grace Fry’s life was completely changed by her wartime experiences. She was evacuated with her pupils from Guernsey to Scotland for five years and remarked some years later, ‘It was the evacuation that decided me, I was not going to get married and I wasn’t going to have children because I had had enough with all that during the war.’ Looking back today, child evacuee, Kathleen Cowling, believes, ‘We were very fortunate in having teachers who stayed with us throughout the war years and provided some continuity in our lives – they sacrificed a lot.’ John Davis adds, ‘My memory is of the unfailing kindness of the staff at a time when their own personal lives must have been under great stress, as well as the responsibility of teaching and caring for such a large number of children in very difficult circumstances.

My latest book, ‘Britain’s Wartime Evacuees’ can be viewed here:

evacueeshttps://www.amazon.co.uk/Britains-Wartime-Evacuees-Evacuations-Accounts/dp/1848324413/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

My sincere thanks to Gillian for this post. You can find out more about her valuable work at her blog https://evacueesofworldwartwo.wordpress.com/

“The door we never opened”- how poetry heals past and present for a better future. by Vivienne Tuffnell

LGGToday on Nowriggling I am thrilled to have a guest post by Vivienne Tuffnell. Viv has written for me before, not least as part of Dandelions & Bad Hair Days (I have to thank her for that title) and more recently blogging on Words are tools of healing when she published a collection of her essays as Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking. 

Here she writes on a subject very close to her (and my own) heart – poetry. Readers of my blog will know that just six weeks ago I lost my much loved Mum, and I gained solace reading Viv’s recently published novel Little Gidding Girl. I have reviewed it on both Amazon and Goodreads now, with 5* both times and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who likes a book to challenge and move them and at the same time be a rollicking good readHere she describes how important the reading, and writing, of poetry, is to her and how it inspires her work.

I’d like to thank Suzie for hosting this post on her fabulous blog. It’s a great treat to have a friend who loves poetry as much as I do. Though our tastes in poetry differ a little, they overlap in quite considerable ways and we both believe that poetry is important, vital even, to the development and well-being of us poor naked apes.

You might know of German poet Goethe’s smash-hit book “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” a melodramatic tale of a poetically-inclined young man and his sad fate. But did you know that this wildly-popular book spawned so many copycat suicides that it was actually banned? It was seen as the ultimate in romance and despite the ban, sold in numbers equivalent to today’s bestsellers written by Dan Brown and E.L. James.

The power of the written word has never waned, but the acceptance of pure poetry as its primary form has been lost. Young people are made to study poetry for exams and it’s rare for them to continue to read and explore poetry after those exams are over. Those same young people will devote the energy instead to the music that they love because it speaks to them.

Many people see poetry as an irrelevance, a luxury of the few folks able to get to grips with it, but poetry has gone underground and has become lodged in popular music rather than the pages of dusty old books. Song lyrics ARE poetry and like the poetry found on the page, they are as subject to as many variations. From the profound to the banal, from the lyrical to the grating, popular songs get into the consciousness of youth today the way poetry did a hundred years ago.

Yet there’s always a few for whom pure poetry becomes an essential part of their psyche and self-expression. Growing up, I was one of them. Geeky would be the word used now but when I was 17, the word didn’t exist (as far as I know) and we’d be called swots and weirdos instead. For me, poetry said the things that I didn’t know how to express. Not being in the slightest bit musical, I was baffled by the popular music at the time, and when I sought to deconstruct lyrics to better understand the music, I was called strange. I wrote a bit of poetry and a lot of fiction, but it was crowded out by exam pressure, and the last piece of fiction I wrote in my teens was the first version of The Hedgeway, completed not long before I turned 18.

I studied English and Latin at university and I was overwhelmed with the sheer weight of brilliant poetry and literature to such an extent that it was years before I began writing again. I was a new mum with a small baby when I returned to fiction, and I was in my late thirties when I began to explore poetry again. I only got into my stride again then because poetry became the only way I could express the tumult of emotions and experiences and visions I’d become subject to. The terrible mixture of dreams, imaginings, mental wanderings I experienced at that time coalesced around a single volume of poetry, one I’d come to many years after university. Four Quartets seemed to contain everything, hinted at and referred to obliquely, that my restless mind was trying to get at, and up popped a title: Little Gidding Girl. I had no idea what it meant.

613N30NIieL._UX250_
Vivienne

In the grip of a flood of creative energy that I’ve never come close to again, during those three years I wrote more than I’ve ever written since. Novel after novel just poured out of me, the words long dammed up. In Little Gidding Girl  I tried to explore the painful, poignant memories of being 17 and the frustrations and triumphs of being 37, and the world between the two ages, with all its losses and gains, destroyed dreams and false starts and betrayals. To create a novel that somehow married the two people I had been and was now, needed something that transcended my own experiences and psyche and it was Four Quartets that offered the link between those two eras of my life.

 

To find out more go to the Amazon page for Little Gidding Girl HERE. 

Caitlín Matthews, author of Singing the Soul Back Home, and Diary of a Soul Doctor has said of Little Gidding Girl:

From the unknown spaces between what is, was, and will be, messages and sendings break through into Verity’s life: are they nightmares of a parallel reality or projections from a love that has flown? Vivienne Tuffnell keeps us guessing with utmost artistry as we trace the interweaving way-marks in pursuit of the truth. Little Gidding Girl kept me enthralled until the very end.’ –

 

 

Memories of Murder – A Victorian Supersleuth at work once again…

Today I welcome author Angela Buckley to No Wriggling once again. Previous posts have described her work researching Victorian detective Jerome Caminada, The Real Sherlock Holmes and on Amelia Dyer, the 19th century baby farm murderer. Her new book is inspired by her childhood in the suburbs of Manchester, and the intriguing case of the murder of police constable Nicholas Cock. Read on to find out how her memories have resulted in a fascinating new book, out this week…

Whether it’s truth or fiction, crime continues to pique our interest and grab our fascination, from the initial shocking scenes, through the unfolding investigation, all the way through to the final revelation of the killer. As a writer, certain real-life crimes stand out for me; they seem to ‘call’ me, tempting me to open a specific case that has long been forgotten. That call is even more powerful when a crime has taken place in a place I know.

West Point 1926
The junction of West Point pictured in 1926 – the post office is in the row of shops

The second crime in my Victorian Supersleuth Investigates series, is particularly relevant for me, as it happened close to where I grew up in Old Trafford, in the suburbs of Manchester. In the early 1980s, I had a Saturday job in a post office, just around the corner from my family home. Every week I sat behind the stationery counter, gazing out of the large glass windows, watching the traffic pass by as I waited for customers to buy envelopes and greetings cards. At the time, I had no idea that I was staring at a murder scene from almost a century earlier.

CoverIt wasn’t until I began researching and writing about Victorian crime that this terrible incident came to light. In fact, I can’t quite recall exactly when I first heard about it. It has been loitering at the back of my mind for a long time, waiting for its turn to be brought back to life. I finally opened the case files and discovered exactly what happened on a dark night in 1876, when a young police officer was murdered in cold blood. Through contemporary newspaper accounts, trial records and many overlooked documents, this extraordinary story has gradually taken shape through intriguing clues, compelling witness testimonies and the twists and turns of a sensational police investigation.

PC Cock (1)
P.C. Cock

On 1 August 1876, PC Nicholas Cock was walking his beat at midnight. When he reached the junction of West Point (the location of the post office where I worked) he stopped to chat with a colleague and a passing law student. A few minutes after the three men had gone their separate ways two shots rang out in the dark. Constable Cock took a bullet to the chest and, shortly after, died of his injuries. His superior officer, Superintendent James Bent of the Lancashire Constabulary knew exactly who the culprits were and instantly set out to frame them for his officer’s murder. This complex case led to a murder conviction, a race to spare a young man from the gallows and an astonishing confession by a notorious burglar.

Since writing about this fascinating case, I often think of young PC Cock when I visit my parents who still live in my childhood home. The garden wall against which he fell has long gone, as well as most of the original buildings at the junction, but I can still stand outside the post office and imagine that dark night a century before. Many of the pubs where the suspects used to drink are still there, as is the memorial stone over Nicholas Cock’s grave on Chorlton Green. I’m glad that, after 140 years, I’ve had the opportunity to share his tragic story, which is intrinsically linked with my own past.

 

Childhood (1)My sincere thanks to Angela for writing for my blog. Who Killed Constable Cock? by Angela Buckley is out now in ebook and paperback. You can find out more about Angela’s work on her website, www.angelabuckleywriter.com and on her Facebook page Victorian Supersleuth.

 

Maritime Medicine and Mayhem in 1853

the-lost-story-of-the-williammary-gill-hoffs-hi-res-imageToday I am thrilled to host a return visit by Gill Hoffs, author of The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic, and of the blog post  on how Victorian corsetry contributed to a tragedy… In this post Gill links her latest book on the sinking of the William and Mary in 1853 with a subject close to my heart  – my next book is about medicine in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – and the story she tells is one of horror as we witness illness and death on a boat totally unequipped to deal with medical emergencies…My sincere thanks to Gill for this piece and having read the book I can heartily recommend it. Gill has a real talent for bringing true stories to life and it is a thrilling read. Links to all her work are in the text and at the bottom of this post.

Many things shocked me when researching a strange case of attempted mass murder at sea for my new book “The Lost Story of the William & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson”.  What seems to stand out for many readers – apart from the despicable actions of the captain and his crew when their ship wrecked in the Bahamas – is the lack of medical resources on board, or, more specifically, the prescription of bacon to treat high fever.

Emigrant vessels in 1853 were meant to have a ship surgeon on board for their voyages across the Atlantic or between Britain and Australia, however this was not always the case, and it was also fairly easy for someone to use forged documents to work their passage as a ship surgeon then disappear once they reached dry land.  Captain Timothy Stinson, the inexperienced and inadequate master of the William & Mary, didn’t bother hiring a surgeon for his ship and at least 14 of the 208 passengers on board suffered horrendous deaths as a result.

Below deck on an emigrant ship
Below deck on an emigrant ship

The William & Mary was a newly built vessel making its first journey as an emigrant ship from Liverpool to New Orleans when people started dying on board in the spring of 1853.  Many of the British, Irish, and Dutch passengers were afflicted with seasickness and unable to keep food and water down for the first few weeks of the voyage.  This made them more susceptible to disease and one by one the unluckiest died of measles, typhus, and similar conditions, as their bunkmates listened to them howl in pain.

Instead of a ship surgeon, Captain Stinson relied on a pamphlet he kept in his breast pocket, and used this to guide him when doling out medical advice including such gems as giving bacon to people with a high fever.  It would have helped if he’d also allowed his passengers their full allotment of provisions instead of starving them with half measures for weeks on end.

Luckily for the pregnant passengers on board, there were two medically trained emigrants present.  Both the doctor and the midwife were members of the Dutch party seeking to settle a town in Wisconsin.  This was the same year that Queen Victoria used chloroform while giving birth to her son Leopold, rendering pain relief during labour acceptable, but the Irish women delivering children still shocked their helpers by making liberal use of the whiskey they had available.  It is unclear why, with so many dying on his ship, Captain Stinson failed to make more use of this doctor or to take better care of the people he was responsible for.  The fact that emigrants paid up front rather than at the conclusion of a successful journey, dead passengers (in the short term) resulted in more profit than live ones, and a shipwreck with no surviving emigrants meant little or no compensation would have to be paid out, may have been a factor but it’s difficult to tell after over 160 years.

map-of-route-through-bahamas-lotgevallen-van-den-heer-o-h-bonnema-1853-used-with-kind-permission-of-collectie-tresoar
Route taken: Used with kind permission of Collectie Tresoar

Once the ship had wrecked in the Bahamas, and Stinson and almost all of his crew had abandoned their remaining passengers to the sharks, the lack of ship surgeon became less noticeable – especially after several passengers had been murdered with a hatchet.  But the Dutch doctor had to take a break from pumping the hold and instead assist the midwife in delivering a premature baby while its teenage mum was up to her waist in seawater.  It is unlikely Captain Stinson and his pamphlet could have helped with this, but since he made every effort to ensure all aboard died in the Bahamas, it’s doubtful that if he was still there he would have even tried.

 

 

For further reading on maritime medicine try David I. Harvie’s “Limeys: The Conquest of Scurvy” (The History Press, 2005 http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/limeys/9780750939935/) and Kevin Brown’s “Poxed and Scurvied: The Story of Sickness and Health at Sea” (Naval Institute Press, 2011 https://kevinbrownhistorian.wordpress.com/poxed-and-scurvied-the-story-of-sicknes-and-health-at-sea/).

Gill Hoffs is the author of “Wild: a collection” (Pure Slush, 2012) and two shipwreck books, “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’” (Pen & Sword, 2014, 2015) and the recently released “The Lost Story of the William & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson” (Pen & Sword, 2016).  She lives in Warrington, England, with Coraline Cat.  If anyone has any information regarding the wrecks and the people involved, they can email her at gillhoffs@hotmail.co.uk or find her on twitter @GillHoffs.

http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/The-Lost-Story-of-the-William-and-Mary-Hardback/p/12290

http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/The-Sinking-of-RMS-Tayleur-Paperback/p/10677

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wild-collection-Gill-Hoffs-ebook/dp/B00DQ1A8UC

 

 

First and Last – the poetry of Judith Williamson (1947-2015)

judith williamsonToday on my blog I am really pleased to be able to share the poetry of a woman I knew nothing about, until I was contacted by fellow writer David Venner who, in writing this post, drew my attention to the work of Judith Williamson. Reading The Supporter, shared below, I marvelled at the warmth and wit in her work and, with the poem Home,  the breadth of her work is illustrated. A collection of her poetry was published posthumously in 2015.

The name Judith Williamson may not be familiar to readers of this blog. As ‘J L Fontaine’, Judith was a published author. She had been writing since her teens but her first novel The Mark was not published until April last year. Her poetry, beautifully crafted but until recently known only to close family, reached a wider readership in 2014/15 through her participation in an online poetry project, ‘52’, in which over 500 aspiring poets were encouraged to write a poem a week, inspired by a shared prompt.

Following Judith’s untimely death last October, three of her fellow online poets compiled a collection of her poems and this was published by CreateSpace under the title First and Last. Many of Judith’s poems are autobiographical and so perhaps it might be thought that they will have meaning only to those who knew her. But I think they have a much wider appeal because they deal with subjects, ideas and feelings that are universal. As the compilers of First and Last noted, “Judith had the knack of projecting human warmth through the foggy glass of modernity”.

Judith WilliamsonBefore introducing a small selection of her poems, a few biographical notes may be helpful. Judith was the daughter of a village schoolmaster – her mother was the school secretary. She trained as a legal secretary, married and had four daughters. As the blurb on the cover of her novel The Mark puts it “she worked on a chicken farm, in hospitals and old people’s homes and, as ‘JJ the Clown’, children’s entertainer and puppeteer.” After gaining a post graduate diploma in counselling, she later worked in a college and as a police welfare officer in Sussex.

Once her children had left home Judith moved to France, living in a lovely rambling old house in a village between Poitiers and Bordeaux. Here she found time and space to write. She also found a French partner and, after a few years, moved with him to Senegal in West Africa, where some of her later poems are set. These and one or two earlier ones are among my favourites. They can be funny, thought-provoking or moving; they all engage the reader and often strike a chord with one’s own experiences. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

 

The Supporter

I must have been bowled over, to arrive
each Sunday afternoon,
to make cucumber sandwiches
and watch a game
I never understood.
I watched him triumph
week after week,
his bat raised in acknowledgement of
our polite applause.

I stumped him.

I swapped him for a rugby player
but that seemed, mostly, mud, maul,
testosterone,
and odd-shaped balls.

I kicked him into touch.

The hockey player
was fast and furious,
most of the time,
especially in bed.
He wielded a very short stick.

The ball was finally lost
in the undergrowth of neglect.

I huddled on a cold and windswept beach
to watch his dinghy
cross the finishing line.
Waking just as the klaxon sounded, signalling
his victory.

I took the wind out of his sails.

The footballer was easy.
He only required that I hold up a mirror, so
we could both admire him.
It was a game of one half.

Overnight, I moved the goalposts.

It seems, however,
my path was set.
And that I have spent my life
shivering on the sidelines.
Admiring.
Supporting.
Applauding.
Waiting
for the real game to begin.
Several of Judith’s poems convey her restlessness and her search for her true self.

Home

My need to wander far and wide,
to uproot and downsize,
two suitcases containing
all that I possess
reflect how rootless I have felt
since childhood,
It took me many miles
and years to find
my home inside me.

After her move to Senegal, Judith’s sense of injustice comes through strongly in her later poems.

Tourist Trade

Delicate as the fallen flowers that
carpet my yard,
the girls arrive.
Blown by the wind of poverty
into the gaudy town.

At night in bars and clubs,
their young faces
gashed with painted smiles
they are draped
like bright scarves
over ageing flesh.

In the bellow and roar
of bloated tourism
they can no longer hear
the heartbeat
of the village
or the crying child.

Sometimes Judith abandoned the short line verse format (she never constrained herself by rhyming her lines). The following paragraph of prose contains, in 125 carefully chosen words, so much to admire in the style but at the same time so much to rail against in the subject she is writing about.

Progress

Cooking in my little kitchen, I reflect that my African sisters, along the track, are cooking on wood foraged during the day and carried home on weary heads, their splay-legged babies, bobbing on their mothers’ backs, lulled by rhythm. The women cook, squatting on sand in darkened yards, or by the light of a mobile phone. Their husbands sit, resting after a long day of lying around talking to friends and drinking tea. The male children play in the road, chasing old tyres or kicking tin cans while their sisters crouch by their mothers, ready to help or fetch or carry, vilified if they are too slow. In my well-equipped kitchen, very advanced, sophisticated, I cook while my husband plays on the internet.

Sadly, Judith Williamson’s life and burgeoning writing career were cut short just when she had found her voice and had started to receive recognition for the quality of her work. Her poetry, her published novel and others that may still find a publisher, will hopefully form an enduring legacy.

 

David Venner (Judith’s brother-in-law)

My sincere thanks to David for sharing this with me. His own book Despatch Rider on the Western Front 1915-1918 was published by Pen and Sword Books in 2015 and he wrote about it on this blog HERE.

Albert and The Somme: From Idealism to Realism by Pamela Davenport

large3As we approach the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, it becomes more important than ever to recognise the sacrifices that were being made by the troops fighting at the Front. There were hundreds of thousands of casualties, and whilst researching Shell Shocked Britain, it became clear that post war estimates of approximately 60, 000 shell shock victims in that offensive alone, is still a significant underestimate. Many survived the battle only to return home undiagnosed, and mentally shattered. I am always interested in hearing stories from those who know something of the war-time experience of the men and women in their family, and here is a particularly interesting piece by No wriggling favourite Pamela Davenport, who has sought to understand her ancestor’s experience the better by studying art works of the period.

To his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren Albert Edward Davenport was a distant and cold person, preferring to spend the time after work in his local public house rather than at home. Little is known about Albert, except that he had joined the army in 1908, but never completed his 7 years’ service. Instead he was “bought out” of the army by his mother Emma two years later and returned to his family’s terraced home in Bury Lancashire. Four years later the world was turned upside down and Albert would be on the move again.

By August 1914 it had become inevitable that Britain would join forces with the Allies against a German Army that was determined to dominate Europe. When the war commenced, Britain was the only major European power not to have a mass conscripted army. In a wave of patriotic fervour, thousands of men were encouraged to volunteer for service in Lord Kitchener’s new armies. With nationalistic feeling strong, many British soldiers departed for training with a copy of Rupert Brooke’s poems tucked into their kitbags. Military service and death was seen as both heroic and noble.

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Meanwhile in Bury, Lancashire, Albert now aged 28, was a painter and decorator and a father of 4 children. He enlisted in October 1914, as a volunteer in the 2nd 5th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. Whether he was attracted by Kitchener’s recruitment strategies, the valiant words of Rupert Brooke, or the fact that soldiers serving overseas would be able to claim additional money for his wife and dependants, it is difficult to know. By 6th October 1914 he packed up all his troubles in his ‘old kit bag and smiled, smiled, smiled’, as he headed off into the unknown.

unknown drummer and buglerAlbert, like other new recruits, would have had three months basic training, which was intended to build up physical fitness and confidence, instilling discipline and obedience, as well as teaching basic military skills. This image of the unknown Drummer and Bugler from the 2nd 5th battalion, provides a brief glimpse into the lives of young soldiers who were unprepared for the horrors to be faced on The Western Front. By May 1915 Private Albert Edward Davenport 200845, was on the way to France and possibly the greatest and most terrifying adventure of his life.

2016 marks the centenary of The Battle of The Somme, which was fought between 1st July and 1st November 1916 and was one of the bloodiest battles in history. On the first day alone Britain suffered more than 20,000 fatalities and over 57,000 casualties. It is difficult to imagine how the heroic sentiments, which had been displayed in 1914, could rest easily with the terrible devastation experienced on the Western Front. Although news would have reached Albert’s family about events in France, little is known of his life on the Western Front, as no letters or photographs survive. But Albert did survive this battle.
The overwhelming loss of life which was experienced in the Battle of the Somme was partly as a result of the German army proving to be more experienced in the tactics of defence against Allied offensives. This proved to be costly to the British and Allies on the Western Front and added significantly to the length of the campaign.

As they retreated in November 1916, the Germans left desolation in their wake. Not a shelter that might serve as a billet, not a road or a bridge, not a blade of grass or a wisp of hay that would feed horses; this was truly vandalism on a gargantuan scale. It is difficult to imagine how Albert coped with the havoc and destruction of both his battalion and the landscape.

To gain some insight into Albert’s experiences between 1915 – 1917, I have chosen the art of two of the most distinguished artists of this remarkable era of social and political change. In contrast to Brooke’s patriotic sonnets, as years of devastating losses and with no clear resolution to endless fighting, there was a general change in mood from idealism to realism. Many war artists offered a harsh realistic visual depictions of the death and destruction that resulted from combat. A current exhibition at The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester highlights some of the graphic images produced by C.R.W Nevinson and Paul Nash. The paintings convey the pathos at the plight and experience of the ordinary soldiers who became nameless heroes. Their “Visons of the Front 1916-1918” do not glorify war and were intended to shock public reaction to the losses in battle. These shocking images still resonate as much today as they did 100 years ago.

Both Nash and Nevinson emerged from a remarkable group of artists from the Slade School of Art and like many other artists, writers and poets ended up on the Western Front. Both saw themselves as messengers of the terrifying realism on the Western front. It must have been a sense of cruel irony that the destruction and depravity of the battle field fed the imagination of these incredible artists.

“I realise no one in England knows what the scene of the war is like. They cannot imagine the daily and nightly background of the fighter. If I can, I will show them…”

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© IWM (Art.IWM ART 518)

In Nevison’s painting Paths of Glory (above) the starkness and irony is apparent. The viewer is presented with the sight of two dead soldiers lying in the battlefield mud. It is difficult to identify or identify with these unnamed heroes, as their faces are obscured and their bodies merge with the murky earth. A death in a waste land, a dreadful sense of a loss of identity and a waste of young lives. It is little wonder the official censor of paintings and drawings, Lieutenant – Colonel A N Lee censored this painting, what type of message would the sight of rotting and bloated British soldiers convey to the British public? But these were the type of images which Albert would be faced with.

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© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2242)

Nash’s experience as an officer on the Western Front and an official war artist completely transformed the way in which he painted. His early work was romantic and light hearted. By 1917, as he travelled towards Belgium, he began to note changes in the landscape. In one of his most famous paintings, The Menin Road (above) we are drawn into a completely ruined landscape with an apocalyptic sky, a wasteland of mud and standing water. This is really a strange disturbing and alienating place. The scene shows a place of chaos, irrevocable change and wreckage. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could survive physically, emotionally and psychologically from this experience. It is estimated that over 750,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed in the trenches surrounding Ypres, but Albert wasn’t one of them.

Albert was to see action at Hallencourt, the 4th phase of The Somme and the first phase of the third battle of Ypres, but this was not an enviable European tour. Having survived the Battle of the Somme Albert was promoted to corporal in March 1917, but six months later he received an honourable discharge under the category “No longer physically fit”, and awarded the Silver War Badge.

Although awarded 3 medals, the Star Medal, the Victory Medal, the British Medal, Albert, a weary but resolute British Tommy, did not return to a “Land for Heroes”. Instead Albert returned to a country which had lost a generation. Wilfred Owen’s haunting elegy Anthem for Doomed Youth is a judgement on the experience of war, the impact on the “sad shires” and those who were left to mourn.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Albert returned to his family a changed man, dying aged 71 years in 1953. He never mentioned his experiences in France and Belgium, post-traumatic stress syndrome was a condition which was not recognised in 1918. But Albert would ruefully reflect and contemplate on “each slow dusk a drawing- down of blinds” and the many young men who became doomed youths.

Sadly his war records and his medals are missing, but it is thanks to the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum in Bury that I have been  able to provide some insight into Albert’s army life.

The Mind of a Murderer – A guest post by Angela Buckley

Amelia Dyer 1
Amelia Dyer              (Thames Valley Police Museum)

Today I am thrilled to have as my guest on No wriggling, Angela Buckley, who has written for me before, about her last book,  The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada. Today she looks into the mind of Amelia Dyer, the notorious Victorian baby farmer, who plied her shocking trade in Bristol and Reading. Angela’s latest book Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders is a gripping read and heartily recommended!

In the spring of 1896 the body of an infant was found in the Thames near Reading. This gruesome discovery exposed the nefarious crimes of one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers. Notorious baby farmer Amelia Dyer advertised in the newspapers for babies to look after for money, strangled them and disposed of their bodies in the river. Over a century later, the question still remains: was Amelia Dyer mad or bad?

There is no clear evidence that Dyer suffered from any mental health issues during her childhood, despite the early deaths of two siblings and her mother. She established her baby farming business in her home city of Bristol, in the late 1860s and the first documented incident of possible psychological problems arose in 1879, when a coroner opened an inquest into the deaths of four babies in Dyer’s care, following a suspicious death certificate. When police called at Dyer’s house to take her to court they found that she had taken a laudanum overdose, which prevented her from appearing. This was the first in a series of drastic actions taken by Dyer seemingly to avoid the law.

Gloucester asylumIn the early 1890s Amelia Dyer’s situation as a baby farmer became increasingly precarious, when a governess tried to claim her child, after her circumstances had changed. The bereft mother came several times to Dyer’s home and even brought a police officer on one occasion. Each time Amelia Dyer had a breakdown, was certified ‘insane’ and committed to the asylum. She made two further suicide attempts, by cutting her throat with a knife (she only sustained a slight scratch) and by throwing herself into a pond. Dyer spent three brief periods in the asylums at Gloucester and Wells, after which she returned to her baby farming trade.

When Amelia Dyer was finally brought to trial for murder at the Old Bailey on 21 May 1896, much of the evidence focused on the key question of her sanity. All the doctors who treated her in Bristol testified. Dr Thomas Logan described how Dyer had threatened to break his skull with a poker, leading him to conclude that she was suffering from brain disease and her ‘insanity’ had been exacerbated by mental anxiety. Dr Lacey Firth examined Dyer at Bristol Hospital after her drowning attempt. He believed that she was melancholic, but not insane. A third doctor came to the conclusion that she was ‘of unsound mind’.

In an attempt to unravel the mystery of Dyer’s mental state, the judge called upon expert witnesses. Dr Forbes Winslow had examined the prisoner in Holloway. Her delusions and hallucinations led him to believe that she was insane. However, the prison’s medical doctor claimed that she was not. The final expert medical witness was Dr George Savage, from St Bartholomew’s Hospital, a renowned doctor with ‘long experience in lunacy’. His final conclusion was that Dyer was not suffering from ‘homicidal mania’, and that the crimes were not the act of an insane person. Despite the contradictory evidence, the jury returned a guilty verdict and Dyer was sentenced to death.

Granny Smith
Granny Smith (Reading Borough Libraries)

The final word on this debate should go to those who were closest to Amelia Dyer. Her daughter, Mary Ann Palmer, told the court how her mother alternated between quiet periods and bouts of extreme violence – she had threatened Mary Ann’s life several times. Interestingly, it was Mary Ann who had told the doctors in Bristol about her mother’s mental health history, while they were considering her treatment. The person with the least reason for incriminating Dyer was Jane Smith, also known as ‘Granny’, an elderly woman whom Dyer had rescued from the workhouse. After visiting Dyer in Reading Prison, a journalist asked Granny if she thought the prisoner was ‘trying the old game on’, to which she replied, ‘I do; but I don’t think she will get off so easily as she has done before.’ Mad or bad, Amelia Dyer was executed for her crimes on 10 June 1896.

Cover copy[arEN][1]Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders by Angela Buckley is available in ebook and paperback via Amazon and other online retail outlets. You can find out more about Angela’s work on her website angelabuckleywriter.com

How old newspapers can aid historical research: by Denise Bates

Historicalnews coverToday I welcome to No Wriggling Denise Bates, whose latest book, Historical Research Using British Newspapers is published by Pen and Sword this month. I have often written on this blog of how useful I found the British Newspaper Archive in my research for Shell Shocked Britain and at all my talks I stress how important a resource old newspapers are. Denise has used my experience, and that of other writers, as case studies in her book. In this post she looks at the ways in which research into mental health can be enhanced by reference to the newspapers. Shell Shocked Britain was inspired by a cutting found when I was undertaking some family history research, so imagine what you might find in those fascinating old pages…..

Old newspapers are no longer an archive resource mainly used by seasoned researchers. An internet connection and a log-in enable anyone with an interest in the past to read old newspapers, at a time and place which is convenient to them. There are many gaps in our knowledge of the past and digitised newspapers now offer anyone who is intrigued by topics that fall outside the academic or commercial mainstream a way of pursuing their own interests. Sometimes the subject-matter of historical research has been driven by the academic or the publishing community meaning that some topics have effectively fallen ‘out of history’. Some writers have been too keen to make a point at the expense of accuracy and, for some topics, finding material to learn from has been a practical problem. Newspapers can be very helpful in all of these situations.

Mental health in the nineteenth century is a subject where newspapers contain a rich repository of material for investigation, to supplement existing knowledge about life in the asylum or the hysterias supposedly experienced by females. When I researched Pit Lasses, my book about the women and girls who worked underground in coal mines until the job was banned for them in 1842, I had hoped to discover something about their mental well-being but found scant information in the records of the time. A fortuitous breakthrough came when I traced a newspaper report about an unnamed female who had died at a Lancashire Colliery in 1844. The case was included in Frederick Engels’ political tome, The Condition of the Working Classes in England. Engels was keen to show that women still laboured underground and suppressed the inconvenient fact that the teenager did not work at the colliery but had killed herself by jumping down the shaft.

No reason for Margaret Wignall’s suicide was given in the brief paragraph, but as more newspapers became available on-line I discovered a detailed report of the inquest into her death. The Mines Act of 1842 had cost Margaret her job and other work was hard to find. She had briefly been employed as a children’s nurse but was dismissed because of her rough manner of speaking in favour of a more refined girl. Presumably depressed by her inability to earn her keep, perhaps nagged by her parents on this point, she took her father’s lunch to him at the pit and then killed herself in public view. The truth about her untimely death is much more complex and shocking than Engels’ text suggested.

Margaret’s is just one case amongst many reported in nineteenth century newspapers where an individual may have suffered mental health problems. My breach of promise research found several broken engagements where one of the parties probably had schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder or depression, although this was not recognised at the time. Not all individuals turned to the devastating outcome of suicide but it is clear that many struggled to cope without support or understanding from of those around them.

As these brief examples show, newspapers contain a wealth of information on many subjects, but it is not always presented a direct manner. An open-minded researcher who is prepared to commit time to locating and interpreting information drawn from newspaper reports may make discoveries that enhance our understanding of the past, or even challenge existing beliefs about it.

My sincere thanks to Denise for writing this post, and do look out for her book in all good bookshops, or find out more at the Pen and Sword website.

Historical Research Using British Newspapers by Denise Bates is published by Pen and Sword in April 2016. Her previous books, Pit Lasses and Breach of Promise to Marry are also available from Pen and Sword.

Guest post by Pamela Davenport: The Models & Muses of the Pre Raphaelites: Annie Miller

Back in January I was thrilled to welcome Pamela Davenport, a fellow lover of all things art and literature, as a guest blogger on No wriggling.  Millais – A compassionate portrait of Opheilia was such a success and, she assures me, an enjoyable experience for her,  that she has written another piece about the Pre – Raphaelite Brotherhood for me to share with my readers. Perhaps it would be fairer to say this post is about one of the ‘sisterhood’ of  women used (and, perhaps, abused) by the artists in that Bohemian group – one of, as Pamela says, the ‘bohemians and stunners’,  Annie Miller. Once again, I must thank Pamela for all the research she does to tell us more about this fascinating period in British art.

Annie MillerIn my previous guest blog I explored the way in which Millais, the golden boy of The Royal Academy, used inspiration from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet to produce a beautiful visual portrayal of the last moments of Ophelia’s life. The models and muses became an important part of the work of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). So how were these supermodels of the nineteenth century discovered? Annie Miller was there at the beginning of the Brotherhood and no doubt helped to shape their art. But how did Annie get her lucky break?

Born into poverty and orphaned as a child, she was brought up by her aunt and uncle, a laundress and a shoe maker, in the slums of London. With her wild and filthy hair and covered in vermin, William Holman Hunt, an original member of the PRB, saw a beauty to be rescued by a knight errant, from her life of poverty. Hunt wished to transform Annie, Pygmalion-style, and set about educating her. However, did he ever intend to marry her?

Annie made her first appearance as the model in The Awakening Conscience, 1853 (above). If one looks closely there are references to Annie’s relationship to William in the painting. and the sense that this woman is kept as a mistress, rather than a wife. However, there was always an ambiguity about their stormy relationship. After one of their many rifts, William repainted the face, using his wife Fanny Waugh. William considered himself Annie’s saviour, but he never proposed or showed much interest in her after a lengthy absence in the Middle-East. I like to think that she was fiercely independent; after all she came from an era when love was not a first priority, making a match was.

So what would you do if the man who pays your bills, pays for your education, and controls your life clears off to the Holy Land, with no promise that he would return, let alone marry you? In this case absence certainly did not make Annie’s heart grow fonder. Was this the wake-up call Annie needed? Apparently Annie had a mind of her own and in Hunt’s absence she was seen out socially with different men, including both Rossetti brothers, Dante Gabriel and William, and the artist George Boyce. Just as Henry Higgins lost his power and influence over Eliza Doolittle, Annie spread her wings and turned away from the staid and solid Hunt and sought a world of excitement

Although there are some Hunt images of Annie, there are admittedly more by other people, mostly Rossetti. Ah Rossetti, I wondered when we’d come to you! Although he helped her financially, Hunt also had to give his permission for her to sit for other artists, and the “bad boy” Rossetti was not one of them. Rossetti – yes there is a romantic view of him, this bohemian who probably was more exciting than the dour William Hunt;the man about town with his dark flowing hair, whose art and poetry contained sensuality and realism that captured the bohemians and stunners on his canvases.

With their voluptuous figures and loose luxuriant hair, Annie and other ‘stunners’ became an emblem of female sexuality , with a suggestion of loose morals. These breath-taking works, with their hidden secrets, high spirits and high aspirations, challenged Victorian morals and conventions. To me, Rossetti and his relationships with his muses and models became more interesting than any soap opera. In particular I found his relationship with Annie Miller fascinating. With her amazing blond hair and her curvaceous figure Annie had caught the eye and imagination of many artists and Annie soon became seduced by the glamour of the artists’ studios and the ‘reality show’ fame attached to the role. Just like Eliza Doolittle she never knew what made her role so exciting and why her heart took flight!

Annie as helen
Woman in Yellow – Dante Gabriel Rossetti

As with many Pre-Raphaelite women, Annie became the object of Rossetti’s infatuation and desires.  He used her as a model incessantly while Hunt was away. Unfortunately Rossetti was married to Elizabeth Siddal at the time and his obsession caused arguments and friction between Lizzie and Rossetti. Whether from sexual jealously or something deeper, it is thought that Lizzie felt her role as Rossetti’s muse was threatened. Was this really a love triangle? It certainly adds an interesting dimension to the drama. After Lizzie died, in 1862 Annie posed for Rossetti for two stunning paintings, Woman in Yellow (above) and Helen of Troy, showing how she had become briefly the supermodel of the nineteenth century.

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Helen of Troy

This image of Helen of Troy clearly demonstrates the Pre Raphaelite hallmark of women, with the rippling hair, full lips, the hair ornaments and jewellery. No wonder Mrs Gaskell referred to Rossetti as “not mad as a March hare, but hair mad”.  The loose luxuriant hair can be viewed as an emblem of female sexuality, but did this necessary equate to loose morals?

In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms; And none but thou shalt be my paramour!”

Although Annie has been immortalised on canvas there have been some critics who did not view her as the beautiful Helen of Troy. So why did Rossetti choose Annie to be his model for this radiant paining?  Does the poem Rossetti wrote to complement the painting, Troy Town, provide any more insight, with its emphasis  on love, desire and beauty?

Undeniably Annie came from a lowly background, so perhaps subconsciously Rossetti was elevating her status just as Holman Hunt had tried to do.

Just as the tabloid media now has a ‘field day’ with celebrities, there have been many people who viewed Annie’s lifestyle judgmentally, assuming that she was rather too free with her favours. This has been reinforced by several dramatic portrayals in the twentieth century, which included Ken Russell’s Dante Inferno in 1967, the Love School in 1975 and Desperate Romantics in 2009. Would it be more realistic to state that Annie was aware that her modelling career was short lived and that these  friendships were more to do with self-preservation?

By 1863, Annie’s career was on the wane as Rossetti, ever fickle with his emotional attachments, replaced Annie with the gregarious Fanny Cornford.  Finally Janey Morris, the wife of William, with her lean pale face and her mass of long dark brown hair, represented an alternative beauty to the ‘stunners’. The bohemian lifestyle was left behind as Annie chose a more sedate lifestyle and moved to Hampstead.

Like Eliza Doolittle, Annie married and settled down with Thomas Thomason, in Shoreham by Sea, employing a cook, housemaid and parlour maid. Annie and Thomas had one daughter who recalled her mother as “being lovely and ladylike, wearing exquisite handmade shoes and kid gloves”.

Annie overcame many barriers, from a Victorian childhood living in poverty with no hope for the future, to posing as the face that launched a thousand ships as Helen of Troy. Her relationship with Holman Hunt caused rifts and conflicts and eventually ties between them were severed. But Annie was assertive and she stood up to him and amazingly lived her own life on her own terms, as much as any woman in her position could do in such a restrictive and stifling era. “ I’ll never know what made it so exciting, why all at once my heart took flight, I only know when he began to dance with me I could have danced, danced, danced all night”.

Annie Miller was a fascinating woman, especially during an era when the social structure of society was different and the position of women in society was one of that being defined by the men in their lives.

What a journey Annie had travelled from the dirty unhygienic slums of London to the quiet Sussex coast. Annie lived until 1925 when she died at the age of 90.

0a9a86fPamela Davenport is an experienced Higher and Further Education teacher, who has substantial experience working with children and young people in social care, community and educational settings. Pamela has undertaken 8 European visits, to Germany, Belgium, Spain and Finland, as part of the British Council’s Erasmus/Socrates Teacher Mobility Project. Writer on Social Care Values in Practice, Human Development Across The Lifespan, Working in a Multi-cultural Society, The Invisible Child, The Rights of Children and co-author for Teacher’s Handbook for HUGS Charity. She is a passionate lover of art and literature, in particular Shakespeare, the Romantics, the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, The Impressionists and Picasso.
Join her on twitter @pameladav3 and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pameladav

Millais – A compassionate portrait of Opheilia – a guest post by Pamela Davenport

Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896
Ophelia 1851-2 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Today on No Wriggling I am thrilled to host a guest piece by Pamela Davenport, a fellow lover of all things art and literature and, like me, an author on The Wordsworth Trust blog. Find out more about her at the end of the post, and let us know how you feel about this painting and the work of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. We would love to hear from you.

While at University in the mid-1980s, I made regular visits to Manchester City Art Gallery and became fascinated with the ‘boy band’, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. So many questions came to mind, amongst them – where did they get their vision, creativity, insight and most of all inspiration? I soon discovered that literature was an important aspect of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, taking their inspiration from the Romantic Poets, including Keats as well as Ovid and Shakespeare. The three original members of the group, the charismatic Rossetti, the serious theorist Hunt and Millais with his prodigious talent, become known as The Young Ones who wanted to modernise art.  Led by Rossetti this unique band became known for their pranks, midnight jaunts around London’s streets and pleasure gardens and late night drinking sessions.

MilliasThis Band of Brothers, with their “military” action against the art establishment, was brought together with the intention of painting serious subjects taking inspiration from the artists of the middle ages and the great works of literature. This revolutionary artistic group was to be faithful to nature and paint outdoors, and in this Shakespeare’s plays offered ideal subject matter. Not only does Shakespeare describe beautiful natural scenes, but he writes scenes of emotional and moral complexity. This juxtaposition of art and literature totally captivated me.

It was his fascination with the females in Shakespeare’s plays that is obvious in Millais’ work. From the beautiful, rich and intelligent Portia, in the Merchant of Venice to the witty, fun, loyal, ingenious and decisive Rosalind, in As You Like It, Millais clearly adds depth and character to his compositions. But it was the image and the story of Ophelia which took my breath away when I first saw the painting in the Tate.

Initially I was drawn to Arthur Hughes’ interpretation of Ophelia’s contemplating death. This delicate pale young girl, with long fair hair, with a crown of reeds and flowers on her head and dressed in white drapery intrigued me. With her deep sorrowful expression Ophelia is seated in the centre of the painting in a dark, swampy woodland setting. But nothing could compare to Millais representation of this Shakespearean heroine. It was like stepping out into sunlight, with the clarity of colour and heartfelt emotion that made my heart skip a beat.

I have seen various productions of Hamlet and what has always struck me is that  through his poetry and prose, Shakespeare with his universality, and his realism, can  create drama from human emotion. This is particularly apparent in Hamlet. Ophelia’s portrayal is a passive, sexually vulnerable posture, linking to Hamlet’s association of “woman” with “fragility” and Laertes calling Ophelia a “document in madness”.

In his book, Madness and Civilisation, Foucault considers the links between water and madness. He discusses how drowning was associated with the feminine, female fluidity rather than male aridity.  If the drowning of Ophelia is considered, it represents the truly feminine death which is represented in many dramas of literature, art and life. Thus water becomes symbolic of the liquid woman whose eyes are drowned in tears as her body is slowly deprived of life.

It is Shakespeare’s representation of his female characters that is both interesting and thought provoking, especially in the way in which he represents Ophelia. As the character evolves it appears that she is defined by and wholly at the mercy of the male figures in her life. Although Hamlet is not totally to blame for the tragedy of the play, his innocence must be questioned if we consider the death of Ophelia. Hamlet’s attitude towards Ophelia swings from undying love and cruelty, as in Act 3 scene 1 “You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old shock but we shall relish of it: I loved you not”. This suggests that Hamlet used Ophelia as part of his revenge plan. In Act IV Scene v it becomes apparent that Ophelia can no longer cope with the dilemma and conflict she has had to endure. “Look at my flowers, there’s rosemary, that’s for remembering….pansies…. they’re for thoughts…..”, as melancholy descends.

Although we never get to see Ophelia in the stream we do have Gertrude’s description to Laertes of the drowned Ophelia in Act IV Scene VII in the brook, “There with fantastic garlands did she come, Of crow-flowers, nettles, daises and long purples……When down her weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook, her clothes spread wide….”

In his representation of Ophelia Millais clearly conveys her ethereal beauty. Millais’ painting is almost frighteningly realistic, with vivid colours of nature, her billowing dress and chaotically floating hair and flowers. This is how I always visualised Ophelia’s tragic death, in my imagination this work of art perfectly complements Gertrude’s description. Ophelia is shown holding her arms out in the shape of a cross, with the ivy in the painting symbolising Ophelia’s melancholy and decay.

Millais places Ophelia in exotic surroundings which are enhanced by bright colours and thick brush strokes to paint trees. Apart from the inert passivity of Ophelia, a closer look at her posture and face conveys the moment of death as an almost orgasmic ecstasy. The painting shows a clever use of symbolism and colour clearly represents Ophelia’s descent into madness and the tragic loss of her life, as she lies “Mermaid-like awhile they bore her up…… As one incapable of her own distress,…Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, Pulled the poor wretch from her melodies lay to muddy death”.

I have returned to this painting many times and see something new each time. The way in which Millais interprets and captures Ophelia’s expression as she is retreating into her madness, lying motionless and emotionless obvious of her fate, is pure understated drama. The painting is regulated in a way to highlight the natural details of the scene. The grassy water plants and the bed of weeds in which she floats look almost like a piece of exquisite embroidery. Driven insane by the murder of her father by Hamlet, Ophelia is portrayed singing in her madness as she drowns. To me this truly captures Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death.

When I first introduced my daughter to this wonderful picture she was drawn to the flowers and the wild life. Most of the flowers are included because they are mentioned in the play or are symbolic. Millais began the background in July 1851 at Ewell, Surrey with the main aim of close observation of nature. Millais observed these flowers growing wild over a period of five months, hence there are flowers that bloom at different times of the year. Looking closely at the painting there is a robin in the branches of the willow tree, which refers back to the line, “For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy”, which Ophelia sings as she loses her mind in Act IV Scene V. Birds are symbolic of the spirit. It could be a reference to Ophelia floating down the river and her spirit flying away. A poignant and beautiful creative work, a timeless tribute to Ophelia.

Once the background was completed Millais moved into his studio, where his model Lizzie Siddall was required to pose in a bathtub, with the water begin kept warm by lamps underneath, over a 4 month period. My daughter was fascinated by the story, and this started her own  fascination with English Literature as well as a love for art.

0a9a86fPamela Davenport is an experienced Higher and Further Education teacher, who has substantial experience working with children and young people in social care, community and educational settings. Pamela has undertaken 8 European visits, to Germany, Belgium, Spain and Finland, as part of the British Council’s Erasmus/Socrates Teacher Mobility Project. Writer on Social Care Values in Practice, Human Development Across The Lifespan, Working in a Multi-cultural Society, The Invisible Child, The Rights of Children and co-author for Teacher’s Handbook for HUGS Charity. She is a passionate lover of art and literature, in particular Shakespeare, the Romantics, the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, The Impressionists and Picasso.
Join her on twitter @pameladav3 and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pameladav