Letters to the Editor - November 2011

A selection of readers' correspondence with the editor, Paul Lay.

Share your thoughts with the readers of History Today.

Email p.lay@historytoday.com, or post to

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Crown Duel

I was very interested in Nigel Jones’ article on Colonel Blood and the Tower of London (‘Blood, Theft and Arrears’, October, 2011), because I am a house guide at Cliveden, the National Trust property. The first house on that site was built by the 2nd Duke of Buckingham so that he could live near London with his mistress, the Countess of Shrewsbury. A duel fought between the Earl of Shrewsbury and Buckingham is commemorated on the Duke’s Lawn at Cliveden. Nigel Jones describes Buckingham as: ‘A ruthless libertine, who skewered one aristocratic love rival in a duel and then eloped with the widow.’ I wonder if he is referring to the duel between Buckingham and Shrewsbury? Most visitors to Cliveden are aware of the Profumo Scandal that began there in 1963, but not many know of Buckingham’s earlier scandalous exploits.

Brian Boyland
Maidenhead, Berkshire

Nigel Jones replies:

Mr Boyland guesses correctly. The Duke of Buckingham made Lady Anna, Countess of Shrewsbury, his mistress at the end of the 1660s and they carried on a lengthy and very public affair. By January 1668 the Earl of Shrewsbury could stand the humiliation no longer and challenged the duke to a duel. The parties met at Barn Elms, now in west London, and the form of duel chosen was a swordfight in which the two seconds of each duellist were also allowed to join the fray. All the parties were wounded and one of Buckingham’s seconds was killed. Shrewsbury was run through by Buckingham and died two months later. Buckingham was pardoned by the king and continued his affair with Lady Shrewsbury unmolested.

Bread and Butter

A title which might be added to the list of suggestions for further reading which follows Daniel Tilles’ article about fascism and antisemitism in the prewar East End (‘The Myth of Cable Street’, October 2011) is Our Flag Stays Red (Lawrence and Wishart, 2006), the autobiography of Philip Piratin, a leading East End Communist, later a Stepney borough councillor and, from 1945 to 1950, MP for the Mile End constituency.

In the sections of the book that deal with the period discussed by Tilles Piratin touches on the question of working-class support for the British Union of Fascists (BUF). Observing a Blackshirt march in the run-up to the Cable Street events he realises that many of the participants could be described as ordinary working-class people. Piratin explicitly rejects the term ‘lumpenproletariat’ as an unfair and inaccurate way of categorising them.

As well as helping to ‘sweep the fascists off the streets’, Piratin was active in the Stepney Tenants Defence League, organising among the many East Enders who then lived in privately-owned slum tenements. In one passage Piratin describes a visit to a family threatened with eviction by a particularly uncaring landlord. He notices a Blackshirt uniform hanging behind the door of the flat. The young father of the family is incredulous when Piratin, a Jew, takes his side against the landlord, who also happens to be Jewish.

Of course, this is anecdotal evidence and could have been doctored, or even invented, to suit the author’s Marxist agenda – predictably, the episode ends with the young Blackshirt tearing up his BUF card. But what is undeniable is that Piratin sees a direct link between working-class support for the extreme right and ‘bread and butter issues’, such as housing. In this he is probably expressing the view of most left-wingers in the 1930s.

Howard Medwell
Upper Edmonton, London

Facts and Figures

Your piece on Pyotr Stolypin’s assassination (Months Past, September 2011) accuses the Russian prime minister of hanging many anti-monarchy rebels. In fact, during the nine months of 1907 when the field courts martial were in operation, 1,102 people were sentenced to death. On the other hand, 1,126 people, including 288 employed by the tsar’s ministry of the interior, had been killed in the previous year by terrorists (figures taken from Russian Conservatism and Its Critics by Richard Pipes, Yale University Press, 2005).

Herschel Zimonas
North Finchley, London

Decline and Fall

I was moved by Paul Lay’s Letter from the Editor in the July 2011 issue: ‘... both historians and policymakers in the West need to address the issue of decline. Politicians, whose success depends on spinning a positive image, will be understandably reticent, but historians should not allow them to ignore what is arguably the most important issue of our time.’

Here in the US we are in deep denial about decline. Once America lost the ability to provide for its own petroleum needs in the 1970s, the writing was on the wall. Jimmy Carter tried to convince us to face facts, but Americans wanted none of that. Ronald Reagan told the voters what they wanted to hear: it was ‘morning in America’. Ever since, Americans have been unwilling to seriously consider the issue of decline.
So yes, let’s have historians help us understand the causes of decline and how other empires have dealt with it, to good or ill effect. The West can manage decline gracefully or degenerate into chaos, loss of civility and a new ‘dark age’. What do the precedents tell us?

Linda Buzzell
Santa Barbara, California


An ironic postscript to Richard Lansdown’s article ‘Photographing Madness’ (September 2011) is my own experience in Springfield Hospital in the late 1960s. I was a student at Oxford preparing for a career in the church and concerned to find myself to be homosexual. An older student directed me to a Dr Lodge-Patch, who, according to the practice of the day, prescribed aversion therapy over a three-week period in residence at Springfield.

The therapy comprised sitting in a darkened room while the doctor showed me slides of men and women I had chosen, giving me a shock in my arm while I looked at the pictures of the men. The therapy had no effect on me whatsoever, but I have been left with a deep appreciation of what it was like, even as recently as the 1960s, to spend even a short time living in what was then called a psychiatric hospital.

Lansdown concludes: ‘I like to contemplate the link between Diamond and Darwin, between photography, psychiatry and psychology.’ May I suggest a link too with the use of the barbarian treatment methods he describes as prescribed for the mentally ill at Springfield in the use of photography in aversion therapy for homosexuality (which was not removed from the list of mental disorders until the 1990s).

Peter Roberts
Via email

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