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‘Oh, the Roast Beef of Old England’

1907dinnerIn April 1907 the Royal Society of St George held its annual St George’s Day celebration in the Cecil Hotel in London. Situated between the Thames Embankment and the Strand, it was one of the city’s grand hotels. As had been the case at previous dinners, the Society chose a period to be associated with the festival, and invited soldiers to act as guards to the chairman, also escorting ‘the “National Dish” as it is paraded around the hall’. In 1907 this honour was bestowed upon the King’s Guard of the 1st Battalion English Grenadiers. ‘tall, stalwart Englishmen they were, of splendid physique, all considerably over six feet in height’.

As many other gatherings of this type, the annual St George’s Day dinner of the Royal Society of St George brought together many of the London elite for an evening of entertainment. At the heart of the event, however, was the dinner – a highlight of which undoubtedly was the arrival of ‘the roast beef of Old England’. As was reported in the Royal Society of St George’s journal, it

is always an inspiriting and impressive feature, and a little hit of pageantry very highly appreciated. First the “Old Flag,” then the drums, soldiers (two and two), the lordly baron upon a cradle embowered in red and white roses, ribbons, and bannerettes, borne upon the shoulders of four cooks correctly apparelled and beribboned, then more soldiers ; while the band, with thrilling drum accompaniment, plays the well-known air, “Oh, the Roast Beef of Old England,” amidst the plaudits of the assembled guests.

roastbeefDuring the dinner the string band of the Victoria and St. George’s Rifles rendered English airs, while, after dinner, a selection of English folk music and Morris dancing was provided for the illustrious round of guests that included, for example, Admiral Sir Cyprian Bridge and His Excellency Baron Komura, the Japanese Ambassador.

Of great importance too were the toasts and speeches delivered. Given the nature of the event they were, of course, of a celebratory nature, designed to appeal to the national sentiment of the English. This sentiment was certainly showing through in the toast of the evening delivered by the chairman of the fesitval, the Right Hon. Lord Redesdale, who noted that it was the aim of the Society ‘to instil in the minds of the youth of this country those principles of patriotism which are essential to the well-being of the Empire, without which, indeed, the Empire cannot exist.’ Lord Redesdale was of the view that the English could learn one or two things from the Celt: while ‘the Anglo-Saxon is a reserved creature, a rather shy creature … The Celt, on the contrary, is full and bubbling over with patriotism.’

Whether Lord Redesdale had a point with this assessment or not, there was certainly powerful evidence in 1907 of how Englishness was expressed by many around the world on St George’s Day. One way of measuring this activity is through the numerous greetings and cable messages sent on the day. Click here to see a map of where message were sent to; click on a location to read the message sent.

In the spirit of the global greetings dispensed in 1907: a happy St George’s Day from the English Diaspora Team!

Looking Forward to the Past

By Mike Sutton

image003Nostalgia for an idealized vision of the past has been a potent cultural force for centuries. It drives many communities to   celebrate their history (or an imaginative reconstruction of it) by re-enacting past events or ancient rituals. These performances often arouse intense passions locally – as happens with the Palio in Siena, or Bonfire Night in Lewes. Early settlers in the New World also felt this impulse. In Massachusetts, on May Day 1627, Thomas Morton organised “revels and merriment after the old English custom” to encourage solidarity among the colonists and promote better relations with local natives.

Having brewed “a barrel of excellent beer” and provided “a case of bottles to be spent, with other good cheer, for all comers of that day” the revellers erected their May Pole – “a goodly pine tree of 80 foot long … with a pair of buck’s horns nailed on somewhat near unto the top of it.” According to Morton’s account of the event in his New English Canaan (1637) a good time was had by all – except the local Puritans.

The setting up of this Maypole was a lamentable spectacle to the precise Separatists that lived at New Plimouth. They termed it an Idol; yea, they called it the Calf of Horeb and stood in defiance at the place, naming it Mount Dagon…

Morton later claimed that the colony’s ruling elite had used this incident as a pretext to shut down his business, and gain a monopoly of the lucrative beaver pelt trade. Till then, Morton had been prospering as an independent trader, possibly due to his amicable relations with the Native Americans. Whatever their real motives were, by September 1628 the Puritans had expelled him from the colony and destroyed his maypole.

Despite this inauspicious precedent, historical pageants, re-enactments and festivities have long remained popular recreational activities in the USA. Mediaeval tournaments, Renaissance fairs, May Day revels, Dickensian Christmas feasts and Jane Austen-themed formal balls are now a significant sector of the leisure industry. Meanwhile, persons of a belligerent disposition re-enact battles from a wide variety of historical periods – including conflicts from America’s own Revolutionary and Civil Wars, sometimes on their original sites.

Voluntary associations promote and co-ordinate historical re-enactment events all over the USA. One of the largest is the Society for Creative Anachronism, founded in Berkeley, California in 1966, which now has active groups in Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, as well as in most regions of the US and Canada. The SCA boasts around 30,000 full members, and a similar number of non-members also participate in its activities. Their main focus is the celebration of Medieval and Renaissance European culture, though many individual members also venture into other periods.

While visiting Californian friends in April 2013, I met some SCA members who share a particular interest in historic dances – amongst numerous other enthusiasms. The introduction came through Karen, a long-time SCA member who specialises in traditional calligraphy. Her husband Chaz (a professional author, and a frequent guest speaker at science fiction and fantasy conventions) is also deeply interested in things historical. This is not an unusual combination – many American historical re-enactors are also SF and fantasy fans, with Doctor Who and Harry Potter pimage005articular favourites.

Early one Wednesday evening, we drove from Chaz and Karen’s home in Sunnyvale to the dance group’s weekly practice in San José. In a spacious suburban lounge they were put through their paces by Matt, their instructor, assisted by Elizabeth on the violin. The dances – mostly taken from John Playford’s English Dancing Master (1651) or the Orchésographie of Thonoit Arbeau (1589) – were performed energetically, but very tidily.

Cyn, our hostess for the evening, offered beverages and banter during breaks in the action, but although the atmosphere was light-hearted, the dances were clearly being taken seriously by all participants. They encouraged me to join in some of them, and as a thank-you I taught them a Northumbrian-style step-hop dance, which they picked rapidly. When the practice ended, everyone migrated to a nearby pizzeria and bar.

Some wanted a full meal, having come directly to the meeting from work, but the evening’s exertions had left the rest of us eager for drinks, snacks and gossip. Everyone around the table was keen to volunteer information about their engagement with the SCA. Several of them also had experience of re-enactments from outside the SCA’s chronological remit – including World War Two and American Civil War battles, and Dickens and Austen themed events.

They agreed that a minority treated these events simply as opportunities to dress up, fire off blank cartridges, and then socialise over a few drinks. But they also stressed that for most participants (and spectators) re-enactments are a valuable aid to understanding their own history – and other people’s too. I was assured that while many Asian-Americans attend Regency costume balls, quite a few Anglo-Americans enjoy dressing up as Samurai or Geishas, and a number of African-Americans participate enthusiastically in Viking battles.

There was a strong consensus that whatever else you hope to achieve in this activity, it ought to be fun – and general agreement that while striving for authenticity is a good thing, it can sometimes be overdone. On the one hand, they said, you shouldn’t turn up to a Regency assembly in tennis shoes. But on the other hand, infecting yourself with dysentery before re-enacting a Civil War battle takes ‘sharing the experience’ a little too far!

Nevertheless, when re-enactments are run as commercial enterprises, there is considerable pressure to maintain the illusion of a fully revived past. One female SCA member who had worked at the Williamsburg heritage site recalled that there “you don’t step out of period unless your hair is on fire”. But although they mocked fanatics who pursue authenticity to absurd extremes, all of them were committed to reproducing the relevant details of dress, deportment, music and dance as accurately as possible – within reason.

Most voices around the table were optimistic about the current state of the historical re-enactment movement. However, there were a few complaints about the excessive commercialisation of some events. Massive ‘craft fairs’ are often attached to them, and there is sometimes a rather heavy-handed emphasis on boosting local tourism. But throughout the evening the mood of the discussion seemed very positive, and the enthusiasm (and expertise) of the participants was obvious.

When Karen, Chaz and I had to leave for home, the party was still going on, and the reckoning as yet unpaid. As we exchaimage001nged farewells, I offered a contribution towards the bill, but was told “don’t worry about that – Karen will explain”. In the car, she told me: “They all have pretty good jobs, so every week one them just picks up the check – for them, it’s no big deal.” The cost of beer, wine, pizzas and snacks for the table (plus tax and tips) must have come to around 200 dollars. If that was no big deal for them, Silicon Valley’s re-enactors are clearly doing well.

Karen drove us back to Sunnyvale along El Camino Real, which follows the route of the Royal Highway established when California still belonged to Spain. Its significance as a transport artery has declined recently, as a nearby modern freeway now takes most of the through traffic. Instead, El Camino has become a monster strip-mall, with mile after mile of neon-lit bars, restaurants and stores – everything from massive car dealerships and furniture emporia to tiny fast-food outlets.

Several ethnic communities cluster along it, and Karen warned me to look out for ‘Little Korea’, and ‘Little India’. Spotting them was not difficult. Most of their shop and restaurant signs were bi-lingual – chunky Korean ideograms in one case, and curly Indian scripts in the other. I wondered idly if any of their staff (or customers) were interested in historical re-enactments, and if so, what kind they preferred.

At home, Karen used a tablet computer to show me a sample of her own craft work. It was a beautiful piece of calligraphy, done as a wedding gift for a couple of friends. She had prepared the ink and the parchment using traditional methods, and cut a suitable feather to make a quill pen for the job. After gazing admiringly but uncomprehendingly at the beautiful lettering, I confessed that the language and the script were unfamiliar to me. Karen replied: “It’s the Lord’s Prayer – in Klingon.”

California, I love you!


Further Information

Murphy, Edith, entry ‘Morton, Thomas’ in New Dictionary of National Biography, OUP, ongoing

Rubin, Rachel Lee, Well Met: Renaissance faires and the American counter-culture, New York University Press, 2013

Web Site: Society for Creative Anachronism

The establishment of the Royal Society of St George

By Lesley Robinson

Early February 1894, Bloomsbury Square in central London. Two men were hard at work fine-tuning the constitution of the Royal Society of St George (RSStG), an association which, unbeknownst to them, would survive for over one Ruffhundred and twenty years. From their offices in the metropolis, these two individuals, Howard Ruff, a Buckinghamshire-born agriculturalist (pictured) and solicitor Harry W. Christmas, embarked upon a mission to awaken patriotic Englishmen and Englishwomen and establish ‘on a permanent basis a patriotic English society’. Struck by the manifest neglect of English patriotism Howard Ruff had, in the 1890s, initiated the practice of writing to the press on the subject in an attempt to rouse his fellow countrymen and countrywomen into patriotic action. These early efforts garnered little support, however, and it soon became clear to Ruff that further action was required. The answer? The establishment of an association with the manifest aim of promoting Englishness. Ruff, however, was inexperienced in the world of associations; if he wished to see his idea come to fruition he would require assistance – and this came with co-founder Harry W. Christmas.

Christmas was already familiar with the associational world. In the decade prior to the formation of the RSStG a separate Society of St George was operating in Britain, of which Christmas was the honorary secretary. Events organised by this association were well-organised and well-attended. In 1883, the St George’s Day dinner was chaired by the Welsh journalist, entrepreneur and Conservative M.P, John Henry Puleston, and attended by, as reported in the Wrexham Advertiser, ‘Englishmen, Scotsmen, Irishmen, and Welshmen, natives of the United States, of the English Colonies, and Englishmen who had travelled all over the inhabitable globe’. The roll call of guests included General Edwin Merritt, the Irish M.P Captain William O’Shea and the English Conservative M.P Albert Pell. Though the object of the earlier Society of St George was to establish a ‘sort of brotherhood over the whole world’, given the diverse ethnic make-up of the members we see that this organisation was not an ethnically English association akin to the RSStG. Years later, in the early 1890s, when the RSStG was eventually established, Christmas would draw on this experience and attempt to replicate the early success of the Society of St George.

In the RSStG’s nascent months announcements were sent out by Ruff and Christmas inviting ‘all patriotic Englishmen irrespective of creed or party’ to join their fledgling association. From London to Birmingham and Huddersfield to Aberdeen, readers of the national and local press were introduced to the society for the first time. In Scotland, the Aberdeen Evening Express deemed its formation an opportune moment owing to the ‘half-comic despair’ expressed by the English press over ‘the recent appointment of Sir Charles Russell as Lord Justice of Appeal and the selection of Mr Reid as Solicitor-General for England-the first an Irishman and the other a Scotsman’. In their eyes, the establishment of the RSStG, a ‘response to this Scottish and Irish invasion’ was not ‘exactly one of antagonism’ but more part of a growing impression that England ‘ought in some way to come more to the front’. The notion of competitive ethnicity between the home nations expressed by the Aberdeen Evening Express was similarly present in the minds of the RSStG’s founders. According to co-founder Harry W. Christmas, the association hoped to ‘enter into friendly rivalry with our Scotch, Irish and Welsh kinsmen in seeing that those interests, which are essentially English, are looked after’. In the metropolis, the location of the RSStG’s headquarters, the needs and wants of the Scots, Irish and Welsh were met to varying degrees through the establishment of Caledonian Clubs and St. Patrick and St. David societies. However, the associational world entered into by the RSStG in 1894 catered to far more than just the home nations; an abundance of associations emerged in the metropolis in the late-nineteenth-century whose remits reflected the imperial world in which they operated. Imperial connections were maintained by the Canada Club, the Dominions Club and the Australasian Club. Other examples included the London Colonial Club and the Imperial Colonies Club, both of which could count a number of RSStG honorary vice-presidents as members: Sir Edmund Barton, Sir Gilbert Parker and Sir Robert Bond. Also among this growing pool of associations was the Authors Club and the Chelsea Arts Club which served those with an interest in literature and the arts, while the Primrose Club, a gentlemen’s club aligned to the Conservative Party, satisfied those concerned with politics. Into the twentieth century, other elite organisations similar to the RSStG with their own focus on England and Anglo-American relations also emerged, namely the Anglo-American League, the Pilgrims Society, the English-Speaking Union and the International Magna Charta Day Association. A valuable resource for members of the metropolitan elite, these evolving associations, the RSStG included, did not provide members with leisure and conviviality, they also acted as sites where London’s privileged classes could convene and establish and maintain important connections.

By founding the RSStG in 1894, Ruff and Christmas did far more than merely ‘awaken’ the patriotism of Englishmen and Englishwomen. A year after its foundation the first extended reports about the association emerged in the press, chronicling its early, more modest, achievements. The Morning Post reported with great enthusiasm on the association’s success in ‘arranging for the bells of the churches of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields and St Mary Abbott’s, Kensington, to be pealed yesterday’ and in having the ‘banner of St. George flown from the steeples of those edifices’. More than a century on, the national press continues to report on the activities of the RSStG. In 2014 over fifty branches of the RSStG are active in England with thousands of members proudly celebrating their English identity. Undoubtedly, one hundred and twenty years on from that February meeting, the legacy of Ruff and Christmas remains very much alive.