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Making History
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Listen to the latest editionTuesday 3.00-3.30 p.m
Vanessa Collingridge and the team answer listener’s historical queries and celebrate the way in which we all ‘make’ history.
Programme 8
20 May 2008
Vanessa Collingridge and the team discuss listeners' historical queries and celebrate the many ways in which we all 'make' history.

Listen to this programme in full

Vikings on the Wirral

Brendan and Cathleen Meehan live at Thingwall on the Wirral and they wanted Making History to confirm that the village takes its name from the Viking for a parliament ( a ‘thing’).

Making History consulted the biologist Professor Stephen Harding at the University of Nottingham who has just finished a DNA project on the blood lines of old, established families on the Wirral and throughout North West England. He explained that parts of the Wirral were settled by Scandinavian Vikings who were expelled from Dublin in 902AD. He confirmed that Thingwall was indeed a place where elders met to discuss the issues of the day and even suggested where this might have been.

The University of Nottingham project (in association with the University of Leicester and University College London) was made difficult by the amount of inward migration of people to the Wirral and North West England during the industrial revolution.

Using Court Rolls, taxation records and other evidence, the team had to establish the names of the families that were living in this area prior to this huge population change. Having done the researchers could be reasonably sure of the provenance of the DNA that they were studying.

The results show that maybe more than 30% of established families on the Wirral have blood ties to the Viking settlers – a percentage as high as it is on Orkney.

More information on the Viking heritage on the Wirral and the project can be found at:

Other useful links include:

University of Nottingham's genetic survey of Wirral and West Lancashire
Excavating Past Population Structures by Surname-Based Sampling: The Genetic Legacy of the Vikings in Northwest England from the Journal of Molecular Biology and Evolution (.pdf fomat) 

West Lancashire Heritage Association

BBC History - The Vikings
Tommy Godwin

Tommy Godwin

In 1939, professional cyclist Tommy Godwin rode over 75,000 miles in a year – a record that is still not beaten. In fact, Tommy went on into 1940 to reach 100,000 miles. Largely because of the war and the decline of cycling in the UK, Godwin’s record is now almost forgotten. Incredibly, Tommy’s bike only had three gears and weighed 30lbs (see below)

Tommy Godwin
Photographs courtesy of Phil Dorman

Tommy Godwin served with the RAF during the war and, because he was a professional with the Raleigh team, wasn’t allowed to race in amateur events after the war. He died, on a cycle ride, in 1975.

For more information on Tommy’s incredible feat see cycling journalist Dave Barter’s web site.
The Woking Invalid Prison

Janice Jelley in Billericay has discovered that two members of her family ended up in the Woking Invalid Prison in the 1870’s after being convicted of starving one of their wives to death. Janice wanted to know what an Invalid Prison was?

Woking Invalid Prison
The old Woking Invalid Prison after being converted to a barracks. © Peter Higginbotham

Making History consulted Peter Higginbotham, who is an authority on nineteenth century workhouses and prisons, and here is his background to the Invalid Prison at Knaphill in Woking…

In the first half of the nineteenth century, two of the most common sentences for convicts were hard labour or deportation to an overseas penal colony. Those who were too ill or infirm to undergo such punishments could meet a variety of fates. In a few cases, a pardon might be issued on medical grounds. For some, their destiny might be to remain in gaol and let their condition take its course. For others though, there was the dubious privilege of being transferred to an invalid prison.

Dartmoor prison had a large invalid section and received transfers from other prisons such as Portland if inmates were suffering from the early stages of TB in its various forms such as pthisis (lungs) and scrofula (skin). In 1855, of 545 men received at Dartmoor during the year, only 20 were able-bodied, with the rest suffering from a wide variety of conditions. The prison's remote location was considered a particular attraction for accommodating such cases.

Up to the 1850s, invalid prison accommodation was also provided in various old 'hulks' - derelict wooden ships that had been turned into floating prisons. This practice originated during the American War of Independence in the 1770s when transporting convicts to America no longer became possible. The prison hulks used as invalid prisons were sited at Woolwich (including the ‘Justitia’, the ‘Warrior’, the ‘Defence’ and hospital ship ‘Unité’) and at Portsmouth (the ‘York’, and then the ‘Stirling Castle’ with its hospital ship the ‘Briton’). The hulks received inmates with a wide variety of medical conditions although again a fair proportion were TB cases. Conditions on the hulks were generally accepted as wretched. By the 1850s, the ‘Stirling Castle’ was so bad that it was closed down and the inmates transferred to the ‘Defence’ at Woolwich. When that then burnt down in 1856 it was decided to establish a new land-based invalid prison at Woking. In the interim, Lewes prison was used as a temporary invalid prison.

At Lewes, the management noted an immediate improvement in discipline - most of the inmates could now be confined in cells each holding up to three men, rather than having constant free association as happened on the old hulks. They were given classroom lessons in various subjects including history and geography; there was a bible study group, and an evening school twice a week at which the prison staff could also attend. Inmates were also encouraged to read out aloud to one another.

The new Woking invalid prison opened in 1860 (replacing an older prison in the town) and initially accommodated 350 inmates. It employed the same treatment regime that been developed at Lewes. After Woking opened, Dartmoor continued to receive invalids who were capable of “light labour” while Brixton prison was used to house female invalids. In 1869 the Woking Prison for 780 female convicts was opened, having being built by convict labour. By this date, there were over 900 male convicts in residence. Woking gradually evolved into an ‘ordinary prison’ and by the end of the 19th century, Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight had taken over the role of being the invalid prison of the convict department

Useful Link:

The Workhouse

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    Use this link to email Vanessa Collingridge and the team: email Making History

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    BN1 1TU

    Telephone: 08700 100 400

    Making History is produced by Nick Patrick and is a Pier Production.
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    Making History

    Vanessa Collingridge
    Vanessa CollingridgeVanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald. 

    Contact Making History

    Send your comments and questions for future programmes to:
    Making History
    BBC Radio 4
    PO Box 3096 Brighton
    BN1 1PL

    Or email the programme

    Or telephone the Audience Line 08700 100 400

    Making History is a Pier Production for BBC Radio 4 and is produced by Nick Patrick.

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