Letters – MHM120 January/February 2021

Your thoughts on issues raised by the magazine.

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A rich past

Having lived in Alsace for almost 40 years, I was very interested in your article on the Franco-Prussian War and the Battle of Gravelotte-St-Privat (MHM December 2020/January 2021). I often drove past St Privat. I knew this was the site of a major battle, but did not realise it was such a killing ground.

The village I lived in, Lampertheim, was the Prussian headquarters during the Siege of Strasbourg, while a nearby 16th-century house was used by a commander during the Thirty Years War. The rest of the village was burnt down.

There are no commemorative plaques in this area. Despite a very rich and tumultuous past, it seems Alsatians do not wish to linger too long over it.

John O’Shea
South Lanarkshire

No plain sailing

Your otherwise excellent article on Vasa (MHM December 2020/January 2021) incorrectly stated the ship’s draught was ‘too shallow… for stability’.

A shallow draught does not reduce stability. The problem was that the beam (the breadth of the hull at the waterline) was too small. The length to beam ratio of Vasa was just over 4, whereas most ships of that era would have a ratio between 3.5 and 4, and therefore a relatively greater beam than Vasa.

A common practice at the time was ‘girdling’ a ship by adding extra timbers around the waterline to increase the beam. This might have prevented her loss.

Richard Benson

In Memoriam: Bill Purdue

Somehow the alcohol always met the rim, and no more. The smile, the raffish smartness, the wry reflections, the impedimenta of the smoker, the inimitable timbre of the soft-spoken, sometimes croaky voice. The Northern Counties Club, of which he was a very popular member, found him particularly in his element.

I first met Bill in the 1980s. We were both historians in the North-East, each sociable, both, highly unusually, Tories, and we got on well. Bill was more urbane and worldly wise, more sardonic and sceptical, older (born on 29 January 1941), and already very fond of the drink.

He was much more impressive than he could sometimes appear. Whereas I had had a conventional route into academe, Bill – the son of a North Shields policeman – had, after a London degree, worked outside Higher Education, including in the Royal Navy, and had then found his new opportunity in the rapidly expanding university world.

Newcastle Polytechnic was followed by the Open University, where Bill rose to be a Reader and was a popular teacher and adroit course-designer. He was also a Visiting Professor at Northumbria. The PhDs he had supervised which I examined were always very well prepared.

He published actively in three fields: 19th-century history, local history, and popular culture, notably with his Merchants and Gentry in North-East England, 1650-1830 and Newcastle: the biography. There were also books on both world wars and the monarchy, and co-authored projects, as well as much periodical material, notably in The Times Higher.

Bill was very active in Northumberland politics, too, and popular in his hometown of Allendale. A keen family man, very proud of the achievements of his wife of 41 years, Marie, and their daughter, Jess, Bill was a fun-lover of a somewhat old-fashioned type, not least in his readiness to express appreciation of women.

His laughter was frequent, he was brilliant on the inanities of academic life, his combination of suit top and bright corduroy trousers, his countryman-in-town persona, the pipe to the fore, his forward stance leaning in to any conversational group (in part due to a degree of deafness, but also because of interest and engagement), the curly mass of hair, bright eyes, glasses on a cord.

Happily for me, we stayed in touch after I left the North-East in 1996. He and Marie came to many of my London parties, and we would also meet at the Emperor’s birthday party celebrations in London. Seeing the pair of them was one of the delights of those fabulous occasions.

I last saw Bill when I went to stay last winter. He was, as ever, welcoming, kind, thoughtful, and inspiring. The drink was good, and we talked about writing projects. I had that strange sense that this was the last time we would meet, that sense I have had a number of times with friends, when remarks take on a particular weight and are etched strongly on the porous stone of the memory.

Last November, at the end of a mellow day of writing, dog-walking, and a lovely dinner, Bill suddenly collapsed with heart failure. He did not suffer at all.

I am very sad. He was a wonderful man.

Jeremy Black

Please note: letters may be edited for length; views expressed here are those of our readers, and do not necessarily reflect those of the magazine.