Reviews of Other Authors' Books

My reviews of recently published books.

Secret Wartime Britain

Colin Philpott

Published by Pen and Sword 2018, price £ 25

Secret Wartime Britain

Secret Wartime Britain is an impressive record of the many locations across the country which were involved in Britain’s fight for survival and democratic values in the Second World War. Grouped under themes such as factories, command centres, decoys and internment, and illustrated with a large number of black and white photographs, some from the time and others more recent, sites receive an individual commentary about how they slotted into the war effort. In this respect, the text is a comprehensive work of reference about the many surprising places that contributed to victory in the war.

If this book was only an encyclopaedic work of reference it would be valuable for pulling together the material the author has collected. However, the narrative is far, far, more than merely a list or catalogue. The strength of the author’s approach is in addressing the very pertinent question of how secret intelligence work, manufacturing on an industrial scale and military planning could be so successfully hidden in plain sight. The prevailing culture of deference to authority, supplemented by some pieces of draconian legislation and effective propaganda campaigns on the home front, were all important. The overwhelming recognition by ordinary citizens that those on the fighting front would be best served by a lack of careless talk, speculation and public pessimism enabled sensitive work to be carried out largely unnoticed.

As for the continuing secrecy for decades after sensitive work had finished, many of those involved, whether in combat or in back room roles, were only too pleased to be able to leave behind them tasks that were repetitive or not enjoyable at that time and pick up their lives again.

An interesting facet of the book is that the author had not flinched from including a few aspects of the war effort where those involved may have fallen short of upholding high standards in their work. By not ignoring the ethical question of whether the ends justify the means, the narrative becomes linked to present times when the moral dimensions of conflict are much more publicly debated.

Secret Wartime Britain is a book which can be read as a complete narrative or dipped into chapter by chapter depending on each individual’s interest. It is a fascinating book on first reading and one which would be worth returning to in the future.

The Women Who Inspired London Art

Lucy Merello Peterson

Published by Pen and Sword 2018, price £25

Women Who Inspired Lodon Art

Sometimes a book about a genuinely new topic is published and this is one of them. Plenty is known about the female models and muses of the pre-Raphaelite painters of the mid-nineteenth century but the models who followed them are largely unknown.

The Women Who Inspired London Art rescues professional models, particularly the Avico sisters, from anonymity, with vinaigrettes of their lives and influence. It also explores beyond traditional artists’ models to investigate friends and society ladies who acted as unpaid models and servants who simply happened to be working in the household of a creative individual when their likenesses or activities were captured on canvas. Interestingly the author demonstrates how, by the twentieth century, artistic taste had become internationalised. Traditional English looks were not necessarily the style of choice, as women from different countries and ethnic backgrounds became sought after as models.

This subject is much wider than any 160 page narrative can cover and the book is a taster rather than an in-depth study. It includes plenty of colour and black and white illustrations but it can be frustrating when pictures are discussed which are not illustrated, especially when some of the models have multiple images included. It is unnecessary to be an art aficionado to find something of interest in its pages, from the Bloomsbury group, to the London club scene or the war artist. The author gives an overview of a multitude of elements, some unexpected, which influenced art in London before the Second World War and may well inspire a reader to seek further information about a painter, model or artistic style.

Shell Shocked Britain

Suzie Grogan

Published by Pen and Sword 2014, price £19.99

Shell Shocked Britain

If it seems odd to review a book five years after its publication, the answer lies in its sub-title, The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health. With this in mind, I chose not read this book until all the commemorations of the Great War were also a thing of the past.

In doing so I deferred the pleasure of a thought-provoking read. Starting with the concept of shell shock, whose victims began to emerge within weeks of the outbreak of hostilities on Flanders Field, the author draws on sources from much earlier military conflicts to show that psychological trauma on the battle-front was not new but the industrial scale on which symptoms arose during the Great War was without precedent. The narrative then addresses misunderstandings, whether wilful or not, by the practitioners who had to treat the traumatised soldiers and on the part of the officers and officials who were responsible for maintaining discipline and numbers on the fighting front.

Moving back to civilian life, the author demonstrates that shocks to mental well-being were not confined to those who had faced battle and been formally diagnosed with a problem. Some demobilised soldiers might have appeared unaffected but struggled to adjust back to the life of a non-combatant, perhaps silently battling depression or struggling to suppress urges to be violent.

Amongst those who had remained at home were parents who now mourned adult children, whilst widows and girlfriends had to face life without their soulmate and some children grew up fatherless and without a male role-model, or with a step parent who simply could not replace the missing father in the child’s affections.

As a range of personal traumas played out in the homes of 1920s Britain, some of those involved, and suffering either symptoms or social stigma, would have been aware of the intellectual debates around eugenics which were raging at the time. The arguments advanced at that time, not only make uncomfortable reading but are profoundly shocking.

Suzie Grogan has drawn on a range of research sources, professional expertise and family history to investigate the psychological legacy of the Great War. This is not necessarily a book which provides answers, and it is all the better for that. By provoking questions and offering the reader an opportunity to think, it can help individuals to form their own conclusions about mental well-being in the aftermath of conflict.

William Armstrong - Magician of the North

Henrietta Heald

Published by McNidder and Grace, price £14 (paperback)

I have visited Cragside, the house created by William Armstrong near Rothbury, Northumberland, on several occasions. My most recent visit, after an absence of a decade meant that Henrietta Heald's 2010 biography of the industrialist dubbed the 'magician of the north' led me to fast-track my copy to the top of my reading list.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Cragside, now benefiting from the stewardship of the National Trust was acclaimed as a modern house. Built in a style which drew inspiration from medieval times, Cragside nevertheless incorporated luxuries such as a Turkish bath, labour-saving devices such as an early dishwasher and was the first house in the world to be lit by hydro-electricity. Thanks to the modernity of his country residence, Armstrong rather than the Duke of Northumberland who lived close by at Alnwick Castle had the honour of playing host to the Prince and Princess of Wales when they visited the North East in 1884.

What always disappointed on a visit to Cragside was the paucity of information available about the man who commissioned it and the wife who took such an interest in planting out its extensive and beguiling grounds. Henrietta Heald's meticulously researched biography has reclaimed the life story of William Armstrong, a self-taught engineer and a self-made man who built one of the most extensive manufacturing enterprises of the nineteenth century, grew rich on the profits of a lucrative arms trade and devoted part of his wealth in good causes.

One of my personal interests is why some people and subjects become an integral part of the fabric of the past whilst others fall out-of-history. Thanks to this welcome volume, William Armstrong, engineer, philanthropist, businessman and builder is now emerging from the shadows. Not that those shadows are always comfortable. In Armstrong's case there is a debate to be had about the escalation of the race for weaponry in the later nineteenth century and how this contributed to conflict. Armstrong's industrial policies and balancing the rights of employer and employees, were not always enlightened. Equally fascinating are the stories of the decline of both his factories and the personal wealth bequeathed to his heir.

Armstrong was lucky in that his early success and the money it brought allowed him free rein to put his ideas and innovations into action, but in doing so he left Cragside, a sumptuous estate that gives the twenty-first century with a glimpse into the scientific and engineering vigour of the nineteenth.

In tracking down collating source material Henrietta Heald has brought William Armstrong back into the public gaze in a rounded volume that sets out his long and varied life interests and achievements.For historians of the Victorian age it is a recommended and welcome addition to the library.

Angel Meadow - Victorian Britain's Most Savage Slum

Dean Kirby

Published by Pen and Sword February 2016, price £14.99

Angel Meadow

Working class slums have long been recognised as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution but what was life really like for the men, women and children who were crammed there? Some history texts include statistics that fail to capture the reality of the squalor, disease and hunger that dogged nineteenth century workers. Other writers generalised in order to substantiate an over-arching political or economic philosophy as to why life was as it was at a particular time.

Family history is sometimes derided as the poor relation of the repertoire. Dean Kirby is one of several researchers whose interest in a specific community was piqued whilst trying to discover how an ancestor lived. With digitisation now making a dazzling array of resources available, Angel Meadow proves that, with determination and persistence, the lost sights, sounds and smells of bygone times can be re-awoken.

Angel Meadow, an area of less that one square mile in the heart of prosperous Manchester, was dubbed Victorian Britain's most savage slum. Around 30,000 souls survived in houses, cellars and lodging places. Kirby has repopulated its narrow streets and noisy drinking dens with a few of the characters and criminals who plied their trade or scraped a precarious existence beneath its smoke-filled skies, drawing on prison records, old newspapers and oral histories alongside established texts and papers written by long-ago visitors to the slum.

By focussing on real lives and experiences, Kirby provides a lively, though shocking, read. The potential flaw with this approach is that it is easier to find material that illustrates the extreme situation rather than providing a more nuanced view of the 30,000 residents, many of whom would have lived and died in anonymity. In a less overt manner, Angel Meadow provides this type of insight too, showing that the area had features in common with other working class communities, even though conditions were especially bad. Sunday gambling was a feature of more working class areas than Angel Meadow. Men everywhere thronged to the beer-houses to escape the bad condition of their home, caused by rapacious landlords rather than negligent womenfolk. Although nineteenth century working-class women were often portrayed by external observers as lacking domestic skills it is clear that the women of Angel Meadow, along with many others across the land, could be fastidious shoppers who demanded good quality food and cooked nutritious meals.

Angel Meadow is a recommended read. With an easy, engaging style, it gives the general reader a gritty introduction to Victorian working-class life in a poverty-stricken area that was plagued by crime. For the historian hoping to flesh out statistics or test theoretical approaches it offers plenty of example material to consider.

Regency Spies – Secret Histories of Britain's Rebels and Revolutionaries

Sue Wilkes

Published by Pen and Sword 2015, price £19.99

Regency Spies

Some aspects of the past fade from mainstream texts. When I studied the period of British history covered by Regency Spies, it was a truism that the decades c1790-1820 were marked by popular unrest, workers' agitation and government repression of any challenge or dissent. Detail seemed scant about anything other than a few high profile incidents such as the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, and a few high profile figures such as Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and William Cobbett.

In Regency Spies, Sue Wilkes has crafted a book that helps to combat this lack of information, whilst disentangling the varied strands of discontent that bedevilled the country. These included the fear of industrial change, high prices for grain that workers felt in their empty stomachs and Ireland's catholic populace which was governed by a repressive and protestant administration. Based on research in a range of primary sources, she breathes life into some of the lesser known people who were part of this cauldron of suspicion and savage reprisal, whether as subversives or spies. The who, why and how of more than a quarter of a century of surveillance and suspicion, particularly in the North of England spring into focus with a new clarity, along with the million dollar question, was there really a popular appetite for the radical and violent change that the politicians of the day so feared?

The activities of William Oliver and other regency spies lie two centuries in the past, but when reading about them it was hard not to note the similarities with other periods of history and the choices available to rulers and governments facing challenges. How is public safety to be secured? What is the rationale for surveillance? How should change be brought about? Is it justifiable to join an organisation under false pretences? Does the end justify the means? Are some actual or perceived threats so dangerous that normal standards must be suspended?

Regency Spies provides forgotten detail about popular protest and the workings of government in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. It also includes some thought-provoking examples for debating questions that are universal.