The Ghost Factory

British Cellophane.

Growing up in the shadow of the British Cellophane factory in Bridgwater, Somerset, I often heard stories of its ghosts.

The factory opened in 1937 as a joint project between the French firm that owned the rights to the process for mass-manufacturing cellulose film and British textile company Courtaulds.

It was built on fields next to Sydenham House, a 16th century mansion with its own stock of strange tales as recounted in Berta Lawrence’s 1973 book Somerset Legends. The Duke of Monmouth, she suggests, haunts a bedroom where he is said to have stayed (‘said’ always being a danger sign in such stories) before the Battle of Sedgemoor in July 1685. The room overlooked an oak tree, and some years later a member of the Perceval family was lifted by “some invisible spirit out of the chamber beyond his window-bars and, by levitation, set in the oak’s branches”. The house was also the scene of violence during the peasants’ revolt of 1381.

In the 20th century, the house was used by Courtaulds for corporate hospitality and, beyond the security boundary, hidden behind foliage, attained semi-legendary status among local children. I was taken to the garden once as a child, on a hot but darkly overcast day, and found it unsettling – the perfect setting for a timeslip.

I spent most of my childhood living within five minutes’ walk of the factory and its famous stink – it was often called ‘Smellophane’ – and my father worked there in the 1970s and 1980s, as did the parents of many of my peers. Every Thursday morning, as I was walking to school, they’d test the emergency sirens, adding to the collective sense of Cold War dread.

The first person to tell me a ghost story about the factory was my childhood best friend whose father worked in the section of Courtaulds dedicated to the production of non-woven synthetic fabrics. I asked my friend if he remembered what he’d told me all those years ago and his reply (edited for clarity) was as follows:

Late one night Dad saw someone in a checked shirt at the end of the production line. There wouldn’t have been many people about at that time so he went to investigate but the person had gone and the only door nearby was locked. The bloke couldn’t have gone anywhere else. It turned out someone from the other shift had died in just that spot (drowned, I think, in a cooling tank, or dragged under the rollers) and had been wearing the same clothes as the figure Dad saw.

As an 8-year-old I’d simply enjoyed shuddering at this story but I find myself wondering today if his father – quite a joker – might have been teasing him. My friend thinks not: “Mum said he was absolutely convinced at the time and quite shaken.”

I also remember a variant of this ‘drowned in a vat’ tale told by another school contemporary: a figure spotted on a high gantry, then apparently falling from the edge into a tank; emergency services called, the vessel drained, but no body found.

Adapted from ‘British Cellophane’ by Noel Jenkins, via Geograph, under CC BY-SA 2.0.

I asked my own father if he’d ever found working on the site unnerving. He talked at length about the general twitchiness of factory life, especially working nights, practically alone in vast, echoing spaces, and the long stretches of boredom between bouts of strenuous labour. But as to specifics, he said:

The only experience I had was of something that passed through a corridor. It might have been that somebody opened a door and it was a cold chill or something… It was weird. It wasn’t something I saw, just felt.

My younger brother suggested I get in touch with a friend of his who worked on the site in its final years, who wrote:

[One] of the machines there, called C2, killed a guy back the 1970s and it was definitely creepy in that area. [He] was pulled into a huge heated steamrolling press. [There was no] reverse mechanism and the firemen had to sledgehammer the machine apart to peel him out.

With prompting, Dad recalled a similar story from British Cellophane – strangely similar, you might say – about an operator who got cocky while threading a length of film through the moving parts of a machine. He was pulled into the workings and then when the machine reached full speed it “tore his limb right from his shoulder, voom! He Dropped dead.”

My suspicion is that these were scare stories, garbled and embellished as they spread, perhaps intended to reinforce the importance of safety procedures, or merely to wind up new recruits. The arm-ripping incident my father recounted of course happened ‘a few years’ before he joined the firm, like all good urban myths.

It’s hard to prove that something didn’t happen but I can say that I have not been able to find any record of any events like these in newspapers, even though relatively less gruesome accidents at the factory were reported. (A painter died during construction of the plant; a laboratory apprentice fell from a landing stage with no barrier and later died; a foreman dropped dead while walking along a gantry; and Raymond Culverwell set a legal precedent when a truck crushed his leg: being late back from his tea break, the Court of Appeal ruled, he was not entitled to compensation.) Gruesome limb-tearing and crushing incidents at other industrial sites were frequently covered so the press were clearly interested.

After a version of this story first appeared in Fortean Times in 2018, however, I heard from Gavin Hogg whose grandfather, George Rogers, worked at Cellophane in the 1950s and 60s, and died while working at British Cellophane, in 1963. He asked his mother for more detail:

He was killed in an accident during the night-shift (22:00 – 06:00) and she writes that he was on his own at the time (I don’t know if she means just in the immediate area, or the whole factory). The official inquest verdict was death by misadventure.

There was no compensation or any financial help for my grandmother and her two daughters – my Mum would have been 21 at the time and her younger sister would have been around 16-17.

Mum says that the factory destroyed all the evidence after the accident and changed the machinery.

A little digging turned up an account of the inquest from June 1963, which set out the details: at about 5am, Mr Rogers was alone, his colleague having stepped outside for a few moments, and accidentally put an amount of vinylidine chloride into a hot vessel rather than a cool one, whereupon it instantly vaporised and gassed him to death.

Again, no falls into vats, or torn limbs, but this does echo my own father’s explanation for the uneasy atmosphere in the factory, which is simultaneously more down-to-earth and scarier than any ghost. The premises was, he says, often dense with chemical fumes, and he would frequently find himself wading in pools of toluene, a liquid solvent known to cause hallucinations. It’s easy to see how that sort of thing might combine with the disorientation of shift work, and those grim shock tales, to generate paranoia, confusion and even strange visions.

Though none of that, of course, explains how Perceval got into the oak tree.

Reading My Way Through 1959

The cover of Free Fall by William Golding,

I’m planning to spend 2019 reading only novels from 1959, with some extra homework on the side.

Why? Because in 2017, I set myself a similar reading challenge – only books by women – and it helped me focus. I read more, and more widely, and more books that were new to me. I discovered some new favourite writers (such as Edna O’Brien) and the habit stuck: I continued to read more books by women in 2018, and feel better for it.

But in 2018, with no specific challenge, I read less overall, and caught myself lazily returning to old favourites out of which I have already chewed all the flavour.

So, for this year, I needed a challenge, and focusing on a specific time period seemed like a good idea. The mid-20th century happens to be where my head is at a lot of the time anyway. It also happens to be when the Big Novel I’m working on is mostly set, so this also doubles as research.

I landed on 1959 specifically by asking my handful of discerning Twitter followers to choose between 80 years ago, 70, 60, and 50. (It was close – 1969 nearly won.)

As of this morning, I’ve started reading Free Fall by William Golding, which I found on Wikipedia’s list of British novels published in 1959, and then happened to stumble across in a secondhand bookshop in Osterley on Sunday. “Perhaps you found this book on a stall fifty years hence which is another now”, he writes eight pages in, bending my mind somewhat, despite being ten years out. It’s not quite my usual thing – very self-consciously literary, prose verging on Joycean – but it seems to have hooks in me already.

A low resolution image of streaks of light on a curving road.
From the front page of the Manchester Guardian for 1 January 1959: ‘The lights of south-bound vehicles on the Preston Motorway’.

On the side, though, I’m also going to try to do something I’ve been thinking about for years: reading a daily newspaper for each day of 1959.

This has never been easier than today with local libraries offering access to The Times and the Guardian, and the incredible British Newspaper Archive providing scans of all kinds of local and national titles.

On 1 January 1959 the Manchester Guardian was declaring A PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR with “Industrial shares index at highest level ever”. It reported that actor Alec Guinness had been awarded a knighthood, and that the West had rejected Nikita Khruschev’s suggestion that Berlin be made a “free city”. Meanwhile, in Cyprus, EOKA issued a defiant new year message for the British government: “We will emerge from our present peaceful attitude as FULLY armed avengers to return the blows.”

Postcard of Coventry Cathedral.

Given my interest in post-war architecture, I was also interested to read this:

To-day, for the first time, hymns and prayers have sounded in Coventry’s new cathedral. They came not from the choice and chapter but from the unaccustomed voices of the masons and labourers, tilers and glaziers and plumbers, whose hands are raising the walls of what to-oday we heard called “This great fortress of God in Coventry.”

Unfortunately, an opinion piece on racial tension, and a surge in white nationalist tendencies, suggests that there’s little shelter from the problems of 2019 to be found in desk-bound time travel.

I’ll also be making a point of listening to music from 1959, and watching films and TV from the same year, without being exclusive about it. I’m looking forward to rewatching Room at the Top for starters, which I last saw as a teenager in Steven Bennison’s media studies class at Bridgwater College.

If anyone feels like joining in, or borrowing this idea but wallowing in a different year, go for it – I always enjoy company on these expeditions.

Rogue One: The Strange Career of Bampfylde Moore Carew

Bampfylde Moore Carew.

A thief, conman, beggar, trickster, adventurer and teller of tall tales, Bampfylde Moore Carew is the most famous West Countryman they never tell you about in school.

I first learned of his existence in a book called Somerset Legends by Berta Lawrence, published in 1973, a copy of which I bought for 10p in a sale of cancelled books at Bridgwater Library when I was about thirteen. Reading this was the first time it ever occurred to me that my home county might be anything other than rather flat and rather dull, and I took the book away with me to university, and then to London, as an antidote to homesickness.

Now, thanks to the magic of online book archives, I’ve been able to go back to Ms. Lawrence’s source, namely a book called The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde Moore Carew, published in 1745. We would probably now recognise it as having been ghost-written for Carew by one Robert Goadsby, though its status as autobiography-biography, or perhaps even a form of picareseque proto-novel, remains muddy. It is almost certainly a pack of fibs built around some kernels of truth, but was nonetheless a bestseller in its day and reprinted, with further embellishments, many times in the century that followed.

Here’s the story it tells, as the precursor to the embroidered gangster memoirs of today, with a few details taken from other sources, and quotations taken from this Project Gutenberg version of an 1850s reprint.

Carew was born in July 1693 in Bickleigh, a village near Tiverton in Devon. His father was the rector of Bickleigh and his family was well-to-do. He was sent to Blundell’s, the famous West Country private school at, at the age of 12, but (according to his own account) ran away rather than face punishment for tearing up farmland with his horse-riding hunting pals and a pack of hounds. And this is where his life got interesting.

Painting of a gypsy camp.
Morland, George; Encampment of Gypsies; The Fitzwilliam Museum.

He joined a band of gypsies and made a living with them through trickery and petty crime. As a well-spoken, gentlemanly figure he was uniquely well placed to win over respectable folk and relieve them of their money, as in the case of Mrs Musgrove of Monkton just outside Taunton, in Somerset. (Now best known for its garden centre — such romance!) She called on young Carew having heard that he was an expert gypsy-trained treasure diviner. 

When he came, she informed him that she suspected a large quantity of money was buried somewhere about her house, and if he would acquaint her with the particular place, she would handsomely reward him. Our hero consulted the secrets of his art upon this occasion, and after long toil and study informed the lady, that under a laurel-tree in the garden lay the treasure she anxiously sought for; but that her planet of good fortune did not reign till such a day and hour, till which time she should desist from searching for it; the good lady rewarded him very generously with twenty guineas for his discovery.  We cannot tell whether at this time our hero was sufficiently initiated in the art, or whether the lady mistook her lucky hour, but the strict regard we pay to truth obliges us to confess, that the lady dug below the roots of the laurel-tree without finding the hidden treasure.

This is a classic con-man story in which the mark positively asks to be ripped off because of her greed, and her stupidity — perhaps one of the earliest in print?

Eventually he was convinced to come in from the field and return to Bickleigh where he was welcomed with tears of gladness and the ringing of church bells. But having had a taste of freedom and adventure, he got bored and went back to the gypsies, via their camp at Tiverton, and set out on a new phase of his career: he became a fake shipwrecked seaman.

Our hero’s wit was now set to work, by what stratagems he might best succeed.  The first that occurred to his thoughts was that of equipping himself with an old pair of trowsers, enough of a jacket to cover his nakedness, stockings such as nature gave, shoes (or rather the body of shoes, for soles they had none) which had leaks enough to sink a first rate man of war, and a woollen cap, so black that one might more safely swear it had not been washed since Noah’s flood, than any electors can that they receive no bribes.  Being thus attired, our hero changed his manners with his dress; he forgot entirely his family, education, and politeness, and became neither more nor less than an unfortunate shipwrecked seaman.

He learned the jargon and the manners of a sailor and in this persona conned multiple people out of “a considerable booty”, before reinventing himself again as a simple Kentish farmer who had lost his cattle in a flood:

His habit was now neat but rustic; his air and behaviour simple and inoffensive; his speech in the Kentish dialect; his countenance dejected; his tale pitiful—wondrous pitiful; a wife and seven helpless infants being partakers of his misfortunes; so that if his former stratagem answered his wishes, this did still more so, he now getting seldom less than a guinea a day.

Next, he adopted the persona of Mad Tom, a half-naked lunatic, roving the countryside and observing human nature, learning more “than most of our youths who make the Grand Tour”.

Carew the trickster disguised as a ghost at South Molton, Devon.

From Dartmouth in Devon He travelled to Newfoundland where he acquired a “fierce and large dog” and stayed just long enough to learn enough about fishing and sailing to take his shipwrecked mariner act to the next level. On his return, via Newcastle, he fell in love, eloping with one Miss Gray, marrying her in Bath, and settling in Bristol, where they turned heads with their dandy dress.

Going back on the road, he impersonated a clergyman to prey on Quakers; developed a wheeze whereby he would turn up anywhere there had been a notably large fire and pretend to be a survivor, with a singed hat for evidence; and strapped himself up to portray the part of a one-legged beggar. Circling back to Bristol, he pretended to be the son of a Newfoundland gentleman whom he vaguely resembled, lately arrived in England and in need of credit on clothes and provisions. On one occasion he witnessed a shipwreck off the Dorset coast and had the presence of mind to strip and fling himself into the surf to be rescued as a survivor or, as he tells it, to attempt to rescue one of the crew like some kind of superman, only to be quite innocently mistaken for a member of the ship’s crew.

Eventually, all this caught up with him and he was arrested at Barnstaple in Devon, and taken to court in Exeter, from where he was transported to Maryland in the American colonies. You might think this was the end of Carew’s West Country career but, no, he somehow escaped custody, convinced some Native Americans to remove his irons, and made his way back to England via Philadelphia, New York and various other fascinating places out of the scope of my project.

A parade of convicts.
British convicts in chains ready for transportation, via Early American Crime.

He carried on where he had left off (shipwrecked sailor act, turban-wearing Greek, French smuggler, Presbyterian parson, and so on), got caught again, and sent back to Maryland, from where he escaped a second time. (If he was making this up, he could have done with a firmer editor – who would invent this repetitive narrative structure?)

In the third and final phase of his career as a conman he tried some bigger schemes, such as convincing a group of his school friends to join him at St Matthew’s Fair in Bridgwater, Somerset, in the guise of a group of crippled, deaf, dumb, blind beggars. The mayor, though, suspected the trick and had them thrown in prison for vagrancy, but contrived to let them escape so that he could see which of them broke into a run on leaving their cell and then re-arrest them on more serious charges. (This sounds like something from one of the sillier spaghetti westerns to me.)

Although the book presents all of this with a sort of smirk, and its sales are evidence that people found Carew’s antics to some degree charming or at least entertaining, his admitted tendency to prey on the bereaved is simply grim. For example, he tricked a man whose son had died at sea into giving him money in exchange for a supposedly first-hand account of his death and burial, which of course Carew knew nothing about that he had not learned from gossip around the village. In another instance, at Buckfastleigh in Devon, he got an accomplice to dress as a victim’s dead grandmother as part of another ‘hidden treasure’ con:

In order for the execution of this scheme, Coleman put a woman’s cap on his head, washed his face, and sprinkled meal on it while wet, stuck the broken pieces of a tobacco-pipe between his teeth, and wrapping his body in a white sheet, planted himself in the road that Collard and Mr. Carew were to come; the moon at this time shone very bright, which gave an additional horror to the pretended spectre.  Our hero, by virtue of his supposed profound learning and most mysterious science, spoke to it in an unknown language, to the following effect:—“High, wort, bush rumley to the toggy cull, and ogle him in the muns;” at which command the terrific hobgoblin fiercely advanced up to poor Collard…

But this couldn’t go on forever and eventually, having made a small fortune, and growing old and ill, Carew retired to a cottage in the West Country, published his memoir, and died in 1759.

High Times Out West

Illustration: Strummer, Coleridge, the Star Inn and Glastonbury Tor
Incorporates an image of Joe Strummer by John Coffey under Creative Commons.

It is it any wonder that the West Country, with its yin-yang of boredom and tranquillity, its distance from authority, its big skies and mystic tendencies, might have a drug habit?

A few months ago I was at my desk in Penzance (I’ve moved to Bristol since) when I heard a boom so loud I wondered if the earth might have cracked. A little later the air ambulance, that scarlet Valkyrie, flew so low overhead that my skull vibrated. A little later again I learned that what I’d heard was someone slamming their car into a bus stop seriously injuring a 16-year-old bystander. When the case came to court the gossip I’d picked up queuing in the grocers was confirmed:

A former addict who hadn’t slept for five days and mowed down a teenager whilst high on a cocktail of drugs claims she took the drugs to avoid the wrath of a masked gang who stabbed her boyfriend…. [She] was spared jail after her defence barrister told the court she’d taken the drugs to stay awake and was fleeing a violent gang who she felt were going to carry out a revenge attack on her when she crashed.

I’d picked up hints of that back story, too — sirens and cordons in the middle of the day, boarded windows, whispers in the pub, people threatening each other in the street, and incautious statements in the comments below news stories. I knew that there people dealing drugs in the flats near my house, on the estate near my house, and possibly in a house near my house.

This is all, I gather, part of an ongoing problem in the West Country. Despite the beauty of the landscape and ever more dominant beach-hut bourgeois tendency, the region is a target for big city drug dealers and, at the same time, an in-route for drugs with its many miles of coastline and secluded backroads. “Quieter counties, like Cumbria, or Devon and Cornwall are seen to have less proactive policing operations,” one ‘drug dealing insider’ is supposed to have told the Liverpool Echo.

Hence some bizarre headlines: a yacht stuffed with drugs is intercepted at Scilly and the skipper dies as he attempts to evade police by climbing the main mast; cottages and nuclear bunkers are rented, stripped, blacked out and turned into cannabis farms run by near-slaves everywhere from Cornwall to Wiltshire; secret factories are found beneath old caravans on Somerset farms; a young man in Exeter is attacked in a dispute between gangs of dealers and one of his assailants stabs him so hard that the blade snaps away in the wound. And so on.

I suppose I’ve always been vaguely aware of this side of West Country life. It has, after all, been going on for a long time. When Joe Strummer, late of punk band the Clash, relocated to Somerset in the 1990s he caused some local upset when he told an interviewer the reason for the move: “The drugs are better down here. It’s like the Wild West.” (I’m paraphrasing because I can’t find the original article — tips welcome.) A 1995 interview with electronic musician Richard James, AKA Aphex Twin, includes this passing observation:

Growing up in hippie Cornwall, drugs were part of local life. One of his earliest memories is the “funny smell” in the house of one of his mum’s friends. Sometimes he finds drugs come in handy when writing…. “I find it quite interesting, the way they make things turn out. It’s like using a different sequencer. Drugs just make things sound different.”

Is it true that planes from Holland used to land at the disused airfield at Westonzoyland in the middle of the night during the 1980s? That was certainly the gossip in Bridgwater and as a child I used to lie awake listening for them.

In his 2016 book The Swordfish and the Star, about the gritty reality of life on the Cornish coast, Gavin Knight records the connection between the Cornish fishing industry, drug smuggling, and drug use from the 1970s onwards:

In the front of the Swordfish people would be drinking but in the back, there was any drug you wanted. One time, to get to the bar, you had to step over a fisherman lying on the floor unconscious from coke.

The gentler 1960s drug culture came West, too, manifesting in the Glastonbury Festival and the St Ives hippy invasion. In 1966 Bristol publicans were trained by police on how to recognise the smell of weed using hemp burned over a gas stove (Birmingham Post, 25/08/66) while raids in Cornwall found LSD, cannabis and other drugs from Land’s end to St Agnes. (Times, 28/05/73.) Looe, a particular hot spot, even gained its own local drug squad, “known as Brian even to the people he was nicking”.

Go back far enough and you’ll find Samuel Taylor Coleridge composing the proto-psychedelic ‘Kubla Khan’ in Nether Stowey, Somerset, in what was probably an opium daze. It was published in the same 1816 volume as ‘The Pains of Sleep’ which is now generally reckoned to be an account of drug withdrawal:

…yester-night I pray’d aloud
In anguish and in agony,
Up-starting from the fiendish crowd
Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me:
A lurid light, a trampling throng,
Sense of intolerable wrong,
And whom I scorn’d, those only strong!

So, that yin-yang: hard work, hard lives, hard drugs. Dreamers and dancers, poets and rock stars. Visions and cramps. Men from Porlock and men from Merseyside.

Frankenstein in the Quantocks

POSTER: "Andrew Crosse -- the man who created life!"

A gentleman scientist fills a laboratory with primitive electrical equipment and, through experiments considered blasphemous by his peers, summons life.

This is the plot of one of the elemental gothic horrors, that’s true, but it is also something that really happened, not among the romantic mountain peaks of Mitteleuropa but on Somerset’s Quantock Hills. And the scientist was not a doomed young Byronic hero but a distinctly middle-aged Englishman called Andrew Crosse.

Crosse was born  in July 1784 at Fyne Court, a country house built by his family in 1620s on the edge of the Quantocks between Bridgwater and Taunton. Though now we now think of the Quantocks as a landscape dominated by conifers it was then covered with ancient woodland, its heathlands bright with yellow furze and purple heather, pockmarked here and there with sandstone and limestone quarries, and richly populated with deer and other game animals. A place of ‘free, wild solitude,’ in the words of Crosse’s biographer, his widow Cornelia.

Fyne Court before the fire of 1894, via the National Trust website.

Andrew’s father, Richard, was strict to the point of being intimidating and though his mother cooed over her ‘little Andrew’ his parents sent him away to board with a tutor in Dorchester at the age of six. There he learned Ancient Greek, oddly before he had learned to write English, before moving on to a school in Bristol at the age of eight.

In Bristol, on a grim diet of black potatoes and ‘hashed mutton’, he developed an fascination with fireworks and electricity. His father had known the famous electrical experimenter Benjamin Franklin and perhaps that laid the foundations of his interest, but the real spur to action was a lecture he heard about at a tavern where he had got into the habit of taking meals to avoid the dreadful school dinners.

A school friend, John Jenkyns, provided Cornelia with a note for inclusion in her biography which recalled what came after that formative experience:

I dare say he has mentioned to you our first joint attempt in the science of electricity, and the wonderment occasioned to a circle of school boys by giving them a shock with a Leyden phial… charged by a broken glass of a barometer…

Crosse and Jenkyns used this contraption to tease – or, let’s be honest, bully – younger boys who were marched up to a terrifyingly gothic witch-like figure sitting next to a box. (The witch was Crosse in costume.) Inside the box there was a depiction of hell with a devil dancing in front of it, pitchfork in hand. (A clever trick in itself: the figure was hanging from a single human hair.) The little lads were made to look at this macabre scene for a moment before the jar was discharged, giving them a physical jolt to match and intensify the psychological one. (At my school the bullies just gave you a dead arm in the corridor but this is presumably what you’re paying for with private education.)

Andrew Crosse. (This picture is all over the internet but I can’t find the original source.)

Crosse left Bristol for Oxford in 1802 taking with him an ‘electrical machine’ that he had acquired from a ‘philosophical instrument maker’, and a hunger to learn more. After university he returned to Somerset and made an abortive attempt to study law while, now orphaned, he also managed the family estate. His true fascination could not be resisted, however, and he soon had a new electrical apparatus to play with – a huge cylindrical electrostatic generator attached to a battery made up of 50 Leyden jars. This machine was made by his friend George Singer, another electrician, as such scientists were then known, though the word now refers to a specific, less glamorous trade. They would spend all day running electrical experiments together and then, in the evening, walk on the Quantocks engaged in intellectual debate.

A battery of Leyden jars.
Leyden jars as depicted in an 1894 medical textbook.

In around 1807 Crosse was inspired to begin a new line of investigation. He kept finding himself drawn to Holwell Cavern, a fissure in the limestone rock the roof of which was covered in star-like Aragonite crystal formations caused by the dripping of mineral laden water through the rock. A true man of the Romantic age, he of course wrote a poem about the cave, which begins:

Now pierce the hill’s steep side, where dark as night
Holwell’s rude cavern claims the torch’s light;
Where, breathless, dank, the fissure cleaves in twain
Th’ unchisell’d rock which threats to close again,
And swallow in its adamantine jaws
The bold explorer of creation’s laws.

Crosse later said: “I felt convinced at an early period that the formation and constant growth of the crystalline matter which lined the roof of this cave was caused by some peculiar upward attraction; and, reasoning more on the subject, I felt assured that it was electric attraction.”

He took water from the cave and, back in his lab at Fyne Court, connected it to a battery and ran a current through it. Nothing happened for days and he was about to give up when, after almost two weeks, he spotted sunlight glinting on crystals that had grown on one of the wires.

In the years that followed, he married, had children, and continued working on his ‘electrical poem’. He argued politics and philosophy with his brother Richard, and travelled to Plymouth where, from the deck of a hired boat, he caught a glimpse of Napoleon Bonaparte imprisoned aboard HMS Bellerophon.

A painting of ships.
Napoleon’s Bellerophon depicted in ‘Scene in Plymouth Sound’ by John James Chalon, 1815, via Royal Museums Greenwich.

He also continued his experiments, constructing an ‘atmospherical conductor’, a copper wire of about a mile in length which he used to attract lightning during thunderstorms and bad weather, creating ‘terrific… noise and brilliant light’. Crosse himself described how one experiment created “explosions… [and a] stream of fire too brilliant to look at”. Calmly harnessing the power of the atmosphere he used the electricity to boil liquids, fuse metals and cause fires. Locals would turn up at Fyne Court and ask to be zapped to cure their various ailments which, according to Crosse, sometimes worked. It is easy to see how this kind of experiment inspired the modern vision of the mad scientist.

As recounted in Brian Wright’s 2015 biography, it was Singer who convinced Crosse to talk at one of the regular lecture events hosted by the parachutist, balloonist and showman-scientist André-Jacques Garnerin at a London theatre. On the night of Crosse’s lecture on 28 December 1814 two more famous figures from history happened also to be present: Mary Shelley and her husband, the poet Percy Shelley.

We know from her diary that Mary took note of Crosse’s lecture, whether she paid attention to its details or not. A year and a half later, at the Villa Deodati on the shore of Lake Geneva, she would write her most famous book, Frankenstein. Did Crosse inspire Victor Frankenstein? Perhaps partly, or perhaps Frankenstein inspired Crosse, because back in the peace and quiet of Somerset he continued his experiments into batteries and crystallisation in relative obscurity for another 20 years, long after Mary Shelley’s book had become a bestseller.

Crosse was in his early fifties when an accidental discovery, and the equally accidental announcement of its results, brought him fame or, rather, infamy. In 1837 he carried out a month-long experiment attempting to grow crystals by electrifying a chunk of porous volcanic stone. On the 26th day he observed what looked like insects. Then, on the 28th day, to his astonishment, he saw them wiggle their legs. A few days later they wriggled free and began to move around the frame where the experiment was being conducted. They were, Crosse concluded, mites of the genus Acarus, and there were soon a hundred or more, some with six legs, others with eight. Where had they come from? And how on earth were they surviving in an acid solution?

Sketch of a bug.
Pierre Turpin’s drawing of Acarus Crossii made using a microscope, from The Annals of Electricity, Magnetism and Chemistry, May 1838, via Google Books.

Crosse mentioned this odd occurrence to some friends in what he thought was private conversation but one of the group was the editor of the Somerset Gazette and couldn’t resist running an account of the experiment. That article was picked up and reproduced or quoted in newspapers across the country, usually under the headline EXTRAORDINARY EXPERIMENT.

Outrage commenced almost at once. Who did Crosse think he was, claiming to have created life, and bragging everywhere about his amazing discovery which was obviously a complete con? Crosse was hurt by those accusations: he hadn’t made any such claims and certainly hadn’t sought to publicise his experiments. He was blamed for crop blight and received a letter calling him “a reviler of our holy religion” – in other words, he was accused of playing God.

For another decade he and other scientists attempted to replicate the results, often with success, but without reaching any convincing conclusion. Was the electricity reviving fossilised insect material in rocks or soil? Was the water contaminated, or the apparatus? Or had Crosse really discovered the secret to summoning life?

These days, the consensus is that the equipment probably was dirty — inevitable, almost, in those days of imperfect sanitising techniques. Hardly the stuff of legends, and Crosse certainly did not go on to ‘create’ any more substantial form of life such as, say, a murderous, misunderstood monster created from cadavers rifled from graveyards.

Even though Shelley wrote her novel twenty years before Crosse’s mite experiments, and though in reality the links are tenuous, in recent decades the connection has become indelible, and it is probably fair to say that the Thunder & Lightning man owes his lasting fame to Mary Shelley. Peter Haining, that master of the fun but unreliable horror-history hackjob, called his 1979 book about Crosse The Man Who Was Frankenstein which, clearly, he wasn’t. And, well, I’ve done it here, haven’t I?

There is something irresistible about the idea of so macabre a fiction having any basis in reality, especially when that reality occurred in the wooded hills and heathland of Somerset where the red deer roam.

War Still Echoes

Inside a shelter.
The Spitfire base at Perranporth, Cornwall.

The recent surge in the visibility of fascism and fascist imagery is depressing. It’s become a cliche to say it but here goes: we had a war and settled this a while back, didn’t we?

What I’ve been thinking about lately, in particular, is how that ‘while back’ doesn’t even feel all that far back.

Yes, that feeling is partly a result of my being a relic of the 1970s but, really, you don’t have to look far, even in the leafy suburbs, small towns and countryside of Britain, to see great concrete chunks of World War II just lying around, like tombstones.

I went for a run up and around Purdown in Bristol the other day. My aim was to get to the base of the telecoms tower I’ve been able to see on the horizon for the last few weeks. Once I’d got past that, however, I was amazed to find myself picking a path through what were obviously the overgrown remains of gun emplacements.

Officially known as the Purdown Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery this site was first militarised in 1939 and the concrete structures were erected in 1940. Locally it was the source of the legend of ‘Purdown Percy‘, a supposedly secret, supposedly massive gun that could be heard across the city.

Fantastic as I found this survival I wasn’t surprised by its existence because, honestly, it sometimes feels like a challenge to go for a walk or ramble without stumbling across something like this.

Spitfire base, Perranporth.

On the Cornish coast in April my other half and I found ourselves diverted through the remains of a Spitfire base at Perranporth — overgrown, yes, but so complete that a Battle of Britain fighter squadron could probably operate out of it by this time next week if need be.

In my home town of Bridgwater pill boxes surround the railway station and line the canal all the way Taunton — brutal brick and concrete structures designed for no purpose other than war and preserved at first, I’ve always assumed, because no-one quite believed the peace would hold with Russia rampant; and then just forgotten about.

Even in London, built on and overbuilt and developed to a high shine, you can still see painted signs on Smith Square pointing to air raid shelters, and the remains of shelters themselves in parks and on side streets. Just look at the Citadel in St James’s Park, as I used to do on the way into work most mornings for about a decade — a bunker so bullying and intrusive, like a beached warship, that it has almost become invisible.

The war is still with us, even as those who remember it firsthand slip away from us.

The war is still The War.

The warning still rings.

It’s In Swindon

Edwardian photograph: a grocer's shop.

I have a skill that I have yet to work out a way to monetise: finding places on Google Street View based on a single photograph and limited data.

You know when some account or other Tweets a black-and-white photo with some variant on, ‘Any idea where this is, Twitter peeps?’ Once I’ve finished vomiting over the use of ‘Twitter peeps’, I’m the bloke that spends an hour switching between Street View, census records, online photo archives and about 60 other sources to work it out.

It reminds of a jigsaw puzzle based on an M.C. Escher drawing I once helped the other half with. All the pieces looked the same, it seemed utterly impossible, but slowly we learned to distinguish between mostly black, cross-hatched black, sideways hatched dark grey, stippled dark grey, and so on. With an old photo, the more you stare, the more details pop out — a church spire in the background, a number on a nearby shop, the name of a brand of horse food, a faded sign…

Only this morning I cracked a puzzle set by the ever-fascinating @ghostsigns by spotting a war memorial in the bottom right corner; searching the Imperial War Museum’s war memorial database for NEWCASTLE UNDER LYME OBELISK and then exploring the area around Chesterton Park (where I’ve never been in real life) on Street View.

It’s satisfying on several levels. First, it’s pleasing to help someone else. Secondly, as someone who often wants help from others solving pub-related mysteries, I hope it earns me some Karma or something. Then there’s the pleasure of the hunt — I didn’t know anything about Newcastle-under-Lyme when I got up this morning, but now I feel as if I’ve lived there. Finally, there’s the reason most people do puzzles: the sense of elation that comes with a deferred resolution. I may have punched the air discreetly over my porridge.

My greatest triumph came closer to home a couple of years ago. The photo at the top of this post is of my partner’s great grandfather. We knew he ran a grocer’s shop in East London between the wars on a particular street (Orford Road, Walthamstow) but couldn’t work out where it was exactly. I stared at that picture, at Street View, back at the picture, back at Street View, until hours later I declared, ‘It’s in Swindon. Here, look.’

See, Orford road doesn’t slope, I eventually remembered, which broke that hang up. Then, free to think beyond what I’d assumed was an established fact, I started to look more widely, starting by Googling ROLLESTON which, among other things, is a street in Swindon. That rang a bell — wasn’t that where the other half’s great-grandmother was born? I trolled up and down Rolleston Street for a bit but couldn’t find the shop. Then I zeroed in on this distinctive feature:

Window bracket

I’d seen this, here. But the window arrangement wasn’t quite right, and none of the other buildings nearby had the same arrangement. Then, the final move: I looked at the building from a different angle and found a shot from an older Street View survey: BINGO, THERE IT IS.

That’s clearly a converted shop premises, on a slope, with the right arrangement of windows and brackets. (I didn’t know then about the back-and-forward date slider in Street View, or maybe it hadn’t appeared at that point.)

I know, I know — this is incredibly bloody boring. That’s who I am. Deal with it. And if you get stuck with something like this, do drop me a line. I might be able to help and even if I can’t I’ll have fun trying.