I can spot a skater from a mile off. Identification doesn’t rest on something as simple as the clothes they are wearing or the hair they are styling. And it isn’t because they are carrying a skateboard. It’s something...different; not quite an attitude, more a “type of movement”, as freestyle/street legend Rodney Mullen put it (1). Mullen believes there is an authenticity to skateboarding which transcends the annual fashion trends and is embedded in skateboarding’s rebellious genetic constitution. I happen to agree with him - but this isn’t a philosophical blog post - this is historical.
It was around the age of 9 or 10 that I began, what would evolve into, a permanent passion for all things skateboarding. Somehow (I don’t recall how) I came into possession of a ‘Penny Board’ - a narrow fibreglass and plastic skateboard, the type of which you see at any toy store. Mine had a ‘Stars and Stripes’ design on the top but I don’t remember the colour of the wheels. This was the first in a long line of boards that I would purchase and ride over the next 12 years. I still purchase decks (at the age of 44!) but now I buy them for the nostalgia and the artistry of each deck. My first real full size professional board was a Santa Cruz, Rob Roskopp ‘Target IV’. I had begged my parents to buy me one for my birthday. When it arrived, it became my most prized possession - I remember vividly the shape and the feel of it under my feet. I recall spending hours ‘designing’ my grip-tape pattern on the surface of the board. But this isn’t a blog for the sake of nostalgia - this is historical.i]
Iterations of Santa Cruz's Rob Roskopp 'Target' Deck.
Identifiable origins on the evolutionary timeline of skateboarding can be found in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The evolutionary ‘single-cell’ of skateboarding must be the ‘crate scooter’ or ‘crate-skate’. American children (or, as is more likely, their parents) took empty fruit crates and nailed them to planks of wood, which themselves were set atop metal roller skate wheels. If you have ever watched the first Back to the Future film, you will see Michael J. Fox steal a kid’s crate scooter, rip the crate from its plank of wood, thus creating a skateboard. You then see him (actually his skate-double, professional rider Per Welinder) evade Biff and his bullies by using his 1980’s skills on his 1950’s board.
Undoubtedly, these crates carried within their rudimentary design, the DNA of their future progeny, but skateboarding (as we know it today) was really a product of the 1960’s surf scenes in California and Hawaii. Looking for ways to occupy their time and energies when waves were not forthcoming, surfers began transferring their skills to land. Roller skate wheels were screwed to simple planks of wood that surfers would ride barefoot along the sidewalks - thus ‘sidewalk surfing’ was born. Surf companies, quick to pick up on the new trend, began building complete set-ups for sale - some of the more influential being, Hobie, Bing’s and Makaha. Embedded in the genetic blueprint of this early incarnation of skating, was the 1960’s counter-cultural philosophies of rebellion and independence. Skateboarding has changed since then - the boards, the wheels, the fashions, the tricks, the appeal, the marketability, have all evolved beyond measure. One absolute constant, however, is the non-negotiable nature of what it means to be a skater - a dedication to self-improvement (in skateboarding) and a comfort with remaining outside of mainstream social, cultural and political trends. Perhaps the earliest successful embodiment of this ‘nature’ was the Zephyr Team (known more popularly as the Z Boys). Immortalised in the film, Lords of Dogtown (directed by Christine Hardwicke and starring Heath Ledger), the Z Boys (Stacy Peralta, Tony Alva and Jay Adams, to name a few) oversaw an evolution in skateboarding, with their low, fast and aggressive lines pushing the domain of skating into the air and into empty swimming pools.
As mentioned in the podcast, there were a number of turning points in the development of skateboarding - I’ve picked three which I believe to have had tremendous impacts: 1) The invention of urethane wheels, 2) The creation of the ‘ollie’, and 3) The use of VHS recording technology.
Until the invention of the urethane wheel, skateboards ran on metal wheels with little to no grip or control. When Frank Nasworthy introduced this new type of wheel in 1972, creating the company Cadillac Wheels, he revolutionised the emerging sport. With the grip and speed afforded the rider, skaters were now in control of their boards in a manner impossible with metal wheels. This pushed the envelope of technical ability and accelerated trick development. None of today’s tricks would be possible without the ‘ball-bearinged’ urethane wheel. It also ushered in the era of wearing sneakers to skate, instead of riding barefoot.
In the 1960’s, skaters would ride their board barefoot and, should they wish to jump, would either simply leap from their board over an obstacle (think of a high jump where the rider goes over the bar and the board glides underneath it) or, by gripping the board with their toes - the ‘gorilla grip’ - and pulling the board with them when they jumped. This, as you can imagine, limited the trickset that any rider could master. That is, until Alan Gelfand invented the ‘ollie’ in 1977/78. Gelfand was able to air out of a vertical section of Solid Surf Skate Park in Florida without holding onto his board with his hands or feet. This was a truly staggering development as it introduced a new range of aerial tricks that were possible, as well as enabling skaters to ‘pop’ much higher out of the half-pipes, bowls, and pools. The trick was immediately monickered the ‘Ollie Pop’ after its inventor, whose nickname was ‘Ollie’. In the 1980’s, Rodney Mullen was able to recreate the ‘ollie’ on flat land - and thus street skating was born. Pretty much any street skating trick you care to select, is dependent upon the ‘ollie’.
Skateboarding was very much an American phenomenon and, as a result, other than Americans who exported the sport abroad when they travelled (American soldiers did this very thing when serving in Germany during the 1970’s), it remained largely bound by the borders of the United States. That is, until, the development of VHS recording technology enabled skate companies to film their teams and market their brands abroad, relatively cheaply. Early pioneers of this format, were Powell-Peralta, with their wildly popular Bones Brigade videos, H-Street, who produced low budget, gonzo-style videos which introduced the world to legends such as Matt Hensley, Danny Way, and Tony Magnusson, and Santa Cruz - the original home of the near-mythic Natas Kaupas. All of a sudden, these brands and their skaters had a global reach. Consequently, new tricks could be learned by kids all around the world, companies became multinational (and wealthy), and skaters like Tony Hawk and Mark Gonzales emerged as superstars. Let’s not forget that directors such as Spike Jonze got his start directing skate videos (see the groundbreaking Video Days starring - the now famous actor - Jason Lee). My passion for skateboarding and push for proficiency in new tricks was, in no small part, due to the availability of a steady stream of skate vids on VHS. The success of shows such as Jackass owes a great debt to both the culture of skateboarding and the media through which it was transmitted.
This has been very much a rapid-fire exposition of some of the core elements of the development of skateboarding - most of which have been selected because of a selfish interest in those particular areas. If you are interested in how the modern form continues to inspire and push boundaries (some of the street skating happening around the world currently, is beyond what I could have comprehended thirty years ago), then you could do worse than to visit www.theberrics.com, try and catch a Street League show, or get yourself a copy of Transworld Skateboarding or Thrasher Magazine. If you want to see how boards and designs have changed over the decades, I would recommend The Disposable Skateboard Bible, by Sean Cliver.
Dr. Elliott L. Watson
Co Editor of Versus History
British Rail operated Britain’s railway network from 1948 until privatisation in the mid-1990s. By 1997 all of Britain’s railway operating concerns had been franchised out, or sold off to the private sector. The railways were not the only industry to be nationalised in the aftermath of World War Two under the Labour government. Indeed, anyone alive in the 1950s-1970s would no doubt have accessed a whole range of nationalised services, including - but not limited to - electricity, water, gas, the post office, petrol and railways. While this concept might seem somewhat alien today, for better or for worse, nationalisation was an instrinsic part of the fabric of Britain’s political and social landscape in the late twentieth century.
British Rail was not among the first sweep of privatisations under Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s. This was left to her successor John Major in 1993. British Telecom, British Steel, British Airways and British Petroleum were all sold off in the 1980s, before British Rail. However, at privatisation, British Rail was split into numerous different companies. Railtrack took responsibility for the track and signalling, while the trains services themselves were franchised out. After a catalogue of errors and widespread mismanagement, Railtrack was put into liquidation in 2002 and its operations were transferred to Network Rail - owned by the British government.
Here are three things that you might(!) want to know about British Rail;
1) British Rail might have been a byword for “poor quality and bad service” (Robert Tombs, The English and their History), but it is cool once again, albeit posthumously! The iconic ‘British Rail Corporate Identity Manual’ has been fully reprinted by a design enthusiast named Wallace Henning (@Wallagram). This is a treasure trove of inspiration for any budding designer and a great way for anyone interested in British history of the 1960s-1980s to relive the period. I already have my prized copy! You can check it out here: https://britishrailmanual.com/
2) While British Rail was the butt of many jokes about delays, ‘leaves on the line’ and the ‘wrong type of snow’, it ran on a shoestring budget in comparison to the nationalised French railway company, SNCF. Indeed, it cost far less than its privatised successor in Britain. British Rail ran on a subsidy of GBP 1 billion per annum in the 1990s. In 2014, Britain’s privatised railway system required a subsidy of GBP 5 billion. That’s a significant difference.
3) British Rail not only ran the trains between 1948 and the mid-1990s - it designed them too. The Railway Technical Centre in Derby was at the forefront of railway innovation in the nationalised-era, which may surprise some people. Moreover, it designed and launched the iconic HST (InterCity 125) and the APT (which was withdrawn not long afterwards). Moreover, the British Rail ‘Double Arrow’ logo lives on today, exhibited on every train station fascia and showcased on many road signs up and down the country, as the generic denominator for a railway station. There are not many logos that have outlived their parent company in quite the same way.
British Rail, 1947-1997. Gone, but I haven't forgotten you! You can check out the podcast on this topic - Versus History #32.
Co-Editor of Versus History.
The ‘Tonkin Gulf Resolution’, August 10th, 1964
Our recent Versus History podcast was a fifteen-minute special in which Patrick asked me some quick-fire questions in the allotted time on one of my particular areas of interest. The area of interest that I elected to have questions fired at me upon was American involvement in the Vietnam War.
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the Vietnam War. I am very much aware that the term ‘fascinated’ is perhaps wholly inappropriate a verb to employ when discussing an event in which countless numbers of people lost their lives, and one which still carries a present-day legacy of physical and emotional trauma, but it is, to me, the right word to use. It is entirely possible that my fascination was conceived during my early to mid-teens when I would spend school lunchtimes at a friend’s house watching (among a number of movies I wasn’t supposed to watch at such a tender age) the Oliver Stone film, Platoon. The horror of the conflict and the stark and complex differences between the ‘soldiers’ on both sides, as well as the differences between the American soldiers themselves, made for a jarring, unsettling viewing experience.
The more I learned and, later, taught about American involvement in the Vietnam War, the more it became clear to me why it was so, enigmatic. Again, you may think this a terrible choice of adjective to describe an event of such tragedy and horror - and for the most part, you would be correct in your thinking, except that...
Ask yourself this question: When did the Vietnam War begin? Go one further and ask yourself: When did American involvement in Vietnam begin? The enigma that I speak of is bound up in these two questions.
It used to be that wars were a largely formal affair - war was declared, lines were drawn, sides were assembled, and battle commenced. The United States has not issued a formal declaration of war since June 4th 1942, which was against Rumania. Of course, to suggest that the United States has been entirely uninvolved in direct military conflict since 1942 would garner immediate incredulity. However, the fact still stands: the United States Congress (for it is only the legislature which can do so) has declared war ‘only’ eleven times in its history, starting in 1812 against the British, and ending in 1942 against the Rumanians. And therein lies the rub. As historians of conventional wars, we can place our finger on a date in a calendar, or a mark on a timeline and declare with the utmost of confidence, “Here, here is where the war starts!”. With the conflict in Vietnam, we can have no such confidence because we can do no such thing.
US Declaration of War on Rumania, June 4th 1942
All of what we would call modern day Vietnam (as well as many of its surrounding neighbours - often referred to collectively as Indochina) had been colonised and ruled, almost without break, for hundreds of years by various foreign interlocutors - from China, to France, to Japan, back to France, and then - according to most Vietnamese - to the United States. Each subsequent incoming coloniser (for that is how they were most certainly viewed by the vast majority of the people of Vietnam) came into the country immediately upon the heels of the outgoing coloniser. In some cases, the outgoing invader was forced out by the incoming invader. In some cases, the invader was chased out by the Vietnamese themselves. In other cases - one of particular note - the outgoing occupier (a failing France) asked for assistance from someone they hoped would take on some of the burden of ruling Vietnam - the United States.
Since there is no declaration of war to which we can point as the ‘start’ of the war, then the language we employ must shift to accommodate the vagaries of a war without one. The term we generally use in our investigation is ‘involvement’. In many ways this word is a poor substitute for ‘beginning’ or ‘start’ - instead of making things clearer, the new semantic actually makes murkier the already murky water. Ask any Historian to determine the origin of a war, and expect a deep inhalation of breath before they begin. Ask any Historian about the origin of involvement in a war, and you had better tell your husband or wife that you’ll be late home for dinner. The reason? How do you quantify involvement? How do you qualify involvement? By what criteria do you judge involvement? What does involvement even mean? You know what I mean?
Take a deep breath...
Without a declaration of war, at what point would you consider America to be involved in Vietnam? If a president utters public phrases criticising French occupation of Vietnam, does that represent a public investment in the concerns of the country? If a president begins discussing who should rule Vietnam once World War Two is over and the Japanese are defeated, does this constitute American involvement? FDR did both of these things. If American soldiers, including Major Allison Thomas, as part of an OSS (Office of Strategic Services) mission had parachuted into North Vietnam to train Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh guerrillas to help prevent Japanese escape and gather intelligence, would this constitute American involvement in Vietnam? This happened in the dying days of World War Two, under President Truman. In order to guarantee French support in NATO, and to avoid a Cold War power vacuum being created by a French loss in Indochina (who were now fighting the Viet Minh), Truman authorised millions of dollars in financial and military assistance to the French. Would this be considered US military involvement in Vietnam? President Eisenhower gave billions of dollars worth of aid and provided 1500 military advisors to Diem (the leader of South Vietnam) who helped establish the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam). He even guaranteed that he would support Diem if he chose not to hold the free elections that had been called for under the Geneva Accords of 1954. Would this be considered involvement? Remember, at this point in time - 1954 - there are no American ‘boots on the ground’. When the French lose at the Battle of Dienbienphu in 1954 and decide to leave Vietnam for good, America already has a financial, military and ideological commitment to the security of South Vietnam. And yet… no war. When JFK, in 1956, gives a speech determining that ‘Vietnam is the place”, is he foreshadowing an increased involvement? When Kennedy becomes the President and increases financial and military assistance, including helicopters and pilot ‘advisers’, authorises the use of Agent Orange and Napalm, increases the number of military ‘advisers’ to 16,000 by 1963, creates the MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam), secretly sends Green Berets, and authorises the Strategic Hamlets Programme, is America involved? Remember, there are still no official US soldiers fighting and there is no Congressionally recognised war. When President Johnson convinces Congress to pass, what was known as, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, authorising presidential discretion in terms of a military response, is America involved? Is it involved at the point at which Operation Rolling Thunder begins, in 1965, bombing the jungles and villages of North Vietnam, dropping more ordinance than was dropped on Europe during the entirety of World War Two in the process? Is it involved when LBJ authorises an escalation of over half a million troops to assist the government of South Vietnam fight against the Vietcong and the Viet Minh? Exhausting, right?
And remember, still no declaration of war by the US Congress.
Thank you for bearing with me. Let me synthesise:
Where does this leave the student of American involvement in Vietnam? It leaves you with an interesting and unique opportunity: you get to choose both the meaning of the word ‘involvement’ and determine the point at which you consider the US to be involved. That’s what is so wonderful about the subject of History: provided you maintain an honest commitment to the evidence, you get to set the parameters of your investigation.
Dr. Elliott L. Watson (@thelibrarian6)
Co- Editor, Versus History
Lars D. H. Hedbor will be the Special Guest on Versus History Podcast #30. The blog post below is by Lars himself, in advance of the release of his new book.
Our image of the American Revolution is too often reduced to a caricature of white men in powdered wigs prancing about the countryside, quoting Jefferson and Paine in between picturesque set-piece battles with the vile Redcoats. Exploding that myth, my new historical novel The Freedman: Tales From a Revolution - North Carolina reveals the previously untold story of how former slaves made themselves indispensable to the success of the Revolution in North Carolina.
The Freedman tells the story of Calabar, brought from Africa to North-Carolina as a boy and sold on the docks as chattel property to a plantation owner. Abruptly released from bondage, he must find his way in a society that has no place for him, but which is itself struggling with the threat of British domination. Reeling from personal griefs, and drawn into the chaos of the Revolution, Calabar knows that one wrong move could cost him his freedom—or even that of the nation.
I was inspired to write The Freedman when I came across a news report about the former mayor of Greenville, North Carolina, who discovered that his African-American ancestors had actually fought on the patriot side. I immediately felt compelled to discover what that experience had been like. The more I learned, the more I knew that I had to tell the story of their vital contributions to the independence and liberty of a society that barely even tolerated their presence.
My first novel, The Prize, was published in 2011, followed by The Light in 2013, and The Smoke, The Declaration, and The Break in 2014; The Wind was published in 2015, The Darkness in 2016, and The Path in 2017. Each book is a standalone novel, looking at the experience of the American Revolution from a different colony – including some usually ignored for having the poor judgment of not being part of the original thirteen.
I have also written extensively about this era for the Journal of the American Revolution, and appeared as a featured guest on the Emmy-nominated Discovery Network program The American Revolution, which premiered nationally on the American Heroes Channel in late 2014. I also appeared as a series expert on America: Fact vs. Fiction for Discovery Networks, and was a panelist at the Historical Novel Society’s 2017 North American Conference.
The Freedman was released by Brief Candle Press on May 31st, 2018, and will retail for $12.99/€12.99/£9.99 in paperback through all online booksellers, and for $5.99/€5.99/£4.99 in electronic book format, through all major ebook providers.
For links to all of my books, visit my Web site at http://larsdhhedbor.com/. Follow me on Twitter @LarsDHHedbor for daily tweets about #TodayInHistory in the #RevWar, and see my page on Facebook at http://facebook.com/Lars.D.H.Hedbor/ to learn about the latest news about my work.
Today marks the arrival of our second Versus History publication: Lord Durham and the Canada Question. Our previous publication, 33 Easy Ways to Improve Your History Essays, was written to help students navigate the difficult waters of historical writing; this time we have written an academic investigation into an integral part of British Imperial history. The rationale for writing about Lord Durham - often known as ‘Radical Jack’ - was simple: we found that Lord Durham’s contribution to British Imperial policy, particularly as it related to the Canadas, was woefully under served in the textbooks and presented a truly difficult challenge to students seeking to source readily available academic literature on the topic. Thus it was that we set our energies to uncovering the role of the enigmatic Lord Durham in the ‘Canada Question’.
Great Britain’s influence in North America was reduced in humiliating fashion by the American Revolutionary War (1775-83); the loss of the thirteen American colonies was a disaster for King George III and the metropole. However, British influence - though radically diminished - still remained in North America, albeit in a much diluted form and a more northerly location. Its reconstituted North American territory still contained New France - a product of the British victory in the Seven Years War over France and Spain. Among other territories, New France contained Lower and Upper Canada.
When, in 1837, the British-controlled territories of Lower and Upper Canada erupted in open rebellion against the metropole, it seemed to some at the time that Great Britain was to suffer an unconscionable second colonial humiliation in the space of just over half a century. Although there is debate about just how serious these twin rebellions were to London’s dominion over the Canadas and, indeed, to the wider British Empire. Equally, the comparisons drawn between the revolution south of the border and those of Lower and Upper Canada, have proved uncertain. What is certain, however, is that Lord Durham was thrust into the centre of this ‘Canadian problem’.
John George Lambton, Earl of Durham and Whig boulevardier, was cajoled by British Prime Minister, Viscount Melbourne, and even the young Queen Victoria, to take on the roles of Governor-General and High Commissioner of British North America. In this role, he was tasked with determining the causes of the twin Canadian rebellions and, crucially, proffer solutions. These solutions needed to achieve twin outcomes, both with high degrees of subtlety: placate Canadian dissatisfactions; maintain British rule.
The central discussions rest here: what, if anything, did Lord Durham achieve in his brief time as the Governor-General/High Commissioner of British North America? Canada did not follow the revolutionary lead of its geographical cousin to the south and, in fact, became the very model of responsible government within the British empire. In time, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa would adopt similar models of government. However, just to what degree Lord Durham deserves credit for these developments, is where we must begin our investigations.
In true Versus History style, Elliott will be asserting the contributions of Lord Durham were crucial to the settling of the ‘Canadian issue’, while Patrick will be challenging this argument with his own: that Durham’s involvement was minimal at best, and the ‘issue’ was a mere ‘trifle’ in the overall concerns of the British Empire.
Pre-order the ebook format now, or download it from Amazon on the 17th, which is free for the first five days of publication, and discover - either as a student or a teacher - the contributions of the enigmatic Lord Durham to the ‘Canada Question’.
Elliott L. Watson & Patrick O’Shaughnessy
Co Editors and Authors of Versus History
The Broadway Musical ‘Hamilton’ has been an absolute smash hit. Even if one isn’t familiar with the historical context of the production, you may well have heard one of the catchy songs from the musical itself. Tickets for Hamilton are certainly not cheap - demand for seats has far exceeded supply! Along with appearances from Alexander Hamilton himself, the production features three comical songs from British King George III, who reigned from 1760 to 1820, directed at his troublesome colonial subjects on the other side of the Atlantic.
For many, this may well be the first time they have encountered George III as an historical actor. He did indeed support the raft of Parliamentary legislation aimed at bringing the American colonists to heel, notably under his Prime Minister Lord North in the turbulent 1770s. In this period, the Boston Massacre, the Tea Act, the Boston Tea Party and the ‘Coercive Acts’ heightened tensions and galvanised the wrath of American Patriots in the Thirteen Colonies towards British rule. Moreover, Thomas Paine labeled George III as a ‘royal brute’ in his 1776 pamphlet ‘Common Sense’, while the Declaration of Independence accused him of trying to establish an ‘absolute tyranny’ in British America. All in all, a pretty damning critique!
The validity of these claims is of course subject to debate. Hamilton has certainly brought these issues back to the forefront of public and historical consciousness. But, there was more to King George III than America and tyranny.
He was the first of the Georgian monarchs to style himself as a proud British - as opposed to a Hanoverian - King. English was his first language, not German, unlike George I and II. Infact, he never even visited Hanover. He took a great interest in the art of Kingship, writing numerous essays on the topic as a youth. He had a penchant for farming and an interest in the system of enclosure that was engulfing England at the time. In 1769, his thirst for knowledge resulted in him building the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, which he took great pleasure in. He was by all accounts committed to his large family and his wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who lent her name to Charlotte, North Carolina (which, incidentally, Lord Cornwallis labeled a ‘hornets’ nest of rebellion’ during the American Revolution). George III may have been the last King of America, but he was also the first King of Australia. He reigned over his Kingdom during a time of vast social, economic and industrial change. He was a ‘hands-on’ monarch, who took great pride and an intense interest in the ruling of his realm. He is Britain’s third longest reigning monarch, behind Victoria and Elizabeth II. He was, perhaps, the last British monarch to exercise bona fide executive power. His son, the Prince Regent and subsequently George IV, was certainly a great deal less popular with the people than his father had been during his prime.
Mental illness incapacitated George III for the last years of his life - a fact which is directly referenced in the songs by George III in Hamilton the musical. However, hopefully the musical itself will serve to inspire those interested in the production and historians worldwide to learn more about the ‘Mad King’. There was - whatever your opinion on George III - certainly more to him and his reign than just America and mental illness.
I would love to hear your thoughts!
Patrick O’Shaughnessy (@historychappy)
Co-Editor of Versus History
When Versus History kindly asked me to submit a blog post I immediately thought about the threat of revolution in Britain from 1789-1848. This period has fascinated me since my undergraduate days and now I run a course on the subject for the WEA. Sadly, I don’t have the space to cover the entire sixty-year era here. The good news is I can focus instead on the story and some of the historiography of what is possibly the most interesting period, one when revolution seemed possible but did not happen: the “heroic age of popular radicalism” (E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 1963) from 1816-20.
This five-year period includes a public campaign for parliamentary reform running parallel with risings in obscure northern villages (inspired, depending on who you believe, either by government agents or a revolutionary underground), attacks on demonstrations, legislation banning public meetings, and alleged coups d’état culminating in treason trials. The key question arising from all this drama relates directly to the credibility of the revolutionary threat: was it merely the invention of enterprising government agents, or did a revolutionary danger actually exist?
Thompson’s The Making suggested the existence of an underground radical thread linking the British Jacobins of the 1790s to 1820. This tradition was harboured and nurtured in the manufacturing districts of the North, finding expression first in clandestine movements of the 1790s, then merging with trades unions via the Combination Acts. After a brief lull came the Luddites, and then finally the widespread campaign for parliamentary reform following the Napoleonic Wars - a campaign which involved open public agitation and covert revolutionary activity. The thread died with the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820, the last of the proposed Jacobin coups d’etat (the first was in 1803, the “Despard Plot”, the second in 1816 at Spa Fields in London).
Ten years later, Thomis and Holt’s Threats of Revolution in Britain 1789-1848 (1972) was in little doubt about the nature of any threat: “The revolutionary underground… seems to have been almost the determined creation of stubborn, short-sighted governments”. This is a view which has its origins in the aftermath of the 1817 Pentrich Rising, when the Leeds Mercury exposed a government spy (“Oliver the Spy”) said to have been responsible for inciting rebellion across the North. Fabian historiography of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries would find much to commend in the story of a ruthless administration sending agents provocateurs to poison the minds of sensible sober Englishmen. Three years later there were echoes of Oliver in the activities of another spy, George Edwards, during the Cato Street Conspiracy.
So, amongst other concerns, Thompson’s critics had responded by citing government use of spies to encourage rebellion – allowing them to portray any discontent as the work of isolated, misguided and easily manipulated fools. And there the debate seemed to solidify into two competing and immovable sides. That is, until Edward Royle’s Revolutionary Britannia: Reflections on the threat of revolution in Britain, 1789 – 1848 (2000).
Anybody interested in the years 1816 – 20 must read this book. Bringing new and old research together for the first time, Royle shows how a Thompsonian thread could be visible in the stories of men who claimed to have associations with revolutionary activity and in some cases were arrested and tried. Particularly illuminating is the case of John Blackwell, who led an attack on a Sheffield armoury in 1812. Blackwell reappeared four years later during a riot in Sheffield, the day after the alleged Spa Fields coup d’etat attempt in London. And then he put in a final appearance in April 1820 at the head of a crowd attempting to attack a Sheffield barracks on the same day as a rising in South Yorkshire was due to take place. As Royle asks, when considering the nature of the revolutionary threat from 1816-20: “Were ministers rather better informed than sceptical historians have sometimes liked to think?”
Mike Towers (@Mike_Towers)
Guest Versus History Blogger
BOOK LAUNCH: 33 Easy Ways to Improve Your History Essays
We are very proud to announce the release of our new book – Versus History: 33 Easy Ways to Improve Your History Essays.
We have spent a great many years deconstructing and reconstructing student essays, so much so that we have developed a library of simple, tried and tested, ‘go to’ tips that enable the better writing of history. Determined in our mission to help our students, and those out there whom we don’t teach directly, perfect the essay-writing skills required at post-16 level, we have compiled many of our best tips in this publication.
Our twin hopes are that a) students will find these tips useful and incorporate them into their essay planning, and b) overworked teachers will see time-saving instructional value in using these tips in the classroom.
You can download or order print copies of Versus History: 33 Easy Ways to Improve Your History Essays from Amazon.co.uk.
Please feel free to get in touch with us at www.versushistory.com or @versushistory if you have any questions or suggestions.
Don’t forget to listen to our weekly Versus History podcasts on iTunes.
Sincerely and with Best wishes,
Elliott L. Watson & Patrick O’Shaughnessy
Versus History Podcast #5 on Field Marshal Haig was - in my opinion - one of our very best. The fact that Douglas Haig’s reputation and performance in WW1 has received so much scrutiny from academic historians (and war poets) over the years highlights that this is a genuine historical controversy. In addition, select politicians and academic historians have cast a critical eye on the pedagogical methods used by some teachers when delivering the topic in classrooms. Therefore, Elliott and I felt that the stakes were high with this one. Professor Gary Sheffield - author of many acclaimed works on Haig - wishing us well before the debate served only to amplify the sense of occasion. The Podcast is there for all; feel free to let us know your thoughts, feedback and critique.
In any event, one key argument used to attack Haig’s performance and / or abilities during WW1 is his quote about the ongoing value of horses in warfare:
I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity of the horse in the future is likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse—the well bred horse—as you have ever done in the past.
Haig was indeed a cavalry officer before WW1. Whilst researching for the Podcast, I encountered much academic literature and scholarly opinion which utilised this quote - and Haig’s long term trajectory towards Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force - as the basis for a wider argument that Haig’s views on warfare were anachronistically rooted in his past experiences of the Boer War. However, the dawn of mechanised tank in 1916 did not result in the immediate transformation of the nature of warfare in the twentieth century. Far from it. The German Wehrmacht - known for the ferocity and incisiveness of their Panzer divisions during WW2 some 20 years later - relied heavily upon the horse between 1939 and 1945. Professor Timothy Snyder of Yale University made this very point in his book ‘Black Earth’;
“...even the army of the famed Blitzkrieg moved chiefly by horsepower’ (p.306)
The fact that one of the most devastating military operations of modern history - the Nazi Blitzkreig that laid waste to Europe - used the horse as the logistical spine of their transport operations, must - to some extent - serve to vindicate Haig in this regard. If I could wind back the clock to the debate itself, I would have made just this point. The fact that the tank made its debut ‘on his watch’ at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 should demonstrate that Haig was no luddite or technophobe. Given that the horse played a pivotal part in the Nazi war machines’ transport and logistics operations, this should serve to vindicate Haig’s comments about the future role of the animal in warfare.
I am sure that Versus History will touch on a theme related to World War One again soon.
Thanks for reading
Co-Editor Versus History
The Causal Web
Here at Versus History, we spend a long time emphasising the symbiotic roles of cause and consequence in the creation of history: consequences require causes and thus causes can’t, by definition, exist without consequences. Something of a basic, but watertight piece of cyclical, deductive reasoning. Since the path of history is beset on all sides by the perils of determining cause and consequence, I thought I’d write a few of my thoughts down.
In a number of our podcasts, as well as a few chapters of our new publication – 33 Easy Ways to Improve Your History Essays – Patrick and I have discussed the importance of moving beyond simple description or explanation of causes and consequences, towards a more evaluative analysis. What we mean by this is simple: we want our students to create, what Richard Evans calls in his book, In Defence of History, a ‘hierarchy of causes’.
I think it is safe to say that history is never mono-causal but multi-causal. As a result, it is vital when answering a question linked to cause that students determine a series of causes to be explored. What’s more, they must, and this is crucial, also determine a hierarchical framework within which to set these causes; a framework constructed by answering the following question: Which cause is the most significant in relation to the others and why?
Additionally, though they may judge one cause more important than the other (by virtue of causal relativism and the assigning of historical ‘value’), the student must also admit that there is a web of causes that it may be impossible to separate. Since it can only be the time-traveller who is able to return to a time period and cancel a cause – removing it from history – we can never honestly imagine a set of perfectly separate causes because we can never truly suppose what might have happened had one of the many causes never existed. Thus it is the responsibility of the history student to determine the key causes and then to assess their significance in relation to one another. Identifying the key causes carries an implicit judgement: that ALL of the causes which have been selected are important in some respect or another. This assessment is of profound significance because it is a powerful acknowledgement that, while one cause may be fundamentally more important than the rest (however that may be adjudged to be true), it is also true that every cause under discussion must also retain value – otherwise why discuss it at all?
And so, it is imperative that all students of history determine a hierarchy of causation (and consequence) when writing history, but it is prudent to also acknowledge that a web of causes (and consequences), impossible to untangle, exists and that this web may even supersede the importance of any one cause.
Elliott L. Watson