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Saturday, 30 April 2011


I wrote about my cousin Austin Cooper once before. He was Canadian, but served with the Black Watch Regiment during the First World War. With them he went through four years of trench warfare in some of the grimmest confrontations of the conflict including Passchendaele and Ypres. At the latter he survived a gas attack which killed many of the 60,000 Canadians lost in the war.

Austin Cooper was discharged in 1919
with the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major

In peacetime Austin was an artist. Between the wars he settled in England and made his mark as a poster designer, mainly for transport operations such as London Underground and the London Midland and Scottish Railway Company. For my money his best work was for the London and North Eastern Railway, LNER.

In later years he moved towards modernism and cubism, and eventually gave up poster design altogether in favour of completely abstract paintings. But in the 1920s and 1930s he produced several series of themed travel posters for the company including one for literary destinations called The Booklovers’ Britain, and this one, Old World Market-Places.

Old World Market-Places, 1927
Norwich, Boston, Barnard Castle and Knaresborough

It’s a beautiful set of stylized woodcuts, a nod to a medium recently repopularised by Noel Rooke and others. Cooper was a master of the type face too, and I think his design here particularly suits the graphic style of the images.

I don’t know whether there were any more destinations in the series. The Upper Teesdale line which served Barnard Castle is long gone. But Boston, Norwich and Knaresborough all still have railway stations. I'm a sucker for a market town, and all four (and particularly my soft spot Barney, as we used to call it) are still well worth the trip that Austin Cooper’s artwork was urging over 80 years ago.

Saturday, 23 April 2011


In 1584, my poor old 12x great uncle Ralph Sadleir was hauled out of statesmanlike semi-retirement by Queen Elizabeth I to fill the post of gaoler to Mary Queen of Scots at Sheffield Castle – a Very Important Prisoner indeed. Unfortunately for him his military and administrative prowess, his familiarity with Mary’s ways and above all his unswerving loyalty to his own Queen made him the obvious man for the job. At the age of 77, only his years of active service can have given him the strength to prepare himself and 43 of his own men for the weeklong ride north from his home at Standon in Essex, just outside London, to the small provincial town of Sheffield.

Sir Ralph Sadleir (1507-1587)
statesman, gaoler and hawking enthusiast

The journey exhausted him, but barely a week later he was on the move again, to Wingfield Manor fifteen miles away. It was not a suitable prison: Ralph declared that he would rather defend Sheffield Castle with 60 men than Wingfield Manor with 300. But Sheffield was swarming with conspirators, and Mary’s chains of communication with them needed to be broken. The transfer of his own retinue and the 47 staff and servants of Mary’s household took a full day: Ralph was bone-weary, and Mary, 35 years his junior, suffered badly from gout.

Wingfield Manor, Derbyshire
exposed to the elements

Wingfield was cold and damp, east-facing on heights above the River Amber in Derbyshire and exposed to harsh winds at the onset of winter. Despite Elizabeth’s assurances that Ralph’s was, in view of his age, a temporary appointment, he and Mary remained at Wingfield for four months. They were virtually prisoners of each other while Elizabeth tried to find a more permanent gaoler. Both Mary’s and Ralph’s health declined during their time at Wingfield.

In desperation Sir Ralph arranged yet another transfer in January 1585, to Tutbury Castle, a two-day winter journey away in Staffordshire. Tutbury was considerably more secure than Wingfield; and Sadleir was able to address its many short-comings of comfort because as part of the Duchy of Lancaster, the castle was under his own control. As winter turned to spring he allowed Mary, who shared his passion for hawking, to join him on days of sport beyond the castle walls.

Tutbury Castle, Staffordshire
a good base for days out

In spite of what might be called their professional relationship – she a captive Scottish queen, he an English queen’s gaoler – they were fellow travelers. Ralph had held the baby Mary in his arms 43 years earlier; and both must have sensed on some level that they were coming to the end of their respective roads. Mary was running out of options, Ralph simply running out of years.

When in April 1585 Elizabeth finally found a successor to Sir Ralph, it was Sir Amyas Paulet, a strict Protestant who allowed Mary none of the comfort, freedom and friendship she had enjoyed with my uncle. Within a year she was embroiled in the Babbington plot which led to charges of her conspiracy against Elizabeth. The commission which eventually signed her death warrant included a loyal but heavy-hearted Sir Ralph, unable and unwilling to protect his friend when she threatened his queen. Mary was beheaded on 8th February 1587. Sir Ralph died of natural causes on 31st March, less than two months later.

The tombs: Mary Queen of Scots in Westminster Abbey
and Sir Ralph Sadleir in Standon

“Our Man in Scotland,” Humphrey Drummond’s biography of Sir Ralph Sadleir, from which I learned a lot about Uncle Ralph’s time with Mary, is now out of print but very much worth tracking down secondhand.

Saturday, 16 April 2011


V.I.P. in this case stands for Very Important Prisoner. My 12x great uncle Ralph served under four monarchs, in some of the highest offices in the land – at the end of his career he was Queen Elizabeth’s Treasurer and Privy Counsellor. After his retirement, one of his very last duties for the Virgin Queen was as the reluctant gaoler of Mary Queen of Scots.

Sir Ralph Sadleir (1507-1587)
soldier and statesman

Sir Ralph had known Mary almost all her life, having been dispatched by Henry VIII to Scotland to arrange her marriage to Henry’s son Edward, Prince of Wales in March 1543 when Mary was less than four months old. Shown the baby at Linlithgow Palace that month, Sadleir had declared, “It is as goodly a child as I have ever seen of her age.” But when war broke out between England and Scotland later that year, Ralph served his English monarch loyally in what became known as the “rough wooing” of the Scots. For his part in the crushing defeat of the Scottish army at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547 Sir Ralph received his knighthood.

Although Mary was crowned in 1543, (her father James V having died when she was just six days old,) Scotland was ruled by regents throughout her minority. When the last of them, Mary’s mother Mary of Guise, died in 1560, Mary took charge and refused to ratify the Treaty of Edinburgh negotiated that year by Sir Ralph and others. The treaty was intended to force Scotland to end its alliance with Catholic France and to recognise Elizabeth I as queen of Protestant England. But Catholics regarded Elizabeth as illegitimate; and as Elizabeth’s Catholic cousin, Mary (by now Queen consort of Francis II of France) was next in line.

Francis II, King of France, King consort of Scots,
and Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen consort of France
c1558, after Francis Clouet

Mary’s desire to unite the thrones of Scotland and England under her own Catholic regime dominated the rest of her life. She was the focus of innumerable plots to that end, by Catholic factions and nations as interested in their own agendas as in hers. For his part Sir Ralph was a religiously tolerant man, but implacably opposed to any move which might result in the surrender of English sovereignty, especially to the French.

When Mary fled to England in 1568 following her forced abdication of the Scottish crown, she became a big political problem. Civil War was a distinct possibility, and in 1569 Sir Ralph was dispatched to squash a Catholic rebellion by the Northern Earls of Westmorland and Northumberland. Mary meanwhile was being moved from castle to castle to keep her out of reach of conspirators and rescuers. She was a compulsive plotter, always planning new schemes and alliances to restore her to one throne or other. The job of gaoler to Mary Queen of Scots was a stressful one, only made possible by a network of vigilant spies and counter-spies.

Sheffield Castle (now demolished)
as it looked in 1819

In 1584, poor old uncle Ralph was hauled out of statesmanlike semi-retirement by Elizabeth I to fill the post temporarily at Sheffield Castle in Yorkshire. Unfortunately his military and administrative prowess, his familiarity with Mary’s ways and above all his unswerving loyalty to his own Queen made him the obvious man for the job. At the age of 77, only his years of active service can have given his the strength to prepare himself and fifty of his own men for the week-long ride north from his home at Standon in Essex, just outside London, to the small provincial town of Sheffield.

How would the man, whom Mary Queen of Scots had described 12 years earlier as “grave and ancient,” fare when pulled back into her world of intrigue? Come back next week and find out!

Saturday, 9 April 2011


I inherited the contents of Captain Charles Castle’s writing desk. Charles was my 3x great uncle and I have hundreds of letters sent to him, with drafts of many of his replies. Such a wealth of personal material paints a pretty rounded portrait of a complicated man, with a finger in many political and economic pies.

He was a Bristol man, from a wealthy old family, and it is not surprising to learn, on the evidence of one letter, that he owned property across the River Severn in Wales. In fact he owned, according to a registry of 1873, around 750 acres in Cardiganshire. This is a portrait of one of his correspondents, from the desperate appeal of widower David Edwards, a tenant farmer whom Captain Castle had given notice to quit.

David Edwards’ letter of 12th April 1859

Merthyr Tydfil
12th April 1859
Capt’n Castle
Dear Landlord,

do you determined not allow me remain in the farm after this year, you well know that I made a great improvement since I taken this, to say in short if you please give 14 years time I will give you £50 rent yearly, as I told you before we the children and myself are very angry to depart and another thing I do not believe you will get so much rent, I can pay more rent than some of whom made an enquiry to you for the farm, and I shall engage to put the bounds between us and within in good repair that nothing committed a trespass from my land to Wstrws and that you will have no accation [sic] to trouble yourself hereafter about the tenants of Wstrws and Clawddmelyn so long as the time above lasted & much humbly beg on you of send me your reply forthwith, if you please not consented to my desire I must look for another place ellswere which I do show you I and the children are very across to do so. I had a business here to day and I shall go from here this afternoon for Carmarthen to night.

I am dear Landlord
yours very truly
and [illegible word]ly
David Edwards

Capt’n Castle

PS if you please send the answer by return it will reach my residence so soon as myself. DE

This simple heartfelt letter is full of clues to its context, if not to the actual identity of its sender: David Edwards is one of the commonest names in Wales. Mr Edwards, I am guessing, was a Welshman and not a native English speaker. I am guessing too that there had been some trouble with livestock escaping from his farm and bothering the neighbouring tenants of Wstrws and Clawddmelyn. Perhaps complaints from them had led to his eviction. Wstrws and Clawddmelyn are farms at either end of the village of Capel Cynon, where Captain Castle held around 300 acres of land. I don’t know the name of Mr Edwards’ tenancy, but it would make sense if it were Capel Farm, which lies halfway between the two. A trip from Merthyr Tydfil back to Capel Cynon was a journey by horse and cart of 75 miles, which would certainly have justified an overnight stop in Carmarthen en route.

Worst of all, I don’t know what the outcome of this plea was. Unfortunately, knowing from his letters what a hard head for business Charles Castle had, I don’t think it will have ended well for David Edwards. If in this small world a local historian from Capel Cynon is reading this – please get in touch!

Saturday, 2 April 2011


It turns out there are not one but three nineteenth century architects (at least) named Stephen Salter. What started out last week as a simple post about the achievements of one of them, turned into a confusing meander through the many many MANY Stephen Salters past and present, related to me or each other or neither.

Anyway, I have a list of architects and a list of buildings designed by one or other of them. The architects are:

Stephen Salter, b. 1801
Stephen Salter, b. 1825, d. 1896, son of the above
Stephen Salter, b. 1861, not related to the above but son of another Stephen Salter

The buildings are by and large an impressive array of public institutions. Now that I’ve had time to sort them out, I see they fall into three quite distinct groups in terms of date or location. They are:

(above) Auditorium, Adelphi Theatre (demolished 1901);
(below) Basingstoke Town Hall and Corn Market

1856  St Paul’s Church, East Moseley, Surrey
1858  Adelphi Theatre, The Strand, London
1864  Basingstoke Corn Market

(above) Christ Church, Hendon;
(below) foundation stone of the Savoy Place Laboratories,
laid by Queen Victoria, Empress of India

1881  Christ Church, Hendon, north London
1884  Admiralty, Whitehall, central London (unsuccessful submission)
1886  Physicians/Surgeons Laboratories, central London
1889  8-8a Bourdon St, London (St George’s Women’s  Shelter)

(above) 1-3 High Street, Oxford;
(below) Sandlands, Boarhill, Oxfordshire

1896  Pangbourne villas, Berks
1901  1-3 High St, Oxford
1902  94 High St, Oxford
1904  Cowley Rd Methodist Church, Oxford
1905  Sandlands, Boarshill
1908  2-4 Charlbury Rd, Oxford

That last group are by date and record all by the 1861 Stephen Salter. There is a gap in time between the buildings of 1864 and 1881 (which of course is not to say that nothing was built by any of them during that period – absence of evidence is not evidence of absence) but in fact they could all have been the work of the 1825 Stephen. And although the 1801 Stephen describes himself in 1871 as a “retired architect,” in the 1851 census he declares himself an arguably less exalted “architectural modeller.” In 1851 his son Stephen is a fully fledged “architect.” So I’m going to attribute everything up to the Bourdon St Women’s Shelter to my 1825-born cousin.

After all that, the last word goes to the youngest architect and the only one I’m not related to. The seven villas which he designed along the river Thames at Pangbourne were not well received at the time. Even 33 years after they were built, a critic wrote:
“The row of villas near Pangbourne are an example of the pretentious and expensive sort of building which has not been mitigated by gardening. These houses have been locally christened the Seven Deadly Sins, which is sufficiently indicative of the opinion of the public upon such architectural disfigurement.”

Two of The Seven Deadly Sins, Pangbourne

They clearly reflect the eclectic Arts and Crafts style of Stephen Salter the younger, and as noted by a more recent writer, from Oxford County Council,
“These particular deadly sins seem to me to have become less fatal with age! Perhaps time and gardening have now mitigated what obviously looked brash when first built. I suspect that the particular deadly sin with which they can now be associated is Jealousy. How many people who love the river would not want to live there?”

One was on the market recently for £875,000.
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