Archive for the ‘family’ Category

Great Girton Girls No.16 – Sarah Marks / Herta Ayrton

After a recent reunion at Girton I decided to get a proper grasp on the history of the institution and read the standard text on the subject of which I had heard much, ‘That Infidel Place’ by Muriel Bradbrook. It’s particularly interesting because it was written in 1969 while revolution was in the air on campuses across the world. (The other name that used to come up a lot was Rosamond Lehmann, for her memoirs I suppose.) It was in ‘That Infidel Place’ I came across Sarah Marks.

Phoebe Sarah Marks Hertha Ayrton 1854 – 1923 British engineer, mathematician, physicist inventor

On that same visit I noticed a portrait on a wall of a woman named Louisa Goldsmid. The name rang a bell and she turned out to be a forebear of mine, closing the circle. A founder of the college, she will be the subject of No.17. She supported Sarah financially during her career.

Phoebe Sarah Marks was born on 28th April 1854 in Portsea, Hampshire (England) and died on 26th August 1923 (at the age of 69). She was a mathematician, engineer, physicist and inventor. As a teenager she changed her name to Hertha and in due course married physicist and electrical engineer William Ayrton, so she ended up with the name Herta Ayrton and that’s what’s on her two relatively recent blue plaques. She got the name Hertha from the eponymous heroine of Swinburne’s poem.

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Phoebe Sarah Marks (known as Sarah) was the third child of Levi Marks, a Jewish watchmaker who fled Tsarist Poland, and Alice Theresa Moss, a seamstress. Sarah’s mother was the daughter of Joseph Moss, a glass merchant in Portsea. Levi Marks died in 1861, leaving Sarah’s mother with seven children and an eighth on the way.

Two years later Sarah went to live with her aunts in London and be educated alongside her cousins. The aunts ran a school in NW London. She quickly developed a reputation for having a fiery personality.

By 1870 she was working as a governess, a profession closely connected with Girton and the rise of women’s university education.

Sarah got involved in the women’s suffrage movement while still a teenager. That’s how she met Barbara Bodichon, who went on to become co-founder of Girton. They came into contact while Sarah was a governess and she came to regard Sarah almost as a daughter. Bodichon paid Sarah’s fees and maintenance at Girton and supported her financially throughout her education and career. She ended up bequeathing her considerable estate to Sarah and Sarah marked her gratitude by calling her first child Barbara Bodichon Ayrton. Barbie as she came to be known was born in 1886. She became a Labour MP and died in 1950. Her own son was the artist, Michael Ayrton (1921-1975).

The Captive Seven (1949-50) by Michael Ayrton (1921-1975) Tate Gallery

The Captive Seven (1949-50) by Michael Ayrton – Tate Gallery

Sarah/Herta went up to Girton College, Cambridge, in one of the early cohorts of undergraduates there. She studied Mathematics.

Her application to Cambridge was supported by the novelist George Eliot. Eliot used her as the model for Mirah Lapidoth in ‘Daniel Deronda’.

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Jodhi May as the Jewess Mirah Lapidoth in Andrew Davies’ 2002 TV adaptation of ‘Daniel Deronda’

At Girton she set up the Mathematics club, led the choral society, and, ironically for the fiery personality that she was, founded the College Fire Brigade in 1879 (which persisted until the 1930s).

Girton Girls Fire Brigade formed in 1878

The Girton College Fire Brigade formed in 1879 to protect the the isolated buildings which were located 2 miles from the city centre

While still an undergraduate Sarah built a sphygmomanometer (blood pressure meter). She was taught by physicist Richard Glazebrook. In 1880 Sarah passed the Mathematics Tripos but was not granted an academic degree because the University awarded only certificates, not full degrees, to women at that time. Indeed until 1948! [See ‘The Steamboat Ladies’ post]

The following year Sarah/Herta passed an exam at the University of London, which awarded her a Bachelor of Science degree.  This links back to my relative Louisa Goldsmid whose forebears had helped found University College London, a constituent college of the federal University of London. Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid (1778–1859) was a Founder and Benefactor of UCL alongside the likes of Jeremy Bentham and George Birkbeck (my father, a scientist, from the other side of my family than the Goldsmids, in due course went to Birkbeck College to do his PhD in Organic Chemistry).

Back in London Herta made her living by teaching, as well as embroidery. She taught maths at Notting Hill and Ealing High School. She also ran a club for working girls. In addition, she devised mathematical problems for the Educational Times ‘Mathematical Questions and Their Solutions’ page.

In 1884 she patented a line-divider, an instrument for engineering drawing used for dividing a line into any number of equal parts and for enlarging and reducing figures. This was her first major invention and was of use not only to engineers but also to artists and architects. Her patent application was financially supported by that same Louisa Goldsmid and Barbara Bodichon. The line-divider was displayed at the Exhibition of Women’s Industries and received a good deal of press attention. Between 1884 and 1923 Hertha registered 26 patents: 5 for mathematical dividers, 13 for arc lamps and electrodes, 8 for the propulsion of air.

In 1884 Herta began attending evening classes on Electricity at Finsbury Technical College. These were delivered by Professor William Edward Ayrton, a pioneer in electrical engineering and physics education, and a fellow of the Royal Society. They ended up getting married the following year (6th May 1885). After their marriage she assisted him with physics/electricity experiments. She also began her own experimentation into the characteristics of the electric arc.

Electric arc lighting was in wide use in late 19th Century Britain for public lighting. Its tendency to flicker and hiss was a significant problem. In 1895/6 Hertha wrote a series of articles for ‘The Electrician’ linking these defects to oxygen coming into contact with the carbon rods used to create the arc. In 1899 she was the first woman to read her own paper (‘The Hissing of the Electric Arc’) to the Institution of Electrical Engineers. (Early in my career at Channel 4 I collaborated with the IEE on a long-running creative industries talent development project called IdeasFactory which I ran from 2003 to 2005.) Herta was elected the first female member of the IEE (alone in that status until long after her death – the second woman to be admitted was in 1958). In 1902 Herta published ‘The Electric Arc’, a summary of her research on the electric arc.

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Portrait of Hertha by Helena Arsène Darmesteter who also died in 1923 and whose mother was the editor of the first Jewish women’s periodical, Marion Hartog Moss, presumably related to Alice Moss. She exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.

She petitioned to present a paper to the Royal Society but was refused on the grounds of gender – in 1901 her paper ‘The Mechanism of the Electric Arc’ was read on her behalf by renowned electrical engineer John Perry. He proposed her as a Fellow of the Royal Society the following year but this was rejected by the Council of the Royal Society, who decreed that married women were not eligible to be Fellows. Two years on, however, she became the first woman to read a paper before the Royal Society (1904) when she was permitted to read ‘The Origin and Growth of Ripple Marks’ (which was published in due course in the Proceedings of the Royal Society). Herta presented six papers to the Royal Society between 1901 and her death, a final one in 1926 being delivered posthumously.

Herta was the first woman to win a prize from the Royal Society, the prestigious Hughes Medal for original discovery in the Physical Sciences (especially the applications of  electricity/magnetism). It was awarded to her in 1906 for her work on the electric arc, as well as on the motion of ripples in sand and water. She was the fifth recipient of this annual prize. It took until 2008 for the second woman to be awarded the medal.

In 1899 Herta was put in charge of the Physical Science section at the International Congress of Women which took place in London. The following year she delivered an address at the International Electrical Congress in Paris. In the wake of that success the British Association for the Advancement of Science allowed women to serve on general and sectional committees.

Herta’s work on vortices in water and air gave rise to the ‘Ayrton fan’/’Ayrton flapper’ which was used in the trenches of the First World War to dispel poison gas. She fought for its adoption and even organised its production, over 100,000 being used on the Western Front.

Ayrton anti-gas fan [Imperial War Museum]

Ayrton anti-gas fan – waterproof canvas with cane handle. The back has a hinge so it can fit the varying shapes of the backs of parapets, corners of traverses etc. The fan is 89cm long, with a blade 47cm square, and weighs less than 0.5kg.

After the Great War, Herta helped found the International Federation of University Women (in 1919) and the National Union of Scientific Workers (1920).

Her death highlights the wonders of natural science – she died from the bite of an insect (and subsequent blood poisoning) at New Cottage, North Lancing, Sussex. She has a blue plaque at her London home at 41 Norfolk Square in Paddington, placed there in 2007, 84 years after her fatal sting.

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? [1 Corinthians]

In February this year a second blue plaque was unveiled at the site of her birthplace at 6 Queen Street, Portsea.

Phoebe Sarah Marks Hertha Ayrton 1854 – 1923 British engineer, mathematician, physicist inventor

In 2015 the British Society for the History of Science established the Ayrton Prize for web projects and digital engagement in the history of science. Which brings us nicely up to the present.

 

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Family Tree

My engagement with the Family Tree began when I started to sketch it out based on a conversation with my paternal grandmother. Here is a picture of her that came to light just this weekend – being a rainy one, I spent much of it working on the online version of the Tree.

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Dora

Originally I drew it out on an A1 piece of graph paper with a pencil. I went on to interview my maternal grandmother and grandfather, adding to the annotated freehand Tree. In time I added my wife’s Irish family, the backbone of that bit coming from a wander around an old Co. Louth cemetery with a notebook in hand.

In 2013, to enable me to share it with an older relative abroad I copied the handwritten diagram into a piece of easily accessible software. When I started the analogue Tree I expected to get back at best 3 or 4 generations based on living memory. As my family (to the best of my knowledge) were from – besides England – Germany, Poland, USA, Netherlands and possibly other bits of Eastern Europe, a peripatetic lot, I pictured lost and destroyed records where there even were records. These stones rolled and bureaucracy would probably not have been able to keep pace. However the advantage of the digital Tree is that it connects to other digital Trees. You can work your way back like a logic puzzle. I made my way back, obsessively working till the early hours, to 1730 …to 1544 …to 1499! 1499 in Prague.

I now have a Tree with 651 leaves (346 representing deceased family members). Exactly 50/50 male/female. The most common names: Patrick and Sarah. Birthplaces from Australia to Italy. Places of death from Kazakhstan to Israel. The highlights include finding…

  • 5 Sirs
  • 2 MPs
  • 1 privy councillor
  • a link to the Faroe Isles
  • the founders of University College Hospital, London – where both my kids were born
  • the co-founders of University College London – where I have been hanging out this very day
  • the first Jew to become an English barrister
  • the first Jew to become an English Baronet
  • the founder of JFS (the Jewish Free School)
  • a mysterious family branch in the USA
  • and at the end of this weekend’s activities an international Communist leader…

Karl Radek , who crossed paths with the likes of Rosa Luxemburg and Walter Rathenau, travelled on the famous sealed train from Switzerland to Russia with Lenin (1917), and did time in Moabit prison in Berlin after the Spartacist Uprising in Germany (1919). An honest to goodness 100% bona fide revolutionary. He totally looks the part too…

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Karl

In the sea’s lips (Lakonia 5)

This morning on Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on BBC Radio 4 they discussed T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I listened in my half-sleep and was reminded that a copy of it was sitting half-read about ten inches from head, on my bedside table. I finished it later in the garden, it being a mild and sunny winter’s day.

So today is the day of the tragic Lakonia fire – 22nd December. A copy of the 1964 Paris Match with the burning liner on the cover arrived this very morning in the post from France. I read the second half of Four Quartets and these lines from The Dry Salvages (1940) stood out…

And on the deck of the drumming liner
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think ‘the past is finished’
Or ‘the future is before us’.
At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
‘Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: “on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death”—that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
Fare forward.
O voyagers, O seamen,
You who came to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea,
Or whatever event, this is your real destination.’
So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.
Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

IV

Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
Pray for all those who are in ships, those
Whose business has to do with fish, and
Those concerned with every lawful traffic
And those who conduct them.

Repeat a prayer also on behalf of
Women who have seen their sons or husbands
Setting forth, and not returning:
Figlia del tuo figlio,
Queen of Heaven.

Also pray for those who were in ships, and
Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea’s lips
Or in the dark throat which will not reject them
Or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell’s
Perpetual angelus.

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Stella Maris : Star of the Sea

To round off my Lakonia posts on this day of the disaster, remembering the 128 that perished and my two that survived, here is the conclusion (on the rescue ship)  of my grandmother’s typescript narrative of the events which served as the basis for her A Survivor’s Story broadcast…

“Later, banded together in the corridor, we talked, cried and tried to comfort each other. No praise can be high enough for the Salta crew who were so kind and sympathetic and even gave their own food and clothing to the survivors.

When we arrived in Funchal [Madeira] I tried to thank one of the senior officers, the only one I could find who spoke English, but he turned and said: “Do not thank me, Madam, it is a sad day for all of us.” As we were waiting to disembark I was horrified to see the quayside lined with ambulances and buzzing with doctors, nurses and newspapermen. It was now one realised how many dead and injured we must have aboard. …

[I] would like to thank from the bottom of my heart all those who were so brave, generous and kind to us. After witnessing this experience I really believe that there is a God and if you are destined to live through anything such as this, then nothing can stop you.”

 

The day of the disaster (Lakonia 4)

So we’re now into 22nd December, the day of the Lakonia disaster. I’ve just come upstairs from watching the end of James Cameron’s Titanic on Film4 – it looked different through this filter, many of the same safety lapses as occurred 51 years later on the Lakonia. The Lakonia fire, with the loss of 128 souls, was the worst cruise ship disaster since the sinking of the Titanic. I reckon my grandparents make a good Jack & Rose (they’ve even got the railing)…

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Paris Match, n° 769, 4 Janvier 1964

To mark the day I decided both to add Ian and Rita to the Wikipedia entry and to make an archive record of the documentation in our family.

  • 2 B&W photos marked Foto Perestrellos of survivors on the Salta
  • Telegram from Ian Harris aboard Salta to Marilyn Gee (nee Harris) in London
  • Letter from Ian Harris to John Harris [son] dated Tues (24th Dec 1963)
  • Letter from Marilyn Harris [daughter] to Ian & Rita Harris dated Wed 25th Dec 1963
  • Letter from Rita Harris to John & Marilyn Harris dated Christmas Day (Wed 25th Dec 1963)
  • Letter from Rita Harris to John & Marilyn Harris dated Sat (28th Dec 1963)
  • Letter from Ian Harris to John Harris dated Tues 31st Dec 1963
  • Letter from Rita Harris to John & Marilyn Harris dated Tues 31st Dec 1963 – I get a mention (“To … my lovely little grandson Adam” – I was her first and just 3 months old)
  • Paris Match, n° 769, 4 Janvier 1964
  • 4 photos of newspaper article headlined Skipper Defends CrewDaily News Thurs 26 Dec 1963
  • Script for A Survivor’s Story item on Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio Light Programme, 2nd July 1964
  • Newspaper billing for previous radio programme
  • 5 page typescript from which radio programme script is extracted (ie longer version)
  • 14 page manuscript account by Rita Harris
  • 1 page typescript leading in to 5 page typescript above
  • Video interview with Ian Harris 10/1/99 in which he recounts the disaster and rescue – here is the last section
  • [there are other items at my mum’s house which I’ll add in due course]

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BBC Radio 5 covered the Lakonia story the day before yesterday on Five Live Daily with Adrian Chiles

All Safe (Lakonia 2)

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Paris Match, n° 769, 4 Janvier 1964

Picking up from Sinking of the Lakonia this photo, from Paris Match magazine, shows my grandparents after their rescue from the Lakonia. They are on board the ship that rescued them, the Salta (an Argentine vessel – see Update at bottom of last post), probably on Tuesday 24th December 1963.

Here’s a wider shot of the scene I found among the family papers.

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The Salta rescue ship

This is the telegram (featured in last post) sent from that ship at 03:00 on Tuesday 24th December to my mother and uncle in my childhood home.

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What I’ve discovered since first posting this telegram is that because my grandfather signed it “Daddy” my mother and uncle spent another 36 hours agonising as to whether the omission of “Mummy” signified held-back bad news. So do be careful when wording that all-important telegram or urgent text from some desperate situation. You can see such a text being composed in one brief shot of Clint Eastwood’s excellent new movie Sully about the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ plane crash – or rather plane landing (under desperate circumstances).

Here’s a letter my mother wrote to her rescued parents on Christmas Day, 1963 (no mention of Christmas or festivities).

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letter of Wednesday 25th December 1963 from Marilyn Harris

Some stand-out sections:

“Monday was positively the worst day of my life. I can honestly say it’s the first time I have ever prayed”

“Today I had a heart-breaking phonecall from a lady in Cornwall somewhere, who told me what a saint and veritable tower of strength Daddy has been to her and so many others. She told me of his endless searching for the missing and how she is still hoping her husband is alive somewhere, perhaps suffering from temporary loss of memory.”

“My brother-in-law [Johnny Gee] phoned early on Monday morning to say your ship was on fire and sinking, little hope of survivors. I listened to each news and help sounded so far away, and completely hopeless. … Eventually we managed to get through to the shipping office only to be told they had no names of survivors. John [brother] and I just sat and looked at each other for 36 endless hours. Finally a friend’s mother phoned to say she was sure she saw Mummy standing aboard a rescue ship sobbing in Daddy’s arms.”

Here’s the cover of that Paris Match:

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It already indicates that there may be a scandal behind the disaster. There was – both in terms of the condition of the vessel, and the competency of the crew and its practice and procedures. The story also made the cover of Life magazine.

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edition of 3rd January 1964

Later in 1964 my grandmother recounted her experiences on Woman’s Hour on the Light Programme of BBC Radio. Here’s the transcript:

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It opens by detailing how all was not well on the Lakonia from the moment they boarded in Southampton.

Sinking of the Lakonia

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On 22nd December 1963 my grandparents lives changed forever. My grandmother started what she considered her second bite of the cherry of life. My grandfather watched rich men’s possessions float by him in the water and never again put any value on them (though he was always modest materially being from an immigrant working class background). The night of 22nd December 1963 was the night the cruise ship Lakonia went on fire and 128 souls were lost at sea. A Christmas cruise from Southampton to the Canary Islands turned into a terrifying brush with death.

Yesterday my brother heard a trail on BBC Radio 5 for a programme about the disaster next Tuesday morning on Five Live hosted by Adrian Chiles. Today I tracked down the production team in Salford to offer some of our family archives. As I start to delve into them I thought it would be fun to share the investigations and discoveries here.

First (above) is the telegram my mother received from my grandfather on Christmas eve confirming her parents were alive and safe. She had just had her first child (yours truly) and was settling in to her first home of her own (it cost them £4,000 if I remember correctly). JFK had been shot 5 weeks earlier.

The sender of that telegram is mentioned in this article from Life magazine (edition of 3rd January 1964)

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That’s my grandma looking terrified on the left. Her husband was the “Ian Harris of London” referred to in the copy “the only man known to have taken pictures while on board the doomed Lakonia”. He worked for Picture Post (the British rival of Life with photographers like Bill Brandt and Thurston Hopkins). He was a scientist involved with the technicalities of printing photographs and a keen amateur photographer so his photos featured in the Life picture story were the work of a man in the wrong place at the right time with his omnipresent camera (now you know where I got the bug from).

More to follow as I burrow away…

Update 17/12/16:

“Salta” referred to on the telegram above was an Argentine ship which was heading west to Argentina filled with immigrants from Europe, which picked up my grandparents after dawn of 23rd December from their lifeboat. The passengers were hauled up one by one by rope after a landing stage the Salta crew had dropped was smashed by the lifeboat. My grandfather thought it would make a great shot but my grandmother forbade him as she didn’t want the indignity captured for posterity. He still seemed to regret missing the shot 36 years later when I interviewed him on film. He was wearing, by chance, a grey jumper he had been given in Funchal, Madiera after landing from the Salta in sea-shrunken clothes.

PART 2

Bach to the Fatherland

The boy is Bach in town

The boy is Bach in town

So I’m sitting here in the shadow of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig listening (unusually for me) to Johann Sebastian Bach, chapel/choirmaster of St Thomas’s, on Spotify, absurdly selecting ‘tracks’ according to number of listens (Partita in B-flat major 2,764,917). And I’m writing this post 5 years and 1 day after I wrote my first Back to the Fatherland on first coming to the city where my dad was born, accompanied by my sons/his grandsons.

Here is that first post about how I found my grandparents’ house, which is just a few streets from here, the other side of the site of the burnt-down synagogue:

Back to the Fatherland – first part

Back to the Fatherland – second part

I came back in 2010 thanks to Documentary Campus/Doc Leipzig, the annual documentary film festival held largely at the MDR building just out of the city centre, just a short walk from the hospital where my dad was born. That’s why I’m back for the fifth time.

Here’s an account of my third (2013) visit during my sabbatical from Channel 4:

Return to the Fatherland

Leipzigzaging

Last year I came with my older son who was making his first documentary (Scattergun – a life in four tattoos) as part of his A level in Applied Media. He was interested in listening in on the pitching sessions.

This year I’m solo again (like 2012 and 2013). I’ve been mentoring a documentary team making a film about renouncing vegetarianism. Last year I mentored a film about Super 8. This year I brought my own Kodak flipcam (off-spring of the Super 8) to make a little video of the trip.

I arrived in the autumnal late afternoon sun of Berlin Schoenefeld, got a taxi driven by a mad Turk to Sudkreuz (he miraculously got me there with 15 minutes to spare) and then the train to Leipzig Hauptbahnhof. I had dinner with a bunch of the Documentary Campus folk in an ex-vinegar (Essig) factory. So no bitterness there, just celebration of The Documentary among a group of old pals including Elizabeth MacIntyre of Discovery Networks International, who is just leaving Documentary Campus to head up Sheffield DocFest, and Lena Pasanen, formerly of YLE, Finland, who is taking over Elizabeth’s role. I walked back, surprised at how well I could navigate the city at night.

So here I am in the shadow of the Thomaskirche as its bells chime midnight. By now I’m listening to Jacques Loussier playing Bach – sacrilege perhaps but sometimes a man just needs jazz.

Get Bach to where you once belonged

Get Bach to where you once belonged

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