Sep 042017
 

On this date in 1949 there were full scale riots outside Peekskill NY (Cortlandt Manor in Westchester County) protesting a concert given by Paul Robeson and others. They were, ostensibly anti-communist riots but with strong elements of racism and anti-Semitism. I want to highlight them today to point out that rioting in support of White supremacy, White nationalism, along with police brutality against African-Americans has a long history in the United States, and not only in the South.The catalyst for the rioting was an announced concert by singer Paul Robeson, who was well known for his strong pro-trade union stance, civil rights activism, and sympathies with communism and anti-colonialist sentiments. The concert, organized as a benefit for the Civil Rights Congress, was scheduled to take place on August 27 in Lakeland Acres, just north of Peekskill.

Robeson had given three earlier concerts in Peekskill without incident, but subsequently Robeson had been increasingly vocal against the Ku Klux Klan and other forces of White supremacy, both domestically and internationally. Robeson had made the transformation from someone who was primarily a singer into a political persona with vocal support for what were at the time popularly considered “communist” causes, including the decolonization of Africa, anti-Jim Crow legislation, and peace with the USSR. Robeson had also appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to oppose a bill that would require communists to register as foreign agents and, just months before the concerts in 1949, he had appeared at the Soviet-sponsored World Peace Conference in Paris. Referring to the growing tensions between the USA and the USSR, his exact words were:

We in America do not forget that it was the backs of White workers from Europe and on the backs of millions of Blacks that the wealth of America was built. And we are resolved to share it equally. We reject any hysterical raving that urges us to make war on anyone. Our will to fight for peace is strong…We shall support peace and friendship among all nations, with Soviet Russia and the People’s Republics.

What came over the wires to news agencies via the AP in the United States was as follows,

We colonial peoples have contributed to the building of the United States and are determined to share its wealth. We denounce the policy of the United States government which is similar to Hitler and Goebbels…. It is unthinkable that American Negros would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against the Soviet Union which in one generation has lifted our people to full human dignity.

Research by historians would later show that the AP had put a prepared dispatch on the wires as Robeson was starting his speech, not reporting what he actually said. The false reporting was not investigated by the US press for its veracity and there was nationwide condemnation of Robeson. In the early stages of the Cold War and its accompanying wide anti-communist sentiments in the West, this statement was seen by many as especially anti-American. The local paper, the Peekskill Evening Star, condemned the concert and encouraged people to make their position on communism felt, but did not directly espouse violence. There was a strong racial element to the riots, including burning crosses and lynching an effigy of Robeson both in Peekskill and in other areas of the United States.

The concert, organized as a benefit for the Civil Rights Congress, was scheduled to take place on August 27th in Lakeland Acres, just north of Peekskill. Before Robeson arrived, a mob of locals attacked concert-goers with baseball bats and rocks. The local police arrived hours later and did little to intervene. Thirteen people were seriously injured, Robeson was lynched in effigy and a cross was seen burning on an adjacent hillside. The concert was then postponed until September 4th. Following the concert, new requests for Klan memberships from the Peekskill area numbered 748.

Robeson’s longtime friend and Peekskill resident, Helen Rosen, who had agreed to collect Robeson at the train station, had heard on the radio that protesters were massing at the concert grounds. Robeson drove with Rosen and two others to the concert site and saw marauding groups of youngsters, a burning cross on a nearby hill and a jeering crowd throwing rocks and chanting “Dirty Commie” and “Dirty Kikes.” Robeson made more than one attempt to get out of the car and confront the mob but was restrained by his friends.

The media were flooded with reactions and charges. The Joint Veterans Council of Peekskill refused to admit any involvement, describing its activities as a “protest parade… held without disorder and… perfectly disbanded.” Peekskill police officials said the picnic grounds had been outside their jurisdiction.  A state police spokesman said there had never been a request for state troopers. The commander of Peekskill Post 274 of the American Legion stated: “Our objective was to prevent the Paul Robeson concert and I think our objective was reached.”

Following a meeting of local citizens, union members, and Robeson supporters who formed “The Westchester Committee for Law and Order” it was unanimously determined that Robeson should be invited back to perform in Peekskill. Representatives from various left-wing unions – the Fur and Leather Workers, the Longshoremen and the United Electrical Workers – all agreed to converge and serve as a wall of defense around the concert grounds. Ten union men slept on the property of the Rosens, effectively guarding it. A call was then put out by the “Emergency Committee to Protest the Peekskill Riot.” On Tuesday, August 30, an overflow crowd of 3,000 people assembled peacefully and without incident at the Golden Gate Ballroom in Harlem to hear Robeson speak:

I will be loyal to America of true traditions; to the America of the abolitionists, of Harriet Tubman, of Thaddeus Stevens, of those who fought for my people’s freedom, not of those who tried to enslave them. And I will have no loyalty to the Forrestals, to the Harrimans, to the WallStreeters… the surest way to get police protection is to have it very clear that we’ll protect ourselves, and good!… I’ll be back with my friends in Peekskill…

The re-scheduled (September 4, 1949) concert itself was free from violence, though marred by the presence of a police helicopter overhead and the flushing out of at least one sniper’s nest. The concert was located on the grounds of the old Hollow Brook Golf Course in Cortlandt Manor, near the site of the original concert. 20,000 people showed up. Security was organized by the Communist Party and Communist dominated labor unions. The men were directed by the Communist Party and some unions to form a line around the outer edge of the concert area and were sitting with Robeson on the stage. They were there to fight any protestors who objected to Robeson’s presence. They effectively kept the local police from the concert area. The musicians performed without incident.

Setlist (incomplete)

Sylvia Kahn: “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Piano performances by Leonid Hambro and Ray Lev[19] including works by Chopin and Bach, Prokofiev and Ravel

Singing by soprano Hope Foye

Pete Seeger: “T For Texas”, “If I Had a Hammer”,[18] and another song[23]

Paul Robeson: “Go Down Moses”, the English ballad “No John No”, and “Farewell, My Son, I’m Dying” («Прощай, мой сын, умираю…», Proshchay, moy syn, umirayu…), the final aria from Boris Godunov, and other songs including “America the Beautiful” and traditional spirituals, ending with “Ol’ Man River.” Robeson’s accompaniment was provided by Larry Brown.

 

The aftermath of the concert was far from peaceful, however. After some violence to south-going buses near the intersection of Locust Avenue and Hillside Avenue, concertgoers were diverted to head northward to Oregon Corners and forced to run a gauntlet, miles long, of veterans and their families, who threw rocks through windshields of the cars and buses. Much of the violence was also caused by anti-Communist members of local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion chapters. An angry mob of rioters chanted “go on back to Russia, you niggers” and “white niggers”, some of the concertgoers and union members, along with writer Howard Fast and others assembled a non-violent line of resistance, locked arms, and sang the song “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Some people were reportedly dragged from their vehicles and beaten. Over 140 people were injured and numerous vehicles were severely damaged as police stood by.

One car carried Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, Seeger’s wife Toshi, and his infant children. Guthrie pinned a shirt to the inside of the window to stop it shattering. “Wouldn’t you know it, Woody pinned up a red shirt,” Hays recalled. Seeger used some of the thrown rocks to build the chimney of his cabin in the Town of Fishkill, New York, to stand as a reminder of that incident.

The first African-American combat pilot and decorated World War I veteran, Eugene Bullard, was knocked to the ground and beaten by the mob, which included White members of state and local law enforcement. The beating was captured on film and can be seen in the 1970s documentary The Tallest Tree in Our Forest and the Oscar-winning, Sidney Poitier-narrated documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist. Despite recorded evidence of the beating, no one was ever prosecuted for the assault. Graphic photos of Eugene Bullard being beaten by two policemen, a state trooper and concert-goer were later published in Susan Robeson’s pictorial biography of her grandfather, The Whole World in His Hands: a Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson.

Following the riots, more than 300 people went to Albany to voice their indignation to Governor Thomas Dewey, who refused to meet with them, blaming communists for provoking the violence. Twenty-seven plaintiffs filed a civil suit against Westchester County and two veterans’ groups. The charges were dismissed three years later.

Following the riots, House Representative John E. Rankin (D-Mississippi) condemned Robeson on the house floor. When Republican New York Congressman Jacob Javits spoke to the United States House of Representatives, deploring the Peekskill riots as a violation of constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and free assembly, Rankin replied angrily. “It was not surprising to hear the gentlemen from New York defend the Communist enclave,” Rankin bellowed, saying that he wanted it known that the American people are not in sympathy “with that Nigger Communist and that bunch of Reds who went up there.” On a point of order, American Labor Party House Representative Vito Marcantonio protested to speaker Rayburn that “the gentlemen from Mississippi used the word ‘nigger.’ I ask that the word be taken down and stricken from the RECORD inasmuch as there are two members in this house of Negro race.” Rayburn claimed that Rankin had not said “nigger” but “Negro” but Rankin yelled over him saying “I said Niggra! Just as I have said since I have been able to talk and shall continue to say.” Speaker Rayburn then defended Rankin, ruling that “the gentlemen from Mississippi is not subject to a point of order… referred to the Negro race and they should not be afraid of that designation.” Then Representative Edward E. Cox (D-Georgia) denounced Robeson on the House floor as a “Communist agent provocateur.”

Within a few days, hundreds of editorials and letters appeared in newspapers across the nation and abroad, by prominent individuals, organizations, trade unions, churches and others. They condemned not only the attacks but also the failure of Governor Dewey and the State Police to protect the lives and property of citizens, and called for a full investigation of the violence and prosecution of the perpetrators. Despite condemnation from progressives and civil rights activists, the mainstream press and local officials overwhelmingly blamed Robeson and his fans for “provoking” the violence. Following the Peekskill riots, other cities became fearful of similar incidents, and over 80 scheduled concert dates of Robeson’s were canceled.

On September 12, 1949, in response to Robeson’s controversial status in the press and leftist affiliations, the National Maritime Union convention considered a motion that Robeson’s name be removed from the union’s honorary membership list; the motion was withdrawn for lack of support among members. Later that month, the All-China Art and Literature Workers’ Association and All-China Association of Musicians of Liberated China protested the Peekskill attack on Robeson. On October 2, 1949, Robeson spoke at a luncheon for the National Labor Conference for Peace, Ashland Auditorium, Chicago, and referenced the riots.

In recent years, Westchester County has gone to great lengths to make amends to the survivors of the riots by holding a commemorative ceremony, at which an apology was made for their treatment. In September 1999, county officials held a “Remembrance and Reconciliation Ceremony, 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1949 Peekskill riots.” It included speakers Paul Robeson, Jr., Peter Seeger and several local elected officials.

When I celebrated Robeson’s birthday here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/paul-r/  I mentioned the heirloom Paul Robeson tomato which was bred in the Soviet Union in honor of his visit. If you can get hold of some, a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich would be in order.  Also in his honor, several cake recipes appeared in cookbooks in the Soviet Union – all full of chocolate and very rich layered cakes. Here’s a couple of sites that have rather incomplete recipes (in Russian and in bad translation):

https://www.edimdoma.ru/retsepty/8383-tort-pol-robson

https://bashny.net/t/en/350946

This gallery may inspire you.

The cakes all have one thing in common: they are made of black and white layers (very subtle).  Some are covered in chocolate icing, some with a mix of cream and chocolate.

Jul 142016
 

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Today is Bastille Day which I covered in this post, http://www.bookofdaystales.com/bastille-day/ Not coincidentally, the date is also the anniversary of the start of the Priestley Riots (also known as the Birmingham Riots of 1791) which took place from 14 July to 17 July 1791 in Birmingham in England. The rioters’ main targets were religious Dissenters, most notably the politically and theologically controversial Joseph Priestley, known now primarily as an Enlightenment-age chemist. Both local and national issues stirred the passions of the rioters, from disagreements over public library book purchases, to controversies over Dissenters’ attempts to gain full civil rights and their support of the French Revolution.

The riots started with an attack on Birmingham’s Royal Hotel – the site of a banquet organized in sympathy with the French Revolution. Then, beginning with Priestley’s church and home, the rioters attacked or burned four Dissenting chapels, twenty-seven houses, and several businesses. The rioters burned not only the homes and chapels of Dissenters, but also the homes of people they associated with Dissenters, such as members of the scientific Lunar Society.

Over the course of the 18th century, Birmingham became notorious for its riots. In 1714 and 1715, the townspeople, as part of a “Church-and-King” mob, attacked Dissenters (Protestants who did not adhere to the Church of England or follow its practices) in the Sacheverell riots during the London trial of Henry Sacheverell, and in 1751 and 1759 Quakers and Methodists were assaulted. During the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780, large crowds assembled in Birmingham. In 1766, 1782, 1795, and 1800 mobs protested high food prices. One contemporary described Birmingham rioters as the “bunting, beggarly, brass-making, brazen-faced, brazen-hearted, blackguard, bustling, booby Birmingham mob”.

Up until the late 1780s, religious divisions did not appear to affect Birmingham’s elite. Dissenters and Anglicans lived side by side harmoniously: they were on the same town promotional committees; they pursued joint scientific interests in the Lunar Society; and they worked together in local government, united against what they perceived as unruly mobs.  After the riots, however, Joseph Priestley argued in his An Appeal to the Public on the Subject of the Birmingham Riots (1791) that this cooperation had not really been as amicable as generally believed. Priestley revealed that disputes over the local library, Sunday Schools, and church attendance had divided Dissenters from Anglicans. In his “Narrative of the Riots in Birmingham” (1816), stationer and Birmingham historian William Hutton agreed, arguing that five events stoked the fires of religious friction: disagreements over inclusion of Priestley’s books in the local public library; concerns over Dissenters’ attempts to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts; religious controversy (particularly involving Priestley); an “inflammatory hand-bill”; and a dinner celebrating the outbreak of the French Revolution.

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Once Birmingham Dissenters started to agitate for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which restricted Dissenters’ civil rights (preventing them, for example, from attending the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge, or from holding public office), the semblance of unity among the town’s elite disappeared. Unitarians such as Priestley were at the forefront of the repeal campaign, and orthodox Anglicans grew nervous and angry. After 1787, the emergence of Dissenting groups formed for the sole purpose of overturning these laws began to divide the community. The repeal efforts failed in 1787, 1789, and 1790. Priestley’s support of the repeal and his controversial religious views, which were widely published, inflamed the general public. In February 1790, a group of activists came together not only to oppose the interests of the Dissenters but also to counteract what they saw as the undesirable importation of French Revolutionary ideals. Dissenters by and large supported the French Revolution and its efforts to question the role that monarchy should play in government. One month before the riots, Priestley attempted to found a reform society, the Warwickshire Constitutional Society, which would have supported universal suffrage and short Parliaments. Although this effort failed, the efforts to establish such a society increased tensions in Birmingham.

In addition to these religious and political differences, both the lower-class rioters and their upper-class Anglican leaders had economic complaints against the middle-class Dissenters. They envied the ever-increasing prosperity of these industrialists as well as the power that came with that economic success. Priestley himself had written a pamphlet, An Account of a Society for Encouraging the Industrious Poor (1787), on how best to extract the most work for the smallest amount of money from the poor. Its emphasis on debt collection did not endear him to the poverty-stricken.

The British public debate over the French Revolution, or the Revolution Controversy, lasted from 1789 through 1795. Initially many on both sides of the Channel thought the French would follow the pattern of the English Glorious Revolution of a century before, and the Revolution was viewed positively by a large portion of the British public. Most Britons celebrated the storming of the Bastille in 1789, believing that France’s absolute monarchy should be replaced by a more democratic form of government. In these early days, supporters of the Revolution also believed that Britain’s own system would be reformed as well: voting rights would be broadened and redistribution of Parliamentary constituency boundaries would eliminate electoral abuses.

After the publication of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), in which he surprisingly broke ranks with his liberal Whig colleagues to support the French aristocracy, a pamphlet war discussing the Revolution began in earnest. Because Burke had supported the North American colonists in their rebellion against England, his views sent a shockwave through the country. While Burke supported aristocracy, monarchy, and the Established Church, liberals such as Charles James Fox supported the Revolution, and a program of individual liberties, civic virtue and religious toleration, while radicals such as Priestley, William Godwin, Thomas Paine, and Mary Wollstonecraft, argued for a further program of republicanism, agrarian socialism, and abolition of the “landed interest.”

On 11 July 1791, a Birmingham newspaper announced that on 14 July, the second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, there would be a dinner at the local Royal Hotel to commemorate the outbreak of the French Revolution; the invitation encouraged “any Friend to Freedom” to attend:

A number of gentlemen intend dining together on the 14th instant, to commemorate the auspicious day which witnessed the emancipation of twenty-six millions of people from the yoke of despotism, and restored the blessings of equal government to a truly great and enlightened nation; with whom it is our interest, as a commercial people, and our duty, as friends to the general rights of mankind, to promote a free intercourse, as subservient to a permanent friendship.

Any Friend to Freedom, disposed to join the intended temperate festivity, is desired to leave his name at the bar of the Hotel, where tickets may be had at Five Shillings each, including a bottle of wine; but no person will be admitted without one.

Dinner will be on table at three o’clock precisely.

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Alongside this notice was a threat: “an authentic list” of the participants would be published after the dinner. On the same day, “an ultra-revolutionary” handbill, written by James Hobson (although his authorship was not known at the time), entered circulation. Town officials offered 100 guineas for information regarding the publication of the handbill and its author, to no avail. The Dissenters found themselves forced to plead ignorance and decry the “radical” ideas promoted by the handbill. It was becoming clear by 12 July that there would be trouble at the dinner. On the morning of 14 July graffiti such as “destruction to the Presbyterians” and “Church and King for ever” were scrawled across the town. At this point, Priestley’s friends, fearing for his safety, dissuaded him from attending the dinner.

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About 90 resolute sympathizers of the French Revolution came to celebrate on the 14th. The banquet was led by James Keir, an Anglican industrialist who was a member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. When the guests arrived at the hotel at 2 or 3 p.m., they were greeted by 60 or 70 protesters who temporarily dispersed while yelling, rather bizarrely and confusingly, “no popery.” By the time the celebrants ended their dinner, around 7 or 8 p.m., a crowd of hundreds had gathered. The rioters, who “were recruited predominantly from the industrial artisans and labourers of Birmingham”, threw stones at the departing guests and sacked the hotel. The crowd then moved on to the Quaker meeting-house, until someone yelled that the Quakers “never trouble themselves with anything, neither on one side nor the other” and convinced them instead to attack the New Meeting chapel, where Priestley presided as minister. The New Meeting chapel was burned to the ground, quickly followed by the Old Meeting, another Dissenting chapel.

The rioters proceeded to Priestley’s home, Fairhill at Sparkbrook. Priestley barely had time to evacuate and he and his wife fled from Dissenting friend to friend during the riots. Writing shortly after the event, Priestley described the first part of the attack, which he witnessed from a distance:

It being remarkably calm, and clear moon-light, we could see to a considerable distance, and being upon a rising ground, we distinctly heard all that passed at the house, every shout of the mob, and almost every stroke of the instruments they had provided for breaking the doors and the furniture. For they could not get any fire, though one of them was heard to offer two guineas for a lighted candle; my son, whom we left behind us, having taken the precaution to put out all the fires in the house, and others of my friends got all the neighbours to do the same. I afterwards heard that much pains was taken, but without effect, to get fire from my large electrical machine, which stood in the library.

His son, William, stayed behind with others to protect the family home, but they were overcome and the property was eventually looted and razed to the ground. Priestley’s valuable library, scientific laboratory, and manuscripts were largely lost in the flames.

The Earl of Aylesford attempted to stem the mounting violence on the night of the 14th, but despite having the help of other magistrates, he was unable to control the crowd. On the 15th, the mob liberated prisoners from the local gaol. Thomas Woodbridge, the Keeper of the Prison, deputized several hundred people to help him quell the mob, but many of these joined in with the rioters themselves. The crowd destroyed John Ryland’s home, Baskerville House, and drank the supplies of liquor which they found in the cellar. When the newly appointed constables arrived on the scene, the mob attacked and disarmed them. One man was killed. The local magistrates and law enforcement, such as it was, did nothing further to restrain the mob and did not read the Riot Act until the military arrived on 17 July. Other rioters burned down banker John Taylor’s home at Bordesley Park.

Contemporary accounts record that the mob’s last sustained assault was around 8 p.m. on the 17th. About 30 “hard core” rioters attacked the home of William Withering, an Anglican who attended the Lunar Society with Priestley and Keir. But Withering, aided by a group of hired men, managed to fend them off. When the military finally arrived to restore order on the 17th and 18th, most of the rioters had disbanded, although there were rumours that mobs were destroying property in Alcester and Bromsgrove.

All in all, four Dissenting churches had been severely damaged or burned down and twenty-seven homes had been attacked, many looted and burned. Having begun by attacking those who attended the Bastille celebration on the 14th, the “Church-and-King” mob had finished up by extending their targets to include Dissenters of all kinds as well as members of the Lunar Society.

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Priestley and other Dissenters blamed the government for the riots, believing that William Pitt and his supporters had instigated them. However, it seems from the evidence that the riots were actually organized by local Birmingham officials. Some of the rioters acted in a co-ordinated fashion and seemed to be led by local officials during the attacks, prompting accusations of premeditation. Some Dissenters discovered that their homes were to be attacked several days before the rioters arrived, leading them to believe that there was a prepared list of victims. The “disciplined nucleus of rioters”, which numbered only thirty or so, directed the mob and stayed sober throughout the three to four days of rioting. Unlike the hundreds of others who joined in, they could not be bribed with alcohol to stop their destructions.

Witnesses agreed “that the magistrates promised the rioters protection so long as they restricted their attacks to the meeting-houses and left persons and property alone”. The magistrates also refused to arrest any of the rioters and released those that had been arrested. Instructed by the national government to prosecute the riot’s instigators, these local officials dragged their heels. When finally forced to try the ringleaders, they intimidated witnesses and made a mockery of the trial proceedings. Only seventeen of the fifty rioters who had been charged were ever brought to trial; four were convicted, of whom one was pardoned, two were hanged, and the fourth was transported to Botany Bay. But Priestley and others believed that these men were found guilty not because they were rioters but because “they were infamous characters in other respects”.

Although he had been forced to send troops to Birmingham to quell the disturbances, King George III commented, “I cannot but feel better pleased that Priestley is the sufferer for the doctrines he and his party have instilled, and that the people see them in their true light.” The national government forced the local residents to pay restitution to those whose property had been damaged: the total eventually amounted to £23,000. However, the process took many years, and most residents received much less than the value of their property.

Initially Priestley wanted to return and deliver a sermon on the Bible verse “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” but he was dissuaded by friends convinced that it was too dangerous. Instead, he wrote in his Appeal:

I was born an Englishman as well [as] any of you. Though labouring under civil disabilities, as a Dissenter, I have long contributed my share to the support of government, and supposed I had the protection of its constitution and laws for my inheritance. But I have found myself greatly deceived; and so may any of you, if, like me, you should, with or without cause, be so unfortunate as to incur popular odium. For then, as you have seen in my case, without any form of trial whatever, without any intimation of your crime, or of your danger, your houses and all your property may be destroyed, and you may not have the good fortune to escape with life, as I have done….What are the old French Lettres de Cachet, or the horrors of the late demolished Bastile, compared to this?

Times don’t change much.

In the late 18th century poor harvests in England resulted in high food prices and the resultant opening of soup kitchens to provide cheap, nourishing food for the poor. In 1793 the Birmingham inventor and industrialist, Matthew Boulton, noted a recipe in one of his notebooks for a soup intended to be sold for a penny a quart. This was a hearty broth made up of stewed beef and vegetables served with bread. It is now known as Birmingham soup and seems appropriate for today. Modern chefs have recreated the dish and you can easily do the same. Here’s the original notebook recipe which you can click to enlarge.

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It’s basically a hearty beef broth (containing lots of beef) combined with dried peas, oatmeal, and barley, plus some onions, salt and pepper. “Beeves cheeks” can be modernized as “beef cheeks,” that is, cheap stewing beef, such as chuck.  Boulton suggests boiling the meat one day, then adding the other ingredients the next day. This is generally a good plan for soups and stews. The whole is finished off with bread which the recipe suggests is best diced and fried in lard (i.e. croutons).

 

 

Feb 102014
 

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The St Scholastica Day riot of 10 February 1355, is one of the most notorious events in the history of Oxford. The seed of the riot was an altercation in the Swindlestock Tavern (now the site of the Santander Bank on Carfax, on the corner of St Aldate’s and Queen Street) between two students of the university, Walter Spryngeheuse and Roger de Chesterfield, and the landlord, John Croidon. They complained about the quality of the beer, which led to an exchange of rude words that ended with the students throwing their drinks in the landlord’s face and assaulting him. Retaliation for this incident led to armed clashes between locals and students.

The mayor of Oxford, John de Bereford, asked the chancellor of Oxford University, Humphrey de Cherlton, to arrest the two students, but he refused. Instead, 200 students supported Spryngeheuse and Chesterfield, allegedly assaulted the mayor and others. As the situation escalated, locals from the surrounding countryside poured in, crying: “Havoc! Havoc! Smyt fast, give gode knocks!”

A riot broke out and lasted two days, which left 63 scholars and perhaps 30 locals dead. The scholars were eventually defeated. The dispute was settled in favor of the university – big surprise – by the courts, and a special charter was created. Annually thereafter, on 10 February the saint’s day of St Scholastica, the mayor and councilors had to march bareheaded through the streets and pay to the university a fine of one penny for every scholar killed, a total of 5s 3d. The penance ended 470 years later, in 1825 when the mayor refused to take part. In an act of conciliation on 10 February 1955, the Mayor was given an honorary degree and the Vice-Chancellor was made an Honorary Freeman, at a commemoration of the events of 1355.

I wish I could say that town and gown tensions are over in Oxford.  In my day they were alive and well; I had to step lively more than once.  I imagine they still are.  I was rather stuck in the middle because I was an undergraduate at Pembroke College, but also had a great many maternal relatives who lived in the town, including my dear cousin Peter (R.I.P) who was the boatman and rowing coach at Pembroke (and for the dark blues for a time).   I rowed bow oar for one of our eights. Rather like being a galley slave.

As a small aside, Carfax where the riot began is Middle English for “four corners” — the center of Oxford where Queen street, St Aldates, St Giles, and High street meet.

Here’s  a recipe for Oxford sausages.  Should be served as part of a full English breakfast – fried egg, sausages, bacon, mushrooms, fried tomatoes and either toast or fried bread.  Preferably the latter. You must have Oxford marmalade too. Don’t knock English cooking.  Otherwise I will haunt you.

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Oxford Sausages

Ingredients

500g/1lb 2oz minced pork
500g/1lb 2oz minced lamb
350g/12oz shredded suet
225g/8oz fresh breadcrumbs
2 lemons, zest only
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1 tbsp chopped fresh sage leaves
1 free-range egg, beaten
salt and freshly ground black pepper
plain flour, for dusting
50g/2oz goose fat, butter or oil, for frying

Instructions:

Place the minced pork and lamb, suet, breadcrumbs, lemon zest, nutmeg and herbs into a large bowl and mix well to combine. Add the egg and mix to bind.

Dust the work surface and your hands lightly with flour, then pinch off a small ball of the sausage mixture and roll into a sausage shape. Repeat with the remaining sausage mixture.

Heat a frying pan until smoking, then add the goose fat. Add the sausages to the pan, in small batches, and fry over a medium-low heat for 6-8 minutes, turning the sausages over every so often, until golden-brown and cooked through.