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A time to conker your opponents
ONE of the queries that has come my way this week is why some police stations, in particular the area around the prisoners’ cells, are known as Bridewells.
The term is widely used for modern custody suites.
The name of Bridewell seems to be widespread in England, but it is also used in Ireland. This is not surprising because the name originates with an Irish saint called Brigid who is honoured in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland where churches are dedicated to her. She is often called St Brigid or St Bride of Kildare where she died in the sixth century. She was so revered that when she died, her remains were buried alongside those of St Patrick. One of the best known churches of St Bride stands just behind Fleet Street, London, where it often hosts events associated with journalism.
The area around St Bride’s Church is known as Bridewell – nearby there is Bride Lane, Bridewell Place and formerly a holy well dedicated to St Bride. This was also the site of Bridewell Palace, named after St Bride’s Well. Bridewell Palace was built by King Henry VIII about 1522.
Henry lived here for a while and it was here that he became concerned about the validity of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon.
He called a meeting of the Privy Council at this location in 1528 to discuss the possibility of a divorce.
But why should cells in police stations, and indeed other places of detention, be known as Bridewells? This does seem odd because Henry used Bridewell Palace for a range of very grand occasions and it became the focus of much of his life.
After his death in 1547, it seems the palace became disused and something of a problem for the City of London authorities.
Henry’s successor was his son, Edward VI who was only nine years old when he became King and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. His reign was short for he died at the age of 16.
One of his actions, however, doubtless under guidance from the Privy Council, was to deal with the problem of Bridewell Palace.
There was some suggestion about using it for charitable purposes, but in June 1553, the young king gave it to the City of London authorities where it was to be used to accommodate tramps, rogues and vagabonds. It is thought to have been the very first workhouse, but it became too popular – it attracted the work-shy and the homeless and became a drain on the purse of the City authorities. However, because its official purpose was to cater for the poor, destitute and idle of the City of London, it was never known as a prison.
House of Correction was its official name and its success led to other city and county authorities being ordered to create similar Houses of Correction designed to encourage people to work. Indeed, some of them provided seven-year apprenticeships to coax and educate people, but it still attracted those who wanted nothing more than a bed for the night and free food. But disaster struck – the old Bridewell Palace was almost totally destroyed in the Great Fire of London.
It was re-built, and although a portion of the new Bridewell became a prison, it also included a workhouse and a hospital. Women were admitted too, but instead of being charitable towards the poor and idle, Bridewell soon became notorious for the appalling treatment of its inmates.
There were floggings and cruelties and by 1776 it was no better than any of the other dreadful prisons. It continued for several years, but the end was in sight.
In 1860, all the Bridewells, as they had become known, were amalgamated with a group known as Bethlehem Hospitals, to eventually become known as Bedlam. In 1863, the old Bridewell Palace was demolished, but its name lives on in our modern places of detention. IT WILL soon be the conker season when children collect those wonderful polished kernels of the horse chestnut fruit to play the age-old game. I can recall my childhood efforts to produce a world-champion conker, one that would beat all-comers, but it was considered unsporting to fill the skin with concrete or bake it in the oven until it was like a stone. The competing conkers had to be pure and natural although there is no doubt that some players did make use of secret recipes to toughen them.
I was reminded of this when my wife found some interesting information about conkers in the BBC’s Radio 4 “Making History” archive.
Apparently, they were collected during the First World War when they were used by the Ministry of Supply in the War Effort of that time.
Schools, WVS centres, WIs, boy scouts, schoolchildren and others were encouraged to collect as many conkers as possible and take them to the nearest receiving depot.
They would be paid 7s. 6d.
per hundredweight (that is 37.5 pence for 50.80 kilograms), good money at that time.
Reports said that so many conkers were collected around the country that there were transport problems and piles of rotting conkers were left at railway stations, so why were they required for the war effort?
The answer lies in cordite, a type of propellant used in small arms ammunition and for other artillery purposes.
It was imported mainly from North America but a shipping blockade meant that Britain was compelled to produce its own cordite. One of the ingredients was acetone, a volatile liquid. It is made from starch and so this country was obliged to search for sources of starch so that it could manufacture its own acetone.
Potatoes and maize were sources of acetone but interruptions to the supply routes meant they were not available in sufficient quantities and so an urgent search began to find other sources.
Lloyd George, who was then Minister of Munitions, asked Professor Chaim Weizman, of Manchester University, to find another source of acetone.
He discovered that it could be produced from conkers.
Much of Britain’s acetone was manufactured from maize in factories in Poole in Dorset and King’s Lynn in Norfolk. Between them they produced some 90,000 gallons of acetone a year and so those factories had to find a way of using conkers. At that time, the location of those factories was top secret and so was the recipe for producing the acetone.
Although it was possible to produce acetone from conkers, it was considered to be of rather poor quality – but they were collected again during the Second World War for the same reason.
I wonder if that’s why my conkers exploded in the oven? YESTERDAY, September 29, was Michaelmas Day which is, by long tradition, the last day to pick brambles or blackberries as they are sometimes known.
Ancient folk lore says it is the day the devil spits on brambles, although in some areas, it is said he places his foot on them. Whatever he does to our brambles, they are not very nice to eat raw or cook when collected at this time of year.
However, the real reason is nothing to do with the devil and his machinations. The truth is that, towards the end of September, brambles become rather mushy and unsightly due to the activities of the flesh-fly. It dribbles its saliva onto the berries so that it can then suck up their juice. That’s a devilish thing to do.