Silent witness to the English Civil Wars and the Industrial Revolution . . .

High above the gorge of the River Severn in the Shropshire countryside, and close to Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale lies Benthall Hall, an intriguing Tudor manor house dating from 1535, and home to Edward and Sally Benthall.  It has been in the Benthall family for more than 500 years – and saw some of the excesses of the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, as well as the birth of the Industrial Revolution at the beginning of the 18th century. It lies about 20 miles as the crow flies to the west of Moseley Old Hall. But whereas the latter was originally a typical Elizabethan half-timbered building, Benthall Hall is constructed from stone.

Since the house is still occupied by the family from time-to-time, only certain rooms are open to the public. Photography is permitted only in the ground floor rooms. Nevertheless, Benthall Hall has a certain charm – and still retains a ‘lived-in’ feeling. The main entrance is rather modest, but opens into a grand hall, with three rooms off to the sides. Two of these are beautifully paneled and the over-mantles are exquisitely carved. In one room, on the east side of the main hall, paint has been removed from the paneling to reveal the underlying wood in all its glory. One the opposite side of the building the paneling is still painted, and matches in with the plaster ceiling. It’s been suggested that the family decided to paint over the paneling after it was damaged during various skirmishes in the Civil Wars.

There is a small collection of beautiful Caughley porcelain which was manufactured in Broseley near Benthall Hall between 1775 and 1799. The gardens are quite small – the ubiquitous ha-ha, a wilderness area, cottage garden, and terraced plantings close to the house. A small church in the grounds is not currently open to the public, but now belongs to the National Trust and, after refurbishment, will become the reception center.


History is more than skin deep . . .

In  south Staffordshire, at the end of a very narrow lane, and nestling just under the M54, is an unprepossessing brick farmhouse.


Yet it was witness to a remarkable period of English history. Let me take you back more than 360 years to 8 September 1651.

It’s almost three years since Charles I was executed. The Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentarians, are firmly in control of the reins of government. Yet there is still widespread opposition to the Commonwealth of England, ruled as a republic, and Charles II (although not crowned for another decade) has just attempted to defeat Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester (just a few miles south of where I live) a few days before, chiefly with the support of Scottish troops. Instead, heavily outnumbered, Charles was defeated, and had to flee for his life. On that dark morning three days later he finally arrived at this Elizabethan farmhouse, Moseley Old Hall, with a small group of retainers.

Built in 1600  by Thomas Whitgreave (and in fact occupied by the Whitgreave family until 1925), it was one of his Catholic and Royalist descendants who gave sanctuary to Charles over the course of a couple of nights, even as parliamentary troops were scouring the countryside in their bid to capture the king. At one point they arrived at Moseley but were convinced by Thomas Whitgreave that he had nothing to hide; the six foot plus king was hiding upstairs in a secret priest-hole, just four feet square and a couple of feet or so deep – hardly a comfortable place for someone of Charles’ stature. In fact it was so uncomfortable that Charles chose to sleep fully-clothed in a four poster bed that is still there in the ‘King’s bedroom’ at Moseley Old Hall. Charles did manage to escape to France, and although in disguise, his height and swarthy complexion almost gave him away on a couple of occasions.

In 1651, Moseley Old Hall would have looked very different than it does today. It started life as a typical half-timbered Elizabethan building – looking rather like Little Moreton Hall that we visited last September. However, in the nineteenth century the outer skin of the half-timbered structure was removed, and replaced with the bricks – a veneer almost – that we see today. Once inside however, the house is pure seventeenth century, and many parts of the house have not changed in centuries.

Moseley Old Hall as it would have looked as a typical Elizabethan half-timbered building.

Moseley Old Hall is not a large property, but it has some real treasures. Many pieces of furniture are original to the property as are several of the altar ornaments in the attic chapel. Normally, Steph and I choose not to take a guided tour, preferring to wander around at our own pace. But because we could see that the hall might become quite congested, we did opt to take the tour, just fourteen of us in our tour. And it was worth every minute.

‘Mistress Whitgreave’ describing the features of an upstairs parlor.

On the ground floor the brew-house retains many of its original features, including a chute from the attic down which grain would have been dropped in preparation for brewing. There is an open kitchen and dining room, and a parlor with several original paintings.

The main feature on the first floor is the King’s bedroom and priest-hole. In the attic there is a Catholic chapel, which could only become an openly acknowledged feature once Catholics were permitted in 1791 to practise their religion under strictly prescribed conditions.

The gardens are not large, but there is an exquisite knot garden on the south side of the building. Alongside is a small orchard (with a lonely peacock wandering about). recently the National Trust has acquired a small piece of woodland to the west of the property and this has also been opened to visitors.

Moseley Old Hall was full of surprises – not what I had expected at all. Its royal connections certainly make it worthy of preservation as one of the National Trust’s properties. Had Charles been captured who knows what the dynastic consequences might have been. Another case of ‘What if?’

Sister, nanny, nurse, wife, mother . . .

Lily May Jackson, née Healy, was born on 28 April 1908 in Shadwell in the East End of London, where her father, Martin Healy was a police officer with the Metropolitan Police. There were good Irish names in the family: Healy, Lenane, Phelan, Fitzgerald. After her father’s retirement from the Met, the family moved to Hook Road in Epsom, Surrey.

She died on 16 April 1992, just shy of her 84th birthday. Although christened as Lily, she was known as Lilian.

She was a beautiful woman, and she was my Mum.

This is the earliest photo I have of her. It was taken on 1 May 1915, and she turned seven just a week earlier. She is second from the right in the middle row.

The Healys
Mum was the second child of eight. Her elder sister Margaret died in 1927 just before her 21st birthday. I wonder how close Mum and Margaret were? Mum had already been in Canada for six months when Margaret died. I wonder if she knew how ill Margaret was before she emigrated? How must have Margaret’s death affected her? There’s no record of her returning to England for the funeral – that would have been simply too expensive.

Her four younger sisters and two brothers were: Ellen (1909-1980); Ivy Ann (known as Ann, 1912-1998); Martin Patrick (known as Pat, 1914-2012); Eileen (1918-1994); John (1919-1994); and Irene Bridget (known as Bridie, 1921-1993).

I have no recollection of ever having met Ellen. I met Pat twice (in about 1955 and 1965 or so), and Mum reconnected with Ann in the mid-1960s and remained in contact afterwards. In about 1970 Bridie came over to the UK – probably the first time since she emigrated after the war, and that was the only time I met her. On the other hand Eileen and John were always in close contact with our family. In early 1955 or thereabouts –  but before

Eileen married Roy in May 1955 – I spent a week or more with Eileen at the family home in Hook Road, Epsom, Surrey. During that stay we visited John and Barbara at Worcester Park close to Epsom where John had his own gentleman’s outfitters business, and he gave me a red plaid tie. I wore that next day on a trip into London. Then she took me and my cousin Chris (born 1944), John and Barbara’s son, to Southend-on-Sea to visit Pat. I think he was a policeman there.

I guess Mum lost contact with some of her family because there was no longer the ‘focus’ of parents bringing everyone together from time-to-time. My grandmother had died in 1952 followed by granddad Healy in October 1954. I only met my grandmother once – I was very small and vaguely remember seeing this old lady in bed in a care home.

Eileen was quite a regular visitor as I was growing up in the 50s and 60s. She often needed hospital treatment and stayed with us to recuperate on one occasion after an operation at a hospital in The Potteries. John and Barbara became lifelong friends with my Dad’s elder sister Wynne and her family, and we’d often meet up on holiday in Saundersfoot in Pembrokeshire.

L to R: Wynne (Dad’s elder sister), Barbara Healy, Dad, Ed (my elder brother), Cyril Moore (Wynne’s husband), Mum, John Healy, me, Diana Moore (cousin), Chris Healy (cousin), Mary (Diana’s closest friend) – enjoying the beach at Saundersfoot, c. 1961

Healy, Lilian 6g

A new life across the Atlantic
Mum emigrated to Montreal, Canada in 1927 at the age of 19 to work as a nanny for a Mr and Mrs de Lothiere; then she moved to New Haven, Connecticut in 1931 and shortly afterwards to New Jersey in the USA. There she trained as a nurse and graduated in May 1936 from The Hospital and Home for Crippled Children, Newark, looking after children suffering from polio and tuberculosis. I wonder if it was exposure there to tuberculosis that led to me acquiring immunity to this terrible disease? I say ‘shortly afterwards’ about her move to New Jersey because Mum once told me about the ‘Crime of the Century‘ in March 1932 when the son of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped, and she remembered all the police activity.  She also knew New York before the Empire State Building was completed. We don’t know exactly what Mum did between leaving school and emigrating, but the manifest of the Cunard liner RMS Andania on which she sailed to Quebec from Southampton listed her as a ‘stenographer’.

Becoming a wife and mother
Mum first met my Dad on board a Cunard White Star liner in 1934 (probably the RMS Aquitania on which he served as a photographer for many of his transatlantic crossings) when she returned to England to see her parents and, with two friends asked him to take their photo. The rest is history!

They were married on 28 November 1936 at St Joseph’s Roman Catholic church in Epsom, Surrey, less than a fortnight before the abdication of Edward VIII on 10 December.

L to R: Alice Jackson, Thomas Jackson (Dad’s parents), Rebecca Jackson (Dad’s younger sister), Ernest Bettley (Dad’s best man and a longtime shipmate), Dad, Mum, Eileen (Mum’s second youngest sister), Martin Healy, Ellen Healy (Mum’s parents), photo taken at Hook Road, Epsom, Surrey.

Mum and Dad made home in Bath in Somerset and my eldest bother Martin was born there in 1939, just three days before war was declared on Germany. They moved to Congleton before 1941 because my sister Margaret was born there in January 1941. Dad served in the Royal Navy during the war, and Mum, Martin and Margaret lived some of the time with the Jackson in-laws in Hollington in Derbyshire. After the war, they returned to Congleton where Ed was born in 1946, and I followed in November 1948. In April 1956 we moved to Leek where Dad opened his own photographic business.

Mum and Dad were devoted to each other. They enjoyed a shared love of ballroom dancing, of whist, and were both very active in local groups in Leek, Mum with the Townswomen’s Guild (and amateur dramatics) and Dad with the Leek Camera Club.

Most years they would take a camping holiday in Wales (often with Ed and me in tow) mostly under canvas, but for a couple of years in a caravan. From the mid-60s they ventured more into Scotland on their own.

After Dad retired in 1976 and they sold the photographic business, Mum and Dad fulfilled a long-held ambition: to see the Grand Canyon. And so, 40 years after they had left the USA, they returned, visiting the West Coast, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and all places in between, and up to Alberta where my brother Ed lives.

Sadly Mum was widowed in 1980, but she continue to live, alone, in Leek. In late 1990 however, she suffered a stroke and was not expected to live more than a couple of days. But she did, and eventually moved into a nursing home in Newport near to where my sister Margaret and her husband Trevor then lived. I saw my Mum for the last time in June 1991 shortly before I moved to the Philippines to work at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). In April 1992, Steph, our two daughters Hannah and Philippa, and me had just arrived for an Easter long-weekend away at the beach when we received the news that Mum had passed away peacefully in her sleep the night before. I then made arrangements to fly back to the UK for her funeral. Eileen and Roy also attended the funeral. A couple of years later, Eileen’s health took a turn for the worse, and was hospitalized. It was early November 1994 that I happened to be in London on a work-related trip for IRRI and took the opportunity of visiting Eileen and Roy in Epsom. Eileen  passed away about three weeks later.

I have long since stopped grieving for my Mum – or for my Dad for that matter. Martin, Margaret, Ed and me are left with beautiful memories of our wonderful parents. Fortunately we also have a photographic legacy as well to support those memories – that fade just a little more with each passing year.

An extraordinary ordinary man . . .

Frederick Harry Jackson. Born 15 September 1908, died 29 April 1980, of heart failure. My Dad.

This is the earliest photo I have of him, as a young schoolboy. When was it taken? I can’t say, but he looks about seven, so it must date from around 1914 or 1915. He’s on the extreme right, third row back.

Why an extraordinary ordinary man? I’ll let my brother Ed explain: Why was Dad’s life exceptional? On the one hand he had no formal academic education beyond the age of 16 (although he did attend technical courses associated with one job or another over the course of his life). He married at the conventional age of 28, fathered four children, supported his family to the best of his ability, ran his own business, retired at a reasonable age, and enjoyed a short but happy and fulfilling retirement. Ordinary, yes, but this same man crossed the Atlantic Ocean ninety-nine times, photographed some of the most famous film stars of the 1930s, fought in the Second World War, became a local newspaper photographer (the Congleton Chronicle), and then took an enormous economic and emotional risk by opening his own photographic business and shop [in Leek] at the age of 48, with no assurance at all of success and a family of six to support. Not only was he civic-minded, he became a town council member in one town (Congleton), and later the Chairman of another town’s council (Leek).

Chairman’s Sunday in Leek, 1968

Dad was a photographer all his life, and I guess some of my own love of photography was ‘inherited’ from him. I was seven in 1956 when we moved from Congleton to Leek, and until I moved away to university at the age of almost 19, I helped out on many occasions in the shop and in his darkroom. The hours I spent agitating prints in baths of hypo, then washing them in running water, finally putting them to dry on a drum dryer. In Congleton, I used to visit Dad in his workroom at the Congleton Chronicle – and last September I had chance to visit there after almost 60 years!

Dad spent quite a few years as a photographer on board ship during the heyday of maritime travel in the 1930s, mostly with the Cunard White Star line, sailing from Southampton to New York, and often on winter cruises down to the Caribbean and the east coast of South America as far south as Buenos Aires. Shortly before he died, Dad put the finishing touches to a short memoir he’d written called Gathering No Moss. I can think of no better way than letting some of his own words speak for themselves.

Early days
By the time I was twenty, I had an urge to spread my wings, and also to improve my modest earnings, so I applied for and secured work with a firm which specialized in maritime photography, and supplied staff to do the photographic work on cruise liners. Cruising was by no means a new thing, and general photography at sea had been practiced for many years even as early as 1929. Our first voyages were a series of cruises from this country to Scandinavia that summer, and the memory of these days, fifty years on, is as vivid as ever. One memorable evening, when we were in the Norwegian fjords, stands out above all others, when, coming up on deck after dinner, we found a scotch mist falling, and cottonwool puffs of cloud floating along almost at eye level. Our work brought us into regular contact with all our passengers, and we lived almost as well as them, but technically we came under the jurisdiction of the captain, and signed “ship’s articles” as unpaid members of the crew.

Just look at the size of the half-plate reflex camera my father is toting. I often wonder what he would have made of the digital photographic revolution. I’m sure he would have seized it with enthusiasm given the number of 35 mm slides he took over the years many of which we have been able to save through digitizing.

Here’s what he had to say about working on board ship:
The setup on board may be worth a mention at this point. Very few of the vessels we worked on had been specifically built for cruising; indeed some of them were far from suitable for a life in the Tropics, and having been originally constructed to carry three classes of passengers, had ample space to spare below decks in the unused Third class, where we housed in comparative comfort. We ate in an otherwise generally deserted Tourist class dining room, along with other spare parts like ourselves: orchestra, pool attendants and the like. Almost invariably, our darkrooms were makeshift affairs in unwanted bathrooms and toilets. We needed to be near a source of fresh water, anyway, and an empty bathroom could easily be blacked out to make an adequate darkroom, with wet and dry benches.

Meeting and photographing the stars
The 30s were the age of sea travel, so if you wanted to travel to the USA, then ocean liner was really only the feasible way to go even though airships and seaplanes filled the need – but only partially.

Actually, there were more ships plying the Atlantic than were really needed, and with the marriage of the Cunard and White Star fleets, it was not long before some reduction in tonnage took place. First to go was the biggest of them all, the ex-German liner Majestic, sold in the first instance to become a training ship, but soon to be sent to the knacker’s yard. [I believe that the end table that sits in my hallway came from the Majestic]. This and several other ships had been handed over as reparations after the war, but fairly soon the Germans were allowed to rebuild, and entered the lists with two crack liners, faster than anything else afloat, and being brand new, proceeded to cream off the best of the trade. It was not until the arrival of the Queen Mary and the Normandie some years later that the balance was restored.

SS Normandie steaming into New York

SS Normandie steaming into New York

Meanwhile, we still had our fair quota of near millionaires, people of title and stars from stage and screen. Hardly a voyage passed but what we had on our passenger list names that were very much in the public eye. Many of them, of course, are but fond memories, but perhaps my favourite star passenger of those days, and very much a force to be reckoned with still in Hollywood, was Bette Davis. I photographed her immediately on leaving Southampton Docks, hurriedly processed the results, and was able to dispatch copies back to head office by the time we called at Cherbourg. I also had prints made which I asked her to autograph, and I feel that she was quite impressed with my achievement. Yet another, Bessie Love, of the silent era, crossed with us to England at one time, and has stayed here ever since. Two British women, who are still very much in the forefront of our theatrical scene, who traveled with us on more than one occasion, were Anna Neagle and Evelyn Laye. I like to think that it was our slightly old-fashioned shape, rather than the floating hotel furnishings of our more modern sisters, which appealed to so many of our customers, who would travel with us repeatedly rather than elsewhere.

RMS Aquitania

Dad’s favorite ship, the RMS Aquitania

Here are some of the stars that Dad photographed, many on the RMS Aquitania: Madge Evans; Robert Montgomery; Merle Oberon; Marlene Dietrich; Jean Muir; Jack Hulbert; Frank Lawton and Evelyn Laye; Bette Davis; and the incomparable Cary Grant.

Other cruises took Dad south to the Caribbean and South America.

And finally, it was through his photographic work for Cunard White Star that Dad met my Mum. She had left England in 1927 when she was 19 to work as a nanny in Montreal. After some years she moved to New Jersey to train as an orthopedic nurse. It was on one of her return trips to the UK to see her family that they met. Again, let Dad tell the story:

It was literally in the middle of the Atlantic that I met the girl who was to become my wife a few years later. My camera work was entirely devoted to photographing our passengers and their activities, and it was about halfway through the five day voyage that Lilian and two of her shipboard acquaintances asked me to photograph them before dinner. I am often reminded that initially I fell for another girl, but I must have known a trick or two, as before I let Lilian disembark at Southampton I persuaded her to part with an address where she could be found on her return to the States after her holiday at home in the U.K. She was met by her parents who came on board, anxious to see their daughter after so long a time, and I photographed them together, little realizing that I had just met my future mother and father-in-law.

That’s Mum on the left – she must have been about 26

Mum with her parents, Martin and Ellen Healy on board in Southampton Docks

By the autumn of that year, I ventured to ring Humboldt 2-7600, the nurses’ home attached to the hospital where she had taken up nursing training, a few miles across the river in Newark, New Jersey. From then on, the brief hours we had ashore in the States were spent in nipping over to Newark, and before long I had decided that this was the girl for me. Late on in the evening of Friday, December 13th the following year I came to the conclusion that I must do something about it, and popped the question at a few minutes before midnight on the steps of the nurses’ home. Getting an instant and emphatic “yes”, I journeyed back to New York with my head in the clouds, and to the uptown beer garden where I knew I should find my mates, and celebrated in no uncertain style.

Mum worked as a nurse for a while, but eventually returned to the UK and Mum and Dad were married in November 1936. Just before leaving New York they took time out to view the SS Normandie:
She eventually returned to the U.K. in preparation for our November wedding, travelling with us on the Aquitania, this time as a V.I.P. with a cabin to herself on “C” deck, a kindly gesture by the Cunard office staff in downtown New York, where we went to book her passage. While still in the States, we paid a memorable visit as sightseers to the French liner Normandie, latest and biggest of the Atlantic ships . . . 

And here’s Mum getting to know her future in-laws, my grandfather and grandmother Thomas and Alice Jackson.

Mum with her future in-laws, Thomas and Alice Jackson, on board ship in Southampton Docks

I was working abroad in Costa Rica when Dad died in 1980. I was not able to return to the UK for his funeral. And in some ways it was fortunate that I didn’t travel as our daughter Hannah who had just turned two a few days earlier was taken quite ill. And since we lived more than 70 km on a difficult road from the capital San José and better medical help I was at least on hand to run her to the pediatrician on several occasions.

But with Gathering No Moss – and a wonderful collection of photographs – my extraordinary Dad has left me and my brothers and sister some extraordinary memories to savour.
















With a little help from my friends . . .

These days, I feel I can easily remember things that happened decades ago during my childhood. Ask me what I did yesterday or at least during the past few days and I often struggle to remember the details.

But recently I’ve been reminded of things that did happen 50 or more years ago that I had most definitely forgotten. And through the power of the Internet, and most probably Google, I have reconnected with a couple of childhood friends who I had not been in contact with for more than 50 years.

When I started this blog more than two years ago I never expected that long-lost friends would be in contact with me.

Almost two years ago, on 5 April 2012, I posted a story about the Beatles and my childhood love of skiffle music. I included this photo, and mentioned that the boy and little girl listening to me and my brother Ed were my best friend in Leek, Geoff Sharratt, and his sister Susan. A few months later I was contacted by Susan who had been doing some genealogy research and came across my blog. I’ve been in touch with Geoff on a regular basis since then, and posted another story in November 2012 about us renewing our friendship. We certainly had a lot to catch up on.


The Jackson Duo strutting their stuff, watched by their mother and friends Geoff and Susan Sharratt

5. Geoff, Sue and Mike Jackson above Rudyard Lake

Geoff, Susan and Mike in the late 50s, overlooking Rudyard Lake near Leek

Geoff and Sue

Geoff and Sue

Then in the middle of February, out of the blue I received a message from Alan Brennan, my first and best friend when I was growing up in Congleton. Alan has certainly filled in some gaps in my memories. I left Congleton in April 1956 when I was seven; Alan is 13 months younger than me. Although we lived just a few doors away from each other we didn’t go to the same school. But whenever we were home it seems to me that we were inseparable and got into some scrapes.

That’s me in the center of the photo below, partially dressed as a native American (sans war bonnet) and carrying a stick. Alan is to my right, the little boy looking rather shy in short trousers in front of the pirate, my elder brother Ed.

Coronation Day 1953

Alan has continued to live in Congleton, and like me has now retired. Here are a couple of photos he sent me recently. In the 1955 photo we were having a picnic at Rocky Pool near Timbersbrook, just east of Congleton. Alan’s parents are standing, a family friend is seated. In the background is the Brennan’s car – a Vauxhall Wyvern. I mentioned to Alan in one of our emails that I did indeed remember the car and thought it was a Wyvern, which he confirmed. The old memory was certainly working on that detail!

Summer1955mjPhotos (1)

May Day celebrations, pre-1956. That’s me on the left, and my brother Ed on the right. I’m not sure if that’s Alan standing on my left. Looks like Alan’s Dad’s car in the top left corner.

Alan with his wife Lyn

Alan with his wife Lyn

A modern plague . . .

tb-alertJust a couple of weeks ago I watched a 90 minute documentary on BBC4 that left me depressed yet at the same time somewhat optimistic. I haven’t watched a program like that for a long time that had such an emotional impact on me.

TB: Return of the Plague documented the rise and impact of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) in Swaziland. Although it wasn’t explicitly mentioned, as far as I can recall, the increase in TB seems to be linked with the the spread of HIV/AIDS as patients immune systems are compromised by the virus. The deadly evolution of MDR-TB has occurred because TB patients have failed to complete the course of treatment against this disease. And even now the disease has evolved into EDR-TD, or extreme drug resistant forms.

Doctors – and patients – face a difficult dilemma. It may take six months to two years or more to ‘cure’ someone with MDR-TB, or at least show that they are no longer infectious, and the ‘cure’ seems almost worse than the disease. The ever stronger cocktail of drugs (ever more powerful antibiotics) have terrible side effects – injections and pills – have terrible side-effects: continual vomiting and loss of hearing among the nastiest. And so many patients despair of ever getting better and simply stop taking the drugs. When patients are too weak to continue taking the drugs because of the side effects, doctors are reluctant to stop treatment because of the risks that the pathogen will mutate once again There have been no new drugs for decades to combat TB.

This was the situation of Bheki, once a healthy and hard-working man in his 30s, whose passion was football. TB has robbed him of the energy to play any longer – all he can do is watch from the touch-line and encourage those who can play. It was heart-wrenching to listen to his despair; he just couldn’t take the pain any longer. And what was worse, his sister Zandile died of TB – she wasted away because she no longer had the strength to withstand the ravages of the drugs on her emaciated body.

Listen to the despair of this young woman robbed of her youth and opportunities in life because of MDR-TB. Not long after this was filmed sadly she died.

There is hope
Yet the program was also full of hope. Take the case of 13 year old Nokubheka who had lost her mother to TB. Supported by her 17 year old brother, she became an in-patient at a TB hospital far from home, and had to remain there for more than six months, taking her drug cocktail daily, until she was no longer infectious. She was lonely (all the other patients were adults) and many died. She was separated from her brother, who she missed. But, at the end of the day, Nokubheka recovered, was fostered with a well-to-do family (who had a daughter just a little younger than herself), she returned to school and was once again developing an optimistic outlook on life. Her ambition was to study, go to university and then work for the future of her country. I was left with the encouraging image of a little girl with a broad smile. Now that’s optimism for you.

We can eradicate disease
Recently there have been reports of the resurgence of other diseases. Only today on the lunchtime news there was a report of a new outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa. And while smallpox has been eradicated some years ago, polio stubbornly hangs on in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and northern Nigeria – yet the prevention of this terrible childhood disease is so straightforward if only the doctors and nurses could reach all children in those areas where the disease is still a problem. And there has been a resurgence of polio in war-torn Syria, where it had been eradicated. Nevertheless, the outlook for the total eradication of polio is encouraging. In the UK and in the USA, measles has made a comeback – because parents failed to have their children vaccinated, a consequence of the scaremongering some years ago over the MMR vaccine.

Let us hope that the latest developments of medical science, involving molecular biology and genetics, can lead to more effective and cheaper drugs to combat diseases that we thought we once had under control. And in the case of TB that’s important for us all. TB is highly contagious, and there are now reports of the disease making a comeback here in the UK, even MDR-TB. And of course there always the opportunity (through air travel)  for drug resistant strains of any disease to spread quickly. All schoolchildren in the UK are – or should be – checked to see if they need the TB vaccination. When I was at high school in the mid-60s one of our teachers was diagnosed with TB. Everyone had to be tested, even if they had been vaccinated before. I had the Mantoux skin test twice, and both times had a violent reaction, my arm swelled up, and I was in bed for at least a fortnight on both occasions. It seems I have a very high immunity to TB. But would that protect me against MDR-TB? Just a couple of days ago there were reports of TB in domestic cats and the threats of this passing into the human population. Prevention is certainly better than cure.



10:58 am. On the outskirts of Mons in Belgium. A rifle shot rings out. It must be a sniper, defending the retreating German troops as they moved eastwards away from the Western Front. A British soldier – one of the countless Tommies who perished during the Great War – falls dead in his comrade’s arms.

Two minutes later and it will 11 o’clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. 1918, and the Armistice that the Germans had sued for over the previous weeks comes into effect (although some exchanges of fire would continue for a couple more hours along the Western Front). All became silent, but two minutes too late for this British soldier. One more tragedy after more than four years of the tragedy of conflict, during which the combatants tried to slug each other to defeat without success – until now.

I had always wondered how Great Britain became embroiled in a European war that was started four years earlier in August 1914 following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Saravejo at the end of June. Just a month later Europe was consumed in a conflagration that came to be known as World War One or the Great War. How did an event hundreds of miles away in Bosnia drag Great Britain into war? Well, a couple of months I did write about the start of the Great War after reading Sean McMeekin’s excellent July 1914: Countdown to War published in 2013. In the first few months of the war, the respective front lines of the Entente Powers – France, Great Britain and her Dominions (Canada and Australia) and colonies, and eventually the Americans after 1917 and the Central Powers – Germany and her allies – were already established and didn’t move much over the next four years. Stalemate had been achieved.

So what changed in 1918? How did the war come to an end. I have just finished reading an excellent review of the last months of the conflict, A Hundred Days – The end of the Great War* by Nick Lloyd, Senior Lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London (based at the Joint Services Command and Staff College in Wiltshire).

The Germans had launched a Spring offensive in April and May 1918, and although they came within a whisker of a victory over the Allies, they were not able to achieve their objectives. The Allies withstood this major assault, but the Germans were irretrievably weakened. Then from mid-August the Allies went on the offensive and, using tanks, superior (overwhelming in fact) air power, and improved battlefield tactics, began to make the sort of breakthrough that had eluded both sides in the conflict through four years of stalemate. Soon, the Germans were out-gunned, out-witted, demoralized and apparently disproportionately affected by a flu epidemic; they began retreating north and eastwards.

The end of the Great War was approaching, and Wilhelm II – ‘Kaiser Bill’ – was forced to abdicate just before the Armistice was signed, bringing to an end centuries of rule by the Hohenzollern dynasty, and going into exile in the Netherlands. He never did accept that Germany had been defeated.

The debate over the end of the war, whether the Allies should have pushed for outright victory, continues, as does that over who was to blame for starting the conflict in the first place. Having entered the war in August 1914 Great Britain was there for the duration – only defeat of Germany was the acceptable outcome. And to a large extent that was what was achieved. It was Germany that sued for peace – she could no longer sustain the conflict. Political reality set in, the threat of revolution in Germany hovered over the country, and the German military had nothing more to give.

Were the terms of the peace treaty signed at Versailles in June 1919 too harsh? There are those who argue that they were, and historians like Niall Ferguson argue that Great Britain should never have become involved in the first place. Germany was a ‘broken’ country. Since the Allies never invaded Germany (apart from occupying the Ruhr) there were always those who denied that she had ever been defeated. Certainly there was an upsurge of nationalism after the war leading ultimately to the coming to power of the Nazis in the 1930s – and all the consequences that arose therefrom. Had we learned nothing from the First World War. It took another world war to defeat German militarism once and for all. Today Europe is a much more stable continent although the Balkans have seen their fair share of conflict in recent decades. The ongoing crisis in the Ukraine and the flexing of Russian muscles is all too redolent of the mistakes that led to conflict in 1914. We can only hope that in today’s geopolitical environment there are fewer chances of mistakes happening because opposing sides in a potential conflict are unaware of what each other is doing, unlike in the days leading to the outbreak of the Great War.


* London: Viking. ISBN: 0670920061, 067092007X, 9780670920068, 9780670920075

These two books about the war are also worth considering:
Max Hastings, 2013. Catastrophe: Europe goes to war 1914. London: William Collins. ISBN: 0007398573, 9780007398577 

Ian F.W. Beckett and Steven J. Corvi (eds.), 2006. Haig’s Generals. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military. ISBN: 1844151697, 9781844151691.