A two pound piece

The British £2 is one of the most striking coins in circulation. As well as being the only mainstream bimetallic coin in the UK, it is wider and heavier than any other. With its golden edge and silver centre, it has become the coin of choice to commemorate events, people and institutions of national significance.

The current series of the £2 coin was launched on 15 June 1998 with the Royal Mint issuing millions for general circulation. A review of coinage carried out in 1994 had suggested the need for a new, higher denomination coin than the pound. The four-year gap between suggestion and introduction demonstrates the seriousness with which the government and Royal Mint took the task of designing a suitable new coin.

The front and reverse designs for the British £2 coin (standard version)

The Royal Mint consulted a wide range of groups, from the RNIB to channel the concerns of people with limited or no sight to the vending machine industry. Age Concern was consulted to ensure that the coin was designed to limit any confusion from the elderly and the general public were invited to express their opinions and concerns.

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The original HS2

The London and Birmingham Railway, opened in 1838, was the Victorian equivalent of HS2. In fact, it was far more transformative than its twenty-first century successor – horses, carts, carriages and canals gave way to steam powered locomotion at speeds that radically changed the British economy, society and people. This engineering wonder heralded the start of the modern age and was built in less than five years.

Last week, the government announced its proposed route for the new high speed railway link north of London. The line will split into a Y shape, with the western spur heading through Crewe, Manchester Airport and ending up in Manchester. The eastern side will stop at an East Midlands parkway (to serve Derby and Nottingham), Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre (to the chagrin of Sheffield City Council and its Chamber of Commerce) and Leeds.

Construction of the first stage of High Speed Two (“HS2”) from London to Birmingham will start in 2017 and open in 2026. The second phase, as outlined above, is intended for completion in 2032. Britain will therefore have the start of a high-speed rail network just in time for the 200th anniversary of regular passenger railway services heralded by the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830.

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Penitence through patience

Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary is one of the most haunting, spectacular and interesting places I have ever visited. The sprawling complex served as one of Pennsylvania’s primary high security prisons for over 140 years before being closed in 1971.

The Penitentiary was built in 1829 in a cherry orchard amidst open fields to the north of the city. By the time the prison closed, the burgeoning metropolis had completely surrounded the 11 acre site. Its proximity to central Philadelphia and Fairmount Park ensured the empty facility was a prime real estate development opportunity. Unfortunately for the state treasury (but fortunately for history buffs and tourists) the site was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1965.

Twenty years of outlandish plans and projects were considered, ranging from apartments in what would have been labelled the world’s most secure gated development to a shopping mall (presumably with changing rooms in converted cells). All the while, nature slowly reasserted itself before completely taking over – the site became a crumbling, forested wilderness.

Trees grew out of cells, reaching for the sun through the skylights and a colony of feral cats stalked the grounds, defending their territory with the tenacity of the prison’s former guards. The manmade structures became spooky echoes of their former states – rooms were filled with twisted, rusting beds, broken porcelain toilets and splintered wooden furniture. Plastered walls flaked, paint peeled and the roofs began to collapse.

Eventually the complex was saved by the City of Philadelphia, redevelopment plans were halted and the site was stabilised ready for the first visitors in 1994. Since then, the Penitentiary has been preserved in a state of managed ruin. Safety has improved to the extent that visitors no longer need to wear hard hats or have to sign a personal injury disclaimer.

Eastern State Penitentiary claims to be the world’s first true ‘penitentiary’ – a facility designed specifically to induce penitence, redemption and rehabilitation rather than a place for punishment or as a holding pen until trial.

It was no coincidence that prison reform and an emphasis on the rehabilitative aspects of incarnation were championed in Philadelphia. The city of brotherly love had a strong Quaker tradition and this was evident in the work of the Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons.

The Penitentiary was supported by some of Pennsylvania’s (and America’s) leading individuals. The plan was conceived in Benjamin Franklin’s house, was strongly supported by Philadelphia’s Anglican bishop, William White and Dr Benjamin Rush, a signatory to the Declaration of Independence.

Although it took three decades to get the Penitentiary from an idea to a finished building, the result was revolutionary. An English architect, John Haviland, was commissioned to build the prison along modern, even radical lines.

The Penitentiary originally comprised of seven cellblocks radiating from a central surveillance rotunda. It was possible for a single guard to see to the end of each of these blocks from a single position in the middle of the rotunda. All of this was surrounded by a grim, imposing and impressive mock Gothic wall, complete with turrets, battlements and window slits.

Although the prison was intended to be reformed, it was felt there was little harm in reminding the people of Philadelphia of the punishment that awaited them if they committed crime.

Under the ‘Pennsylvania System’, inmates were kept in solitary confinement, and any communication between prisoners, indeed any noise of any kind, was prohibited. Wardens would patrol the corridors with woollen socks over their boots to muffle the sounds of their footsteps, and the food trolleys had leather covered wheels to render them silent.

Inmates were kept in an individual cell, with only a hatch leading to the internal corridor to allow the supply of food. Each cell was connected to a small outdoor space and prisoners were permitted an hour’s external exercise each day. Solitary confinement would give the prisoner time to focus exclusively on their crimes and, it was hoped, induce their rehabilitation.

Haviland’s introduced a range of innovations to the Penitentiary. The cells were centrally heated and had both running water and a flush toilet. This contrasts to the White House under Andrew Jackson which, at this time, had no running water and relied on coal stoves for heat. Each cell had a skylight to let in natural light and to act as a reminder of God’s omnipresence and constant surveillance.

Newly arrived inmates were first processed and then led to their cell. On this journey, prisoner’s faces were covered by a bag. This disorientated the inmates and ensured they had little knowledge of the prison’s layout. This tactic minimised the prisoner’s escape opportunities and ensured prisoners were kept entirely anonymous from each other.

Anonymity was a key component of the ‘Pennsylvania System’, and prisoners were assigned numbers rather than using their names. The idea was to ensure that they would not suffer prejudice once released by being recognised by other released prisoners.

Not everyone was convinced of the appropriateness or success of the ‘Pennsylvania System’. On Charles Dickens’s celebrated first trip to the USA, the writer said he wanted to see Niagara Falls and the Eastern State Penitentiary. He was not impressed with the latter, noting that:

“The System is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement, and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong….”

In case this left any doubt, he went on to say:

“I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body,” he wrote after visiting Eastern State.”

There was a lot riding on the success of the Penitentiary – construction costs had swallowed the enormous sum of $780,000 by 1836, equivalent to an economic cost of almost $8 billion in today’s money.

Eventually, the Philadelphia System would fall out of favour across the United States. Even Eastern State Penitentiary would move to the Auburn / New York System. By 1913, all aspects of the solitary confinement regime were abandoned, and Eastern State became a regular prison.

Eastern State Penitentiary is one of the best historic sites, museums and art installations I have ever been to. It is thought provoking, interesting and, in its preserved state of decay and ruin, astonishingly and strangely beautiful. If you are ever in or near Philadelphia, go visit – you’ll be glad you did.

Charles Dickens’s near death experience

It was a bright summer’s day in Kent as the Folkestone Boat Express thundered towards London. The Express, an integral part of the iron link between London and Paris, had reached England on the afternoon of 9 June 1865 and had cleared the South Downs, a little over 45 miles from its destination.

The train sped through Staplehurst at 50 mph and was crossing the iron bridge over the River Beult (which, during the summer, had dried to little more than a muddy stream) when disaster struck. Repair work on the track had not finished in time as the work’s foreman thought that the Express would arrive later than it did.

The locomotive, tender and break van managed to breach the 21 foot gap in the track by a combination of luck and momentum, coming to a precarious rest on the other side. Further along the train, the first class carriage was derailed and clung perilously to the break van. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the train was not so lucky.

The next five coaches broke free from the first class carriage and collapsed off the bridge. The crumpled and broken wagons were strewn across the riverbed and surrounding banks. A full description of the tragedy and its causes is found both in the official government report and in this excellent (and distinctly snappier) summary.)

In total 10 passengers died and a further 49 were injured. Even so, this would only have made a footnote in Victorian railway history, already littered with far more deadly disasters and accidents. One fact alone elevated this to become one of the period’s most notorious incidents – Charles Dickens was a passenger in the first class carriage.

Dickens’s brush with death was real – his travelling companions had been certain of their impending doom. It had an immediate psychological impact on the writers, and could have hastened his ultimate and untimely death just five years later.

Dickens, already a celebrity, became a national hero for his compassionate actions both during and after the tragedy. Once safely free of his carriage he made his way through the splintered timbers and mangled bodies offering medicinal brandy, comfort and whatever practical assistance he could. Afterwards, he visited victims in hospital.

His description of the scene is characteristically vivid, and provides a distinctly human sense of the tragedy:

“No imagination can conceive the ruin of the carriages, or the extraordinary weights under which the people were lying, or the complications into which they were twisted up among iron and wood, and mud and water.”

Charles Dickens – letter to Thomas Mitton on 13 June 1865

The magnetic Mr Dickens

Earlier this week I highlighted Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of Charles Dickens. I have been pleasantly surprised by the numerous revelations of surprising idiosyncrasies and quirks that make him a particularly fascinating subject.

One of the most surprising facts is that Dickens was a passionate believer in mesmerism (sometimes referred to as magnetism). He even went so far as to practice this unconventional form of medical treatment with his wife as a frequent patient.

In the nineteenth century, mesmerism, magnetism or animal magnetism (as the practice was variously known) was controversial, influential and excited the popular imagination. The basis of mesmerism was found in the work of Anton Mesmer. Mesmer held European audiences enthralled (or, perhaps more appropriately, mesmerised) by his theories that embraced physics, metaphysics, spirituality and the healing power of the mind.

The core of his philosophy was that the cosmos was permeated by an invisible magnetic fluid. This fluid greatly influenced all life, including humans, and could be encouraged and strengthened by the use of magnets. He also believed that the mind could be healed whilst in a state of trance.

By the time Dickens came into contact with mesmerism its use in medicine was well established. Dickens was strongly influenced by John Elliotson, an eminent and controversial doctor who had been shunned by the mainstream profession because of his strong beliefs in the power of mesmerism.

Dickens went on to absorb Elliotson’s teachings and go so far as to practice them. His sister-in-law and wife were successfully induced into a trance but Dickens was less successful on his dour Scottish friend Charles Macready. His most intensive treatment was reserved for Augusta de la Rue, treated by Dickens during his family’s extended visit to Italy in 1844.

All of this may not be as mad as it first appears. Although some of mesmerisms claims are now completely discredited, the idea of healing the mind via trance-like states is the basis of hypnotism. Hypnotism is an accepted weapon in a wider arsenal had has been successfully deployed in the treatment of stubborn mental health issues.

Like maggots in nuts – Dickens in the Inn

In a year that is crowded with major anniversaries and major events, the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’s birth looms large. The BBC has been awash with documentaries, adaptations and readings and exhibitions on the great man are being staged across London, Portsmouth and Rochester.

My own ‘tribute’ has been to read Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. It is a cracking biography, and provides a fascinating insight into the man as well as the writer. One fact that arrested my attention was the revelation that Dickens seriously considered becoming a lawyer and went so far as to become a member of the Middle Temple.

Dickens’s fiction reveals his familiarity, fascination and pointed disdain for the law and his books are packed with assorted legal flotsam. Lawyers are portrayed at best ambivalently (as with Mr Jaggers in Great Expectations), as lazy (Mr Lightwood in Our Mutual Friend), scheming and manipulative (Mr Tulkinghorn in Bleak House) or as downright crooks (Mr Brass in the Old Curiosity Shop).

At the start of his career, Dickens worked as a solicitor’s clerk – first in the offices of Ellis and Blackmore and then for a brief spell at the law firm of Charles Molley. He gained further experience of (and a distinct distaste for) the legal profession from his early career in journalism as a court reporter working in Doctors’ Commons (the distinctly musty and archaic courts of the civil law branch of the English legal system).

But what is more surprising is that Dickens was already a published and successful author by the time he took the decision to enter Middle Temple. He was admitted to the Inn in 1839, by which time ‘Sketches by Boz’, ‘Pickwick Papers’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ had all been released. He only finally relinquished his membership in 1855. Why did the superstar writer consider entering a profession he had already so mockingly lampooned?

Biographer Michael Slater suggests it was to provide a security

blanket in case his celebrity and riches were fleeting:

Aware as he was of the vagaries of literary fame, and haunted as he was by the spectre of Scott writing himself out in order to pay off his debts, Dickens was determined to contrive a safety net for himself.”

Dickens would probably have made a fine advocate, but I think I prefer him on the outside and writing distinctly unflattering portrayals of the profession. Of all the many great quotes on the legal system and lawyers in Dickens, I’ll provide just a couple of my favourites:

The crow flies straight across Chancery Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Garden, into Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Here, in a large house, formerly a house of state, lives Mr Tulkinghorn. It is let off in sets of chambers now; and in these shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts.”

– Bleak House

If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.”

– The Old Curiosity Shop