Friday, 29 December 2017

Celebrating the coming of the railway – the “Paignton Pudding Riot”

It is difficult for us to imagine the excitement caused by the building of railway lines in the Nineteenth Century. For example, the arrival of the extension of the line from Torquay to Paignton in 1859 saw a celebration that ended in a wild and notorious disturbance.

Paignton had a tradition that, every fifty years or so, a large pudding was made and shared between members of the local parishes who gathered on Paignton Green for the celebration (the green is seen in the aerial view above, taken from the website). Prior to the arrival of the Dartmouth and Torbay Railway, the previous festival was held on 1st June 1819, with a pudding weighing 900 lbs. (pounds) and contained four hundredweight of flour, 120 lbs. of suet, 120 lbs. of raisins and a “large number” of eggs [1]. White describes the disaster that followed:

[The pudding] was boiled in a large brewing copper at the Crown and Anchor Inn; it was contained in a huge bag, which was held in a net suspended to a beam, from which it was lowered by a tackle into the boiler, and kept just three inches off the bottom. After boiling for three days it was hoisted out, placed on a waggon, and drawn to the Green by three horses. But those who had assembled to eat the pudding were doomed to disappointment; the outside, from the constant boiling, had been reduced to the consistence of paste, and the inner part was not even warm.

The organisers were aware of the problems of 1819 when planning the celebration for the arrival of the railway on 1st August 1859. It was to be held once again on the Green and the pudding was even larger. White [1] continues:

In order to secure success on the present occasion, it was arranged that the pudding should be baked in sections, eight sections forming one layer, the whole being afterwards built together. The pudding consisted of 573 lbs. of flour, 191 lbs. of bread, 382 lbs. raisins, 191 lbs. currants, 382 lbs. suet, 320 lemons, 144 nutmegs, 95 lbs. of sugar, a quantity of eggs, and 860 quarts of milk; the cost was £45. When completed the weight of it was one ton and a-half; it was thirteen feet six inches in circumference at the base, and five feet at the top. Besides this remarkable pudding, there were provided 1,900 lbs. of meat, 1,900 lbs. of bread, and an unlimited supply of the staple product of the Paignton orchards, - cider.

Perhaps it was the latter that fueled subsequent events. The waggon containing the pudding arrived and five policemen guarded both the pudding and dignitaries who had assembled for speeches etc. but they were overwhelmed by members of the public who left their tables and swarmed around trying to get a slice from the pudding. They were joined by navvies who had built the railway and who were also part of the celebrations, and White writes:

A disgraceful scene followed in which men, women, and boys, struggled and fought for the possession of the pieces thrown out from the waggon; and this continued until not a morsel was left.. ..For weeks afterwards the Post Office was inundated with greasy packets, containing morsels of the pudding, sent off as so many souvenirs to distant friends.

As members of my family lived in Paignton in the Nineteenth Century, they are likely to have been present at the “pudding riot”, but it is not part of family folklore. 

One can’t imagine such a scene today, or could one?  

[1] J.T.White (1878) The History of Torquay. Torquay, The “Directory” Office.

Henry Gosse finds Sandhurst in Torquay, his home for the next thirty years

As a boy growing up in Paignton, I knew that the railway from Newton Abbot to Kingswear had been built a hundred years before, but not that it had been completed in sections. The line ran to a terminus in Torquay (now called Torre) until it continued to Paignton in 1859 and on to Kingswear in 1864 [1].

It was to the old Torquay station that Philip Henry Gosse, the famous Natural Historian, came in 1857 and he then set off for St Marychurch, an area that he knew from an earlier visit to the town. He had decided to move away from London after the death of his wife, to continue his researches on marine life; his young son, Edmund, being his constant companion. In his first biography of his father [2], Edmund writes:

[St Marychurch] had just been seized with a building craze, and new villas, each in its separate garden, were rising on all hands. [Henry] Gosse hired a horse, and rode round the neighbourhood to see what he could find to suit him, and at last he discovered, near the top of the Torquay Road, what he thought was the exact place.

It was not an attractive object to the romantic eye. It is impossible to conceive anything much more dispiriting that this brand-new little house, unpapered, undried, standing in ghastly whiteness in the middle of a square enclosure of raw “garden,” that is to say of ploughed field, laid out with gravel walks, beds without a flower or leaf, and a “lawn” of fat red loam guiltless of one blade of grass. Two great rough pollard elms, originally part of a hedge which had run across the site of the lawn, were the only objects that relieved the monotony of the inchoate place, which spread out, vague and uncomely, “like the red outline of beginning Adam.” By taking the house in this condition, however, it was a cheap purchase, and my father felt that it would be a pleasure to discipline all this formlessness into beauty and fertility. He never repented of his choice, nor ever expressed, through more than thirty years, the wish that he had gone elsewhere. The Devonshire red loam is wonderfully stubborn, and for many seasons the place retained the obloquy of its newness. But at length the grass became velvety on the lawn, trees grew up and hid the unmossed limestone walls in which no vegetation can force a footing, and the little place grew bowery and secluded. It was on September 23, 1857, that the family settled in this house – named Sandhurst, by the builder, in mere wantonness of nomenclature – and this became their home.

Sandhurst is still there, although modified by extensions, and we held a Blue Plaque ceremony for Henry in the garden (see below). It was Henry Gosse’s home for the rest of his life and he died there in 1888. He had re-married in 1860 and his widow, Eliza, continued to live at Sandhurst, but Edmund had moved to London to work at the British Museum in 1867. Edmund’s views on life, and on religion, were different to those of Henry and this caused many difficulties for them both, although Nellie Gosse, Edmund’s wife, acted as a go-between during visits to Sandhurst, and she and her children were loved by Henry and Eliza.

Edmund writes of a final carriage ride that he took with Henry to Cockington and the scene described must have been very close to the spot shown in the photograph above, with the road (then a small lane) passing under the railway line to Paignton that had been completed nearly thirty years before [2]:

My father, with the pathetic look in his eyes, the mortal pallor on his cheeks, scarcely spoke, and seemed to observe nothing. But, as we turned to drive back down a steep lane of overhanging branches, the pale vista of the sea burst upon us, silvery blue in the yellow light of afternoon. Something in the beauty of the scene raised the sunken brain, and with a little of the old declamatory animation in head and hand, he began to recite the well-known passage in the fourth book of Paradise Lost

Now came still evening on, and twilight grey
Had in her sober livery all things clad.

He pursued the quotation through three or four lines, and then, in the middle of a sentence, the music broke, his head fell once more upon his breast, and for him the splendid memory, the self-sustaining intellect which had guided the body so long, were to be its companions on earth no more.

As an admirer of Philip Henry Gosse, I find Edmund’s account very moving and it is sad that they were never fully reconciled, although they were able to enjoy each other's company rather more in Henry's last years. The trip to Cockington was in July 1888 and it was the last drive out that Henry took, as his final illness had immobilised him. At the end there was little pain and he died on 23 August 1888, being buried on 27 August in unconsecrated ground in Torquay Cemetery. Eliza, who lived to be 87, was buried in the same grave on 18 October 1900 and I have visited it to pay my respects.

[1] C.R.Potts (1991) The Newton Abbot to Kingswear Railway (1844-1988). Wallingford, The Oakwood Press.

[2] Edmund Gosse (1890) The Naturalist of the Sea-Shore: The Life of Philip Henry
Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

A religious upbringing?

Canadian rock legend Neil Young sold some of his extensive model railway collection this week: As a child, I would have been very envious of these, as I had a hand-me-down Hornby clockwork set to play with and, although there was lots of track, locomotives, coaches and wagons, there was little concession to reality and patience ran thin when derailments, and spectacular crashes, occurred so frequently.

My interest anyway was in the railways on which the models were based and I was fortunate in being brought up in Paignton during the 1950s and early 1960s, a time when full-sized trains played an important role in the life of the town. We were a family of five and all three brothers had an interest in trainspotting so, as the youngest, it was inevitable that I would follow suit and eventually be given an Ian Allan book to underline the numbers of locomotives I had seen. For me, it almost had the status of a religion and I could relate to the thrill of seeing all the different types more easily than I could to the excitement I was led to believe came from Bible stories. Of course, trains provided no promise of salvation, or any link to something supernatural, but they provided an introduction to steam locomotives with the names of castles, halls, granges and manors in shiny brass letters on their curved nameplates: places that seemed as exotic, and yet rather closer to home, than the various Biblical names I heard so frequently at Winner Street Baptist Church. Another difference between the two “religions” was that train worship was seasonal, with a concentration in July and August and it was Saturday, not Sunday, that required my attendance at the railway station early in the morning. My place was against the railings just visible in the far left of the contemporary photograph (above), taken in quieter times and there was nothing like summer Saturdays for rarities from distant parts. All manner of locomotives were pressed into service, including those designed for pulling freight trains.

So, why was Paignton such a mecca (if you will excuse an Islamic pun)? Something of the flavour of events is described by David St John Thomas and Simon Rocksborough Smith in their book Summer Saturdays in the West [1]:

The overnight trains always had a reputation for running late, and on the busiest Saturdays when many ran in several parts the average late arrival at..Paignton could be as much as two hours. If it was as bad as this, then engines and stock were often not available to start return trips from Paignton to London, the Midlands or North in time, and so delays spread. At times, almost a half of the incoming holidaymakers arrived in their resorts by breakfast time.. .. Of course, these masses of incoming visitors could not go to their hotels or camps until noon or even later and were this something of a liability to the resorts, swamping swimming pools and cafes (once a Paignton cafe sold 600 eggs at a Saturday breakfast time) and overfilling public shelters or just remaining on the station platforms when it was wet. Those who had not booked accommodation would form queues outside information bureaux before opening time..

..Once the overnight trains had passed through there would be a slight lull on the down line, filled in by a few strictly local trains for the large numbers of Taunton and Exeter people going to the sea on day trips..

I noticed the crowds streaming off the trains, of course, but they were of little importance to me compared to the busy work of the locomen, guards and station staff and the wondrous noises and smells from the locomotives. In the picture below (taken from Thomas and Smith’s book) you can see the crowds at Torquay (the next stop up the line) waiting for a train to Manchester, as a train for Leeds pulls out of the station. The same scene played out at Paignton, but departing trains never had the same interest, as their locomotives had already been seen on the way down. However, the crews needed to make a spirited getaway as the line quickly began a climb and there was much other activity as departing, and arriving trains, passed over a level crossing, with gates controlled manually from the signal box. All a whirl of activity, although my interest waned after a few years, as did the number of trains.

I don’t know whether my experiences on these summer Saturdays provide an example of the Jesuit maxim “Give me the child for his first seven years, and I’ll give you the man”, but I’ve retained my interest in railways, and in steam locomotives, having taken a locoman’s course (see below) and had the pleasure of riding on the footplate of a steam locomotive on more than one occasion (see below). In contrast, my interest in churchgoing – never strong – dwindled to nothing by the time I was 12 years old and I no longer attended at Winner Street. I realised then that my interest in Natural History was becoming absorbing and provided me with a sense of wonder that doesn’t need a theistic explanation. I'm afraid it is still like that.

[1] David St John Thomas and Simon Rocksborough Smith (1973) Summer Saturdays in the West. David & Charles, Newton Abbot.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Green beer and Spirulina

A brewer on the shores of Lake Erie has produced a green beer, flavoured with kiwi fruit and with green tea added as colouring [1]. This unusual drink has received a favourable response from drinkers who like its fruity taste, but the brewers made the green beer to highlight a problem with their water supply that originates from Lake Erie. Unfortunately, the lake has recently suffered blooms of cyanobacteria (previously known as blue-green algae) that can be seen in satellite images (see below, from NOAA). Given that they are very primitive unicellular organisms, the numbers of individuals, and colonies, in these blooms are astonishing.

The cyanobacteria are fertilised by nutrients, especially phosphate, that are added to increase the growth of grass, or crops, and which run-off into the rivers and are then carried to the lake. Phosphate is a limiting nutrient in most fresh waters, so its addition causes the cyanobacteria to grow and multiply rapidly. Their numbers cannot be controlled by planktonic animals and cyanobacteria exude sticky polymers that provide a defence - the polymers also allow attachment of cells to form colonies, and enable some cells to propel themselves within the water column. As long as nutrients are available, blooms result and these inhibit the efficiency of drinking water treatment plants and, to add to the woe, some cyanobacteria produce toxins that are poisonous to humans and may be lethal to our pets.

So, are all cyanobacteria harmful to human activities? The answer is no, for without cyanobacteria and the evolution of their capacity to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugars using light energy – the process of photosynthesis – we would have no green plants and very little oxygen in the atmosphere. Indeed, we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for cyanobacterial evolution. The ancestors of single-celled algae ingested cyanobacteria and, by an unknown mechanism, some of these survived and became incorporated with the algal cell as chloroplasts. From single-celled algae came multicellular organisms and the complex aquatic, and terrestrial, plants that we know today.

Cyanobacteria also have a more obvious value to us, as some species are cultured in lagoons to produce intentional blooms that are then harvested. The collected mass is dried and compressed into cakes, pellets and powders that are marketed as Spirulina, being valued both as a health food and dietary supplement. There are many recipes that feature the cultured cyanobacteria [2,3] and Spirulina is even finding its way into “fine dining”, as viewers of the BBC’s Masterchef: The Professionals know. Of course, it is important to avoid harmful cyanobacteria when selecting those to be cultured for human consumption and I wouldn’t recommend harvesting the blooms from Lake Erie.