Dead Man Saved From Fire

05 22 chudleighToday, I want to tell you about the Great Fire of Chudleigh which happened in 1807. Chudleigh is a small town in Devon, and, like the Great Fire of London, the blaze began in a bakery. At around noon, a pile of gorse stacked near a baking oven caught light. Normally, it might have been easily controlled, but there had been a long spell of dry weather. Then, a breeze blew up which carried burning flakes from the fire to neighbouring properties. Many of the dwellings had thatched roofs which had become tinder dry in the hot sun and they quickly caught light. The same breeze then carried large pieces of burning thatch and soon, three whole streets were on fire.

The Chudleigh residents had little time to gather their belongings before they had to abandon their homes. The few items they managed to save were taken to the Market House for safe-keeping. As it had been newly rebuilt and had a slate roof, people thought that would be a good place and it filled quickly. Unfortunately, some of the stuff they took in was already on fire, so that burned down as well.

The town did have their own fire engine, but it is not clear whether they had any water after such a long dry spell. In any case, the fire engine caught fire and was no help at all. Then, at around two o’clock a barrel of gunpowder that everyone had forgotten about exploded, giving a fresh impetus to the blaze.

The body of a recently deceased gentleman lay in one of the houses in the centre of the town and someone had thoughtfully carried the coffin out into the street to protect it from the flames. But, unfortunately, people also began to pile some of their own smouldering possessions around it. His bereaved son, whose own house was on fire, was told what had happened and he rushed through narrow, burning streets to rescue his father’s body. He got there just in time to pull off the burning pall that was covering the coffin. With the help of a few friends, he managed to carry it to the churchyard. In the midst of the chaos, a hurried funeral was conducted. The vicar and two mourners were the only attendees as everyone else was pretty busy.

Also, like the Great Fire of London, the fire was only halted when the houses in its path were pulled down. In only four hours, almost two thirds of the town had been lost. Amazingly though, no one was killed. But many people had lost everything and were left homeless. Help flooded in from neighbouring communities in the form of money and clothes. They also sent bibles and prayer books. The money was used to compensate people for their losses, but it was felt that some people had made larger claims than they were entitled to. The largest claim, of one thousand two hundred and seven pounds, twelve shillings and fourpence, went to a Mr Richard Rose, an innkeeper, who used the money to rebuild his coaching inn, pictured above, which had been destroyed by the fire.

In the course of my research today, I discovered that in 2007, on the 200th anniversary of the fire, the Chudleigh Historical Society planned to commemorate the event by setting fire to a seventy foot long scale replica of the village, complete with exploding barrel of gunpowder. I’ve no idea if it came to anything, but if it did, I really hope everyone was okay.

Worst Ever

02 22 mooseToday I want to tell you about a play. It isn’t a good play. It is an awful play. Yesterday, I wrote about a terrible actor called Robert Coates. Today, I give you: ‘Moose Murders’ which both opened and closed at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway on this day in 1983. Such is its infamy, it is now the touchstone by which all Broadway flops are measured.

The play is described as a ‘mystery farce’. It is set at ‘Wild Moose Lodge’ in the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York. The lodge has recently been purchased by the wealthy Holloway family. The father, Sidney, is a heavily bandaged paraplegic who is on the point of dying. They have purchased the lodge as a place for him to live out his last days. Along with the family are a failed showbiz couple (one of whom is blind), a Native American caretaker (who appears complete with feathered headdress and war paint, yet inexplicably speaks with an Irish accent) and Sydney’s seemingly sadistic, black satin clad nurse who leaves her patient out in the rain. They become trapped in the house by a storm and decide to play a murder mystery game, which quickly turns into a case of real murder. The motive seems to be jealously over who will inherit the old man’s money. There is incest, there is mention of a legendary ‘Butcher Moose’ which haunts the mountain and there is dancing. There are also several murders. It isn’t clear how many. It is possible that no one who saw the play could focus on it well enough to be able to remember, or care. We are told that the dialogue in act one was “only improved by its inaudibility”, yet it was “inadequate preparation for the ludicrous depths of act two.”

The writer of the play, Arthur Bicknell, had written a couple of plays that had been produced Off-Broadway and had shown his script to several people, who found it very funny. He was delighted when a Texas oil baron loved Moose Murders so much that he wanted to stage it on Broadway. The oil man’s daughter was chosen to play the part of the first murder victim and her husband was made director. Neither had any previous experience and neither ever worked in the theatre again. The lead role, Sydney’s wife, Hedda, was to be played by Eve Arden who would be returning to Broadway after a forty year absence.

Although the play closed on its first night, it had previously had thirteen previews. Their leading lady walked out after the second one. They quickly managed to recruit Holland Taylor. She knew the play was awful, but needed the money. It had been described by critics as ‘titanically bad’ and “so indescribably bad that I do not intend to waste anyone’s time by describing it.” Frank Rich of the New York Times had this to say:

“From now on, there will always be two groups of theatergoers in this world: those who have seen ”Moose Murders,” and those who have not. Those of us who have witnessed the play that opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theater last night will undoubtedly hold periodic reunions, in the noble tradition of survivors of the Titanic. Tears and booze will flow in equal measure, and there will be a prize awarded to the bearer of the most outstanding antlers.”

He went on to say: “I won’t soon forget the spectacle of watching the mummified Sidney rise from his wheelchair to kick an intruder, unaccountably dressed in a moose costume, in the groin.” This episode does not appear in the original script. The play was so bad that it has made minor celebrities, not only of the actors but also the audience members who witnessed it. The number of people who now claim to have been there far exceeds the actual ticket sales. After the reviews were published, over the following days, the theatre was inundated with calls from people who were desperate to see it. They were to be disappointed. The box office received so many calls that they could easily have sold out the play every day for a month.

When Arthur Bicknell stopped by the theatre the following day to pick up his things, he was forced to witness the scenery for his play being tossed into the street. The oil baron, his daughter and her husband had already escaped to Paris on Concorde. Bicknell no longer writes plays, although he did revise the script for a revival of the play in 2013. Apparently, it was still awful. He was mortified by the whole thing and kept hoping everyone would forget about it, but it has never really gone away. Now, he has embraced his failure. He wrote a book called: ‘Moose Murdered: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Broadway Bomb’. In 2012 he said: “There is such a thin line between fame and infamy, and I’m almost proud of my infamy. Nobody knows who Arthur Bicknell is, but so many people know Moose Murders. I did that. I wrote the worst play that was ever on Broadway. That’s something.”

Bearing a Grudge

02 10 saint scholasticaToday is Saint Scholastica’s Day. She was a nun who was born in Umbria towards the end of the fifth century. But I don’t want to tell you about her today. Today I am writing about something truly awful that happened in the fourteenth century, in Oxford. Normally, I try to avoid mentioning events where people die, but this is so spectacularly dreadful that I can’t leave it alone. By the end of this post, almost a hundred people will be dead and you probably won’t be very happy with the outcome either. Today is the anniversary of the St Scholastica Day riot of 1355.

Oxford is, as you probably know, a university town. It has been a centre of learning for around eight or nine hundred years. Relationships between the students and the general population have historically been somewhat strained. In 1209, either one or two students were hanged for the crime of murder; which the student responsible claimed was an accident. The ensuing bitterness surrounding the event led to all the students fleeing the town. They did not return until 1214. Many of them went to Cambridge and that may have been when the university was founded there. When they returned, the Pope ordered that the town must pay a fine of fifty-two shillings to the university each year to provide a dinner for poor students as compensation. The students of Oxford must have all seemed, and mostly were, terribly rich in comparison to the townsfolk and this probably did not help everyone get along.

On February 10th 1355, two students named Walter Spryngeheuse and Roger de Chesterfield were drinking in the Swindlestock Tavern in the centre of the town. They didn’t like the wine they had been sold. An argument broke out between the two students and the taverner, John Croidon, which ended with them throwing the wine in his face and hitting him over the head with the jug. Croidon called on friends and family and the disturbance grew. The town bailiffs asked the students to make amends, but they would not. The Mayor could do nothing himself because the students were members of the clergy and outside his jurisdiction. So he asked the Chancellor of the university to arrest them, but he refused. Instead, two hundred other students rallied around Spryngeheuse and Chesterfield and beat up the Mayor. The day ended with the students having the upper hand.

The next day, the Mayor went to see the King, Edward III, who happened to be nearby at Woodstock. The King seems to have been no help at all. Meanwhile the Chancellor ordered his scholars to keep the peace. But, according to the town records, the students locked the gates of the town, set fire to stuff and robbed peoples’ houses, killing and wounding many. According to the university records, the students were out exercising in the fields when they were attacked by eighty townspeople with bows and arrows who had been hiding in a church. While this was happening the Mayor had managed to rally two thousand people from the surrounding countryside and they all arrived at the town and joined in the fray. The students fought, they said, until they ran out of weapons and then retreated to the university. Their assailants followed them and wrecked some of the scholars’ halls.

The day after that was probably the worst day. The people of the town destroyed another fourteen of the students halls. Many were killed and some of the students were scalped and thrown into jail. Some monks tried to calm everyone down by carrying a communion wafer through the middle of the riot, but it didn’t really work. The townspeople just took it off them and threw it on the ground. By the time the riot had subsided, sixty-three scholars were dead and about thirty locals. I couldn’t find out how the rioting came to a halt, but I do know what happened subsequently.

Many of the leading townsmen wound up in the Tower of London and the students, again, left the town. The King, who sat in judgement, found in favour of the students. When they returned to Oxford, they and their servants were granted immunity from prosecution for any felonies, robberies, arson or trespass that they had committed. Furthermore, they were afterwards allowed to regulate the drinks trade. Worst of all, on every subsequent February 10th, sixty-three leading members of the community, including the Mayor, were required to march through the town bareheaded, in an act of penance, to attend a church service at the university. They also each had to pay a a penny, a total fine of 5s 3d, to university funds. This penance continued for the next four hundred and seventy years. In 1825, the Mayor of Oxford refused to take part in the annual humiliation. All was not really forgiven until 1955, when the Mayor was granted an honorary degree and the Vice-Chancellor was made an Honorary Freeman of the city. It only took six hundred years, but I think things might be mostly okay now.

02 10 oxford 1730

Beware of False Prophets

12 10 johannes stoefflerToday is the birthday of Johannes Stöffler, who was born in 1452 in Justingan, in what is now southern Germany. Stöffler was a scholar who, in time, became parish priest of his home town. But in his spare time he made astronomical instruments, celestial globes, clocks and orreries. One of his globes still survives in a museum at the Old Castle in Stuttgart, it’s a beautiful thing. He also wrote a proposal for changing the calendar on which the Gregorian Calendar would eventually be based. But these things are not why I want to talk about him today. As well as being excellent in the fields of mathematics and astronomy, he was also interested in astrology. Although astronomy and astrology are now two very different things, until the late sixteenth century, they were basically the same, so we can’t hold that against him. But he did do something pretty stupid.

In the year 1499, he predicted that, on February 20th 1524, a universal flood would cover the whole earth. He based his prediction on the fact that, on that day, most of the known planets (there were only six) and also the sun would be in conjunction in the constellation of Pisces. As Pisces is the sign of the fish, he felt this was an indication that the whole world would be drowned. There were, at that time, plenty of people who enjoyed predicting the end of the world, just as there are now but Stöffler was pretty prominent. By 1507, he occupied the first ever chair of astronomy and mathematics at the University of Tubingen and, in 1522, he was made rector.

As the date of his prophecy drew ever closer, more and more people heard about it. Panic set in. Over a hundred pamphlets were published on the subject. The value of waterside properties plummeted and people began to build boats.

Not wanting to be outdone, English astronomers announced that there would indeed be a flood, but it would begin on February 1st, in London. A fortress was built at the Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great and equipped with two months worth of supplies. When the day came, 20,000 Londoners headed for the hills and waited. Nothing happened. Everyone went home. The astrologers had to admit they were wrong. They said that they had been out by a hundred years and, in fact, the flood would come on February 1st 1654, thus absolving themselves of any personal responsibility.

Their failure did nothing to dampen fears among the landowners and nobles of continental Europe. Economically, it was an excellent time for boat builders and merchants were doing a roaring trade selling emergency supplies. Rivers were full of new boats packed to the gunwales with food and water. One of the biggest was an ambitious three-storey ark, built on the Rhine, for a German count called Von Iggleheim for his friends and family. Early on the morning of the 20th, he boarded his ark and had his servants drag all the supplies aboard. The spectacle drew quite a lot of interest. Some were just curious, others were there to jeer. Then… it began to rain. It didn’t rain a lot, but it was enough to panic the crowd. They rushed to board Iggleheim’s ark and any other boat nearby. Hundreds were killed in the ensuing chaos. When the count refused to let anyone aboard, they dragged him off his boat and stoned him to death.

The year 1524 would eventually prove to be one of the driest on record. Stöffler was also forced to revise his prediction. He said it would actually happen in 1528. It was a bit reckless of him to predict a date within his own lifetime, because it didn’t happen then either and people sort of stopped believing he could predict the future. But according to one story I read, he once predicted that, on a certain day, his life would be put in danger by a falling body. Wisely, he chose to spend the day inside. Whilst indoors, having a discussion with friends, he reached up for a book. The whole shelf came loose and hit him on the head, he was quite badly injured. This is a great story and I wish I could corroborate it with a more contemporary account, but I can’t, so I hope it’s true.

In 1530 his whole university was forced to relocate to the countryside due to a plague epidemic. He removed himself to Blaubeuren. Where he died in 1531. Of the plague. It’s a pity he couldn’t have predicted that instead.

The Train Is Now Leaving The Station

10 22 train wreck at montparnasseToday I am commemorating a spectacular train disaster. I’d like to start by saying that sadly, someone was killed in this accident, so I am dedicating today’s blog post to the memory of Marie-Augustine Aguilard , newspaper seller and mother of two.

On this day in 1895 the Granville to Paris, Montparnasse express train was approaching the Gare de l’Ouest at around four in the afternoon. It was hauling three baggage vans, a post van and six carriages with 131 passengers on board. The train was running a little late, and it’s driver, Guillaume-Marie Pellerin, was trying to make up the lost time by approaching the station rather faster than normal. The air brakes should have brought the engine safely to a halt, but they failed. The conductor should have been able to apply the hand brake, but he was preoccupied with paperwork. The train pulled into the station at between 40 and 60 km per hour (25-37 mph) The train hit the buffers at the end of the track. But the buffers did not stop it. The engine careered across the station’s concourse for around 30 metres (100 feet) before crashing through a 60 centimetre (2 feet) thick wall, over a balustrade and fell into the Place de Rennes 10 metres (33 feet) below. Marie-Augustine Aguilard was working at a newspaper stand outside the station. She was hit by falling masonry and killed instantly. Fortunately, the passenger carriages were at the back of the train and remained inside the station. There were only six other injuries, two guards, a fireman, two passengers and a passer by in the street below.

The engine driver was fined 50 Francs for approaching the station too fast. The guard was find 25 Francs for failing to apply the handbrake. The railway company paid for Marie’s funeral expenses and also provided a pension for her children. The train could not be removed for another forty eight hours. A team of fourteen horses couldn’t shift it and it was eventually lowered to the ground using a winch and then lifted back onto the station. When it was taken to the railway workshops it was found to have received surprisingly little damage. Plenty of people turned up to view the scene of devastation. Many of them took photographs. The picture above was taken by Lévy and Sons . It is one of the most iconic photographs in transport history.

A similar train accident features in a book called ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ and in it’s film adaptation ‘Hugo’. The book is a work of historical fiction inspired by the life story of film maker, Georges Méliès. It was written and illustrated by Brian Selznick. The film was directed by Martin Scorsese and was the first film he made in 3D. You can see the train crash scene here.10 22 inside station

Acts Of God

10 17 ancient of days, william blakeOften, when anything disastrous happens and we can’t find anyone to blame for it, we call it an ‘Act of God’. Today I have the anniversary of a couple of things that God decided to do in London. Obviously neither of them are good things, but they are pretty spectacular and could have been a lot worse.

Firstly in 1091, he decided we needed a tornado. Britain does have quite a lot of tornadoes, but they’re generally no very big. This one was massive. Maybe a four on the Fujita scale. That means winds of well over 200 miles an hour and devastating damage to even the best built houses. Most people in London did not live in the best build houses, they lived in wooden houses. The tornado destroyed around six hundred homes. It also destroyed several churches including the church of Mary le Bow. Part of the roof was torn off and carried a considerable distance. It fell with such force that the rafters were driven twenty feet into the ground. A flood swept away London Bridge, and it had only just been rebuilt by William the Conqueror. Surprisingly, there were only two reported deaths.

On October 17th 1814 God sent London another flood. This time it was beer. We know that it was a Act of God because the courts said so afterwards. In the neighbourhood of St Giles, on Tottenham Court Road there was a brewery belonging to Henry Meux & Co. Inside was an enormous vat of beer that had been brewing for ten months. The vat had been there a lot longer, since around 1785, and wasn’t in great shape. One of the twenty-nine hoops that held it together gave way, then another, then the whole thing exploded. The sound was heard five miles away. The force of the explosion took the other vats with it, The wall burst and a 323,000 gallons (that’s nearly one and a half million litres) of beer flooded the streets. Two houses were destroyed along with a pub called the Tavistock Arms. The tidal wave flooded cellars and in some places was waist deep.

People rushed to the scene with pots and pans, they didn’t want to see the beer go to waste. Some just scooped it up in their hands and drank it there and then. But the tide was strong and quite a lot of people ended up in Middlesex Hospital. There, the other patients smelt the beer-soaked clothed of the new arrivals and there was almost a riot. They thought they were missing out on a party. Again, casualties were remarkably low. Only nine people died, but it’s hard to tell what God might have had against them. There was a girl who was working in the Tavistock Arms, a woman and her young son, who were having their tea and five people who were attending a wake. The bodies of the victims were laid out in their houses and loads of people came to pay their respects and leave a few coins for their bereaved families. In one house, the crowd was so great that the floor collapsed, plunging everyone into the beer flooded cellar below.

The Meux Brewery were taken to court, but the incident was declared to be an Act of God and that no one was to blame. Meux was not only let off, he was granted a £7,000 refund for the excise duty he had paid on the lost beer. In 1831, he was granted a baronetcy. God, it seems, helps those who help themselves. I told you that there were nine victims of the London Beer Flood and you might have noticed that I’ve only mentioned eight. The ninth died in hospital several days later – of alcohol poisoning.

So, there you are, October 17th, some days God should just butt out.

Lost In The Wash

10 12 king johnKing John was pretty much the most unpopular king we’ve ever had here in Britain. He lost land in France, raised taxes and got everyone in his country excommunicated. To top it off, on this day in 1216, he lost the crown jewels – in the Wash. He didn’t lose them, like we might lose a sock, whilst doing his laundry. The Wash is an area on the East coast of Britain which is strongly affected by incoming tides.

King John was not well liked, partly because he became king after his brother Richard (the Lionheart) died during the crusades. You could say that Richard died during a heroic battle for God, but equally you could say that he spent loads of money on a war and was never at home. John wasn’t a great king. After losing the lands in France he earned himself the nickname ‘soft sword’. He tried to appoint a new Archbishop without the consent of the Pope. The Pope declared that, because he had not agreed to it, no legal marriages could take place in England. If no one could get married, their children were born out of wedlock and therefore condemned to Hell. People weren’t very happy about that. He was at war with the French, at war with his own barons over the taxes thing and also his own nephew somehow mysteriously died. John was thought to be responsible for that too.

In May 2016, King Louis VIII of France arrived in England and proclaimed himself king at Saint Paul’s Cathedral. John fled to East Anglia, where he still had supporters. He arrived at Bishop’s Lynn on October 9th, but soon began to feel ill and decided that he needed to go to Swineshead Abbey in Lincolnshire. In the way of his journey was the vast stretch of tidal mud flats and quicksand known as The Wash. The story goes that while John travelled the long way around the flats, he sent his baggage train, with all his treasures, via the quicker route across The Wash. But the tide came in and the wagons became stranded and quickly washed away. It is quite possible that his treasure is still out there somewhere, buried under the silt.

No one now knows exactly where this happened, although there have been several theories. Because of changes to the coastline over the years, the site is now definitely somewhere on land, but no one knows where. It would be impossible to locate the treasure using a metal detector as it would almost certainly lie beneath about twenty or thirty feet of accumulated silt. Nor can anyone be sure what exactly was lost. John loved collecting jewellery and we know that he spent a large part of 1215 and 1216 gathering it all together form the various monasteries where it was deposited. The Royal Coronation Regalia, which we know were listed among his possessions, were mostly gone from the inventory of regalia used during the coronation of his successor, Henry III in 1220.

Whether any of these things were lost in the baggage train is a matter of speculation. It could be that he had left them somewhere as security for a loan and that they were looted from there. John’s health weakened after he reached the abbey. There, he had been fed a large quantity of peaches, pears and cider and it is possible that he was poisoned because he died a week later of dysentery. For some, the loss of his treasure followed by his untimely death is too much of a coincidence. So perhaps the Wash story is just a cover up.

There is an East Anglia legend about a pool known as ‘The King’s Hole’, where the treasure was hidden, either by John himself or by a thief. In the 14th century a local baron, Richard, third Lord Tiptoft suddenly became very wealthy and no one knows how. So perhaps King John’s treasure has been found already.