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Saturday, 18 October 2014


My Gurney ancestors had their finest hours in the century or so in which they were official shorthand writers to the Houses of Parliament. But the reputation of the Gurney system of shorthand was built in London’s law courts, especially the Old Bailey, by Joseph Gurney ( my 4x great grandfather, whose father Thomas had invented the system).
Joseph Gurney (1744-1815)
The newspapers did not report court cases in those days, and the public appetite for sensational evidence was catered for by private shorthand writers who printed their verbatim reports of proceedings. The cases recorded by the Gurneys were acknowledged to be more accurate transcriptions than their competitors’.
One of the scandalous hearings on which Gurney shorthand made its name concerned the Gordon Riots of 1780. It was a case of particular personal interest to the Gurney family and others of their nonconformist persuasion. If you were not Church of England, your freedom to participate in public life was significantly restricted under English law, and in 1780 this applied to Roman Catholics even more than to nonconformists.
Two years before the riots, in 1778, Catholics had been advanced some limited concessions, notably the right to serve in Britain’s armed forces without swearing a religious (in other words, Protestant) oath of allegiance. This was an act of expedience as much as tolerance – Britain was at war with France, Spain and the United States, and needed all the troops it could muster. Nevertheless it was a liberal act which drew opposition from the Protestant majority, particularly in the form of an organisation called the Protestant Association led by Lord George Gordon.
Lord George Gordon (1751-1793)
Gordon was a maverick politician. A London-born, Eton-educated member of the Scottish nobility, he was unpopular with the establishment for his improvement of working conditions for sailors and his support for American independence. His opposition to Catholic emancipation could be seen in the same anti-establishment light; and popular support for his position was swelled by a general dissatisfaction among the public. Conducting war on so many fronts had damaged Britain’s overseas balance of trade, driving wages down and prices and unemployment up.
Whatever the source of his support, a crowd of around 50,000 marched on 2nd June 1780 under the Protestant Association’s banner and wore its symbol, a blue-ribbon rosette or cockade. With their entrance to the House of Commons blocked, they attacked the carriages of members arriving at the House of Lords. Although the crowd was eventually dispersed, violence flared up again later in the day elsewhere in the city. Riots rumbled on for the next five days, with attacks on houses and embassies with Catholic connections.
The Burning and Plundering of Newgate, and Setting the Felons at Liberty by the Mob
Catholicism wasn’t the only target. The Bank of England was besieged, and several prisons including Newgate attacked and destroyed, releasing large numbers of escaping prisoners into the chaotic streets. On 7th June the army was finally called in, and ordered to open fire on the rioters. 285 were killed, 200 more injured and a further 30 later sentenced to death.
Gordon himself was tried for high treason as the leader of the organisation in whose name the riots had begun. The trial naturally attracted a great deal of attention in the wake of the long and violent events which triggered it. He was acquitted on something of a technicality surrounding the definition of treason. His acquittal was popular with the public; and so too, presumably, were the transcriptions of the hearing published immediately afterwards by Joseph Gurney, and by his competitors.
The cover of the transcription of the trial of George Gordon, “the third edition, taken in shorthand by Joseph Gurney, London, sold by G. Kearsly, 46 Fleet-street, and M. Gurney, 34 Bell-yard, Temple-bar”
The establishment had its revenge on Gordon. In 1788, having been excommunicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, he was imprisoned on the unlikely charge of defaming Marie Antoinette, consort of Louis XVI of France with whom Britain had lately been at war. In 1793 he died of typhoid in Newgate, the very prison which his supporters had destroyed thirteen years earlier.

Saturday, 4 October 2014


The London St James Gazette of Tuesday 9th October 1883 carried a small sad announcement:
The death is announced of Mr. William Talfourd Salter, Q.C., of the South-Eastern Circuit, which took place at the Grand Hotel, Varese, Italy. Mr. Salter was prosecuting counsel for the Post Office on the South-Eastern Circuit, to which post he was appointed in June last.

I have written about several of Talfourd’s court appearances here. They were often fascinating, and his conduct of them sometimes surprising – as when, for example, he called a baby elephant as a witness. He was a cousin of my great great grandfather's, and he came across as quite human for a lawyer. So I was saddened when I read the Gazette’s report. Talfourd never married. Was he alone in Varese? I presume he was on holiday, but perhaps he was convalescing. Could he have been hiding? His recent appointment by the Post Office suggests that things were going well for him; but was he happy or unhappy with the way his life had turned out? He was only 56 at his death (on 5th October), the same age as me, and I can find no further details about the circumstances.

The Palace Grand Hotel, Varese, in 1913

And where, exactly, did he die? Today, Varese in the far north of Italy boasts not one but two Grand Hotels, both designed by the important art nouveau architect Giuseppe Sommaruga. What are the chances?! But neither of them was originally called the Grand, and neither of them was yet built at the time of Talfourd’s death. The Palace Hotel opened on a hill in the city in 1911, and the Hotel Tre Croci in the Campo dei Fiori national park northwest of Varese a year later.

The Grand Hotel Campo dei Fiori, Varese, in c1917

As the Palace Grand, the former is still going strong and boasts its own heliport. But the latter relied for its tourist trade on a funicular railway, which closed in 1958; and the Grand Hotel Campo dei Fiori followed suit ten years later. Now it is a sad ruin, used only to support communications masts. Ther must have been an earlier Grand Hotel in or near Varese, but I have found no record of it yet. My email to the Palace has not so far received a reply.

Was Talfourd Salter buried in Varese, or was his body brought home to London? His will was proved (with some alacrity, it seems to me) less than five weeks after his death, in England. He was worth £3531 3s 3d, a tidy sum in its time. I haven’t seen the will yet, so I don’t know about its beneficiaries.

There are still avenues for exploration – the will, a death certificate, a history of Varese perhaps. But it is frustrating that a man whose public life is so well documented in the transcripts of his court cases should have such a private death, hidden away from prying eyes both then and now.

Saturday, 5 July 2014


In a few days’ time it will be exactly six years since the death of my father. He was a difficult man … I always use that phrase in talking about him: “he was a difficult man.” It covers a multitude of sins, most of which he had and displayed; and it saves me having to talk about them in detail.

Charles Henry Salter (1918-2008), pictured in 2007

His was a forceful, domineering character, and he put a lot of energy into falling out with everyone around him – friends, neighbours and family including his children. As his ninetieth birthday approached he had become very difficult to love (another catch-all phrase I use about him, “difficult to love”). His six children had escaped his bullying, belittling orbit by living in five different European countries; and there was not much enthusiasm for returning to base in Scotland to honour the occasion.

He complained of this of course; and while on the one hand assuring him that we did of course want to celebrate his birthday, I pointed out on the other that he could hardly be surprised at any reluctance to do so. It would be a duty, not a pleasure, to expose ourselves to his attacks.

I heard no more from him, but learned from a neighbour that he had stopped eating and carried on drinking. His health declined rapidly as the date of his birthday, 21st July, approached. It was almost as if he was determined to die before it to remove the problem of the ninetieth; and he duly did, giving up the ghost in hospital in the early hours of Sunday 13th July 2008 aged 89 years and 51 weeks. He had thwarted his children’s hesitant plans for a birthday party, but he certainly made it easier for them to return to base. We were all present at his funeral the following Friday.

But if he was determined to deprive us of a ninety-year old relative, posterity has arranged things differently. We decided to place his ashes in the grave of his parents in an Oxfordshire country graveyard, and to add his name to their headstone. But in arranging this by telephone with a local stonemason, a classic error of transcription arose. Instead of 13th July, the stonemason heard 30th - and that’s the date which is now incised on the monument!

Future Salters will believe that Charles Henry Salter died at the grand old age of 90 years and 9 days, and for all I care may imagine the large and fond family gathering which took place to honour him in his last days. Flowers, cards, bunting, grandchildren, old friends and colleagues, speeches of tribute, dancing – perhaps future Salters will wonder whether the excess of party food and drink may even have hastened his demise. “What a way to go though, eh?” they’ll say, “one last big birthday feast, surrounded by all those he loved.” Wouldn’t that have been nice?

Saturday, 28 June 2014


I am about to get rid of a family heirloom. It’s a large Persian carpet, 8’6” by 10’6”, woven for the British market at the start of the twentieth century. My grandparents probably bought it new at the start of their married life together in 1915.

My parents inherited it from my widowed grandfather, probably around the time of their marriage in 1956. Their home was an old one and the carpet lay over uneven floorboards in their drawing room. Years of footsteps wore the pattern away in faded straight lines where the floorboards met in warped ridges.

After my parents’ divorce my father kept the house and the carpet. He was not a fastidious housekeeper, and as coarse grime collected in the carpet’s fibres it acted as an abrasive, rubbing away more of the colour.

By the time he passed it on to my wife and me in 1993, to furnish the first house we owned, it was already threadbare. Since then it has been with us in three subsequent homes. Time and our own erratic housekeeping have further weathered it and now it is so worn that chair legs catch in its loose strands. It’s time to say goodbye.

It’s not just its passive presence under the feet of three generations of my family that makes it an heirloom. This carpet has played a rather more active part in the life and death of the family. Some years ago I was showing an aunt a photograph of my wife at home, when the aunt exclaimed, “Oh! It’s that carpet!”

One June evening in 1951 my grandmother was doing a bit of spring-cleaning in the family home in Nettlebed, Oxfordshire. She decided to roll back the heavy carpet – this carpet – to sweep up the dust underneath it. My grandfather had a wooden leg and couldn’t help. As she crawled strenuously across the floor on her knees in the act of rolling it up, she suffered a massive heart attack which killed her in the instant. She was seventy.

My grandparents, Eleanor May Castle and Frederick Gurney Salter in the garden of Little Hill, Nettlebed, Oxfordshire in the 1930s

The story goes that my grandfather, realising that she was dead and that nothing further could be done for her, went to bed as usual that evening. He reasoned that the chores and consequences of death could keep until morning. It sounds heartless, but perhaps it was just pragmatic.

I had heard the story long ago, and never suspected that the carpet in question might have remained in the family. But I never knew my grandmother, and even after learning of its role in her death I have kept the carpet so far: even that morbid connection with her is precious. Perhaps my father and grandfather did so for the same reasons. Or perhaps they were just pragmatic. A carpet is still a carpet, whoever rolled or walked on it.

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