SUES FORUM 13: 11/2020


We have now experienced our first presentation in the new format designed to accommodate current restrictions. All members received a pack of material on Samuel Pepys by email or post, and two separate groups gathered together for a further input by Roger Mitchell which included discussion. The technology was managed by Alan Potter and everything seemed to go very well. We are developing this approach with a presentation on Celia Fiennes. Further information is given below.

As the current Covid-19 crisis continues with some hopes of a vaccine being developed, understanding something of the related science is important. We are, therefore pleased to include another article from Alan Potter, this time on the subject of the antibody test. Next comes a piece by Roger Mitchell on an unmarked anniversary, the South Sea Bubble of 1720. Our own experiences of market turbulence and unregulated financial activity give this event a quite modern relevance. Then we welcome Roger Allison’s presentation of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose highly distinctive approach to rhythm and vocabulary make him one of our most remarkable poets.

For our next edition in December we would like to have some Christmassy items. Members are invited to contribute either or both of the following.

  1. A Christmas memory or anecdote, no more than a paragraph in length.
  2. An anagram of a Christmas phrase, to be part of a quiz. (e.g. An ass cut Al = Santa Claus, but we are sure you can do better!)

Contacts are given on the last page of this edition.

Finally, positive responses to Forum are always encouraging and we include two, though we will welcome suggestions and even criticisms as well. It is important that we know how our members feel as we try to ensure that SUES continues to exist, and even thrive, in these confined times.

Next Presentation: Course on English Travellers

Our first 2020-2021 Course has got off to a successful start with Samuel Pepys’ trip to Bath and Bristol. This was sent to everybody who gets information by email and to the five ‘postal recipients’ who requested it. We followed this up on Monday 9th with two small group discussions using Zoom and involving 15 members in total.

Our next traveller is Celia Fiennes and we want to be a little more ambitious this time. On Monday 23rd November at 10.30am, I will do a Zoom presentation to introduce Celia using a short Powerpoint and some extracts about Celia’s travels to Bath, Chatsworth, Leeds and Manchester. It will probably last for between 30 and 45 minutes and it will be interesting to see if we can make it feel like a ‘Monday Morning Class’. There should be time for a few questions but our discussions about Celia will take place later. Those of you signed up for Zoom will get an invitation from Alan for the 23rd November. We hope that one or two more of you will sign up and give it a try. All that you need do is send your email address to Alan at and you will get the invitation. If, on the day, you are not able to join the meeting, that is not a problem.

After I have given the presentation, the Powerpoint and the extracts including Celia Fiennes’ journey through Lancashire will be sent out to everybody who got the Pepys material. It will include information about the two discussion groups on Monday 30th November at 10.30am and 11.30am.

I look forward to your participation.

Roger Mitchell

COVID-19: The Antibody Test

During the pandemic, scientists have been working hard to develop tests using swabs that can detect the coronavirus and in the shortest possible time. This is designed for those people showing symptoms as well as those simply being tested to see if they have the virus without having showed symptoms at all. At the same time, tests are being devised to identify the antibodies in people who have had the virus infection, again whether they showed symptoms or not. This is important work as the identification and possible replication of such antibodies may help to lead to ways of treating the disease and, perhaps, signpost an effective vaccine.

When a new infection enters the body, the immune system gets to work. It produces antibodies that attack the antigen (a virus or a bacterium), but this takes time. The first wave of antibodies is of a type called immunoglobulin M (IgM). These bind with proteins on a virus’s surface, stopping it from working and marking it for destruction by other cells. They do not last for long and are gone from the blood within 3 or 4 weeks. The second wave of defence uses a more specific type of antibody called immunoglobulin G (IgG), which are better tailored to the antigen. They are the basis for a much longer-term form of immunity, which can last for many years, or even a lifetime.

Immunoglobulins are glycoproteins with a molecular weight around 150,000 Daltons. Their structure means that some parts are the same, but other parts are tailored to bind to specific antigens. The structures of IgM and IgG are similar but sufficiently different that they have distinguishable binding sites – where the stereochemistry (shape) and hydrogen bonding (binding) can be used for attaching to another molecule.

In the early stages of infection, it is more insightful to test for the cause of the infection itself (the coronavirus).  As the infection proceeds, the number of antibodies in the blood increases and they can then be tested for too.  Once the infection has been dealt with by the immune system, it is only the antibodies that remain and can be seen.

There are various ways to test for the antibodies, but they all rely on having something to mimic the antigen in the test. In the case of SARS-Cov-2 (the coronavirus causing the current pandemic) some groups are using the proteins that make up the surface “spike” as a representative of the actual virus, although some are using just the receptor part of it.

The laboratory-based test is known as ELISA (Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay). In it, the antigen (or its mimic) is immobilised in wells of a plastic plate. A sample of the patients’ blood is put into the well. If the blood has antibodies for this antigen, they will bind to the antigen. The blood is then removed, and the surface is then washed and treated with another biological material to mask the underlying substrate. Then the detection antibody is added. The detection antibody is designed to bind to the now bound target to give a colour. The depth of colour developed scales with the amount of the antibody present in the original blood sample.

The rapid home tests everyone wishes to see use the same underlying technology but use lateral flow to drive the process. A sample of blood is placed at one end of the cassette and then the dilution buffer is added. The sample then moves by capillary action/lateral flow and first passes a pad, which contains the COVID-19 antigen conjugated to gold nanoparticles. During this stage, any antibodies in the sample with specificity for COVID-19 will bind to the antigen and its conjugated gold nanoparticle. From here, the sample/conjugate complex moves to a nitrocellulose membrane. Here, it comes in contact with the three test lines: IgM, IgG and control.

First comes the M line, which contains an immobilised antibody that recognises human IgM. Any IgM antibodies will bind here. However, only human IgM antibody/COVID-19 antigen/gold nanoparticle complexes will produce a visible coloured (pinky red) line. Second is the G Line, which contains an immobilised antibody that recognises Human IgG. All IgG antibodies will bind here. However, only human IgG antibody/COVID-19 antigen/gold nanoparticle complexes will produce a visible coloured line.

Finally comes the control line, which contains an immobilised antibody that recognises the control antibody. The appearance of this last coloured line shows that the proper volume of specimen has been added and membrane wicking has occurred – which means the test is valid. If there is a pinky-red M line, the patient is probably early in their infection. If there is a pinky-red G line, the patient is probably late on in the infection, or has recovered. Both lines indicate an on-going infection.

Research is on-going using samples from across the whole UK population through Imperial College London and Ipsos MORI to help the government understand how many people may have already been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. However, at this stage, there is no strong evidence yet to suggest that those who have had the virus develop long-lasting immunity that would prevent them from getting the virus again.

Alan Potter

An Unmarked Anniversary: The South Sea Bubble

A pack of playing cards satirising the Bubble

Exactly three hundred years ago, in the late summer and early autumn of 1720, shares in the South Sea Company collapsed, fortunes were lost and a serious political crisis ensued. In normal times, one might have expected this anniversary to be marked, if not exactly celebrated, but compared to the economic, medical and social consequences of Coronavirus, the South Sea Bubble is little more than a blip. It affected only one country, Great Britain; it ruined a few foolish speculators and it damaged the fortunes of many other people, but it also made possible the emergence of Robert Walpole as First Lord of the Treasury and the completion of the modernisation of government finance that had begun in the 1690s.

Before William III came to the throne, the financing of the nation’s spending was personal. Monarchs, not governments, raised and spent money. They borrowed extensively, particularly to finance wars, and there was always considerable doubt as to whether they would repay. Lending money to the crown was certainly not for the fainthearted. In 1672 Charles II had been unable to honour his debts and simply suspended payments by the Stop of the Exchequer. William III took a rather more business-like approach. Protecting his prerogative against parliamentary incursion mattered less to him than did the effective funding of his wars against Louis XIV. By the time that those wars ended with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the United Kingdom of Great Britain, newly created by the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707, had a financial system that was the envy of Europe. The National Debt was properly funded, managed by the Bank of England and guaranteed by the House of Commons, which meant that Parliament had to meet annually to authorise interest payments. From 1689 to the present day there has never been a year in which Parliament has not met. The Great Recoinage of the 1690s restored confidence in the currency and the development of joint stock corporations seemed to promise greater stability and greater opportunity.

What could possibly go wrong? Not for the first or the last time, a combination of greed, insider trading and incompetence produced a financial crisis and it happened within nine years of the establishment of the South Sea Company and within seven years of the Treaty of Utrecht. Best described as a ‘public private partnership’, the South Sea Company was always intended as a vehicle for consolidating and managing the National Debt but in order to generate income it was authorised to ‘trade to the South Seas and other parts of America’. Even though the Treaty of Utrecht opened up some commercial opportunities, these were limited and not necessarily profitable. The Company reluctantly agreed to take on the Asiento, supplying African slaves to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America. Sadly, the reluctance was not on moral grounds, but simply because the Directors did not think that such trade would make a profit. This proved correct and by 1718 the company was turning its full attention to financial schemes in London with the aim of taking over control of the National Debt from the Bank of England. There was money to be made here, because the interest rate on some of that debt was higher than the market rate. However, it is very hard to imagine how this profit could possibly be enough to raise the price of South Sea Stock even by 50%, let alone the 1000% that was (briefly) achieved in 1720. It was not a pyramid or Ponzi scheme and the Directors were not guilty of outright fraud, although they did ‘talk up’ the prospects of the company. Investors managed to believe that the price of shares would continue to rise and that they would be able to sell at a significant profit. Such was the frenzy to invest in any company, offering quick profits that other, purely fraudulent, companies were created for projects yet to be announced.

South Sea stock of £100 sold for £128 in January 1720, for £330 in March, for £550 in May, rising to £1,000 in early August. At this price, selling became more attractive than buying and the ability of the company to make massive profits was questioned. By the end of September, the price had dropped to £150 and by the end of the year, it was only slightly above par, where it stabilised.

The bubble had burst and it became clear that while some insiders had made profits, almost all the outside investors had lost most of their investment. Re-establishing stability and confidence was vital, and Robert Walpole was in a position to achieve this. Although a member of the government from June 1720 as Paymaster General and a serious, but not reckless, investor in South Sea shares, he was relatively untainted by the scandal. This was as much by good luck as by good management and he owed much to the good sense of his private banker, Robert Jacombe. Perhaps not unexpectedly, Jacombe is almost entirely forgotten – not even an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, while Walpole won plaudits as the saviour of the financial system while establishing himself as the dominant figure in British politics. Walpole was able to maintain the national debt at around £50m for the next 20 years. This was largely because he managed to avoid war which for the next two centuries was to be the chief cause of national debt.

What is more, he planned to abolish it completely. He established a Sinking Fund, (so called because while borrowing money through a bond was described as floating a bond, repaying money was described as sinking a bond), and eventual abolition seemed to be possible. However, Walpole like so many other politicians, was tempted to use the cash available through the Sinking Fund to solve short term economic and political problems.

Modern politicians and particularly the current occupant of 11, Downing Street must feel that their 18th century predecessors had it easy. In peacetime at least, the expenses of government and the burdens of taxation were both modest. The role of central government was limited. Poor relief was dealt with at a parish level, only a small and privileged elite received pensions and the government spent no money on education or on health and social care. Land tax, customs and excise and a rich assortment of taxes on items ranging from playing cards to hats and from hearths to windows brought in a reasonable sum without the need for a tax on income.

Even so, taxation produced both regular grumbles and occasional fears that British liberty was at risk from unscrupulous exploitation, particularly of the excise. It was in the second half of the 18th century that Benjamin Franklin claimed that ‘in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes’.

In a future Forum, I want to look rather more closely at some of those taxes, particularly those that affected the Country House and its owners. We will look at the Land Tax and at Death Duties but also at taxes on hearths (1662-1689 and windows (1696-1851), on powdered hair (1786-1869) and on male servants (1777 – 1889). There was even a tax on the owners of watches, but that only lasted from 1797 to 1798.

Roger Mitchell

Felix Randal the Farrier, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it, and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient, he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

I really love this poem, more perhaps than some others Forum has printed, which I have admired rather than liked. The narrator is a humble cleric, who converted to Roman Catholicism while at Oxford and subsequently became a Jesuit and was ordained a priest. He worked as a curate and a teacher at various places, including Stonyhurst in Lancashire and St Beuno’s College near St Asaph in North Wales. Finally, he became a professor at University College, Dublin.

His experiences as a simple priest perhaps inspired his choice of a humble blacksmith as subject, and an acquaintance with local accent is shown in ‘and all’, and ‘all road’. This is a real poem and not just elegant verse. A true poem does not just the verse tricks of rhyme, rhythm, stanza form comprising discrete lines; it has a special almost indefinable quality. You could try to rewrite it as prose, but this proves impossible. The experience that comes from reading it as a poem is lost. Above all, a true poem is sincere and gives the reader an emotional rush. It is like music. The very sound enacts the meaning of the words: the pain of grief (line 1), decline into dementia (line 3) and terminal illness, mellowing from indignation (line 5), to acceptance (lines 9-11), the blacksmith’s forge (lines 13-14).

Roger Allison


Len Fender sends his thanks for ‘your continued supply of interesting material. Whilst, for several reasons, I remain a totally passive member of your group, I really appreciate the work you undertake to keep everything up and running.’ He also observes, ‘I have to admit I’ve never been a fan of virtual meetings, and therefore look forward to resumption of normal meetings, hopefully in the not too distant future.’ We recognise that this is an issue for some members who either do not have access to Zoom or feel uncomfortable with it. However, at the moment it is the only way we can make some kind of face-to-face contact, and those of us who are converts can only say that it does seem to work!

Roger Allison who refuses to let his spirits be crushed by current restrictions, notes, ‘Eagerly awaited each month is my copy of Forum, which never fails to entertain me and cheer me up.’


Chair: Alan Potter
07713 428670

Secretary: Roger Mitchell
01695 423594 (Texts preferred to calls)

Membership Secretary and Forum Editor: Chris Nelson
07960 117719


See our archive for previous editions of the SUES Forum!

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