A Country House Christmas: Remembrance of Christmases Past

Originally titled Treasure on Earth and published in 1952, this small book was written by Phyllis Elinor Sanderman (born the Hon Phyllis Legh) and is a thinly disguised account of the Christmases that she experienced at Lyme Park, the Legh family residence in Cheshire. It’s a charming and affectionate look at Christmases past and would not look out of place as a Downton Abbey Christmas special with the big house being readied for Christmas, as well as the rituals and traditions that underpin Christmas at Lyme. The narrative is written in the third person, and while a few names have been changed Lyme is renamed Vyne Park while the author’s parents the 2nd Baron and Baroness Newton are Sir Thomas and Lady Vayne, but it’s easy to pick up that the author is describing her parents and home.

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However while what we see in Downton Abbey’s celebration of Christmas is pretty much a pastiche, A Country House Christmas while short delves into detail about how Christmas was celebrated in a house like Lyme Park before World War I. There are the family theatricals, the visiting relatives, the exchange and giving of presents: not just between the family but the annual distribution of beef to the tenants and presents for their children presided over by Sir Thomas and Lady Vayne. Phyllis’s anticipation of the big day jumps off the pages of the book as does her passion for the house and its history and contents. There are more than enough descriptions of the house which despite the absence of any photographs allow the reader to imagine Vyne Park and its inhabitants, upstairs and down.

Apart from the description of the house and the rituals associated with the festive season there are affectionate portraits and characters sketches of the servants: Truelove the butler, Fraulein Thur the governess, Perez the chef and Mrs Campbell the housekeeper. These sketches are woven into the descriptions of the preparations for Christmas and the acknowledgement that the servants are the engine that keep the house running. Prominent among the servants of course is Truelove – defined by Phyllis as “unquestionably the ‘Eminence Grise,’ the power behind the throne, holding the reins of government; with the ear of the queen, the confidence and (albeit reluctant) admiration of the reigning monarch, and with both titular rulers dependent on him and knowing it.” There is also a description of the wider community outside the confines of the house and the relationship between the Vaynes and the estate as demonstrated by Sanderman’s description of the present giving to the children of tenants presided over by Lady Vayne:

“When the children of the estate employees came up on Boxing Day to have tea and receive their presents, it was he [Truelove] who acted as master of ceremonies. After tea in the servants’ hall, it for the occasion with Chinese lanterns, they would troops upstairs in the Long Gallery, where the tree in all its glory for the second day in succession provided, except for the blazing fire, the only light in the room…..Then when everyone had walked around the tree and admired it thoroughly, Truelove would read out from a list, not the children’s names but their parents’ names and their respective ages – a nice distinction.

‘Jim Bowden’s little girl aged six years’ – and a small girl in her best frock and button boots would clatter across the shiny boards to where Lady Vayne stood beside the tree, received her gift with a bobbed curtsey and clatter back again……the same ceremony again, till from the youngest to the eldest they had all their presents. Then Truelove would make a speech.

It was the same every year – ‘I’m sure we’re all very grateful to Her Ladyship for providing this beautiful tree and presents. When I was a boy and Christmas came round I was pleased if I got a monkey on a stick. But of course times have changed. Now I want you all to give three hearty cheers,’ etc.

There was always the loyal response. Then the gallery would resound to the blowing of tin trumpets and whistles, the clicking of pistols and popping of crackers, and the broad North Country accents of excited young voices.”

The narrative is set in 1906, five years before the passage of the Parliament Act and eight years before the outbreak of the First World War; both of which would deal a death blow to the power and prestige of the aristocracy. Superficially, this account can be seen as a paean to aristocratic life with its unchanging routines, deferential servants and tenants, dressing up for dinner and the entertaining demanded of a house like Vyne but it goes deeper than that, as there is also the self-awareness that this aristocratic world and lifestyle could vanish.

And vanish it does. The narrative fast forwards to and ends in 1946, when as an adult Phyllis returns to Vyne again as the house has been given to the nation because the Vaynes, harassed as they are by rationing and rising taxes, can no longer afford to keep the house as it was during that Indian summer before 1914. One would have thought that Sanderman would be nostalgic for the “good old days” but clearly she isn’t as she writes in the introduction to the 1981 reprint of her book:

“The hard fact must be accepted that houses such as Lyme are now anachronisms, no longer able to fulfil their original function, namely that of dwelling-houses for the leisure class. They must either fall into decay or be turned into institutions – hospitals or schools – or become museum pieces, visited and enjoyed by the public at large.”

I would highly recommend this book, not just as a charming story of Christmases past but also a more thorough look at how the festive season was celebrated in a country house in a way that period drama such as Downton Abbey have never quite managed to capture.

 

 

 

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Come Dance with Me: When Britain fell in love with Ballroom Dancing

Long before Strictly Come Dancing debuted on British television in 2004 and reignited an interest in ballroom dancing, Britain had a period between the two world wars when the nation fell in love with dancing and it was the main competition to the cinema in terms of popularity as a form of leisure activity.

Dancing’s popularity was aided and abetted by a growing consumer culture that grew exponentially after the war, as well as foreign influences, particularly from America, that made their presence felt. This popularity also reflected changes in music tastes, the status of women, technology and many others. However this was also the time when there was anxiety over the growing “Americanisation” of British society and culture and for a minority of people who saw dancing as a contributor to the decline in moral standards. In this blog, we shall see how Britain put on their dancing shoes and took to dancing with a great enthusiasm that has not been seen since.

 

Dancing as a national pastime:

Prior to the end of the First World War, ballroom dancing as we know it today had its roots in the ballrooms of royalty and the aristocracy: where dancing was an important social lubricant and part of entertaining among the royals and the upper classes. Then and until the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War, dancing was an integral part of the London Season and the ability to dance was seen as a useful social skill.

This all changed especially during the years of the Great War and after.  The horrors witnessed during the war and the changes that occurred as a result meant that people, especially the young, were keen to seize the moment and enjoy themselves. Popular entertainment became more widespread during this era and dancing particularly stepped out of the palaces and country homes to occupy “a pivotal place in the culture of the working- and lower-middle class communities in Britain.” Dancing’s popularity was only rivalled by the cinema and it’s easy to see why; it had universal appeal and something shared among generations as young people, their parents and grandparents danced. It was also social lubricant and an opportunity to meet other people. Crucially, it also provided an opportunity for social mobility and entrepreneurship as a whole new industry sprang up from dancing to provide employment for dance teachers, bands, singers, comperes, chefs, waiters and even builders, architects, interior decorators and engineers.

The “dance boom” was noticed as early as 1919 –  as The Sunday Sun observed: “There is a big boom in dancing. Ever since the silencing of the guns last November it has loomed large in the social life of the individual. Where it was once an art it has now become a craze…..if things go on as they are at present, it is safe to assume that dancing will shortly become an obsession with the majority of our younger citizens.” People danced at home, in dance halls and nightclubs and even between courses while dining in restaurants, and the popularity of dancing dominated the post-war scene. Loelia Ponsonby (later Duchess of Westminster), recalled “Supported by nothing more than tea or coffee (a glass of sherry would have turned it into an orgy) we fox-trotted tirelessly until it was time to dash home and change into evening dress for a real dance…dancing was more than a craze, it had become a sort of mystical religion.” If there was no formal afternoon dance available for Ponsonby and her friends they would meet at someone’s home and “we wound up the gramophone, put on a record and began practising new steps.”

dancing 1920s

And this boom was encouraged and fuelled by the rise of dance halls across the country. Many were converted from existing facilities such as theatres, bath halls, assembly halls and even clubs but the rise of the purpose built palais de danse brought dancing to the masses: the French name signifying elegance and adding a veneer of glamour to the venue. They were purpose built for dancing and could also accommodate several bands, a café and restaurant that no other existing assembly hall could provide. They also became noted for their programmes which featured the latest dances, music and bands. The first of these palaise de danse was the Hammersmith Palace opened in 1919 by Howard Booker and Frank Mitchell, a Canadian and American respectively. It quickly became a success owing to the fact that its music was provided by touring bands (mostly from America) on a residency for a few months thereby keeping the acts fresh and novel. Its status as a place to be was cemented by the fact that the Prince of Wales and his younger brother the Duke of York became regulars. The formula became successful and by the mid-1920s, other palais de danse were opened in cities such as in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Smaller towns followed suit and just like the cinemas, these dance halls with their imposing facades and plush interiors were monuments to the inter-war years as James Nott wrote:

“The growth of purpose built dance halls providing first rate facilities at affordable prices, with proper organisation and orderly conduct, shifted the focus of dancing by the mid-1920s away from its former upper class strongholds in the West End of London towards an urban lower-middle- and working class patronage. The palais de danse were providing facilities that would, by the mid-1930s, make dancing a truly mass leisure pursuit. Regular, cheap and modern, dances at a palais de danse were ideal for those with lower incomes who were interested in the new dance steps and new dance music.” (p. 22)

The late 1920s to the early 1930s (despite a short slump in dancing’s popularity during the mid-1920s) led to the development of a dance hall industry with the establishment of both local and national chains. The most famous was the Mecca Group which started out as a catering firm called Mecca Café, which provided catering for the likes of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and other established venues. Mecca Café had its first forays into the dance hall business after acquiring a dance hall in Brighton which became a success. Its strategy was to buy halls that were faltering or losing money and turn them around. Mecca also pioneered business practices that were soon copied by other dance halls and chains due to the realisation that dancing alone did not attract customers – especially repeat ones. Infrastructure was deployed to ensure that facilities were comfortable, luxurious and state of the art; hence they were constantly updated and improved in order to keep up with trends and changes in technology such as lighting, acoustics and cooling systems.

Palais de danse

Dance halls also used marketing and promotions to attract customers both new and repeat and yet again Mecca proved to be the pioneer through the use of press agencies (forerunner of today’s PR agencies) to promote dancing as well as the use of “stunts” to liven up evenings. Examples of these stunts included talent nights, themed nights and special prizes given to, for instance, the fiftieth or hundredth customer to pass through the door.  Dance halls like the cinema were relatively unscathed during the Great Depression as despite record numbers of unemployment, more people went to dance halls as they offered escapism and value for money. For a single admission price, one person could enjoy an evening with music, dancing, a variety of entertainment, amenities and dining; not to mention the chance to meet large numbers of members of the opposite sex.

palais-de-danse

 

Dance styles and music – the emergence of a home grown style:

During the 19th century dances such as the quadrille and polka were very popular but the first dance style that shocked polite society was the waltz, mainly due to its hold and the use of the closed position (i.e couples dancing face to face rather than side by side). Because of that it was seen as shocking and immoral but it outlasted all other dances and its hold and closed position becoming the standard for other style of dances.

In the years before 1914, popular dances included the cakewalk, bunny hug, Turkey Trot, tango and the foxtrot: with the latter particularly proving to be more enduring as the new jazz sounds introduced after the war provided the perfect tempo for the dance. Just as in the past, dance fashions came and went only this time many of them proved to be a flash in the pan. Novelty, group and party dances such as the Black Bottom, the shimmy, jogtrot and the Lambeth Walk were introduced with varying degrees of success, the most successful being the Charleston which was introduced from America. Its frantic and high energy steps became popular especially with the young but not everyone was enamoured of this new style of dance. A newspaper likened the steps to “reminiscent only of negro orgies” and many of the old guard frowned upon this foreign import as “neurotic” and “rotten”.

These new dances, like the novelty of jazz with its syncopated rhythm and flexibility, undermined older notions of respectability and propriety when it came to dancing and music. Just as the waltz nearly a century before had been considered shocking, so did critics baulk at the high jinks of the Charleston or the sharp staccato movements of the tango. Given the foreign origins of these dances and jazz music, it was inevitable that the dances and the music accompanying them would be denounced and thought of as offending British sensibilities.

charleston

There is nothing new about this. During the early 18th century, the introduction of opera onto the London stage was denounced as “foreign” as it was an alien concept, sung in a language no-one could understand by foreign singers and staged with over the top props and scenery. The plots of these Italian operas were also suspect as being “too Catholic”. Fast forward to the 20th century and it seemed that little had changed – only this time the target was America and not Italy. American music and dance were slowly trickling into the UK before the war but its proliferation and ubiquity began during the last two years of the First World War following the USA’s entry into the fray on the side of the Allied powers. After the war ended, this carried with the dance halls, nightclubs, hotels and restaurants providing a platform for American bands and their British imitators.

The influence of America on British popular culture proved to be a breeding ground for envy and resentment. Although Britain was on the winning side during the war, the initial optimism faded as soon as the reality of high unemployment, ailing heavy industry and manufacturing base and crushing national debt hit home. This was further compounded by the encroachment of American films and music into British popular culture, which fed into growing anxiety about foreign (read: American) influences diluting and debasing British culture and taste. As a result, in a response to a growing Americanisation an “English” style of dancing and “British” music were born by appropriating foreign styles and modifying or changing them to suit local tastes.

The birth of the “English” style of dance was seen as one way to tame and “clean” up dances considered to be too risqué and this was done through formalising the steps and technique by recognised professionals and dance organisations. The growth of the dance halls and popularisation of dancing had also led to the rise of dance teaching as a profession and the opening of schools. During this period, dance teaching became more formalised and codified by the establishment organisations such as the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) in 1904, with ballroom dancing included in 1924. There was also the National Association of Teachers of Dancing established in 1906, British Association of Teachers of Dancing (1892), the Allied Dancing Association (1921) and the International Dancing Masters Association (1930) as well as regional associations and those at the local level.

Underpinning these organisations and schools were the professional dance teachers with some becoming household names. One of the most notable was Victor Silvester (1900-1978) who started his dancing career as a paid “dancing partner” at the Empress Rooms after WW1. In 1922 he won the World Ballroom Championship with his partner Phyllis Clarke. Silvester soon opened his own dance school and became instrumental in helping codification of ballroom dancing with the ISTD. He published several books on ballroom dancing and his Modern Ballroom Dancing (1927) still remains in print to this day. In addition he was also a proponent of “strict tempo” when it came to dancing and set up an orchestra to provide just that. Other famous dance teachers included Santos Casani (1898-1983), who became known following a feature of him dancing the Charleston atop a taxi with his dance school, as well as instruction newsreels, articles and books.

Codifying dance steps took on different ways such as for instance taking steps from novelty dances like the Charleston and incorporating them into what became known as the Quickstep. Older dances such as the waltz were given fresh impetus, Silvester and Clarke simplified it by eliminating the more complicated variations and introduced the “natural turn” to make it “more graceful and easier to dance.” As a result of the efforts of the likes of Silvester and Casani the “English” style of dancing with its emphasis on restraint, elegance, style, deportment and equality became popular abroad and help set the standard for social dancing abroad.

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dancing steps

Along with the development of an “English” style of dancing was the rise of the “British” style of dance music. British music as opposed to American was much more structured and less open to improvisation; it was also seen as “sweet” – more elegant and sentimental as opposed to the “hot” American beats with its syncopated notes. Also, British dance music also drew inspiration from the music hall with its emphasis on humour which was seen as an important ingredient in the British national character.

Radio and the nascent recording industry also helped popularised dance music. British radio was the monopoly of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) which under its first director general, John Reith took the view that the BBC’s output had to be impartial and that the BBC had the duty to educate, inform and entertain. With Reith’s high handed views however, entertaining would come a distant third to education and information. It would popularise jazz and dance music but only on its own terms and it did through the promotion of bands and performers they deemed acceptable and respectable while avoiding those that did not conform to the standards set by the Corporation. Among the latter was singing in the American style (called “crooning”) which the BBC banned in 1929 – “On no account will singing be allowed in the broadcast,” as the memo read, but eventually the BBC had to reconsider its ban owing to the popularity of singers such as Al Bowlly.

There were limits to Americanisation and it was not all encompassing; while British audiences patronised Hollywood films and looked to Hollywood stars for glamour and inspiration when it came to music, the public at large seemed to prefer home grown artists and music if record sales and public appearances were anything to go by. A prime example was the band leader Jack Hylton (1892-1965) and his Orchestra, as James Nott observed:

“[Hylton’s] popularity was enormous. In 1929, for example, Hylton played over 700 performances in365 days, travelled over 63,000 miles on tour, and his records – calculated on a twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week basis – sold at a rate of over seven a minute. Between 1921 and 1939 he recorded over 1,700 sides, and from 1923 to 1933 he sold nearly seven million records.”

 

The success of the likes of Victor Silvester and Jack Hylton demonstrate that as much as the British public did embrace foreign influences when it came to popular culture, home grown talent and music could hold their own against their foreign counterparts and even outsell them. The public had a way of showing their appreciation of certain dances and types of music and it was through voting with their feet and wallets.

 

Dancing and its discontents:

As mentioned earlier, the growing anxieties over the changes in British society after the war manifested themselves not only with grumblings over foreign influences on popular culture and taste but also with what was perceived as the decline in standards and morality. Dancing became a lightning rod for what was seen as what was wrong with post-war society. After the First World War there were debates about gender, the role of women, morality, and the growing influence of America. Negative opinions were held by a minority, however they were a vocal minority – usually members of the clergy, politicians and writers – and their expressed views became news used to sell papers and generate discussion.

The social side of dancing did not escape the notice of critics. It was an activity that could be enjoyed by everyone and seen as a way of meeting other people particularly those of the opposite gender. As such, it was seen as a way to mark key stages in a person’s life and to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood (the concept of “teenager” and “teen” did not emerge until the late 1950s) and as Nott observed “allowed young people their first taste of independence, where they could learn to socialise with their peer group and be introduced to the codes of behaviour expected of their sex. Dancing also gave young people familiarity with the opposite sex, offering a controlled environment in which to observe and interact with them. Indeed, it was at dances that most young people had their first experience of finding ‘dates’ and ‘dating’. In addition, dances often introduced young people to the ‘adult’ pleasures of drinking and smoking.”

Apart from the social side, there was also emphasis on the individual benefits of dancing. Victor Silvester in his book Modern Ballroom Dancing noted that dancing contributed to a person’s health but also gave them confidence through the acquisition of a skill as well as better posture and deportment.

Silvester could have been thinking about women especially, as dancing and dance halls played a significant role in the further emancipation of women. As a result of the war, women gained greater freedoms and entered the workplace in droves despite the move after 1918 to relegate them back to children, church and kitchen. Not only were they granted the vote but also had a freer and wider role in leisure activities. The new dance styles reflected a “thawing of relationships between the sexes and this was well represented in the new styles of dancing.”

If the men had their pubs, clubs and sports teams, the women had the department stores, cafes, restaurants, cinemas and the dance hall. Increasingly, dancing was also more of a female activity especially during the early evenings and weekends – while the men were at the pub or away at football matches, the dance hall became a female only space and a sort of a social club for women where they would practise dancing with each other (with one assuming the lead role of the ‘man’) as well as chat and gossip with each other. With greater disposable incomes, the post war woman was an attractive demographic to the dance hall industry. Dance halls were welcoming to women regardless of whether they came alone or in groups, with security and safety taken seriously by management. Much like the cinemas, the interiors of dance halls were female friendly with fresh flowers, crisp linen, state of the art lavatories and painted scenes giving the place an atmosphere of sophistication and luxury.

Dancing also provided a platform where women could establish careers as dancers, teachers, musicians, singers and even band leaders. One notable example was Josephine Bradley (1893-1985) who won the World Ballroom Dance championship in 1924 and later opened her own dance school. She also worked with Silvester in codifying ballroom dancing and from the 1930s onwards also had her own dance band whose records sold well.

With dancing providing an avenue for the young and women for self-expression, development of skill and self-confidence, it’s not surprising that dancing and dance hall became the favoured target of critics, who saw them as a byword for immorality, with the most strident criticism reserved for several types of dances deemed to be sinful and vulgar. Despite these criticisms however, dancing’s popularity continued on even into the Second World War then experiencing a sharp decline in the 1950s with changing tastes and demographic patterns: and while there has been a small resurgence due in part to the programme Strictly Come Dancing, dancing has never reached the dizzying heights of its popularity between the two world wars.

 

Further Reading and viewing:

James Walvin. Leisure and Society 1830-1950 (London, 1978)

James Nott. Going to the Palais: A Social and Cultural History of Dancing and Dance Halls in Britain, 1918-1960 (Oxford, 2015)

Stephen G. Jones. Workers at Play (London, 1986)

Victor Silvester. Modern Ballroom Dancing (London, 1927)

Martin Pugh. We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (London, 2009)

Andrew Marr. The Making of Modern Britain (London, 2009)

James Nott. ‘Contesting Popular Dancing and Dance Music in Britain during the 1920s’, Cultural and Social History, Vol. 10, No. 3 (2013), pp. 439-456

Len Goodman’s Dance Band Days (BBC4 documentary), first telecast 23 December 2013

Len Goodman’s Dancing Feet: The British Ballroom Story (BBC4 documentary), first telecast 27 December 2012

Dancing Cheek to Cheek: An Intimate History of Dance presented by Len Goodman and Lucy Worsley (BBC4 documentary), first telecast 17 November 2014

http://www.jackhylton.com/

http://tintrunk.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/santos-casani-forgotten-dance-master.html

The History of the Mailrail

Deep under the streets of London and its snarl of urban traffic is a virtually unknown railway that for 75 years was an artery in Britain’s postal network. Seventy feet below ground, the Post Office railway (more commonly known as the Mail Rail), carried post from Paddington to London sorting offices from 1923 until it was finally abandoned in 2003 due to changing technology. In its heyday, the two-foot, narrow-gauge driverless railway called from Paddington to Mount Pleasant and eight stations along the way, in 26 minutes. The driverless, electric trains trains operated for 22 hours a day every weekday, with the other two hours used for maintenance work on 23 miles of lines, carried 30,000 items a day and ran every five minutes in peak times. The Post Office railway was a unique solution to the problem of transporting mail across an increasingly congested city and was designed solely to move letters and parcels.

Post Office Map

The idea of transporting mail in tubes began many years before the Post Office Railway was even thought of way back in 1853 the first ever mail tube went in to service. Although it was only 225 yards long and only 1.5 inches in diameter and used the equivalent of a giant vacuum cleaner to power the system it did prove very successful. Over the next few years various forms of this system were built and tested, even to the point of carrying passengers.

The Post Office set up a team to look at the possibilities of building a larger system between two of their buildings that was abandoned as too expensive. In 1859 the Pneumatic Dispatch Company was formed and built a tube to carry mail but despite digging several lines they were unsuccessful in persuading the Post Office to use them and the company closed in 1874. In 1899 the London Dispatch Company was formed to rescue some of the abandoned lines but this also proved too costly and that company too was wound up.

However, in the early 1900s the Post Office soon realised the need of some type of system to transport mail between the major central London sorting offices that was not dependent on negotiating increasingly crowded city streets – this was a time when there were several mail deliveries a day and post needed to be moved speedily. In 1908 a team of Post Office engineers visited the Chicago Freight subway system and a similar system in Berlin, Germany. Eventually in 1911 a governmental committee found that as London traffic would never allow for speeds of greater than 6mph, and recommended the construction of an electric railway with driverless trains that could travel at 40mph under the city. After much debate in Parliament the Post Office (London) Railway Bill 1913 received Royal Assent and the contract to build the tunnels was won by John Mowlem and Company.

February 1915 was the start of the construction of the tunnels from a series of shafts dug at points along the route of the line. Most of the line was constructed through the London clay using the Greathead shield system for tunnelling, with a small amount of hand-mining for connecting the tunnels at the stations. Essentially an updated version of an earlier system devised by Marc Isambard Brunel and named after its inventor James Henry Greathead,  it consisted of a sturdy metal tube which allowed workers to burrow at a far deeper level, pushing through London’s clay at an average of 10ft a day and installing the tunnel lining behind them as they went. The shield served as a temporary support structure while the tunnels were being excavated. Before the shield was used the loss of life and the risk of collapse were much higher.

Thanks to the outbreak of World War 1, work on the railways electrical systems was suspended, but work on the tunnels was allowed to continue until completion. During 1917, due to the shortage of labour and materials, Mowlem had to suspend work on the stations. During the later years of the war the tunnels were used to house some of London’s art collections from the Tate Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, British Museum and the Wallace Collection.

Mail Rail Tunnels

It was not until June 1924 that track laying re-started. 1925 saw the installation of the electrical equipment, lifts, conveyors and mail chutes. Progress was slowed, this time by the General Strike, and the electrical installation took a lot longer than expected, leading to exchanges in Parliament in March 1925 and March 1926:

17 March 1925 – Mr S Broad asked the Postmaster-General what is the present position of the work in connection with the Post Office tube railway and when it may be expected to be in full working order; what was the original estimated cost; how much has been expended to date; how much more he estimates will be required for completion; and whether he will urge this work forward with all possible speed, in view of the relief it is hoped will be afforded to London road traffic problems by its operation?

Sir W Mitchell-Thomson – The permanent way is practically completed, and contracts have been placed for the electrical equipment and rolling stock. It is anticipated that the railway will be ready for operation in the latter part of 1926. The sum provided under the Post Office (London)Railway Act 1913 was £1,100,000. The sum expended to date is £1,266,450, and it is estimated that about £310,000 will be required to complete the undertaking. Everything possible will be done to ensure that the railway is brought into operation at the earliest possible date.

23 March 1926 Mr Broad asked the Postmaster-General the present position of the Post Office (London) Tube Railway, when it is expected that it will be available for full service, what was the original estimated cost, and what has been the total cost to date?

Viscount Wolmer – The permanent way has been completed; the bulk of the electrical plant has been manufactured, and its installation is proceeding rapidly. It is anticipated that the railway will be available for traffic in the autumn. The sum provided under the Post Office (London)Railway Act 1913 was £1,100,000; the sum expended to date is £1,411,000.

It was not until February 1927 that the first section, between Paddington and West Central District Office, was available for training. By June 1927 the cost of the railway had risen to £ 1,550,000** and Postmaster-General Sir W Michell Thomson was confidently predicting an opening in three months from that date. October 1927 saw the finishing touches put to the railway, and the line was available for use for the Christmas parcel post. February 1928 saw the first letter post on the system. At one point, there were around 220 workers on the Mail Rail, but by April 2003, when Royal Mail announced its closure, that staff was much reduced to cater for just three stations and the cost of keeping the train going had become more expensive than using road transport.

Train 1935

Mount Pleasant sorting office

Note:

Part of the original Mail Rail is due to re-open in July 2017. Visitors will have an immersive experience -the can take the train journey and explore the railway through 3D interpretation and audio-visual presentations. And there will also be an exhibition space in the former maintenance workshop in the railway.

 

Further Reading:

http://www.railtechnologymagazine.com/Rail-Industry-Focus-/mail-rail-past-present-and-future

 

http://www.mailrail.co.uk/construction.html

 

https://postalmuseum.org/discover/explore-online/postal-history/mail-rail/

 

http://www.londonreconnections.com/2013/reopening-londons-mail-rail/

 

http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/written_answers/1925/mar/17/tube-railway#S5CV0181P0_19250317_CWA_62

 

http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1926/mar/23/london-tube-railway#S5CV0193P0_19260323_HOC_230

 

http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/written_answers/1927/jun/24/post-office-london-railway#S5CV0207P0_19270624_CWA_10

 

** about £ 86,000,000 today

Film Review – Viceroy’s House: Photocopying Downton Abbey

Bloggers’ Note: Although this film falls beyond our time frame, we felt this warranted a review as the Mountbattens were regular fixtures in British newspapers from their wedding in 1922 until their deaths in 1960 and 1979 respectively.

With 2017 marking the 70th anniversary of Indian independence (and the creation of Pakistan as well), the release of Viceroy’s House is perfectly timed, a narration of the road to Indian independence and the birth of two nations. Directed by Gurinder Chadha( best known for Bend it like Beckham), she has partly drawn from her family history for this film. But most of the action is set in the magnificent Edwin Lutyens-designed viceregal palace (now the residence of the President of India) with its massive rooms and grounds which in the words of Edwina Mountbatten in the film, “makes Buckingham Palace look like a bungalow.”

There’s a mention of her grandmother’s experience of being displaced as the boundaries between the two new nations were drawn so it makes me wish that she had brought her grandmother’s story to the big screen as a representative of what happened to millions of families. Instead what we get is a potted history lesson mixed with an upstairs-downstairs narrative that’s pretty much lifted from Downton Abbey. I will go further by saying that Viceroy’s House is a direct photocopy of Downton Abbey.

Viceroy's House poster

The year is 1947 and Britain exhausted by the Second World War is preparing to transfer power in India for 1948. Overseeing this is the new viceroy; Louis (“Dickie”) Viscount Mountbatten of Burma (Hugh Bonneville) accompanied by his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and their younger daughter Pamela (Lily Travers). At the same time, former policeman Jeet Kumar (Manish Dyal) arrives at the palatial viceregal palace to begin his new job as a valet to the new viceroy where he encounters a secretary, Aalia Noor, (Huma Qureshi), who he recognises as the daughter of one of the political prisoners he helped guard. Predictably the two fall in love but Aalia is already promised to another man and as her father reminds her, to marry him is honouring her dying mother’s wish.

Meanwhile Mountbatten is faced with a dilemma, should India remain as one nation or two with India as a Hindu majority (together with the Sikhs) state and Pakistan which would be a Muslim majority country? While he tries to reach a settlement between Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), violence flares across India and in the end, its accepted that partition and bringing the date forward for independence will help ease the violence. A senior judge, Sir Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow) is brought into India to determine the borders between the two countries. With a very limited timeframe to do his job, and with the added disadvantage of never having been to India before, Sir Cyril struggles, especially as there are areas where the split between the two faiths is even. He confides this to General Hastings Ismay (Michael Gambon), and he is shown a plan from 1945 that already showed the borders between India and Pakistan. When Mountbatten learns about this, he is shocked to learn that Churchill had authorised this to safeguard supplies of oil and to create a buffer against the Soviets.

Despite this, partition goes ahead and as a result, two nations are born while there is a massive movement of peoples between the two new countries. And what of Jeet and Aalia? Well, there is a sort of happy if slightly implausible ending in the manner of all soap operas. Actually, if I’m going to be honest, it was a jaw-dropping “wait, what? You are using THIS as a dramatic device??” moment, but possibly that’s just me.

As mentioned earlier, watching Viceroy’s House led to me to the conclusion it was a photocopy of Downton Abbey not only with the opening sequence and the upstairs downstairs drama but even with the casting of Hugh Bonneville as Mountbatten. This must have been the worst piece of casting since Dick van Dyke as Bert in Mary Poppins or Sean Connery as Captain Marko Ramius in The Hunt for Red October; Bonneville with his beefy frame is nothing like the lean Mountbatten. Neither does he have the real Mountbatten’s clipped tones, effortless charm and breezy self-assurance. Instead what we see is a man out of his depth, weak and hesitant – much like his Downton Abbey character Lord Grantham. The director doesn’t help this obvious miscasting by ending the film with newsreels of the real life Mountbatten as Viceroy – the contrast is glaring.

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If Bonneville reprises Robert then Gillian Anderson is Cora (and interestingly was reportedly offered the role before Elizabeth McGovern). She’s convincing as Edwina Mountbatten but her attempts at affecting a cut glass accent sometimes descend into parody. In addition she’s not really given much to do apart from constantly remind her husband of why they’re in India (hello, he’s the last Viceroy entrusted with the task of giving India its independence, I think he might know already), and act as a human United Nations statistics booklet (“Darling do you know that 92 per cent of the population are illiterate?”) in a script that very often recalls Downton Abbey at its expositional finest. And for a film that focuses a lot on real life characters, there is little done to flesh them out as people – who they really are and how their behaviours could have help affect the course of history. Nothing is made of the Mountbattens’ married life especially as they had been living virtually separate lives since the beginning of their marriage or the purported affair between Edwina and Nehru. Even Jinnah’s illness was not mentioned much less alluded to. There’s very little depth of character and sometimes it feels like the script is a taken from school textbook about independence – kept to the basics and shorn of the complexities. A feeling not helped by the almost insultingly brief running time – 106 minutes to explain a process that cost a couple of million lives. (Perhaps that should be “attempt to explain independence.”)

Ironically it’s the servants who are given the better storylines and scenes. They operate as a huge and well-organised team to serve the Mountbattens and while they are doing that they listen to the radio, read the papers and catch snippets of meetings. While they discuss and argue, the cracks between Muslim and Hindu start to show, especially when they have to decide what country they are going to go to after independence. A striking example was the two chefs and the look of anguish on the head chef’s face when he hears his deputy had chosen to become Pakistani is a microcosm of how politics has infiltrated a workplace where people have worked alongside together for years if not decades and have now been torn apart. Gradually we see the cracks widen between Hindu, Sikh and Moslem and degenerate into physical violence in an echo of what is happening outside the residence’s gates. There are also very poignant human touches that bring home the innumerable tiny human tragedies – Jeet’s colleague comes back from their village, where he has found their families dead or missing, but carrying a baby girl, the sole survivor of a massacre. A Hindu woman has picked up a Moslem girl who has escaped the killing of everyone on her train and wants to adopt her, and gets very angry with the official insistence that this is a queue for Hindus, the badly injured girl must go elsewhere. Little touches of humanity in the face of overwhelming disaster.

While Jeet and Aalia’s love story is pretty much standard soap opera fare, individually both characters have potential and yet are undeveloped. Jeet himself has an interesting background – a policeman who spent most of his career arresting and guarding pro-independence activists but whose father was killed by the British: but that’s never explored, and neither is the reason why he has given up his job as a policeman to be a viceregal servant in the dying weeks of the Raj. And what about Aalia? We don’t know much about what she thinks and feels as an individual: the tension between her clearly Westernised education and outlook as opposed to the traditional family demands being made on her is clear but ignored. What’s also omitted is the upper staff who are mainly British save for the major domo who is clearly Indian but is very Westernised, what’s going to happen to them? The major domo has a close working relationship with his immediate superior, the comptroller of the household (who is British) and yet what will happen to both men is a mystery, when actually that would have made a better storyline than what we’ve seen on screen.

Viceroy’s House major weakness however (and again this is where the similarity to Downton Abbey is in the distortion and trivialising of great events) is how the film glosses over Mountbatten’s incompetence and the intransigence of the Indian side. Instead blame is placed on Winston Churchill despite the fact that in 1947 he had been out of power for two years and was in no position to influence events (in fact he did vote in favour of the Indian Independence Bill and urged his party to do the same). This weakness is made worse by historical inaccuracies such as the view that Indians were not ready to govern themselves when in reality they were already native Indians serving as mayors and councillors as elected by their fellow Indians and by the 1930s the Indians were already outnumbering the British in the Indian Civil Service (ICS). The constant bleating about “divide and rule” was also grating and conveniently forgets that “divide and rule” tactics were already used in India long before the British came.

The dialogue is heavily expositional and the narrative is simplistic, it’s all “Oh Jinnah wants Pakistan, what shall we do?” “Look, here’s a plan all handily drawn up in 1945 by Churchill with the borders neatly drawn in but don’t tell Mountbatten. That’ll sort it.” Independence and partition is wrapped up in about 10 minutes with contemporary newreels of massacres, long trails of miserable refugees and the Mountbattens and Nehru looking anguished over what has been unleashed.

The plus side is the visuals. If there’s one thing that this film does really well, it’s capturing the vibrant real-life locations of both the Viceroy of India’s residence and the streets of India. Filmed entirely on location, the grandeur of the main stage is fantastic to look at, whilst the costume design ranges from Mountbatten’s decorated military attire to the colourful uniforms and dress of the Indian servants.

Unfortunately for the success of the film I left the cinema feeling manipulated and that an agenda was at play. The film ends with the information that the director’s family fled the partition, that on the way her grandmother’s baby died of starvation and it was after nearly two years in a refugee camp that her grandparents were re-united. I’m not in the slightest downplaying this dreadful human tragedy, but it was one of millions, and it’s being used to peddle an essentially very selective view of the history that comes from two books – Freedom at Midnight, whose authors had access to the Mountbatten archives and the man himself and veers close to hagiography at some points  and The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition by a former Indian diplomat, Narendra Singh Sarila, who was a junior member of Mountbatten’s staff and who maintains that Churchill was the culprit for the bloodshed of partition.

As Ian Jack points out in a scathing Guardian review, historians have given this short shrift, but the power of film is such that there are going to be millions who take away from this the message that Mountbatten and Nehru were guiltless and that Churchill and Jinnah were the evil geniuses of partition. As Jack points out

Chadha denied the charge of anti-Muslim prejudice – persuasively, I think – but to my mind she and her fellow writers on the film, her American husband, Paul Mayeda Berges, and the English screenwriter Moira Buffini, have committed just as great a sin, which is to take a breathtaking liberty with the historical record.

As he goes on to say The film is unlikely to do very well at the box office. Even so, it will attract a far larger audience than any book on partition, and for many people it will be their only understanding of the subject. As with “fake news”, so with “fake history”. Detecting it needs curiosity – critical rather than passive consumption – otherwise it never gets found out.

And that’s the danger of this film, because film is a much more powerful medium than the written word and misrepresentation can be taken away as gospel truth (as demonstrated by more than enough viewers who think that Downton Abbey accurately represents early 20th century Britain). If people want to learn more about independence and partition, Viceroy’s House isn’t the film I would recommend. Viewers are advised to purchase, rent or borrow DVDs of Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi (1982) and The Jewel in the Crown (1984), a 14 part drama produced by ITV. Both explore the complexities of Indian society and politics in the dying days of the Raj and the road to independence in a sensitive and historically accurate way that Viceroy’s House has failed to do.

 

Further Reading:

http://www.forgotten-raj.org/doc/viceroy.htm

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4302730/Viceroy-s-House-whitewashes-Lord-Mountbatten.html

Andrew Roberts. Eminent Churchillians (London, 1994)

Alex von Tunzelmann. Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (London, 2008)

Stanley Wolpert. Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny (Oxford, 1996)

Women’s History Month

As March is Women’s History Month, here are some of the previous entries we have done regarding women and their place in British history:

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2015/04/24/an-american-at-kenwood-transatlantic-marriages-in-the-gilded-age/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/debs-delight-what-being-presented-and-the-season-was-really-like/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2015/03/26/debs-delight-part-2-lady-roses-court-presentation-and-a-right-royal-boo-boo/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2015/11/23/back-in-the-dolls-house-misrepresenting-post-war-women-in-downton-abbey/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2015/12/29/back-in-the-dolls-house-part-2-lady-ediths-pyrrhic-victory/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2016/04/05/spotlight-on-margaret-bondfield/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/women-in-black-mourning-fashion-and-etiquette-1870-1939/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2016/10/07/twelve-hours-of-danger-a-day-the-women-munition-workers-of-world-war-one-part-1/

https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2016/10/11/twelve-hours-of-danger-a-day-the-women-munition-workers-of-world-war-one-part-2/

Happy Reading!

What Downton Abbey doesn’t tell you about the First World War (Part 2)

For part 1 – see here

Delayed Reaction –  food rationing

Another example of this delayed reaction I mentioned before is with regards to shortages and rationing. As early as late 1914, the difficulty in obtaining goods from other countries resulted into price hikes for both essential and non-essential goods. By around 1916 there were already fabric shortages that helped accelerate further the demise of Victorian mourning customs. There was also less coal to go around so several households resorted to burning “waste paper bricks” or installing “coal saving” chimney pots. Crucially however was in 1917 when the Germans decided to engage in unrestricted U boat warfare to starve Britain into submission. In April 1917 alone Britain lost 800,000 tonnes of shipping – Germany knew that the UK depended a lot on imported food from abroad and decided to strike where it would hurt Britain the most – as Georgina Lee noted on 29 January:

The submarine menace is now acute. These islands are faced with a real shortage of food….[t]he daily toll of ships is growing heavier, and the Germans are seizing upon the U-boat as their last chance.

The submarine menace is now what we fear most. It really marks the death grapple between Britain and Germany.

By the end of April, Lillie Scales noted in her diary that “last Wednesday 40 ships over 1,600 tons were reported as having been torpedoed or mined,” Lord Devonport, the food minister initially called for voluntary rationing and Britain was forced to have two meatless days a week, while from October 1917 bakers were allowed to add potato flour to bread. Georgina Lee on 2 February 1917 recalls the amount of food consumed by her household:

We do not exceed this liberal allowance already, at least we have not lately. As we are seven in the house, I reckon we can have weekly:

13 loaves of 2lbs each, with

1½ lb Flour for puddings etc.

1/2 lb Flour for Cake

As for sugar, for weeks past I have imposed a limit of 5lbs for the household. Now I see I can use another 1/4lb, if I can get it! It has been very difficult to procure sugar at all, most grocers absolutely refusing to supply any. But my dear Army and Navy stores allow a certain fixed proportion on grocery orders.

The meat will be more difficult as the 2 ½ lbs include bone. It includes bacon for breakfast and ham so it will mean a great deal of goodwill and patriotic loyalty on the part of women, because these rations are at present left to our honour to enforce. There is to be no system of tickets yet, as in Germany. But the Government will resort to compulsion if the country does not respond.

The inefficiency of British agriculture and the commitment to free trade was one of the factors why Britain imported the bulk of its food from abroad. There were other factors as well as Jeremy Paxman noted, the British, he wrote, “lived by trade, and the growth of imperial power had rendered the country unable to feed itself any longer.” This overdependence on imported food meant that supplies were vulnerable to enemy attack and since the war broke out, people had generally made do with substitutes for staples such as butter, while newspapers and magazines published recipes especially for cakes that required no butter, milk or eggs.  But this wasn’t enough and by 1917-18, shortages were becoming more acute and endless queues for even the most basic of food stuffs were becoming common. The government’s initial response was to promote voluntary schemes such as “Eat Less Bread” through the office of the Food Controller led by Lord Devonport with the support and encouragement of the royal family. But these were not really successful and as more ships were sunk, shortages became even became more acute and the cost of food went up even further; the state was forced to come up with compulsory rationing especially on food stuffs such as butter, sugar, flour and later meat. The rationale behind rationing was to ensure that everyone received their fair share and would result into fewer queues in shops and discourage general panic that could damage morale. To help enforce rationing, the government made food hoarding a crime and several prominent and wealthy people fell foul of the law such as the writer Marie Corelli who was fined £50 for hoarding sugar despite her protestations that the sugar was for jam she intended to give away. A massive fine of nearly £700 was imposed on a Newcastle shipping magnate Rowland Hodge after he and his wife were caught hoarding over a ton of food including sugar and flour.

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Apart from making food hoarding a crime, the government also extended the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) to cover food production. Other legislation were introduced such as the banning of throwing rice at newlyweds, fines for wasting food (by 1918, nearly 30,000 people were fined for such an offence), regulating what farmers could feed their livestock and setting minimum prices to discourage war profiteering as well as making the latter punishable by fines or imprisonment. But there was more to rationing than coercion and employing the stick, for instance the Game Laws were relaxed to ease food shortages, as Georgina Lee recalled in her diary:

13 February

The Game Laws of England! They too have had to make way for the necessities of England at war. Not only is it illegal to feed game birds on corn or maize, but game is no longer protected. Anybody can shoot pheasants and any other game on the land on which he is tenant. This is partly to use all available food, and also to prevent these birds eating the precious crops. Some few weeks ago it was the shooting of all hunting packs, to save their food; and naturally too of foxes to prevent them eating poultry.

There were also campaigns to encourage people to plant vegetables no matter how small the patch of land was (and yet again, the royal family did set an example by using the gardens at Buckingham Palace and other royal residences to plant potatoes and the like) as well as exhortations to eat bread substitutes such as rice and maize and using less refined flour or potatoes to bulk out homemade bread. Magazines, newspapers and cookbooks were on hand to offer advice on how to eat well despite rationing – a noted example was May Byron, a writer known for her popular biographies and cook books. As she exhorts in her war time cookery book, May Byron’s Rations Book, “[i]f you cannot have the best, make the best of what you have” and her recipes were filled with tips on how to stretch out meagre rations and using substitutes for ingredients that were expensive or hard to obtain.

The fact that Britain was importing most of its food from abroad and that the war had meant both rising costs and later food shortages makes a nonsense of Jessica Fellowes’ claim that “food was relatively plentiful” and that “rationing didn’t come in until near the end of the war,” (but perhaps she didn’t notice that those two statements contradict each other). Certainly voluntary rationing was encouraged and  official rationing and the issue of ration books did not start until the beginning of 1918 with the issue of ration books with coupons for sugar, butter or margarine and meat. Throughout 1917 and 1918 regulations and penalties against waste, hoarding and profiteering became increasingly stringent, which does not suggest that food was “relatively plentiful”. It’s true that the Crawleys would have been cushioned by the fact that there was a home farm that supplied nearly all the family’s food but they would have still been subjected to government legislation concerning what to feed and not to feed their livestock, there would have been fewer men working on the farm and given that the Crawleys seemed to have resisted mechanising and implementing more efficient means of farming then there would have been less food to go around. Crucially there would be difficulties with imported essentials such as flour and sugar as well as coal. We do not see the Crawleys really coping with shortages in the same way as majority of their real life counterparts did, and yet again we don’t see them taking the lead and initiative when it comes to offsetting and easing shortages in food. Also, if the Crawleys haven’t mechanized (and a comment in series 1 suggests that haven’t), they are reliant on horses, and many of these horses would have gone, having been requisitioned by the army. The ones that are left are the old ones and they work less hard and need more care and feeding, hence less food is produced.

Even before compulsory rationing had been introduced, many real life aristocrats had been finding ways to cope with shortages. As Pamela Horn writes, as early as 1915, the duke of Marlborough had already introduced sheep into the formal gardens at Blenheim to replace the gardeners who had enlisted, and turned over the gardens for the planting of vegetables. Mabell Countess of Airlie, apart from her duties as a lady in waiting to Queen Mary and war work involving nursing training, was also holding the fort at the Cortachy estate as her sons and many of the estate workers had gone off to fight. She was heavily involved in ensuring that the estate was doing its part in the nationwide drive to be more self-sufficient in terms of food. In her autobiography Thatched with Gold, she recalled: “My entire horizon was bounded by potatoes. Every vine house was stuffed full of them; even the little hut at the back of the gardens was stacked with potato boxes from the floor to the roof.”

As mentioned in part 1, the Crawleys being the leading local family would be expected to be following the rules and seen to be following the rules, and that would include food rationing as well. Even before the diktat from the government arrived, Robert and Cora should have been leading by example and instructing Mrs Patmore and the rest of the kitchen staff to ensure that nothing was wasted: and even before the food shortages became noticeable and unavoidable, rising costs on goods and services as well as increase in taxation would mean that the Crawleys would have to resort to belt tightening measures long before 1917. It’s all well and good for Carson to pontificate that “keeping up standards is the only way to show the Germans they will not beat us in the end” but as the war dragged on, the casualties mounted and food became increasingly scarce Carson’s concern about proper place settings and objecting to maids serving at the table are not so much amusing as irrelevant and petulant. However, the rationing only becomes a plot bunny for when Matthew is set to marry Lavinia Swire and Mrs Patmore has to make the cake for the festivities. Rationing then becomes a crude bolt on plot device and trivialises the fact that Britain could have lost the war and that revolution could have been possible if it wasn’t for rationing both voluntary and through legislation, the convoy system and the realisation that to survive, people would have to rely more on home grown food and be canny and flexible. As May Byron confidently asserted:

Now, when faced with a crude incontrovertible fact that we live in an island, and that nearly all our food has been coming for outside that island, there is no doubt that the present rude awakening should be – in the long run – be very much to our advantage. ‘It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good.’ To begin with, a fools’ paradise is a weakening and demoralising habitation; to go on with, we are now compelled, willy-nilly to learn the use and value if expedients, of substitutes, of skilful cookery….I conjecture that, sooner or later, we shall emerge from this dire emergency a great deal cleverer than we were before; having acquired all sorts of knowledge, and exploited all manner of possibilities, which we should have regarded with a stare of blank bewilderment in 1913.

 

The servant problem – grabbing opportunities with both hands

When the First World War broke out, men of all classes rushed to enlist and this meant particularly for the aristocracy that their male servants both outdoor and indoor as well as estate farmers and tenants went off to fight; leaving them with those who were too old or too young to enlist (although this didn’t stop those who were too young from lying about their age). Outdoor members of staff such as carpenters, gardeners, gamekeepers, chauffeurs, coachmen and grooms particularly were valued by the armed services as they had skills that were useful and needed in a time of war. Country house servants were also generally seen as fitter and healthier than their counterparts in the city and were attractive recruits. There was also the appeal to patriotism – as Country Life asked its readers not long after the outbreak of war:

Have you a Butler, Groom, Chauffeur, Gardener or Gamekeeper serving you who, at this moment should be serving your King and Country? Will you sacrifice your personal convenience for your Country’s need? Ask your men to enlist TO-DAY.

The aristocracy also heavily encouraged their servants and estate workers to sign up; offering incentives such as keeping their jobs open for their return when the war ended (and the expectation was it would be over before Christmas), extended pay and continuing to pay their salaries to their dependents. More encouragement came from the state through the establishment of Pals’ Battalions and propaganda posters depicting German bombings of British towns and cities. Finally in 1916, the government introduced conscription which meant that men who fitted the criteria determined by the government had to fight. Conscription meant that more able bodied men went away to fight and with a few exceptions many aristocratic households found their homes almost exclusively staffed by women.

The war however also took away many of the female servants. Better pay and shorter working hours led many maids to leave service and take on work in munitions factories. Although the work could be difficult, dirty and dangerous the benefits included weekends off and nutritious and filling meals served on site. For the first time, many of these women had more money, more free time and were not in the beck and call of someone nearly 24 hours a day and seven days a week. The munitionettes eagerly partook in the nascent consumer culture of the period as they went to the pictures, tea rooms and restaurants as well as purchasing cosmetics, scent, clothes and accessories. Manufacturers and service providers realised that there was a new market to be tapped and the munitionettes would help pave the way for the growth of a consumer culture among the working class following the war.

Although the servant problem began during the late 19th century, the war further accelerated this issue. As the men went away to fight and the women moved on to more profitable war work, the country house many of which were located in the middle of nowhere suddenly was seen as limiting and it was preferable to be at the trenches or in a noisy factory. Rising costs and higher taxes meant that it was unaffordable for the aristocracy and upper middle class to keep the same number of servants before the war and resulted in many of them being unable to keep their promise of holding jobs open for those who had gone off to fight.

In light of this, it’s baffling that apart from Thomas and later William, none of the downstairs staff at Downton Abbey has expressed any interest in leaving the confines of the Abbey to either serve at the front or head off for more lucrative work. More so especially the women as Fellowes and the PR (especially during the last three series) have been yammering about “strong women” who are “substantial individuals” and are not “wilting damsels:” except we don’t see that either with the upstairs or downstairs female characters. Someone like Anna or Daisy would have been prime candidates to leave the Abbey to find better opportunities elsewhere but instead we get Anna snivelling and pining for Mr Bates as part of what would become a long running misery saga, and Daisy does nothing but whine and sulk despite the efforts of good Samaritans such as William and Jane.

There’s Ethel the second housemaid who constantly goes on about “wanting the best” but yet  continues to stay in service when she could go to a munitions factory and get paid more and work shorter hours and days. Of course there is the irony that her story line which involves her getting pregnant out of wedlock by one of the officers who is a patient at the hospital and getting sacked as a result is accurate and could have happened: especially as pregnancy out of wedlock was frowned upon by all social classes and a working class woman like Ethel would have much to lose.

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Another irony is that the most accurate story lines in this series featured those downstairs. Apart from Ethel, there’s William being conscripted and his belief that they are fighting a just war, Lang the valet who was invalided out of the army and suffers from shellshock, and war widow Jane who replaces Ethel and finds a kindred spirit in Robert. However it’s a shame that many of these story lines were not explored more thoroughly and this was not helped by the ropey timeline and the speed with which Fellowes explores the First World War.

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Conclusion and aftermath:

In his notes on the script for the 2011 Christmas special, Fellowes claimed that he set the special at the end of 1919 with the traditional servants’ ball held after New Year in 1920 in order to “allow the audience to grasp that the next series would take them into yet another era, leaving the war far behind.” And that in my view was a foreshadowing of the problems that would plague the programme in the last four series, especially the last three after Dan Stevens decided not to renew.

From series 3 onwards, there was a collective amnesia about the war in Downton Abbey. As one critic has pointed out, Downton simply retreated to the past when money was still plentiful and they could party like it was 1912 all over again. We do not see any war veterans begging in the streets, there’s nothing about unemployment going up as soon as the demobilised men return from the front, no mention of maimed veterans or further rises in taxation or sales of land and property and as many viewers cheekily pointed out, no disabled war vets among Mary’s suitors: and none of the paranoia about revolution, Bolshevism and socialism. Watching Downton you could be forgiven for not knowing that by 1918 three major ruling dynasties – Habsburg, Hohenzollen and Romanov – had been overthrown, in the case of the latter, bloodily and violently, nor the widespread fear that revolution and radical social change was likely to happen in Britain. Unlike real post-war Britain, the war becomes forgotten until it’s used as a plot bunny in series 5 to give redundant characters something to do and even then it was a delayed reaction – why does it take until 1924-25 for the village to have its war memorial when similar edifices were already springing up across the country as early as 1919 and the Cenotaph in London was built and dedicated in 1920 following the burial of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey?

Although with hindsight series 2 is seen as one of the more decent series (the other being series 1), this marks the start of the often baffling swerves in characterization for the sake of the plot, Robert in particular. A man like him who was in the regular army would have been recalled to the colours as soon as possible or if sending him to the front was not possible, then he would be placed in charge of a training depot responsible for training some of the volunteers who have signed up. One can see how Fellowes writes to the plot and not the character from that and what happens in series 3 when apparently Robert – a Lord Lieutenant and representative of the Crown – can barge into the Home Office and DEMAND that the Home Secretary perverts the course of justice for a Fenian rebel – which is something that I think a lot of people didn’t realize he was doing. Not to mention as well indulging in breaking in and forgery in order to stop a putative royal scandal in the 2013 Christmas special, a plotline so thin and so ridiculous that people laughed at it for its lack of credibility and sheer ludicrousness. If he can do all of that, then he can confront the War Office and demand a posting. But that wasn’t the plot so it didn’t happen although it was likely that Fellowes didn’t even think of him doing that.

A family like the Crawleys would have been expected to step up to the plate and do their bit. They would have taken the initiative and not wait until 1917 to be dragged kicking and screaming to open their house as a hospital when in reality a lot of homes were already ready to receive casualties not long after the outbreak of war. In the end, the war was simply treated as if it was a little local difficulty in the way of Matthew and Mary getting married –  it barely inconveniences the family for all their foot-stamping over the hospital –  and for all the yammering about “Downton at war” and claims that the programme is chronicling a time of rapid change, we barely see any of it. All the changes are simply cosmetic, there are no attempts to really explore what the war meant for everyone and how they were affected.  The servants and family assemble to mark the armistice on 11 November 1918, Robert makes a poignant comment about how many men have been killed on the estate and that’s all, folks. Global war and slaughter on an industrial scale done, dusted and dealt with. Once the war is over Downton Abbey reverts to the old ways as if nothing had happened, and as many viewers pointed out, the 1910s where so much happens is covered in 2 series while the 1920s where nothing major really happens is dragged out for four. So much dramatic and narrative potential, and all wasted.

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It seems that nothing must stand in the way of derailing the destiny that has been set for Matthew and Mary – to the point of staging a mis-diagnosis and miraculous recovery for Matthew so he can marry his true love and sire the next generation – as well as what Professor Katherine Byrne calls the programme’s “socially conservative” message. I will even go one step further to say that the war must not stand in the way of the fairy tale that has been constructed around Downton as demonstrated by the collective amnesia about the war afterwards except in series 5 as a plot point, when in reality it was still present in people’s minds right up to 1939 and of course beyond to the present day.

 

Further Reading:

Gavin Roynon (ed) Home Fires Burning: The Great War Diaries of Georgina Lee (Stroud, 2006)

Jerry White. Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London, 2014)

Terry Charman. The First World War on the Home Front (London, 2014)

Kate Adie. Fighting on the Home Front (London, 2013)

Lucy Lethbridge. Servants (London, 2013)

Fiona (Herbert) Countess of Carnarvon. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle (London, 2011)

Julian Fellowes. Downton Abbey: The Complete Scripts Series 2 (London, 2013)

Jeremy Paxman. Great Britain’s Great War (London, 2014)

May Byron (with introduction by Eleri Pipien). The Great War Cookbook (Stroud, 2014)

Lillie Scales. A Home Front Diary, 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Brian and Brenda Williams. The Pitkin Guide to the Country House at War 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Jessica Fellowes. The World of Downton Abbey (London, 2011)

Simon Greaves. The Country House at War (London, 2014)

Jane Dismore. Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain (London, 2014)

Diana Cooper. The Rainbow Comes and Goes (London, 1958)

Ian Kershaw. To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 (London, 2015)

David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990)

Andrew Marr. The Making of Modern Britain (London, 2009)

Anne de Courcy. Society’s Queen: The Life of Edith Marchioness of Londonderry (London, 1989)

Mabell (Ogilvy) Countess of Airlie and Jennifer Ellis (ed.). Thatched with Gold: The Memoirs of Mabell Countess of Airlie (London, 1962)

Pamela Horn. Country House Society (London, 2013)

Katherine Byrne. ‘Adapting Heritage: Class and conservatism in Downton Abbey‘. Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice Vol 18 no 3 (Aug 2013) pp. 311-327.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2546026/Why-real-World-War-One-heroine-inspiration-Downton-Abbey-refused-accept-CBE-work-caring-wounded.html

http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/the-great-war/great-war-on-land/casualties-medcal/2383-millicent-duchess-of-sutherland-ambulance.html#sthash.2Hr8E9jr.dpbs

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01xtx6f/p01xtwvm

Britain on the Brink of Starvation: Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

What Downton Abbey doesn’t tell you about the First World War (Part 1)

Downton Abbey’s first series in 2010 which opened in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic ended in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War- and such was the popularity of the first series that a second one was commissioned by ITV and was telecast in 2011. The second series with the First World War as the backdrop was set between 1916 and 1919, depicting the lives of the Crawley family and their servants during the war as the likes of Matthew, Thomas and William go off to fight and the Abbey itself is turned into a convalescent home for officers.

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Although the quality of Downton’s narrative began to suffer from series three onwards, the plot holes were already apparent even with the first series and series two was no exception. Since the First World War was supposedly the main focal point of the second series, surprisingly there was little to no exploration of the conflict and how this war was unlike what had gone before, let alone its effects on millions of people at the time or for years to come. In retrospect its only reasons for inclusion in series two seem to have been a) it’s 1914 – Fellowes can’t actually ignore that it happened and b) to throw obstacles in the way of the romance of a dull couple. Chief among the major omissions include:

Lopping off two years from the war:

Series 2 of Downton Abbey opens with the Battle of the Somme and in the published scripts for the second series, Julian Fellowes explains why he decided to jump ahead to 1916 rather than continue with 1914 and have the family doing in 1916 what they should have been doing in 1914:

The challenge naturally, was how to cover the war. In the end, we decided that, just as we had opened Season One with the news of the Titanic in order to pinpoint where we were, similarly we would open Season Two on the battlefield, so there would be no mincing about. From the first scene the audience would know the war has begun. The other decision we made was that we would go forward two years into the middle of the fighting. This was partly because, after the declaration of war, as with all wars, there was a kind of slow-burn start-up, when we wanted to begin with a big bang, literally, but it would also mean that all the characters could have war back stories as the series opened…….[t]hey could jump out of the screen, like Athena leaping from the head of Zeus, fully formed fighters, caught in the Sturm und Drang of the Battle of the Somme.

I find this reasoning problematic and contradictory, never mind the offensiveness of seeing two years of all-out war and death described as ‘mincing about.’ The First World War was the first total and mechanised war in history and as soon as Britain had declared war on Germany, the whole war machine swung into action – land and sea transport were requisitioned to transport troops to the front and to provide emergency medical care, mobilisation was ordered, men who had been in the army were recalled to the colours and unused and idle land seized to set up military training camps and for food production. The civilian population both in the city and country was caught up with the country gearing up for war as the railways began to transport men and supplies to the front, men rushed to enlist and horses were requisitioned to be used for transport and by the cavalry.

In addition there was the also the fear of invasion. In the years before the outbreak of war and despite the confidence that the might of the Royal Navy would protect Britain from foreign invasion, the arms race against Germany and the prevalence of scare stories in the press and novels featuring spies and a possible invasion by the likes of Erskine Childers, John Buchan, Arthur Conan Doyle and Joseph Conrad stoked fears of Britain being invaded. When war finally broke out, the government was so concerned with the possibility of invasion that Boy Scouts and local men – mostly those who were not eligible to fight – were engaged as look outs along coastal areas.

This fear became even more apparent when Whitby and Scarborough were shelled by German warships in November and December 1914. Not only was this the first time the civilian population had been targeted, they had no way of knowing it wasn’t the prelude to invasion. Jessica Fellowes claimed in The World of Downton Abbey that because Downton Abbey was “situated in the north of England in the middle of the countryside, it would not have suffered the frightening spectre of fighter planes overhead or the distant echo of bombshell.” But this is not exactly true as given where Downton Abbey is located, the village would have been near to both towns and not only would have the Crawleys, their servants and the rest of the village have heard of the bombardment but there would be general fear among the populace. And this fear spread to other parts of the country as well as Georgina Lee wrote in her diary:

December 16

The first German shells have fallen on England. This morning at 8am some German cruisers were sighted off Whitby, Scarborough and Hartlepool. A few minutes later they started shelling the three towns causing many casualties and damage to buildings and property. Everybody seems to think it a pity for those who have to suffer, but a very good thing for the country generally, which will at last be roused to the seriousness of the situation. The cruisers bombarded for half an hour, the, on sighting British patrol vessels, they disappeared in the mist.

December 17

The shelling of the three towns is more serious than was reported yesterday. Altogether 40 people have been killed and several hundred wounded, all civilians, including children and babies. Whitby Abbey, a priceless old monument, was much damaged.

It is mortifying that the German cruisers were able to come 400 miles, to bombard three cities and return to Kiel, without any of our fleet being there to stop them. How did they get through? On their way back they sowed mines in the North Sea which have already sunk three of our merchant steamers.

And while it’s true that the Battle of the Somme was “a great bloodletting, and a massive hideous event because so many men died” the early battles were no picnics in the park either: when Antwerp fell to the Germans in late 1914, that heightened fears of a German advance into France and finally crossing the Channel to invade Britain. There was also the retreat from Mons and the Battle of Loos in 1915 where despite great advantages from the Allied side, the British and the French failed to break through the Germans lines and the British suffered appallingly high casualty rates. All these would have been major headline news and all the more because even during the first two years of the war, there were already large numbers of men who have gone off to fight and millions more rushed to enlist after Lord Kitchener’s appeal for more men and encouraged by reports and propaganda posters depicting German atrocities in Belgium and the shelling of Whitby and Scadrborough.

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Fellowes’ comments above I believe reduces the death and slaughter from 1914 to 1916 as nothing more than something he’s decided are not sufficiently dramatic for his purposes. The fact that so many civilians especially women and children died during the raids on Whitby and Scarborough sparked outrage, drove more men to enlist and in the case of Downton Abbey provided a good avenue for the characters to articulate what would have been the reactions of ordinary people as the bombardment brought the reality of war in a way that was not possible in earlier conflicts.

 

Delayed Reaction – reluctantly falling in to do their bit:

In earlier blogs discussing the problems with Downton Abbey’s plotting and story lines, one of the issues that always recur is what I call “delayed reaction” which is something that is seen especially in the last three series. This “delayed reaction” began with series two – not content with lopping off two years from the war, Fellowes also decides to delay the role that the Crawleys will play during the war as he writes in his notes to the published scripts:

First of all, to take the house and its residents into the conflict, we start with a commitment to the soldiers at the front, and a fundraising event, but we do not yet suggest they should make any great sacrifices. This is, if you like, the transitional stage, when the family and staff realise that they’ve got to get behind the war effort and do their stuff but they haven’t really accepted the degree to which they can be helpful, because it will disturb their daily lives profoundly. I think it’s realistic. They’re well intentioned, patriotic, loyal, but not yet quite ready to sacrifice their way of life.

A cursory reading of the present Countess of Carnarvon’s biography of her predecessor Almina the 5th countess tells us a different story. Already known for her work with the sick on the Highclere estate, as well as nursing her own husband who had been left weakened by a motor accident in the early 1900s, the 5th countess had decided to turn Highclere Castle into a hospital in the event of war breaking out. She also began to undertake a more formalised nursing training and by mid-1914 already had the logistics in place for her hospital; so much so that by September 1914 not long after Britain had declared war on Germany, Highclere Castle was ready to receive its first patients.

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Others swung into action with the aristocracy and the rich opening up their homes as hospitals and convalescent homes. These included Woburn Abbey, Harewood House, Blenheim Palace, Glamis Castle, Wrest Park, Dunrobin Castle, Elmswood and Taplow Court. Other country homes such as Clandon Park and Attingham Park housed Belgian refugees who had fled the German advance while Halton House became a training depot complete with dug out trenches to simulate the conditions on the Western Front. In major cities such as London there was a need for more beds than any existing hospital could offer so aristocratic townhouses such as Londonderry and Grosvenor Houses also became military hospitals. Certain aristocratic women such as Millicent Duchess of Sutherland and Shelagh Duchess of Westminster  went one step further and set up hospitals in France close to where the fighting was, and although their sense of duty and hard work were appreciated the army sometimes found these aristocratic nurses irritating. Millicent Duchess of Sutherland for instance was known as “Meddlesome Millie” for her various charitable endeavours and crusade for worker’s rights before the war. When the First World War broke out, she worked with the Red Cross and established an ambulance unit in France which by the end of 1914 had grown into a 100 bed hospital near Dunkirk.

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blenheim-ww1-hospital

While young aristocratic men enlisted in record numbers (by 1915 Vanity Fair calculated that there were 800 peers or sons of peers fighting in the army and navy), their sisters, wives, fiancées and other female relatives turned to nursing, although not without objections from their elders. Lady Diana Manners, a daughter of the Duke of Rutland was one who was determined to do her bit as she recalled in her autobiography The Rainbow Comes and Goes:

I began scheming to get to the Front as a nurse. Women were taking Red Cross hospitals and dressing-stations to France, and they were taking their daughters and their daughters’ friends. I wrote to the Duchess of Sutherland and the Duchess of Westminster and others……I got nothing but discouragement and tears from my mother and a pi-jaw from Lady Dudley, whom my mother summoned to reason with me. She explained in words suitable to my innocent ears that wounded soldiers, so long starved of women, inflamed with wine and battle, ravish and leave half-dead the young nurses who wish only to tend them. I thought her ridiculous and my mother ridiculous too, and could not believe Rosemary Leveson-Gower, my cousin Angie Manners and other girls I knew already in France to be victims of rape.

Regretfully I abandoned the Front in favour of nursing at Guy’s Hospital (Aunt Kitty’s refuge many years before). This took a stiff fight, but as an alternative to rape at the Front the civil hospital was relieving to my poor, poor mother.

The likes of Almina Countess of Carnarvon, Millicent Duchess of Sutherland, Mary Duchess of Bedford and Lady Diana Manners (later Cooper) were not simply “show nurses” but were actually trained and in time could assist in operations. Many of them had knowledge of the administrative side of hospital work by serving in committees and hospital boards before the war but practical knowledge was something they acquired during the war. Mary Duchess of Bedford  was a classic example: having established a small cottage hospital not long after her husband succeeded to the dukedom, she wasn’t content with merely becoming a figurehead but also began to attend medical lectures at London Hospital: and they stood her in good stead when the cottage hospital was expanded and enlarged. She came into her own when during the outbreak of the war and Woburn Abbey was turned into a military hospital. Sister Mary as the Duchess became known not only made sure that the house was well equipped and could cope with the huge number of casualties but also that the patients and nurses had access to leisure and entertainment as well as fresh air and ventilation, which she believed would help with the soldiers’ recovery and provide a respite for the nurses having to deal with the wounded and the dying every day. She worked 16 hour days and by 1917 had qualified as a surgeon’s assistant and began training in radiotherapy.

For younger aristocratic women, their war work gave them a glimpse into a side of life and interaction with other people that they would not have otherwise encountered, and equally importantly, for the first time in their lives they had a sense of purpose and achievement as Lady Diana recalls:

I enjoyed the months at Guy’s. V.A.Ds (it was the first month of their infancy) and there were but two of us were very well received. We dressed the same as the staff and were treated in exactly the same way. I was allowed to do everything the upper nurses were allowed, except dispensing, but in a few weeks’ I was giving injections, intravenous and saline, preparing for operations, cutting abscesses and once even saying prayers in Sister’s absence…..The life was excessively hard if you were not strong.

In light of these examples, it’s baffling that the Crawleys had to wait until 1916 to get behind the war effort, until 1917 for the Abbey to be turned into a convalescent home and even then the family does so grudgingly and with poor grace – Robert’s reluctance for this to happen is especially puzzling given his keenness to fight. (You have to wonder how the man who can’t bear even to give up part of his library to wounded men would have dealt with life in the trenches…) It takes a middle class woman, Isobel Crawley to remind her aristocratic relatives of their duty. While Sybil turns to nursing with enthusiasm and Isobel works as an administrator, the other women sit back and do nothing (save for Edith who briefly works as a farm labourer then as the convalescent home helper). Cora is only pushed to do her bit because O’Brien stirs things up by intriguing against Isobel rather than any sense of duty, and what’s laughable, of course, is Cora expecting a pat on the back as if she’s the only peeress working in a hospital or doing her bit after waiting for three years to get off her backside. By this point her real life counterparts were already running hospitals, driving ambulances on the front line of battle, assisting in complicated surgeries and could give out injections and clean abscesses without batting an eyelash. That scene where Cora was expecting to be singled out for praise by a visiting general was so ludicrous and opposed to the likes of Almina Countess of Carnarvon or Lady Stirling Maxwell – who actually declined the honours given to them after the war with the view that they were serving the best they could as demanded by their station in life without any recourse to recognition.

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Cora’s oldest daughter Mary is no better. While her younger sisters have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into war work, Mary is content to do nothing but mope. She lacks the imagination and initiative to do something and even Edith had to persuade her to sing to their patients. It begs the question of what’s she doing and what will Matthew think if he knows that she’s not doing anything and it’s not a very good omen for how she’s going to be if they do marry and she becomes countess.

The abovementioned examples show how much Fellowes’ assertion that the Crawleys “haven’t really accepted the degree to which they can be helpful, because it will disturb their daily lives profoundly” and that “it’s realistic” are bunkum, as even the most cursory research would have shown. As the leading local family, the Crawleys would have been expected to set an example, step up to the plate and would have made preparations even before war was declared. Even if no-one else wanted to, Robert, with his sense of duty and eagerness to serve would be urging his family and the village to do their bit – as a Lord Lieutenant* he’d know war was coming because he’d know about mobilization in the county and through his old army comrades. They don’t need to wait for 2-3 years into the war and Sybil and Isobel to drag them kicking and screaming to do their part: for an aristocratic family, service and duty was something ingrained in them, but the Crawleys fail to demonstrate the public service that is expected of them and not doing anything would be commented on by friends and their wider society. Propaganda posters and newspaper articles during this period continually stressed the fact that the whole country was in it together – from the King down, high and low, rich and poor. The British royal family for a start from King George V, Queen Mary, their three older children and various relatives all did their part with the King even giving up alcohol, using the gardens at Buckingham Palace for the planting of vegetables and royal carriages and horses deployed to help transport soldiers to and from hospitals. Queen Mary was highly active in getting women involved through knitting and sewing comforts for soldiers in the front as well as establishing a fund for unemployed women workers which led to a working relationship with the trade unionist Mary Macarthur. Her only daughter Princess Mary worked as a nurse and started a fund which sent those now famous boxes filled with home comforts to soldiers and sailors serving in the Front. Even the old Queen Dowager Alexandra played her part with her hospital visits and expanding her Queen Alexandra Rose Day initiative to raise money for the soldiers.

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The above mentioned examples demonstrate that everyone was expected and encouraged to contribute to the war effort. Royal encouragement was a very powerful incentive and there was a lot of public pressure for instance over women sending their men to enlist (more of which I will touch upon in part 2). This is very much a time when people ‘look up to their betters’ who were in their turn expected to set an example. Going to church every Sunday. Setting a moral example. Sending your sons to enlist in the army and your daughters to be nurses. Giving up your home for use as a hospital. This was part and parcel of the duty that the aristocracy were supposed to live by and those who didn’t do their duty were very much frowned and commented upon.

This inertia on the family’s part reminds me of something that occurred to me as Downton Abbey progressed through the series – that Fellowes actually despises the values and outlook of the traditional established aristocracy and is pointing out their uselessness and unwillingness to get involved as a sign that they serve no useful purpose: but then I realised that really he isn’t at all interested in portraying historical events to educate and enlighten and entertain. It’s simply a distortion of history (something to which he’s very prone) in the interests of plot. The plot, of course, is that Mary and Matthew become man and wife, in course of time earl and countess in the inevitable happy marriage, and that when they take over Downton can flourish in the hands of a progressive, modern owner, not the backward looking one it suffers from now. The upper middle class boy elevated to the ruling class (and God forbid I should suggest that for Fellowes the character of Matthew Crawley is in any way autobiographical) will show the peerage how to run their estates in the bold and modern world.  Everything else, including global war, is a sideshow to serve that purpose.

Now I can already hear the cries of ‘But it’s fiction! A writer is entitled to do what s/he wants with historical events to create drama!’ and of course that’s true, thanks for proving my point for me.  It IS only fiction, not a documentary. Leaving aside the fact that complete historical accuracy is not achievable anyway and no-one with any historical knowledge would claim that it is, Fellowes is only following in the giant footsteps of Shakespeare when he re-writes historical fact to entertain and a great deal of historical writing is essentially dependent on interpretation anyway. There is a whole debate about whether or not the writer of historical fiction has a duty to present the facts and what sort of distortion and re-writing is acceptable in the name of entertainment that I don’t propose to start here. My objection is that throughout the six series of Downton Abbey we have been assured that it is historically accurate down to the smallest detail, and that a historical adviser is on hand to make sure that no errors slip through.

This, I can tell you, is arrant nonsense. For many people boo-boo spotting the errors in Downton became an entertaining minor sport: and if Downton Abbey had ended after a couple of series the slips up, solecisms and errors would have been no more than an easily forgotten petty irritation. As it was the series became a world-wide hit with millions of fans who regard Fellowes as an expert on this period and take his very partial and distorted view of history as gospel because of that oft-repeated declaration of complete historical accuracy – and in series 2 he doesn’t just re-arrange historical fact to suit the drama, he actively suppresses fact by declaring things to be true that definitely aren’t and that even a brief reading on the war show to be wrong. Like Robert not fighting because he’s too old and because he’s a landowner. That is my gripe – that he says categorically this is true and happened like this when truth is no it didn’t, it happened completely differently which I will touch more upon in the next part.

*Although, of course, we don’t know until a later series that he IS a Lord Lieutenant. That’s another plot device that comes and goes like Bates’ limp. Incidentally, for those who are wondering, the Lord Lieutenant of a county was at the time a leading aristocrat who was the monarch’s direct representative in his locality. Had we known that it would make Robert’s reluctance to have his home turned into a hospital even more ludicrous: as the crown’s representative people of all classes would look to him to set an example right from the start of the war, and there’d be questions asked at very high levels if he didn’t.

 

Further Reading:

Gavin Roynon (ed) Home Fires Burning: The Great War Diaries of Georgina Lee (Stroud, 2006)

Jerry White. Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London, 2014)

Terry Charman. The First World War on the Home Front (London, 2014)

Kate Adie. Fighting on the Home Front (London, 2013)

Lucy Lethbridge. Servants (London, 2013)

Fiona (Herbert) Countess of Carnarvon. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle (London, 2011)

Julian Fellowes. Downton Abbey: The Complete Scripts Series 2 (London, 2013)

Jeremy Paxman. Great Britain’s Great War (London, 2014)

May Byron (with introduction by Eleri Pipien). The Great War Cookbook (Stroud, 2014)

Lillie Scales. A Home Front Diary, 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Brian and Brenda Williams. The Pitkin Guide to the Country House at War 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Jessica Fellowes. The World of Downton Abbey (London, 2011)

Simon Greaves. The Country House at War (London, 2014)

Jane Dismore. Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain (London, 2014)

Diana Cooper. The Rainbow Comes and Goes (London, 1958)

Ian Kershaw. To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 (London, 2015)

David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990)

Andrew Marr. The Making of Modern Britain (London, 2009)

Anne de Courcy. Society’s Queen: The Life of Edith Marchioness of Londonderry (London, 1989)

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2546026/Why-real-World-War-One-heroine-inspiration-Downton-Abbey-refused-accept-CBE-work-caring-wounded.html

http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/the-great-war/great-war-on-land/casualties-medcal/2383-millicent-duchess-of-sutherland-ambulance.html#sthash.2Hr8E9jr.dpbs

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01xtx6f/p01xtwvm