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Northerners: A History. From the Ice Ages to the 21st Century

Speaker: Brian Groom

Thursday, 24 November 2022

The guest speaker at u3a Todmorden's November Members Meeting was Brian Groom, who presented 'Northerners: A History. From the Ice Ages to the 21st Century'.

Brian started work as a journalist at The Goole Times newspaper, then spent most of his career at the Financial Times, plus starting up The Scotsman on Sunday paper.

He set the scene of his talk by describing how people lived in the north of England at a time when the country would have areas with Mediterranean conditions in one area, and areas still covered in thick ice in another, and that some of the early humans would have crossed a piece of land that formed a bridge across the North Sea.  

There were at least ten waves of human habitation in the area during the ice ages.  Even earlier, there were dinosaurs in the north, evidenced by traces of fossil vertebrae found on a beach near Whitby in 2015. The dinosaur was given the name 'Alan', after the geologist who found him, Alan Gurr. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the north has been described as a 'barren, uncivilised place'.

The first human that can be identified as a northerner was Cartimandua, the ruler of the Brigantes.  Brian said that she was a pivotal figure in early history, but is largely ignored as she collaborated with the Romans, who occupied Britain at this time - Boudica being much more well known these days.  Cartimandua actually married a Roman, and succeeded in keeping her territory for over thirty years.  However, the actions of Boudica in resisting Roman occupation resulted in the deaths of many of Cartimandua's subjects. 

Six Roman emperors came to the North of England to try and quell resistance to their soldiers, the most famous being Hadrian.  This was the start of many years of the North being viewed as a military area, unlike the South which was comparatively more peaceful and orderly.  The Romans produced a map which perhaps reflected their views of England.  Split into two, the South was named, Britannicus Superior', and the North: 'Britannicus Inferior'

The Romans left Britain in the fourth century, and migrants began to arrive from Germany – these became known as Anglo Saxons. Their population grew over the years, and the north gained greater autonomy as a result. 

A number of Kings ruled over separate areas of the north, and some even ruled parts of the south of England.  One of them; King Oswald, also known as 'Whiteblade' or 'Blessed Arm' has been regarded as one of England's most charismatic warriors, and after his death was venerated as a Saint.  During his lifetime, he proposed that a community of monks should be established on the Island of Lindisfarne.  After his death, parts of his body were venerated in churches across Europe.  His head is said to be in Durham Cathedral, but is claimed by three other churches that it is in theirs. 

Northumbria, once regarded as a pagan society, transformed itself within a century to one of Europe's leading Christian and artistic centres, sending missionaries to other cities in Europe.  But this happy state wasn't to last.  By the eighth century, instability existed with wars and conflicts over who should rule the various kingdoms in the north.

In the same century, the Vikings invaded Lindisfarne, heralding their occupation of a good deal of the north of England and, over the next century, began to settle, integrating with the population, and some converting to Christianity. 

Also at this time, the English language developed - Old English contained around forty Scandinavian, or Norse, words but now there are around 900 words which originated from the Vikings in our language, including verbs and pronouns.

By the 10th century, England became to be united by the Wessex kings, up until the invasion of the Normans, led by William the Conqueror, who is thought of as the North's nemesis.  Resistance to the Norman invaders led to the 'Harrying of the North' by King William, part of which involved the burning of food and crops, leading to a famine affecting over a hundred thousand people in Yorkshire, Durham, Cheshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire.

In the middle ages, there was a rapid growth in population and development in the north, and most of the soldiers who fought in the many wars right up to, and including, the Wars of the Roses were northerners. 

The Tudor dynasty then effectively moved all the country's government and, some may say, the wealth, importance and influence to London and the South of England.

The north continued to be involved in the events leading from Tudor times right up to the Industrial Revolution, which totally transformed its role and importance in history. The area had everything needed; coal to power boilers and engines, steel made in Sheffield and the north east, rivers to ferry goods to either coast, and established textile cottage industries.

People from other parts of England, plus other countries such as Ireland began to migrate and seek work in what was the powerhouse of Britain for almost a century and a half. Lancashire, in 1693, was found to be the 35th richest out of the 39 counties in England, by 1843 it had become the second richest.

But for northerners, life still wasn't easy.  They suffered from exploitation, poor wages, harsh working conditions and upheaval.  The majority of the workforce lived in poor housing and, in many cases, squalor. They also felt the effects of the mass immigration that was taking place, such as violence and discrimination.

Locally, the main industry in Todmorden changed from wool to cotton and most of the population moved from the hillsides into the town centre to work in the mills, some built by 'Honest' John Fielden who was heavily involved in reforming workers' rights and conditions.  The town became better connected to other towns and cities by rail, as well as the canals being built to transport goods to and from the coast.

Around the same time, northern writers and artists became more famous and noted, particularly women such the Brontes, and Elizabeth Gaskell.  In terms of entertainment and achievement, this part of Britain has contributed more than its fair share.  In the twentieth century, Gracie Fields and George Formby attracted large audiences, and contributed largely to morale during World War two. Beatlemania, Britpop and the Manchester music scene are among the many cultural events that have their origins in the north of England.

As many of the audience know, the main industries of the last two centuries have all but disappeared, particularly in the north. Brian mentioned that our local towns have created some new ones, but again some members may have been affected by the mill closures since the early 1970s.

During his talk, Brian gave his own answer to the question 'What is a northerner?' It is either someone who lives in the north of England or someone who describes themselves as a northerner.  So, one way or the other, our members attending the meeting could enjoy hearing about fellow northerners, as well as confirming the north is anything but 'inferior', as suggested by the Roman map described during Brian's entertaining and informative presentation.

The next Todmorden U3A Monthly Members Meeting will be on Thursday 15th December 2022 at 1.45 pm, open to all fully paid-up members at the Central Methodist Hall, Todmorden. The speaker for this meeting is Susan Holden, with 'The Twelve Dates of Christmas'

Not yet a member? You can attend one talk free by requesting an invitation to this zoom event. We're always delighted to welcome new members. Contact details: website at www.u3atod.org.uk or email at info@u3atod.org.uk.

Many thanks to Colin Sanson for this report


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