For many years we lived in a house in Alma Road, Southampton. Our focus today is on the garden in that house, which was not flat. Gardens really ought to be flat, and where they are not, action should be taken to make them as near flat as possible. This garden had a tendency to rise away from the house, though not in a completely consistent way. In places it took the opposite course, and dipped. For about a decade and a half any thought of introducing a consistent level was immediately quashed by the existence of favoured trees and shrubs, but a time came when the allure of a radical approach to levelling was too strong to be outweighed by mere plants. The lawn should be expanded, and made utterly level, with straight edges, like in Pride and Prejudice.
Earth had to be moved from the top to the bottom of the garden, and, since this earth needed to support a new lawn, it had to be sieved to remove all stones and roots. Sieves in the shops were too small for this task, so I made one of my own using a poorly carpentered frame and a stretch of steel mesh from a special shop near Eastleigh. In time, even this sieve proved too small, so I removed the top from an office table with a wooden frame and metal legs and stretched a double thickness of fine grade chicken wire over it. Steering the wheelbarrow under this (shall we call it?) kick-ass sieve, it was possible to shovel several spadeloads of earth onto it and worry it through with a plastic trowel got free from a Gardening magazine. The tines on this trowel wore down, so that it became useless for any normal trowel work.
Of course, my reader will have guessed the real motive behind this industrial scale of sieving, as no lawn would ever merit such assiduous preparation, still less repay it. Already, in the course of previous smaller-scale operations of the kind, many intriguing items had been discovered in the garden, and my objective was to find yet more – indeed, to completely exhaust the promising archaeological potential of this garden.
I owe this compulsion to my father. In the post-war economic doldrums, families used their back gardens a great deal to produce food. With three boys to bring up on the meagre wages of a fish salesman, and with a strong sense of the value of apprenticeship learning, my father was keen to get my two older brothers and me involved in digging. He noticed that our enthusiasm for digging was increased when we found things, especially when we found coins. Once we found an eighteenth century coin with a hole in it, bearing the legend PRO BONO PUBLICO. We assumed that the hole had come from a pirate having nailed it to the mast of his pirate ship for some reason. We were almost certainly right about that, I believe. At other times we found coins that had been lost in the garden many years before, and that were soiled and stained. But as we toiled on, encouraged by our father suggesting that we might find more coins, the condition of any that we did in fact discover became ever newer and shinier, raising the suspicion in my more cynical older brother that they were being covertly sequestered in the ground by Dad just before we were to dig there. Surely not! was my thought, but actually I came to admit that my brother might be right. Perhaps you have had the same experience.
However that may be, in the years since then I have looked for things in the earth, and in future episodes of this blog the reader will hear more about this. Today, however, we need to focus only on one of the things found during the Great Levelling, and this was a badge. Here it is.
QUID NOBIS ARDUI, it says. And what does that mean? Once upon a time one would have had to scuttle along to the Reference Library to find that out, but nowadays you just type it into Google, and thereby find out that it means WHAT IS HARD FOR US. Further, you find out that this motto was sanctioned by some central Heraldic agency for use by Lewisham Metropolitan Borough Council on 23rd May 1901 in its badges and signage. It is no longer so used, and is listed amongst obsolete heraldic devices. But it is illustrated, as here.
We are even given a full explanation of why the various parts of the shield were chosen. Now, I know that the reader will be anxious to know why they were chosen, so in order to avoid your having to break off from this blog to google that site, I will elaborate. The first thing to know is that the elements were mainly those of the arms of the private landowners who owned Lewisham before it got split up, amongst whom prominent were the de Veres. In the first quarter (or section, the one on the left and at the top) we find a celestial crown in chief (that means above) and a fleur de lys in base (that is, underneath). These are in gules and or, or red and/or gold, though these colours have not survived the years of interment in Southampton. They are emblematical of the Virgin Mary, apparently, to Whom the Lewisham parish church is dedicated.
Next, over on the dexter, or right, we find a Cross flory between four martlets sable, which means black. These martlets are in honour of the Abbey of Abingdon. It seems that a part of Lewisham was given to that Abbey in the 11th century. Perhaps they still have it. At any rate, those martlets make us think of them. Whenever I see a martlet, the Abbey of Abingdon always springs irrepressibly to mind.
Now, coming down to the bottom left, or base sinister, we find a Cross bottony Gules between four Roses of the last staked and leaved proper. The cross is for Henry Rich, Earl of Holland, a previous Lord of the Manor, and the roses are for Sir Walter Cope, who was also once Lord of the Manor. It is good to think that despite his elevated status, this Walter Cope took the time to stake and leave his roses proper. Finally, moving over to the dexter side, we find another tribute to those parvenus or Johnny-come-latelies at the Abbey of Abingdon, in the form of a mitre, or hat, or, on gules. There is also mention of a mullet argent, but I cannot find this mullet. I looked for it carefully, in rememberance of my Dad who liked mullets, but I can’t see it. Perhaps those martlets have eaten it up.
It is not recorded when Lewisham gave up their device, or shield, or why they did that. We know nothing of the reaction of the Abbot of Abingdon, or the good people of Holland, to Lewisham’s abandonment of their shield, or device. It is possible that Lewisham still retains the visuals but have dropped the latin tag. For some years they openly admittted that the job of running a Metropolitan Borough Council was a tough one. It is hard for us, they proclaimed, as well they might. Speaking as a former employee of a local authority, I can readily confirm that the work is pretty damned ardui. However it does not do nowadays to point out too openly that one’s task is difficult, as this sounds too much like special pleading. Rather, we should now proclaim with braggadocio that we are doing this or that excellently well, and we should proclaim this in a strapline beginning with the present participle of some verb or other. I expect that Lewisham have dropped QUID NOBIS ARDUI for some such construction as Governing for Tomorrow or it might be Working in our Offices. Whatever, they can surely no longer dwell upon the difficulty of their work, and if they still have their strapline in Latin it is more likely to translate as A PIECE OF PISS or, as it might be, A DODDLE.
At some point, I suspect, after the deinstatement by Lewisham of their device, or mullet, someone standing in the garden in Alma Rd. Southampton looked at their badge and realised that it was no longer any use. They might have been a former Lord or Abbot of Holland or Abingdon, or a former Chief Exectutive, or dogsbody. Perhaps, as they tossed their badge into the undergrowth, they may have quoted the Mexican bandit from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and, with rising aggression, cried,
“I don’t have to show you no stinkin’ badges!”
(After Stephen Leacock.)