On Christmas Day Tory Historian went for a walk through Holland Park and Kensington Gardens, both of which looked splendid in the winter sunshine. Near the Italian Gardens at the Lancaster Gate end of Kensington Gardens there was a memorial tablet just inside the flower beds that TH had not noted before.
The tablet was to William Forsyth, quondam Head Gardener of the Royal Park of Kensington Palace (when it was still a royal palace and park) after whom the genus Forsythia, examples of which surrounded the tablet and will be flowering in a couple of months, was named.
A man like that needs some attention, thought Tory Historian. The Concise Dictionary of National Biography had a short entry:
FORSYTH, WILLIAM (1737 – 1804) gardener; succeeded Philip Miller in the Apothecaries’ Garden, Chelsea, 1771; superintendent of the royal gardens at St James’ and Kensington, 1784; published ‘Observations on the Diseases &c of Forest and Fruit Trees’, 1791, and ‘ Treatise on the Culture of Fruit Trees’, 1802; thanked by parliament for tree-plaister.Well, well. A good deal there and much more lurking behind those few lines.
Wikipedia tells us that he was from Aberdeenshire and a founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society as well as the great grandfather of another gardener and landscape architect, Joseph Forsyth Johnson, who in turn, was the great grandfather of our own Brucie Forsyth. One wonders what that line of serious botanists might think of a popinjay entertainer.
An Overview in the Gazetteer for Scotland tells us a little more:
Horticulturist. Born in Old Meldrum (Aberdeenshire), Forsyth moved to London in 1763 to work from the Earl of Northumberland at Syon Park, at the time the parkland was being paid out by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown. Thereafter he moved to the Physic Garden in Chelsea, becoming its Curator in 1771. He brought about considerable development of the garden, with much replanting and the exchange of plants and seeds internationally. In 1774, Forsyth created what is thought to be the first ever rock garden in Britain, using lava brought from Iceland by Sir Joseph Banks and unwanted stone from the Tower of London. In 1779, he was appointed Superintendent of the Royal Gardens at Kensington Palace and St. James' Palace. In this position he did much to cultivate fruit and vegetables, restoring many old fruit trees to health. This he achieved with his 'plaister' (plaster), which consisted of a mixture of cow dung, urine, powdered lime, wood ashes and sand used to seal the wounds on trees after branches or cankerous growths were removed. Forsyth promoted this mixture as a complete remedy, promoting new growth, and was awarded the great sum of £1500 by the Government for his formula in an attempt to improve the quality of the oak trees in the royal forests, which was required for building ships. He published a number of early works on horticulture, including the very successful Treatise on the Culture and Management of Fruit-Trees (1802), which ran to numerous editions.In other words, a very distinguished man and one of whom both Scotland and England may be justly proud. One wonders why it was that a flowering shrub that was named after him as his main achievements seem to have been with trees, particularly fruit trees. One also wonders whether his plaister is still in use anywhere, say the Prince of Wales’s estate.
He was a founder of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1804 and the genus Forsythia is named in his honour.
Merry Christmas to all.
Tory Historian merely points out that today is the 205th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Disraeli, later Earl of Beaconsfield, first (and so far only) Jewish born Prime Minister of Britain, the creator of the modern Conservative Party, according to some, and the man who distorted Conservative foreign policy, according to others. Tory Historian hopes that readers will weigh in with comments.
Tory Historian has been a tad busy but has now returned with a few interesting dates to be celebrated or, at least, remembered this week. (Tory Historian also vows to keep this blog up to scratch in the coming year and, indeed, to introduce a few novel ideas, painful though that might be.)
December 16 is an important date in the history of the Anglosphere. The Americans mostly remember a certain event in 1773 when a number of colonists improbably disguised as Mohawk Indians boarded British ships, opened the chests of tea and threw the contents into Boston harbour. Their main complaint was that tax raised on the tea trade and taxation in general. Sad to say, by the time the American War of Independence, or the Third English Rebellion was over, those who remained, the loyalists having made their way to Canada or back to England, found themselves paying more in tax than ever before. Here are some eyewitness accounts, probably somewhat over-excited by the events and here is Walter Russell Mead on the relevance of those tea-parties to present-day United States.
Mead also mentions the really important event of December 16 (though it is hard to work out from his account whether this was the old calendar or the new) - the passing of the English Bill of Rights, which ought to be the cornerstone of the British Constitution (together with such constitutional legislation as the 1701 Act of Settlement and the 1707 Act of Union as well as numerous electoral reforms and, not to be forgotten, the 1679 Habeas Corpus). Sadly, things have changed but, Tory Historian is sure, those constitutional settlements will triumph over arrogant power once again.
December 15, 1791 saw the United States Bill of Rights become the first ten amendments to the US Constitution. Based largely on the English Bill of Rights, its provisions are still part of that estimable document, despite many attempts to undermine them.
December 17, 1778 saw the birth of Sir Humphrey Davy, inventor of the safety lamp for miners, who also discovered sodium, magnesium, calcium, barium and strontium, one of the finest of England's scientists and inventors whose influence on developments in the world was incalculable.
But let us end on a more ambivalent note: on December 18, 1946 Attlee's government won the vote (unsurprisingly, given the huge Labour majority after the 1945 election) that allowed them to nationalize just about every part of British industry. A defeat for the Anglosphere? Only temporarily.
Tory Historian is, understandably, fond of historical mysteries, which term does not refer to the perennial question of who, if anyone, killed the Countess of Leicester, but detective stories written in modern times about older times. One of the curious developments in the detective story genre has been the ever growing number of mysteries that feature real or imagined figures from the past who solve various crimes. We can only assume that detective story writers, as opposed to crime story or thriller writers, have found it difficult to keep up with modern police technology or, maybe, decided that much of that is rather dull. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine too many brilliant amateurs on the job these days.
There are advantages to placing one’s detective story in the past – the need to keep up with the latest police methods, political developments, institutional changes and suchlike boring nonsense disappears. There are also disadvantages – the story and the characters do have to be credible and a good understanding of the period is required.
Critics of detective stories these days are rarely knowledgeable bods as the genre is considered to be too lowly to be given to anyone but some junior literary aspirant. Therefore, the most ridiculously impossible historical mysteries are applauded because they have a few seemingly knowledgeable references to olden days.
David Dickinson, for instance, seems to be highly regarded by the fraternity and sorority of critics. Yet the one novel in the series about Lord Francis Powerscourt Tory Historian managed to struggle through, Death of an Old Master, was full of the most appalling errors, both factual and thematic.
Lord Francis goes to his club to read newspapers and journals that were not published till years later, for instance; there is a constant muddle with titles, something that a novelist whose hero is a rich aristocrat should get right; in one scene Lord Francis comes home to his house in St James’s Square and is described as taking off his coat while his wife comes running out to tell him some important news. Does this rich aristocratic family not have footmen? Apparently not. Neither do they seem to have a nanny for their children or a green baize door between the family and the servants. In fact, they lead the life of a suburban family from the 1950s. The book went straight back to a charity shop.
However, Tory Historian was pleased to find another historical mystery series about the Georgian apothecary, John Rawlings and the great jurist and investigator Sir John Fielding.
There is another series in existence about Fielding by Alexander Bruce (real name Bruce Alexander Cook) and it might be a good idea to try one of those. In the meantime, there is Deryn Lake’s series and, in particular, Death at St James’s Palace, in which John Fielding is knighted. In other words, it takes place in 1761.
In parenthesis, one should note that though British detective story writers love historic themes, it is Americans who often make famous English people into detectives. Both the above writers are American, as was Lillian de la Torre who made Dr Johnson into a detective. Then there is Stephanie Barron, who has written a whole series about Jane Austen detecting, presumably as a sort of Regency Miss Marple.
Death at St James’s Palace comes reasonably highly recommended. Lindsey Davis praises the series in words that make one doubt she has read any of the books; the Yorkshire Post informs us that “Lake brings eighteenth century England to life in a colourful style …. Georgette Heyer …. but with the knickers off”. As usual, one wonders what is missing from that quotation. But knickers off? Ahem, they did not wear knickers in the eighteenth century. Presumably, this means that there is more sex in Deryn Lake’s series. Tory Historian suspects that the author of those words had not read Ms Heyer’s books.
Nevertheless, Ms Lake is described as the Queen of Georgian Mysteries and Maxim Jakubowski, himself a writer, editor, critic and quondam owner of the sadly missed Murder One bookshop, writes that this series is “meticulously researched”.
Well, Tory Historian has to disagree with the great Mr Jakubowski. Death at St James’s Palace is “meticulously researched” in the sense that Ms Lake does seem to have read detailed descriptions of what parts of London looked like at the time or what sort of underwear ladies wore. We know she has done this research because she reproduces acres of it in her own book.
When it comes to understanding how people thought or spoke, Ms Lake is sadly at a loss, preferring a twentieth century speech pattern with the odd eighteenth century word thrown in. Not only gentlemen swear in front of ladies, something that the most cursory reading of contemporary literature (or of Ms Heyer’s truly meticulous novels) would have shown to be erroneous, they all use words and expressions that are simply not possible for the period.
Tory Historian very nearly consigned the book to the charity shop bag when a character in it referred to badly behaved boys as a “bunch of hooligans”, hooligan being a word that came into the English language some time in the mid-1890s, 130 years after the events described in Death at St James’s Palace.
For the moment, however, the decision is to persevere, in the hopes that the plot will develop reasonably soon.
December 1, 1919 saw the introduction of the first woman MP to the House of Commons. Needless to say, she was a Conservative. Nancy Astor was not the first woman to be elected to the House - that had happened in 1918, when Constance Markiewicz was elected as a Sinn Féin MP for one of the Dublin constituencies but, in line with party policy, refused to take the oath and was not allowed to sit in the House of Commons. [Both Wiki links need to be read with great care as there are inaccuracies and omissions but the outline of the two stories are useful.]
That was the first election, held in December 1918, after the Representation of People Act, passed in March 1918 that widened the franchise to all men over 21 and women over 30 as long as they were "either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register". Women had been allowed the vote in various local elections since the late 1880s.
Nancy Astor's candidacy and election was not, in the first place, an achievement for feminists though, obviously, it could not have happened without years of campaigning by both suffragettes (whose contribution was often counter-productive) and the suffragists, many of whom had been Conservatives. It was all a deal put together by the local Conservative Association but something of a political risk, nevertheless.
Early in October 1919 the first Viscount Astor (by birth American but a long-time resident of Britain where the entire Astor family assimilated very quickly) died of a heart attack. This made his son, Waldorf, until then MP for Plymouth Sutton, the second Viscount and he had to resign from the Commons. The Association then had the brilliant idea of putting up his wife who had been closely involved in his political career. The assumption was that there would soon be legislation that would allow those who inherit a title to reject it through various legal methods. In fact, the Peerage Act was not passed till 1963 and Nancy Astor remained an MP till 1945.
The picture above is the proclamation of her victory. Naturally, there are no pictures of her being introduced into the House by David Lloyd George and A. J. Balfour.