Sunday, 26 March 2017

South of France Magic and Make-Believe, by Carol Drinkwater

Quite by chance, while internet browsing, I came across an article in Variety magazine – almost a film industry bible – announcing a new film studio complex converted from warehouses to be opened on the outskirts of Marseille. This is exciting news.
France’s Mediterranean coastline from Marseille all the way to Monaco and onwards to Menton and the borders of Italy has always been popular as a backdrop to cinema.
Cannes to Monte Carlo, for example, was glitteringly captured in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief.
Much of the glamour of the French Riviera has been built on its twentieth-century film history including, of course, its renowned Cannes Film Festival which I wrote about for the HistoryGirls here:

I mentioned in my January blog that several chapters of my new novel, THE LOST GIRL, are set in Nice, post WWII, including at the iconic La Victorine Studios.

Most people when they think of filmmaking hubs tend to cite Hollywood or Bollywood or perhaps some of the old British studies such as Elstree. France is known for its thriving film industry, one that is very well supported by the State, but I think on the whole the average filmgoer would consider Paris as France's cinema centre. There are indeed several studios in and around Paris that have been producing films for well over a century now (late 1890s), but there is also the South of France. It was, and still is to a lesser degree, the Hollywood of France mainly due to its fabulous locations, but not solely for that reason.

                                                                Marcel Pagnol 1931

Marcel Pagnol, the Provençal novelist, playwright and filmmaker became, in 1946, the first cineaste to be elected to the Académie Française. Although he died in 1974 he remains internationally known  for his marvellously evocative novels such as Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. All set in and around the countryside of his birthplace, Aubagne near Marseille.  However, Pagnol's legacy goes a great deal further than his literature. Marius, an early play of Pagnol's, was directed for the cinema in 1931 by Alexander Korda and became one of the earliest French-language talking films to find success outside France. On the strength of this, Pagnol founded his own film studios on the outskirts of Marseille. He played all roles in the business of filmmaking from director to editor, financier, screenwriter and script coach. He was fluent in English and his native Provençal tongue as well as French. His studios produced some masterpieces. He worked with many great actors and regularly employed local talent so that the sing-song Provençal accent and the local traditions of life were also celebrated and gained an international reputation.

Here below, for your amusement, is a link to The Baker's Wife directed and adapted by Pagnol from the novel, Blue Boy, written by another masterly Provençal voice, Jean Giono. In 1940, this film won the New York Critic's Circle prize for Best Foreign Film. (Pagnol had won this same award in 1939 for Harvest and triumphed again in 1950 for Jofroi).

Harvest (in French, Regain) was also based on a Jean Giono novel, Second Harvest
It stars one of France's greatest screen comedians, Fernandel, who came up through vaudeville. He was also a Provençal, born in Marseille.

Further along the coast in Nice lies the Victorine Studios. The history of this studio goes back to when its doors were first opened in 1919, before Pagnol's studios in Marseille were founded and close to three decades before the early sections of my novel, The Lost Girl, are set.

                                                                     Anouk Aimée

The Victorine Studios, today operating as the Riviera Studios, has been the home of film production since before the earliest days of Hollywood. Nice was a cinema hub from 1910 onwards. In 1913 the French film pioneer Léon Gaumont founded the original Victorine studios in a white villa that stood in its own ten acres of grounds. Like so many of the great artists of the day who were living and working there at this time, Gaumont was drawn to this coast for its abundance of natural, soft light. Unfortunately, he never followed through on his original plans.
In 1919, Serge Sandberg with his business partner Louis Nalpas set up the Ciné Studio at the Victorine. Both were film producers. Louis Nalpas (1884 - 1948) was born in the Greek community of Smyrna, modern-day Turkey. Nalpas had arrived in Paris 1909. He soon made his mark when as early as 1912 he produced La Dames aux Camélias with Sarah Bernhardt. Russian-born Serge Sandberg  (1879 -1981)  was the financial investor for the venture. Their intention was to create not only Le Hollywood Français on the Victorine site, but to establish a film centre on the Riviera which would return French filmmaking to its pre- first world war glory.  They invested aplenty, building four studios, workshops, an open-air theatre ... Unfortunately, their partnership grew strained when they ran out of money, even before they had produced one single picture.

In 1924 the charismatic Irishman, Rex Ingram, lauded by Eric von Stroheim as the world's greatest movie director, leased the Victorine. With funds from Louis B. Mayer's MGM in Hollywood and with the blessing of Marcus Loew, Ingram renovated the site, creating one of the most state-of-the-art studios of its time.
He was married to the American actress Alice Terry who starred in many of his films.

The shooting of his extraordinary film Mare Nostrum (1926) with Alice in the leading role as the spy Freya took fifteen months and went way over budget.  Louis B. Mayer was not happy and was refusing to finance any further European escapades. Nonetheless, with the same team around him Rex Ingram went on to make The Magician adapted from Somerset Maugham's original novel.  He continued with two or three more silent pictures at the Victorine but his key team players, his cinematographer and editor, had left and by 1928 he had split with MGM.
With or without Ingram's brilliance at the helm, by the mid twenties the Victorine was the dominant Riviera studio. Throughout the twenties many silent films were shot there and from 1930 onwards, the lots were busy producing "talkies".
In the 1930s Fernandel performed in a series of comedies made there. 

                                          Rex Ingram with his wife, American actress Alice Terry.

There is a enchanting story about the shooting of Les Enfants du Paradis filmed at the Victorine during WWII (1943) with a very restricted budget. Many local residents were hired as extras. It is claimed that before the camera crew could shoot the food prepared for the film, the locals stole and ate the lot.

After WWII, the Victorine was the only studio still surviving in Nice yet filmmakers were flocking to the south to make their pictures. Jean Cocteau was attempting to raise funds to get another studio built in Mougins but this, alas, never materialised. Still, this period, between 1946 up to the 70s became the golden age of Riviera cinema. Many masterpieces came out of this time. I almost had the good fortune to work there myself with François Truffaut. I met him for the main role in La Nuit Americaine, Day for Night. Unfortunately, he judged my French imperfect (rightly so back then) and the role was awarded to the very lovely Jacqueline Bisset.

Truffaut and Bisset

Graham Greene who lived in nearby Antibes and was apparently a huge admirer of Truffaut makes a cameo appearance as an insurance company representative. In the credits he is billed as Henry Graham. Truffaut only discovered later the true identity of the small part actor.

Jacqueline Bisset

For many movie-makers, Nice and the Côte d'Azur promised not only year-long sunshine but spectacular vistas of sea and mountains. There were pretty ochre-toned villages with cobbled streets, palm trees, grand belle époque hotels and villas ... Everyone wanted to work there. Life was sweet along the coast; the war was a memory and the rich were anchoring their yachts. A community of filmmakers, technicians, hungry actors was burgeoning. The Americans were flying in and out, staying for long periods at the Hotels Negresco, Ruhl in Nice; the Carlton in Cannes.

In my new novel The Lost Girl, one of the two principal female characters is Marguerite. During the post-war sections of the book, she is an eighteen-year-old girl from Reims - a baker's daughter - who fantasises about becoming a star, an actress on the silver screen. She has run away from home to Paris, begs a ride on the famous blue train from the capital to the south in the hope of winning the leading role in a film that is to be shot at the Victorine Studios. Of course, the journey to stardom is pitted with many falls and real life does not run as smoothly for Marguerite as in her daydreams. Magic and make-believe can come at a cost ...

The Lost Girl will be published by Penguin on 29th June. Here is a link to pre-order if you would like to.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Edward Lear by Miranda Miller

   I’ve been reading Edward Lear’s wonderful nonsense poems to my little grandsons and have just noticed that there is a plaque to him near where I live. The site is now a seedy mews off the Holloway Road in north London but when he was born in 1812, the youngest to survive of twenty-one children, it was a middle class family house in the village on Holloway, near Highgate.

   When Lear was four his father, Jeremiah Lear, a stockbroker, was imprisoned in the King’s Bench for debt. The family was scattered and Edward's eldest sister, Ann, who was twenty years older than him, looked after him. They lived together until she died, when Edward was almost fifty. Lear was a delicate child and an epileptic, at a time when the illness was considered shameful. He referred to it as “the Demon” and throughout his life he also suffered from acute bouts of depression. He had very little formal education and later wrote, “I am always thanking God that I was never educated;” in spite of this he taught himself six languages and became an accomplished composer as well as a poet and artist. He played the accordion, flute, guitar and  piano.

   As he and his sister had no money he had to earn his own living from an early age: “ I began to draw for bread and cheese about 1827, but only did uncommon queer shop-sketches – selling them for prices varying from ninepence to four shillings.” Audubon’s great work, The Birds of North America, was first published in the 1820s and started a fashion for big, lavishly illustrated books about exotic birds and plants. In his late teens Lear visited the Zoological Gardens to study parrots:

"...for the last 12 months I have so moved – thought – looked at, – & existed among Parrots – that should any transmigration take place at my decease I am sure my soul would be very uncomfortable in anything but one of the Psittacidae.”

  The Psittacidae (1832) established Lear as a celebrated illustrator. In 1846 the young Queen Victoria invited him to Osborne to teach her drawing.

   In 1846 Lear published A Book of Nonsense, a very successful volume of limericks, and in 1867 his most famous poem, The Owl and the Pussycat, which he wrote for the children of his patron Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby.

   Although Lear's nonsense books were popular during his lifetime a rumour circulated that "Edward Lear" was a pseudonym, and that the books' true author was the man to whom Lear had dedicated the works, his patron the Earl of Derby. Supporters of this rumour offered as evidence the facts that both men were named Edward, and that "Lear" is an anagram of "Earl". Perhaps this is yet another example of British snobbery, like the insistence of many scholars thatShakespeare couldn’t have written his own plays because he didn’t have enough education.

   Lear's delightful inventions, such as The Quangle Wangle and The Pobble Who Has No Toes, were brilliant jokes that came out of his profound knowledge of natural history. He adored children, although he never had any, and travelled all over Europe. He had many friends:

How pleasant to know Mr.Lear!

Who has written such volumes of stuff!

Some think him ill-tempered and queer,

But a few think him pleasant enough.

His mind is concrete and fastidious,

His nose is remarkably big;

His visage is more or less hideous,

His beard it resembles a wig.

   Lear was constantly worried about money and his letters are full of this. In 1863 he begged an aristocratic friend to “ write to Lord Palmerston to ask him to ask the Queen to ask the King of Greece” to create a job for him as “Lord High Bosh and Nonsense Producer...with permission to wear a fool’s cap(or mitre)....three pounds of butter yearly and a little pig, - and a small donkey to ride on.” He fantasized about selling his illustrations to Tennyson’s poems for £18,000 and buying a “chocolate coloured carriage speckled with gold, driven by a coachman in green vestments and silver spectacles wherein sitting on a lofty cushion composed of muffins and volumes of the Apocrypha.”

Lear fell unrequitedly in love with several men and proposed marriage (unsuccessfully) to a woman 46 years younger than him. He died in 1888 - just a few months after his famous cat, Old Foss - in San Remo on the Italian Riviera, where he had lived for eighteen years with his Albanian servant. I hope his solitary life gave him pleasure and that he sometimes, like the Owl and the Pussycat, found someone to dance with:

'Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling

Your ring?' Said the Piggy, 'I will.'

So they took it away, and were married next day

By the Turkey who lives on the hill.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,

Which they ate with a runcible spoon;

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,

They danced by the light of the moon,

The moon,

The moon,

They danced by the light of the moon.


Friday, 24 March 2017

Off to the Alderney Literature Festival.

Well, I am writing this in haste this month so apologies for a short blog.

On the day this post is scheduled to go live,  I will be at the Alderney Festival of Historical Literature and preparing to give my talk on "Eleanor of Aquitaine: the fact behind the fiction and the fiction behind the fact."

I am also hoping to get in some walking around this small Channel Island, just three miles long and one and a half wide, situated  7 miles from the French coast and with a population of a little over 2,000 people. To get there from the UK mainland, one has to fly to Guernsey, and then take a a 20 minute 'island hopper' flight on an 18 seater light transport plane - outside of the summer months anyway.  Alderney a bird's eye view   I have never been to Alderney before but am very much looking forward to it.

The  Festival has been running since 2013 and this year's takes place from the 24th to the 26th of March and its theme is 'Perception versus Reality'  a subject very close to my heart following my recent researches into Eleanor of Aquitaine where the perception and the reality are poles apart - inasmuch as we currently understand what that reality might be (she says with an eyebrow raised in irony).  The premise of the debate at the festival is that 'historical reality is in fact a fluid concept.'  As well as my talk about Eleanor, I shall also be sitting on a panel with Imogen Robertson and Anna Mazzola asking how true to life the setting of a historical novel can be and what do historical novelists owe to the truth?  It's going to be a terrific discussion.

I am also very much looking forward to sitting in on a talk by Joyce Meader on 'Knitted comforts for the military from 1850 to the present day.'  I am not a knitter - would love to be but I don't have the manual dexterity or the logic to follow patterns.  However I am still fascinated by the subject.

I shall report when I return.  And in the meanwhile, here's the website.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Where does history begin, actually? Scattered reflections by Leslie Wilson

Kendal Castle; tangible history in my childhood
The past begins as each second is left behind; indeed, the present moment is only a footstep between the past and the future. But where is the boundary between the past and history?
I've been thinking this rather a lot over the last while, as I have had the feeling of living through history, what with Brexit and Trump in America, and the way in which the UK seems to be morphing into a rather unpleasant place which isn't what I thought it was. Of course, nowadays, we access unrolling history, even across the Atlantic, as it happens. In the past, news  arrived as fast as the report could reach you; on foot, or horseback, by boat, and later by train. (There was also the semaphore in the eighteenth to nineteenth century, the earliest form of telegraph.) But reading old newspapers, you really notice this lag. It took six months, in the eighteen hundreds, to reach India, so news from the subcontinent would turn into history on the voyage, maybe. For the unlucky few, history came and found you. In the Thirty Years' War, some people only realised that there was a war when the soldiers arrived to rape, loot and pillage.

I remember Hilary Mantel saying, when we co-tutored an Arvon course, that lived history looked quite different from history written up in a book, because when you're living through events, they seem fluid. This came back to me when I wrote about the Kristallnacht pogrom in Saving Rafael. When some hooligans arrive and start to smash up your house, you have no idea that it's happening all over Berlin. It takes time for this to become apparent; which is why I sent my hero and heroine out onto the streets to find out. It is not yet Kristallnacht, it is a series of terrifying events that you can't get a handle on, that provoke raw, horrible emotions. The function of history is to analyse, to get a handle on these events. Maybe the function of the historical novelist is to take the handle off; the door swings wildly in a howling gale, and you have no idea where the wind is blowing from.
Berlin Wall art, East Side Gallery: Brezhnev and Honecker smash through the Wall.

I suppose this question exercises me particularly because I'm a historical novelist. If I write a novel about the protest against the Iraq war (for example), is that historical? Or Berlin, when the Wall came down? If not, how far back does one have to go? Would Greenham Common be historical, for example? Dickens's novels, and George Eliot's, were usually set in the past, maybe twenty years ago, but would not regard themselves as historical unless they were dealing with events a good deal further back. Maybe it doesn't matter.

What do you think?

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Scotland's Medieval Monasteries by Catherine Hokin

Forget Park Run, Tough Mutha, Iron Man and triathlons. A few weeks ago we embarked on an endurance feat far more favourable to writers on the research trail: 4 monasteries in 24 hours or, as we fondly christened it, The Tough Monk Challenge.

Medieval monasteries and abbeys are an integral part of Scotland's historic landscape and many of them are rightly famous landmarks including Iona, Dunfermline, Sweetheart and Inchcolm. The Scottish monastic movement has its roots in the Celtic period and was a great influence in the way Christianity spread after the seventh century with abbots remaining far more powerful than bishops. The early monasteries themselves, however, bore little relation to what we now understand from the term and were often little more than isolated collections of wooden huts inhabited by hermits. It is not until the Normans begin to really impact on society after 1100 that we see a great wave of Scottish monastic building, promoted particularly by King David I (1124-1153).

 Plan of St Gall
Life in medieval monasteries was strictly organised and strictly run and, whatever order the monks espoused, the principles were broadly in line with (or reacting to) the rules written by St Benedict in c.530 AD. Not only was the internal life rigidly structured, the external fabric (the buildings) also followed a set of ideals, known as the Plan of St Gall. The plan, named after the Abbey in which it is still held, is the oldest preserved visualisation of a medieval building complex. Five pieces of annotated and sewn together parchment contain the plans for forty structures as well as boundaries and roads and an orchard. Each building and its use is identified in 333 inscriptions and include bake and brew houses, an abbot's residence and a dormitory and refectory for the monks. It appears to have been designed for Gozbert, the Abbot of St Gall from 816-837, and it is an idealization of a monastery - no complex was ever built to its exact specifications and scholars have described it as a meditation on monasticism. Most of us, however, who are familiar with monastery layouts, would easily find our way round the plan and its influence on the complexes that were built is clear.

 Jedburgh Abbey - it doesn't actually lean
The four we visited, Melrose, Dryburgh, Jedburgh and Kelso, are all in the Scottish Borders. They were founded between 1113-1150 and all have close links to David I. They are in varying states of preservation, with Kelso being little more now than a massive gateway, but they are all visually stunning - especially if you see them as we did in snowdrop season. With the exception of Kelso, each of the four has its own claim to fame. Jedburgh, an Augustinian monastery founded in 1147 is an extraordinary marriage of Romanesque and early Gothic architecture and is the best preserved in terms of its scale and its beautiful rows of arches. Melrose, Cistercian dating from 1136, is most famous for reputedly having the heart of Robert the Bruce buried in its graveyard. That may or may not be true: the Abbey words its claim that the casket, discovered first in 1921 and reburied in 1998, is Bruce very carefully and the position of its discovery, under the Chapter House rather than close to the high altar, makes the idea questionable. It is, however, a nice story and Bruce was known to have had great affection for the Abbey. What I loved most about Melrose, however, are the wonderful carvings which cover the outside and include saints, gargoyles and, for no reason anyone knows, a pig playing the bagpipes.

 Dryburgh Abbey
My favourite was Dryburgh. The setting is impossibly romantic, nestled in a bend of the River Tweed and surrounded by trees which act like curtains to the first view. It is hardly surprising that Walter Scott, the great exponent of romantic Scotland, is buried in the ruin's north wing. Accounts of his funeral read not unlike passages from his novels (of which I am a massive fan): the day was dark and lowering and the wind high and when the coffin was taken from the hearse, and again laid on the shoulders of the afflicted serving-men, one deep sob burst from a thousand lips (Lockhart, Life of Walter Scott). I tried not to let the fact that he is buried next to General Haig spoil the moment.

 Headstone Dryburgh
The Abbey also has a Chapter House with traces of medieval wall paintings and a collection of rather wonderful headstones embossed with figures including a number who are reading. Oh and it is haunted by a ghost called Fat Lips - a woman who lost her lover in the 1745 Rebellion, moved into the ruins and maintained that a little booted man named Fat Lips used to do her housework. Could anything be more perfect?

Maintaining a medieval monastery was tough in Scotland even before the Reformation's bite desecrated what was left. If your community was in the Highlands, internecine strife could reduce you to rubble; if you were in the Borders, the ongoing battles with the English were your main concern. Melrose Abbey was destroyed in the early 1300s by Edward II, rebuild and then, in 1385, Richard II burnt it down. The poor monks of Kelso, which was regularly attacked, were reduced to begging food and clothing from the surrounding locals on frequent occasions. It's quite remarkable so much has survived for us to gaze in awe upon.

I've got Sweetheart Abbey in my sights next where the heart of John Balliol, the King of the Scots who annoyed his people so much they signed the first treaty with Europe, may well be buried. As a second referendum looms, I'm wondering how many more of these rather significant caskets might suddenly turn up...

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Heartthrobs by Carol Dyhouse - Review by Imogen Robertson

I am a reading machine at the moment. I volunteered to be a judge on the inaugural HWA Endeavour Ink Crown for Historical Fiction and am the proud possessor of just under a hundred new novels to read and a nervous twitch, but I’m glad to say just before I descended into the whirlpool of fiction, I read Carol Dyhouse’s new book Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire. I recommend it to you all, readers, writers, historians, men and women alike. 

Publicity portrait of Rudolph Valentino as Julio Desnoyers
in the 1921 Metro Pictures production
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The book is an examination of the heartthrob in popular culture from Lord Nelson and Mr Darcy through to George Clooney and Christian Grey, examining the female, rather than male gaze and looking at female desire rather than desirability. It feels, which seems astonishing in 2017, like a very fresh perspective. The book looks at these fictional or constructed male paradigms and asks what is it women want from them. Is romance literature a drug, an escape? If so what are we escaping from? What do these men offer women beyond an escape? What can these fantasy male figures tell us about how women have understood their own desires at various points in modern history? I think these men can often be a great deal more informative than the contemporary cultural criticism. 

For some reason I’m now imagining male literary critic, eating offal off a breadboard in Shoreditch and sneering at the cupcake shop across the road. Apologies to all the feminist un-snobbish men out there, you are of course my heartthrobs, but all our woke baes will know such offal chomping disdain towards women, romance literature and cupcakes certainly exists. 

Dyhouse explores these question and quandaries with relish. She is a curious and informed guide to the popular culture of the long twentieth century, and clear-eyed without being judgemental. The book offers a fascinating set of questions and an enthusiastic examination of tough issues: it is serious with being preachy, and entertaining without being glib. She also knows how to write a damn fine sentence, such as her description of Twitter: ‘The network itself, now immense, with its constant refigurings, and evanescent patterns of fragmentary thoughts, communications, and ‘trending topics’ brings to mind the murmurations of bees or starlings.’ 

I should mention that Carol is a friend of mine, and of course, while I say that purely in the interests of full disclosure, it also gives me the chance to boast. I told a professor about something and she put it in a book! I developed a bit of an obsession about Charles Garvice some years ago and managed to pass it on to Carol and she discusses this forgotten colossus in her first chapter. This makes me feel very grand. There, ok, I’m done, but do read the book. It’s a handsomely produced volume, and both charming and clever - a proper heartthrob indeed. 

Monday, 20 March 2017

The Trial of the Scottish Chartists - by Ann Swinfen

The history of the Chartist movement in England is widely known and well documented. Less well known, perhaps, is the Chartist movement in Scotland, and the trial which took place in Edinburgh in November, 1848, of three of its leaders.
1848 Paris
The year, 1848, was one which shook the foundations of society throughout Europe, and came to be known as ‘the year of revolutions’. Starting in France, a series of uprisings spread through more than fifty countries, sparked off by a sustained period of agricultural failures and unemployment. Generally started by a loose and unsustainable alliance of the middle and working classes, they sought to overthrow the long established power of the old European aristocracies and promote more widespread democracy.

1848 Poland - slaughter of aristocrats

Tens of thousands died. Although the wider aims of the movements were not achieved, there were some victories, such as the abolition of serfdom in Hungary and Austria, and the establishment of more democratic forms of government in some countries.
1848 Serbia
The roots of Chartism in Britain, however, lay ten years earlier. The Reform Act of 1832 not having satisfied widespread demands for reform to the rights to vote and to stand for election, in 1837 six working men and six members of Parliament formed a committee which in 1838 produced the People’s Charter, a document which set out the six fundamental principles of Chartism. These were:

  1. A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime.
  2. A secret ballot to protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
  3. No property qualification for Members of Parliament in order to allow the constituencies to return the man of their choice.
  4. Payment of Members of Parliament, enabling tradesmen, working men, or other persons of modest means to leave or interrupt their livelihood to attend to the interests of the Nation.
  5. Equal constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing less populous constituencies to have as much or more weight than larger ones.
  6. Annual Parliamentary elections, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since no purse could buy a constituency under a system of universal manhood suffrage in each twelve-month period.

The movement was thus intended to achieve its aims by constitutional means, and not by means of the violence employed during the 1848 uprisings in continental Europe, when many aristocrats were ruthlessly slaughtered, and the rebellions were put down with equal ruthlessness.

In Britain, following the publication of the Charter, enormous mass rallies were held, particularly in the north of England, in the industrial Midlands, in the south Wales mining valleys, and in Glasgow. Millions of people signed petitions in support of the Chartist aims. 
Presenting the 1842 petition to Parliament

Popular support was further increased by a flood of Chartist newspapers and pamphlets, and by many of its early leaders the Charter was seen as a means to improve the living conditions of the working classes. Chartism was a ‘knife and fork, a bread and cheese question’, according to one of them, Joseph Rayner Stephens. However, there were others who advocated more extreme methods of achieving political reform, and their activities caused serious alarm amongst the authorities, who were not unmindful of matters in the rest of Europe. Stephens himself was arrested and imprisoned for taking part in an unlawful assembly.

Chartist activity and the attempts of the authorities to suppress it continued throughout the late 1830s and early 1840s, then with the rise of revolutionary movements in continental Europe there was a resurgence of support for Chartism in Britain during 1848. The violence of extreme Chartists escalated, as did the legislation passed to curb their activities and the punishments meted out to those found guilty.
High Court of Justiciary
It was against this background that the trial took place at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh of the three Scottish Chartist leaders – John Grant, Henry Ranken, and Robert Hamilton. The charges against the accused stated that they ‘did…wickedly and feloniously, combine and conspire…with other persons to the prosecutor unknown, calling themselves Chartists, to effect an alteration of the laws and constitution of the realm…not peaceably and lawfully, and loyally, but by force and violence, or by armed resistance to lawful authority.’ In addition they were charged that they did ‘wickedly and feloniously, and seditiously, resolve and agree to form a body, to be called the National Guard, and to be provided with arms, to be used for the illegal and seditious purpose of effecting, by force and violence, or by armed resistance to lawful authority, the said alterations of the laws and constitution of the realm.’

In the current climate of apprehension and fear, all of this was pretty damning.

Support for the Chartist movement had been strong in Scotland during the earlier part of 1848, particularly in the large cities, and this support was also extended to the formation of an armed National Guard, whose purpose, by means of armed insurrection, would be to tie up English forces, enabling the Irish to attack and overwhelm the English garrisons in Ireland. Moreover, Robert Hamilton was reported in the Scottish press to have declared, at a mass meeting at Bruntsfield Links, that he did not see why a revolution could not take place here as well as in France, and that, while at one time he would have been satisfied with the Charter, now he would not be satisfied with anything less than a Republic.

Therefore, these men appeared to be advocating the creation of an illegal armed force, followed by the destruction of the constitution and the overthrow of the monarchy. Earlier Henry Ranken had not spoken, on the whole, in so inflammatory a fashion, until he began to make threats about the kind of armed force that was proposed, including the use of such deadly weapons as ‘Warner’s long range’. This was a recently invented long range missile, intended to blow up ships at a distance of up to five miles. In the event, it was a failure, but at the time it may have seemed alarming. Ranken also began to advocate that young men should provide themselves with arms, should go to Ireland and assist the Irish revolutionaries, and should accept nothing less than a Republic. John Grant’s role had been primarily to act as chairman of the mass meeting at Bruntsfield Links in June, and to declare that the resolution to form a National Guard had been adopted.

It was as a result of this meeting and others, and the inflammatory speeches made, that the three men were arrested in August and went on trial in November 1848. Ironically, support for Chartism had already begun to fall away in June, so that a number of planned mass meetings were poorly attended. Perhaps the extreme measures proposed – armed insurrection and creation of a Republic – were too much to stomach for those who supported the more reasonable original six articles of the Chartist movement. Events on the Continent must also have alarmed many, who wanted no part in such violence.
James Crauford, counsel for the prosecution
Up to early 1848, the treatment of the Chartists in Scotland had been restrained. As long as their meetings and rallies were orderly and held primarily for the purpose of political discussion, the authorities were willing for them to go ahead, while keeping a wary eye on them. It was when the talk turned to an armed National Guard and the goal of Republican government that the patience of the authorities snapped. Yet even the trial of the three leaders was conducted with courtesy, the men being judged ‘all respectable men, and, except as politicians, sensible’. James Crauford, counsel for the prosecution, was praised for his ‘highly temperate address’, in a trial which might well have called forth a good deal of impassioned and inflammatory rhetoric.

The three Chartists retained, as counsel for the defence, James Wellwood Moncreiff. Moncreiff was willing to undertake the role of defence counsel not because he was a supporter of Chartism, but because he had great sympathy for working men and a personal regard for the three accused. Moncreiff was a skilled and shrewd lawyer, and managed to have a number of points raised by the prosecution ruled inadmissible. He was also able to bring forward a witness who swore that Ranken was opposed to the formation of the National Guard, and had called for a public meeting in the hope of putting a stop to the proposal. Ranken was, he said, ‘what was called a moral force Chartist’. On the basis of this and other evidence, Moncreiff argued that there was nothing criminal in holding Chartist opinions. Chartism was ‘a code of politics quite as respectable in itself as any held by any other body of men. A man was as much entitled to uphold the six points of the Charter, as any other individual was entitled to hold his opinions, whatever they might be.’
James Wellwood Moncreiff counsel for the defence
The whole of Moncreiff’s address drew applause. When the jury withdrew – for a mere half hour – they returned a verdict of not proven on the charge of conspiracy against the three men. John Grant was found not guilty of the charge of sedition. There remained the charge against Ranken and Hamilton of being ‘guilty of using language intended and calculated to excite popular disaffection and resistance to lawful authority’. The jury found the two men guilty of the charge, with the words ‘intended and’ omitted.

This threw the court into some confusion. The judge pressed the foreman on whether the word ‘intended’ had been deliberately omitted. It had. Moncreiff then seized the opportunity to argue that the jury’s verdict meant that the men had not intended to produce that result. Intention was the essence of the crime. Their actions had not amounted to sedition.

The ensuing confusion was debated by three judges, who could not come to a unanimous decision on what the jury had actually meant. If they had meant the men were not guilty, would they not have said so? Should the men be sentenced to long periods of imprisonment, or set free? In the end, leniency prevailed. All three were sentenced to just four months in prison. Compared with some of the sentences handed out to English Chartists, this was lenient indeed. In fact one leader of (non-Chartist) riots in Glasgow earlier that year, George Smith, was condemned to eighteen years' transportation. To add to the conflicting opinions, Lord Campbell, a member of the Cabinet, was to say that he thought the verdict should have been one of acquittal.

There is an amusing postscript, as Moncreiff revealed in his memoirs. Twelve or fourteen years later, at a ‘somewhat stormy’ meeting, a man jumped up and made ‘an admirable speech’ in support of Moncreiff and his colleague. It was one of the three accused Chartists (he does not say which).  

I thanked him afterwards, and expressed my surprise at the moderation of his sentiments. ‘Ah,’ he replied, ‘it makes all the difference when a man has to heed for his children.’ I found afterwards that he had been prosperous in his trade and was a master manufacturer.

Ann Swinfen