Wednesday 27 January 2016

A Wartime (B)Log

Guest blog by Paul Carpenter, Chetham's Library volunteer. 

One of the rewards of volunteering at Chetham's Library is the opportunity to be the first to see some of the latest acquisitions. We recently received, by kind donation of the family of Mr Albert Bracegirdle DFM, a journal account of his experience as a prisoner of war during the period 1944/45. It was my privilege to read it.

In 1944 Albert Bracegirdle was an RAF Flight Sergeant, an air gunner in a Lancaster bomber. He had served in this role with distinction, flying many missions over occupied Europe and Germany itself. The mission over the Rhur Valley on 21 June 1944 was to be his last. On that night the German defences were particularly effective and night fighters inflicted many casualties on the British bombers. At 01:30 on the morning of 22 June his aircraft was hit and plummeted toward the ground. The order to bale out was given and with great difficulty, struggling against the centrifugal forces, he was able to escape the aircraft, trusting his life to a few square yards of silk 17,000 feet above Germany. Ironically, many months later, he was to learn that the pilot was able to regain control of the craft just before it hit the ground and that his comrades who were unable to bail out returned to their base safely.

Unfortunately, he received a blow to the head when exiting the plane and was forced to surrender to the German authorities in order to receive medical treatment. Shortly after his captivity began, he was given a notebook by the Red Cross, in which he kept a diary throughout his captivity. It is that journal that is now held at Chetham's Library. Despite extraordinary circumstances and at times desperate hardship, he wrote throughout this period in a strong and legible hand. He begins his story with a retrospective account of his final mission and of his encounter with German civilians and police before he was taken into custody by the Gestapo. He spent the next six months at a prison camp near the town of Bankau in Silesia, Stalag Luft VII.

At first his account of life in the camp seems broadly similar to the images that are so familiar to us from various films set in prison camps. He describes scenes of domesticity, eking out inadequate rations with Red Cross parcels and combatting boredom through competitive sport and educational classes (they had over forty subjects to choose from, all devised and led by fellow prisoners). However, this veneer was sometimes broken quite dramatically as in the incident which occurred on 9 August:

We had a bit of excitement today when a member of the cricket team whilst fielding a ball forgot that we ar’nt [sic] allowed to cross the first fence. The jerry guard immediately fired but missed fortunately. I’ll bet nobody else forgets the first fence in future.

His account of prison life sometimes underplayed just how basic conditions were. In September he contracted dysentery which was rife amongst the prisoners. By November, hopes had arisen that the end of the war was in sight as the Red Army grew closer. However, the guards grew increasingly edgy in the face of the relentless Russian advance and there were persistent rumours of the imminent evacuation of the camp. Throughout November and December, the weather became increasingly cold. On 27 December a young Canadian was shot dead when he mistakenly left his hut to use the toilets during an air raid. This was a portent of a very dark period for the prisoners.

On 19 January 1945 at 05:30 the long anticipated evacuation of the camp began at the height of one of the coldest winters of the twentieth century. For reasons that remain unclear the Germans decided that all prisoners should be moved west away from the liberating Red Army. Hundreds of thousands of allied prisoners, concentration camp prisoners and forced labourers, joined the huge numbers of German civilians who were walking to the west. This was a forced march on an epic scale, called by some 'The Long March' or 'The Long Walk', or, with good reason, 'The Death March'. Albert Bracegirdle describes it simply as 'The Retreat from Bankau', and was there in its midst, a small part of a sea of humanity ebbing and flowing across Europe as the Germans were forced westward by an avenging Russian army.

From 19 January to 5 February he walked, ill clad and undernourished. He walked hundreds of kilometres through sub-zero temperatures, through gale force winds that created blizzards and huge drifts of snow. Carrying everything he possessed he walked day after day on ice-covered roads that made every step of the way an ordeal. Somehow throughout this period he continued to find the energy to write. On 28 January, day ten of the walk, he wrote:

After a very few hours of troubled sleep we were awakened at 3am and by 5am we were once on the road, heading this time for the town of Stanhof 24 kilos [sic] away. The wind had freshened during the night and we had to plough our way through quite a depth of snow in places. On either side of the road were huge drifts of snow some of them 10 feet deep and as far as the eye could see was just a vast expanse of white only broken by trees and hedgerows and a very occasional building … I was feeling all in long before the half way mark was reached and it needed all the will power I could muster to keep up with the main body who by this time were stretched over a great length of road. My whole body was aching and my muscles in my thighs and calves were paining me with every step. The blanket carrying the majority of my kit which I carried on my shoulders made them ache until I felt as though red hot blades were being placed between my shoulder blades. I thanked the Lord when we eventually staggered into Stanhof that he had given me the strength to reach the end of that day’s march.

On 5 February they arrived at a railhead and the walk was over as they were transported to their final destination by train. Even this turned into an ordeal however, as in their exhausted and debilitated condition they spent 46 hours locked in cattle trucks without food or water.

The new camp, Stalag IIIA at Luckenwald, about 30km South of Berlin, was huge with many nationalities. Life here was grim. At this stage of the war rations were continually being cut to below subsistence level. Prisoners relied upon Red Cross parcels simply to survive. On 20 April the German guards simply abandoned the camp. The prisoners woke one morning to find them gone. He writes vividly of the atmosphere that day. However, when the Red Army arrived the following day they brought something less than liberation. Prisoners were ordered to remain within the camp for their own safety. Three Frenchmen ignored these orders and were duly shot by the Russians. The Russian army refused to recognise the French and Italian prisoners at the camp as allies and consequently declined to provide them with rations. As a result, the British and American prisoners felt obliged to share their limited supplies with their French and Italian fellow prisoners. The Russian POWs were marched out of the camp within hours of the arrival of the Red Army, and Albert Bracegirdle believed they were fortunate to be on their way home so soon. With the benefit of hindsight of course we know their fate was likely to have been much worse than this.

It was not until 25 May, over two weeks after VE Day, that Albert Bracegirdle was finally airlifted to Brussels and on 27 May was finally reunited with his family. Throughout the diary he wrote of his love for his family and his fiancĂ©. Albert Bracegirdle’s story is one of enduring courage in the face of unimaginable hardship. His courage was bolstered by deep-rooted comradeship and based upon the foundations of faith in God, the bonds of family and the love of a man for a woman. The day after he returned to his family he was reunited with his beloved fiancĂ© Marjorie. The diary ends with this line:

I met Marj at 1.15 the next afternoon at the bus stop and holding her in my arms I knew that my cup of happiness was full.

Tuesday 19 January 2016

Curiouser and Curiouser: Chetham’s Cabinet of Curiosities

Guest blog by Dr Ceri Houlbrook, University of Manchester and Researcher in Residence at the Library in 2015.

Question: What do an alligator, a snow-shoe, the sword of Oliver Cromwell, and the hand of an Egyptian mummy have in common? Answer: they were all part of Chetham’s collections (apologies if you were expecting a witty punchline).

Chetham’s Library may be most known for its collection of books and manuscripts, but during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, it held another type of object: the curio. The ‘curio’ is exactly what it sounds like: an object that provokes curiosity in the viewer. This could be a specimen of nature that’s particularly rare or unusual. It could be an exotic artefact brought back from a voyage of exploration. Or it could be a boring, everyday object, made ‘curious’ because of the stories attached to it.
Such curios were being accumulated by European collectors throughout the 16th-19th centuries, who proudly put them on display in what are known as ‘cabinets of curiosity’ or, to use the German phrase, the Wunderkammer. The Wunderkammer could be anything from a single cabinet to a whole series of rooms, filled with curios that were displayed in deliberately dense, haphazard, non-hierarchical clusters in order to showcase the immense variety of the collections. Chetham’s Wunderkammer was no different.

Chetham’s didn’t actively seek out their curios. Instead, they were donated to them over the years by individual collectors, so many of them are recorded in the Library’s gift book. The first curios recorded were ‘a snake or serpent’s skin’ and a ‘genealogical roll’, donated in 1685. In 1695 the Library was given a ‘pendulum watch’, a ‘Thermometer and Barometer’, and a ‘Clog-Almanack’. And from then on, a dizzying assortment of objects were donated, of which the following is just a sample: ‘a skeleton of a woman with several other curiosities’, ‘an alligator’s skin’, ‘a young swordfish, & the sword of an old one’, a ‘Flying Stag, also two Heads of the same kind’, the ‘Tail of a Rattle-Snake’, ‘large stone taken out of a woman’s bladder, it weighed 14 ounces & 6 drachm’, a ‘Brazilian lizard’, the ‘jaws of a shark’, a ‘strange kind of sea-weed/sea-heather’, a ‘shoe which the Laplanders make use of to walk on the snow’, an ‘alligator’, and the mummified ‘hand of a Theban Princess found at Thebes’.

The Library’s gift book also lists some rather mundane items. A stone tankard, a whip stock, several swords, boots, arrows, a woman’s clog. These don’t sound particularly curious but the thing about curiosity is that it’s subjective; it all depends on how people look at an object and – more importantly – how that object is presented to them. Cue the Blue Coat boys.

Chetham’s Library was established alongside a Blue Coat charity school known as the Hospital. Local boys from respectable but underprivileged backgrounds were taken on as pupils of the school and one of their duties as ‘Blue Coat boys’ was to act as tour guide to any visitors wishing to see Chetham’s curios. Summoned by a bell, the young tour guides would lead visitors to the collection and perform a well-rehearsed recitation describing the items on display. In his Museum Chethamiense; or, A Choice of Oratorical Catalogue of the Rare and Valuable Curiosities Contained in the College Library of 1827, John Stanley Gregson gives us an idea of what these tours would have sounded like, and here’s just a snippet:

…that’s an ancient Stiletto – that’s part of Humphrey Chetham’s Armour – that with th’ white face is a Monkey – under th’ monkey’s a green Lizard – side o’ th’ monkey’s a Porpus’s Skull – under th’ porpus’ skull’s an Alligator – under th’ alligator’s a Turtle – those Bows & Arrows belonged to th’ Indians – that’s a Porpus’s Head – those are various kinds of Adders, Worms, Snakes, Fishes and venomous Creatures…

The list goes on. And on. And on.

This exhaustive inventory appears to have been passed down orally through the generations of Blue Coat boys like folklore. And, just like folklore, it picked up a few embellishments along the way.
I said above that the Library’s gift book lists some rather ordinary objects. But the Blue Coat boys didn’t present them as ordinary; instead they employed the age-old method of shameless name-dropping. The tankard donated by Richard Moss in 1712 was no ordinary tankard, just as the sword was no ordinary sword and the boots were no ordinary boots. They all once belonged to Oliver Cromwell. Supposedly. Likewise, the other boot on display once belonged to Queen Elizabeth. The arrows in the collection were once owned by Robin Hood. Again, supposedly.

Other objects accumulated their own folklore. The woman’s clog was no simple clog, but was ‘a Woman’s Clog that was split by a thunder bolt, and hoo wasn’t hurt’ (Gregson 1827). The skeleton held in their collection was that of a Highway Robber. And the whip stock on display was the one that supposedly killed a snake. What snake? The one found drinking the Blue Coat boys’ milk.
Call me cynical but I sense that Chetham’s young cicerones were being a tad liberal with the truth. But that’s the fascinating thing about folklore: repeat a fictitious embellishment enough times and it becomes cemented as fact.

As popular as Chetham’s collection of curios was during the 18th and early 19th centuries, fashions wax and wane. With the rise of museum culture, the Wunderkammer fell slowly out of favour and, sadly, Chetham’s collection was disbanded in the late 1800s, with the Library keeping only a few items: the ‘Thermometer and Barometer’ (a modest and possibly confusing description of a tall case clock standing almost three metres high), which can still be seen in Chetham’s Reading Room.

The clog-almanack, described here as one of Chetham’s 101 Treasures.

And two stags’ heads, displayed in the Baronial Hall.

The majority of the curios went to Peel Park Museum in Salford and, from there, were further disbanded. But records from that time were far from meticulous, and so where most of these objects ended up remains a mystery. Might the alligator, snow-shoe, sword of Oliver Cromwell, and hand of an Egyptian mummy be gathering dust in storage somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered?

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Unreal Chetham’s - An Unofficial Official Tour From iOrganic

For the next six weeks, performing arts company iOrganic will be creating an ‘unofficial’ tour of the Library and medieval buildings, engaging with visitors through workshops, informal interviews and social media campaigns to gather stories, real or imagined, about the history of the place. They will also work with the Library and museum collections to identify historical myths, half-truths and unlikely realities from the past. These ‘crowd-sourced lies’ will then be weaved into a one off performance to be premiered late at night on Thursday 18 February. The interactive and engaging performance promises to respect the building’s place in history, whilst at the same time playfully questioning notions of truth and fiction, and why we trust the knowledge of others.

As you can see below, iOrganic are already in residence at the Library in the Scriptorium (a normally out-of-bounds room very few people have the chance to see!) and will remain in there until Monday 18 January. They will also be hosting a writing workshop on Saturday 30 January.

Get involved in the project on Twitter using the hashtag #UnrealChethams and following iOrganic (@iOrganicPerform) and ourselves (@ChethamsLibrary). Although you should be following us already!

Spaces for the performance are strictly limited. Watch this space in the coming weeks for details of how to book.

Friday 1 January 2016

Happy New Year! With - er - mouldy cheese?

Everyone knows that the staff at Chetham's Library are fun-loving, happy people, which is why most of the pictures on this blog are, like the staff, generally a bit beige and sickly looking. But rather than spend this [bright and sunny | bracing and snowy | wet and dismal {strike out words that do not apply}] New Year's Day asleep or watching a mighty Hollywood Biblical Epic on the television, we were up bright and early for some calisthenics and cold porage in order to bring you this, perhaps the beigest and sickliest post of 2016 so far.

It comes from a kind gift, a music manuscript book packed with powerful shanties such as this, the Staffordshire Wassail Song, contributed to a May Song book for Ratcliffe-on-Wreake by Mrs Orton in 1954:

That lyric again:

I have a little purse made of stretched leather and skin
I have a little pocket, to put a penny in.
God bless you happy
God bless you happy
God bless you happy
And prosperous New Year
Bring us out the table and spread it with a cloth
Bring us out the mouldy cheese and some of the Christmas lot
God bless you happy, etc.

Well quite. Etc. indeed. A Happy New Year to all our esteemed readers and visitors, and as Tiny Tim never ceases to observe around this time of year, 'God Bless us every one'. May our cheese be mouldy and our Christmas lot ever to hand.