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Malnutrition and Indolence – Lessons for Today

In my previous post I postulated that poor diet in expectant mothers and infants had, in the past, a role in preventing the poor in Ireland from improving their conditions. But can it also explain the lack of aspiration evident among the poor in modern developed economies?


Concentrated orange juice was provided free of charge to pregnant women and infants in Britain during and after World War II.

The British government during World War II was concerned to ensure that expectant and nursing mothers and infants received proper nutrition despite the food shortages and rationing that characterised the war years and those immediately following. They would have been ignorant of the relationship between diet and brain growth. But they were certainly concerned to prevent diseases, like scurvy, associated with vitamin deficiencies. Concentrated orange juice, cod liver oil, and free school milk all served to ensure that my generation, and our mothers, had access to nutritious foods.

The same wellfare foods were also available to the ‘baby boomer’ generation that followed. And concern for diet informed the decision to provide free meals to school children who met the criteria of a simple means test, and continues to do so throughout the UK.

The first 3 decades after that war were characterised by full employment and the rapid expansion of educational opportunities. The causes of the rise in unemployment in the 1980s were undoubtedly economic. But, whereas in the 1950s & ’60s young people were not only willing, but eager, to seek opportunities for self improvement, through education, training and migration to regions at home and abroad where well rewarded work was available, subsequent generations of the poor seem less inclined to show such initiative. Schemes intended to help are all too often either abused or viewed with resentment.


Does poor nutrition mean some children’s brains aren’t able to assimilate information?

A woman residing in North America, commenting on my previous post, suggests that similar problems of apathy and even hostility towards formal education exist there, too. The ‘dumming down’ of the school curriculum there, she argues, is not “that students don’t care about education, but that their brains aren’t functioning enough to be able to assimilate the material.”

The effect of non-nutritious additives, fats and sugars in causing such comparatively recent phenomena as ADHD, obesity and diabetes is well understood. Are we missing a trick in not ensuring that expecting and nursing mothers and infants receive the kind of foods that will maximise the ability of those infants to develop their full potential as human beings?

Some politicians and commentators still hold to the view that the poor are to blame for their own conditions. They make a distinction between those they refer to as the ‘deserving poor’ and those they regard as ‘undeserving‘. Could it be that people who fall into this latter group are suffering from the kind of dietary deficiencies that have been shown to be responsible for an apathetic attitude, low IQ and an inability to take action to lift themselves out of poverty?


The Trouble with Grammar Schools

Early in 1952 I took, and passed, an examination generally referred to as 11+. This was the method by which pupils were selected for a grammar school education. It supposedly indicated that I had a higher than average intelligence quotient. In the whole of Herefordshire

Hereford Cathedral

Hereford Cathedral

there were only two grammar schools for boys, not counting the highly specialised Cathedral Choir School – Hereford High School and Kington Grammar (There were also grammar schools for girls). Both were geographically isolated from our home in the hills above the Golden Valley in the south west of the county.

This presented my mother with a dilemma: daily travel to Hereford would involve a 2½ mile walk to the nearest bus stop and the same in reverse. Alternatively she would have to find a family in Hereford with whom I could lodge Monday through Thursday. Uniforms were another problem for someone subsisting on a war widow’s pension. Her search for alternatives took her to Reed’s School, a boarding establishment in Surrey.

Originally founded in 1813 by Andrew Reed the school had begun if as an orphanage in the East End of London and may well have been the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ ‘Dootheboys Hall’. By the 1950s it had re-located to Surrey and offered a grammar school education to boys who had lost at least one parent. In the 1950s that meant that most of its pupils were, like me, the sons of men killed in World War Two.

There were approximately 150 of us, aged 11-16, with a small sixth form. It is important to remember that back then less than 10% of young people went to university1; there simply were not enough places. Boys and girls wishing to enter the professions often learned ‘on the job’, continuing their formal education via ‘day release’ – an agreement with their employer to allow them one day off each week to attend college to study for an appropriate qualification. They might also attend evening classes.

Narrow curriculum

In the 1950s, Oxford and  Cambridge and a handful of others were the only third level options available in the UK.

In the 1950s, Oxford and Cambridge and a handful of others were the only third level options available in the UK.

Even among the select few who attended grammar schools, most left at 16 having taken the General Certificate of Education (GCE) at ‘Ordinary’ level. Only a handful continued on in the sixth form for the two years it took to study to Advanced level standard, the minimum requirement for university entrance. In my school the available subjects for study was quite narrow. This was a feature of the small size of school. It was neither practical nor possible to employ sufficient teachers to cover a wide range of subjects.

I and most of my cohort took only 8 subjects at ‘O’ level from a possible choice of 10.

Jump forward 30 years to the second half of the 1980s and I am a County Councillor in an area with a population in excess of 800,000, responsible for a large number of schools and colleges. In four years I met many teachers and education administrators, as well as other local politicians, the majority of whom were opposed to selection. During that period the Council embarked on the re-organisation of the schools in one of the urban centres in the county, a process that led to a great deal of debate and discussion centred on the importance of school size in order to achieve a satisfactory range of educational experiences for the pupils. There was, as well, a lot of debate about the importance of providing the opportunity for every pupil to develop his or her full potential. There was then, and there remains, a broad consensus that the comprehensive system is better able to meet both criteria than is a system in which the most academically gifted pupils and teachers are segregated from the rest.

In the 1950s the cleverest pupils – the ones that went on to university – had a very limited range of options available to them. A narrow curriculum at secondary school was not seen as a disadvantage. Given the diverse range of careers available to graduates today, and the equally vast array of third level courses in universities, it does seem to me essential that schools are able to offer a broad range of subjects capable of developing an equally wide range of skills among their pupils. The best comprehensive schools do just that.


Meanwhile Reed’s School has become a fairly exclusive private school that still maintains around 60 places for ‘Fundationers’, children from single parent and similarly disadvantaged households. The fees paid by the 600 or so private pupils, most of whom are day boys and girls from the immediate neighbourhood, help to fund the education offered to foundationers who are enabled to enjoy a broad curriculum with some specialisation. The tennis training it provides was made famous by Tim Henman. The school also offers excellent tuition in music and in Design and Technology. As an ex-pupil I am pleased to see my old school go from strength to strength but I have serious reservations abut its exclusivity.

  1. For university education participation rates see: Education: Historical statistics,Standard Note: SN/SG/4252 Last updated: 27 November 2012. Author: Paul Bolton, Social & General Statistics

Blessings Abound

Blessing.Candle.qkxI saw a snippet in our local newspaper earlier this week that I’ve been mulling over ever since. It was in the community section, among the bridge club results and notices of forthcoming meetings. A brief announcement of such a bizarre nature that it took me completely by surprise.


Blessing of school bags will take place at 6.30pm Mass on Saturday, September 3.

It is probable that I am missing something; that this is a perfectly ordinary event in the Church calendar. And yet … I can’t help wondering precisely what those seeking to have their school bags blessed expect to achieve thereby. How might a blessed bag differ from one that has not been sprinkled with holy water and had some incantation recited in it presence?

Will such a bag acquire the capacity to hold more books than its un-blessed neighbour? Will it make the contents seem lighter to the child carrying it on his/her back? Will it render he texts within the books more intelligible, so that the child gains a better understanding of the information they contain? Will it provide assurance for the parents that this simple ceremony will increase the likelihood that their child will obtain a better mark in his/her examinations?

Vile deeds

When considered alongside the vile things done to children in the name of religion, it might seem a strange thing to make a fuss about. The physical, mental and sexual abuse suffered by past generations at the hands of members of religious orders, in Ireland and elsewhere, is well documented. What harm can there be in the simple act of blessing a school bag? None, unless, like me, you take the view that permitting our young to believe such bizarre nonsense is to damage their minds by filling them with irrational ideas.

As I have said, I have been pondering this idea, on and off, for a few days now. Throughout, I have tried to fight off the possibility that my mind keeps coming back to: that the advertised event is not real; that it is, rather, some joke perpetrated by a hoaxer who wishes to make the Church look foolish.

I’m not sure which is worse, the idea that the event may be real, with all that implies – the totally irrational belief system behind it – or the possibility that someone is so full of contempt for the Church that he or she thinks it amusing to make fun of an institution that, despite everything, still means a great deal to many Irish citizens.

I’d be delighted to hear from anyone who can confirm that such ceremonies do, in fact, take place, and who can explain the thinking behind them. Please use the comments below or on Facebook.

The Proper Response to Famine

How should we respond to disasters? Natural events – earthquakes, floods, forest fires – usually evoke an outpouring of sympathy accompanied by the dispatch of all manner of aid. Engineers, medics, machinery and food are flown in to the disaster area to ensure that victims receive succour. Appeals raise millions of dollars to support such efforts.

Is our response to famine different? Should it be? Are we more inclined to seek the cause of the catastrophe before making a commitment to assist? How deeply ingrained in our knowledge of Judao/Christian history is the story of how Joseph taught his Egyptian captors the importance of conserving the surplus from good years in order to provide for years when the harvest failed? We may not subscribe to Malthusian theories about the relationship between population and food production, but common sense tells us that there is indeed some form of interdependence between the two.

Natural disasters are just that. Largely unpredictable events beyond our control. Science has provided us with tools that reduce the unpredictability of earthquakes. Engineers have shown us how to design buildings capable of surviving any but the most intense. The same is true of floods. Even so, there are few circumstances in which we would blame the victims of such events. We might argue, after the event, that warnings had been ignored, that building design regulations had been flouted, flood defences neglected. In such circumstances we would be justified in apportioning blame to those responsible for the neglect, not to the victims.

Earthquake in Nepal. Image from


Flooding in Myanmar. Image from



Often potential victims are able to insure against such risks, although the premium might be prohibitive if the risk is high. And an insurer’s reluctance to underwrite the risk should act as a warning to anyone choosing to dwell in an area prone to floods or earthquakes. In such circumstances we might well withhold our sympathy on the grounds that they were aware of the risk when they took the decision to build their home on a flood plain or near a fault line.

Drought afflicted maize in Malawi earlier this year. Image from

The causes of famine – crop failure, drought, floods – are potentially just as predictable as are earthquakes. Tools and techniques to mitigate such events are well known. Could there, then, be some justification in attributing blame to the victims of famine? Maybe they failed to install proper irrigation systems; they chose not to plant disease resistant strains of their preferred crop; they did not make use of other agricultural techniques, such as spraying with insecticides, or sensible crop rotations to conserve soil fertility whilst allowing the disease bearing organisms to die before re-planting with the susceptible crop.

The Elephant in the Room

There is another factor in all these situations: population pressure. As populations grow, demand for food and housing increases, forcing people to build their homes, or to grow crops, in unsuitable locations. The corollary is true also: in good times people reproduce. Infant mortality reduces. The elderly survive for longer. Population increases. The likelihood of disaster grows. So, too, does the likelihood of war. Another lesson from Judao/Christian history concerns the wresting of the “promised land” from its occupants in order to provide a fertile home for former exiles.

Were I not an optimist I would say that, even without climate change, our planet is headed for catastrophe driven by the inexorable rise in population. Why do I remain optimistic? Because I believe in the power of education, of science and of technology. There will be great suffering, for sure, there always has been. Wars, natural disasters and famines will continue. Perhaps they will intensify.

In the past these would often have been attributed to providence, or the wrath of some invisible deity. The response would have involved religious rituals and invocations. But the advance of knowledge has given humankind an understanding of the causes of these calamities and the means both to mitigate their effects and to prevent their recurrence. I believe it will give future generations the power to find a sustainable balance between population and resource use.

5 #atoztreasures: #atozchallenge

One of the great pleasures of participating in the #atozchallenge has been the opportunity to look at what others have done with it. Over 1300 people completed the challenge so it would be impossible for any one individual to read them all. I have looked at a few – and intend to look at a few more over the next while. I’ll provide links to some I’ve liked and that you might like too. Here, in no particular order, are the first five.

The submissions from The take the form of conversations between husband and wife or wife and her friends, all in Dublin dialect. It’s a bit ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ meets Roddy Doyle and captures the various relationships well. In the process it manages to introduce comment on current events (check out Y for ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ for the day the verdict was announced from the Hillsborough inquest).

Damyanti Biswas used her 26 contributions to publicise the work of an education and support charity working in India called ‘Project Why’. Her stories about the volunteers and clients of the Project are truly inspiring and should live on long after April 2016 is forgotten.

Several writers used the opportunity to tease with quotes from their books, or to share some of the thing that inspired thee events or characters it depicts. Val Tobin is one of those, so is Yolanda Renee whose murder mysteries are set in Alaska. Her #atozchallenge posts evoke the Alaskan landscape and history very well.

Marjory Witt settled for 26 posts each exactly 67 words long and each relating to an obscure word. It’s fun to read and, with entries that short, doesn’t take long.

I’ll be back with 5 more #atoztreasures soon. Meanwhile I hope you enjoy this first selection.

Reed, Andrew:#atozchallenge

Andrew Reed was a Congregationalist minister with a doctorate from Yale who encouraged philanthropy on a grand scale. Many of the schools and hospitals he founded live on to the present day.

Perhaps Rev. Dr. Andrew Reed’s most extraordinary talent was for social networking. For it was surely his ability to extract donations from the rich and famous of Victorian England that enabled him to found so many institutions, including:

  • Churches

  • Orphanages

  • Schools

  • Asylums

  • Hospitals

D.D from Yale

Born in St Clement Danes in Middlesex, England on November 27th 1787, he studied theology at Hackney Academy and was ordained a Congregationalist Minister in 1811. In 1830 he was instrumental in building the Wycliffe Chapel where he remained until 1861. He died on 25th February 1862 and is buried in Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington, London.

In 1834 he visited the USA on a deputation to the Congregationalist Churches and received the degree of D.D from Yale. He was instrumental in the formation of Boston’s first anti-slavery society. His report on his visit includes the following statement, controversial at the time: “Justice, Truth, Mercy, Religion—Earth and Heaven, demand of America that she should assure the world she is what she professes to be, by preserving the Indian, and emancipating the African.”

Together with his wife, Elizabeth Reed, he compiled a hymn book containing some 21 hymns of his own composition as well as a similar number of hers.

Schools and Hospitals

But it is for the many institutions that he founded that he is remembered. These include:

  • London Infant Asylum – subsequently The Royal Wanstead School. The school is now closed, but The Royal Wanstead Trust continues to offer bursaries to support attendance at suitable boarding schools for children where “the home circumstances are seriously prejudicial to the normal development of the child”
  • Asylum for Fatherless Children – later Reedham Orphanage, still later Reedham School. Like RWS, the school has closed and been replaced by The Reedham Trust with similar aims.
  • Asylum for Idiots at Reigate – later Royal Earlswood Hospital. “Idiots” being the unflinching term used in Victorian times for the learning disabled. In 1847 Reed toured Europe to gather information on institutions serving the purpose, in response to a suggestion by Ann Serena Plumbe and Dr John Connolly.The first superintendent was John Langdon-Down after whom Down’s Syndrome was named. The hospital closed in 1997 as part of the modern policy of moving such individuals into the community. The site is now occupied by luxury apartments.
  • Royal Hospital for Incurables in Putney. – now known as the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability, and still active in the treatment of people suffering brain injuries and researching such treatments.
  • London Orphan Asylum – Now Reed’s School and located in Cobham Surrey. The school still provides education for boys under the original foundation, as well as a much larger number of private pupils. In the 1950’s, when I was a pupil, much of the cutlery still carried the identification “LOA”.

Rich and Famous

Reed associated with a wide circle of the rich and famous of his time. The “Royal” tag to so many of the institutions with which he is associated shows that these included Queen Victoria, who often provided funds in the name of her son, The Prince of Wales, later Edward VII.

Other benefactors included Sir Morton Peto, Rev Francis Cox, Dr Leifchild, Miss Burdett Couutts of the famous banking family, and Lord Morpeth.

The writer Charles Dickens was another associate and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that “Dootheboys Hall”, which features in “Nicholas Nickleby”, is based on one, or more probably, an amalgam of several, of Reed’s orphanages.

Reed’s ministry and his work as an educator and social reformer were continued by his sons, Andrew and Charles, and his grandson, Talbot Baines Reed who is also well known as a writer of stories for boys.


Andrew Reed wrote his own epitaph. It reads as follows:

I was born yesterday, I shall die tomorrow,
And I must not spend today in telling what I have done,
But in doing what I may for HIM who has done all for me.
I sprang from the people, I have lived for the people–
The most for the most unhappy; and the people when
They know it will not suffer me to die out of loving remembrance.

His monument, a tall obelisk of polished red granite, can be seen today at the London Congregationalists’ garden cemetery Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington. As stated on, “Stoke Newington was an area known for its religious dissidents, many of whom were founders or members of educational and social reform movements. A visit to Abney Park is highly recommended for those with an interest in religious or social history.”

I can honestly say that Andrew Reed was a great influence in my life. Use the comments to tell me about someone whose influence contributed to making you the person you are today.

History: atozchallenge

When I was fourteen I was faced with a choice. I had to decide which 8 subjects I was going to study over the next two years leading to the GCE ‘O’ level examination. For those who are not familiar with the school leaving examinations in Britain in the 1950s, the initials stand for General Certificate of Education, Ordinary level. This exam was taken by a relatively small proportion of 16 year-olds. An even smaller proportion continued for a further two years and took ‘A’ (for advanced) level GCEs in 2 or 3 subjects leading either to university or a training place in a profession like law or accountancy. The majority of young people left school and entered the workforce at age 15.

The choice for me and my colleagues was fairly simple. Six subjects were compulsory: Maths, English (Language and Literature), French, Latin and Physics. The choices were limited to Chemistry or Geography and History or Art. Believing that a second science subject would be of greater use in my later life, I chose Chemistry over Geography. I had no obvious talent for Art, but History would mean learning a lot of dates and other facts by heart.

Kings and Queens of England

The fact that I regularly earned high marks for history essays I discounted. This was, I knew, much more to do with my ability to precis the relevant chapter from the text book than any real affinity with the subject. I figured that it would be hard enough filling my brain with the science facts I needed, without trying to stuff in the sequence of Kings, Queens and Prime Ministers, the dates of battles and the underlying reasons for wars. I chose Art.

To my surprise I discovered I did in fact have a talent for painting and drawing. But I missed out on the opportunity to study much of 18th and 19th century history. The period from the Industrial Revolution to World War I remained vague for me, apart from the scientific discoveries I learned about whilst studying those subjects. Only when I began to take a keen interest in the cultural and social environment of the 1960s and ’70s did I realise the significance of this gap in my knowledge.


Knowing more of the history of the Trades Union movement, for example, and the formation of the British Labour Party, would have helped me better understand the many industrial disputes that characterised the period. Learning about the factors underlying the American Civil War and its aftermath would have made it easier to understand the Civil Rights movement and the accompanying violence. And knowing about the Irish famine and the campaign for Home Rule would surely have improved my understanding of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.

Of course, such events generated articles in the press and television documentaries that went some way towards explaining the background to them but it was not until the 1990s, when I purchased all three volumes of Simon Schama‘s History of the British Isles, that I grasped something of the importance of history in our understanding of current events. Then, in 2007, came a discovery that, for me, had quite profound implications.

Irish heritage

It was in that year I made my first visit to a heritage site close to my new home in Ireland. The site consists of a rocky knoll nestled between several other hills. Surrounding its peak is a crumbling stone wall and, at the peak, the remains of a Norman castle keep. (At the top of the page is an image of the site from local photographer Ciara Drennan). The Norman invasion of England had, of course, been almost the starting point for my historical studies up to the age of fourteen, as it is for every British school child. And I knew about Norman castles because I grew up within half a mile of one of the chain of such buildings that mark the border between England and Wales.

I knew much less about the Norman’s involvement in Ireland. My interest was further piqued when I read, on the information board at the site, that the castle was once occupied by Roger Mortimer. That name rang bells. I knew that one or more men of that name had a base in my native Herefordshire and had played significant roles in English history in the 13th and 14th centuries. What, I wondered, was his connection to Ireland? Was it even the same man?

Strongbow as depicted in the Dublinia exhibition

Strongbow as depicted in the Dublinia exhibition

Thus began a long and fairly detailed study of the Normans in Ireland during which I discovered that Mortimer was not alone in being someone with Herefordshire connections who played a leading role in Irish history. Names like Strongbow and De Lacy are probably better known in Herefordshire than in Ireland, if only because they live on in place names or, in Strongbow’s case, the name of a Hereford produced product.

Arranged marriage

As I learned more, I became particularly attracted to the story of a young woman whose father invited Strongbow to Ireland, offering her hand in marriage in return for his help in regaining her father’s kingdom. I wondered what it might have been like to be the 13-year-old accompanying her father and mother on a journey across England and France in search of the King whose permission they would need in order to engage his subjects in their quest.

How did she respond to the subsequent events, including the long wait for Strongbow to New Coverfulfill his promise? What became of her after his death? My answers to those and many other questions can be found in my novel Strongbow’s Wife. The research I undertook, thanks to the ability to precis the relevant chapters of history books that once earned high marks for school history essays, became the section of this website I call Hereford and Ireland History.

I now believe that history ought to be one of the compulsory subjects tought in every school. Without a knowledge of history how can we begin to understand the events of today? But that belief is clouded by another thought: there are many different versions of history, depending upon whose story is being told. Which, if any, is the one that we should teach our young?