I Predict A Riot – Part Thirty

The Richmond Women’s Bread Riot of 1863

Fortunately, I have not experienced wartime conditions and their concomitant deprivations (yet) but it is easy to understand how things can get desperate. Take Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy in the American Civil War.

The population had tripled in pretty short order as civilians and soldiers took refuge there. The Union blockade meant that little in the way of imported foodstuffs was making its way to the capital. The problems were compounded by the fact that most of the menfolk who worked on the land were now fighting for the Confederate cause, farmland had been destroyed during the fighting and what food was available was used to feed the troops. The consequence of all this was that the cost of food increased tenfold from their pre-war levels.

In March 1863 the city was struck by a massive snowstorm which, when the snows melted, made the roads impassable, further exacerbating the logistics of feeding a population that was growing daily as a consequence of the influx of wounded soldiers. A call from the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, for a day of fasting on March 27th went down like a lead balloon.

A group of women, led by Mary Jackson and Minerva Meredith, the latter described by Davis’ wife as “tall, daring, Amazonian-looking,” decided that enough was enough. They summoned a meeting of like-minded women at the Belvedere Hill Baptist Church on 1st April and decided to march on the Governor’s office to demand that he, John Letcher, do something to alleviate the food shortages. So the following day a group of some one hundred women, armed with axes, knives, and other assorted weaponry, assembled in front of the Governor’s office, shouting “Bread, bread” and “Bread or blood.

Letcher came out and tried to pacify the crowd, to no avail. Instead, his words seem to have inflamed the situation and the women – by now their numbers had grown considerably to upwards of a thousand, broke into the government’s storehouses and neighbouring shops and took whatever they could lay their hands on. Although Letcher summoned the public guard, their numbers and resolution were insufficient to hold the crowd back. Order was eventually restored when the Confederate President, Davis, summoned some troops, and climbing on top of a wagon, threatened to order them to shoot, if the crowd didn’t disperse. He pulled out his watch, ostentatiously measuring the passage of time.

At first, it seemed as though the rioters would defy the President but as the fifth minute was beginning, they started to disperse and make their way home. Some 60 rioters, including Mary Jackson, were arrested and indicted on charges of rioting and theft.

Did the bread riots make any difference? There were no further civil disturbances in Richmond because the authorities increased the security around the city by positioning cannons at strategic points. But the authorities did redouble their efforts to improve the distribution of foodstuffs to the poorer residents. A case of carrots and sticks. Interestingly, the Confederates realised that news of the riots would have an adverse effect on the morale of their troops and did their best to suppress the story. However, you cannot keep a good story down and rumours of the disturbance gained a wider circulation, thanks to some Union prisoners who had been in the city at the time, and made the front page of the New York Times on 8th April. The civil war, of course, rumbled on for another couple of years.

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Sixteen

Louise Elisabeth de Meuron (1882 – 1980)

The Swiss get a pretty bad press. They are considered to be uber-boring, solid, reliable, conservative, up for a bit of crossbow practice every now and again and prone to exploit the economic vacuum caused by their bellicose neighbours. Not stupid but deadly dull. Seen in this light, perhaps being an eccentric in Switzerland is not a particularly challenging accomplishment. But by any nation’s standards Madame de Meuron, as Louise was known as, was up there with the best.

She was a member of the Swiss aristocracy, inheriting Amsoldingen castle from her father, Ludwig von Tscharner, and Rumligen Castle, which became her main residence in later years, from her mother, Anna von Wattenwyl. Added to that she owned a number of houses in the old part of Bern and her estate included some Alpine meadowland. But breeding and pots of money do not necessarily guarantee happiness. Louise’s parents refused her permission to marry the love of her life and she had to make do with her cousin, Frederic-Alphonse de Meuron, whom she married in 1905. The marriage ended in divorce in 1923, leaving Louise with a son and a daughter.

We are beginning to see a bit of a trend with eccentrics, namely that there is some traumatic event which prompts the descent into bizarre and unusual behaviour. In Louise’s case, it was the tragic death of her son in 1939 – he committed suicide. Thereafter, she cut what can only be described as a bit of a dash, wearing full mourning dress for the rest of her life including old-fashioned widow’s weeds and sporting a walking cane and a rather splendid, highly decorated ear-trumpet. When asked why she carried it, de Meuron retorted, “so that I hear only what I want to hear” – a privilege available only to the hard of hearing. The striking spectacle on the Bernese streets was completed by her ever—resent pack of Russian greyhounds.

Louise was conscious of her aristocratic breeding and considered that with it went a lot of privileges that the great unwashed could only aspire to. She was above those petty laws and customs which make life a trial for us. She would order her servants to park her car anywhere she wanted to. When an officer of the law had the audacity to suggest that it be moved, she would state in no uncertain terms, “that stays here.” When she deigned to grace the tram system with her presence, Louise would not entertain buying a ticket. After all, she explained, “I was here before the tram.

There was one occasion, though, where she wasn’t quite able to rise above the law. Louise caught a vagrant woman who had the audacity to steal some fruit from the grounds of her castle and taking matters into her own hands, locked the unfortunate woman in the coach house for a couple of days. Louise was up before the beak on a charge of false imprisonment but in her defence, produced a document dating from the Middle Ages which gave owners of Rumligen Castle the right to administer justice for petty misdemeanours. She was let off with a small fine and a lecture about modern justice and legal practices.

Heaven help you if you tried to sit in her church pew. One farmer had the audacity to do this. Louise put him straight by saying, “Up in heaven we will all be equal, but in the meantime down here, we’ll have some discipline.” Quite. And she had a rather disarming habit of asking total strangers, “are you someone or do you get a salary?” By Swiss standards, as I say, she was quite an odd ball.

Culinary Tip Of The Week

One of my tasks in the kitchen is to peel the spuds and prepare them for roasting. I cut each potato into half and then half again. They are then popped in the oven and eventually they become crispy.

But according to some hospitality students from the University of Essex’s Edge Hotel School I’m doing it all wrong. In conjunction with the mathematics department at Samuel Whitbread school, they set about finding the formula for the perfect roast potato, I read this week.

It’s all about maximising the potato’s surface area. Their research found that the optimal way to prepare the spud was to cut it lengthwise and then cut each half at an angle, creating a point of approximately 30 degrees. This increases the surface area exposed to the oven by 65%, resulting in a crispier and more delicious roast potato.

I’m happy to pass this on. I will be interested to see what difference it makes.

Projectile Of The Week

I’m worried. Blogger Towers isn’t exactly on an air path but we are visited regularly enough by aeroplanes on holding patterns for it to be a concern.

What’s the problem? Blue ice, that’s what.

The phenomenon first came to my attention this week when I read of a mysterious object which landed in a field in the Indian village of Fazilpur Badli. The locals thought it might have been a meteorite but when officials arrived to investigate, they found that it was a ball of frozen human faeces, or as those in the aviation industry call it, blue ice referencing the hue it takes from the detergents in an aircraft’s carsey.

I suppose they should consider themselves lucky.  On 17th December 2016 60-year-old Rajrani Gaud was hit on the shoulder in the Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh by a ball of frozen poo and urine which had been dropped from an aircraft. Her injuries could have been worse had the ball not struck the edge of her terrace house before hitting her.

And nearer to home, in 2013, Caroline Gray was woken up by an explosion. On rousing herself she found that a brown and yellow block of ice had plummeted into the bathroom of her static caravan in Pattingham in Staffordshire before crashing through the floor.

I am relieved to learn that aircraft are prohibited from ejecting passenger waste whilst in flight and that the pilots don’t have a button they can press in any case. But as we all know, accidents can happen.

What Is The Origin Of (164)?…


Here in Britain we use the word, as a noun, to signify, perhaps pejoratively, someone who is socially superior, one of our betters, perhaps a relic of the class system that bedevils our society. As ever, Ian Dury exemplifies its usage in Billericay Dickie, “Oh golly, oh gosh/ come and lie on the couch/ with a nice bit of posh/ from Burnham-on-Crouch.” But where does posh come from?

What is clear in my etymological researches is that there often contending theories to sift through before determining which is the likeliest. This is certainly the case with posh. Of all the suggested origins, some of which I will mention here, the most likely is that it comes from the streets of London via the Romanies. In Romani, their language, posh means a half and from around 1830 in the argot of thieves, posh meant a coin of small denomination, such as a halfpenny.  The thought that we might be on the right track is given additional credence by an entry in Slang and Its Analogues, volume five, edited by Farmer and Henley and published in 1902. There it defines posh as a term used by thieves for “money: generic, but specifically a half penny or other small coin.

Searches of the literature of the time unearth a mention in James Payn’s The Eavesdropper: An Unparalleled Experience of 1888; “They used such funny terms as brads and dibbs and mopusses and posh…at last it was borne in upon me that they were talking about money.” In 1892 Montagu Williams reported in his Down east and Up West a conversation with a street singer who revealed his modus operandi for parting listeners from their cash. “That sort of patter I was just speaking of is the thing to get the posh, they’ll tell you.” In a time when money sorted the haves from the have-nots, it is easy to imagine that the sense could be extended to those who were socially superior.

Then we have a contribution from one of my favourite books, The Diary of A Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, also published in 1892, where one of the characters called Murray Posh is described as “quite a swell”. The success of The Diary may have kick-started the use of push in wider circles than the criminal and lower orders but it was not the word’s origin.

But the sense did quickly gravitate to one who was superior in their dress, another mark of someone’s superiority.  In 1914 in The British Army from Within, E Charles Vivian wrote, “the cavalryman, far more than the infantryman, makes a point of wearing posh clothing on every possible occasion – posh being a term used to designate superior clothing, or articles of attire other than those issued by and strictly conforming to the regulations.” This may well be the sense in which it is used in a typically unfunny tag line in an issue of Punch from September 1918 where an officer from the RAF says, “Oh, yes, Mater, we had a posh time of it down there.

An alternative theory is promoted by supporters of Walt Whitman who in his 1855 collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, who wrote, “cold dash of waves at the ferry-wharf,/ posh and ice in the river…half-frozen mud in the streets.”  But this is a completely different usage of the word and echoes the Yorkshire dialect word posh which means mud or slush. And where does it leave the oft-cited origin for posh, the acronym of Port Out, Starboard home, reflecting the preferred cabin arrangements for travelling to and from India by ship to avoid the worst of the sun? Well, P&O deny ever using it and the story dates only as far back as 1955.

As often is the way, the thieves have it.