GR8 Minds Think Ahead


Sceptic, ghost hunter, genius.

I often recall a comment by a history teacher when I was at primary school. It was simultaneously blindingly obvious and profound:

‘People in the past thought the same way we do, and were no less clever than we are – it’s just that we know more.’

Each week brings a further reminder of that wisdom.

My forebear Joseph Glanvill (pictured), philosopher and religious sceptic, was a member of London’s Royal Society.

I could admire him simply for that, and the fact he coined the phrase ‘climate of opinion’ and hunted ghosts with the alacrity of Derek Acorah. But his book ‘The Vanity Of Dogmatising‘ (and what a title that remains) offers extraordinary musings on the Shape of Things to Come.

He predicts, amongst other things, air travel and space flight, before turning his attention to remote human communication:

‘That men should confer at very distant removes by an extemporary intercourse is a reputed impossibility; but yet there are some hints in natural operations that give us probability that ’tis feasible, and may be compassed without unwarrantable assistance from demoniac correspondence.’

(We still sometimes have a devil of a job finding network coverage, Joseph.) He continues:

‘That a couple of needles equally touched by the same magnet being set in two dials, exactly proportioned to each other, and circumscribed by the letters of the alphabet, may effect this “magnale” [mighty work] hath considerable authorities to avouch it.’

He elaborates: ‘Let the friends that would communicate take each a dial; and, having appointed a time for their sympathetic conference, let one move his impregnate needle to any letter in the alphabet, and its affect fellow will precisely repeat the same.’ And hey presto, folks can go 121 on different sides of the globe.

Joseph recognised his ‘magnetick efficiency’ and ‘Abecederian circle’ required a little tweaking (QWERTY keyboard, predictive text, anyone?), but asserted ‘it may hereafter with success be attempted, when magical history shall be enlarged by riper inspection; and ’tis not unlikely but that present discoveries might be improved to the performance.’

Foreseeing the process that would lead to the telegraph, the telephone, the internet, mobile telephony and instant messaging is all very well, until you consider that Joseph Glanvill was writing in 1661.

That is 155 years before Richard Babbage conceived his ‘difference engine’, 175 years before Samuel Morse unveiled his Morse Code, and 350 years before Microsoft bought Skype for $8.5bn.

A Hitler In Highgate

When a plump, middle-aged Irish woman appeared before the beak at Highgate Police Court, Archway Road, to plead hardship over a £9 13s 10d debt on 20 January 1939, hers was just one of many cases of rates arrears heard that day.

We can, however, only imagine the reaction of the magistrate and others in the courtroom when she gave her name as ‘Mrs Hitler.’

During her two minute hearing she may even have mentioned an individual closely related to the Austrian dictator already tearing Europe apart: her son, William Patrick Hitler.


Mrs Hitler inside 26 Priory Gardens, 1939. Lovely cup of tea.

Adolf’s nephew Willy, born at Toxteth, Liverpool, in March 1911, was the product of the union of Dubliner Brigid Dowling and Alois Hitler. Not that he is mentioned in ‘Mein Kampf’ – Alois, seven years older than Adolf, was the black sheep of the family, with several convictions for theft as a youth.

What a family.

The unlikely match of Brigid and Alois met at the Dublin Horse Fair in 1909. She was a teenage farmer’s daughter, he a chancer, nine years her senior, waiting on guests at the Shelbourne Hotel.

They eloped and married in June 1910 at St Marylebone in London but settled in Liverpool, where they appear on the 1911 Census at 102 Upper Stanhope Street.

Alois was then serving teas at Lyon’s, but was deported two years later, according to a 1942 CIA dossier, for being a souteneur – a pimp, to you and me. The couple separated after Alois returned to Germany, reportedly selling razor blades.

The small matter of the Great War then prevented any reconciliation, and in any case Alois faked his own death and remarried, bigamously. Brigid spoke up for her estranged husband in court when his behaviour caught up with him in 1923.

Six years later Willy began visiting his father in Germany and meeting uncle Adolf during his infamous rise to power.

‘We had cakes and whipped cream, Hitler’s favourite dessert,’ Willy observed of one visit.

‘I was struck by his intensity, his feminine gestures. There was dandruff on his coat.’

During the 1930s Alois was running a restaurant frequented by SA and SS men on Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, with an enthusiasm for trading off his step-brother’s voluminous public profile.

Thanks to him, Brigid and Willy had acquired Austrian citizenship and in 1937 they were granted an audience in Munich with Chancellor of Germany himself, bookended by SS guards.

Through his uncle’s patronage Willy had found work in a bank, car showroom and local brewery. But he was barred from repatriating money to his mother, who remained in London, taking a lodger to make ends meet. In 1938 she was living at 26 Priory Gardens, off Shepherd’s Hill, Highgate, where Willy would briefly join her.

Naturally the newspapers of the free world lapped up tidbits from Adolf’s peculiar lost tribe. In the shadow of war, she happily described that audience with her now notorious brother-in-law.

‘To both of them he spoke kindly,’ reported the Daily Express, from her parlour. ‘Mrs Hitler heard the Führer’s voice for the first time. She heard it again last week on her radio when Hitler talked about the Czechs in angry tones.

‘Mrs Hitler went out the next day to Hornsey Borough Council ARP station, and got her gas mask.’

‘Nowadays it’s a bit embarrassing being Mrs Hitler,’ she added. ‘Mind you, I’ve nothing to say against the Nazis as I’ve found them. The Führer is well-disposed towards my son Willy, his nephew, but says he must cultivate self-reliance and stand on his own feet.’ (Advice, it might be noted, the Daily Express leader writer wholeheartedly endorsed the same day.)

A year later Willy had returned to England too – the CIA file alleges he felt slighted by Adolf – and the Hitlers were still living at Priory Gardens, according to the immigration form completed on their arrival in New York in early March 1939.

Back in January Brigid had promised the magistrate she would clear her debt in six weeks. Now, through the infamy of her brother-in-law, she could afford to pay it many, many times over.

Other parts of the US immigration form prove how spectacularly this Irish farmer’s girl had played the media. Her contact in the USA was given as ‘Mr William Morris, Radio City, NYC’ – the world’s leading talent agency.

Having made splash headlines around the world in 1938 with their connection to the Führer and insider knowledge of his private life, Brigid and Willy had been invited over on a lecture tour of the States, or maybe to be hostess in a nightclub. Something.

It was claimed Brigid had been engaged, too, as a ‘technical consultant’ and actress in a mooted Hollywood film about Hitler, ‘The Mad Dog Of Europe’, which writer Al Rosen had been hawking around for six years.

(Rosen later alleged the plot for ‘Mad Dog’ had been co-opted into the 1940 movie ‘The Mortal Storm’, starring James Stewart. It is often cited as the film that led to all MGM films being banned in Nazi Germany.)

Brigid also clutched the manuscript of an opportunistic memoir she hoped to have published: ‘My Brother-In-Law Adolf’. When the book eventually hit the shelves – a whole 40 years later – it was widely derided as ‘unreliable’.

Not the least reasons were that she claimed to have started Adolf’s love of astrology and designed his famous moustache look. Her book is also the main source of the myth that the Führer visited the city of the Beatles in 1912 or 1913.

Willy had more luck finding an outlet for his views in print, the unambiguously-titled article ‘Why I Hate My Uncle’ appearing in Look magazine in 1938. He eventually fought for the US Army against his uncle, changed his surname to Stuart-Houston and had a family of his own. Hitler’s nephew died in 1987 in New York, 18 years after his mother.

The CIA report on Adolf Hitler:

Why I Hate My Uncle by Willy Hitler:

Hope and Trembling: The Christmas Truce of 1914

Fraternity: soldiers mixing during the Christmas truce, 1914.

Conditions on the Western Front were as bad as they had ever been during the first Christmas of the First World War in 1914. The bitter cold had iced the top layer of mud, though once a boot broke through the crust it might sink a foot or more in sludge. The carnage and suffering on both sides remained inhumane.

Christians believe this is a time of the year for miracles. Yet the spontaneous truce that took place, sporadic and temporary, was all too human.

An evocative letter about the fleeting respite, dated Boxing Day, 26 December 1914, was sent by a British soldier to his family in East Finchley and published in London’s Evening News four days later.

‘I’ll tell you about a thing that I couldn’t imagine happening until it did,’ he wrote. ‘We have actually met the Germans half-way between our trenches and exchanged cigarettes, buttons &c.!

‘On Christmas Eve we were shouting across to each other, “A Merry Christmas” &c., and they shouted back “Don’t shoot till New Year’s Day!” and all that.

‘On Christmas morning it was a bit foggy, and as there was no shooting we got out at the back and had a game of rounders. Getting tired of this, we got out the front and started wandering over to the Germans.

‘When the mist had cleared a bit we saw that the Germans were doing the same thing, of course unarmed. We got so close that five of us and five of them met and had a talk – they nearly all talked English.

‘After dinner nearly all our boys went out, and we found the Germans had also turned up in force. The result was a huge mixed crowd of men, swopping buttons, cigarettes, &c.  Then some German officers came up and actually took our photos, all sitting on the ground.

‘I wouldn’t have missed the experience of yesterday for the most gorgeous Christmas dinner in England.’

Another British officer reported similar events. ‘At 11pm on December 24 there was absolute peace, bar a little sniping and a few rounds from a machine gun, then no more. “The King” was sung, then you heard, “To-morrow is Christmas: if you don’t fight, we won’t”; and the answer came back: “All right!”

‘One officer met a Bavarian, smoked a cigarette and had a talk with him about half-way between the lines. Then a few men fraternised in the same way, and really to-day peace has existed.

‘Men have been talking together, and they had a football match with a bully beef tin, and one man went over and a cut a German’s hair.’

It is clear the 1914 Christmas truce was observed to varying degrees along the Western Front, and perhaps according to who faced whom across No Man’s Land.

Shivering with his comrades in the French trenches near the forest of Argonne was a tenor from the Paris Opera. As a nearby village church bell announced the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, he began singing the carol ‘Minuit, Chrétiens, C’est l’Heure Solenelle’, with its line, ‘the world trembles with hope on this night’.

The Germans a few hundred yards away joined the singer’s compatriots in rapt silence at the beauty of his voice. When he finished it was the thunder of applause from both sides that resounded over fields more used to ugly slaughter.

‘A quarter of an hour later,’ reported the Daily Mirror published on New Year’s Day, ‘a furious fusillade was in progress, and before the night was over the French had carried the enemy’s first lines.’

A second lieutenant in one victorious French section then addressed his men: ‘Now we’re going to celebrate Christmas Eve!’ Minutes later ‘they were feasting off oysters, cold chicken and champagne’ that had been prepared before the attack.

Thomas Britton – Music Pioneer. For The Fancy Of It

Thomas Britton (1644-1714) – concert host, charcoal vendor, alchemist, book hoarder.

At the end of Jerusalem Passage that tiptoes into Aylesbury Street, adjacent to Clerkenwell Green, there is an easily overlooked green plaque bearing the words: ‘Here stood the house of Thomas Britton (1644-1714) the musical coalman’.

The London Borough of Islington’s words act like a thumbnail to a far richer and more fascinating story. For Britton was no less than the first Londoner to stage a regular musical club night. And the capital’s unique nightlife may have developed in an entirely different way without his influential blueprint.

A native of Higham Ferrers, Huntingdonshire, Britton had arrived in London as apprentice to a coal merchant and, like so many rustics before and since, fell in love with the cultural riches offered by the Clerkenwell area, staying to set up on his own account.

At early light each day he was a dust-covered small-coal (charcoal) merchant. But once the sacks were put away he availed himself of antiquarian book and music shops around the neighbourhood and sought out stimulating company.

With his sprightly intellect and fascination for life, science and culture he befriended some of the brightest minds of the day and insinuated his way into higher social echelons at a time of snobbery and exclusion.

Portraits of him – and there were, impressively, several – rarely fail to include a coal bag in the background, as well as his singular library and collection of organs and viols.

It was when he started his regular Thursday evening music sessions that his status as a class-morphing hipster of the late Stuart era was assured.

Neighbour, publican and Clerkenwell chronicler Ned Ward composed the following doggerel for Britton:

Upon Thursday’s Repair

To my Palace, and there

Hobble up Stair by Stair;

But I pray ye take Care

That you break not your Shins by a Stumble,

And without e’er a Souse,

Paid to me or my Spouse,

Sit as still as a Mouse

At the Top of my House,

And there you shall hear how we fumble.

Britton’s club was held in a room ‘very long and narrow’ with ‘a ceiling so low that a tall man could but just stand upright.’ It was just above the filthy rudiments of his coal yard, and reached by a narrow, risky outside staircase. Still, the performers who turned up to play with him included no lesser lights than George Friderik Handel and Dr Pepusch, arranger of Gay’s famous ‘Beggar’s Opera’.

The audience, forking out one penny for a saucer of coffee, was equally stellar. The near-contemporary historian of English music, John Hawkins, inquired about the concerts and relayed what he knew: ‘Britton’s mansion, despicable as it may seem, attracted to it as polite an audience as ever the opera did; and a lady of the first rank in this kingdom, the duchess of Queensbury, now living, one of the most celebrated beauties of her time, may yet remember that in the pleasure which she manifested at hearing Mr Britton’s concert, she seemed to have forgotten the difficulty with which she ascended the steps that led to it.’

The site of Thomas Britton's yard, dwelling and music sessions.

Visiting Leeds merchant Ralph Thoresby, in his ‘Diary’ entry for 5 June 1712 related, ‘In our way home called at Mr Britton’s, the noted small-coal man, where we heard a noble concert of music, vocal and instrumental, the best in town, which for many years past he has had weekly for his own entertainment, and of the gentry & c., gratis, to which most foreigners of distinction, for the fancy of it, occasionally went.’

This was a club as cool as any modern Hoxton basement, a must-see for the most discerning tourist, and the hottest ticket in town.

There was yet more to Renaissance man Tom Britton, however. He practised chemistry experiments and had a bewildering array of interests, curiosities and, perhaps, hang-ups – as came to light following his death in 1714.

Britton shuffled off this mortal coil when a practical joke went horribly wrong. A local blacksmith who practiced ventriloquism was induced to throw his voice, pretending to be a supernatural messenger and scaring poor Tom literally to death.

Tom’s widow eventually put his hoard up for sale on 24 January 1715 at St Paul’s Coffee House. The catalogue makes absorbing reading.

Apart from scores indicative of his unusually pluralist music taste, there were several self-diagnosis health books, ‘The Art Of Speaking And Gesture’ and Howell’s ‘Vertue Of Tobacco And Coffee’.

The list also included tomes on physics, chemistry, exploration, bees, Merlin, polygamy, ancient leaders, the gunpowder plot, Judaism, Islam, non-conformism, Rosicrucianism and a tract on ‘The Liberty Of Conscience’.

He owned several volumes by philosopher and ghost hunter Joseph Glanvill, investigations of black magic, ‘A Cat May Look Upon A King’ and a pamphlet, ‘The Hog’s Faced Gentlewoman Called Mistris Tannakin Skinker, Born At Wirkham And Bewitched In Her Mother’s Womb’.

Then comes a surprise: what might represent a c17th rake’s porn stash. Here we find ‘The Secret Mysteries Of Man’s Procreation’, Cleveland’s ‘Rustic Rampant’, the novel ‘The Fair One Stark Naked’, ‘Young Lovers Guide’, ‘Comforts Of Whoring’, ‘Rowland On Farting’ and ‘Petre On Venereal Disease’. Oh and, perhaps understandably, a guide to divorce law.

Among the hundreds of books in this fantastically revealing collection, lovingly compiled by one of London’s great cultural pioneers, there was just one book on coal. And that, my friends, is a proper Londoner’s work/life balance.

The Secret Life Of Earl’s Court

Sadly, we now know London will bid farewell to the art deco façade of Earl’s Court after the 2012 Olympic Games. How many people are aware, though, that this corner of west London was making an exhibition of itself long before C. Howard Crane’s iconic building opened its doors in 1937?

In the late c19th the site on which Earl’s Court stands was compromised by railway sidings: scrubby, industrial, and fit only for the improvisations of showground entrepreneur John Robinson Whitley. Whitley put the area on the map by setting up a semi-permanent Wild West Show there, along with a forerunner to the London Eye – an observation wheel – and water features.

Annie Oakley rehearsing for the Wild West show at Earl's Court, 1892

By 1900, now managed by Wallace Jones, the covered Exhibition and Grounds (‘buildings warmed throughout’) were staging respectable trade shows, including a predecessor of the famous boat show, where craftsmen could be watched while they constructed canoes, skiffs and ‘American motor launches.’

The pleasure park was also home to military bands and firework displays, as well as ‘the most comfortable [skating] rink in London.’

Sadly, history barely records an ambitious novelty that came to the site one summer a hundred years ago. The innovation appears to have been the brainchild of the Grounds’ new proprietor, J. Calvin Brown.

Brown bought Earl’s Court’s in 1910, determined to return it to its former glory as an amusement park. This would be no superficial tweak: he closed the space down while regenerating its charms. And he brought to bear all his experiences at other leisure centres – from White City in London to the Magic City on the banks of the Seine in Paris.

He knew he needed an exceptionally brilliant new attraction as the ultimate centrepiece at the relaunched venue. And once he had found it he told the world and, well, the excitement and anticipation was barely controllable.

‘Two minutes after the Derby is run at Epsom,’ enthused the Daily Express in April 1911, ‘the race will be repeated at Earl’s Court Exhibition on the wonderful mechanical racecourse that is being built there… ’

Sorry, did you say ‘mechanical racecourse’? The sport of kings as a fairground ride?

‘This miniature Sandown Park, with its nine mechanically-operated horses, starting gate, and realistic environment, will be the rage of London during the summer,’ cheered the Express.

The plan was that each major event in the horse-racing calendar would be re-enacted mechanically at Earl’s Court, with jockeys of both sexes mounted on the petrified thoroughbreds.

This was quite a large installation – the same size as a water chute at the same venue – with 100 yards of track on a downward slope to produce momentum after the gate was lifted.

‘Then the equestrian ability of the riders will be brought into play by a very ingenious rocking motion which almost perfectly simulates the action of a racehorse. The most vigorous rider will win the race.’

Of course Brown filled the rest of the space with fairground rides with wonderful names such as ‘Squeezers’, ‘Joy Wheels’ and ‘Dragon’s Gorge’. But it was the brilliant new mechanical racecourse that would have ‘a more sporting element attached to it than the usual side-show,’ concluded the Express.

That was the plan. Sadly, there is no further mention of horses, mechanical or otherwise. Summer 1911 advertisements for the pleasure park highlight instead a herd of performing (but non-competing) elephants. What went wrong? Did the installation suffer a Devon Loch-style disaster at the last minute? Was it even built?

What we do know is that Brown’s leisure radar was not entirely wonky. Another Englishman, J.W. Cawdry, had licensed a much larger, weaving metal track with six wooden horses to George Tilyou, impresario of the Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn, USA, back in 1897. Perhaps Brown had seen it for himself.

That ride successfully entertained the New York public for over seven decades before closure. Which, by sad coincidence, brings us back to the doomed Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre that Londoners know today.

Bring Me The Head Of Flinders Petrie

The head of Flinders Petrie. A painting by Ludwig Bloom.

A little known passenger in the chaotic British withdrawal from Palestine in 1947 was Lady Hilda Petrie. She was 80 and had hoped to see out her days in Jerusalem, the city she had resided in and loved for decades.

Her husband, Sir Flinders Petrie, had predeceased her five years earlier and he was buried on Mount Scopus. Well, most of him. He had actually bequeathed what he considered his priceless asset to science, for reasons we will soon discover.

Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie was a world-renowned Egyptologist and father of modern archaeology. He excavated more than sixty of the most important sites in Palestine and Egypt. Equally as important as his amazing discoveries in, say, the Valley of the Kings (he employed Howard Carter, who was later to discover the tomb of Tutankhamen) were the pioneering archaeological methodologies he devised that are still in use to this day.

He was one of the first to recognise the importance of context and the value of data-gathering, and evangelised a more gentle, painstaking approach to the actual digging itself. His principle breakthrough, though, was to work out a chronology by which to date his discoveries.

But those are not the only fascinations surrounding this revered Victorian scientist.

Petrie, one of archaeology’s icons, was also a vehement proponent of eugenics: the belief that racial pools can be improved by selective breeding. He enjoyed a close working relationship with key eugenics proponents Francis Galton and Karl Pearson.

Over the course of fifty years in trenches Petrie regularly sent skulls and bones back to Pearson at his Anthropometric Laboratory at University College London.

The Eugenics Laboratory at UCL relied heavily of data from Petrie’s finds to support its tehories. Galton also hired Petrie to photograph idols and statues for his book ‘Racial Photographs of the Egyptian Monuments’ (1887).

That book was the key publication of the nascent eugenics movement, in later years providing a historical gravitas for new exponents to exploit. All three men proposed ‘selective breeding’ to maintain the quality of the British race.
Eugenics was discredited as naive racism at the start of the 20th century, but returned to wreak havoc and destruction under its greatest advocates, the Nazis.

It is unclear how far our present view of ancient history has been clouded by the legacy of Petrie’s racialised doctrine. (And, indeed, the archaeologist held what might be described as enlightened views about Arab/Jewish cohabitation in what was to become Israel.)

Yet the pseudo-science of eugenics had a clear and inadvertent impact on Petrie himself.

On his deathbed the revered archaeologist donated his head and brain to the Royal Society of Surgeons, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, so that it might be studied for ‘further exploration of the British genius.’

Unfortunately, he died in 1942 in war-torn Palestine, and while his torso was buried in the local Protestant Cemetery, the rest of him was stuck in limbo because of the conflict.

Flinders Petrie's grave in the Protestant Cemetery, Jerusalem.

According to archaeologist and historian Neil A Silberman, Petrie’s head had been ‘surgically removed by the Jerusalem hospital director, placed in a jar, and preserved with formaldehyde’ when he died. But it had to be stored at the American School of Oriental Research until repatriation to Blighty could be arranged.

While at the school, Silberman was informed, students were wont to use his head as a ‘prop for grotesque practical jokes and a source of horrified reactions.’ (Similar stories surrounded the head of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who died in 1832, and bequeathed his body for public display at University College London.)

Another version tells it that Lady Hilda, who lived at the American School, kept her beloved husband’s head under the bed.

Eventually, in 1944 the head was shipped to London by the Palestine Department of Antiquities – labelled as an antiquity. Some of the process can be tracked in correspondence in the Royal College archive.

However, when the famous bonce was finally viewed at the Royal College, some who knew Petrie allegedly noted little resemblance in age or hair to the famously white-bearded Egyptologist: the beard in the jar is black.

Petrie’s head still languishes there today, viewable by appointment, with the Royal College staff perpetuating the mystery by remaining non-committal about whether this is the real head of Flinders Petrie, or – god forbid – that of someone racially inferior.

It is quite ironic that Petrie’s head, filled with hopes of eugenics research, may have gone awol just as Hitler’s disastrous genetic doctrine was collapsing.