Online reviews for this quarter appear below
THE HISTORY OF LEICESTER IN 100 PEOPLE by Stephen Butt (Amberley Publishing 2013 96pp 978-1-4456-1685-8) £14.99
This book is based on an interesting idea, by a former Radio Leicester presenter; as the author says in the introduction, some of those featured had a very transient presence in Leicester and the list includes some rather surprising names. The earliest entry is for Volisios, the leader of the Corieltauvi tribe (better known to most of us as Coritani) who is featured on a coin; the most recent is Geoff Rowe, the founder and chief executive of Dave’s Comedy Festival.
The list includes many well-known figures, such as Richard III (very topical at the moment), the Attenborough brothers, Sue Townsend (whose death was announced recently) and Joseph Merrick (the so-called ‘Elephant Man’). Others are more unexpected: apparently the founder of what was Curry’s and that of Wilkinson’s were both born or raised in the city. Other prominent national figures include Prince Rupert of the Rhine (who attacked Leicester during the civil war) and George Stephenson, who designed and constructed the first railway in the county.
Inevitably, there are more people featured from the later periods. Only 26 are covered for the period up to 1800, with 38 in the nineteenth century and another 36 from 1900 to the present day. There is no index, not even an alphabetical listing of the entries, but some nice illustrations, many of them in colour. One typo spotted was the misspelling in the text of the name of Trevor Storer (given as Storey): there may be others.
THE STORY OF LEICESTER by Siobhan Begley (History Press 2013 256pp 978-1-807-7695-3) £17.99
This is more obviously an academic title, having an index, notes and a bibliography. It is described as a new history, drawing on existing secondary sources, but it is hard to see what it adds to the existing literature, apart from being more up-to-date than previous histories of the city. One acknowledgment is to a colleague from the record office, but apart from one or two (apparently unrelated) photographs it is clear that the author’s main source was the University of Leicester’s Special Collections. For example, there is an illustration of a note from Prince Rupert, taken from an eighteenth century history, rather than the original which is freely available in the record office.
The eight chapters are arranged chronologically and within each are ‘snapshots’ of particular individuals, such as John of Gaunt, Richard III, George Fox, Daniel Lambert, Thomas Cook and Joe Orton. The colour illustrations, in a centre block, are good and are supplemented with many black and white ones; there is a mix of images from various sources and contemporary ones taken by the author. The brief index is rather frustrating; on page 156 there is a picture of workhouse inmates but the term ‘workhouse’ does not appear in the index and there is a very brief mention of the poor law guardians a few pages earlier. Similarly there is a paragraph about football, but no relevant terms appear in the index. Although this is a laudable attempt to produce a new history of the city, it breaks no new ground and is somewhat disappointing.
Kate Thompson was county archivist of Leicestershire and Hertfordshire, and is a vice-president of the British Association for Local History. She is specialist on the nineteenth-century Poor Law, and with Paul Carter wrote Sources for Local Historians (2005).
JAMES DIXON’S CHILDREN The story of Blackburn Orphanage by Melanie Warren (Gazelle Books, White Cross Mills, Lancaster 2013 150pp ISBN 1855860171) £9.99
Employing original records discovered as part of a Heritage Lottery funded project, Melanie Warren has written a useful book combining the life of the Scottish philanthropist James Dixon, known as the Blackburn Samaritan, with the history of Blackburn Orphanage founded by him in Whalley Road, Wilpshire in 1891. It is the story of that Home and its occupants interwoven with a biographical account of Dixon, who was its first superintendent and held that position for many years. It has a foreword by his granddaughter, Nancy Hill.
The use of archival material is very clear. There are many references and quotations from Dixon’s diary, the annual reports and surviving accounts and letters from old boys, over a hundred of whom served in the First World War. In chapter 3 Warren explains how Dixon realised that industrialisation had transformed Blackburn into a mill town with a population of over 90,000, many of whom suffered from the effects of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Extreme poverty and the hardship of the workhouse system had replaced parish relief. As a Sunday School teacher Dixon saw poverty at close quarters and, jointly with John Walker, he set up a ragged school with the support of the Earl of Shaftesbury. In the early 1880s Dixon switched his attention from ragged schools to orphanages, as he had seen that some children at the school were not only poor but also homeless and alone. Children asked to be allowed to sleep in the schoolroom, and he realised the urgent need for the provision of homes for boys and girls. With the help of friends he started fundraising.
A building was acquired, and rules and regulations drawn up about admissions and the behaviour of inmates. Dixon kept a desk diary known as the ‘Occurrences Book’, which logged all the events at the orphanage. His wife Jane played an important part in the running of the orphanage, as matron, and its influence over the lives of those who lived there is clear from the number of ‘old boys’ who kept in touch with Dixon, and expressed gratitude for his help, encouragement and guidance.
This book is based largely on archival material now in Lancashire Archives, and is a valuable contribution to Victorian social history. It shows the role of Christian philanthropists in a Lancashire mill town, helping disadvantaged and often homeless children. The book deserves to be read and recognised, not only as a valuable insight into the motivation and achievements of a remarkable man of whom little is otherwise known, but also of conditions in Victorian Blackburn. The work of the orphanage continues today through Child Action North West, and it is fitting that all the profits from this book go to that charity.
GORDON H.H. GLASGOW
Gordon H.H. Glasgow was educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and the University of Manchester. He was for many years a solicitor but also served as HM Coroner for Sefton, Knowsley and St Helens. Since his retirement he has undertaken extensive research into Victorian coronial history and the legal and social implications of particular cases. His most recent work, on Thomas Wakley, workhouses and the Poor Law 1834-1847, is reviewed below.