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A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: November 2016

Gin o’Clock – Part Sixteen

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With so many independent distillers surfing the wave that is the ginaissance it is easy to get sniffy about the attempts of the big supermarket chains to enter the premium gin market. Their obvious advantages is reach – regrettably, no one these days is too far from any of the majors – and price – they are able to occupy a price range considerably below those that the independents can or deign to charge. Tempting as they may be, are they any good?

Our first featured gin is to be found at Lidl – my bottle cost £9.99 for 70 centilitres – Castelgy London Dry Gin. It comes in a squat green bottle with a screw cap, the label at the front bearing a rather Teutonic coat of arms and boasting a 100% pure grain spirit. Perusing the label at the back of the bottle I find that it is produced in Germany – no surprise there – by Eckerts Wacholder Brennerei GmbH. They have been in the business for 125 years and produce a wide range of spirits and  liqueurs. Castelgy doesn’t appear on their website so, presumably, it is distilled on licence for Lidl. The rear label on my bottle came with a helpful recipe for gin and tonic.

At just 37.5% ABV it is a little undercooked for my taste but made up for its lack of punch with a more intense the morning-after headache than I normally experience. Apart from the pure grain spirit base, mentioned twice on the labelling, it is a little vague as to the botanicals, mentioning only juniper (natch) and coriander. There is certainly some citrus component in there, probably orange peel, and my taste buds seemed to detect ginger. To the nose it has a rather antiseptic odour with juniper dominating and a schnapps style smell coming through. It is clear and to the taste it seemed quite bland with a surprisingly perfumed sensation coming through. The aftertaste was stronger than I had anticipated and this is where the spices, probably ginger, come to the fore. As my first gin of the evening I had to wait for the aftertaste to dissipate before moving on to my next one.

All in all, it was much better than I had feared and would make an acceptable – and cheap – base for a cocktail. You need to choose your tonic with some care to neutralise, if that is possible, the strong after burn.

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The other gin featured this time is Asda’s Triple Distilled Premium Gin, retailing for about £15. The bottle is a dumpy bell-shaped affair with a screw cap. The labelling is elegantly minimalist but at least the botanicals are disclosed – juniper, lemon peel, liquorice root, orange peel, coriander, orris and angelica, staple ingredients all. There is no indication who distilled it for them other than it was in the UK. To the nose the juniper was to the fore and the citrus elements were detectable. A clear spirit it was pleasing to the taste, slightly oily and the coriander and citrus was in evidence. The aftertaste was strong but not unpleasant with a hint of spice and liquorice. It was a well-balanced spirit, particularly in comparison with Castelgy, and whilst it is stronger at 41% ABV it did not give me the kind of headache that makes you consider, albeit fleetingly, giving up drinking.

I suppose you pays your money and you makes your choice. I’m not sure I would recommend either as starting points for exploring the ginaissance but if you are watching your pennies, there are worse places to start.

Until the next time, cheers!

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Two

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Joseph Hansom (1803 – 1882)

I was rereading one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories the other day. The protagonist rushed to the scene of the crime in a Hansom cab, the principal form of taxi in those days. It set me thinking about who designed the carriage and this led me to the unfortunate character that was Joseph Hansom whose ingenuity and ill-fortune earns him a place in our illustrious Hall of Fame.

Working as an estate manager at Caldecote Hall, near Nuneaton, Hansom came up with a revolutionary design for a safety cab. It could hold two passengers with the driver seated at the back, communication between the two parties being effected through a trapdoor in the roof. Its principal advantage over contemporary rivals was that it had a low centre of gravity – large wheels and a lower cab and suspended axle – which meant it was much more stable when cornering. Being light and capable of being drawn by only one horse – making it cheaper for the cabbie to operate – it was faster and more manoeuvrable than many of its rivals.

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Hansom applied for a patent on December 23rd 1834 and the first Hansom cab travelled down the Coventry Road in Hinckley in 1835. The design was a great success and Hansoms soon replaced the more expensive to run four-wheeled Hackney carriages as the vehicle of choice for hire. In its heyday there were up to 7,500 Hansoms plying their trade in London and they were to be seen in other major cities in the UK as well as Paris, Berlin, St Petersburg and New York. The last London Hansom driver handed his licence in as recently as 1947.

Although others, principally, John Chapman, made modifications to the design, mainly to improve passenger comfort, Hansom’s design stood the test of time. As the holder of the patent you would expect Joseph to have received a handsome reward for his ingenuity. Alas, he didn’t. He sold his patent for the cab to a company for the sum of £10,000. The company immediately got into financial difficulties and reneged on the payment leaving Hansom without a penny.

Throughout his life Hansom was dogged by ill-luck. Starting out as an architect – he designed over two hundred buildings including Plymouth Cathedral – he and his partner, Edward Welch, overcame stiff opposition to win the commission to design and build Birmingham Town Hall in 1831. It is a beautiful building with tall pillars and a Roman feel about it but costs soon spiralled out of control and as the architects had stood surety for the builders the edifice brought their company crashing down into bankruptcy.

In 1843 Hansom together with Alfred Bartholomew started an architectural journal called the Builder which is still going today, although it was renamed Building in 1966. Aimed at architects, builders and workmen it found a profitable niche but, as you might expect, Hansom didn’t share in the rewards. He had to relinquish his control over the journal because of lack of capital.

Whilst his name was immortalised in the cab that he designed – there is a blue plaque in his memory outside one of his former residences, 27, Sumner Place in South Kensington – he didn’t receive a bean for his ingenuity. It must have been particularly galling for him to summon a cab. For that reason, Joseph, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame

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If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

Double Your Money – Part Twelve

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Jabez Balfour and the Liberator Building Society

The wonderfully and, as it turned out, appropriately named Jabez Balfour (1843 – 1916) is probably one of if not the greatest fraudster in British financial history. His first name – it is Hebrew for one who causes pain and sorrow – was a popular moniker until its lustre was inevitably tarnished by its association with Balfour. Ostensibly a pillar of society – he was a member of parliament for Tamworth (1880 – 1885) and Burnley (1889 – 1893) and the first mayor of Croydon – Jabez made his mark in financial circles by encouraging the working man to save hard and buy their own home.

The Liberator Building Society, of which Balfour became managing director at the age of 37, was positioned to improve the fortunes of the down-trodden. Prominent non-conformist ministers were appointed to the Board to give it respectability and to encourage their flocks to invest. Profits, Jabez claimed, would go towards funding house building and improving living conditions of the poor.

By 1888 the Society had amassed assets of some £750,000 and whilst some of the monies were used to fund good works most of it funded the purchase of properties owned by Balfour at exorbitant prices or to fund wildly speculative projects. One such scheme was to turn mudflats in the Isle of Wight into an upmarket seaside resort.

The final decade of the 19th century heralded a downturn in the economy, hitting speculative ventures and causing investors to look more closely at where they had placed their monies. The press, particularly the Economist and the Financial Times, took a particular interest in the fortunes of the Liberator. Their investigations revealed that the society together with its connected companies mainly traded with each other and overvalued assets were assigned to whichever company was about to announce its trading results, to exaggerate the strength of balance sheets and increase the dividends payable. The companies’ auditors were often impoverished non-Conformist ministers who glad of a few bob signed the accounts off on the nod. Balfour’s own auditor was his tailor!

Balfour might have got away with his fraud had economic conditions not deteriorated. In 1892 rumours swept the City that the Liberator was in trouble and in October it was forced to shut its doors, leaving at least 25,000 depositors ruined. Half were over 60 years of age with limited means. A 70-year old spinster from Hertfordshire went mad and a bookseller in Peckham cut off his own head. Several directors were arrested but Balfour had scarpered – to Argentina.

Thanks to the perseverance of Inspector Frank Froest of Scotland Yard Balfour was kidnapped after 13 months on the run and returned to Blighty to stand trial. Sentencing him to 14 years in November 1895 – he served eleven – the judge said “No prison doors can shut from your ears the cry of the widow and orphan whom you have ruined”. The Economist was more sententious “to the worldly-wise, the mixing up of religion and business and the public appeals for Divine guidance in company matters, are regarded ..as marks of the Pharisee and as danger signals which it would be unwise to ignore. Balfour’s conduct would have been bad enough under any circumstances, but the hypocrisy which permeated it from beginning to end made it infinitely more contemptible than if he had been an ordinary financial scoundrel”.

Balfour wrote a best-seller, My Prison Life, upon release and in August 1915, at the age of 71, went to work in a tin mine in Mandalay. He was sent home, the manager fearing the heat would kill him, and he died of a heart attack on the London to Fishguard train six months later en route to another mining job.

Munificence Of The Week

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Badgers – not sure what to make of them. In one part of the country they are a pest and being exterminated; in other areas, they are being treated like royalty.

I read this week that the Environment Agency has spent £313,000 building a luxury sett for badgers, complete with larder, sleeping area, communal area and latrines, in an attempt to lure them away from an existing sett dug into the banks of the river Steeping in Lincolnshire. As an added bonus there is even £50 worth of peanuts on offer. This is the same agency that has refused to spend £800,000 to remove silt from and to dredge the Steeping to give local (human) residents extra protection against flooding. Madness.

But we are not the only ones at it. At Oamaru in New Zealand, blue penguins have had to cross an increasingly busy road to get from their nests to the sea. Not anymore. Locals have built a 25 metre underpass to allow the penguins to avoid the wheels and it is going down a storm. The penguins have taken to it and the press report I read this week said that the feedback was “almost universally positive”. Who were the naysayers, I wonder? Those who enjoyed driving at them, perhaps?

App Of The Week (2)

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Did you know that in the first eight months of 2016 73 people have died in selfie-related incidents, up from 39 in 2015 and 14 in 2014? The hotspot, apparently, is India where 76 have killed themselves in pursuit of the ultimate selfie, often posing by a railway track.

Rather than just acknowledge that this is Darwinism in action, some PhD student, Hemank Lamba, I read this week in the MIT Technology Review, is hard at work trying to develop an app that will alert people to the fact that the selfie they are about to take is putting them at risk.

What’s wrong with common sense? How soon will it be before we hear that someone was killed consulting an app before taking a selfie as they stand on the edge of a cliff? The world has gone mad!

Never Mind The Pollocks, Here’s James Ensor

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Abstract Expressionism – Royal Academy

A rare trip to the smoke saw me divert to the Royal Academy to catch the Abstract Expressionism (or AbEx as we hipsters call it) exhibition which is on until 2nd January. I have had a difficult relationship with modern abstract art. I often come away thinking of the Emperor’s new clothes. Is there really something in it or is the artist just taking the piss? Wandering around the galleries, crammed with the monumental works of the likes of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Clyfford Still in what is the largest exhibition of their works for over half a century, the old nagging doubts hit me again.

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Many of the works are monumental, vast acres of canvas daubed with colour, geometric design and dripping paint. Impressive or provocative as any one of the works on display may be, to see so many at one time dulls the senses. Too much of a good thing, perhaps. For me, the Jackson Pollock gallery was the highlight of the show, a heady mix of manic design and frenetic brush work. I may not rush out and buy one but there was a kind of hypnotic quality about them that drew me in.

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Rothko has the Central Hall to himself and this is where I really struggled, great canvasses with blocks of colour in geometric design. The first was mildly interesting but after a while the repetition of a theme started to grate. You could see why Rothko is one of the most defaced artists. The find for me was Still who at least presented you with a riot of colour, reds and oranges clashing in a painting that rises majestically to the ceiling and another which features white and pink with bright red, blood like splashes – a really unsettling iage.

I began to feel I was being suborned by what is a wonderfully curated exhibition of some 150 paintings – the room featuring drawings and photographs is a tad unnecessary and seems a bit of an afterthought – until I came across Ad Reinhardt’s enormous canvas filled with black paint. Normality restored, I thought.

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More to my taste was the exhibition in the Sackler Wing of the Belgian born artist, James Ensor (1860 – 1949), entitled Intrigue, on until 29th January. He was an artist with a keen sense of humour, his paintings full of caricatures, skeletons and the macabre. The painting that really took my fancy was The Skate, a wonderful image of the fish with a tragi-comic expression, lounging languidly on a table as if it had just had a satisfying meal, rather than about to become a meal itself. I also enjoyed the portraits of Ensor a century on, a lounging skeleton (natch).

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His art is wide ranging, from caricature to landscape – the picture Afternoon in Ostend, is dark and brooding with an eerie green glow above the roof tops – and his Seven Deadly Sins reveal an artist with a mordant, satirical eye. His most famous work, The Intrigue, has a crowd of masked figures surrounding a mother whose baby is a doll, an amusing but slightly disturbing image.

Unsettling for sure but wonderfully evocative with images full of small details that unless you really look you might miss. His caricature of Sloth includes an image of snails crawling up on to the bedspread – a powerful image of how long the laggards have been asleep. I left the RA into the London drizzle with a spring in my step and a smile on my face, my faith in art to surprise and entertain restored. A marvellous exhibition.

On My Doorstep – Part Thirteen

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Along the Guildford Road on the left just after the Old Guildford Road forks off it is to be found Frimhurst Family House which offers a much needed refuge for children and parents from the stresses of daily life. Laudable as the charity is, that is not the reason why the Victorian house set in its own extensive woodland and grounds comes under our spotlight. Rather it was one of the residences in the area of Ethel Smyth (1858 – 1944), the prominent suffragette and composer.

Her father, Major-General, upon promotion to the command of the royal Artillery at Aldershot, took up residence there in 1867 until his death in 1897. The property, though, first appeared on a map in 1847 and was part of the 80-acre estate of John Bimie. In its early days it housed a brewery which supplied beer to the Rose and Thistle in Frimley Green.

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Ethel was the fourth of eight children and caused some consternation in the area because she was the first woman to ride a bicycle in Frimley Green, dressed in bloomers, and frequently cycled across the Hatches – a series of pools – to visit her friend, Princess Eugenie, who was in residence at Farnborough Mount. This outrageous behaviour was a portent of what was to come as we shall see in a moment.

In the 1940s Frimhurst became a rather upmarket Country Club hotel boasting a 9 hole golf course as well as tennis and croquet facilities, a snip I’m sure at two pounds and two shillings a day. The actress, Rita Hayworth, stayed there for the Ascot season, as you do. The house was bought in the 1950s by a Mrs Goodman who converted it for its charitable purposes.

Upon the death of Major-General Smyth the family upped sticks and moved to a house on the Portsmouth Road, now a Toby Carvery. Ethel lived there from 1895 to 1908 as a blue plaque at the front of the building proclaims. She studied music in Leipzig and wrote six operas as well as a Concerto for Violin, Horn and Orchestra and a Mass in D. The Mass and her third opera, The Wreckers, were critically acclaimed on their first performance but, generally, reactions to her works were mixed. Notwithstanding that, she was made a Dame in 1922 for her contribution to music but grew increasingly deaf which made it difficult for to compose. Tragically, at a concert to celebrate her 75th birthday Ethel was so deaf she could neither hear the music nor the audience’s reaction. Ethel also published ten books, principally memoirs and polemics.

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Smyth was also prominent in what we call the Suffragette movement but then was known as the Women’s Social and Political Union, suspending her musical activities for a couple of years to concentrate on promoting the movement. Her battle song, The March of the Women, was sung by suffragettes up and down the land. In 1912 she was one of 109 women who responded to Emmeline Pankhurst’s call to throw a brick through the window of any politician who opposed votes for women and received a two month sentence at Holloway prison for her pains.

By this time Ethel had moved away from the Frimley area and was living at Hook Heath near Woking. It was at her house that Emmeline Pankhurst was re-arrested on May 26th 1913 under the so-called Cat and Mouse Act which allowed hunger striking prisoners to be released when they were so weak as to be near death but then be rearrested when they had perked up.

Ethel trained as a radiographer in the First World War and was attached to a military hospital in Vichy. A remarkable character and fittingly, as a keen golfer, her ashes were scattered in the woods near Woking Golf Club.

Book Corner – November 2016 (2)

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The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

A characteristic of reaching a certain age is the urge to compile lists of things you want to do before you shuffle off this mortal coil. For those who need some assistance in sorting out the wheat from the chaff there are handy books you can buy, usually cheerily entitled 1,000 Things/Books/Places To Do/Read/Visit Before You Die. On my reading list are a number of books which I really ought to read but for one reason or another I have never got round to. Prominent on the list was Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, an oversight which I have now rectified.

The first thing that struck me was how relevant to today’s world is a tale ostensibly about dispossessed farming folk from the dust bowls of Oklahoma making their way to the so-called promised land of California. One of the images of the second decade of the 21st century is the exodus of desperate people from war-torn countries seeking a better life for themselves and their families. And like our modern-day migrants the Joads find that wherever they turn there are people out to rip them off – I found the staccato used-car chapter particularly moving – determined to look after themselves come what may – the chapter highlighting the blind indifference of Joe Davis’ son to the misery he is causing his neighbours is a tour de force – and, anyway, the promised land, promoted by unscrupulous agents looking for cheap labour, is no better than what they left. A different kind of shit but shit nonetheless.

What also struck me was how radical the book was. Steinbeck pulled no punches. The ordinary person is at the mercy of powerful, uncaring forces – banks, big business, faceless entrepreneurs. The only way they can resist is through collective action, by organising their own affairs. Even then, they are merely mitigating their conditions, not taking direct control. The tractor, which brutally knocks down the homesteads and introduces more efficient farming practices, is just one symbol of the powerlessness of the people to resist. These are themes as relevant today as they were during the Depression.

The turtle that makes a slightly puzzling appearance early on in the novel is also highly symbolic. It plods on determinedly to its journey’s destination. It too is at the mercy of machinery – the act of crossing a road is highly dangerous for such a stately, slow-moving creature. Is it too fanciful to think that despite all this the seed lodged in its leg is the symbol of new life, a new beginning? Where there is life there is hope and for all the gloom and misery and suffering in the book, there are moments where humanity’s natural instincts and better elements give us hope of something better, no more so than in the controversial ending.

Structurally, the book has a longer chapter of narrative followed by a shorter chapter which has a wider world-view of what is happening and retains this format pretty much throughout. The latter are almost like service stations, allowing you to recharge your emotional tanks before the next assault, but also allowing Steinbeck through the use of lyricism, imagery and potted histories to make the reader aware of the bigger picture – softening us up for the next punch in the ribs in the Joad’s story. Very effective.

For me, this was a wonderful book with a timeless quality and a relevance for today. Shame on me for only discovering it now but Tom Joad and the stoical Ma will long remain in my memory. As Steinbeck wrote, “You’re bound to get idears if you go thinkin’ about stuff.

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Forty Six

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Cures for epilepsy

Epilepsy, characterised by dramatic and frightening fits, has afflicted humans since at least the dawn of recorded history. A Mesopotamian script dating to around 2,000 BCE has the first recorded description of a fit and the Code of Hammurabi (circa 1790 BCE) allowed the owner to get a refund for a slave if they suffered from epilepsy. The ancient Greeks saw someone suffering from epilepsy as being possessed by genius and the gods.

Medical knowledge until the last century was such that epilepsy was barely understood, let alone treatable or preventable. This sad state of affairs meant that it was a fertile ground for the practitioners of quackery to operate in. One such was a “Dr” Root – it is by no means certain he had any medical qualifications and dropped the title sometime in the 1890s – who offered a remedy called Elepizone, which consisted of the bromides of sodium, ammonium and potassium, together with nux vomica which contains strychnine, caramel and wintergreen water.

As we have come to expect, the advertising of the product was fulsome, as this one dating from 1888 shows. “I CURE FITS” it screamed, adding as a gloss “When I say cure I do not mean merely to stop them for a time and then have them return again. I mean a radical cure” Claiming to have made a study of fits and epilepsy, Root declared, “I warrant my remedy to cure the worst cases”. If this was not inducement enough to respond, Root offered a free bottle of his “infallible remedy” to those who responded by post. Why not? After all, as the advert helpfully pointed out, “It costs you nothing for a trial and it will cure you”.

Root originated from Springfield, Ohio and appeared aged 35 and listed as a vendor of patent medicines there in the 1870 census. He appears to have sold his business together with the right to use his name to another quack, T A Slocum who was flogging Psychnine as a cure for consumption and lung troubles. Slocum and Root then seemed to share addresses – whether they were working in partnership is unclear. A London chemist, Thomas Francis Elton, was recorded as acting as an agent for both Slocum and Root.

They did not have the field to themselves. A K Hollowell offered Dr Lindley’s Epilepsy Remedy which, according to the adverts, was a “positive remedy for epilepsy, fits, spasms, convulsions and St Vitus’ Dance”. In reality it was only bromides and alcohol in water. The so-called Dr Peebles’ Institute of Health in Michigan – actually run by a quack called W T Bobo – offered a Brain Restorative – bromides in an alcoholic preparation with valerian – and Nerv-Tonic, a sweetened water and alcohol solution of vegetable products.

Other remedies available were effectively sedatives using bromides such as Hunter’s Epilepsy Cure and Doctor Croney’s Specific for Epilepsy whilst others relied on phenobarbital such as Epilepson and Maghee’s Epilepsy Treatment. Whilst they might have been on the right track – phenobarbital is a cheap and commonly used anti-convulsant these days – many of these so-called remedies fell foul of the American Food and Drug Act of 1907. As the American Medical Association said at the time, purchasers confused temporary suppression of epilepsy by the powerful sedatives with a cure but, actually, were subjecting themselves to great danger. Quackery in a nutshell.

A Better Life – Part Two

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The Oneida Community

Taking their name from that part of New York State that they chose to settle in, the Oneidans were a utopian, religious movement which was founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848. They had a number of beliefs which were unorthodox for the time, not least their adherence to the doctrine of Perfectionism – after religious conversion you became free from all sin without having to wait to shuffle off this mortal coil. Quite handy really. Unlike other religious communities, the Oneidans were not waiting for the Second Coming of Christ. It had already happened – around 70CE if you missed it – and his spirit had now entered Noyes’ band of adherents.

For a community which never had more than 300 members it was incredibly bureaucratic with 21 standing committees and 48 administrative sections which supervised the commune’s activities. All members were expected work with tasks which involved little skill rotating amongst the bulk of the commune. Women who wore their hair short and dressed in trousers or short-skirted tunics and more freedoms than their equivalents in the outside world would have, including the ability to develop and practise skills. They also played an active role in shaping commune policy and participated in its daily religious and business meetings.

A key feature of the community was the custom of mutual criticism. Held in front of the community as a whole initially but as it grew, in front of committees individuals were subjected to criticism. The goal was to eliminate unsocial behaviour, to provide an outlet for aggression and guilt and promote community cohesion. For those at the end of the torrent of criticism it could be a gruelling experience.

Their most controversial practice was what they called complex marriage and what we might term free love. Any member of the commune was free to have consensual sex with another –although I suspect it was strictly heterosexual – and children became a communal responsibility. Older women introduced adolescent males to sex as did older men with young girls. But there was a sinister controlling aspect to the arrangement rather than it being a free-spirited hippy love-in. Under a creepy eugenic process known as Stirpiculture which was started in 1869 couples were specially selected for features which would go towards producing perfect children. 58 children were sired under the programme, 9 by Noyes – wonder how he got selected?

Initially, the community had a hand-to-mouth existence, living off the fruits of the soil and by logging. What transformed their fortunes was the arrival of a member who gave them gratis the rights to the trap he had invented. What became known as the Oneida trap was acknowledged to be the finest in the land and became the foundation of a thriving industrial enterprise.

But it was the controversial complex marriage system that sounded the death knell for the community. Bowing to outside pressure in 1879 Noyes advised the commune to give the practice up – some 70 entered into traditional marriage arrangements. But this didn’t pacify his external critics. A group of clergymen issued a warrant for Noyes’ arrest on the count of statutory rape and he skipped over the border to Canada with a few of his most loyal followers, dying there in 1886.

The remaining members set up a joint stock company, Oneida Community Ltd, and it became a major producer of cutlery until it closed in 1995. The last original member of the community, Eliza Underwood, died in 1950 at the grand old age of one hundred.