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There have been some great documentaries on TV recently, including the wonderful Archaeology: A Secret History, which at first sight I thought might be more along the lines of Time Team, but turned out to be really innovative and fascinating. I’d never thought about the history of archaeology itself and it turns out that there are some great stories behind it.
It’s presented by Richard Miles who is a senior lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney and has presented history docs for the BBC before. He is an excellent presenter with a seemingly genuine interest in everything he’s talking about (the sequence where he gets to see the Neanderthal 1 skeleton is particularly good), but he does take every opportunity to show he he is fluent in Italian!
The first programme starts with the search for biblical relics, spurred on by Helena of Constantinople, patron saint of archaeologists. The next focus is Ciriaco de’ Pizzicolli, 1391 — 1453/55, an antiquarian from Ancona known as the Father of Archaeology He noticed a ancient Roman arch in his town which inspired him to start documenting the ancient remains around him.
It seems bizarre to us now with all our museums, monuments and guidebooks, that the physical past hasn’t always been important, hasn’t always needed to be interrogated. But in Pizzicolli’s age the past was just there – it’s all around you and that’s why what he tried to do was such a revelation.
This struck me as very interesting as, while we do have museums, monuments and guidebooks, the past is still all around us in a city like London and people still ignore it! The programme then explores William Camden’s mapping techniques, John Aubrey’s surveying techniques used at Avebury and cabinets of curiosity from the eighteenth century.
There are three episodes available on BBC iplayer here.
This is one of my favourite documentary series of all time and I have been quite happy to watch episodes over and over again! Each episode sees restaurant critic Giles Coren and comedian Sue Perkins spend a week experiencing the food and lifestyle of an era together. I have written about episodes before, particularly the Seventies, the Victorian era and the Restoration.
It started with a one-off show called Edwardian Supersize Me in 2007 where Giles and Sue dressed up and trialed the food of the Edwardian era for a special season of BBC programmes.
Since then we’ve had two series: The Supersizers Go… (2008) covering the Second World War, the Restoration, the Victorian Era, the Seventies, the Elizabethan era and the Regency; and The Supersizers Eat… (2009) which covered the Eighties, the Medieval era, the French Revolution, the Twenties, the Fifties and Ancient Rome.
I love seeing the variety of food they get to try, some of it awful, some of it quite tasty. Their chemistry is pretty good and I particularly like their reenactments of historical events an journeys in modern locations and with modern transport.
Almost all of the episodes are available on YouTube and this playlist puts them in chronological order starting with ancient Rome and ending with the Eighties.
Margaret Thatcher: Prime Minister
A relatively topical one here – there were many TV documentaries about Margaret Thatcher after her death last month but this was one of the main ones from the BBC. It’s narrated by Andrew Marr and was clearly recorded long before her death.
For someone who wasn’t around while she was Prime Minister, it is a great detailed overview of the events of her reign which is often difficult to get when people around you have such strong views about her. The tone is respectful since she had just died, but I would say the documentary seems relatively neutral (of course there will be many who disagree with me there!) but it is the best you’re going to get.
The talking heads included Ken Clarke, Lord Patten, David Cameron, Geoffrey Howe and all of the main figures from her time in office. Its a pretty conventional documentary format, but to be honest that’s exactly what I want from a doc about an era I know little about.
On this day in 1885 a new magazine was founded by Clark W. Bryan in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It was designed for women, with articles about family life, household products, health, recipes and literature. The first edition was titled For the Homes of the World: Good Housekeeping. it aimed to be:
“a family journal conducted in the interests of the higher life of the household” with a “mission to fulfill compounded of about equal portions of public duty and private enterprise…to produce and perpetuate perfection as may be obtained in the household.”
The magazine reviewed products and featured articles about food with the clear aim of seeing past manufacturers claims and getting to the truth for consumers. A campaign was started against false claims made in the food industry in the form of an article called ”Guard Against Adulteration.”
This led to the creation of the Good Housekeeping Experiment Station in 1900 to study housekeeping and test and rate products and food. They went on to develop the “Roll of Honor for Pure Food Products” and lists of ”Tested and Approved” products in the magazine. Products were known as having the ”Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”
The magazine has been known to be very ahead of its time on social and health issues. The first article on electric cooking appeared in the magazine in 1899, cigarette advertisements were banned as early as 1952 and the magazine’s activism contributed to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.
Famous contributors include Somerset Maugham, Edwin Markham, Virginia Woolf, and Evelyn Waugh.
Methods of curing meat have been developing all over the world for many hundreds of years, in order to preserve food for longer. Many delicious products were created through traditions of smoking, drying, salting, pickling. Efforts to preserve meat accelerated with the increase in Atlantic trade, as long naval voyages required food that would keep for a long time.
The industrial revolution and population increases also increased the desire for convenient, long-lasting, cheap food. While beef had been cured with salt for many years, these specific changes led to the emergence and popularity of corned beef as a product.
Ireland already had a tradition of salting beef and so as demand increased from the seventeenth century onwards, Irish companies began providing salt cured beef for trade with the British and the French. This product was used as a provision for naval voyages and also for civilian consumption in Britain and in the colonies.
The method of curing the beef was to mix large chunks of salt called ‘corns’ with the chopped beef in a large pot or jar. The word ‘corn’ derives from the old Germanic word ‘kurnam’, meaning seed, grain or kernel.
During the industrial revolution, corned beef began to be mass produced in cans, reaching its height during the Second World War. During this time, most of the corned beef consumed was imported from Fray Bentos in Uruguay.
Today corned beef and cabbage is considered a traditional Irish dish, enjoyed in the USA on St. Patrick’s Day. However in reality, this is an American tradition started by Irish immigrants to America in the nineteenth century.
In Ireland corned beef has never been that popular; although it was manufactured in Ireland, the cattle and means of production were owned by the British colonizers and most of the product was exported. Pork was much more popular for ordinary Irish people.
Yesterday in 1831, London Bridge was opened. This is a misleading statement because the bridge opened on that day was just one of several bridges referred to as London Bridge over the course of the history of London. Not only that but these London Bridges have often been confused with other more famous bridges, such as Tower Bridge. So here’s a run through of the history of London Bridge.
The first London Bridge was built by Henry II in order to memorialise famous Londoner Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been murdered 1170. Henry II built a chapel in the centre of the bridge which served as the starting point of the pilgrimage to Thomas Beckett’s shrine in Canterbury. The bridge was only finished in 1209 in the reign of King John.
The bridge was eight metres wide and was supported by 19 arches. A drawbridge allowed river traffic down the river and defensive gatehouses were erected at each end of the bridge. The bridge was full of buildings from the beginning and the king sold plots on the bridge to try to cover the costs of the construction.
Over time, London Bridge became increasingly crowded and unsafe with fire being the most common hazard. By the sixteenth century the buildings on the bridge reached up to seven stories high and hung over the river. It must have been the most spectacular sight and if I could go back to see a building from London’s past it would be that bridge.
By the eighteenth century, common sense and health and safety took control. Between 1758 and 1762, all of the buildings on the bridge were demolished and then in 1799 a competition was held to design a new London Bridge. John Rennie won with a design for a bridge with five stone arches and a new bridge was built 30 metres upstream of the old bridge, which continued to be used during the construction of the new bridge. The new London Bridge was opened in 1831 and the old bridge was finally demolished.
The new bridge was nearly twice as wide as the old bridge, which is amazing when you consider how much they managed to fit on the medieval bridge. By the turn of the century the bridge was the busiest in London and even had to be widened by 13 feet.
It was discovered that the bridge was sinking so need replacing and it was suggested that it should be sold. On 18 April 1968, Rennie’s bridge was sold to entrepreneur Robert P. McCulloch of McCulloch Oil for US$2,460,000. There is a myth that he thought he was buying Tower Bridge, however this is untrue. The bridge was deconstructed stone by stone and rebuilt at Lake Havasu City, Arizona.
A brand new bridge was built in the same location as the Victorian bridge by architect Lord Holford and engineers Mott, Hay and Anderson.It began construction in 1967 and was opened by the Queen on 17 March 1973.
I visited the Black Country Living Museum last month, which is just outside Dudley near Birmingham. It’s an interesting mix of museum and reconstructed town with actors, reconstructed shops, an old mine and a canal with tunnels. It’s huge and really deserves a whole day to see everything and I reckon it’s perfect for families and kids.
Before you are released into the outside areas, there is a small but really informative museum about the Black Country area, which encompasses Wolverhampton, Walsall, Dudley and Sandwell. It gives in depth information about the industries that emerged and developed in these areas: coal, iron, steel and more specifically chains, locks, glass, springs, equestrian and railway equipment. The areas really became the driving force of the industrial revolution and the museum is designed to give you an overview of what was produced in the Black Country before you walk into the reconstructed town.
Outside the museum there is a small transport museum with cars and engines from the era and there is a working tram which you can take to get around the grounds, although I didn’t take that up myself. On a nice day (which this was!) it’s a genuinely nice place to have a walk around. There’s a small park and the lanes and cobbled streets that run through the town are so quiet it is easy to imagine you are back in the nineteenth century. There are over fifty reconstructed houses, shops and workshops which you can explore, and actors in period costume give you information about how people used to live. On that note, the actors have got the balance quite right: they are not too pushy and unnerving and they won’t overact or refuse to come out of character. I normally don’t like actors at historical attractions but the people working here were pretty friendly without being overwhelming.
Walking around the town it is easy to see why the Black Country Living Museum is such a good place for kids. There were several school parties there when I visited and they seemed to be having a great time playing Victorian games like hoop rolling on the cobbles. There is also a reconstructed school where we could see the kids being given an authentic Victorian lesson in the classroom. Once they’ve put up with the educational side, there’s a reconstructed funfair with authentic old arcade games and rides which although slightly creepy is probably good fun if you’re part of a huge group of children.
Other highlights of the experience include a reconstructed coal drift mine which you can explore in a group led by a guide. It’s pitch dark and very narrow and uneven so gives you as good an idea of the mining conditions of the time as you you’re going to get in a museum. Miners tended to work twelve-hour shifts, some could be as young as ten years old and casualties and deaths due to flooding, falls and collapsed mines were common. This tour was one of the most interesting parts of my visit to the museum and I recommend you check the tour times early to be sure you don’t miss the opportunity to go.
The Cradley Heath Workers’ Institute is another really interesting building in the town. The interior of the building is set in 1935 and the information, photos and artefacts inside explore the British labour history. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1910 chainmakers’ strike, there is an exhibition about Mary Macarthur, secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League. I might explore her life in more depth in another post.
Again if you check the times early and pay a little extra, you can take a canal trip through the tunnels and it really is worth it. When I went, it was the last trip of the day so we were the only ones on the boat and had a private tour from the guide. The tunnels are some of the longest in the country and were built to transport cargo and to give access to mine limestone from the hills. The guide we had was really interesting and showed us fossils in the rock and even better there is an audio-visual display half way through the tour which incredibly shows you the geological history of the Black Country from the Big Bang to today!
Finally don’t forget to check out the Bottle & Glass Inn, which serves traditional food and real ale. Unfortunately it was closed when I got round to visiting it, but I did visit the authentic Hobbs and Sons Fish and Chip shop which was excellent, and serves pickled onions and pickled eggs!
The Black Country Living Museum is well worth a visit if you’re in the area and is a particularly good day out for kids. The adult price is £14.95 which isn’t too bad considering the size of the place and the amount to see there, so I would say it is worth it. If I had any criticism it would be that I would’ve liked to find out a little more about how they set up the museum in the first place, what was there before and how much of the buildings are original and exactly what the reconstructed parts were based on. But leaving aside the history of the museum itself, it does give a great overview of British industrial and labour history in the Black Country area, and I certainly learnt a lot and have a much better feel for the period than I did before I visited.
An episode of Coast just alerted me to the existence of these amazing photographs by Jean Guichard, a French photographer who specialises in lighthouses. In 1989 he took a series of seven photographs of a lighthouse called La Jument off the coast of Brittany and these photographs became world famous.
The lighthouse keeper, Théodore Malgorne, stands at the door looking out at the helicopter, unaware of the scale of the wave crashing into the building. It was thought for some time that he was killed by the wave moments after the photographs were taken, however in Coast Neil Oliver and Jean Guichard travel to meet Malgorne and give him a signed copy of the photograph.
La Jument lighthouse is situated in an area of coastline always considered treacherous by sailors and there have been many shipwrecks over the years. In June 1896, the steam ship Drummond Castle was wrecked killing nearly 250 people. La Jument was built to provide a safer crossing for ships and it was constructed between 1904 and 1911.