In praise of John Buchan

‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself (1855)

It’s August 1939 and war in Europe is less than a month away; but you’re in Ottowa’s stately Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s official residence, in the midst of a cocktail party.  A hubbub of polite conversation and chamber music wafts through the Long Gallery, and the late summer heat drifts through the open doors from the elegant gardens beyond.  The circling guests chatter about the King and Queen’s triumphal visit just two months earlier; the machinations of Herr Hitler; that strange man Mussolini; and as the sun sets, everyone drifts through the doors to watch the fireworks on the lawn.

For once, eschewing the formal garb of his post in favour of demure black tie, the relaxed viceroy Lord Tweedsmuir stands to your right, a cigarette at his lips: but you, newly arrived in Canada and two gins to the better, have not yet been introduced.  “And who are you?” you ask him politely.

Amid the din of the first fireworks exploding in the sky he smiles and introduces himself; and within moments you are in the comfort of his affable company.  Yet in truth, echoing through the decades after his sudden death in February 1940 aged 64, the question is a good one: for who was this son of the manse John Buchan, First Baron Tweedsmuir, fifteenth Governor General of Canada, sometime schoolboy at Hutchesons’ Grammar School and President of the Oxford Union, barrister, First World War spymaster, member of Parliament for the Combined Scottish Universities, Chancellor of Edinburgh University, and writer?

Well, as I hope is obvious from that introduction, John Buchan is someone who defies the pigeon hole.  He simply will not be put in a category, except to say that like Andrew Carnegie, James Clerk Maxwell, Elsie Inglis, James Watt, Mary Slessor or David Livingston, he is one of those Scots who belong not just to Scotland, but to the whole World.  Like them, Buchan still shows us today that Scots who believe in themselves can cry out along with Archimedes: “give me a place to stand and I will truly move the Earth.”

Despite a life which would stretch the bounds of credulity if featured in one of his own novels, John Buchan is a relatively unrecognised figure in modern Scottish life; indeed, if it were not for the enormous fame of The Thirty Nine Steps, even his name would perhaps have faded entirely.  For instance you will search in vain for a statue of Buchan anywhere in Britain (although there is admittedly a fine bust in Edinburgh’s National Portrait Gallery), while the rest of his literary output, not to mention his political life, is surprisingly overlooked – something that the good people at the John Buchan Society hope to put right when an exciting new museum – The John Buchan Story – is unveiled in Peebles’ Chambers Institute next month. Here’s their website:

All of a sudden there is something very modern about Buchan: perhaps it’s a product of our austere times, that heroic characters once again seem appealing?  And there was certainly much that was heroic about Buchan, both in real life and in the characters he created.

A recent review of Buchan in the Independent stated:

“[he] knew that you can’t buck the consequences of your actions, and that your life is what you make of it. Perhaps his peculiarly Scottish combination of Romanticism and Calvinism – daring living and high thinking – is due to return to fashion.”

An anthem for the credit crunch perhaps?

As regards politics, Buchan was a Tory; but a rather unusual one.  Politically he believed in the Union, but had strong nationalist sentiments, stating in Parliament, in the midst of the depression of the 1920s:

“I believe every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist. If it could be proved that a Scottish Parliament were desirable… Scotsmen should support it.” 

In the same speech, Buchan reflected on the high emigration from Scotland of the time:

“We do not want to be like the Greeks, powerful and prosperous wherever we settle, but with a dead Greece behind us.”

The issues Buchan wrestled with resonate today; but his were very different times, and it would be simplifying his position to conclude that he was a nationalist in the modern political sense: for Buchan was someone who believed in a strong Scotland within the British Empire of his times; something which he viewed as a great community of nations with shared ideals and principals.  For example, after he was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1935 he quickly established himself as a stout promoter of the country’s national identity.  In 1937 he stated that a Canadian’s first loyalty is not to the British Commonwealth of Nations but to Canada and Canada’s King.” a pronouncement that saw him denounced as ‘disloyal’ in some quarters, when he was in truth anything but that.

Whether Scots, British or Canadian, Buchan believed in the power and identity of the individual, and respected it – something which sometimes caused fear in the hearts of the controlling political class of his day.  He liked people and nations to be true to themselves and reflect their singular characteristics, stating that the diverse ethnic groups within Canada should retain their individuality and each make its contribution to the national character,” because “the strongest nations are those that are made up of different racial elements.  Old fashioned language perhaps, but a clear and modern message in the world of the 1930s.

He was a tireless worker in the ethic of his upbringing, and overcame the natural shyness of the Scot to show the world his mettle.  Between 1896 and 1940 he wrote more than fifty historical works on subjects as diverse as Julius Caesar, the Somme, Oliver Cromwell and Sir Walter Scott, while his fictional output was hardly less prodigious.  Aside from The Thirty Nine Steps and his hero Richard Hannay’s continued adventures in Greenmantle, Mr Standfast, The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep, many of Buchan’s novels are Scots historical masterpieces like Witchwood (Buchan’s favourite of all his works), an eerie thriller set in a seventeenth century village, focusing on the moral dilemmas faced by the newly appointed minister David Sempill, when he encounters dark forces in the primordial forest which looms above his parish.

 Reading Witchwood recently, it struck me that the book demonstrated just how much Buchan followed in the style and pace of Stevenson, whose short story Thrawn Janet must surely have been a key influence.  Buchan is credited with the creation of the modern thriller, but was he not in turn borrowing from Stevenson’s Kidnapped?  Is Buchan’s work not in fact a natural progression from his eminent Scots forebears in the nineteenth century?

One thing that is undoubtedly true of Buchan is the fluency of his prose: he writes as he was – a wise and natural storyteller at ease in himself and his subject; and I heartily recommend revisiting his novels, many of which have now been attractively reprinted by Edinburgh’s own Polygon Press.

Buchan, today, remains fascinating and enigmatic:  you never quite get the feeling that you know him entirely; and like the chase sequences in his thrillers he is always two steps ahead and vanishing around a corner. A collection of political and personal contradictions to rival Whitman, he is nonetheless in the end very human: an honest and good humoured friend, and an optimistic tonic for the cares of modern living.  He deserves to be read much, much more.


This article was published on 9 July 2012 on the ThinkScotland website:

On the Crimean War

No war in all the history of the British Army (or for that matter British Imperial History) managed to capture so much of what is best, of what is worst, what is intelligent, what is stupid, what is courageous and what is foolhardy, what is important and what is infinitely insignificant, than the extraordinary and downright bizarre military campaign which was the Crimean War, of October 1853 to February 1856.  It stands in history as a testament to British folly – and yet there was much learnt from the dire experience, and which led to the successful reshaping of Britain’s military organs, rendering them fit for the practice of Empire in its hayday between 1860 and 1914.  Indeed, the Crimean War still has lessons for us today.

I should tell you how it came to be that I developed an interest in the Crimean campaign.  As usual, the story begins in the ancient world, and this time with my reflecting on the extraordinary fact that one of the greatest poets of the late Roman Republican age, Publius Ovidius Naso, for reasons which have remained an entire mystery to posterity, was exiled in his fiftieth year from the splendour of Rome to the very fingertips of its dominions on the shores of the Black Sea, just south of where the mighty river Danube empties out into its waters.  For ten long years Ovid lived in piteous exile on that shore, in the town of ancient Tomis, now known as Constanza, in Romania.

While researching his exile, and in particular the ancient trade routes which were followed from Rome to Corinth and beyond (and which I hoped would have supplied the poor fellow with olives and dates), I discovered that ships would regularly sail from Greece through the Dardanelles, up the western shores of the Black Sea until they would reach the large peninsula at the north end of the Sea, which they knew as Taurica.  This peninsula, about half the size of Denmark, and which is very roughly a rhombus or sidelong four sided diamond in shape, had in ancient times a very large greek colony at its southern end, known as Chersonesos.  To this day, the ruins of Chersonesos are only marginally less extensive than those of Pompeii.

It was in the tenth century, however, and after the year 988 AD when Saint Vladimir of the Kievan Rus converted to Christianity, that this beautiful corner of Europe joined the Russian family, becoming known as the Crimea.

The Crimea then began a long and distinguished history in the life of greater Russia. It was a place of great churches, monasteries and cathedrals. It became a centre of Russian culture and learning. It became a summer resort to which the frozen citizens of St Petersburg and Moscow would flock every year. In 1783 the mighty harbour city of Sebastopol was founded by Admiral Thomas MacKenzie (of Scottish decent, of course, and a sailor in the service of Russia like his father before him). It quickly became the home port for the Russian Black Sea Fleet, established by Prince Potemkin in the same year. It remains to this day as Russia’s only ice-free harbour. In the aftermath of the Second world War, the Crimea was the location for the momentous Yalta conference of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. It is a breathtakingly beautiful place, with dark and snowcapped mountains, cliff faces plunging to the coastal sea below and yet a number of sheltered and deep water bays.  It has, overall, a temperate, continental climate which is very pleasantly warm in the summer, but bitterly cold in the winter.

And so the Crimea has a claim to be one of the most historic and interesting parts of the continent of Europe, quite apart from being the amphitheatre for one of the most astonishing military campaigns in history.

No one ever seems, properly, to understand what the Crimean War was all about – suffice to say, that it involved an urgent need to remove the Russians from what was, on any view, one of the somewhat more Russian parts of the world, I hope you would agree from my simple summary.

By the beginning of the 1850s, Russia was extremely powerful and Turkey – or to give its proper title, The Ottoman Empire – was increasingly weak.  Russia was encroaching ever more onto Ottoman territory, and had even sought to extend its territories along the western Black Sea shores, lands which bordered those of Austro-Hungary.  In short, it was felt across Europe that Russia was ‘getting rather big for its boots’.

In an unrelated incident, there had, in June 1853, been a riot outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Catholic monks, who had been given a key to the church, placed a silver star over the Manger (but quite why this was happening in June always rather puzzles me – if anyone has an insight I’d be glad to hear from them).  Russian Orthodox monks tried to stop their Catholic brethren fixing it there, and a heated and then violent struggled quickly ensued. Some of the Orthodox monks were killed.  Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman Empire at that time. The Russian Tsar, enraged by the death of the Orthodox monks, hurled blame on Turkey for the death of his monks. The Tsar even went so far as to suggest that the Ottoman police in Jerusalem had been involved in the monks’ murder. Within days of the incident a Russian Army was marching towards the Danube on a crusade to protect the Holy Places from Islam. The situation was becoming very serious.

Tension between Russia and Turkey escalated. Meanwhile diplomatic dispatches flew across Europe from St Petersburg to Paris, from Constantinople through Vienna to London, and even crackled across the new fangled electric telegraph wires.  The Tsar was hopeful of keeping Great Britain out of any war with the Turks, but the rumblings of war were growing louder.

By October 1853 Russia was at war with Turkey.  On St Andrew’s Day, 30 November 1853 (Saint Andrew being the patron saint of the Russian Navy, under whose reversed saltire they sail) the Russian Black Sea Fleet under Admiral Nachimoff sailed out of Sebastopol. He encountered a Turkish flotilla on the south shore of the Black Sea at Sinope, and sank every single ship.  Nearly 4,000 Turkish sailors were lost and many of them, so it was widely reported in the press at the time, were shot by Russian gunners as the floundered in the water.

British opinion was outraged by the massacre. Driven on by the war bellowing of Palmerston, Lord Aberdeen (the Prime Minister) decided he had no choice but to recommend to Queen Victoria that war be declared upon Russia in order to defend the independence of the muslim Ottomans.  France declared war on Russia the day after Great Britain.

Now, the last successful war which Great Britain had waged had been the long and bitter Napoleonic campaign against France which culminated in 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo.  Now, less than 30 years later, the British and French were waging war together, and this time against the Russians.  As the British were soon to discover to their cost, however, there had been a great deal of sitting on a large quantity of laurels since Wellington had trodden those glorious Belgian fields in victory.

At Waterloo, Wellington had a brave and distinguished aide de camp by the name of Lord Fitzroy Somerset, the youngest of the Duke of Beaufort’s eleven children.  Fitzroy was always a young man marked for greatness – and in the words of Crimea Historian Christopher Hibbert:

“Captain Lord Fitzroy Somerset… had the ability of preserving in the midst of confusion, irritation, danger or abuse a quite astonishing serenity.  He was also extremely tactful, industrious and discreet.  He promised, indeed, to be an ideal Military Secretary; and [Wellington] found him to be one.”

Fitzroy was at the Duke’s side on the field at Waterloo, but toward evening a musket ball from a sniper smashed his right elbow.  He walked to a forward hospital and showed his lacerated arm to the surgeon in charge.  The surgeon told him to lie down on the table and then he cut the arm off between the shoulder and the elbow.  Fitzroy did not so much as murmur; and The Prince of Orange, lying wounded in the same small room, was unaware that an operation had been performed until the remainder of the arm was tossed away by the surgeon and (by now, Colonel) Fitzroy called out – “Hey, bring my arm back.  There’s a ring my wife gave me on the finger.”

After Waterloo there followed a brilliant military career, and in due course a peerage, which led to Fitzroy being ennobled with the title, Lord Raglan.

And it was Lord Raglan, in the years after the iron duke’s passing, it was the same dashing young Fitzroy who had been Johnny to Wellington, that took up the post of Commander in Chief of Her Majesty’s Brittanic forces.

There have been few commanders in chief who have been subjected to the levels of criticism which Lord Raglan has suffered at the hands of history – and in the opinion of this humble essayist, he has been very greatly maligned.

Imagine, if you will, the whole British army and navy departing from Plymouth: gunners rolling cannon, quartermasters counting stores of oats, thick woollen socks and worsted jackets, horses being led up gangplanks, Scotchmen with bagpipes, women and children waving frantically from the docks, and the glittering regalia of the officer class winking in the sunlight.  It was described as the largest army ever to leave our shores – but it was also an army of many regiments, each the self governing little entity of its colonel in chief (who had often literally bought his position) and egos the size of Bass Rock – all one needs to hear are the names of the army’s senior officers, in order to sympathise with Lord Raglan in his task of asking these men what to do (since Raglan would, at times, consider it rather un-gentlemanly to issue anything so crude as an ‘order’.)

Oh yes, the names, a role call of the British aristocracy:  the 7th Earl of Cardigan, commander in chief of the Light Brigade, surely one of the most courageous and yet difficult men ever to sit a saddle; the 3rd Lord Lucan, who bought his command of the 17th Lancers regiment for the princely sum of £25,000, and was the father in law of Cardigan with whom he was barely on speaking terms through the entire campaign; General Richard Airey, who rarely left Raglan’s side but whose personality seems to have been a perfect match for his surname; the magisterial and mutton chopped Glaswegian General Sir Colin Campbell (later the first Lord Clyde), commander in chief of the terrifying Highland Brigade; the Duke of Cambridge (grandson of George III), Sir George De Lacy Evans, Sir Richard England (that last two both Irishmen, as is of course obvious from their surnames) and a sprinkling of other knights and Lords completed the top table of command.  In short this was at its inception less a military campaign and more, an enormous outing for overgrown schoolboys to practice using their pea shooters.

After some weeks voyaging around Spain and through the Mediterranean, the British met up with their French counterparts, and this enormous joint armada reached Constantinople – like some vast Crusade in reverse, defending, not fighting the Turks.  The soldiers were universally greeted as heroes by the citizenry and their leader Omar Pasha, with the usual decline in popular feeling after about a week, by which time the local populace were no doubt royally sick of finding Scotsmen dead drunk in their latrines.  The vast caravan moved up the Western Black Sea coast, ever closer to the Crimea.

But why?  The short answer to that question is that he who controlled the Crimea, and in particular the harbour city of Sebastopol, could control the entire Black Sea Fleet and thus in one fell swoop disable the naval power of Russia throughout the Black and Mediterranean Seas.  Russia would be dealt a short, swift smack on the nose, and firmly reminded that it should stick to playing within its own front and back gardens, rather than gallivanting around Europe and the middle east.  And as we all know from our history books, that is of course a tactic which tends to work quite well with the Russians… and in no way reflects an attitude among the British Officer Class – which some inferior minded and hyper-critical people might suggest – that was somewhat out of touch with reality…

By this time, as our gallant troops tramp north from Constantinople, their woollen socks and heavy jackets cooking them in the mid day sun – the enemy was fast becoming Cholera, not Russia:

“It was reported that men began to suffer from diarrheoea, and a feeling of constant lassitude and nausea, and there were occasional cases of cholera.  The camp was moved, but the sickness increased.  A hot wind blew almost daily from the west, covering the grass and the tents and the food with a white limestone powder and a clutter of dead flies.  And then it became known that a serious epidemic of cholera, prevalent all over the south of Europe that summer, had broken out in the French camp.  Three days later the British camps were infected.  Once more the tents were moved, but the sickness followed.”

Thousands died, and it was not until Raglan once again had all the men aboard ships and set sail across the Black Sea heading into the lion’s jaws of the Crimean peninsula itself, that the winds changed and fresh air filled the lungs of the troops.

I need hardly add, of course at this point, that every history of the Crimea records that the French troops were better equipped with lighter and more modern kit, that their supplies and rations were better and that their officers made swifter and more co-ordinated decisions – each time the French and British, for example would dismantle a camp, march and then pitch camp again, invariably the French were hours ahead with the British watching their dust in the distance.  And this superiority, as we shall soon see, was to be replicated on the field of battle.

The key to understanding the Crimean War, in the opinion of this essayist, is to understand that the next two years essentially involved the British and French forces making repeated, unsuccessful attempts to capture the city of Sebastopol, whose determined and astoundingly courageous Russian inhabitants held out valiantly against one of the most determined sieges in military history.  Together with the Siege of Sebastopol, all of the major battles of the Crimean War took place within an approximate radius of twenty five miles of that city – including the Battle of the Alma, fought en route from the Allied landing site at Eupatoria, the Battle of Balaclava (and the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, which took place the same day) and the Battle of Inkerman.

With the exception of Balaclava, the battles are unfortunately littered with examples of miscommunications, poorly worded or executed orders, bloody minded or arrogant decision making and stunning incompetence (on the British side).  Of course the responsibility for all of this must ultimately fall on the shoulders of Raglan (who had, incidentally, the charming habit of confusing the French with the Russians, and so for example would turn to General Airey, saying “Airey, present my compliments to Lord Lucan, and ask that he advance his regiment slowly along the Sandbag Battery, keeping the French on his right – what? Oh yes, the Russians of course, silly me, keep thinking we’re still against Boneparte, what?  Yes, Russians on the right, French on the left, of course…”

With hindsight, you perhaps wonder how they even made it to Plymouth to get on the ships!

Mention must be made, however, of the truly heroic actions of the Highland Brigade under Sir Colin Campbell at Balaclava, which was perhaps the high point of the campaign (among admittedly a number of very heroic moments in the War).

Balaclava was a small harbour about 20 miles south of Sebastopol, and had become the main supply route onto the peninsula for the British troops.  On 25 October 1854, fierce fighting was taking place involving the French, British and Russians in a valley plain no more than 3 miles to the north of the harbour (the very plain along which the Light Brigade charged – which is a story in itself for another day).  About a mile from Balaclava, along the only road from the harbour, were the men of the 93rd Highland Brigade, while Balaclava itself was held by only a handful of marines from the ships moored there.

Suddenly, a mile and a half in front of them, running pell mell, were hundred of fleeing Turks who had lost their nerve and were fleeing toward Balaclava shouting Ship! Ship! Johnny! Ship!  They dashed past the camp of the highlanders, the last line of defence above Balaclava, stopping on their way to pick up anything which looked inviting.

Stretching their gaze into the mid-distance, the Highlanders began to make out hundreds of Russian cavalrymen swarming down the sides of the hills to the south of the valley and forming themselves up on the Balaclava road.

Raglan and the rest of the army could only look on through their spyglasses, helpless, more than a mile and a half in the distance, as the powerful Russian cavalry began to quicken its pace in the direction of the Highlanders who were entirely outnumbered and completely off guard.  Raglan held his breath.

Sir Colin, in his rich Scots accent barked to his men – who, the Times correspondent noted “would gladly follow him into the jaws of hell.”

“Remember, there is no retreat from here men.  Remember, there is no retreat.  You must die where you stand.”

“Aye Aye! Sir Colin,” one man was heard to reply. “We’ll do that.”

Then suddenly a curious and oppressive silence which had been noted before the battle of the Alma once again settled across the field.  The Times correspondent reported:

“The silence is oppressive, one can hear the champing of bits, and the clink of sabres in the valley below.  The Russians on their left draw breath for a moment and then in one grand line dash at the Highlanders.  The ground flies beneath their horses’ feet; gathering speed at every stride, they dash on towards that thin red streak topped with a line of steel.”

Prevented by Sir Colin from charging (yes, astoundingly the Highlanders had wanted to charge the Russians, and had to be ordered down by him with the cry “93rd, 93rd! Damn all that eagerness!”) Prevented, the Highlanders fired their rifles instead.  No Russian rider fell from his saddle, but a few were wounded, and the leading squadron immediately wheeled to the left.  Sir Colin then reorganised his line to face the new direction of the Russian advance and again the Russians wheeled to the left.  Their determined stand alarmed the Russian commander, who then ordered his men to retire.  As they did so the Highlanders opened fire on them in retreat, and then the Highlanders began throwing their bonnets in the air, cheering excitedly.

At this point, I’m conscious that this essay could quickly descent into a kind of verbal parody of the worst kind of military bore – and, unless physically, restrained I might find myself resorting to the employment of various items of furniture in the recreation of graphic battle scenes.  And so it is at this point that I seek to judiciously withdraw from the smoke and cordite of the field, and return to the relative calm of the page.

In September of 1855, amid scenes of terrible confusion and panic, involving some of the most embarrassing and rank cowardice in the history of the British Army, the French succeeded in seizing the Malakoff Kurgan and Redan Heights, the main defensive positions of the Russian defenders of Sebastopol.  As the smoke cleared the Tricolor flew, and the War in the Crimea was all but over.  Just 3 months earlier, Lord Raglan, tired out, overworked and vexed from every side during the protracted campaign (and which had brought down Aberdeen’s government 8 months earlier, ushering in the bombastic Viscount Palmerston) had passed away in his field quarters.  It was the end of an era.

In the aftermath of the War, when the Allied forces had finally limped home, a number of changes were brought about in the order and regulation of the Army.  The common practice of purchasing commissions was abolished.  The chain of command structure was reformed.  The kit of the standard infantryman was entirely reviewed and updated, as was that of the cavalry and others.  It was firmly resolved that lessons would be learned.

Much of this was driven by the fact that the Crimean was really the first War in which the public at home, and the government, were kept appraised of developments on a daily basis – mainly through the Times Correspondent.  This ushered in a new era of instant critical appraisal of a kind previously unheard of, and during the Crimea on a number of occasions nationwide campaigns were taken up “to provide our ill-supplied soldiers with hats, coats and scarfs”, and other campaigns of that kind – at relatively short notice – and of course Florence Nightingale became the famous ‘Lady with the Lamp’ – and while her field hospitals (which were in fact at Scutari on the western Black Sea shore, with patients shipped there mainly from Balaclava) had appalingly low survival rates, it was in the hospitals back home in England and the improvements there where she really went on to make her mark upon the page of history.

25,000 soliders are estimated to have lost their lives during the Crimean, a tiny figure compared to the Great War, but significant for the times – as was the estimated cost to the exchequer, a sum of about £70 million.  Sebastapol which had been so hard fought for and wrestled from the hands of the Russians, was promptly handed back to the Tsar less than a year later after the Congress of Paris – however the balance of power shifted in Europe, in a manner which would lead inexorably to the conflict of 1914 and beyond.

As we bid farewell to the Crimean War, the swirling Victorian Fog closing in around, and as we move forward again, far forward almost one hundred and fifty years, we see that little has really changed.

The army continues to be engaged abroad in controversial and at times poorly thought out campaigns, in circumstances where the common soldiery are ill supplied – and the very reasons why the campaign was begun have become a little befuddled.  We must always be vigilant, and prepared to change.

Europe is still torn, and the slightest shifting in the balance of power can potentially have enormous implications.  There still remains the haunting feeling with this continent that War lies at the base of a greasy pole which we all valiantly scramble to keep climbing.

And Russia, always Russia.

On republics and republicanism

Various musings on republics & republicanism

‘Republicanism’ is a word which holds a special terror in the collective British psyche – and hardly surprising really, given the two greatest republican movements of modern times – the American and French Revolutions – posed and continued to pose enormous threats to the British national interest and established order.  So great was the terror inspired by republicanism, that it immediately conjured (and for some continues to conjure) images of rivers of blood flowing through streets of terrified fleeing citizens, the established class structure of aristocracy and monarchy torn to shreds and ruthless, jilted academic types (with bad breath, worse clothes and steel rimmed spectacles) revelling in their new found power over their erstwhile political masters.

The first blow was struck by our American cousins on 4 July 1776 with their unilateral declaration of Independence from King George III’s British government, and the foundation of a new republic in which all men are created and remain equal, with the inherent right to life, liberty and, of course, the pursuit of happiness – oh, and guns.  Lots of guns.  Britain was shaken to its core: the established civil order with the Sovereign at its head had been openly defied.  And yet at home the popular feeling was not a turning away from the King and his government, but rather a profound shock that a colony of the mother country would act so… tastelessly.  However it was in France that republican fervour led to a revolutionary coup of truly seismic proportions.

Great Britain was plunged into a state of terror in the wake of the French revolution.  The utter destruction of the established social order in that country put our nation on the very highest level of alert, creating a culture of real fear among subjects.  Then, as now, Scotland was among the most radicalised parts of Britain, and Pitt’s government (under the significant influence of the then Lord Advocate Henry Dundas, later first Viscount Melville) gave no quarter.  The Egyptian needle standing on Calton Hill is a testament to the memory of Thomas Muir of Huntershill, tried for sedition in Edinburgh in September 1793 before Lord Braxfield and a jury (in a manner most repugnant to fairness and justice) and sentenced to 10 years transportation to the Australian penal colonies – all for the distribution on the streets of Paisley of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet ‘On the Rights of Man’, published in England two years earlier.  The troublesome colonies in America were swept out of mind in the face of a greater crisis, and republicanism at home, and its inevitable arrival by armed and violent revolution, had to be scotched at inception, even if that required the suspension of civil liberties.  The calm, regal, demure image of Brittania, with lion and shield, would prevail, by any means necessary, over the appalling character of barebreasted Liberty, with her flag hoisted in the act of rousing (if not arousing) a bloodthirsty rabble of troublesome insurgents.

Then, of course, there was England’s own and rather bizarre experience of republicanism under the protectorate of Cromwell – a man who, whatever one’s perspective, made John Knox seem a benign and tolerant liberal.  Cromwell’s was the kind of state in which sex while standing would have been outlawed, lest god mistakenly think it dancing.  This cheerless and austere period gave way to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the colourful reign of Charles II, but the experience left a bitter taste, and no doubt only aided the perception of republicanism as harsh and bitter, preferred by the kind of people who enjoy cold baths and wearing loose fitting underpants.

Given the circumstances in which the American and French republics were conceived, as well as the era of Cromwell, it seems hardly surprising that British attitudes to the notion of republican society might be rather sceptical (although I accept, of course, that there are many in this country today who would support radical reform of our constitutional monarchy).  But do these relatively modern experiences belie a deeper unease about the very nature of republicanism itself? It is this deeper unease which I seek to consider, the question of why republicanism came to have such a tarnished reputation in the British Imperial psyche.  That it did, I would suggest, is beyond peradventure – but what are the origins for this horror?  It seems to me that it cannot be a horror of revolution alone, which in truth is merely the unpleasant tool often used to nail republicanism into place.

It seems to me that in order to look republicanism in the face and acknowledge our deep distrust, we must undertake a lengthier journey, back to the time of its birth and death: because republicanism was not only born among the ancients, but also died in that world, before the days when Peter was a simple fisherman in Gallilee.

The Republic (‘politeia’ in Classical Greek), the res publica or ‘public thing’ the ‘city state’, was born, I would suggest, from Athens’ astounding defeat of the Persians at Marathon in 490BC.  The fallen few among the Athenian troops were buried and commemorated on the field itself, rather than at individual and private ceremonies which previously marked the passing of her people.  Athenians developed a sense of their public selves, that their lives were not wholly private and self serving, but instead bound up one with another in the noble pursuit of a way of life worth dying for, and dying gloriously at that.  This was their vision of society, realised on the battlefield against multitudinous hordes of slaves and mercenaries compelled by the lash of a Persian tyrant.  To die for Athens was to defend liberty, and freedom from tyranny.

It was sixty years later, after the first and disastrous conflict of the 26 year war with Sparta, that Pericles, in the course of a lengthy mass funeral oration to mark the fallen brave, memorably encapsulated Athens in the following words:

“Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbours’, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another nor angry with our neighbour if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.”

Courageous words, in the autumn of the golden Athenian age: and the defeat at the hands of Sparta which followed marked the decline of that great city.  However the spirit of Athens lived on, inspiring the early citizens of Rome after the overthrow of its royal line of kings.  Less perfect, less equal, more militaristic and perhaps more violent than its Greek cousin, Rome nevertheless defined itself as a republic; and accordingly no man was above the power of the State.  Time and again through its history great, powerful and ambitious citizens would put themselves at the front of vast armies in the service of Rome; and having returned successful, would then discharge themselves from their military command and return to the status of private Roman citizen – often to face legal challenges or even prosecution for the discharge of those very military offices!  To lead an army into the City, triumphant or otherwise, was simply an act of treason (unless following the specific grant of a ‘Triumph’ by a majority of the Senate to the victorious general).  The will of the individual man, however great, must accordingly bend to the will of the State.

The heroes and acts of heroism fostered by the republic are legion; and the role call is impressive.  Lucius Junius Brutus, Marcus Brutus’ august ancestor, who overthrew Rome’s last king, Tarquin the proud, and was the founder of the republic and first consul in 509BC; the legendary Lucretia, raped by Tarquin’s son, an event which shocked Rome, engendered hatred of the king and directly led to his expulsion from the city; Horatius Cocles, who heroically saved Rome at the Sublician Bridge by holding it against the besieging army of the vengeful Tarquin; Gaius Mucius Scaevola, after he fearlessly plunged his right hand into the fire to demonstrate his utter disregard for physical pain or torture, having been caught red handed (no pun intended) in the act of trying to assassinate the Etruscan king Lars Porsenna; Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, the famous victor over Rome’s neighbouring Volscians in the early struggles for ascendancy in the region; and Scipio Aemilianus Africanus, who finally defeated Hannibal, the greatest of Rome’s enemies, at the battle of Zama in North Africa, marking Rome’s transformation into a truly imperial power; the Gracchi brothers Gaius and Tiberius, both assassinated for their attempts to reform the land laws in favour of the plebeians; Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, whose power struggle in the early first century BC plunged Rome into its first civil war and nearly brought the Republic to an end; and then of course the warrior Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, (Pompey the Great), the stubborn and tenacious senator Marcus Porcius Cato, the millionaire statesman and general Marcus Licinius Crassus who ruthlessly quelled Spartacus’ slave revolt and Marcius Tullius Cicero, lawyer, philosopher statesman, and father of the nation for his handling of the treacherous uprising of Lucius Sergius Catalina.

At the end of this list of great Romans, it occurs to me that it may be appropriate to explain some of the broader points about the Roman naming system.  For those of you unfamiliar with the subject, I will endeavour briefly to explain.  By the time of the Republican era, the name of a male Roman citizen consisted of three parts: the praenomen (or ‘given’ name); the nomen gentile (being the name of the gens, tribe or clan to which he belonged) and the cognomen, being a particular family line within the clan (akin to that commonest of questions in polite British society, “are you one of the Dorset Marjoribanks or Sussex Marjoribanks?”).  Rather differently from modern times, however, the cognomen was usually a nickname of some kind or other, acquired by an ancestor.  One thing is certainly true: the Romans loved nicknames.  And so if we take the poet Publius Ovidius Naso, for example, he was ‘little Publius’ to his mater and pater.  ‘Ovidius’ indicated he was sprung from the Ovidian clan (which may be a reference to ‘ovis’, a sheep, which would be consistent with the high pastoral valleys of modern Abruzzo from which his people came) and ‘Naso’, ‘those of the big nose’.  To close friends he would be referred to as Publius, but to others he would have been referred to as Ovidius Naso, or simply Ovidius once his fame was secured.  Other Romans, for example Cicero or Cato, were widely known by their cognomen or nickname alone.  My personal favourite is Marcus Valerius Corvus, who earned his nickname fighting a giant Gaullish warrior outside the walls of Rome in the third century BC.  Immediately before the fight, a great, jet black crow settled on his helmet and proceeded to set about the hapless Gaul to his inevitable distraction, while our intrepid Marcus dealt the final blow.  The nickname ‘Crow’ in this instance, perhaps, rather highlights another famous Roman quality: at times, a disappointing lack of imagination.

But I digress.  Returning once again to the main theme and in particular armed service to the Republic, it must be noted that power, and particularly the kind to be found at the front of a well disciplined army, can be irresistible, no matter what greater principles there may be in the world.  Gaius Julius Caesar, at the head of an army returning from his conquest of Gaul, saw this all too clearly.  Thus it was in 49BC that, by crossing the river Rubicon, Caesar (of course meaning “baldy”) committed himself to the unthinkable, and marched in the manner of a foreign tyrant on his home – a city which for centuries had survived by the principle that no one man is greater than the republic.

Caesar was a clever and ambitious man, and undoubtedly had grown tired of all the talk without action that the Republic’s senators seemed to indulge in.  Throughout his civic life Caesar had always allied his cause with the people and he had masterfully painted the Roman Senate as a collection of self interested patricians; however the passage of time has perhaps inured us to the enormity of Caesar’s crime.  To every free citizen waiting powerless in Rome, each tramp of Caesar’s infantry sounded a deathknell for the Republic.  Six years later, Caesar (by this time Dictator of Rome) was dramatically assassinated by men who saw his actions as a threat to the very survival of the Republic they loved: and yet their actions would lead inexorably to the downfall of that beloved republic, ushering in the Narnian winter, the Stalinist authoritarianism, which typified the worst aspects of Imperial rule.

And so the last Republic came to die and pass from the ancient world.  It had a noble birth, a glorious life, but struggled in the end to preserve its existence against the vaulting ambition of one of its own.  It is perhaps true to say that the Roman Senate had ceased to be an effective means of governing the growing territory of Rome: however every dictator would no doubt rely upon the political expediency of one man rule – in the end, I suppose, one either agrees or disagrees with Pericles’ vision of an ideal society.

It seems truly ironic to me that whereas the popular cry of the people behind Caesar brought down the Roman Republic, the same popular cry justified the creation of every republic thereafter.  Why is it, however, that republicanism came to be so reviled?  The short answer, of course, is that the victors write the history books.  Here, however, is my own theory on the matter.

The assassination of Julius Caesar came to be an event of the greatest significance.  Far from being the betrayor of the republic, Caesar was now in point of fact a prince, betrayed by smaller, petty rivals.  The people had been robbed of their glorious leader and only another such leader would suffice.  The Roman people, however, could not countenance the idea of a king, and so it became expedient to create a new title for the position of absolute hereditary ruler: namely emperor.  In time, after Octavian’s crushing victory over Mark Anthony in the waters off Actium in 31BC, ‘emperor’ became synonymous with ‘Caesar’ as the title for Rome’s absolute rulers, eventually even giving us ‘Kaiser’ in Germany and ‘Tsar’ in Russia, in echo of that ancient title.

The greatness of Rome thus became the power of the Imperial State and the army.  The citizens were left to concern themselves with their petty lives, revolving around ‘bread and circuses’, as Juvenal sardonically reminds us.  A republic is no way to run an empire: best leave that to the ruthless whim of one man, backed by an army of civil servants as well as soldiers.

And so it seems to me that the assassination of Caesar was the first and most significant factor in marking out the Republic as a spent form of civic society.  But the cult of Caesar combined and intertwined itself with something else, equally potent and hostile to republicanism: namely Christianity.

Christ was born in poverty, but his death on a cross marked him out as a king, the king of the Jews, the son of the one true God.  When Christianity later combined with the Roman imperial cult, a heady brew of kingship, royal lineage, divine right and untrammelled authority was the inevitable result.  In this world order, it was the Imperial Caesars whose lineage was claimed, and Julius Caesar himself came to have an almost Christ like status which survived the ancient world and remained the received wisdom through the middle ages and beyond.

If such a suggestion, that Caesar was Christlike, seems far-fetched, then consider his treatment by Dante in the Divine Comedy.  Caesar himself, being unbaptised, must logically be placed outwith Paradise and indeed Purgatory, and so Dante has him in Limbo, the very outmost circle of Inferno suffering ‘the spiritual torment of forever seeking God in vain.’  Dante then, of course, takes us in ever decreasing circles of monstrous vice to the very centre of hell, where Lucifer lurks, imprisoned in the frozen waters of Cocytus.

Here, at the very epicentre of the world’s misdeeds, Dante places three tortured souls and describes them thus:

“That soul up there which has the greatest pain, The Master said, is Judas Iscariot; with head inside, he plies his legs without.  Of the two others, who head downward are, the one who hangs from the black jowl is Brutus; See how he writhes himself, and speaks no word.  And the other, who so stalwart seems, is Cassius.  But night is reascending, and ‘tis time That we depart, for we have seen the whole.”

It is deeply revealing of the place given to Caesar in the mediaeval world, I would suggest, that his betrayers rank alongside Judas as the greatest wrongdoers in history.

Interestingly, and digressing again but just for a moment, it probably also marks the last time the Republicans ever had a two to one majority in any assembly at any time and in any place.

(Judas, as we now know, joined the Democrats two days after Ted Kennedy).

This perception of Caesar is of course advanced upon by Shakespeare, leading, I would suggest, to the most enduring reason why the Roman Republic has remained so out of favour in Britain (despite generations of the classically educated) – I refer of course to his play, Julius Caesar, in which the republicans are cast in the most villainous of lights, and afforded the deeply sarcastic epithet of ‘honourable men’ in comparison to ‘noble caesar’.

It was therefore a society based upon Christian kingship which rose to pre-eminence from the ashes of the ancient world and grafted itself onto the Roman substrata, leading to Edward Gibbon’s moment of insight, which he recorded thus:

“It was at Rome, on the 15th October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Juppiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”

And so finally, where does this brief consideration of Republics and republicanism leave us?  What conclusions can we draw and what lessons are there to learn?

It is of course trite to say that the republics of Rome and Greece bear no comparison to the modern notion of republic, or indeed any other form of modern civil society: however we still recognise those nations which are more rigorously republican in their form.  France and America have already been mentioned: to these could be added, for example, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey and many, many more.  However other systems such as our own constitutional monarchy, have not remained untouched by republican values and institutions.  Most recently we have the proposed reforms of the House of Lords and the creation of a new Supreme Court for the United Kingdom, both of which might appear more or less ‘republican’, in a broad sense.  Perhaps, rather like ‘facism’, ‘democracy’ and ‘society’, the words ‘republic’ and ‘republicanism’ have simply come to mean less and less, to the point where anyone and anywhere can stake a claim to their employment.

The truth, perhaps, is that republicanism is an ideal like any other, and one which has inspired some of the finest values in human society; and we need not have the rubber stamp of ‘republic’ in order to reflect those values in who we are today, in this country, at this time.  We are all (or can be) republicans in our hearts and in our minds.

Therefore, dear reader, I propose that we all take some inspiration from those great and noble republicans like Pericles, like Cicero, like Cato, like Pompeii the Great for whom discussion and argument showed strength not weakness, for whom war was a reality but not a necessity, for whom peace was not indolence but industry and prosperity, for whom life was a journey of service to one’s country and doing justice to one’s self and one’s fellow man.

To show there truly are no hard feelings, I give the last words to Shakespeare from the mouth of Marcus Brutus:

“If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.  Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?… Who is here so base that would be a bondman?  If any, speak for him have I offended.  Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman?  If any, speak; for him have I offended.  Who is here so vile that will not love his country?  If any, speak; for him have I offended.  I pause for a reply.”

How to blow up a bank

Hubris: How HBOS wrecked the best bank in Britain, by Ray Perman (Birlinn Publishers, Edinburgh 2012)

It seems strange to think of it now, but there was a time when that vast pile at the top of Edinburgh’s Mound was a bank – a real live bank with a queue of people inside, waiting to pay real money into their bank accounts.  I was one of them, and when I started my life at the Scottish Bar on Edinburgh’s High Street, the tradition was to open three accounts with the Bank of Scotland just round the corner on the Mound: a current account, a tax account and a VAT account, all of which I duly did.  You didn’t need to explain to the manager at the Bank what an advocate was, or why it was that I didn’t have a penny to my name but might have in a few years: because the manager knew all about that.  You see, they had been opening accounts with fresh faced advocates for over three hundred years.  It was relationship banking, though I doubt the manager would have used that term in those days.

Crossing the Royal Mile from Parliament Square and making the short walk to the Mound used to fill me with awe – here was the Bank, cheek by jowl with Scotland’s law courts, across from the Kirk at St Giles and just down from the Castle; and when I went through the doors and across the ornately tiled floors of the busy teller room, the windows on a bright day gave a breath-taking view right across Princes Street and all the way to the glittering Firth of Forth beyond.  The sound of bagpipes drifted in, while bank clerks quietly and politely dealt with each customer in turn.  This wasn’t just a bank building, it was a statement of national identity.

I had, in fact, been a customer of the Bank of Scotland since I was 7 and I opened my Super Squirrel saver account on Princes Street in Port Glasgow.  It never entered into my head to open an account with the Royal, because my father was with the Bank (though I daresay the opposite was equally true, and generations of Scots were tuned in to the Royal Bank).  I even remember signing up a friend from primary school, and getting one whole pound added to my Super Squirrel account book for having won them this new business.  That was the Bank: canny, thrifty and secure.

That branch was of course just like every other in towns and villages all across Scotland, places which shared certain key characteristics: there would be a kirk, a short high street or cross road and a branch of both the Bank and the Royal Bank close-by.  Association with one or other bank was almost tribal, and there was always a whiff of the Jacobites about the Bank, which I suppose is why I ended up on their books.  Adverts in the ’80s and ’90s would emphasise the close relationship between the Bank and its customers, with a bank bus typically winding through Highland scenery to the jingo: “The Bank of Scotland, a friend for life.”  The Bank was as Scottish as Irn Bru, Haggis or Oor Wullie.

And then came a shotgun marriage with the Halifax, following a heated bid by both the Bank and the Royal Bank to take over London’s enormous National Westminster Bank; a bid the Royal Bank won, and which was rather like watching a fly swallow an elephant.  Somehow the Bank, our Bank, which became HBOS, was never the same again.  Then came the hurricanes of the financial crisis; then silence.

Is the Bank of Scotland really gone?  Well, we still see its signs on our streets every day, but the sad fact is that the United Kingdom’s oldest bank, founded in 1695, is now just a minor limb of the Lloyds Group based in London.  The building on the Mound is an office now, converted on the whim of HBOS executives because they thought it would make a nice place to hold corporate dinners.  Now, aptly enough, the only part of it open to the public is a small museum to the history of Scottish money.

It’s hard to take in, and with a real sense of injured national pride we might ask: how did this ruination of the Bank happen?

‘Hubris: How HBOS wrecked the best bank in Britain’, by Ray Perman is the first book in the aftermath of the global financial collapse to look specifically at the Bank of Scotland and how its demise came about.  Veteran journalist Ray Perman is excellently placed to write on the subject, having followed the Bank’s fortunes since the 1970s when he was with the Financial Times. It’s clear from his writing that he really cares about the subject and feels strongly that the Bank’s demise should not have happened and could have been avoided.  He pulls few punches in a withering assessment, and brings home the clear message that without the Bank, Scotland is a far poorer place in many respects, beyond mere money.  The reason, he asserts, is that ‘Bank of Scotland was destroyed in seven years by men who were intelligent, hard-working and meant well, but focused only on growth.  Everything else was subordinated, with the result that they lost sight of the simple rules of banking, which had not changed since 1695.’

Before the financial crisis Scotland had, in the Bank, an organic financial institution which serviced the local needs of small and medium sized businesses, and which understood their particular business challenges.  This has been swept away now, and those left poorer are the ordinary people of Scotland.  It is a very sad tale, but one that has to be told; and as if to underline the importance of the topic, the excellent foreword to the book has been written by Alistair Darling, who was of course both Chancellor of the Exchequer and Member of Parliament for Edinburgh South West when the financial crisis unfolded, and therefore quite literally in a unique position to comment on how events impacted upon the Bank.

If you are involved in the financial industry in Scotland, or advise those who are, Ray Perman’s book is essential reading; but I think the book would also be of interest to those with a more general interest in Scottish history and society.  As for the future?  Well, I thought it particularly interesting to note that this year’s fireworks to mark the end of the Edinburgh Festival – an event which was always sponsored by the Bank of Scotland, whose headquarters would be lit up in the afterglow – is now sponsored by Virgin Money.

Let the boom times roll!

The history of the Crippen case

LaurenticA long, long time ago, more than a hundred years ago now, on a cold winter’s morning on Wednesday 23 November 1910, and just over a year before the Titanic plunged to the bottom of the freezing North Atlantic, an American homeopathist by the name of Hawley Henry Crippen was escorted to the grim gallows within London’s Pentonville Prison, and hanged.  History remembers him as ‘Doctor Crippen’, whereas in fact his American homeopathic qualifications had not entitled him to practice in England.

Just 30 days earlier, after the most sensational criminal trial in English history, he had been convicted of the murder of his American wife Cora. Despite the valiant defence advanced by Mr A.A. Tobin, KC** (later a judge), the trial judge Lord Alverston, the Chief Justice of England, had no alternative but to don the black cap and pronounce Crippen’s doom.  Before, during and after the trial Crippen repeatedly insisted that he was innocent: but all was now lost.  There was no appeal, that being a relatively novel concept at the time; and the case made the Crown’s star witness – the pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury – a household name, and the cornerstone of many future convictions in England in the 20s and 30s.

Part of the reason why the case was so sensational was that Crippen had fled England for Canada on board the Montrose, in the company of his lover Ethel Neave: but the keen eyed ship’s captain Henry Kendall had spotted them, and famously sent a telegram to Scotland Yard which read:

“Have strong suspicions that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers. Mustache taken off. Growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy. Manner and build undoubtedly a girl.”

Chief Inspector Walter Dew of the Yard was promptly sent in hot pursuit on board the White Star line’s prize SS Laurentic* – a faster ship than the Montrose; and for days the newspapers kept the public on tenterhooks as the Laurentic, mile by nautical mile across the ocean,steadily closed in on the fugitives.

When both ships finally made their way into the St Lawrence River at Quebec, Chief Inspector Dew went aboard the Montrose in disguise.  He walked up to Crippen, and said:

“Good morning, Dr Crippen. Do you know me? I’m Chief Inspector Dew from Scotland Yard.”

To which, after a brief pause, Crippen famously replied:

“Thank God it’s over. The suspense has been too great. I couldn’t stand it any longer.”  He then held out his wrists for the handcuffs, …and the rest is history.

Surely these were the words and actings of a guilty man?

And yet there are a number of things about the Crippen case which pose problems.

In contrast to her bespectacled little husband, Cora Crippen was a larger than life character who dressed extravagantly: she was a musical hall performer, first in America and then England, and went by the stage name Belle Elmore.  They had a difficult marriage and rumour was, among Cora’s many friends at the Music Hall Ladies Guild, that Cora was not very happy.  Then suddenly she disappeared, without a word.

Nothing happened until Crippen, 48, was spotted by Cora’s friends socialising with his 27 year old secretary Ethel.  Worse, Ethel was seen wearing items of Cora’s clothing and jewellery.  Rumour grew, and Scotland Yard were tipped off.

When questioned, Crippen admitted that he had been evasive about Cora’s whereabouts because the truth was that she had left him for another man and he had wanted to avoid any scandal.  The police listened politely, then released him without any charge; and it was only then, a few days later, that Crippen and Ethel made their futile bid for escape. A reward of £250 was offered for their capture: the equivalent of about £100,000 in today’s money.

But why did he flee if he was innocent?

Well, the simple and perhaps obvious conclusion is of course that he had indeed killed his wife: but the single most important piece of evidence relied on in the case may also point to his innocence.

This crucial evidence came in the form of a small quantity of human remains found in the soil, under a flagstone, in the basement of the Crippens’ terraced house in Camden Town, London.  It was skin, and in rather a poor state of decomposition: but on one part there appeared to have been a kind of crease, or fold of some sort.  Bernard Spilsbury – at that time still a fairly junior doctor – had a good look at it; and concluded that it was undoubtedly a surgical scar.  Now, it was known from Cora’s medical records that she had undergone an appendectomy in America; and with that, the Crown case seemed as safe as the Bank of England.  Case closed, I hear you say.

But Mr Tobin was of course not so easily daunted. An experienced defence pathologist was instructed, and rather interestingly gave the opinion that a hair follicle was clearly visible along the skin ‘fold’, something that is not normally found on scars.  He concluded that the fold was not a scar, but in fact just a result of the way the skin had been crumpled during decomposition in the ground.

The scene was set for a dramatic showdown and as the barristers assembled in wig and gown before a packed Court Number 1 at the Old Bailey, all eyes were on Spilsbury: how would he stand up against the withering cross examination of the brilliant Mr Tobin, King’s Counsel?

For two days Spilsbury stood up to everything that was hurled at him, and famously brought in his microscope on the second day to peer at the skin once again.  But Spilsbury wouldn’t be shifted; and as Tobin finally retired from battle the young doctor, in charcoal pinstripes and sporting a carnation in his buttonhole, stepped from the court to the front page adulation of the press.  The verdict was inevitable, and his future was made.

But there is a twist in this tale.

In October 2010 David James Smith, author of ‘Supper With the Crippens’, brought the Crippen case back to Court 1.  Before the solemn audience, he opened his lecture as follows:

“The Crippen case held the entire Western world in its thrall for many months in 1910, and it has intrigued and fascinated lawyers, police officers and criminologists ever since. Until recently, Crippen’s guilt was rarely questioned but now, some people believe that he may have been wrongly convicted. This lecture, for which Court Number One is the ideal location, represents the perfect opportunity to review the evidence.”


Three things (why are there always three?)

Firstly, the famous piece of skin was preserved in the Museum Archives of the Royal London Hospital.  In 2007 working from a sample of that skin, a team of American forensic scientists from Michigan State University compared mitochondrial DNA from it with samples taken from Cora Crippen’s known surviving relatives.

The results were conclusive, said Dr David Foran, the head of the forensic science programme. “That body cannot be Cora Crippen, we’re certain of that,” he said.

Well,… perhaps Cora could have been adopted?  Unfortunately, however, the DNA sampling revealed that the material contained Y chromosomes, conclusively indicating that the skin was male.

There is always the possibility, however, that the sample had been mislabelled or mixed up in some way over the course of time – except the label seems clear enough:

The second thing is the suggestion – never verified, insofar as I can tell – that a witness statement was taken from a passer-by outside the Crippens’ home, from someone who described a woman very like Cora the day after she disappeared.  This witness apparently described her as standing on the pavement, with much luggage, about to get into a Hackney Cab.  What is known, however, is that there is a statement from a witness who described a woman bearing Cora’s description, who had tried to withdraw savings and arrange for the removal of large quantities of furniture and belongings from the house before her disappearance.

It is also now known that a woman with Cora’s stage name of Bella Elmore was living with Cora’s sister in New York many years later; and that when that woman’s history was traced, she was found to have entered the United States via Ellis Island in 1910, shortly after Cora disappeared.

There are a number of other issues and problems too numerous to go into here, but the third thing is this: if Crippen was innocent, why did he flee?

Well, the answer to that question may provide the key to the case.  Because of the fact that Crippen, despite his medical training, could not practice legally as a doctor in England, it is possible that he could have found other ways to earn a living.  A very obvious one, for the time, was as an abortionist.  This could explain the human remains in the basement, and could explain his decision to flee once he realised the police were taking an interest in him; after all, a conviction as an abortionist would, in 1910, have resulted in a significant prison sentence.  Furthermore, traces of the drug Scopolamine (also known as hyoscine) were found in the skin sample examined by Spilsbury, and it was the Crown case that this was the poison which Crippen had used on Cora; however Scopolamine had another use at the time, in the conduct of abortions.***

One problem with this theory, however, is that at the trial Crippen’s defence ran the line that the remains could have been in the house from before the Crippens moved there in 1905 – but if Crippen were truly an abortionist, one can see that it would perhaps not have helped his defence to bring that out, to put it mildly.

In the final analysis, therefore, it seems impossible now to say where the truth lies: but the case is of course now very firmly closed and really only a matter of interest to students of legal history…  and the famous waxwork of Doctor Crippen at Madam Tussauds’ in old London town, seems likely to remain very firmly in place.

*Just over six years later on 25 January 1917, the SS Laurentic sailed from the Royal Navy’s base in Lough Swilly, County Donegal, Ireland, having been commissioned during the First World War.  At the mouth of the lough the great liner, which had successfully pursued Crippen across the Atlantic with Chief Inspector Dew on board, disastrously struck mines which had been laid off Fanad Head.  The mines had been laid by a German U-80 submarine a few days before.  The great ship sank within an hour, taking with her 354 men out of a crew of almost 470,… and 43 tons of gold bullion.

** Crippen’s solicitor Arthur Newton had originally wished to brief the greatest advocate of his age, F.E. Smith QC (later ennobled as Lord Birkenhead) – but ‘Effey’ declined, preferring to defend Ethel le Neve in the separate proceedings brought against her.

*** The presence of scopolamine fitted the Crown case that Crippen was known to have ordered, and then on 19 January 1910 collected from Lewis & Burrows’ pharmacy on New Oxford Street, five grains of hyoscin hydrobromide… a quantity so large it had to be ordered from the wholesalers…