Barrows, Bunkers and Blue Streak Missiles: Archaeology on the MOD Estate
Phil Abramson, MOD Archaeologist for the North of England, Scotland and Cyprus
9th October 2019
Maintenance work meant that our talk on 9 October was moved to the Old Court Room in the Town Hall, sparking many pre-meeting comments about the decorative plasterwork and panelling, and the historic use of the room. Our speaker was Phil Abramson, MOD Archaeologist for the North of England, Scotland and Cyprus, though members may remember him from his previous years with WYAS.
The talk was a wide-ranging look at the role of the Ministry of Defence's 'Historic Environment Team', the sites they cover and Phil's experience in the role. The team is made up of 4 members and covers all MOD property in the UK and abroad. This large but diminishing area of 240,000 hectares of land, mostly rural, includes around 1000 listed buildings, 750 Scheduled Ancient Monuments, 2 railways, 10 World Heritage Wakefield Historical Society Newsletter November 2019 4 Sites and 6 registered battlefields making up 1% of the land surface of the UK. Responsibility for Overseas territories Gibraltar, Belize, Cyprus, Germany and the Falklands is split between the team.
The MOD Historic Environment Team are stewards of the defence estate with responsibility toward the historic and natural environment for cultural, industrial, commercial and military considerations. They assess sites and advise other MOD departments and customers including front-line commands, civil servants and tenants on use and planning, surveying, conservation and repair. Sites not in use are sold or returned to their previous owners in the same or better repair as when they entered MOD hands.
Sites are spread over the country, many were recognised by society members with knowledge of military history. They included rope mills at Portsmouth, Cape Wrath, Holcombe Moor, St Kilda, Lulworth Cove, Fort George, Inverness, Martello Towers at Hythe. Missile silos, listening posts, pillboxes, firing ranges and both historic and working barracks are managed by the MOD. Famously much of Salisbury Plain is managed by the MOD and both Bronze Age barrows and badgers have to be avoided by training soldiers. 5% of Cyprus is owned by the MOD, which looks after it's archaeology from Bronze and Iron Age hill forts to the present day. Highlights were discussed in more depth: Otterburn and Catterick in particular.
Catterick is a working barracks built to house and train First World War troops. Large communal buildings, 'Sandhurst blocks', contained dormitory accommodation, leisure and training facilities in one place. By the 1920s, shops and cinemas were built mirroring a small town. As needs changed, the blocks were knocked down in favour of smaller buildings. Plenty of archaeology remains though; it is still possible to make out crop marks of trenches built by the first recruits. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War, Phil was involved in the publication of From Farms to Arms: The History having interviewed soldiers who had served at Catterick and farmers who were tenants on the land.
Otterburn in Northumberland is a training estate with the largest firing range in the UK, but contains Roman sites Chew Green and Dere Street and features from hundreds of years of farming and border settlements. Military personnel have been trained in laser scanning techniques which, combined with emergency excavation, have preserved the Roman campsite. Being an active MOD site ensures low foot fall and therefore well-preserved earthworks.
Rural MOD sites may have been, or still are, working farmland or pasture. Military work must be managed around lambing season and uses for deserted buildings be found without destroying the basic fabric or archaeological evidence. Conservation is specifically tailored. Benign neglect, protection from active destruction but otherwise being left to the elements, is an approach often used for concrete structures or exposed stone monuments. Other sites need more active methods. Buildings that are in use with some minor wear-and-tear are often better preserved and less likely to appear on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register than those left empty.
Conservation of archive material, documents, photos and recordings, are not overlooked. One example was a series of images depicting the construction of Fylingdales radar station on the North Yorks Moors. We also heard a very moving recording from DST Leconfield of the briefing of a Second World War bombing crew. A unique experience. An unexpected item was a tree carving, or 'arborglyph', of a scantily clad young woman made by a US soldier dated to 7th September 1944.
Phil told us of his involvement in Operation Nightingale, a project for the rehabilitation of wounded, injured or sick service men and women by taking part in archaeological work at Barry Budon. Physical activity in the outdoors, problem-solving and teamwork is therapeutic and builds confidence.
One unique site was the Cold War-era missile silo near Birdoswald. Set up in 1959 by Harold MacMillan it was to produce the Blue Streak ICBM missile, designed, built and tested in the UK. It was slow to fuel though and was quickly superseded in 1961. We saw contemporary photos of its construction and compared with modern photos of the concrete structures still standing. It is a well preserved site including a section through a missile held on a cradle. This has been left to benign neglect, but the site is rare and between the asbestos shell and delicate electrics, nesting swallows and the Cumbrian elements Phil is hoping to design some better protection without spoiling the site.
The team is responsible for cultural and ethnological heritage too. This ranges from involvement in the Edinburgh Tattoo to building a replica Afghan village to train soldiers in cultural awareness.
There were questions on visiting MOD sites (often possible but at very limited times with permission) and restrictions on sites leaving MOD hands (new owners promise to abide by Historic England assessments).
A fascinating talk on a little discussed subject.
Three Worthy Women of Wakefield, by Gaynor Haliday.
11 September 2019
The opening talk of the 2019-20 season was given by Gaynor Haliday, author of Struggle and Suffrage in Wakefield, on ‘Three Worthy Women of Wakefield’.
Our first worthy woman was Phyllis Lett. Born in 1883, educated by a governess alongside her other high-flying siblings and later at Wakefield Girls’ High School. She gained a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1903. By 1906 she had made her Royal Albert debut in Mendelssohn’s oratorio, Elijah. She became a favourite of Edward Elgar, performing many of his works, including Sea Pictures and Dream of Gerontius all over the country.
In 1910 she made a recording on wax cylinder for Pathé Frère Pathéphone Ltd and by 1913 was principal contralto at the Proms, then held at Queen’s Hall. She performed closer to home in Huddersfield and at Wakefield Corn Market, with Wakefield District Choral Society, both in aid of the War Relief Fund. She was known to have a large repertoire including patriotic songs appropriate to the occasion. Her successful career was reflected in her London residence and her need to employ a secretary.
In 1922 Pathé reworked her recordings, now 12 years old and poor quality, into a seemingly new record. Lett sued for libel and breach of contract due to the damage to her reputation and loss of engagements. Elgar gave evidence at the trial, warning the judge to ‘brace himself’ before listening. Pathé settled out of court, destroyed the recording and paid the court expenses.
Whilst continuing to travel and perform she met her future husband, Charles Rupert de Burgh, an Australian and former soldier who had served and been wounded in Gallipoli gaining the medal for Gallantry. She gave a farewell concert in March 1925 and then emigrated, but not before producing a new good quality well-reviewed recording for HMV which still exists as a digital download.
Wakefield at the turn of the 20th century had a particularly high infant mortality rate, with 1 in 5 children dying. Gaynor’s next subject, Marguerite de Flemyng Boileau, attempted to change that.
Born in 1875 from an Irish family she received a BA from Brighton High School, and studied privately for a sanitary inspection qualification from the University of London. On arriving in Wakefield she began a series of home visits (6000 to 900 babies in her time there). She was respected for her tact and enthusiasm, her ability to listen and give good advice both. She made sure that mothers knew premature death was not a foregone conclusion. Unusually it was not poverty that made the difference, nor ‘drunken mothers’ or dangerous environments, but ‘crass ignorance and devoted affection’. Babies were being overfed, some 2-3 times per hour, and weaned far too early, one 4-day-old being fed a tomato. Their crying being taken as hunger pangs and then fed again; gin was used as a ‘soothing syrup’.
Boileau began an association, ‘Babies Welcome’ in 1906, the first of many in the country, to help pregnant mothers put aside money for their baby’s arrival. Wakefield Council were generally complimentary and happy to employ extra sanitary inspectors, but unwilling to pay for them or provide other financial help, but she raised money from subscriptions and donations from the women. Improvements followed, though slowly, and were commended in the London Times. She was also able to persuade families to use savings from multiple-worker households to buy bigger houses with more room to minimise sanitation problems.
Boileau left Wakefield in 1910. By 1915 5 health visitors had been employed to perform home and school visits.
Marguerite de Flemyng Boileau died in 1932, leaving little personal information except a will and an obituary. She became Boileau-Lessy and had a daughter, Christin Lessy. The spelling of her daughter’s name may indicate a German father and therefore a reason for the lack of records at this time. Christin became a Queen Alexandra nurse in Egypt and post-war in Palestine.
The last and only Wakefield-born subject was Gwendoline Beaumont, nee Haworth, an anti-suffragist turned would-be politician. In her youth she wrote A Victorian Young Lady’s Opinion of the Male Sex dividing men up into categories such as rabbits, rats, nincompoops, manlets and finally Man. This reflected her opinion that the vote for women was counter-productive as they should just get men to do what they wanted, although she later published ‘Home and Politics’ to encourage women into politics.
When her husband Gerald, partner in Greaves, Atter and Beaumont solicitors, went to war she and her sons moved into Hatfeild House with her father-in-law, and sister-in-law suffragist Florence Beaumont. They, perhaps surprisingly, got on well and bonded over their dislike of the activity of suffragettes.
Post-war, Beaumont threw herself into public life, becoming part of the Women’s Advisory Committee and Woolley Parish Council. She wrote to the local press about issues that affected women and children, particularly health and education. Her sons had been privately educated, but she recognised that many lacked that opportunity and for others more technical than academic study was needed.
In 1935 she decided to stand for election in the Rothwell constituency. She was the only women candidate for the National Party against William Lunn who had held the post since 1918, and was not a fan of women in politics. She campaigned on her progressive policies on work and education, canvassing door-to-door. People (and the press) were polite but dismissive. She would have preferred heckling as this could be argued against. Comment was passed that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ but she replied that she was a widow (Gerald Beaumont had died in 1933) and her sons were grown up. Lunn won the election in a landslide. Beaumont had known that her campaign was doomed but felt moved to fight it anyway. The first woman to become an MP in Yorkshire was Alice Bacon, the subject of our previous talk, given by Rachel Reeves, MP and Rothwell has yet to return a woman MP.
There was time at the end for questions about aspects of the individual women’s lives but also about how Gaynor had gone about researching her book, one in a series about women’s lives in various towns. Without knowing what she would find she trawled through West Yorkshire Archives and Local Studies library for the archives of the Women’s Co-operative Guild, newspapers and council minutes finding the first mentions of women, and teaching appointments at Wakefield Girls’ High.
Gaynor gave us a substantial talk full of information covering a wide range of aspects of the lives of women in Wakefield between 1850 and 1950.