History as Heritage: UK’s War Memorial Trust celebrates its 20th birthday

As a historian, I have long been fascinated by memorials of all kinds, including the many war memorials that can be found in numerous towns and villages and other locations across the United Kingdom. On many occasions, when visiting some remote part of the country, I have often found myself being drawn to a local war memorial like a bear to honey.

I was therefore very pleased to see that the UK’s ‘War Memorials Trust’ (WMT) has just celebrated its 20th anniversary, and has issued a special edition of its well-written quarterly Bulletin to help explain some of the excellent work that the Trust has carried out since its creation.

War Memorial

The charity was registered on 7th May, 1997. Before that year, although there had been valuable work by both the much older Imperial War Museum and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to help maintain war graves and military cemeteries, there was no dedicated organisation in the country that focused specifically on supporting (to use the WMT’s words) the ‘local custodians’ of the estimated 100,000 war memorials of all shapes and sizes in the UK.

Sadly, while some towns and villages in Britain have lovingly maintained their war memorials in tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice, recent decades have witnessed other memorials falling victim to neglect and disrepair, with a fair number even being destroyed. In 2003, for example, the Trust helped save a memorial that had been broken up and dumped in a builder’s skip. The WMT stored the broken pieces and then found a company who agreed to fund repairs.

According to the WMT’s Bulletin, the Trust today is now managing £4 million of UK and Scottish government centenary funding to help support the repair and conservation of Britain’s war memorial heritage, in addition to helping fund individuals and communities across the country.

Over the first 20 years of its existence, the WMT mainly relied on its funding coming from a combination of charitable trusts, foundations, and generous individuals (it has about 2,700 individual members today). There were also various fundraising events over the years, sometimes with talks by leading military and other historians. Naturally, it was often very challenging to get sufficient money to carry out all the work the WMT wished to do, but in 2002 the Trust received a significant boost to its fundraising when an article about the organisation and its determination to preserve war memorials appeared in a leading British daily newspaper, written by the late journalist David Graves. It led to over £10,000 being donated to the Trust by individuals.

Another initiative taken by the WMT, and welcomed by historians and other conservation experts, was to develop a youth-focused ‘Learning Programme’ which was aimed at schools, colleges and youth groups, and continues to thrive today. In 2011, sufficient funding had been secured to also appoint a Learning Officer and, since then, the Learning Programme has arguably become a core part of the WMT’s important work.

In addition, the WMT’s volunteer Conservation Officers have offered a wide range of free advice and guidance to anyone who has had concerns about the condition of memorials, or are in search of guidance on best conservation practice. As well as providing such invaluable advice to members of the public, in 2012 the WMT also set up a War Memorials Officers project. This has sought to identify relevant individuals to contact in each local authority across Britain, which in turn has also helped raise awareness of conservation issues in local communities.

War Memorials Trust

Regrettably, one problem that has emerged in recent years, and has created additional pressure on the WMT’s limited resources, is theft: according to the WMT’s special Bulletin, the Trust has had to deal with a high number of reported thefts at war memorials across the UK, with metal elements such as plaques being stolen from a variety of memorials. In response, the WMT has started working with the SmartWater Foundation, which has provided free crime prevention fluid to war memorial custodians across the country. The problem was also raised at Parliamentary level, and the WMT helped provide advice to the All Parliamentary Group on Combating Metal Theft. Such work appears to be showing success, as there has been a reported decline in metal theft in 2016-17.

As the WMT has pointed out, and I am sure many historians will agree, war memorials in many ways are located in ‘shared spaces of remembrance’, whether it be at a cenotaph on a village green, a plaque inside a Church or Post Office, or at a cross or statue in the middle of a town, and such sites remain very much a part of Britain’s national historical culture.


The recent centenary of the First World War, which saw a wide range of events and exhibitions, also provided the WMT with an opportunity to produce further learning materials covering the key battles and other events of the war, including the location of the memorials that were subsequently constructed in tribute to the many thousands of soldiers who fought in the conflict. Building on this, and in recognition of the tremendous interest shown by the public in such aspects of our shared history, the WMT’s centenary Bulletin reveals that the Trust has now extended its educational provision to include wider historical events, as well as local history and present-day conservation issues.

I have no doubt that the WMT will continue to flourish in its conservation and educational work in future years, and will be equally as active when it comes to the centenary of the Second World War.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: the War Memorials Trust and WikiMedia Commons)

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Another Kind of War: IRA Terror incidents in the Thames Valley area in 1939

Terrorism has been very much in our minds in recent months, for obvious reasons, and historians have increasingly turned their attention to the nature of terror campaigns and how such activities were conducted in the past. What lessons can we learn from past history?

The National Archives

London and its suburbs has often found itself to be a target for terrorist groups, and one such campaign – which perhaps deserves more attention by scholars – came in 1939-40, and certainly had an impact (mainly psychological) in the Thames Valley area, including in the Twickenham and Kingston districts. Careful scrutiny of Home Office and other files in the National Archives at Kew, together with analysis of local newspapers, has enabled me to build up a quick picture of this, although further research is needed.

In February, 1939, on the eve of a major sporting event, the Richmond and Twickenham Times reported that a ‘special police guard’ had been placed on the famous Rugby ground at Twickenham the night before. This precaution was implemented, the paper revealed, in view of the international match that was to take place there the very next day and because of ‘the damage being done in London by the IRA’.

At some point in the late 1930s, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had decided to plan and conduct a campaign of propaganda and ‘direct action’ on the British mainland, a strategy which became known as the ‘S-Plan’ or Sabotage Campaign. The group’s Army Council, in a special communique to Lord Halifax (the Foreign Secretary), thus declared ‘war’ on Britain in January, 1939, and – over the course of the next year – conducted a campaign of sabotage and numerous bomb attacks against the infrastructure of the country, mainly targeting power supplies and communication networks.

Man behind the bombs

The campaign commenced on 16th January, 1939, when 5 bombs targeted power cables and power stations. Further numerous attempts to disrupt electricity supplies followed over the next few months. In February, 1939, the transport network was also targeted when two timed suitcase bombs exploded on the London Underground, after being deposited in left-luggage rooms at Leicester Square and Tottenham Court Road tube stations. Similarly, in March, 1939, two bombs exploded on Hammersmith Bridge, in a clear attempt to disrupt commuter traffic and spread fear and alarm. This campaign continued, with plenty of further incidents, right into the month of March, 1940, and London was not the only target. The campaign was widened to include other major cities.

IRA Coventry attack

Possibly the most infamous bombing occurred in Coventry city centre in August, 1939 (see photo), when a bomb killed 5 people and injured 70 others. Although the IRA claimed the loss of life at Coventry was unintentional and was an ‘accident’, in many ways this incident seriously undermined support for the campaign among those who were sympathetic to the IRA’s cause.

In the Thames Valley area, one can certainly detect signs of psychological fear and security concerns over the IRA’s campaign during the course of 1939.  Just two months after the Twickenham Rugby ground scare noted earlier, and in Twickenham again, the threat of the terror campaign nearly became horribly real. At about 11.20pm one evening, Mr. A.W. Esson, of Kingston, who was described as the manager of the Temperance Billiard Hall in Richmond Road, was closing the premises when he found lying in the entrance ‘a strange contrivance’.

Speaking later to the Richmond and Twickenham Times about the device, Esson said: ‘It was a box with a bolt in it, and a piece of wire leading inside. I heard it ticking, and having moved it, sent for the policeman on point duty at the junction. He thought it might be a joke, but when I reminded him that it was ticking, he took it across the road and put it in a horse trough’. A few minutes later, some more police arrived, and when they took it out of the water it was (apparently) still ticking. The newspaper noted that there was no previous evidence of any attacks on the billiard hall, and speculated: ‘It is possible that it was intended for somewhere else, but that the raiders could not carry out their plan’.

The psychological impact and propaganda value of the IRA’s campaign could also be seen elsewhere in the area. Thus, for example, in the same month – April, 1939 – the local Surrey Comet reported that ‘IRA Suspects’ had been seen at an electricity works in Surbiton. The newspaper revealed that ‘special precautions’ were being taken and guards placed on the electricity sub-station of the London and Home Counties Joint Electricity Authority at Hollyfield Road, Surbiton, following reports ‘that Irishmen had been endeavoring to obtain access to the premises’, and that two Irishmen had ‘been found walking around the building’.

The newspaper noted that the sub-station was one of the ‘most vital units’ for the electrical supply of a large area around Surbiton, as it was at this station that a new 33,000-volt bulk supply cable – which carried the main supply from Wimbledon via Kingston – came in to Surbiton. From there, light and power were supplied to Surbiton, Hook, and Chessington, and – when necessary – to other local districts.

The two men ‘with Irish accents’ had been challenged as they walked around the building, and they could give no satisfactory explanation for their presence, and were ordered off the premises. Local police were also instructed to tighten security at other key infrastructure points in the area, while the Armed Forces were also told to increase their vigilance at barracks and defence buildings, including at the Kingston barracks.

Daily Sketch 1939

More generally, the Home Office did its best to try to discourage national newspaper coverage of the IRA’s campaign, arguing that too much ‘news’ on it would play into the hands of the IRA, and editors tended to abide by this.

However, the two IRA bombs on the Hammersmith Bridge, and an attempt to bomb another major Bridge across the Thames, together with some reported scares and incidents at railway depots, still caused some notable comment in local newspapers in south-west London. Many people in the suburbs, of course, were now commuting into work in central London, and the financial and security implications of a continued campaign to disrupt the infrastructure were only too clear to the authorities. The pressure to take firm action against the perpetrators of the bombing campaign increased considerably after the outbreak of war against Germany in September, 1939. There is evidence, for example, that MI5 (the domestic Security Service) feared that the Germans would try and exploit the IRA’s campaign and offer financial and other support.

In today’s digital and hi-tech world, we are even more reliant on the efficient operation of our ‘infrastructure’, especially the continuous supply of power, and I am sure that this is only too apparent to those involved in devising contemporary anti-terror strategies.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)

Posted in Archives, British history, Irish History, Local History, Media history, Public History, Research, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Anglo-German Relationship and Heligoland

I attended a very interesting seminar on 28th June, 2017, at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), London, organised to mark the publication of a new and excellent book by Jan Ruger entitled BritainGermanyand the Struggle for the North Sea (OUP, 2016), which I recently reviewed for the IHR.

The discussion was led by a group of highly eminent historians, including David Blackbourn, Celia Applegate and Frank Trentmann, with a response by Jan Ruger himself, and chaired by Lucy Riall. Rather than being, as advertised, a reflection upon Anglo-German relations more widely, the event was focused instead on Jan Ruger’s book on Heligoland. While I regretted not having listened to this wider discussion, it is probably fair to say that it could not have been fitted sensibly into the time available. And, in any case, the discussion of Ruger’s book was itself highly valuable, focused, and revealing of the dynamics of the British-German relationship.


Heligoland, for clarity, was an island (or, more precisely, two islands) acquired by Britain in 1807 from Denmark, when that state joined the French side during the Napoleonic Wars. The island (which is sometimes also known as Helgoland) sits at the mouth of major rivers leading into Germany – particularly the Elbe and Weser – and thus has significant value strategically and commercially.

Britain retained control until 1890, when it was agreed that the island should be given to Imperial Germany in return for British acquisition of Zanzibar on the east African coast. Heligoland remained in German hands until the end of the Second World War, when it was occupied by the British. It was returned once more to (West) Germany in the 1950s as part of the process of alliance-building between Britain and Germany.

Heligoland book cover

Ruger’s book looks at the interaction of administering powers with the islanders. He discusses the efforts of these powers to integrate the islanders into their own systems, and the latters’ position on this process (often one of recalcitrance or opportunist lobbying). In particular, his book casts light on the process of nation-building in Germany, and the important position of Heligoland within German nationalism. He also, however, provides a wealth of detail on the Anglo-German relationship in terms of diplomacy, commerce and culture. There is fascinating discussion of Heligoland’s role within German culture, as well as its function within tourism.

Not least, Ruger provides an account of Heligoland’s role in warfare: its creation as an island fortress by Imperial and then Nazi Germany, its consequent catastrophic destruction in 1946 in probably the greatest non-nuclear explosions of all time, and its re-emergence in the post-war world as a symbol of peace and reconciliation.

David Blackbourn, based at Vanderbilt University, and one of the foremost and most well-known historians of Germany, commended Ruger’s book for its subtle intelligence and memorable content. He pointed out that the book made a significant contribution to studies of nation-building, the culture of consumption, while it also expertly conducted a ‘microhistory’ that combined events on the island with wider Anglo-German affairs. Prof. Blackbourn provided a succinct overview of the microhistorical approach and its engagement with traditionally structuralist approaches after the 1960s. He also noted that microhistory’s power had at first been underestimated and labelled ‘local history’.

There was also in Ruger’s book an illustration of the power of contingency in history, particularly in the lead up to the First World War. Heligoland provided an insight into the way – while European countries were scrambling to contruct national identities – the people of the island remained an ‘inbetween’ group. On the other hand, with respect to sovereignty and law in particular, he noted how Heligoland’s assimilation into the German Empire after 1890 was quicker that that of, for example, Hamburg.

Prof. Blackbourn suggested comparing the experience of Heligoland to that of other islands administered by the British – including the Ionian islands and the Falklands – and negotiations on transferring sovereign control to other states. He also asked whether there had ever been consideration of rule by ‘condominium’, such as had been the case regarding Prussian rule of Krakow in the early 19th century, or between Germany, the British and the U.S. in Samoa in 1889. He noted the importance of islands in British imperial history and pointed to their special significance in a maritime empire.

Heligoland map

Celia Applegate, also of Vanderbilt University, discussed the issues of insularity and accessibility of islands. She noted that Jan Ruger made an important contribution to the way we write about such topics. There was, she noted, a continued interest among historians in high culture – which she explained could be presented as art culture, and that Ruger’s book followed in this tradition. By using the example of the composer Bruckner, she demonstrated how artistic discourse could often be highly complex, but also how its significance at the time could be lost today (Bruckner’s Heligoland was part of a stridently German nationalist artistic bent that today is dismissed or discarded).

Prof. Applegate pointed out that in Ruger’s account the islanders themselves, as agents of history, come and go. Sometimes they were irritants, sometimes active, sometimes acquiescent. The question was raised whether the Heligolanders were ever a people in their own right. Did they make their own culture? It would be interesting, she reflected, to find out more about the indigenous culture on the islands.

Frank Trentmann, of Birkbeck College, London, pointed out the strengths of the book and spoke about the issue of contingency in history, particularly respecting the First World War. An interesting feature of the book, Prof. Trentmann argued, was how it demonstrated the parochial way in which histories of the British Empire had been written hitherto: the European dimensions of the British Empire and the way the British Empire’s history was impacted on by European states and cultures was well conveyed by the book. Moreover, there were, Prof Trentmann pointed out, many aspects of Jan Ruger’s book which pertained to, or have direct relevance to, ‘Brexit’: were these in the author’s mind as he was writing it, and would he make any amendments now in the light of the Brexit results? To what extent, meanwhile, did Heligoland change the course of Anglo-German relations?

Heligoland after bombing

Jan Ruger then responded to the three presentations and the issues raised. He felt that ‘microhistory’ was the appropriate term for his work, but was also aware of tensions between that approach and his. He felt he might indeed have spent more time elucidating the theme of microhistory and its application to the subject of Heligoland. He noted that, with respect to the islanders themselves, there was a problem of source material. There were scant records kept by the islanders themselves, much was bombed and destroyed on the island in 1945-6 (see photo above), and there was also a sceptical attitude on the part of the islanders themselves after the Second World War towards historians seeking information.

On the other hand, the efforts of the German state to make Germans out of Heligolanders is well documented. The book might also have spent far more time discussing the environment of the island – on land and sea – and the impact of geography on historical development. Britain never, he said, considered condominium as a solution to Heligoland, though it did – as discussed in the book – consider applying the status of mandate under the League of Nations. A point made by Frank Trentmann regarding the refugees in 1945 – that they often emphasised their Germanness in order to gain support – also made sense respecting the Heligolanders. Jan Ruger noted the Heligolanders also suffered from guilt feelings, given the presence of forced labour camps on their island during the Nazi period.

Overall, the seminar proved to be a most enjoyable and enlightening session on a relatively neglected aspect of Anglo-German history.

John R. Davis is Professor of History at Kingston University, Surrey, U.K.

For John’s review of Jan Ruger’s book on Heligoland, go to: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/2111

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)


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Fifth Column Fears in Kingston, 1939-1940: A Brief Survey

A few years ago I carried out some research on wartime fears about ‘Fifth Column’ activities in Richmond-on-Thames, Surrey, and the extraordinary degree of paranoia that gripped some of the local townspeople at the time about the possible activities of the ‘enemy within’. More recently, and keeping the focus on the Thames Valley area, I have conducted some similar research into how such fears about potential collaborators, spies and saboteurs had an impact on Kingston-on-Thames and the surrounding area in 1940.

The term ‘Fifth Column’ had its origins in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, when the fascist General Emile Mola, during his march on the besieged Spanish capital Madrid, boasted that he had not only four columns of troops under his command, but also a ‘fifth’ secret column of Francoist supporters already in the city, a body of pro-fascists who would work to undermine the Republican defenders from within, through acts of sabotage and spreading defeatist rumours.

British soldier on beach 1940

Many scholars now feel this was exaggerated and more a product of skilled pro-Franco propaganda than real historical fact. However, the notion of a ‘Fifth Column’ still caught the popular imagination of the public across Europe at the time, including in the UK, especially when people were faced with the rapid occupation of Norway and Denmark by the Nazis, and then the shocking collapse of Belgium, France and the Netherlands under a German onslaught soon after. Many commentators in 1940 put these huge defeats down to the work of spies, saboteurs, ‘Quislings’, traitors, and pro-Nazi elements working behind Allied lines. ‘Spies’ and ‘subversion’ also made good copy for newspapers, who helped fan the growing atmosphere of distrust.

How did all this have an impact in Kingston in Surrey and the surrounding area? One can certainly see evidence of such fears building up about the so-called ‘Fifth Column’ in the spring and summer of 1940, especially as news began to filter through about the defeat and evacuation from France of the B.E.F. (British Expeditionary Force).

Tragically, many of the refugees who escaped to this country became a focus for suspicion, with some people suggesting that ‘enemy spies’ could easily have smuggled themselves in among those who had fled Nazi tyranny, including among the Jewish refugees. Fortunately, more sane voices prevailed (for a while, at least).

Jewish chidren arrive in Britain 1938

The Surrey Comet, for example, did its best to encourage people to trust the authorities on this issue. In April, 1940, an editorial in the newspaper assured its readers that they could safely rely upon ‘the police and other competent authorities to tighten their grip upon the insidious evil known as the Nazi “Fifth Column”, and find time to give help and friendship particularly to the thousands of young people, Germans, Austrians and Czechs, who have lost their countries and have even better reason than we to hate old enemies’.

On the other hand, as May turned into June, 1940, and news from the continent (in so far as it passed tight censorship restrictions) became more grim, even the calm ‘reasonableness’ of the Surrey Comet began to crack somewhat under pressure. In an editorial in late May, 1940, on ‘Spies and Saboteurs’, the newspaper welcomed the new Treachery Bill that was quickly going through the House of Commons that week, and added: ‘Experience in other lands has brought home to the Britisher that stricter measures must be taken against espionage, sabotage and “Fifth Column” activities. The Germans’ easy success in occupying the Norwegian ports is known to have been largely due to the activities of traitors like… Quisling and German agents…’.

If the Invader Comes

The newspaper claimed that other countries, notably Holland, had since found that their public services had been ‘corrupted’ in the same way by agents of Berlin, and thus ‘a wholesale clearance of Nazi sympathisers has become necessary’. The Comet argued that the law in the UK should now be strengthened against ‘anti-war agitators and those who are covertly assisting the enemy’. Similarly, a week later, the same newspaper used another editorial to warn people about ‘Mischievous Gossip’ and the repetition of rumour – ‘the chatter of the man in the street and club’, which ‘may easily result in demoralisation and, indeed, the defeat of the Allied cause’. It was the duty of the ‘patriotic citizen’ to ignore and discourage such ‘vapourings’.

Clearly, fears about ‘Fifth Columnists’ and enemy spies could have serious implications for innocent people visiting Kingston and the area at the time, even serving members of the Armed Forces. In May, 1940, it was reported that three young uniformed Naval ratings were taken from the upper deck of a trolley bus on the Hampton Wick side of Kingston Bridge and arrested by police officers, and detained for about an hour on suspicion of being ‘Fifth Columnists’. It emerged that the innocent men had been stopped by police who were acting on information provided to them by a local woman.

In another example of the tense atmosphere that descended on the area in light of ‘Fifth Column’ fever, in early June it was reported that alarms had been raised at Teddington Weir about a man who had ‘been seen photographing the weir’. A police car had been sent to detain the ‘Fifth Columnist’, but when they arrived and closely quizzed the man, they had found his ‘camera’ was in fact a gas mask (of the kind issued to all civilians).


Even the Local Defence Volunteers (L.D.V.) (later the ‘Home Guard’) could be subject to ‘Fifth Column’ suspicions. As the scale of the disaster in France became apparent and fears of German invasion of Britain grew, thousands of volunteers responded to a radio appeal by the government and flocked to join the L.D.V. in the Kingston and general Thames Valley area, but local authorities remained keen to root out anybody ‘suspicious’. In the Twickenham and Teddington area, for example, the newly appointed L.D.V. commandant, making a speech to his new force on Twickenham Green, said that, in view of the ‘danger of Fifth Column activities, selection of the men for the unit was being done very carefully’.

In the same way, local elected Councillors in the area began to show signs of paranoia about ‘Fifth Column’ spies. In early July, a debate at a meeting of Surbiton Town Council saw a Councillor ask whether Surbiton’s Mayor would consider setting up an ‘Espionage Corps’ to report ‘anything of a subversive character that they hear’. The Mayor promised to see that the matter was brought before the local Emergency Committee, but probably privately agreed with another Councillor who asked pointedly: ‘Are we to have a Gestapo in this country before Hitler gets here?’

The presence of conscientious objectors (who were labelled as ‘conchies’) also became the focus of ‘Fifth Column’ suspicion within local authorities in Kingston and the surrounding areas. A major row broke out within Twickenham Council, for example, in July about a plan to root out all ‘conchies’, as such men, it was claimed, ‘might be a pernicious influence on their colleagues’. Some Councillors wanted a special test to be introduced for every Council employee to ask whether they were an ‘objector’, and to also ask about their nationality and even the nationality of their parents. In the heated debate over the issue, some members of the Council argued it was a naive effort to find ‘Fifth Columnists’, which would be doomed to failure and only serve to imperil liberty, the very thing the country was fighting to protect.

Shockingly, at one stage in the debate, one of the Councillors referred to conscientious objectors as ‘worms’ and said they should be ‘put in the lethal chamber’. No further comment is required.

Dr. Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)


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Beer and Kingston: The Surrey town’s long history of brewing

Sometimes historical research can be an arduous business. Research for this blog post necessitated extensive field work, initially at Kingston Workingmen’s Club and Institute, venue for the Surrey town’s annual beer and cider festival, held each May. The festival is organised by the Kingston and Leatherhead branch of CAMRA, the ‘Campaign for Real Ale’.

Founded in 1971, CAMRA’s aim was to promote the production, distribution and sale of beer better in quality than that produced by major brewers at that time. In that endeavour it has been very successful. A not-for-profit, voluntary organisation, with a current membership estimated at 185,000, CAMRA claims to be one of the most successful British consumer campaigning groups ever. Apart from campaigning, it organises beer festivals all over the UK, most of the year round. The Kingston festival, for example, has run for eighteen years.

JS Hodgsons Horses

There is a long history of brewing in Kingston-upon-Thames, dating back about 500 years. There may at one time have been as many as 10 breweries in the area, most of them very small indeed.

The most notable was Hodgson’s, originally based in the City of London. As well as brewing its own beers, it bottled those produced by other brewers, such as Guinness. In 1854, Hodgson’s acquired an existing business in Brook Street, Kingston (see photo). The company subsequently expanded, buying up other businesses. In fashion typical of the British beer industry, it was eventually brought up in turn by the much larger Courage and Co. But Hodgson’s finally closed in 1965. Sadly, no trace of the brewery, or of its beer, remains.

Over the following half century the only commercial brewing in Kingston-upon-Thames seems to have taken place in a short-lived micro-brewery in a pub on the London Road in the town, currently closed and awaiting redevelopment as a boutique hotel.

JS Hodgsons Guinness

In 2014, however, the Park Brewery started up in Elm Road, Kingston. At the local beer festival, I met Josh Kearns, who owns and runs the business with his wife, Frankie. Two days later, I visited their premises, a converted terrace house. Typical, it seems, of many such recent ventures, the Park Brewery’s origins lie in home brewing – beer brewed at first for friends and family, then, in ever greater quantity, for sale (in keg and bottle) at local pubs and off-licences. I asked what made that transition possible? Josh acknowledged the important role played by the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA), set up in the UK in 1980. A trade organisation, SIBA campaigned successfully for the introduction of progressive beer duty (PBD), in 2002. Breweries are taxed according to the quantity of beer they brew. That idea, apparently borrowed from Germany, aims to encourage small-scale, local ‘craft’ beer production. In that aim, it has been extremely successful.

According to one source, the UK now has the most craft breweries per capita of any country in the world. In 2002, there were fewer than 500 breweries, of all kinds. Now there are about 1,700. Beer is very big business.


Breweries in Britain continue to close nevertheless. The most recent example in London is the huge Stag Brewery, at Mortlake, which produced Budweiser. It will make way for luxury, Thames-side apartments, located by London’s famous River Thames. Paradoxically, given the overall increase in the number of breweries, the number of pubs in the UK is falling. People are drinking less, in pubs at any rate. Various causal factors are attested: changes in British consumption habits; the smoking ban of 2007; higher alcohol prices. The recent Labour Party 2017 general election manifesto included a pledge to investigate the ‘large-scale demise’ of local pubs. Beer is nothing if not a political issue.

Medium-sized breweries, who do not benefit from PBD to the extent of their smaller counterparts, now lobby government for review of the scheme. Meanwhile, as some micro-breweries become successful, they attract the interest of larger concerns keen to benefit from the profitability of their product. It is not easy to know precisely what will be the shape of the British beer industry in, say, 10 years’ time.

Most visitors to the 18th annual Kingston beer and cider festival were probably not too concerned. Brewers such as Josh Kearns and Ben Norman, of Twickenham Fine Ales, whom I also met there, are beer aficionados, but they are not business people. They benefit from PBD, and their products are currently in demand, locally. For the drinker, there has never been as much choice of beer, whether brewed in Britain or abroad. In a small way, the Park Brewery has revived an almost forgotten but important part of Kingston’s social and cultural heritage.

John Stuart is Associate Professor of History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)

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‘Corporate Personhood’ – an American Phenomenon

What is ‘corporate personhood’? In relation to American history, it refers to a long legal debate over the degree to which the rights normally given to persons should also be given to corporations. Why does this matter? It matters enormously, because – alongside individual citizens – corporations arguably have major influence in U.S. politics today.

To understand how this came about historically, let’s start with American citizenship and citizen rights. The 14th Amendment to the United States constitution is not something that readily rolls off the tongue in Britain. If there is any familiarity, it is usually restricted to the 5th Amendment, where individuals on television or in films are often depicted in police or court dramas ‘taking the 5th’, this being the legal right not to self-incriminate.

The 14th Amendment, possibly the least known but undoubtedly one of the most significant, was enacted in July, 1868,  following the cessation of the American Civil War. This Amendment bestowed citizenship to both the country and state on all those individuals who were born or naturalised in the USA. It is particularly important in that, for the first time, it gave American citizenship to the whole population, as well as the millions of African Americans who had either fought in the conflict or been subjected to slavery. Prior to this Amendment there was no defined right of being an American citizen and you were only a citizen of the United States when abroad.


The American Supreme Court established this precedent in 1857, when it concluded in its landmark judgement of the Dred Scott case (Dred Scott v. Sandford) that individuals were citizens of their own state and must be adjudged by the laws of their birthplace, and that African Americans had no rights to citizenship. Scott had argued that, because he had resided from 1833 to 1843 in Illinois, an area of the Louisiana Territory (a free state) – where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 – he was entitled to be emancipated. But the court ruled that African Americans, under Article III of the constitution, were property, and – as such – could not be citizens.

The 14th Amendment was intended to eradicate this precedent and bestow on its populace equal rights. But, ironically, not long after this Amendment was enacted, corporations began to use its wording to counter and supress any attempts by individual states to introduce anti-trust legislation or labour reforms. The area of contention relates to the wording ‘nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property with out the due process of law, nor deny to any person… the equal protection of the laws’.

Over the next 100 years, the wording of this Amendment, originally designed to enhance life, would – instead – be used to supress social, economic and labour reforms in what has now become defined as ‘corporate personhood’. Numerous attempts were made by corporations to try and get businesses defined in law as a ‘person’. And, in 1878, they achieved success, via the case of San Mateo County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. The Supreme Court was asked to adjudge whether Santa Clara County had the right to levy taxation on the land and rights of way owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad. The railroad claimed the taxation was improper and had refused for 6 years to pay any taxation. The railroad argued that, as a corporate body, it was – in fact – a ‘person’, and should be entitled to the same right of equal protection granted to former slaves by the 14th Amendment, and that local governments could not discriminate by applying different laws and levels of taxation.

The Court agreed with the railroad company’s argument and found in its favour. Whilst the case was not specifically about the 14th Amendment, the very fact that it had been used by the railroad company in its arguments, and later formed part of the written judgement, now opened the doors for corporations to use it in the future – which they repeatedly did.

In fact, over the next 100 years, corporate America used the 1878 precedent to overturn state and federal labour and social reform laws 211 times. The last of these was in 2014, in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case, where the Supreme Court heard arguments related to the 1st (Right to Religious Beliefs and Practice), 5th and 14th Amendments on the supply of free contraception demanded of employers under the Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court again confirmed the 1878 ruling, agreeing that as a business was a ‘person’, the demands of the Affordable Care Act were unlawful, infringing the rights of the individual (Hobby Lobby) as defined by the constitution.

Smith Democracy is for People

At some point the American government may change this Amendment, but the process for doing so is complicated.  The last Amendment to be repealed was the 18th Amendment enacted in 1919, which introduced ‘Prohibition – an alcohol free America’, and that was eventually repealed in 1933. From the moment this 18th Amendment was enacted, opposition grew, but it still took 13 years to achieve its repeal. Unlike depriving a nation of its alcohol, where a cross-section of opposition combined to achieve its repeal, the 14th Amendment has no collective opposition dedicated to its repeal. It is therefore unlikely change will be achieved.

If anything, the power of corporations as ‘persons’, and relative to citizens, seems to be growing by the day. Many of the big corporations, for example, influence American politics and government by their donations to political campaigns.

Smith Congress sold

In the recent 2016 Presidential election, Hilary Clinton received over $1.2 billion in donations, mainly received from major business donors. It was a similar situation with the Trump campaign. Could this be considered undue influence? Not if you are the Supreme Court, who ruled in 2010 (Citizens v. Federal Elections Comm.) – referencing the 1st and 14th Amendments – that the federal government could not and should not quantify or control political campaign donations.

There is now no control on what amounts of money can be donated by ‘corporate persons’ and what possible influence such a contribution may achieve. This cannot be good for politics or the American citizen.

Stuart Smith has just completed his History Degree at Kingston University

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)



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