Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Rebecca Riots by Christopher Schenk

The Rebecca Riots by Christopher Schenk
Longman 1985 (64pp) ISBN 0582221714

After a short period visiting Regency London it's back to our restless agrarian ancestors again for the latest book!

Longman books are largely written for school students, and as such provide introductory volumes for subjects that can inspire the reader to investigate further. This volume covers a series of riots in rural Wales in the early 1840s, ostensibly over the imposition of Road Tolls - but soon encompassing various rural labouring grievances including the Workhouses - and which tended to feature a ringleader dressed in women's clothing as a form of disguise - usually 'named' as Rebecca.

Using a combination of fictional presentation and original source material, largely drawn from newspaper reoprts and a diary kept by someone close to the events, Schenk provides the reader with an enjoyable outline of what the Rebecca Riots were about, and of the types of people involved or affected by them. And of how the authorities reacted to them.

In short, this book is a useful introduction for anyone with Welsh Rural ancestors who might have been caught up in the riots, and for anyone interested in how the rural poor fought against the national legal developments that they had no input into or vote upon.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

A Country Camera 1844 - 1914 by Gordon Winter

A Country Camera 1844 - 1914 by Gordon Winter
Originally published 1966 reprinted by Penguin 1975

The earlier companion piece to Winter's A Cockney Camera, this wonderful collection is slightly less well organised than the latter volume, and sadly there seem to be fewer names attached to the folks in the photos. That aside however, this is another gem of a collection with some quite magnificent portraits and location shots. The cover, for example, is given over to a most impressive shot taken in 1857 of one Robert Morvinson who was born when the United States were still a British Colony!

Accompanying the photos is Winter's warm and informative text, giving information about the social context of the times, the people who were either in the photo or responsible for it being taken, and often some entertaining stories of how some of the sharpest early shots were located - including several that had been used as cloches in someone's vegetable garden!

Sometimes it is the fascinating locations shots that really grip the reader - such as the stunning street panorama of Castle Street, Farnham in the 1880s - other times it is the portraits that tell their stories of hardship, elegance, and bygone fashions which draw you in. But there's always something new to be found in the collection each time you browse through.

Covering all sorts of topics, such as old Crafts and Trades, village occasions, people at work and lesiure, hiring fairs, country 'sports', various forms of transport and all sorts of buildings from churches to pubs, this book will offer insights into the lives of our rural forbears in many different ways, and really bring home some of the occasions and feelings that we can only otherwise read about.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

The Regency Underworld by Donald A. Low

The Regency Underworld by Donald A. Low
Originally published 1972 - revised 1999
Sutton Books ISBN 0750921226

For anyone expecting this to be a companion copy to Kellow Chesney's masterful 'The Victorian Underworld' (which I've read many times and will review at some point..) this book might prove a little disappointing - especially from a Family History perspective. The reason for this is the approach taken by Low is more general, with less specific detail about everyday life of the lower orders.

However, what he does do is put forward a very convincing argument that much of the popular image of the Victorian Underworld actually belongs to the Regency days, with writers such as Dickens drawing more on their memories of this period than their contemporary times.

The Regency Period was of course one of extravagance and display - the time of the Dandy and the Fop - and those without wealth still needed to act and dress as if they had money to spare. Low puts all this within the social context of such concerns as the Napoleonic Wars, the growth of the nouveau rich, and the move away from rural idylls.

The book is almost totally focused on London, and has a good study of the attitudes to crime and policing that developed from the late 18th Century into the early Victorian period, and how this impacted on those who carried out their underworld trades. There are also chapters dedicated to the Medical Underworld - with a lot of stories and information about the Resurrection Men and other dubious goings on - and a chapter on Gambling - a theme which underpins much of the background to the whole period. There is also a long chapter about the fictional exploits of the original Tom and Jerry which whilst being used to draw out real-life situations seems a little odd in the overall context of the book. It does however provide the opportunity for more magnificent contemporary illustrations, and this is an area that the book excels in throughout - the reproductions are superb and come from a wide range of sources that really provides the reader with a flavour of what London was like two hundred years ago!

So, whilst this book won't give the family historian quite the depth of understanding into their ancestors lives as 'The Victorian Underworld' does, it does provide a very readable and enjoyable overview of the background in which London ancestors in the Regency period got through their probably rather short allotted spans. Especially if they were of the better off sort!