|20th April 2021||Wood, Trees and Forest Bathing||Club member Alan Grant will reflect on how wood and trees have played a part in his life and in human development.|
|4th May 2021||My adventure in the Antarctic||Club member, Chris Shepley, is going to relate a whale of a tale (or perhaps the reverse way round).|
|18th May 2021||Hallmarking: the oldest form of consumer protection||Club member, Christopher Jewitt will describe how the roots of hallmarking can be traced back to the reign of Henry III. The talk will cover its development over the last seven centuries, an explanation of hallmarks, and why they are still necessary.|
|5th January 2021||Don Naybour|
|19th January 2021||John Winkworth-Smith|
|2nd February 2021||John Gibson|
|16th February 2021||John Robinson|
|2rd March 2021||Ian Johnston *|
|16th March 2021||Annual Club Debate|
|6th April 2021||Peter Donaldson|
|20th April 2021||Alan Grant|
|4th May 2021||Chris Shepley|
|18th May 2021||Christopher Jewitt|
|1st June 2021||Tony Crook|
|15th June 2021||Kim Rainsford|
|6th July 2021||Peter Stubbs|
|20th July 2021||Ian Johnston|
|3rd August 2021||David Catton|
|17th August 2021||Tony Byrne|
|7th September 2021||Richard Chaplin|
|21st September 2021||Stefan Andrejczuk|
|5th October 2021||Brian Barry|
|19th October 2021||Ainslie Kelly|
|2nd November 2021||Roger Taylor|
|16th November 2021||(to be confirmed)|
|7th December 2021||Don Mackenzie|
(Most recent first. Click on the titles for fuller descriptions).
6th April 2021
The nineteenth century is widely recognized as an age of enormous societal change, driven in large part by the coming of the railways and their ever-expanding influence. The names of some of the engineers who designed and built them are, even today, well remembered, with Stephenson and Brunel chief among them. The achievements and successes of the Victorian engineers usually outweighed their failures, but there was one among them, Thomas Bouch, whose career was curtailed and whose reputation was completely destroyed through a single catastrophic event. The story of this engineer and the circumstances leading to his downfall were the subject of this talk, given Club member, Peter Donaldson.
The event in question was the collapse of the first Tay Bridge at Dundee which failed in a tremendous gale in December 1879, taking with it the passenger train that was crossing at the time and claiming the lives of all 75 people on board. As the speaker explained, this bridge, being almost two miles long and across the open waters of the River Tay estuary, was of unprecedented scale when its construction was proposed by Thomas Bouch. However, in the spirit of the age, Bouch was full of confidence to the extent that he gave assurance that, to build it, would be “a very ordinary undertaking”. This was to prove a serious understatement but, in spite of many difficulties encountered during construction, the bridge was finally completed in 1878 and, as intended, became the source of considerable benefit to its financial backers.
Although the shareholders may have been satisfied, many of the rail passengers who travelled across the bridge were not. They complained of a swaying motion in the structure, especially when one of the not infrequent gales in this area was blowing down the river, a foretaste of the eventual disaster of that fateful day in 1879. Because of the seriousness of the bridge’s collapse, there was a Board of Trade inquiry into all aspects of its design, construction and maintenance. This inquiry concluded that there had been failings at every stage, and that Thomas Bouch was to blame for these. This damning verdict broke the man’s spirit and, within a few months, he died. Having caught a cold, he had neither the strength nor the will to resist it. In effect, he was the 76th victim, albeit indirect, of the disaster.
16th March 2021
For our 2021 annual debate (this year, as last, using video conferencing), the motion was that ‘This Club supports the banning of field sports’. Leading the discussions were David Webb who supported the proposition and Ainslie Kelly who opposed it, with Club Chairman Malcolm Cameron overseeing the proceedings. A preliminary vote among those present indicated a clear majority against the motion.
In his arguments favouring the banning field sports, David Webb started by defining these as blood sports which involve the killing of other species for pleasure, rather than out of necessity. In effect, by allowing such activities, society was condoning institutionalised cruelty. He acknowledged that, to the free-born British person, the word ‘ban’ is anathema, with overtones of authoritarianism. Also, with these activities very much associated in the general public’s mind with a particular group of people, any attempts to restrict field sports could be seen as ‘class warfare’.
In his view, the question is fundamentally an ethical one. Irrespective of any religious adherence, he asserted that there is a sanctity of creation in which all creatures deserve respect and should not be subjected to unnecessary physical and psychological pain inflicted in the name of ‘sport’. As he pointed out, many formerly acceptable activities are no longer carried out. Bear-baiting and cock-fighting were outlawed in the nineteenth century and the hunting of wild animals, such as hares and foxes, was banned by the 2004 Hunting Act.
In his response, Ainslie Kelly pointed out that field sports do not necessarily involve harming or killing animals, for instance, clay pigeon and target shooting are exceptions. There are benefits from the environmental, economic and social effects of most field sports. Giving examples from his particular interest, angling, he described how the environment was protected and enhanced by the fishing community, who helped to monitor pollution and invasive species in watercourses. The economic benefits include the generation of employment, very often in rural areas deprived of other job opportunities.
Turning to the social aspects of these activities, he quoted figures that demonstrated the huge numbers of people who gained pleasure, relaxation (both physical and mental), and open-air freedom when pursuing their interests. Being available to all sections of society, the resulting effects are particularly beneficial to young people who thereby learn to value and to take care of the environment.
Following these opening submissions, the debate was continued with numerous contributions from the floor. The closing vote, held among the audience, resulted in a slightly reduced majority against the motion from that held before the debate.
2nd March 2021
Since starting to hold our meetings by video conferencing in May 2020, we have usually relied on our own members to give the regular twice-monthly talks. However, for a change, a guest speaker was invited to address this one. He was John Lambert, who was representing the Friends of the Peak District, a charitable organisation dedicated to the protection of the Peak District National Park and to campaigning against inappropriate development within the Park.
Opening his talk with a brief history of the National Park, the speaker described how, in 1924, the Sheffield Association for the Protection of Local Scenery (later to become the Sheffield, Peak District and South Yorkshire Branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE)) was founded under the formidable leadership of Ethel and Gerald Haythornthwaite. With their allies, they campaigned for green belts to be designated around urban areas such as Sheffield, which was the first city to create one. The Association also raised funds to save areas of the adjacent countryside which were under threat. These included Dore Moor, Longshaw Estate, Mam Tor, Winnats Pass and Dove Dale, most of which have since been managed by the National Trust. The Haythornthwaites were central to the establishment of the Peak District as Britain’s first national park in 1951.
The speaker continued by discussing the continuing pressures upon the Peak District, not least those brought about by its own popularity. As the world’s third most visited national park it attracts an estimated 15 million visitors per year, the majority of whom are day-trippers from the surrounding cities and towns.
Now re-branded as the Friends of the Peak District, the organisation continues in its role as a guardian of the National Park by opposing unsuitable new development, such as quarrying, insensitive housing and major intrusive transport schemes but, at the same time, supporting environmentally desirable improvements to public transport and small-scale housing schemes.
With most of his audience being residents of the National Park (and many of us already members of the Friends), John’s presentation was very well received.
16th March 2021
It is probably quite rare for one family to have a record of businesses in one area for more than three centuries but Robinson & Sons of Chesterfield is one such, although the nature of its activities has evolved considerably over that period of time. The story of this company was told to us (by video conferencing) by our member, John Robinson. He described how his ancestors had been making pottery in Bolsover and Chesterfield before one of their number, William (Billy) Robinson turned his attention to the marketing of hosiery in the late eighteenth century. This business was highly successful and helped to establish Billy and his wife Ann as prominent citizens of the town.
One of their six surviving children, John Bradbury Robinson, born in 1802, was indentured to a chemist and, after completion of his apprenticeship, traded for some years as a chemist. At that time, pills and other medicines sold to the public were probably simply packed in a twist of paper – an unsatisfactory method. In 1839 he realised that a better method of packaging would be to use small boxes as containers. He sold the chemist business and started the manufacture of cardboard pillboxes. Following further box developments, in 1854 the company expanded its operations to include making lint, which was in high demand during the Crimean War (1853-56).
The speaker continued his narrative by describing the development of other packaging and cotton products made, and patents taken, by Robinsons. These included Gamgee tissue, a surgical dressing which has a thick layer of absorbent cotton wool between two layers of absorbent gauze. Invented in 1880, it is still in use today. The company was also the first manufacturer of sanitary towels in the world and later expanded its operations to include the manufacture of babies’ nappies.
Robinsons have viewed the welfare of their employees as paramount. They supported the establishment of a works council as early as 1918 and were to the fore by adopting the idea of paid holidays and pensions. They also encouraged social activities such as sports clubs and, most remarkably, to celebrate the business’s centenary, the directors organised and paid for a day trip to London in 1939 for all of their 3,704 employees.
2nd February 2021
The outside interests and enthusiasms of the members of our club are many and varied, as demonstrated by John Gibson, who was the speaker at this meeting (by video conferencing). John’s wife, Jan, is a member of a choir which, under normal (non-pandemic) circumstances performs in cathedrals around the country at the times when the resident choirs, many of whose members are schoolchildren, are unavailable in the school holidays. During such visits the speaker, a non-chorister himself, has been happy to accompany his wife on her travels. While she has been otherwise occupied in her choral duties, John has used his free time to explore the surrounding area.
Apart from his interest in the architecture of these cathedral buildings themselves, John has studied their histories and the cities in which they stand. In many places, he has been able to pursue another of his interests, the history of the Romans in Britain. Many cathedral cities have been built on ancient settlements, several of which can be traced back to Roman times, and even earlier.
In his talk, he described what he has learned about several of the places that he has visited. These range from the major cathedral cities such as Canterbury, Chichester and Lichfield, to the smaller ones, like Hereford and St Albans, and even to those that are not much larger than towns – Wells, Ripon and Southwell. Each of these places has its unique feature; the mediaeval map of the World (Mappa Mundi) in Hereford; the country’s only surviving mediaeval detached bell tower in Chichester; the association with Archbishop Thomas Becket, murdered in 1170 in Canterbury.
The speaker also showed pictures of non-ecclesiastical sites visited in his explorations. These included such far-flung places as Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland and the magnificent Roman palace at Fishbourne in Sussex.
In conclusion, he talked about Nice (in the south of France) where he has come across a number of memorials to the victims of the Nazis during World War II. The most poignant of these memorials records the deportation to Auschwitz of thousands of Jews, including children, after the city came under the control of the Germans in 1943.
19th January 2021
Having been told in advance by our speaker that the title of his talk was to be ‘The Adventures of an Itinerant Farm Boy’, we were expecting to hear a tale about rural life at this meeting (held by video conferencing). However, at the outset, the speaker, Club member John Winkworth-Smith, explained that although coming from a farming family (and hence having been born a ‘farm boy’) he had chosen to follow a career in the law which, as it turned out, involved him in a huge amount of travelling around the world; a somewhat itinerant lifestyle.
With that clarification, John proceeded to relate a number of stories about his experiences as a lawyer specialising in international litigation on behalf of a variety of clients, many of whom were major industrialists based in Sheffield. It was on one such commission, in Turkey, that he managed to escape an attempted kidnapping by a local businessman with whom he had been negotiating. On another occasion, he was held at gunpoint by a German border guard. (To put this particular incident in context, it happened soon after a terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, and the country was still on high alert.) The threat of violence was also present when he was involved in a case in Southern Italy where the Mafia clearly influenced the outcome.
It was not only the actions of fellow human beings that had given the speaker such alarming experiences. While visiting the factories of his various clients, there were occasions when he had narrowly avoided injury from malfunctioning processes in steelworks. At the other end of the temperature scale, he had faced a blizzard in Michigan when acting for another client.
The legal profession is not usually considered to be particularly hazardous but, for this speaker, it had often proved otherwise. Maybe it comes as no surprise that, in retirement, he occupies his time in the more gentle pursuit of sheep-farming.
5th January 2021
Because of his connections with Chatsworth, the name of Joseph Paxton is very familiar to those of us living in this part of Derbyshire. It was appropriate, therefore, that Paxton was the subject of this talk (by video conferencing) given at our first meeting of 2021 by Club member, Don Naybour.
Relating the story of Paxton’s life, the speaker started by describing his subject’s early years. Born in 1803 as the seventh son of a farmer in Bedfordshire there is no record that he ever attended a school but, from evidence of his handwriting, he was clearly not an uneducated man. In his mid-teens he became a garden boy, later being employed by the Horticultural Society at their gardens in Chiswick. It was here that he met William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who offered Paxton, then aged only 20, the job of head gardener at Chatsworth. Having accepted the offer, Paxton oversaw a number of major schemes including the relocation of Edensor village and the construction of the Emperor fountain, and a series of greenhouses. He also met and married Sarah Boan, who proved to be skilled in managing the family finances, leaving Paxton free to pursue his creative ideas and to develop his circle of influential friends and acquaintances.
The proposed Great Exhibition of 1851 gave Paxton the opportunity to present a scheme for the building based on his existing design for the Regia Lily House at Chatsworth. It was a modular arrangement which lent itself to a method of prefabricated construction, with the result that the exhibition hall was completed in a remarkably short time. For his contribution to the success of the undertaking, Paxton was knighted.
His reputation firmly established and now a wealthy man, thanks mainly to his investments in the early railways, Paxton left Chatsworth after the Duke died in 1858. He later worked on a number of projects and, from 1854 until his death in 1865, was a Member of Parliament for Coventry.
Don concluded his talk by examining the factors that had helped Paxton rise from his humble beginnings to his success in later life. Clearly, a formal education had not been essential but support and encouragement from his family and friends had played a vital role.
1st December 2020
With an area of almost 1.4 million square miles (five times that of France), the South China Sea is not only a large body of water but also, because of its location (bounded by China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam) it has huge economic and strategic importance. At this talk (by video conferencing) Club member Ron Enock gave a fascinating and somewhat worrying account of the activities of China in recent years. He described how that country has attempted to extend its territorial claims over those of its neighbours by laying claim to, and developing, several islands in the Paracel and Spratley archipelagos, most of which lie beyond China’s recognized territorial seas.
To give an idea of the international significance of the South China Sea, the speaker explained that it is used by one third of the world’s maritime shipping, of which a significant proportion represents the majority of China’s trade. As well as its importance to shipping, the sea is rich in resources such as fishing and, below the sea bed, proven reserves of oil and natural gas.
Drawing on knowledge and experience gained during his former naval career at a senior level, Ron explained the history behind the current situation and outlined the role played by International Admiralty Law. In 1958 China laid claim to the South China Sea islands but its neighbours, basing their claims on the subsequently enacted United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) similarly claimed their own maritime zones, many of which resulted in overlapping areas. These disputes have been further complicated by disagreements over the definition of what constitutes “an island” within the legal scope of UNCLOS. Ignoring a ruling against it by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, China has pursued a policy of power projection in an attempt to bolster its legal claim to sovereignty over its claimed territory by constructing artificial islands (and, in the process, causing enormous damage to the local environment).
Chinese troops and military facilities (including airstrips) have been observed on many of these islands and the exact reasons for their construction remain a matter of debate. However, in view of China’s increasing assertiveness towards much of the rest of the world, its motives should continue to be regarded with utmost care.
17th November 2020
Do our schools provide students with the knowledge and skills that are needed by industry and the economy of this country? This was the question asked by Club member, Jeff Marsh, at this Zoom meeting. Before offering his own views, and inviting contributions to the debate from his fellow members, Jeff – a retired secondary school teacher – outlined the history and development of our present education system.
As he described, until the latter part of the nineteenth century the limited amount of schooling that was available was carried out in long-established private institutions or by social groups, often funded by one or other of the various religious denominations. Then, in 1870, Parliament passed the Elementary Education Act which set the framework for schooling all children between the ages of 5 and 12. It gave powers to local authorities to establish school boards which were to administer elementary schools. Thus was established the principle of compulsory education for all. Following proposals developed by leading specialists during the 1920s and 1930s, the next major change came with the 1944 Education Act, the most important effect of which was to ensure free secondary education for all. This was especially beneficial for girls and for working class children of both sexes.
From time to time, further reforms have attempted to address the shortcomings that have arisen in the system, especially in respect of the school curriculum and whether it is fit for purpose. There has been much criticism from industry that schools have been out of touch with industry’s needs. However, from their perspective, schools have claimed that industry has not made its requirements clear. Successive governments have made changes to the system, no doubt all of them well-intentioned but often disruptive and difficult to put into practice.
Against this background, the speaker returned to his initial question and, knowing that most of his audience had been employers of one sort or another, he sought their views and their experiences. This prompted an enthusiastic debate in which many expressed concern that too much emphasis has been placed on the value of academic education to the detriment of the more technically-oriented subjects. It was agreed that, within society generally, there needs to be better appreciation of the importance of the latter.
3rd November 2020
Departing from the usual format of our meetings, in which a single speaker gives a presentation on a (usually serious) topic, today we held a light-hearted quiz, using video conferencing. Three of our members, Ian Johnston, Steve Marsh and Peter Donaldson devised a series of visual clues with which to challenge the problem-solving capabilities of the other members of the club.
The first part of the quiz was based on a variation (using pictures instead of words) of the television programme ‘Only Connect’. It comprised twelve groups of pictures with four pictures in each group. The contestants, in teams of five people, were tasked with identifying the pictures in each group and, hence, establish the connection between the four. To solve all twelve groups required a knowledge of subjects as diverse as geography, sport, music, literature, and commonplace objects.
The other three parts of the quiz were also visual. One of them showed a series of political cartoons and other pictures about current affairs, and required the teams of contestants to identify the events depicted. In a similar vein, for a third group of questions, for each question the teams were shown a quotation and pictures of five people. From these clues, they were to match the quotation to the person who had said it.
Finally, the contestants were given a series of famous logos in which two versions (one true and the other false) were shown side-by-side. For each example, the true version had to be identified. Even though the logos were for everyday products, it proved no easy task to say with certainty which logo was the correct one, thus demonstrating how unobservant people can be.
After a keenly fought and enjoyable contest (which was won by a team led by David Webb), the participants agreed that they had been provided with some much-needed light relief in these rather gloomy days of early winter.
20th October 2020
Once known as the workshop of the World, this country has, for decades, seen a continuing loss of its manufacturing capabilities to foreign competitors whose labour costs and workplace conditions have often been significantly lower than those demanded in Britain. Overseas manufacturers have also benefitted from higher levels of investment in equipment, and closer attention to working processes which have resulted in products that are not only cheaper but, in many cases, of superior quality to those made in Britain.
It was at this, our Annual General Meeting (at which the chairmanship was handed over from Tony Byrne to Malcolm Cameron), that club member Bernard Webster related the story of one business which, from small beginnings in the early nineteenth century, developed into one of the largest employers in Leicestershire, only to overreach itself in its acquisition of other businesses and thereby leave itself open to the hostile pressures of the global economy.
The speaker described how Nathaniel Corah set up his own business in the hosiery trade at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and, throughout the following decade expanded his operations from his original base in Leicester to Birmingham. By the time of Nathaniel’s death at the age of 55 in 1832, his sons had taken over the company and they continued to develop it by opening warehouses for their products in most of the major Northern cities, and in Cardiff. Using the trade name ‘St Margaret’, Corah’s clothing was supplied to Marks and Spencer through much of the twentieth century.
Recognized as an altruistic employer, Corah took the unusual step of giving its employees one week paid annual holiday from as early as 1890 and provided many other benefits to its workers. However, it suffered during both World Wars from loss of staff to the war effort, and was badly affected by the Great Depression of 1926. In the 1970s, a severe shortage of local labour willing to become sewing machinists was overcome by employing Asians expelled from Uganda by its despotic president, Idi Amin.
The recessions of the 1970s and 1980s, combined with changing tastes in fashion and foreign competition left Corah in a weak position which resulted in a takeover by an Australian corporate raider, Charterhall plc, which proceeded to break up the business and, in effect, run it into the ground. The final blow came in 1990 when the once-great factory in Leicester was closed.
Malcolm Cameron and Tony Byrne
6th October 2020
Bankers and banking! After the 2008 financial crisis and its repercussions, these words became associated with greed, incompetence and fraud but, by this time, the whole nature of banking had changed from the staid and generally well-respected image which the banks and their employees had presented for generations. It was this earlier period that was the subject of this talk by club member Malcolm Cameron who had spent a career in banking which had ended with his retirement well before the events of 2008 took place.
In an entertaining talk full of anecdotes about the many people whom he had known as work colleagues or clients, the speaker described how, almost by accident, he had entered a profession that was to provide him with a career for the whole of his working life, culminating in a senior position in the NatWest bank.
On leaving school, Malcolm’s intention had been to pursue a career based on his interest in chemistry. Accordingly, he applied for a job with Boots in Nottingham but, even while waiting for a response to this application, his father had been speaking to the local bank manager who suggested that Malcolm should consider banking, initially for a probationary six-month trial period. The outcome was satisfactory for all concerned and so, in August 1959, Malcolm’s career was launched, albeit at a very junior level.
The speaker then described how his career progressed, from being a clerk, through increasingly responsible promotions, each of which seemed to involve a move from location to location, starting in his home town of Belper, successively to Derby, Sheffield, Nottingham, Hull and, finally, Birmingham. During this time, the Westminster Bank, his original employer, merged with the National Provincial to create the ‘National Westminster’ (NatWest) in 1970. This was simply the latest of many mergers and take-overs in the history of the Westminster. Indeed, J. Taylor & Sons, a company local to Bakewell itself, and which had been founded in 1846, was merged into the Westminster in 1879.
Malcolm’s career saw many changes in banking, including the introduction of credit cards and computerisation, developments that were almost revolutionary at the time, but which are now taken for granted, of course. However, as he was happy to report, he played no part in the hazardous investment side of banking which led to such disastrous results a dozen years ago.
15th September 2020
August 15th this year marked the 75th anniversary of VJ Day which, with the surrender of Japan in 1945, brought the Second World War to a close. It was appropriate, therefore, at this time of commemoration that the subject of this talk (given by video conferencing) should be Orde Wingate, the founder and leader of the Chindits in Burma during that conflict. The speaker on this occasion was our Speaker Coordinator, Peter Holt, who described the life and achievements of this often controversial man.
Orde Wingate was born into a military family in 1903, one of seven children whose upbringing was strict and, at home, isolated from other children apart from their own siblings. As early as Wingate’s school years, he started to display a self-confident, individualistic and competitive character but one that was lacking in social skills to the extent that verged on eccentricity. Gaining an army commission in 1923 his first overseas posting, from 1928 until 1933, was to Sudan which, at the time, was under British control. Here he became fluent in Arabic and gained experience in leadership and the ability to survive under hostile conditions.
After a short period back in England, he was again sent abroad, this time to Palestine where Britain had a mandate to govern the fledgling Jewish National Homeland. It was here that Wingate led a force, the Special Night Squads, whose members were extremely fit and operated in secret, at night, and with detailed knowledge of the local terrain. These were the sort of tactics that formed the basis of Wingate’s subsequent activities, first in Sudan against Mussolini’s occupying troops and then in Burma when, in 1942, after the Japanese invasion, he was invited to join the staff of General Wavell (Commander in Chief, India) with the brief to develop a strategy for fighting back against the invading army.
The speaker continued by describing the methods by which Wingate developed his ideas which were based on long range penetration behind enemy lines in Burma, with the aim to create chaos by attacking communication and supply lines. Thus was born the 77th Indian Brigade, known as the Chindits. They carried out two notable operations, ‘Longcloth’ in 1943 and ‘Thursday’ in 1944, both of which succeeded in their objectives but at great cost in terms of Allied casualties, especially in the case of the former. As well as the high numbers killed, many of the survivors were traumatised by their experience of jungle warfare. Shortly after operation ‘Thursday’ began, Wingate was killed in an aircraft accident. His Chindit operations pricked the “Super Jap” bubble and diverted Japanese attention and resources away from the main focus of their campaign in Burma. Wingate was an inspiring leader and a maverick genius. His continuing legacy was demonstrated in 2015 when a “new” 77th Brigade was formed by the British Army (with a familiar Chindit logo) to operate clandestinely in the secretive world of cyber warfare.
1st September 2020
With the controversial handling of examination results and the process of safely re-opening schools, the well-being of our children has been much in the news of late. It was therefore topical for us to hear this talk (by video conferencing), given by club member David Webb on the subject of one particular group of children – those in residential care.
Formerly a Pro Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, the speaker’s career in sociology had been influenced in particular by two people of very different backgrounds, his great aunt, Eva Somerwell, and the Italian Marxist thinker, Antonio Gramsci.
Eva Somerwell was the matron of a children’s home, St Gabriel’s, for girls in Brighton during the 1950s and was visited by her great nephew on many occasions before her retirement in 1959 and death in 1985. St Gabriel’s was one of numerous homes run by the Church of England Children’s Society (now simply ‘The Children’s Society’) whose origins can be traced back to Edward Rudolf, a devout Sunday school teacher who had been appalled to find children begging on the streets of Victorian London. A photograph shown by the speaker provided evidence of a group of clearly happy and well cared-for girls at St Gabriel’s. However, this was the 1950s – before the social upheavals of the permissive 1960s and 1970s which, in David’s view, had resulted in an atmosphere of leniency that created so many opportunities for the exploitation and ‘grooming’ of children in care. We are clearly still living with the after-effects of this lack of structure in these unfortunate children’s lives.
The second of the speaker’s subjects, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was a writer and politician who, during a period of imprisonment by Mussolini’s Fascist regime, developed his theory of cultural hegemony. This, according to Marxist philosophy, is the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling classes who manipulate the culture of that society such that this ruling-class view becomes the accepted norm. As has been shown by such movements as Me Too and Black Lives Matter, it can be uncomfortable and difficult for society to recognize the injustices created by entrenched ‘accepted’ attitudes.
Tony Byrne and David Webb