Podcast: Hysterically Inaccurate

PodcastMy colleague Steve Marti recently came up with the idea to do a history podcast here at Western. He has based it on the BBC Radio 4 series “The Unbelievable Truth.” His version, “Hysterically Inaccurate,” follows the same basic parameters: each presenter gives a short talk which is entirely fictitious save for five true facts. The other participants buzz in when they feel they’ve identified something true.  Since we are all historians, the topic is usually within our field of interest.

We had our first podcast last Friday. Steve hosted, while myself, Erin Pocock, Tyler Turek and Dr. Jonathan Vance participated. I spoke about English prisons, Erin about an Ottoman sultan, Tyler about the Imperial War Cabinet and Dr. Vance about POW escape techniques. It turned out to be much more fun making up fake facts than incorporating the real ones – my first draft was entirely fabricated and I had to revise it to incorporate real events.

I’m interested to see whether any other history departments, graduate or undergraduate students, have done anything similar. Podcasts seem to be an excellent way to share information and do not involve too much technical expertise.

Steve is away researching in Australia. He will be back in September and will fix up the raw recording so that we can post it. In the meantime, the text of my talk was as follows … can you determine which parts are true?

Prison: An English Perspective

The first prison in England was built after the Norman invasion of 1066. Before that time, prisoners were kept in mud huts guarded by ill-tempered livestock. This first gaol was nicknamed horrendous locus, meaning ‘horrible place’. The local knight, Sir Roald Sunderland declared that the prison had been built “by the Grace of God upon this soggy landscape.” Prison, in 1066 was not a nice place to be. The local lord of the manor had a legal right to the person of anyone imprisoned on his land, and prisoners were often taken to entertain the lord and his guests at festivities. In the later medieval period, this job became professionalized in the person of the Court Jester.

Until the nineteenth century, local officials had the right to keep prisoners in jail for 6 months before even seeing a judge. This meant that prisoners spend many long, cold, dark nights behind bars. One outgrowth of long terms of incarceration was bowling – then called ‘skittles’ – where inmates would bowl down objects in their cells using the skulls of dead rats. First prize was a crust of bread. You could go to gaol for many reasons in England, but debtors prison was particularly embarrassing. After being thrown in jail for being insolvent, you actually had to pay the gaoler for your room and board. If you couldn’t afford this, you would be taken down to the castle keep and forced to skin eels for the castle cook. This task was unpleasant because eels had to be skinned alive.

When there was no more room in gaols, prisoners would be taken down to the Thames river and forced to fish out garbage. At night they were given luxurious accommodation in hulks of old war ships rotting at the docks. Prisons improved in the eighteenth-century after social reformers became fed up with the uncivilized way that the English criminal justice system treated convicts. This was the reason why convicts were sent to America and then Australia – it was felt that by sending them to places with moderate weather and plenty of economic opportunity, they would flourish. American colonists’ irritation at taking British convicts was one of the lesser-known causes of the American Revolution and transportation to America stopped in 1775.

Transportation to Australia usually lasted between 10 and 20 years. Those being sent over had to endure a long voyage, but all was not lost because every day at 4pm tea and scones were served on the foredeck. Once arrived in Botany Bay, transported felons were made to swim the distance between the moored ship and shore to get them accustomed to the dangers of tropical waters. Convicts could be hung for returning to England, not that that was an easy thing to do. Most people loved living in sunny antipodean climes; nearly 65% of those convicts sent to Australia between 1775 and 1850 became wealthy tenant farmers – Australia’s current prime minister, Julia Gillard, is descended from London murderer, Arnold Fitzgibbon, sent to Australia after the Napoleonic Wars.

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