Priestley and the “Dunkirk Spirit”

An Analysis of J. B. Priestley’s Broadcast from June 5, 1940: (Listen here)

Winston Churchill’s speech “we shall fight on the beaches” is often considered as the turning point of the Second World War, but historical investigation indicates that the soft Yorkshire tones of author J. B. Priestley over the wireless the following evening might have played a more immediate role in boosting morale and turning the tide from capitulation to the Third Reich to mustering an English fighting spirit – despite popular memory mistakenly hearing Churchill. Priestley championed the English underdog, and characterised that as a peculiarly English trait, a feat of national mythologisation that became known as the “Dunkirk Spirit”. In the early stage of the Second World War, Priestley’s radio broadcasts played a vital role independent of, and aiding, Churchill in galvanising the nation to join in the war effort, turning it from an imperial war to a “people’s war”.

The evacuation of Dunkirk was a retreat from the battlefield – though not a capitulation – rather than a victory, which Churchill acknowledged in his speech to the House of Commons on June 4, as the nine-day Operation Dynamo concluded. That 336,000 English, Belgian and French troops had been conveyed to safety – albeit leaving 30,000 individuals behind as fugitives, prisoners or corpses – was remarkable considering they remained under bombardment from air and sea. Contested by historians, participants and their contemporaries was the size of the evacuation role played by the RAF, Royal Navy and civilian sailors – as well as fatigued British Expeditionary Forces. Priestley did not mention air power, but Churchill emphasised the crucial and heroic role they played in engaging the Luftwaffe, invisible from below the clouds. He was responding to widespread disillusionment with the RAF that was reflected in Mass Observation reports of pub conversations in Suffolk, and also by the BBC’s only broadcasting rival at the time – Reichssender Hamburg’s English-language Nazi propaganda. The nasal faux-aristocratic tones of Irish-American fascist William Joyce’s “Germany Calling” vied with the BBC’s Home Service, attracting up to 12 million listeners during the Phoney War period. On May 28, two days after the Dunkirk evacuation began, Joyce broadcast:

As the bloody and battered fragments of what was once the BEF drift back in wreckage to the shores of England, it is not impossible that the public will turn savagely on the men who have so cruelly and unscrupulously deceived them. At any rate the bitterness and disillusion will now blend with the fear of invasion, which has not unreasonably been growing stronger every day. England has received a psychological shock which not even the strongest nation could bear. And the fault is very much that of the warmongers who educated the public to believe that it would be an easy matter to deal with Hitler. The decisive campaign of the war has been won by Germany, who now commands the English Channel and the North Sea.

It is amazing that witness accounts frequently recall Churchill’s speech of June 4 as the switch of their – and the national mood – from one of ignominious defeat to a rousing and defiant “we shall never surrender”. No one outside the House of Commons did hear Churchill’s speech at the time – only passages of it were quoted by a BBC newsreader, and relayed to America’s CBS network by reporter Ed Murrow. Penny Summerfield in 2010 suggested the myth-making of Dunkirk began after 1949, when Churchill was persuaded to record the speech for posterity. But as novelist and columnist for The Spectator, Graham Greene noted in December 1940:

Priestley became in the months after Dunkirk a leader second only in importance to Mr. Churchill. And he gave us what our other leaders have always failed to give us – an ideology.

This ideology might be described – with some trepidation – as English national socialism, a semi-autonomous opposite to force-fed German Nazism. This collectivist instinct – which by 1941 had become mythologised as the “Dunkirk Spirit” – was not imposed from above, but was, Priestley suggested, a natural reaction, the unity of the English underdog to snatch “glory out of defeat”.

Since Edwardian times, English – or British – patriotism had been framed by Elgar’s boastful and triumphant Pomp and Circumstance, but in the deflation of 1940, its anthem Land of Hope and Glory would have rung hollow. Priestley used “hope” in the first sentence and “glory” in the last, but (re)defined Englishness as “folly” and “grandeur”. By paying tribute to the “little pleasure-steamers”, nicknamed “shilling sicks”, and the people who used them (including him), he evoked a middlebrow shared vision of England that gently mocked but mostly celebrated working-class culture, a world he had observed from within its bosom. The left-populist writer put the icing on the cake for Conservative Churchill, whose speech was fairly downbeat and airily imperial, barely mentioning the non-military aid.

While Churchill praised the evacuation of Dunkirk as “a miracle of deliverance”, courtesy of the RAF and Navy, and the “willing help of countless merchant seamen”, Priestley saw the rescue mission as “typically English…” because of “the part played not by the warships but by the little pleasure-steamers”. Churchill culminated his speech in a thinly-veiled appeal to America to get involved – he stressed the evacuation had assured him that British people would resist Nazi invasion alone if necessary, and would not surrender at the beaches, but continue fighting in the hills and towns. But Priestley did not conjure up any notion of violence to defend English land from invaders. Instead he peaceably predicted how these “fussy little steamers” would be remembered to “our great-grandchildren, when they learn how we began this War by snatching glory out of defeat, and then swept on to victory…”

Newspaper reports from June 1 had begun to acclaim the Dunkirk evacuation as a “miracle”, and Churchill and Priestley developed this theme, obscuring less endearing realities. Priestley mythologised “how the little holiday steamers made an excursion to hell and came back glorious”, and overlooked that in many cases the 850 private vessels (most not passenger steamers) had been commandeered by the Royal Navy and piloted by military men rather than civilians, that they had only been used in the last few days of the evacuation, and that small boats had already been employed by the navy as minesweepers.

This June 4 broadcast was Priestley’s first outing for the BBC Home Service’s Postscripts section which was introduced after Sunday news broadcasts to offer some respite from state control with an independent voice – perhaps to provide a counterpoint to Joyce’s commentary.

From October 1940 Priestley was off the air. He self-mythologised his departure saying the BBC and Ministry of Information each blamed each other in letters to him (which he claimed to have lost) for taking him off due to his left-wing bias, but subsequent research suggests Priestley himself demanded a break as the war became a heavier burden on the opinion influencer. He returned in 1941.

Churchill headed a wartime government that was jointly Labour and Conservative. At the culmination of the war, the public elected the first – and perhaps one and only – British socialist government. This, Margaret Thatcher later claimed, was inevitable:

The command economy required in wartime conditions had habituated many people to an essentially socialist mentality… Broadcasters like J. B. Priestley gave a comfortable yet idealistic gloss to social progress in a left-wing direction… [Conservatives] were not able effectively to take the credit… for victory, let alone to castigate Labour for its irresponsibility and extremism, because Atlee and his colleagues had worked cheek by jowl with the Conservatives in government since 1940. In any event, the war effort had involved the whole population.

This “essentially socialist mentality” can surely be connected with the “ideology” formed by Priestley as cited by Greene, and the “Dunkirk spirit” that has endured and been repurposed time and time again without really losing its main meaning – that ordinary people can work together and achieve miracles in the face of adversity.

However, since advocates of Brexit began associating the Dunkirk Spirit as a means of staying afloat outside the European Union, some commentators have begun reappraising the expression as jingoistic.

But we only need to return to the source – Priestley – to demonstrate the Dunkirk spirit was a fine example of mutual aid, and that positive patriotic notion was given real power by invocation, to counter the jingoistic Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, and Churchill himself. Priestley may have pinned this “typical English” trait to the Dunkirk evacuation, but was giving voice to a spirit already in existence – a spirit of co-operation over competition, a natural persuasion for collective action rather than individual glory-grabbing, a spirit which Colin Ward astutely defined as “anarchy in action”; this natural social behaviour flourished in 1940 in spite of State failures to properly equip and task the BEF, and the negligence of British, French and Belgian authorities to protect their peoples from Nazi brutality.

Most importantly, even if more mythology than reality, Priestley’s distilled Dunkirk spirit acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy: eventually winning the war against fascism – even if popular memory has given Churchill the credit as chief morale-booster, rather than Priestley, who appears on no bank notes.

Psycho killer… qu’est que c’est?

(These are not original concepts, the headline and the first sentence are inspired by the Talking Heads and The Pop Group respectively.)

If we’re brutally honest, how many of us can say we don’t prostitute ourselves in some way to survive and/or are responsible for misery and the untimely deaths of many people who are in the unfortunate position of being many servants of consumers?

Once upon a time, those suffering untimely deaths as servants were the people who built towns and cities or laboured in fields. With globalisation it became those on the other side of the world, or Europe, who made the phones we bought, or produced or picked the food we ate. The working-class people who lived here became distributors or servants in that they supplied the goods manufactured elsewhere in the world, or the food that was either imported or generally picked by exploited people from Eastern Europe through that supposedly benevolent entity, the EU.

Globalisation has proved perhaps the number one killer in that it has now delivered a randomly killing virus across the globe, and perhaps many of those who spread it were the affluent jet-set, the globalised elite, more so than the workers. We have now reached a situation where we have an emergency three-tier system. This is divided into:

1. The designated vulnerable and also those left unemployed and skint so have little consumption power, who must rely on the two other tiers to survive – but can also be killed by them.

2. The key workers (including my partner) – those obliged to put themselves in harm’s way so they can continue to serve the other two tiers.

3. The “I’m alright jacks” – those that idly consume, feel like they’re on holiday, or are able to work from home (this does include me, though I am probably in the first category too). These tend to be the sector containing hypocritical politicians, who don’t practice what they preach (social distancing, only essential journeys), those who have been living the “good life” so have enough provisions to survive and thrive, and those who feel the urge to stockpile as much as they can from supermarkets because running out of bog roll would be the worst thing in the world to them… The worst thing, except, as some have discovered, to get the virus and suffer the symptoms badly. Also in the latter sector are those opposing lockdown measures as draconian, not really considering that they are for everyone’s mutual benefit (except some profiteers or economically generally) and that we don’t have a police force or army big enough to really enforce them.

The actions of the third group of people are most likely to cause death. Perhaps it would be too strong to call it manslaughter, perhaps the reality is so brutal and discomforting that this blog itself is a psycho killer? I don’t know, I just can’t hold back how I feel – most of those who are close to me are in the first two groups, and I cannot stress enough how much I resent the cavalier attitudes of some within the third group.





Laissez-faire and the French Revolution






By Owen Adams

The driving force of the French Revolution was the menu peuple – the ordinary people, mostly wage-earners, unemployed and women1: driven by hunger2 to take up arms against the pacte de famine3 in a leaderless, directionless l’anarchie spontanée4. Far from being a baseless conspiracy theory, the suspicion rich people were trying to starve the poor was based on the realities5 of seeing wagons filled with unaffordable supplies6. Really the menu peuple were pawns in a liberal utopian fantasy put into practice by a Palace de Versailles cabal known as the Physiocrats (“law of nature”)7, or simply Les Économistes. Their blue-skies thinking was aimed at bringing maximum benefit by the least effort, esoterically based around laissez faire, laissez passer (let it be, let it pass), the French translation of the Taoist concept wu-wei.8 But it did anything but.


The map-image above shows the swirl of influences surrounding the Physiocrats. Wu wei, in its original political context of c. 200BCE means “no personal prejudice [public or private will] interferes with the universal Tao [law of nature], and that no desires and obsessions lead the true course… astray,” seeped into France via Jesuit missionaries in Amsterdam and Antwerp, the 17thcentury cradle of capitalism.1

François Quesnay, Louis XV’s physician who became an economist in his sixties, concocted his doctrine of Physiocracy which his powerful friends signed up to in the 1750s2. It was tailor-made for the “enlightened monarch”, just as Confucius applied wu-wei to “Oriental despotism”3 . Quesnay earned the epithet ‘Confucius of Europe’4, and proved a major influence on Adam Smith, who visited him in Paris in 1765 and would have dedicated Wealth of Nations to him had Quesnay not died in 17745.

If trade was allowed to flow unimpeded by barriers, this “acting by not acting” reform would result in a harmonious flowering of society, Quesnay proposed6. But freeing trade didn’t result in universal happiness7, as the Physiocrats predicted in 17678, Bernard Mandeville before 17329, and Adam Smith in 177610: instead it enriched merchants and speculators and caused exploitation and starvation when prices outstripped wages11.

Narratives emerged that were more relative to the people: “The princes, linked in a common bond with the nobility, the clergy and all of the parlements… [have] bought up all the corn in the kingdom; their abominable intentions are to prevent the meeting of the Estates-General by spreading famine throughout France and to make part of the people die of hunger and the rest rise up against the king,” a typical pamphlet claimed in May 178912.

Laissez-faire capitalism was attempted three times before 1789 in France, curtailed each time after causing famine and unrest. The need for a money-making fix after the Seven Years War saw the Physiocrats first invited to put their ideas into practice. Two edicts deregulating grain in 1763 and 1764 were rescinded in 1770 following dearths and riots13. In 1771 Simon Linguet – whose horrific account of Bastille prison life helped provoke its storming14 – raged at physiocrat Nicolas Baudeau’s utopian overtures in the midst of the reforms: “Shut your magic lantern… What mortal is stupid enough to pride themselves on ever seeing such illusions come true?”15 Linguet described the grain merchant as a “vampire”16 while the ploughman “is increasingly pressured to sell himself at a discount.”17

In 1774, physiocrat sympathiser18 Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot was put in charge of finances when Louis XVI became king, and immediately pushed through laissez-faire deregulation, including dissolution of guilds and disbanding the grain police19. Turgot’s radical reforms culminated in the first mass disturbance that might be called revolutionary, due to its volume and longevity: the Flour War of spring 1775: 123 riots throughout the Paris Basin over 17 days, put down by 25,000 troops20. Turgot was out of a job by the following year and the second laissez-faire experiment abandoned.21

Key physiocrat Dupont de Nemours, who went on to support the revolution, helped spendthrift finance chief Calonne22 in the third laissez-faire misadventure: the 1786 Anglo-French Eden Agreement, where Pitt the Younger seized his chance to debut Adam Smith’s theories23. They worked well for Josiah Wedgwood and the Bordeaux wine trade, and ruinously for the French textiles24 and manufacturing25. This was on top of two disastrous harvests and a snowballing movement of rural wandering plunderers driven by hunger26.

People torching châteaux, emptying bakers, wagons and grain stores and redistributing or selling bread at the taxation populaire27 often declared they were doing so in the king’s name28. They felt the king owed them, and their actions were just29 – the argument of the “moral economy of the crowd” by E. P. Thompson, Margairaz and Minard30 remains more persuasive than the opposite “political economy” or “rationalist” argument (that everyone’s behaviour, losing as well as winning laissez-faire players, is motivated by individual self-interest). With the change from guaranteed subsistence in exchange to having to sell labour by the hour, existence became precarious31. The “natural law” of laissez-faire exacerbated nature’s crop-wrecking Icelandic volcanic ash32 or hailstone storms33, with supply and demand distortions, and grain taken out of circulation through speculating, hoarding and mass buying.

The push that came to the revolutionary shove at the Bastille began when Louis XVI combined the bourgeoisie with the commons in the Third Estate34, also prompting a jockeying of position by deputies who considered the right to property as trumping the right to existence35. One pamphlet from April 1789 expressed the anger of the menu peuple for being shut out of the political process: “Everything is sacrificed to the owners of property… it is revoltingly unjust that they alone should be consulted and that disdainful rejection should be the lot of those humble and useful people through whose labours they are able to live without needing to work.”36

Nevertheless, the political will and the popular will together broke down the door on July 14, 1789, and the anarchic tumult was confirmed as revolution to the king, making it official… but yet it was only a staging-post on the long, amorphous struggle of the un-enfranchised to keep their heads above water as free-trade sharks circled for their next feeding frenzy. The revolution that belonged to the menu peuple would begin in September 1792, but last only until March 179437.

1032 words


Andress, David, French Society in Revolution 1789-1799 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999)

Bowden, Witt, The English Manufacturers and the Commercial Treaty of 1786 with France (Oxford: The American Historical Review, vol. 25, no. 1, October 1919, pp. 18-35)

Accessed 23/10/17:

Callinicos, Alex, Social Theory: A Historical Introduction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999)

Chaussinand-Nogaret, William Doyle (trans.), The French Nobility in the Eighteenth Century (1976) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985)

Cobban, Alfred, The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (1964) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Collini, Stefan, Richard Whatmore and Brian Young (eds.), Economy, Polity, and Society: British Intellectual History 1750-1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Demals, Thierry and Alexandra Hyard, Forbonnais, The Two Balances and the Économistes (The European Journal of Economic Thought, vol. 22, no. 3, 2015, pp. 445-472)

Accessed 23/10/17:

Donaghay, Marie, The Maréchal de Castries and the Anglo-French Commercial Negotiations of 1786-1787 (Cambridge: The Historical Journal, vol. 22, no. 2, 1979, pp. 295-312)

Dupuy, Romuald, The Physiocrats’ Concept of Labour: A Difficulty in Marx’s Interpretation (The European Journal of Economic Thought, vol. 20, no. 5, October 2013, pp. 695-714)

Accessed 23/10/17:

Eltis, Walter, EEC Agricultural Prices: Are The French Still Physiocrats? (Economic Affairs, vol. 4, no. 2, January 1984, pp. 13-14)

Gerlach, Christian, Wu-Wei In Europe: A Study of Eurasian Economic Thought (London School of Economics, MSc Global History Dissertation/ Working Paper no. 12/05, March 2005)

Accessed 23/10/17:

Gray, Sir Alexander, Adam Smith (London: The Historical Association, 1948)

Hampsher-Monk, Iain (ed.), The Impact of the French Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Hébert, Robert F., Authority Versus Freedom in Quesnay’s Thought (The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 3:2, Summer 1996, pp. 200-224)

Hobsbawm, Eric, On History (London: Abacus, 1998)

Hobsbawm, Eric, The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 (1962) (London: Abacus, 1977)

Houseman, Gerald, Rereading Adam Smith: The Use and Abuse of Adam Smith (USA: Challenge, vol. 46, no. 3, May-June 2003, pp. 108-111)

Hull, Charles H., Book Review: Henry Higgs, The Physiocrats (Oxford: The Academy of Political Science/ Political Science Quarterly, vol. 12, no. 3, September 1897, pp. 521-525)

Accessed 23/10/17:

Ives, R. J., Political Publicity and Political Economy In Eighteenth-Century France (French History vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 1-18)

Klein, Naomi, The Shock Doctrine (London: Penguin, 2007)

Langford, Paul, A Polite And Commercial People: England 1727-1783 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989)

Lefebvre, George, (trans. New Left Books), The Great Fear of 1789 (1932) (New York [US]: Schocken Books, 1973

Magnot-Oglivy, Florence, A Body Without A Voice: A Literary Approach to Linguet’s Opposition to the Physiocrats over the Free Trade in Grain (The European Journal of Economic Thought, vol. 22, no. 3, 2015, pp. 420-444)

Accessed 23/10/17:

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, February 1848 (Marxists Internet Archive

McPhee, Peter: A Social History of France 1780-1880 (London: Routledge, 1992)

Nolan, Peter, Adam Smith and the Contradictions of the Free Market ( USA: Challenge, vol. 46, no. 3, May-June 2003, pp. 112-123)

Perelman, Michael, Adam Smith: Class, Labor and the Industrial Revolution (USA: Journal of Economic Behavior & Organisation 76, 2010, pp. 481-496)

Accessed 23/10/17: doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2010.08.003

Pike, E. Royston, Human Documents of Adam Smith’s Time (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1974)

Rudé, George, The Crowd In The French Revolution (1959) (London: Oxford University Press, 1972)

Schama, Simon, Citizens (London: Penguin, 1989)

Shovlin, John, Book Review: Liana Vardi, The Physiocrats and the World of the Enlightenment (The American Historical Review, vol. 118, no. 3, 2013, pp. 941-942)

Stanziani, Alessandro, Book Review: Liana Vardi, The Physiocrats and the World of the Enlightenment (Santa Clara [US]: The Journal of Economic History, vol. 73, iss. 3, September 2013, pp. 879-881)

Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques, Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth (trans. 1793) (Liberty Fund/ Library of Economics and Liberty, 2001) Accessed 23/10/17:

Vanderburg, Phyllis and Abigail DeHart, Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) (Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy)

Accessed 23/10/17:

Wasserman, M. J. and J. D. Tate, The Citizen’s Éphémérides of the Physiocrats (Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 65, no. 3, August 1951, pp. 439-443)

Whiteman, Jeremy J., Trade and the Regeneration of France, 1789-91: Liberalism, Protectionism and the Commercial Policy of the National Constituent Assembly (London: European History Quarterly, Vol. 31 (2), 2001, pp. 171-204)

Williams, David (ed.), The Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

1 Ibid, pp. 4-6.

2Williams, ‘Introduction’ in The Enlightenment (1999), p. 51.

3 Gerlach, Wu-Wei In Europe (2005), pp. 17-18.

4 Ibid.

5 E. Royston Pike, Human Documents of Adam Smith’s Time (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1974), p. 22; Williams, ‘Introduction’ in The Enlightenment (1999), p. 53.

6 Gerlach, Wu-Wei In Europe (2005), pp. 16-18.

7 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 (1962) (London: Abacus, 1977), pp. 287-290.

8Williams, The Enlightenment (1999), pp. 409-10.

9 Ibid.

10 Sir Alexander Gray, Adam Smith (London: The Historical Association, 1948), p. 16; Peter Nolan, Adam Smith and the Contradictions of the Free Market ( USA: Challenge, vol. 46, no. 3, May-June 2003), pp. 120-1.

11 Lefebvre, The Great Fear of 1789 (1932), p. 40; Andress, French Society in Revolution 1789-1799 (1999), pp. 17-18.

12 Lefebvre, The Great Fear of 1789 (1932), p. 75.

13 Schama, Citizens (1989), p. 81.

14Ibid, pp. 393-4.

15 Florence Magnot-Oglivy, A Body Without A Voice: A Literary Approach to Linguet’s Opposition to the Physiocrats over the Free Trade in Grain (The European Journal of Economic Thought, vol. 22, no. 3, 2015), p. 425.

16 Ibid, pp. 439

17 Ibid, p. 427.

18 Dupuy, The Physiocrats’ Concept of Labour (2013). Turgot was not a member of the Physiocrats, but supported most of the thinking, pp. 700-1.

19 Andress, French Society in Revolution 1789-1799 (1999), pp. 16-17.

20 Cynthia Bouton, The Flour War: Gender, Class, and Community in Late Ancient Regime French Society. (United States: Penn State University Press, 1983)

21 Andress, French Society in Revolution 1789-1799 (1999), p. xxxii.

22Schama, Citizens (1989), p. 232.

23 Bowden, Witt, The English Manufacturers and the Commercial Treaty of 1786 with France (Oxford: The American Historical Review, vol. 25, no. 1, October 1919), pp. 32-33.

24 Lefebvre, The Great Fear of 1789 (1932), pp. 12-13.

25 Jeremy J. Whiteman, Trade and the Regeneration of France, 1789-91: Liberalism, Protectionism and the Commercial Policy of the National Constituent Assembly (London: European History Quarterly, Vol. 31 (2), 2001), pp. 174-5.

26 Rudé, ‘Introduction’ in Lefebvre, The Great Fear of 1789 (1973), p. x.

27 George Rudé, The Crowd In The French Revolution (1959) (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 24.

28 Rudé, ‘Introduction’ in Lefebvre, The Great Fear of 1789 (1973), p. x; Schama, Citizens (1999), p. 324.

29Schama, Citizens (1999), p. 292

30 Magnot-Oglivy, A Body Without A Voice (2015), p. 423.

31 McPhee: A Social History of France 1780-1880 (1992), pp. 16-18.

32C.A. Wood, ‘The climatic effects of the 1783 Laki eruption’ in C. R. Harrington (ed.), The Year Without a Summer? (Ottawa (Canada): Canadian Museum of Nature, 1992), pp. 58–77.

33 Andress, French Society in Revolution 1789-1799 (1999), p. 51.

34 Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution (1962), pp. 81-82.

35 Magnot-Oglivy, A Body Without A Voice (2015), p. 441.

36 McPhee: A Social History of France 1780-1880 (1992), p. 35.

37 Ibid, p. 64.

1 Peter McPhee: A Social History of France 1780-1880 (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 14-15.

2 George Lefebvre, (trans. New Left Books), The Great Fear of 1789 (1932) (New York [US]: Schocken Books, 1973), p. 118

3 David Andress, French Society in Revolution 1789-1799 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), p. 17.

4 George Rudé, ‘Introduction’ in Lefebvre, The Great Fear of 1789 (1973), p. x.eorge Rudé, ‘Introduction’ in Lefebvre, The Great Fear of 1789 (1973), p. x.

5 Lefebvre, The Great Fear of 1789 (1932), p. 24

6 Andress, French Society in Revolution 1789-1799 (1999), p. 52.

7 Simon Schama, Citizens (London: Penguin, 1989), p. 81.

8 Christian Gerlach, Wu-Wei In Europe: A Study of Eurasian Economic Thought (London School of Economics, MSc Global History Dissertation/ Working Paper no. 12/05, March 2005), p. 8.

The Minstrel Roots of the KKK

by Owen Adams

Recent work of Elaine Frantz Parsons has shown the genesis of the Ku Klux Klan was less an organised militia and more about performers making their own entertainment. Night rides were predominantly staged as costumed comedy, sometimes with murderous consequences.1 This poses a question comedians eternally wrestle with: when is a joke “beyond a joke”?

In their earliest days antics that were claimed to be Klan were portrayed as sensational comic capers, incredulous northern newspapers amplifying the phenomenon and relaying it across the disgruntled South.2 The ideas were developed from ready-accumulated American popular culture, a do-it-yourself extension of the minstrel show. The KKK pulled down the fourth wall between the stage and audience, continuing a thread of inverted-costumed carnivalesque vigilantism that can be traced to early-modern Skimmington Rides and 1840s Daughters of Rebecca (Welsh transvestite rioters).3

An early Klan communique from 1867 enigmatically announced: “The hideous fiends of night are holding high carnival over a world that is all their own.”4 This blurring of the boundary between fantasy and reality, the masks, costumes and play-acting, gave the performers licence to do anything, perhaps desensitising them from the inhumane realities of their actions, while ensuring through fantastic storytelling that nothing was necessarily true, but anything was possible.5 Anyone could claim to be Klan by putting on a costume, and the autonomous, anonymous, non-coordinated, and random, unpredictable nature of such mushrooming activity made it an uncontrollable menace that could only be dampened down by bowing to its segregationist demands.



The photograph (above) is believed by historians in Pulaski, Tennessee to feature six members of the original KKK. On the one hand they wanted to be taken seriously as a talented, educated elite with a mastery of music, a penchant for Latin mottos, pillars of their community, but by their eccentric hat poses, they indicated they shouldn’t be taken seriously.6 They, and in particular fiddle-player (front-left) Frank McCord, had a monopoly on the local media – McCord edited the Pulaski Citizen, from its post-civil war rebirth in January 1866 presenting the newspaper as the moderate, non-partisan of the people which accepted the “death of slavery”, promoted good race relations but believed “social equality a humbug and an impossibility”.7 McCord and associates maintained a monopoly on the Klan origin narrative as an innocent social society, who merely gatecrashed a few parties to play music. McCord retrospectively claimed “nearly” every KKK message published in his organ was part of a sensationalist fantasy he had concocted to entertain his readers.8 But with its moderate editorial and humorous tones, on the front-page in the same edition is an allegorical poem titled The Blackbird, culminating with a declared commitment to defend white property against freedmen.9 Despite their self-portrayal as sweetheart serenaders, the group’s name, Midnight Rangers, Parsons notes, suggests an informal militia.10


The Janus face of American popular culture: Minstrelsy inspired the KKK, above, but also the abolition of slavery, centre, below, and by the end of the century had become a vehicle for ragtime and blues written by African Americans such as W. C. Handy, helping to break down boundaries and eventually end segregation and the minstrel-inspired Jim Crow laws.



Minstrelsy can be claimed as the foster parent of the early KKK but was also used as a vehicle for abolitionism.11 From the 1840s, minstrelsy fused Scottish and Irish and West African syncopated rhythms, melodies and dance, taking in passing fads such as the Czech polka into its melting pot.12 Although the plantation melodies and rhythms were appropriated and recontexualised by white performers, recent appraisers of minstrelsy, including Eric Lott (Love & Theft) and Christopher Smith, stress the combined agency of African American and European Americans in creating the first “American” culture.13 Frederick Douglass described minstrel performers as “the filthy scum of white society” but later recognised that in an “absurd” way the “national… heart songs” (sung by white “Ethiopian delineators”) could “awaken the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root, grow and flourish”.14

By 1870 there were 20 African American minstrel troupes, and a detailed account of one performance in front of a mainly black audience makes for fascinating reading.15 A complex of racial and cultural inversions and double-inversions developed until the mid-20th-century, when segregation ropes were literally torn down by rock ‘n’ roll dancers.16

Minstrelsy was the making of the KKK, but as a mass-consumed culture, minstrelsy reflected and distorted discourse on all sides, and, through its cultural fusion, an evolved minstrelsy known as rock’n’roll ushered in the end of racial segregation 100 years later.




1Elaine Frantz Parsons, Horns, Masks and Women’s Dress: How the First Klan Used Costume to Build Domestic Terrorism (Richmond, VA [US] video: Banner Lecture, Virginia Historical Society, 8 December 2016) (accessed 20/10/18)


3Ibid – Parsons mentions KKK throwing of animal horns. This is a key characteristic of Skimmington Rides, see E. P. Thompson, Customs In Common (London: Merlin Press, 1991), p. 516, and pp. 521-3 for the Rebecca riots.

4 Elaine Frantz Parsons, The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction (USA: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), p. 45.

5 Ibid, pp. 52-54.

6Ibid, p. 33.

7‘Prospectus’, The Pulaski Citizen, January 5, 1866 (University of Tennessee archive, Library of Congress digitized newspapers) (accessed 20/10/18), p. 2.

8Parsons, The Birth of the Klan…, p. 62.

9‘The Blackbird’, The Pulaski Citizen, January 5, 1866, p. 1.

10Parsons, The Birth of the Klan…, p. 33.

11John Strausbourg, Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Popular Culture (London: Penguin, 2006), p. 93, reveals anti-slavery verses from 1832 added to the ‘Jump Jim Crow’ song.

12Joseph Byrd, Whitewashing Blackface Minstrelsy in American College Textbooks (Popular Music and Society, Vol 32, No. 1, February 2009), p. 78.

13Christopher J. Smith, The Creolization of American Culture – William Sydney Mount and the Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy (Chicago [US], University of Illinois Press, 2013), p. 13. See also Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York [US], Oxford University Press, 1993/ 2013)

14Richard L. Hughes, Minstrel Music: The Sounds and Images of Race in Antebellum America (The History Teacher, Vol. 40, No. 1, November 2006), pp. 39-40.

15Jack Shalom, The Ira Aldridge Troupe: Early black minstrelsy in Philadelphia (African American Review, Vol. 28, Issue 4, Winter 1994), pp. 653-659.

16Owen Adams, How Fats Domino invented rock’n’roll (The Guardian, 14 May 2007) (accessed 20/10/18)



Imported drugs: the early years (c. 1450-1600)

The important role of psychoactive stimulants from overseas expansion and the development of modern European society

by Owen Adams

Between 1500 and 1800 a sizeable proportion of Europe’s population shifted from a life of local subsistence to become urban consumers of merchandise shipped in from thousands of miles away. This emergence of a larger commercial class spurred new social scenes conducive to private trading, as the apparatus was created for modern global capitalism – capital cities, joint-stock companies and centralised stock exchanges. Although many exotic items enriched and stimulated European culture during the Age of Exploration, I will focus on the introduction of tobacco and coffee with other psychoactive stimulants and examine primary evidence, analysing how they were crucial to Europe’s progressive modernity.


Psychoactive or psychotropic substances, a late-20th-century definition of drugs which alter brain function and the central nervous system, behaviour or consciousness, are broadly classified as stimulants, hallucinogens, sedatives and aphrodisiacs.1 Psychoactive spices from Asia (and sugar produced from slave colonies) were promoted by early modern “physicks” as well as explorers and early colonists. My Appendix (see below) compares early modern and present-day claims for therapeutic properties of spices. As well as culinary use and incense, they were mixed with colonial sugar to make cordial syrups.


In 1588, Walter Baley claimed his pepper trials cured “diseases of the bladder, of the heade, and of the iointes”, restored memory and the voice, “putteth backe grey heares, remedieth the goute… and in generall whosoeuer aged doth vse much this medicine, he shall not need any other helpe to preserue his health”.2 It was believed pepper had maximum therapeutic use when beaten into a fine powder.3 The expression “to take pepper up the nose” was frequently used in early modern England, an allegory for taking offence or “seeing red”.4 It appears pepper was sometimes snorted as an aphrodisiac. William Painter in 1567 refers to a noblewoman taking “pepper in snuffe”, apparently causing her to fall in love with a “lusty” poor man.5


Getting direct access to spices in the name of Christendom was the primary motivation for Portuguese exploration, Vasco de Gama confirmed to Tunisian traders he met in India in 1498.6 Perhaps the most significant new discovery by Columbus in terms of long-term impact was tobacco. The French explorer Jacques Cartier was the first to record his own experience of smoking in the vicinity of Montreal, Canada in 1535: “When it is in one’s mouth, one would think one had taken powdered pepper, it is so hot.” Like pepper, enduring tobacco’s fiery heat was key to curing sickness and maintaining good health. Cartier noted: “They say it keeps them warm and in good health, and never go without these things.”7


In England, the tobacco-“drinking” craze took hold from 1590, promoted by Sir Walter Raleigh, with Edmund Spenser lauding “divine tobacco” in his pivotal Elizabethan celebratory poem, The Faerie Queene.8 Tobacco joined sugar in forging the British Empire and Protestant Dutch Republic. A movement to grow tobacco in England was quashed by the Crown in the 1620s, by which time pipes had been redesigned with bigger bowls, to accommodate more of the Virginian “brown gold”, which largely replaced money in the colony.9


The woodcut image on the front of Anthony Chute’s pamphlet Tabacco (1595)

Early promoters of tobacco such as Anthony Chute saw tobacco as a marvellous panacea, a purgative of phlegm, pick-me-up and appetite-surpressant which could also lead people on a righteous path of less gluttony and drunkenness,“taking away all wearinesse of body, and makes them as prompt and apt to businesse”.1

But one powerful enemy of tobacco was King James I, whose A Counterblaste to Tobacco pamphlet of 1604 was prompted by the tobacco monopoly then enjoyed by Spain, Britain’s enemy. But his polemic about the “filthy novelty” indicates how ubiquitous pipe-smoking had become. “Is it not a great vanitie, that a man cannot heartily welcome his friend now, but straight they must bee in hand with Tobacco?… He that will refuse to take a pipe of Tobacco among his fellowes… is accounted peeuish and no good company…” The king also warned of addiction: “In the ende, a drunkard will haue as great a thirst to bee drunke, as a sober man to quench his thirst with a draught when hee hath need of it: So is not this the very case of all the great takers of Tobacco? which therefore they themselues do attribute to a bewitching qualitie in it.”2

Not everyone was bewitched. Thomas Dekker’s 1604 play The Honest Whore has his punk heroine refusing tobacco: “Fah, not I, makes your breathe stinke, like the pisse of a Fox.”3

Shakespeare’s contemporaries experimented with other psychoactive substances: recent forensic analysis of 17th-century pipes from Stratford-upon-Avon and Abingdon showed they were used to smoke not only tobacco, but also cannabis, nutmeg and three Andes exports: cocaine, vanilla and quinine.4

But while some found smoking anti-social, the widespread communal use of tobacco was socially levelling and conducive to making private business deals, coming into vogue with the formation of joint-stock companies, the Muscovy Company (encouraged by Ivan the Terrible) and soon after, the Dutch and British East Indies Companies.5 Capitalism had developed into a new form with many more players.6 The greater number of investors involved less risk.7 The cumulative trade increase spurred large urban population congregations in new-founded capital cities (by 1700 one in six of England’s population had flocked to London, where a quarter of the population may have been employed in port and shipping).8 Distinctions between aristocrats and wealthy merchants diminished and entrance to the nobility could be bought for the first time.9 Goods were increasingly not brought and sold at town markets, but private deals were instead made in taverns and inns between producers and merchants. Capital cities and other ports mushroomed, market stalls were supplanted by mercers, drapers, haberdashers and grocers stocking imported textiles, medicines, sugar and tobacco.10

When coffee-houses started proliferating from the 1650s across Europe, they provided a more social and stimulant-fired public sphere than the intoxicating atmosphere of inns and taverns. The drinking of coffee, derived from an Arabic word for wine, spread from Mocha in Yemen, to the rest of the Islamic world. Coffee-houses in Constantinople, and Turkish coffee pots, spread west during the mid-17th century with Venetians and Dutch traders. Pasqua Roseé opened London’s first coffee-house in 1652, asserting the beverage as a cure for indigestion, coughs, headaches, consumption, dropsy, scurvy and stones, and “it will prevent drowsiness and make one fit for business”.11 The proliferation of coffee-houses, endorsed by many sober Puritans, became known as “penny universities” as they enjoined “common labourers” with the enlightened wits and fops, with anyone with a penny to spend on a coffee to stimulate their mental faculties with diverse journeymen and peruse current affairs.12 Coffee-houses in the City of London included auction platforms and the first stock exchanges, as the Royal Exchange, established under Henry VIII, had banned stock-jobbers, regarding them as disreputable.13 Coffee-houses sold coffee with sugar and spices as optional extras, and after the Restoration added tea from China and chocolate from South America to their menus.


The Age of Exploration can be summarised by the motto beneath the portrait of Spanish captain Bernardo Vargas Machuca from 1599 (above): “by the compass and the sword, more and more and more and more.” The constant escalation of trading and public involvement beyond old-style noble-family-based capitalism to a globalised shareholders’ capitalism, accompanied by the use and abuse of drugs could not have happened without the plunder and exploitation of land, resources and people. The Renaissance rediscovery of Aristotle and his theories of natural inferiority Classically justified slavery of “barbarians”.1 And yet the French Renaissance philosopher Michel Montaigne lamented “infinite millions of harmlesse people of all sexes, states and ages, massacred, ravaged and put to the sword; and the richest, the fairest and the best part of the world, topsiturvied, ruined and defaced for the traffick of Pearles and Pepper.”2 In c. 1612, Garcculaso de la Vega wrote that “this flood of riches has done more harm than good, since wealth commonly produces vice rather than virtue, inclining its possessors to pride, ambition, gluttony and voluptuousness”.3 Modern parallels can surely be drawn with the Black Friday sales stampedes or hedonistic clubbers of today. Zero-hour contracts and tens of thousands of slaves in Britain, plus reports of exploitative labour driving workers to suicide or abject poverty in South East Asia or Central America as well as drug bête noires – for example, Spice abuse – still frequently make the news, but mass consumption of legal and illegal medicines and merchandise continues to escalate, pressure from the brain’s pleasure centre and persuasive media generally overriding any ethical consideration.4

The ultimate legacy of overseas expansion in early modern Europe is it persuaded more consumers to become users and abusers on the backs of used and abused producers, and psychologically turned luxuries into necessities.


Properties of psychoactive ingredients recognised in early modern Europe and present-day


1599/ 1600



mitigareth and openeth obstructions… purgeth fleagme [phlegm], helpeth the reines [common cold], and comforteth the belly”

** Can trigger rapid changes in respiration, heartbeat and skin colour. Induces same responses as nicotine, cocaine, heroin and alcohol in the brain’s “reward centre”, stimulates release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters. Can lead to obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance, hypertension, possibly dementia and Alzheimer’s.


corroborateth all the powers of the body, restoreth them that bee decayed, purgeth the head, and succoureth [soothes] the cough”

Taken for colds, flu, digestive problems, pick-me-up, relaxes nervous system, stimulates appetite. Antibacterial, anti-diarrhoeal, anti-flatulence, anti-inflammatory, anti-nausea, antirhuematic, germicide, laxative. Negative/ overdose risk: cracked lips, facial flushing, gingivitis, shortness of breath, increased respiration & perspiration. Allergic reactions: skin irritation, second-degree burn, unusual excitement followed by drowsiness. Contains saffrole, a controlled substance as a precursor in MDA (narcotic).


taken moderatly, when the stomack aboundeth with fleagme in cold weather, and with moist meates, doe strengthen the body, stay vomits & fluxes, & correct a stinking breath”

# Most stimulating of all aromatics, used to treat nausea emesis, flatulence, indigestion and dyspepsia. Strong germicide, powerful antiseptic, feeble local anaesthetic applied to decayed teeth, and a stimulating expectorant treatment for bronchial problems.


vsed in cold weather and with moyst meates, breaketh winde, heateth the sinewes, and strengtheneth the stomack”

Stimulates appetite, central nervous system depressant and stimulant, anti-bacterial, anti-diarrhoeal, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, diuretic, gastric stimulant. Overuse can lead to accelerated pulse, carcinogenic, digestive inflammation. Inhalation [snorting] can lead to respiratory irritation or arrest, severe anoxia & death. Contains saffrole (controlled substance).


sharpneth the sight, and prouoketh slothfull husbands”

Scientifically, almost all folk beliefs have been verified.” Prevents motion sickness, thins blood, elevate low blood pressure, lower blood cholesterol, circulatory stimulant, reduces stress, stimulates respiratory centres, antibacterial, antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, antineuralgic, antioxidant, antiseptic. Negative/ overdose risk: Heartburn, stomach upset, sweat-inducing.


vsed in cold seasons comforteth the heart, and driueth away drunkennesse”

Oil contains saffrole, a poison used to make the narcotic MDA. Lowers blood pressure. Pick-me-up, reduces stress, stimulates appetite, abortifacent, anodyne, antispasmodic, diuretic. Negative/ overdose risk: damages kidneys, large dose can induce abortion, nervous laughter, sweat-inducing, anxiety, drowsiness, headache, yellowing of skin, eyes and mucous membranes, vomiting, dizziness, bloody diarrhoea, bleeding from the nose, lips and eyelids, numbness and other serious side-effects: 5g is toxic, 10g is abortive, 20g is lethal.


* “Mendeth a strong breath: taketh away pimpels: comforteth the sight: stomacke: spleane, and belly: prouokes vrine… hurteth such as haue the Haemorhoids, are costiue, or melancholicke…Vse it sildome, moderately, and with a litle Ginger.”

Contains two psychoactive drugs: myristicin and elemicin, precursors to synthetic mescaline and MDMA. Enhances libido, euphoria, pick-me-up, reduces stress, relaxes nervous system, visual distortions, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antihangover, digestive stimulant, diuretic. Negative/ overdose risk: after-effects last 3 days, constipation, convulsions, death, dizziness, double vision, epileptic seizures, feelings of depersonalisation, remoteness, hallucinations, headaches, hypotension, light-headed, nausea, panic attacks, poisonous, severe vomiting, shock, stomach pain. Eating two or more nutmegs can cause death.


[Beer] nourisheth the body, causeth a good colour, and quickly passeth out of the body. In summer it auayleth a man much, and is no lesse wholesome to our constitutions then wine. Besides the nutritiue faculty, which it hath by the malt, it receiueth likewise a certaine propertie of medicine by the hop.”

A nervine and tonic that has a calming effect on the entire body. Appetite-stimulating, mild marijuana-like high (female hop contains substance related to cannabis psychoactive drug THC), mild sedation of central nervous system, reduces stress, tension and anxiety, sleep aid, anodyne, antibacterial, anticancer, antiseptic, antiviral, diuretic. Negative/ overdose risk: dizziness, drowsiness, mental stupor, mild jaundice, seizure, hyperthermia, restlessness, vomiting, stomach pain, stomach acid.


well dryed, and taken in a siluer pipe, fasting in the morning, cureth the megrim [migraine], the tooth ache, obstructions proceeding of cold [congestion], and helpeth the fits of the mother [?]. After meales it doth much hurt, for it infecteth the brain and the liuer”

# The alkaloid Nicotine when smoked dissolves into pyridine, collidine, hydrocyanic acid, carbon monoxide etc, causing poisonous effects from tobacco smoke. Local irritant, causes violent sneezing when taken as snuff, plus secretion of mucus, can produce nausea, vomiting, sweats and great muscular weakness. Disturbs digestive and circulatory organs, innervates the heart, causing palpitation and cardiac irregularities, vascular contraction. Once used as a relaxant now only rarely used to treat chronic asthma. Smoke acts on the brain, can cause drowsiness. Medicinally used as a sedative, diuretic, antispasmodic, to treat ulcers, painful tremors, piles, external antiseptic, assists actions of the bowels.

Sources: William Vaughan,
Naturall and Artificial Directions for Health (1600) and * Henry Butts, Dyets Dry Dinner (1599) / Sinead O’Mahony Carey, (Health Service Executive South (Ireland), 2014) Psychoactive Substances Manual (Edition 1.1), # Mrs. M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal and ** Gary Taubes, Is Sugar the World’s Most Popular Drug? (London: The Guardian, 5 Jan 2017)

1 J. H. Elliott, The Old World and the New 1492-1650 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 47.

2 Ibid., p. 103.

3 Ibid., p. 64.

4 Jamie Grierson, Tens of Thousands of Modern Slavery Victims in the UK, NCA Says (London: The Guardian, 10/8/2017

1Anthony Chute, Tabacco (London: William Barlow, 1595)

2King James I, A Counterblaste To Tobacco (London: R. Barker, 1604)

3Thomas Dekker, The Honest Whore (London: Valentine Simms, 1604)

4Francis Thackeray, Shakespeare, plants, and chemical analysis of early 17th century clay ‘tobacco’ pipes from Europe (Johannesburg [South Africa], South African Journal of Science, 2015, No. 111) pp. 7-8.

5 David Nicholas, The Transformation of Europe 1300-1600 (London: Arnold, 1999), p. 309.

6 Ibid., pp. 217-9.

7 Ibid., p. 428.

8 G. C. A. Clay, Economic Expansion and Social Change: England 1500-1700, Vol 1: People, Land and Towns (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 202; on servants, Vol 2, p. 35.

9 Nicholas, The Transformation of Europe 1300-1600 (1999), p. 340.

10 Clay, Economic Expansion and Social Change: England 1500-1700, Vol 1(1984), pp. 176-177.

11 John Burnett, Liquid Pleasures: A Social History of Drinks in Modern Britain (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 70.

12 Aytoun Ellis, The Penny Universities: A History of the Coffee-Houses (London: Secker & Warburg, 1956), p. 44.

13Ibid, pp. 108-110.





1 Sinead O’Mahony Carey, Psychoactive Substances Manual (Edition 1.1) (Health Service Executive South (Ireland), 2014), p. 3. Accessed 5/12/17:

2 Baley, A Short Discourse of the three kindes of peppers in common vse (1588).

3 Walter Baley, A Short Discourse of the three kindes of peppers in common vse (London: Eliot’s Court Press, 1588).

4 John Heywood, A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue (London: Thomas Berthlet, 1546), for example, or Petrus Frarinus, An oration against the vnlawfull insurrections of the protestantes of our time, vnder pretence to refourme religion (Antwerp: Ioannis Fouleri, 1566)

5 William Painter, ‘Dom Diego and Gineura’ in The second tome of the Palace of Pleasure (London: Henry Bynneman, 1567), p. 339.

6 C. R. Boxer, “Christians and Spices”: Portuguese Missionaries in Ceylon, 1515-1658 (London: History Today, Vol 8, Issue 5, May 1958

7 John Bakeless: America As Seen By Its First Explorers: The Eyes of Discovery (London: Dover Publications Inc., 1990), p. 114.

8 Jeffrey Knapp, ‘Elizabethan Tobacco’ in Stephen Greenblatt (ed.), New World Encounters (London: University of California Press, 1993) p. 273.

9 Knapp, ‘Elizabethan Tobacco’ (1993) p. 298 (on banning of homegrown tobacco); Heather Cole, The Age and Archaeology of Clay Pipes ( – on pipes)

The 19th-century origins of class and the police

Think I’m allowed to share this as it has now been marked… I will take it down if it is verboten…


Bloody Sunday, 1887

A key indicator that the working class arrived in the nineteenth century was the development of a nationwide modern state police force. I will investigate how the introduction of the New Police correlate with Marx’s dialectical theories about class development, as well as deviating theories of nineteenth-century social relations.

The working class came into existence, Marx theorised, when workers became conscious of their individual and collective exploitation by the capitalist, middle, or owning class.1 In his seminal 1963 work, The Making of the English Working Class, Edward Thompson argued this “historical phenomenon” of “human relationships” occurred between the 1790s and 1830s.2 The working class was formed subjectively (from self-identity), as a result of objective conditions (frenzied, laissez-faire, steam-driven industrial capitalism), in an antagonistic social relationship with the owners of capital, who had become de facto masters and profiteers on the backs of those who created the wealth. While “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles…” modern bourgeois society had established “new conditions of oppression” and “new forms of struggle”, and had simplified class antagonisms into a binary us vs them: “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat,” rallied Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto of 1848.3

But David Cannadine claimed in 1998 the “working class was no more ‘made’ in the first third of the nineteenth century than it was ‘re-made’ in the last quarter”.4 The “working classes” and “middle classes” were just changes in language from “lower” and “middling” orders”, and the Elizabethan model of hierarchical society as a mutually dependent “Great Chain of Being” with everyone in their ordained place by God or nature, remained the prevailing concept among 19th-century people, he argued.5 The orthodox or Whig histories of the police, often written by policemen, also emphasise continuity – the New Police, formed between 1829 and 1856, according to the orthodox narrative, was merely a centrally-organised, professional upgrade of the parochial and minimal Old Police system of parish constables and watchmen, introduced in response to fear of increasing crime.6 One crucial difference between the old and new was a change in social arrangements. The parish constables were community mediators appointed by local elites, or a rota system between householders.7 They rarely imposed on the social life of their community, and often left the onus on victims of crimes to identify the perpetuators and bring a prosecution.8 Thieves and other offenders were, under common law and custom, apprehended collectively by passers-by answering a hue and cry.9 However, the new policeman was installed from outside the area and was answerable to a rigid class-based hierarchy that ended with the Home Secretary rather than local dignitaries and justices.10 His task was to patrol a community night and day and uphold by force draconian laws, including anti-trade union Combination Acts, to forcefully populate workhouses under the new Poor Law of 1834, the anti-prostitution Contagious Diseases Act, others preventing games, gambling and other recreational customs, and the Six Acts stopping “seditious” groups of people from gathering. These laws, and their enforcers, curtailed the autonomy, freedom and self-defence of workers, at work and at leisure. The police reforms could thus be seen as an act of class war – and in 1833, one writer claimed the police was “a political, not a protective force – that its object is not so much to prevent thieving as to watch political feeling, and give reports to the Ministers of the political movements of the working classes.”11

Patrick Joyce considers populism and nationalism shaped the nineteenth century more than class conflict.12 Before the 1832 Reform Act drove a wedge between the enfranchised and disenfranchised, radicals called for the ‘people’ to unite and fight against Old Corruption (aristocrats and government), appealing to patriotic constitutional ideas about freedom and anti-despotism. There was widespread resistance to a standing army, and the notion of a police force was regarded with French state tyranny by the gendarmerie (men at arms) as well as espionage.13 The earliest Peelers were the Peace Preservation Force, a mobile military unit Peel established as Governor of Ireland in 1814 with the objective of “pacifying a recalcitrant population”.14 The blueprint for the London Metropolitan ‘Peelers’ was designed in the wake of the Gordon Riots, in 1782 – they were to be dressed like smart gentlemen-about-town rather than soldiers, and wear blue rather than military red coats.15 Fifty years on, people seemed to see through the ‘soft’ branding – among the many violent nicknames given to the police was raw lobsters – blue when cold, but red when cooked.



Two handbills opposing the new Metropolitan Police from 1830 call for an arming of (above) and unity (below) of the people, rather than class, to “institute a Police System in the hands of the PEOPLE under parochial appointments”. SOURCES: The John Murray Archive, National Library of Scotland (‘Raw lobsters’), National Archives (‘Abolition of the New Police’)




A third handbill is opposing the roll-out of police in 1850 Aberystwyth, saying townspeople “do not require the surveillance of a couple of Bludgeon-men to keep them from becoming Pickpockets and Thieves”. It also emphasises parochial and civic concerns, rather than class. SOURCE: Wikipedia


The police were evidently seen as a coercive imposition on the “people” as a whole, but as Engels in 1845 presented the policeman’s truncheon as a “soothing” weapon for the bourgeois against the proletariat, this class dichotomy was present at the heart and start of the “preventive policing principle”.1 This policy of constant monitoring championed by Bentham and Peel, was developed and trialled by Scottish merchant and London magistrate Patrick Colquhoun, who may have stolen the idea from Glasgow.2 In 1798, Colquhoun persuaded the West India companies to fund “A River Police, for securing Commercial Property, in the Port of London, against the unexampled Depredations which have been heretofore experienced, and improving the Morals of the Maritime Labourers“.3 Colquhoun claimed £500,000 of goods annually were being stolen by 11,000 of the 33,000 dockers, sold openly in the street and bought by locals.4 Skimming off some of the booty from the triangular slave trade for neighbourhood redistribution was customary and not criminalised until the Marine Police arrived in July 1798. Within three months a crowd, demanding the return of 40s fines imposed for theft of coal, stoned the police station.5 A policeman and a rioter were shot and killed, possibly both by police as the crowd were unarmed. The coal-heaver who incited the riot was deemed responsible for murder, hanged and his body dissected as extra punishment.6 The class dimension was literally there from the start: A Metropolitan police, Colquhoun wrote in 1806, would reform “the depraved habits and loose conduct of a great proportion of the lower classes of the people”.7

Storch and others have shown animosity continued throughout the century – provoked often by intrusion into houses, being ordered to move on, and extinguishing social customs(from bonfires and drunken revelry to dice-playing and cock fights).8 Henry Mayhew reported on costermongers’ battle with police for their livelihoods, selling fruit from street carts, as law enforcement conflicted with parochial custom:

To serve out a policeman is the bravest act by which a costermonger can distinguish himself. Some lads have been imprisoned upwards of a dozen times for this offence; and are consequently looked upon by their companions as martyrs. When they leave prison for such an act, a subscription is often got up for their benefit. In their continual warfare with the force, they resemble many savage nations, from the cunning and treachery they use. The lads endeavour to take the unsuspecting “crusher” by surprise, and often crouch at the entrance of a court until a policeman passes, when a stone or a brick is hurled at him, and the youngster immediately disappears.9

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the prevailing grand narrative is that the working class became consolidated as a social structure, forging a distinctive culture.10 The impression is one of accommodation, which Harold Perkin termed the “viable class society of Victorian Britain… Each class, the landed upper class, the capitalist middle class and the wage-earning working class… accepted the other classes’ right to exist and to bargain over their share of the national income and political power”.11 The share was hugely unequal, but would have been less had it not been for the strength of the trade union movement, co-operatives and clubs, mutual aid and bargaining tools made by and for the working class, in spite of the police’s relentless attempts to prevent people organising.12

The paradox of the policeman was that he was buffeted by class conflict on all sides, by his middle- and upper-class superiors, and also those he policed who regarded him as a “bluebottle” or “locust”, an unwanted, unskilled prole wearing smart clothes funded by the taxpayer.1 Yet policemen could express class consciousness. Buckinghamshire policeman John Pearson reflected:

“As poor men we cannot find much to live for ours is a life of heavy toil to get a bare living and to amas money and Whealth for the great men of the day… should you be so unfortanate as to be out of work you and the Family have much to suffer…”2

The police ensured the working class remained downtrodden by their omnipresence, and divided, between those who resented police and those who accepted them. Many urban communities remained in a state of perpetual class war with the police. This validates Marx’s dialectic class theory. A populist and patriotic vein also ran through the nineteenth-century, as Joyce argued, which manifested itself earlier in the century as libertarian, anti-government and anti-police, but by the end of the century proudly viewed the Great British Bobby as emblematic of Great Britain and Ireland and Her Dominions. Populism and nationalism ignored or neutralised class struggle, in capitalism’s favour. Among nineteenth-century working-class autobiographies, compiler John Burnett found, “there is a sense of patient resignation to the facts of life, the feeling that human existence is a struggle and that survival is an end in itself.”3 Survival meant acclimatising to conditions, including a siege mentality generated by constant surveillance and presence of police. This is how the working class endured.


TIME – Saturday Night. SCENE – A London Slum.
Punch, April 21, 18771
1George du Maurier, Cartoon from Punch Magazine (Punch, 1877) (accessed 25/11/18)

1  Churchill, Popular Animosity Towards the Police... (2014), pp. 16-18.

2  Carolyn Steedman, The Radical Soldier’s Tale: John Pearman, 1819-1908 (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 25.

3  Harold Perkin, ”The Condesceension of Posterity’: Middle-Class Intellectuals and the History of the Working Class’ in The Structured Crowd (1981), p. 178.


1  Friedrich Engels, Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) (English edition 1887, Marxists Internet Archive, 2010), p. 157. (accessed 25/11/18)

2Alastair Dinsmor, Glasgow Police Pioneers (The Scotia News, Vol. 2, No 1, Winter 2003) (accessed 25/11/18)

3Patrick Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Commerce and Police of the River Thames (London: H. Baldwin and Son, 1800), p. 14. (accessed 25/11/18)

4Author unattributed, Thames Police: History – Establishment (Thames Police Museum website), (accessed 25/11/18)

5PC Bob Jeffries, The Wapping Coal Riot of October 1798 (Thames Police Museum website), (accessed 25/11/18)

6James Eyres, 9 January 1799 (The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court, 1674 to 1913) (accessed 25/11/18)

7Patrick Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis (London: Bye and Law, 1806), p. 17 (accessed 25/11/18)

8See Robert D. Storch, The Plague of the Blue Locusts: Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England, 1840-57 (International Review of Social History, Vol 20, Issue 1, 1975, pp. 61-90) (accessed 25/11/18), and The Policeman As Domestic Missionary: Urban Discipline and Popular Culture in Northern England 1850-1880 (Journal of Social History, Oxford University Press, Vol. 9, No. 4, Summer 1976, pp. 481-509) (accessed 25/11/18); David Churchill, ‘I am just the man for Upsetting you Bloody Bobbies’: popular animosity towards the police in late nineteenth-century Leeds (Social History, Vol 39, No. 2, pp. 248-266) (accessed 25/11/18); Francis Dodsworth, ‘Men On A Mission, Masculinity, Violence and the Self-Presentation of Policemen in England, c. 1870-1914’ in Barrie / Broomhall, A History of Police and Masculinities, pp. 123-140;

9Henry Mayhew, ‘Of the Number of Costermongers and Other Street-Folk’ in London Labour and the London Poor, 1851, 1861-2 (Victorian London website) (accessed 25/11/18)

10Jose Harris, The Penguin Social History of Britain: Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870-1914 (London: Penguin, 1994), pp. 6-7.

11Harold Perkin, ‘Social Change and the Novel, 1840-1940’ in The Structured Crowd: Essays in English Social History (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1981), p. 90.

12Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit… (1994), pp. 144-147.




1E. P. Thompson, Eighteenth-century English society: Class struggle without class? (Social History, Vol 3. No. 2, 1978), pp. 147-150. (accessed 25/11/18)

2E. P. Thompson, ‘Preface’ (1963), in The Making of the English Working Class (London: Penguin, 1980 edition), p. 8.

3Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) (Marxists Internet Archive, 2010) pp. 14-15. (accessed 25/11/18)

4David Cannadine, Beyond Class? Social Structures and Social Perceptions in Modern England (Raleigh Lecture On History, The British Academy, 1998), pp. 98-99. (accessed 25/11/18)

5Ibid, pp. 100-101.

6Tim Newburn, Revisiting the Classics: Robert Reiner: the Politics of the Police (Policing and Society, London School of Economics, 2016), pp. 3-4. (accessed 25/11/18). Example of a typical orthodox police history stressing continuity: Captain W. L. Melville Lee, A History of Police in England (London: Methuen and Co., 1901)

7Robert D. Storch, The Old English Constabulary (History Today, November 1, 1999), p. 45. (accessed 25/11/18)

8Ibid, p. 47.

9A. M. P. , ‘The Old-Time Constable as Portrayed by the Dramatists’ (1981), in Clive Emsley (ed.), Theories and Origins of the Modern Police (London: Routledge, 2017), pp. 223-224.

10Storch, The Old English Constabulary (1999), p. 52.

11Ibid, p. 64, quoting the Destructive And Poor Man’s Conservative, November 2, 1833.

12Chris Waters, Review: Visions of the People: Industrial England and the Question of Class, 1840-1914 by Patrick Joyce (Social History, Vol. 17, No. 3, October 1992), pp. 513-516.

13Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963/ 80), p. 89.

14William N. Grigg, Policing Was Militarized From The Start (Atlanta [USA]: Foundation For Economic Education, 15 July 2016) (accessed 25/11/18)

15Matthew McCormack, ‘A Species of Civil Soldier’: Masculinity, policing and the military in 1780s England’ in David G. Barrie and Susan Broomhall (eds.), A History of Police and Masculinities, 1700-2010, pp. 66-67. (accessed 25/11/18)

Epic rant about all the shit going on

You are all going to have to face it – we are going to have a no-deal Brexit. Why would a massive trading bloc make any kind of favourable or humane deal with a smaller player? This is capitalism, the big fish gobble up the smaller ones. I am incredibly frustrated by two things: the failure of Remainers to imagine how they could operate in a post-Brexit world and just accepting all the horrifying scenarios thrown at them as inevitable, and not contemplating that the UK Government is “supposed” to be able to determine whether there is a “hard border” or not. I have seen zero visions of a post-Brexit future from any so-called “progressives”. What I’m also seeing and have done since the start is the constant framing of all those not draping an EU flag around them as far-right nationalists. This ENABLES the post-Brexit discussion to be entirely dominated by idiots, some of them misguided, some of them hardcore enemies of my class and humanity. Myself I aspire for a world where money and hierarchy doesn’t exist. This is what I am fighting for on a daily basis, while also firefighting things as they are. I look forward to the destruction of both Brussels and Westminster, and it’s wonderful to see politicians tear themselves apart. It is NOT so wonderful, however, that no one seems to be seeing outside of the tunnel vision propagated by the establishment. There are two options: these politicians got us into this mess, it is incumbent on them now to get us OUT of this mess, or we scrap them, reject their authority and organise ourselves without letting fascists or any other leaders take control.

I don’t give a toss about nationality or nationhood  – I am proud of living where I live, which is a forest with a legacy of rebellion against the English state, and also proud of being working class. Class can be divided quite simply between a class of owners and those who have to rely on these owners to survive. I own nothing, therefore have nothing to lose. However, I have good friends who do own property and businesses. I have other good friends who have lived here as EU citizens for a long time and they are being forced to apply to be allowed to continue living here. They fear Brexit will have negative repercussions for them. I can understand and empathise why they deeply lament the instability that the EU referendum has caused to them, families and their livelihoods. They are my mates, so I care about them.

So bearing that in mind my immediate response to this debacle in public life, a massive red herring – a humungous EXCUSE – for the real crisis of neoliberal capitalism and the TINA (There Is No Alternative) doctrine that lays at the root of the EU and global capitalist doctrine, is it is going to happen, and just as when the bastard Tories got re-elected last time, I didn’t demand a re-election to try and ensure they didn’t get back in, EVERYONE has to ACCEPT the result but most importantly, fight for a better post-Brexit world, and NOT ACCEPT any bullshit from government using Brexit as an excuse for inhumane treatment of people and also not providing a safety net for all those that may go under due to a crash.

This move towards Brexit (a word invented by journalists in the wake of threatened ‘Grexit’ in 2012, and evolved from Brixit) was not necessary. Allowing it was a political move – in the arrogant mis-belief that the majority would vote with the pro-EU establishment. Most people weren’t that bothered either way, myself included.

[to be continued after tea… return for updated version]_MG_1145 (2)







Pro-fracking Tories are CLUELESS and WRONG about what’s under their feet

Image result for Brian Robinson councillor

Cllr Brian Robinson, leader of the Conservative Group on Forest of Dean District Council and incompetent ignoramus

Every day I wake up full of wonder and amazement… or incredulity, if you like, that sufficient idiots vote for and believe in the legitimacy of politicians and their capacity to make decisions on behalf of communities.  Or maybe the majority of us realise they are all motivated by self-interest in a political game of snakes and ladders, but… well what else is there? (My response might be, please research Rojava or the Mexican village which has banned politicians, but I digress)…


Our local politicians deserve all the ridicule we can bestow upon them – they are, after all, charged with making decisions or at least enabling decisions made from Westminster, the City or their local masonic chums. For this particular example, I contacted three different councillors from three different parties to take this up in full council, but I was ignored. I understand – from watching the latest council meeting, they spent a great portion of it discussing themselves and to what extent each of them were bringing their council into disrepute, and scoring petty political points, than getting to grips with a blatant example of MISINFORMATION.


I refer to the response by the Conservative group leader, Cllr Brian Robinson, to a letter that was sent out by Forest of Dean Green Party to all councillors, with the support of Frack Off Our Forest. It was calling on councillors to give their support to an open letter to Mark Harper calling on him to oppose the government proposal to make planning permission unnecessary for exploratory drilling – in other words, allowing a site to be concreted over, and primed for fracking with the first stage of drilling with no need to ask permission, the complete removal of any council scrutiny or decision-making.


It is not surprising, given the centralised way the Tory party works, that the only response from Tory councillors was from Cllr Robinson, and that seemed to be a copy and paste job of Government pro-fracking propaganda. The basic premise of the response was to say, “the Government wants fracking… but don’t worry it can’t happen in your backyard”. This is what needs correcting, and it’s the same line our MP has been peddling ever since the licencing round opened in 2014, with about one-third of Britain under consideration. He maintained that it was simply routine that the Forest was licenced, and it didn’t mean there was any shale gas there. In fact, Mr Harper variously asserted there was no shale gas, or even shale rock, under the Forest, but there may be methane/ natural gas in the coal.

This is demonstrably wrong: First, no methane has ever been recorded in the Forest of Dean coalfield. Miners freely used naked lights without explosion, their main enemy was water, not gas.

Second – is there shale gas beneath the Forest? I had a few lengthy phone chats and email exchanges with the BGS people in Cardiff regarding whether there was shale gas underneath the Forest of Dean. Their response was they couldn’t say either way. But while I would doubt there would be sufficient shale gas to be economically viable if there was any, there is most certainly shale ROCK beneath the Forest.

Brian Robinson, councillor for Mitcheldean, has now repeated Harper’s bad research to make this case. I doubt whether he would condescend to read this, but anyone who knows him, please encourage him to visit Stenders Quarry, a nature reserve just off the Stenders Road on the outskirts of Mitcheldean. It’ll only take a few minutes walk and stop and examine the exposed rock and to read the interpretative sign that shows the LOWER LIMESTONE SHALES, aka Avon Group formation, and how it lies underneath the coalfield, outcropping on the western side of the Forest, notably at Yat Rock. He has this shale on full display, with a sign, in his own council ward, yet he insists there is no shale!

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I have endeavoured to explain to Mr Harper, or his office, with plenty of sources provided from the British Geological Survey who he is misrepresenting with this misinformation. I’m not sure whether it got to him personally but as it had no effect in correcting his misinformation I’ll have to repeat it (whether to any avail I don’t know but it is now here as a record).

Had Harper and Cllr Robinson stated “there is no Namurian shale in or under the Forest” they would have been correct (at least, none has been discovered), as the map they keep touting (see below) only shows Namurian shale outcrops and subcrops, but no other Carboniferous-era rock formations. The Forest of Dean, unlike the north of England, South Wales and Bristol/ Somerset, lacks this formation of rock (shown here by its archaic name, Millstone Grit), which is being promoted by the Government as most prospective for gas extraction.

However, the pimping “manual” produced by the Government to whore large sections of the country to the fracking industry, did also consider the Lower Limestone Shales/ Avon Group to be prospective. See page 18 of the prospectus, ,  under the heading “Shale Gas Prospectivity – UK Carboniferous to Triassic shale formations”… where it states: “Tournaisian Lower Limestone Shale (now Avon Group)… The earliest Carboniferous Lower Limestone Shale may have some shale gas potential.”

Hence South Western Energy revealed to us in the three-way meeting we had with them and Gloucestershire Police, they were interested in exploring for gas or oil in three different layers – the coalfield, the Lower limestone shale (beneath it), and the old red sandstone (beneath and around both other target layers). This two-bit company is still licensed to explore in the same Lower limestone shales formation close to the Somerset coast (near Weston-super-Mare). This layer of rock is highly porous, with water creating a labyrinth of sinkholes and karst pathways, and considered a geohazard for the speed, unpredictable direction and distances at how water and hazardous substances can spread.

This map (also from the BGS) shows the Forest of Dean is part of the same limestone aquifers system (groundwater layers) as Somerset and South Wales (where fracking was suspended by the Welsh Assembly)



After the fight we put up, we ensured the drillers handed the licence they’d been offered back to the Government in September 2016. The Forest of Dean remains unlicenced – but as the Government confirmed to us in writing when the licences were not issued/ withdrawn, they would consider any request from an operator to reissue them at any time. Given that Gerwyn and South Western Energy don’t seem to have mustered up enough capital to make any moves in Somerset or Dorset (where they also have licences), it may seem unnecessary to worry too much about our own backyard.


The best-case scenario is that Cuadrilla is forced – by regulatory or political power – to cease fracking in Lancashire, and that this also prevents the richest man in Britain, INEOS’s Jim Ratcliffe, getting his way in the Midlands and Yorkshire, where the firm is already set to start drilling in two locations, to produce shale gas to make plastic (rather than any pretence at helping with energy security), and every other fracker is given the bum’s rush. Jeremy Corbyn has promised to end fracking and ban it immediately if a Labour government comes to power (as would the Greens and Lib Dems).


The worst-case scenario is that the fracking industry actually gets going in England, as it will need, by the latest research estimate, more than 6,000 well pads to operate economically. To support fracking, as Harper and Robinson (and by their silence/ complicity all the other Tory councillors) have stated they do, ultimately means accepting this reality. Robinson does not oppose the principle of councillors or planners having no say or way of scrutinising sites set up for drilling, or the drilling process itself.

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Even if he and Harper were right about the rock formations, Robinson would still be happy to not have any say in a firm drilling 1,000 metres below his feet, through faults and a high-pressure water-filled honeycomb left by the legacy of deep mining.  Or maybe they deny that reality as well?


Perhaps it would be a waste of time debating fracking in the council chamber – despite it having actually begun this month, albeit 200 miles away. Councils elsewhere in the country, including Tory councils in Cheshire, have confirmed their opposition to the proposals to relax planning consent. If the Forest was to be licenced again for fracking, the interested parties would – as they have everywhere else in the country –  a massive fight on their hands. Who knows what the future holds? I trust they won’t try it on and in time fracking will be proven an impossibility on this island (after sufficient people have made their fast bucks from the Ponzi scheme of pointless drilling and environmental destruction, I guess).

So continuing vigilance is important and the last thing anyone should expect is these people looking out for them. That is down to us: we are not NIMBYs either, we – unlike these dipshit politicians – seem to have an understanding of the ground beneath our feet and how a big earthquake can be felt for quite some distance, not to mention giving a shit for our fellow human beings, whether they live local or up north.

During his last election campaign, Mark Harper said the Forest was never under threat of fracking, and that we had run a campaign purely based on scaremongering. The Tory party faithful all clapped along with this blatant lie, although they themselves (including Robinson) had heard South Western Energy explain their intention to frack in a closed council meeting. There is also a mineral/ coal area between Lightmoor and Mallard’s Pike owned by one of their prominent supporters, who is a friend and financial adviser to South Western Energy’s main man, Gerwyn Williams. The then-energy minister, who we had met with in Parliament, confirmed to us in writing that the Forestry Commission and Coal Authority, i.e. the Deputy Gaveller, was ready to allocate site(s) within the Forest of Dean for exploration for gas or oil.

The reason it didn’t happen is because a/ we scared them off, b/ they couldn’t raise the money. Meanwhile those who should be aware of the potential or otherwise of the Forest of Dean as a future fracking area, are continuing to hoodwink with their misinformation. Who will tackle them on this?

Here’s the letter sent and the disappointing response below that. For the record, here’s a list of those councillors who DID sign:

Signed by: Chris McFarling – Newland & St Briavels, Green, Portfolio holder for Environment, Wildlife, Heritage and Culture
Paul Hiett – Bream, Forest First, Portfolio holder for Communities & Parish and Town Councils & Community Safety
Alan Grant – Pillowell, UKIP, Portfolio holder for Planning Policy, Health & Wellbeing

Sid Phelps – Lydbrook & Ruardean, Green
Douglas Scott – Mitcheldean & Drybrook, Labour
Di Martin – Cinderford East, Labour (& on behalf of the Labour Group)
Jackie Fraser – Mitcheldean & Drybrook, Labour
Simon Phelps – Newnham & Westbury, Independent
Julia Gooch – Newent Central, Independent
Roger James, Coleford East, Forest First
Tim Gwilliam – Berry Hill, Forest First
David East – Blaisdon & Longhope, Independent

Robinson’s email response (on 10/10/18):

“Thank you for your email about planning practice on shale development.

First, to be clear on the position locally, according to information provided by the British Geological Survey [the map shown above of selective shales], there are no shale deposits in or around the Forest of Dean, therefore, the question of hydraulic fracturing locally simply doesn’t arise. However, as many will know given the mining heritage of the Forest, there are coal deposits in the area which may contain natural gas.

The Government has always been clear that before any type of activity can occur, it will have needed to have secured proper planning permission from our local Minerals Planning Authority (Gloucestershire County Council [NB: Robinson is also a county councillor], be certified as safe by the Health and Safety Executive, and receive confirmation that any work will not have an adverse effect on the local environment from the Environment Agency.

Shale development has the potential to deliver substantial economic benefits to the UK economy and for local communities where supplies are located. I am glad that the Government remains committed to protecting the environment and ensuring that shale exploration happens safely. 

Second, as you are aware, a consultation has been launched to consider whether the early stages of shale exploration should be treated as permitted development, and in particular the circumstances where this might be appropriate. This would allow early exploratory work to proceed without requiring planning applications, although planning applications would still be required for fracking, in the way I outlined above…

… I do not support the Forest of Dean Green Party’s suggestion of sending an open letter to Mark Harper MP, requesting that he writes to the Energy Minister, as I do not believe this would be necessary. The process for responding to the consultation is very clear and is set out on the page I have linked to. This is the best way to ensure your views are considered.”



The consultation ends tomorrow (25 October). It may have carried more weight than an individual had Forest of Dean District Council made a representation, but que sera sera… if it hadn’t been for Bruce Hogan taking up about an hour of last week’s meeting with a motion about himself, that he actually ended up getting his Labour group to vote against, there may have been time to make a stand against fracking… and expose the Tories for the charlatans and confidence-tricksters and blatant liars that they are on this important issue. Having had ample experiences of consultations and the majority view expressed within them being ignored wholesale, Robinson is once again talking shit when he says the most effective way to be heard is as a person rather than a layer of local government. He is not fit to be your representative both at district and county level, Mitcheldeaners!

The consultation:

















NOW is the time we demand a fracking ban


Resistance to fracking is fertile / Forest of Dean PIC BY CAPTURING ADVENTURE

“The loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a-changin'”

True words there from the young Dylan, and relevant right now as the dust is yet to settle on an election with no clear winner.

And relevant for us anti-frackers, who are committed to keep going until we win, regardless of election results.

In the party manifestos it was clear who stood where on fracking (in England anyway, the DUP and Plaid Cymru didn’t mention it). Labour, Lib Dems and Green Party all said they would ban it; UKIP invest in fracking but not allow it in AONBs and national parks; the Tories fast-track fracking with a dedicated industry regulator and removal of planning hurdles – such as any need for planning permission for most drilling.

And yet none of this received any attention on a media consumed with terrorism, immigration, Brexit and petty personal attacks. The potential for vast tracts of Britain across 165 constituencies becoming heavily industrialised within the next five to 20 years? Not a story, not news-worthy, not immediate enough. Had Cuadrilla managed to complete its frack site on time and then created a disaster that MIGHT have attracted some interest. It’s thanks to protectors at Preston New Road we are not yet at this high-risk stage. But the drill is on its way, and the onus is on all the politicians elected on anti-fracking tickets and us rabble outside the sphere of public office to deliver what their party manifestos or they individually have pledged, and the time is now.

What kind of spectacle, other than a horrific one, would attract the media’s attention? Because in order to get a ban – as Ireland just has (another almost unreported story by the British media) – we could use some mass awareness-raising.

While millions stayed up way past their bedtime to watch the election results coming in, nine people were on shift… locked on outside the “gates to hell”, Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site. If any one of those bleary-eyed politicos stumbled upon a livefeed showing protectors at work, they’d be wrong to consider this merely a local issue. Lancashire now, Yorkshire and many other places tomorrow.

In order to carry out their fast-track fracking mission, the Conservatives will need to introduce a new Bill. Who knows how soon they might try this on?

There are others in our movement who are much closer to the parliamentary bubble than I am… I invite their comments or messages on how we can get a ban asap through the corridors of power, as chaotic as they currently are.

Somehow, we need to ensure people see fracking not as an abstract, remote threat but a disaster waiting to happen and very soon unless we manage to hold them off. When I was chatting to Simon Clough from Bentley, Australia, he said there had been 60 wells before people started campaigning. Here this has only not happened because of campaigning – but we have yet to reach critical mass. We need critical mass now and not later… just 100 people can bring PNR to a standstill for a day, but even these numbers can’t be sustained every day at the moment. Ideally there needs to be 100 people per day at Billingshurst in West Sussex too , and larger vigils at other sites which have planning permission.

“You can’t talk – you’re not there!” I hear you… What I’m hoping to do is to help bring about critical mass from my remote bunker, and find the most effective way of getting politicians to act on our behalf and get a legal ban. If Ireland can do it, so can we.

fracking constituencies

Not newsworthy, apparently






In 2014, the Government invited oil and gas companies to bid for exclusive rights/ licences to explore and potentially develop oil and gas in about 40% of Britain, in the 14th round for onshore licences.

In August 2015, the Government revealed it was considering offering up the coastal area of Somerset to the successful bidder.

In December 2015, it confirmed South Western Energy – a company based in South Wales – was the successful applicant.

In September 2016 Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences (PEDLs) came into effect in North and West Somerset after SW Energy officially accepted the licences. They turned down others they were offered for Wiltshire and the Forest of Dean, citing lack of finance (and one of the directors also admitted the massive level of public opposition was another reason). SW Energy also accepted PEDLs in Dorset.

The PEDLs (licences) are effectively a contract between the Government and South Western Energy, and have been granted on the condition that SW Energy drills at least two exploratory wells to a depth of more than 1000m. The PEDLs allow until July 2021 to do this, but as can be seen with the previous round licences across Britain, can often be granted extensions if the company fails to complete their agreed ‘work programme’ on time.

In its licence application (obtained via a Freedom of Information request) and actual licences (PEDL320, PEDL321 and PEDL344 published on the Oil & Gas Authority website), SW Energy revealed its main interest is in Lower Carboniferous Shales – this would ultimately mean fracking to get the gas out following exploratory work – with a secondary interest in Devonian and Silurian rock layers, which could mean fracking or ‘conventional’ gas or oil recovery.


Conventional oil and gas involves a vertical well tapping into an underground reservoir, and the oil or gas flowing out without the need to cause fractures in rocks (ie the traditional way of getting oil and gas). Nowadays, conventional wells can be extended to become fracking wells, so conventional oil and gas – while seeming more benign – have become gateways for fracking (see Kirby Misperton in Ryedale, North Yorkshire).


Fracking – or high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing to give it its full title – is when a mix of water, silica sand and chemicals is blasted at exceedingly high pressure up to 5 miles down a diagonal or horizontal hole to cause shale rocks to explode in order to recover natural gas/ methane (or oil). The main risks are water contamination, earthquakes and subsidence, health impacts including respiratory, problems with fertility and cancers, destruction of the natural environment, that hundreds of wells will be required within a licence area over 20 years of production to make it economically viable, and also infrastructure incapable of dealing with extra traffic, water and sand resources, and treatment facilities for radioactive and toxic wastewater.

When/if South Western Energy gets to the stage of its initial applications the company will almost certainly insist it is not going to frack – but only drill a vertical well to sample rock cores and take them to a laboratory to test their potential for oil and gas.

Councillors faced with applications, will likely be compelled by planning law to not consider that these exploratory wells are a gateway for fracking – they will also not be allowed to consider the 800+ peer-reviewed scientific studies showing harm caused by fracking as they relate to the US and not “gold standard regulated” Britain, nor will they be permitted to consider that public opinion nationally and locally is overwhelmingly against fracking.

If SW Energy is able to claim that there is shale gas available from its exploratory wells then it will either try and sell on licences to established fracking firms such as Igas, Cuadrilla or INEOS or raise the finances itself to develop Somerset into a fracking zone for another 20 years.

The Infrastructure Act 2015 permits “any substance” (eg fracking chemicals, waste) to be left in the ground, for any gas or oil discovered anywhere to be recovered as a “legal objective”, and allows a Government minister to overrule any local democratic decision. This year we have seen the minister overrule the decision to turn down two fracking operations in Lancashire, and councils in North Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire approve fracking, despite more than 99% of respondents in each case objecting and in the Notts case, the site being located on a site littered with unexploded bombs and very close to a nature reserve.

So what the people of Somerset need to do is to make sure fracking does not get to the application stage – because then it is much harder to fight. Every section of the Somerset community – people of all classes, political persuasions, subcultures, occupations and age groups – need to help the national effort to get fracking banned in England (it is currently suspended in Wales and Scotland), to show there is no social licence for fracking/ gas exploration and prevent it from getting a toehold.

The time to get started is now, not later! And resistance is starting so if you’re in Somerset, get involved… If it’s not nipped in the bud, the fracking industry will have to be stopped by mass direct action.


It’s important to remember that wherever the drill sites will be located, a radius of 10km around them will be the Government-proscribed “zone of influence” – there could eventually be 20 wells per site, all drilling directionally (diagonally) or vertically and then horizontally for miles in any direction.

Ostensibly fracking would need to take place at least 1000m below ground (and 1200m below ground in “protected areas” – no one has explained why 200m extra depth makes all the difference) BUT as fracking is only legally defined as using a certain amount of fluid (more than 1,000 cubic metres per frack, and 10,000 per operation), potentially frackers could get around the restrictions if they could manage with less fluid.

When South Western Energy made its initial application in October 2014, it referred to seven 10x10km Ordnance Survey grid blocks (which now comprise three licences) as “Weston-super-Mare” and proposed to drill down a minimum of 300 metres. This was before the 1000/1200m restrictions came into being.




It’s likely that closest to Weston, geologically the drillers would encounter their stated principle target rock layer, the Avon Group aka the Lower Carboniferous Limestone Shale, at such a shallow depth – further south towards Bridgwater, the layer dips down considerably – while it seems (according to the British Geological Survey – see the map below showing the extent of Carboniferous Limestone) it would be non-existent at any depth west of the River Parrett.


But as wells can be drilled directionally as well as straight down (vertically) none of the below areas can be ruled out.

The most major factor for a well site is unlikely to be an environmental or even a geological consideration – it will be wherever South Western Energy can persuade a landowner to agree access.

And they have 342 square km in which to explore.


Theoretically the licence allows drilling to take place anywhere, even in “protected zones” (these include 1km buffer zones around designated nature and conservation sites – some protected by the EU, so liable to be not protected following Brexit)… but fracking is not allowed, so it would not be cost-effective for wells to be drilled if they could not be extended and converted into fracking. However, laws can be made more lax and loopholes can be exploited, so NOWHERE within the licencing area can really be ruled out.  (Indeed, a search of other licences reveals that in one case, in Hampshire, a drill site is actually several hundred metres outside a PEDL area!)

Here closest below are my own roughly-drawn interpretations on clearer Google mapping from poor-quality maps on the licences (PEDLs) themselves… I may be a researcher, but as you can see I’m no graphics ace! You can check the originals yourselves from the licences (see further below). The areas inside the red lines are where drill sites could potentially be situated.




So within the LIKELY zones for well sites are…

PEDL 344 –
Dunster (east of)
Blue Anchor
Old Cleeve
West Quantoxhead
East Quantoxhead

PEDL 321 –
Rooks Bridge
East Brent
Brent Knoll
Burnham-on-Sea (east)

PEDL 320 –
St Georges
Weston-super-Mare (eastern side)
Banwell (northern side)

Anywhere situated within 10km of these places could be drilled under, have a cocktail of chemicals, water and frack sand blasted at high pressure, causing the rocks to crack. This includes Hinkley nuclear power stations!

Here’s a bit more detail from the licences – you could say PEDL320 is centred on Weston, PEDL321 on Burnham, and PEDL344 on Watchet. Note that the outer ring is the “zone of influence”, so fracking could take place anywhere underground within this bubble.


(I’ll attempt to explain the Silurian issue further down… as for the expression Drill or Drop, it means the company is obliged to investigate drilling but can decide not to if its preliminary investigations reveal finding gas/oil is not feasible)


(most of Weston-super-Mare is unprotected from fracking)


(all of ST25a is within a protected area, so no actual high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing that uses more than 1,000 cubic metres of fluid per frack not allowed, everything else seems ok!)



(the Government has granted the licence PEDL321 on condition the company drills one well to 1500m depth within this licensed area)



[Bridgwater, Street and some of Glastonbury within the zone of influence… only some of the Levels are “protected”]


[a deeper commitment here, possible reasons explained later – also note interest in the Devonian rocks]


[Hinkley Point nuclear power stations are within the block in the (inadequately) “protected” Severn Estuary area]


[no protection for the coastline]


[Butlins and Minehead could be fracked under, as could the Brendon and Quantock Hills]



This is Gerwyn Llewellyn Williams, the so-called (by The Sun) Prince of Shales – he is owner, director and financier (it appears) of South Western Energy and about 20 other companies, most with his wife Shelagh Rose as co-director and Cardiff-based geologist Oliver Taylor.

I have met Gerwyn and Oliver – pleasant enough people, were it not for their intentions! However, at our meeting they denied wanting to look for shale gas in the Forest of Dean (which we later discovered was a fib, as their licence application and unissued licences showed they were intending to), so we wouldn’t advise people give much credence to any utterances from the pair.

I have also done extensive research into Gerwyn’s/SW Energy’s apparent financial capability. If you have time, read my five-part blog on the subject (needs updating, as now the company has withdrawn from Wilts and the Forest of Dean, and has relinquished some of his licences under the names of UK Onshore Gas/ UK Methane/ Coastal Gas in South Wales, and held on to others.

Some in Somerset may recall meeting Gerwyn and Oliver in the past – in 2011 their company UK Methane to drill for coalbed methane in the Keynsham area: See Marco Jackson’s excellent film for Frack Free Somerset, The Truth Behind The Dash For Gas (2014) (watch here on YouTube, better still arrange a public viewing) for more information. Bath & North East Somerset Council’s request for information proved too much for the company, and UK Methane withdrew its applications and eventually relinquished its licences.

However, since then the Infrastructure Act 2015 has come into being, which makes it much harder for councils to refuse planning permission for fracking.

He passed the Government financial competence test (the Government won’t release that information), but if he has any money it can’t be found on public record – although the Jersey-based Damor Investors (linked to the Royal Bank of Canada and the Panama Papers) and his own vehicle, Luxembourg-based Infinity Energy are in the mix.

He and Oliver have been involved in coalbed methane and abandoned mine methane production, but there is no sign they have ever developed shale gas – although Gerwyn has expressed a wish to, in South Wales where he claims there is more shale gas available than in Lancashire! Strangely, the Australian partner Eden Energy (or Adamo as its UK branch is called) didn’t seem to agree, and ended up giving all its shares and the company Adamo in the South Wales venture to Gerwyn and Oliver for £1. Gerwyn currently has planning permission to explore for coalbed methane and shale gas in several locations in South Wales. As there is a moratorium on fracking in Wales, he can’t go into development and fracking, as much as he wants to.

A South Wales blogger has described Gerwyn’s activities as a Ponzi scheme to get a quick buck for his retirement, and to complete his massive monstrosity of a concrete palace on the Welsh riviera, near Porthcawl.


Oliver from South Western Energy is initially “building a geological model”. This is by inputting data into mapping software used by oil and gas prospectors. They don’t appear to have much data to input. There has only been one gas/oil venture in the area, conventional oil production in Kilve, in the Quantocks, during the 1920s. This was in the Jurassic rock layer which lies a long way above SW Energy’s target rocks. There was a borehole drilled in Weston-super-Mare in 1911 which shows carboniferous limestone layers began at 828ft (252m), it appears the only other deep borehole (marked on the map below with a blue dot) drilled in 1971 at Burton Row, near Brent Knoll, went down more than 1100m and reached what was believed to be (but not certain) Permian rock, which is one era more recent than carboniferous, therefore any carboniferous limestone would be somewhere below this, and Devonian and Silurian rock much further again below.

There has been just one 2D seismic survey to the east of the PEDL areas which will provide limited information. It should be noted that the reason why there were two earthquakes in Lancashire in 2011, attributed to the first-ever onshore UK fracking attempt, was attributed to Cuadrilla drilling into a fault because its 2D seismic data was inaccurate. Obtaining seismic data is an invasive process – it either involves the shallow burial of explosives, or “thumper” trucks  – in order to record imagery or data by stimulating earth tremors.

According to the licences’ work programmes, South Western Energy is not expected to obtain  – or “shoot” – any 2D or 3D seismic data.


[the bottom group of three grey squares show the three Somerset licence areas, the blue dot a deep borehole drilled to look at rock strata in the 1971, the green line to the right of the blocks shows the location of a 2D seismic survey, and the various colours show the different rock types that outcrop (are at or close to the surface) – the turquoise represents five or more carboniferous limestone series, and the lowest/oldest of these layers is the main object of the frackers – this limestone continues below younger rock layers and the Severn Estuary/ Bristol Channel, notably the grey which represents jurassic and pink triassic, but only as far west as Bridgwater/ River Parrett… below everything on this map, at up to five miles beneath ground, are various Devonian and Silurian layers marked mostly in orange/red, purples and mauves… the darker pink in the Quantocks/ North Devon area is Middle Devonian]

However, this is a much-faulted part of the world, as this geological map shows:


In PEDL344 (Watchet area), South Western Energy have committed to drilling to a depth of 1,800m to reach the Avon Group (aka Lower Limestone Shales), Devonian and Silurian levels. This is questionable geologically. It would appear (though not proven) that they will not encounter the Avon Group at all west of Bridgwater, they may reach the Devonian level if they drill inland, but the Silurian is likely to be a mile or so further underground.

South Western Energy told us they weren’t interested in Silurian rocks – they are such a long way down it would be much more expensive to look, and exploration in Poland and also deep boreholes and seismic profiling in South-East Wales and Herefordshire indicate the rocks are too old and too far down to still contain oil or gas.

Once South Western Energy have managed to secure a site(s) by means of an access agreement with a landowner, they will need to raise the money to drill an exploratory well. The Government’s inconsistent redactions of “commercially sensitive information” means we can’t see the cost estimates for Somerset, but as a guideline the non-redacted information from the Forest of Dean (for one “firm commitment” PEDL and one “drill or drop”) shows:


Before they start drilling, SW Energy must follow a ‘regulatory roadmap’ and obtain a number of consents. It should be said though that the Environment Agency and other agencies have so far been almost totally compliant (the exception being the EA currently refusing to agree to an oil well application in the South Downs, and Lancashire County Council turning down two fracking applications only to be overruled by the Government)…


[the DECC has been replaced by BEIS – the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Local Authority in this case is North Somerset Council. The Coal Authority is not involved as there is no coalfield within the three Somerset PEDL areas].

The first stage – fulfilling the terms of the initial exploratory stage of its PEDL – will be to drill wells but not frack them. The planning applications will probably clearly state this. Rock cores will be taken out of the wells, and tested for their gas/oil content. The licence-holder (which may change, as licences can be sold on/ transferred at any time) will then enter a five-year “appraisal” period in which more wells could be drilled or existing wells will then be test-fracked. The company can decide whether to move on to appraisal, and then on to development/ fracking.


It could be months or years before South Western Energy applies for planning permission, and 10 years before any fracking takes place.

However, if in that time, towns and parishes have surveyed their localities and declared themselves “frack-free zones”, if a groundswell has formed to show future fracking would be unthinkable, if every sector of a community is involved… this can be stopped!

Those who betray the  local population by either trying to bury the issue under the carpet, deny the threat of fracking, refuse to discuss it or show their position on it claiming it to be “political” are ironically those who have the most to lose – whether they be elected officials, or often corporate tourism industry types.

If this reaches planning application stage, it will be MUCH HARDER to stop and may only be stopped by physical direct action. This will incur costs to the public pocket, regular disruption including to businesses and transportation and the stretching to breaking point of police resources. So I’d argue those who are reticent to take a stand against fracking now – particularly those in powerful positions – are helping set up their communities and environment up for a fall.

If you’re not convinced fracking is a bad thing I suggest you just google “fracking” and read what you find… including from the most credible news sources. The more you discover the more you are likely to oppose it, from mine and many others’ experience.


Fracking WILL happen in Somerset if:

  • South Western Energy manage to raise the estimated £750,000 to carry out its exploratory work (although there is no public sign of any sizeable assets, they have committed to drilling at least two deep wells in Somerset)
  • Landowners within the three licensed areas agree access rights/ lease land for drilling sites
  • South Western Energy gets all the necessary permits, consents and planning permissions from the Local Planning Authority, Government regulatory agencies and the Government to drill wells.
  • South Western Energy can claim there is gas (or oil) to be exploited from their exploration and then either sell on the licences to a bigger concern or get into fracking themselves (SW Energy have told some people they do not currently have the capability to frack – but there are infrastructure providers and sub-contractors).
  • The people of Somerset and beyond don’t stop them getting a foot in the door.

My experience of the anti-fracking movement so far is it cannot be pinned down to a “certain kind” of protester – although surveys have shown middle-aged, female professionals are most likely to be opposed to fracking. I believe there is no right way or wrong way to fight fracking – the widest, most multi-pronged approach is what’s needed – from the WI and parish meeting to anarchist direct actions, from group meetings to autonomous individual actions. All need to be supported, even if it’s not your bag, as it’s all to achieve the same aim.

Fracking is a civil rights issue: it’s a fight to maintain democracy as well as the environment. We shall overcome, we have to! Government may overturn local democratic decisions, or local planners ignore public opinion and massive risks, but when it can be shown there is overwhelmingly no social licence and actions to prevent drills moving in can be justified, it’s only a matter of time and keeping on keeping on before we see this threat off once and for all!

The biggest foe to the anti-fracking cause, aside from the petroleum industry and Government, is inertia and apathy. You might feel like some kind of missionary or evangelist, but wearing anti-fracking T-shirts, distributing leaflets daily, doing what you can to get conversations going must be a constant until we beat this. As is sending emails, letters etc and reading and reading and reading…

I didn’t make it to any of the events (sorry!) but I’ve heard the tour of the film Groundswell Rising, warning people of the impacts the fracking industry has had in America, plus the actions and coming together of Somerset anti-fracking groups are seeing a Groundswell Rising happening in the Somerset anti-fracking zone, with groups now fighting in the Quantocks, Bridgwater and Weston.

I hope I can be of some help with the info amassed below:


I’m in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, some 50 miles northeast of Somerset, but there is much that unites us with Somerset, besides that we both extend our Rs, convert Ss into Zs and use expressions like “gert lush” and that we are all in Zyder Country…


350 million years ago, whether you were stood on the top of the Mendips or in the Forest of Dean, you would have been either sinking, swimming or wading through a shallow expanse of sea – the Euroamerican Seaway [seen in light grey on this map] – with its coast near the Brecon Beacons and Herefordshire – any further south, and you’d be in deeper waters, the Culm Basin.

The water temperature was warm, tropical – although there was ice and snow in Africa, Australia and South America (then part of the same landmass, Gondwana), we were then situated close to the Equator.


Some 50 million years earlier we, Ireland, Belgium and northern Germany had become joined to North America and Scandinavia.

Tcrinoidshe tropical sea was densely populated with crinoids. These creatures, also known as stone or sea lilies, spend their adult lives rooted by a stalk into the sea bed, and wave their mucus-covered five (or more) feather-like arms to trap passing plankton. They are weighed down by hexagonal segments of calcium-carbonate bones or shells.

crinoid4The sediment from the remains of past crinoids developed into a lime-rich mud, and after being buried under more layers of rock and/or soil, was baked into limestone shales.

The Somerset Good Rock Guide highly recommends Swallow Cliff, 5km north of Weston-Super-Mare for its limestone embedded with volcanic rocks, fossilised crinoids, prehistoric worm paths and lava-petrified coral colonies. (It should be noted though that this is a successive layer of limestone, the Avon Group lies beneath it).

I could also recommend Symonds Yat Rock, or the Avon Gorge in Bristol – from where the Avon Group of Lower Limestone Shales gets its name from.

So what links us now – North Somerset, Gloucestershire and South Wales – is that the petroleum industry, or perhaps just two chancers (the directors of South Western Energy), thinks our shared natural deep-history represented in this, the oldest/ lowest carboniferous rock layer, is ripe for pillaging, and not by conventional means, but by hydraulically fracturing (fracking).

What is peculiar though, is that South Western Energy appears to be the only company which believes Tournasian/ Dinantian, as opposed to later Namurian/ Silesian, carboniferous stone is prospective for gas. In its fairly definitive study of hydrocarbon prospectivity from 2013, the British Geological Survey  – commissioned by the Government – says Namurian rocks (from about 40 million years later than the Avon Group and not present in the Mendips or Forest of Dean) are prospects, but does not mention Dinantian (the various layers of carboniferous limestone found in Somerset).


Fast forward through another 60 million years of history from where we left off… the sea became deeper, resulting in purer dolomite limestone layers (which have been heavily exploited for road-building materials), and then the seabed became a vast area of river delta/ swampland. The first land-based animals and the world’s first forests sprang up, and then were buried by massive mudslides (the submerged forests became peat and finally coal).

The reason for the earth movements was because a land mass, now France and southern Europe, was bashing into Cornwall, Devon and Dorset, squeezed by the collision of North Africa and the massive Gondwana continent to the south of Spain. This crushing resulted in major faults being activated and folding rocks to form the French Massif and Pyrenees, the land being crumpled into mountains and deep valleys – in Somerset’s case, the Mendips rose up and the land south of it (the Somerset Levels) was thrown down, while in the Forest of Dean, the area was raised into a bowl in upland plateau and the Severn Vale and Worcester Graben was thrown down to the east of it. Our area became a mountainous desert, a few hundred miles inland from the eastern coast of the Pangaea supercontinent.

The main risks with fracking are contamination of water and earthquakes (as well as general health impacts). Given that Somerset, South Wales and the Forest of Dean straddle the Variscan Front (as the 2,000km-wide major fault complex which stretches from Ireland to Poland is called). And then there’s the fact this limestone is  a “geohazard” – in other words, in the event of a water pollution incident it could be impossible to contain as water spreads rapidly through many pathways through the rock, great distances and unpredictably.

Unlike sandstone, which crumbles as it erodes and soaks up water, limestone is porous and water percolates within it. The dramatic Avon, Cheddar and Wye gorges are testament to that. Water cuts through the rock instead of around it, while – another piece of shared history – the earliest humans to reach Britain inhabited the caves in all three gorges.

Underground there are vast unmapped areas of swallows, caves and sinkholes through which our groundwater runs, at velocities which have been measured at 175 litres per second.

I quote:

It is the Carboniferous Limestone that hosts the best-developed karst landscapes and the longest cave systems in the country. It occurs widely throughout western and northern England and in Wales, and karst features are present on and within the majority of the outcrop (Waltham et al, 1997). Particularly well-developed karst occurs in the Mendip Hills, around the northern crop of the South Wales coalfield (Ford, 1989), in the Derbyshire Peak District and in the Yorkshire Dales and adjacent areas, running up into the northern Pennines. Less well known karst areas include the Forest of Dean, the southern crop of the South Wales coalfield from Glamorgan through the Gower to Pembrokeshire, in North Wales around the Vale of Clwyd, and around the fringes of the Lake District. In all these areas, well-developed karstic drainage systems, sinkholes and extensive cave systems are common.

The major challenges associated with these karst areas are water supply protection, geological conservation and engineering problems. Subsidence associated with sinkhole formation is commonly encountered in remote and rural areas with little impact on property and infrastructure, but damage to houses, tracks and roads is locally a problem. Commonly of greater significance, many of these subsidence hollows are sites for illegal tipping of farm and other refuse or waste, which can cause rapid contamination of the groundwater and local drinking supplies (Fig. 2).

Interstratal karst

In parts of South Wales, the Forest of Dean and the Mendip Hills, significant areas of interstratal karst occur. This is where karstic drainage systems have developed in the Carboniferous Limestone below a significant thickness of impermeable rocks such as the Twrch Sandstone Formation or the Cromall Sandstone Formation in the Forest of Dean. There might be little or no surface expression of karst, but extensive caves or karstic groundwater flow systems can occur at depth, such as Ogof Draenen near Abergavenny (Farrant, 2004), and the Wet Sink – Slaughter Risings system near Joyford in the Forest of Dean (Waltham et al., 1997). Areas where interstratal karst is significant have been identified and digitized, making use of geological and topographical maps, groundwater tracing experiment results, cave surveys and expert local knowledge.

[from Farrant A.R., Cooper A.H.: Karst geohazards in the UK: the use of digital data for hazard management (British Geological Survey)]

There is more general information from the BGS on the geohazard aspects of limestone karst here

Interestingly, the custodians of Bath Thermae Spa have been assured by the Government that there will be no fracking which could affect the deep underground reservoir which feeds the UNESCO World Heritage hot springs. But no one knows, or is able to prove, just how wide a catchment area feeds into the reservoir. One widely supported theory is that the whole of the Mendips is involved, but one study at least examines the potential of the whole limestone province – from South Wales to the Forest of Dean contributing to the Bath water (see pages 23 to 33).

As for fracking being unsuitable in the UK due to the large number of faults (with the Variscan Front being perhaps the largest complex), let me refer you to Prof David Smythe’s paper to the Government’s Select Committee (2013)

Ok I have rambled on for far too long now… Just help stop fracking in Somerset and everywhere, everyone who reads this, thanks!