Saturday, 21 July 2018

The Gentle Author's East End Vernacular by Imogen Robertson

I'm sure that most if not all of the History Girls and our readers know of the brilliant blog  If you're not a regular visitor, then do go and spend some time there and you'll discover lovingly written and richly illustrated stories of life in London, particularly the East End. There's a grim but fascinating post on The Hackney Whipping Post, once thought a suitable subject for postcards, now rotting away in a backlot, as just one example from May.

While you're there, I'd also recommend you buy this book, edited by the writer of the blog, The Gentle Author:

Buy Now

I got my copy from the marvellously eccentric bag and packaging emporium Gardeners on Commercial Street, but you can buy copies direct from the blog. Anyone with an interest in art or the East End should get one immediately. And another for a friend.

It's a very handsome, beautifully produced volume which chronicles the artists who have caught the East End on canvas over the last hundred years or so and is a rich sampling of a huge range of work. The Gentle Author takes pains to gather the testimony of the artists themselves which makes for a fascinating, intimate read and an inspiring glimpse into their lives. The images are reproduced with enormous care and if they share anything other than geography it's a sort of intimacy and particularity which makes them, I think, universal in their appeal.

Taken as a whole the book offers a fascinating way to look at the range of styles of art created in paint and pencil in the 20th century as well as a portrait of a shifting urban landscape. I found something particularly fascinating about some of the later images such as those of James MacKinnon and Marc Gooderham who incorporate the street art of the area into their work in the same way earlier artist such as James Boswell used signage and advertising. 

James Mackinnon - Broadway Market (featuring the street art of Eine)
via Spitalfields Life

The book celebrates the work of a healthy number of women artists too, such as Rose Henriques, Grace Oscroft and Pearl Binder and reflects on the particular challenges they faced in their work with clear-eyed empathy.

Grace Oscroft - Bryant and May, Bow. via Spitalfields Life
But please, don't just read the extracts linked to above - get the book. It's delicious and inspiring brainfood and that's always worth paying for.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Little discs of beaten silver by Carolyn Hughes

All of my posts so far for The History Girls have been about some aspect of the history of the Meon Valley in Hampshire, the setting for my series of historical novels. I undoubtedly have more to share about the Meon Valley, but I thought that, today, I would offer something a little different.

At home, I have a small collection of mediaeval coins – fourteenth century coins, to be precise, the time period of my novels. Although I have had them for a while, I have never really taken the time to examine them, to understand their markings or even to discover much about fourteenth century coinage. So, I thought I would take that time, and then share what I discovered.

I have just nine coins, although I hope to increase my collection in time. What I have is:

- Edward I: a penny and a farthing (a quarter of a penny)
- Edward II: a penny and a halfpenny
- Edward III: a penny, a halfpenny, a half groat (= two pennies) and a groat (= four pennies)
- Richard II: a halfpenny

All the coins are “hammered”, that is, struck by hand between two dies. “Milled” coins, where the coins were struck by dies in a coining press, were only fully introduced at the start of the reign of Charles II. 

First a bit of background…

Coins have an “obverse”, the side with the ruler’s image and name, and a “reverse”, which usually identifies the mint that produced the coin.

On most coins of this period the obverse wording starts at 12 o’clock after an initial mark, typically a cross, and has the ruler’s name and their titles, for example:

+EDW R ANGL DNS hYB | Edward Rex Anglorum Dominus Hyberniae | Edward King of England Lord of Ireland

Before Edward I (1272-1307), the only coin was the penny, which, on its reverse, showed the name of both the mint and the “moneyer”, the person in charge of producing coins at that mint. So, IOHN ON LUND would translate to JOHN OF LONDON. Identifying the moneyer was a way for the king to obtain accountability for the quality of his coinage. However, in 1279, Edward issued new coinage and at the same time stopped using the moneyers’ names and just identified the name of the mint, for example, CIVITAS LONDON is the City of London and VILL SCI EDMUNDI is the Town of Bury St Edmunds. (If you are actually interested in reading coin inscriptions, a full list of legends and their meanings on medieval coins can be found at

Edward III penny. In this case, the legend on the obverse reads
+EDWARDUS REX ANGLIE, Edward King of England and,
on the reverse, it is CIVI | TAS | EBO | RACI, the City of York. (c) Author

Of my coins, six were made in the City of London mint, one was made in York mint, and the last in the mint of Bury St Edmunds.

It seems that, after the Romans left, no coins were minted in Britain until about 650AD. But, after the consolidation of the English Kingdoms, a London mint was in operation again from soon after 650. At first its existence was somewhat precarious but, from about the time of Alfred the Great (871-899), its operation became continuous and increasingly important. However, at that time, London was only one of many mints, perhaps about 30 at that time and, by the reign of Ethelred II (978-1016), more than 70. These were mostly in the southern half of the country and there can have been few market towns of any consequence where coins were not struck. Although the number had declined by the Norman Conquest and, from the early 13th century, most minting was done in either London or Canterbury, it was not until 1279, and Edward’s reforms, that the country’s mints were finally unified. Control of coin production was centralised to the mint within the Tower of London and only a few mints outside London continued to operate.

The standard unit was the penny and the only denomination produced between 1066 and 1279. To create a halfpenny or farthing prior to 1279, the penny was cut in half or quartered. There is some debate as to whether this process was carried out at the mint or as and when it was needed.

Prior to the reign of Henry II, the quality of coin production was pretty poor and, in 1180, Henry introduced the “short-cross” penny, a style that remained more or less unchanged until 1247.

Short cross silver penny of King John, 1205-1207.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum
[CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

However, during Henry III’s reign (1216–1272), it became clear that many coins in circulation were underweight, caused by the illegal practice of clipping silver off the edge of the coin, in theory made easier by the cross on the reverse not extending to the rim, so people had no clear indication of exactly how big the coin was supposed to be. I find this slightly curious, as the wording around the rim of the coin surely gave an idea of the coin’s extent? Nonetheless, in 1247, a new “long-cross” penny was introduced, which made it more obvious when a coin had been clipped. The long cross also made it easier to cut the coin into halves or quarters.

Edward I succeeded his father while away on Crusade in the Holy Land. Coin production had to continue while the new king made his long journey home, and long-cross pennies – still inscribed with his father’s name – continued to be produced. But Edward began to realise that English coinage needed to be improved to assure public confidence, and he also needed larger and smaller denominations.

A completely new coinage was struck in 1279 with a different design that made clipping much easier to detect. The strong, good-quality coins strengthened the economy and helped bring prosperity to the country.

Edward’s 1279 penny had a slightly different style from earlier pennies. On the reverse, the “voided” long cross (a cross with a channel along its arms) was replaced by a solid cross, a design that continued until the Tudor period.

Voided long cross penny of Henry III (1216-1272)
By Numisantica (
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons]

Edward I penny, reverse, showing the new solid cross. (c) Author
In 1279, Edward also introduced a farthing and, in 1280, a halfpenny, which were successful and continued to be minted. He tried also to introduce groats (four pence) and half groats (two pence) at the same time, but they were not a success and production stopped in the early 1280s, meaning that Edward I groats are extremely rare. (I wonder if I will ever find one?)

However, in 1351, Edward III (1327-1377) again introduced the groat and half groat and, this time, they were successful. They became very popular and eventually superseded the penny in importance.

Edward III groat, obverse and reverse (c) Author
The groats (and half groats) have a couple of significant differences in design from the penny. On the obverse, for example, the portrait is surrounded by arches known as a “tressure”. Some have trefoils on the cusps of the arches (as below), some have fleur de lys, and some are blank. On the reverse, there are two legends rather than one. The inner one is the mint signature, and the outer one is an oath. This style and wording was used right up to the end of the Tudor period.

Edward III half groat (c) Author
These annotated images of the author’s Edward III half groat show the “tressure” arches on the obverse, and the trefoils, and the wording on both sides. The obverse wording is slightly obscured but presumably reads:

+EDWARD[US] REX ANGL DNS hYB | Edwardus Rex Anglorum Dominus Hyberniae | Edward King of England, Lord of Ireland

The wording on the reverse is:
+POSV | I DEVM | ADIVTO | RE MEV(M), which means “I have made God my helper”

The lettering on the obverse of Edward III coins varies slightly. In the early coinage of Edward III, Ns are shown as “n” rather than “N” – as in AnGL and DnS above, though on the reverse it is still “N”, as in LONDON. The king’s name too varies, from EDW and EDWA, right through to EDWARD or even EDWARDUS, depending on how much other text is required on the coin.

Edward III had four coinages during his reign, the first three relatively insignificant, but the fourth (1351-1377) was by far the largest and the politics of the period affected the wording on many of the coins minted. This fourth coinage is divided into three periods based around the Treaty of Brétigny, which was signed between England and France in 1361: pre-treaty (1351-61), treaty (1361-9) and post-treaty (1369-77). They are differentiated mostly by the wording of the obverse legend.

Edward claimed the throne of France so, in “pre-treaty” coinage, the wording includes his title as King of France. 

Edward III groat (c) Author
My groat, illustrated here, is a bit worn, so it is hard to make out all the lettering, but it is possibly as follows:

+E[D]WAR[D D? G?] REX ANGL [Z] F[RA]NC D hYB | Edward Dei Gratia Rex Anglorum Et Francia Dominus Hyberniae | Edward by the Grace of God King of England and France, Lord of Ireland

(Z stands for the French “et” (and).)

In 1360, the Brétigny treaty granted Edward land in France, so a “treaty period” groat does not have the French title, but includes Edward’s overlordship of Aquitaine (though only on larger denomination coins, not pennies or lower).

After the treaty was renounced by the French in 1369, Edward’s claim to France was reinstated so, on “post-treaty” coins, FRANC appears again in the wording on the coins.

When Edward’s eleven-year-old grandson Richard II (1377–1399) succeeded him (the Black Prince having died from dysentery in 1376), England was still claiming the throne of France. The wording on Richard’s pennies sometimes includes reference to France and sometimes not.

I have discovered in this brief review of the details of my coins that, in fact, there is a lot more I could learn about the differences between types and periods of coins, but it is rather arcane stuff about lettering and marks, which can help to pin down more precisely when the coin was minted. But I think I have enough here to satisfy my needs.

And, in truth, why have I got the coins at all? They are attractive to look at and usually I keep them in a display case. But what I really enjoy doing is to take them out of the case (though not out of their little protective wallets), and hold them in my hand. Some of them are in excellent condition, and so maybe weren’t all that much used, but others are quite worn and I like to imagine one of my halfpennies being passed across a market stall in return for a dozen eggs, or a penny handed to the alewife as the price of a gallon of ale, or a groat placed in the sweaty palm of a carpenter in payment for a day’s labour. That is where the pleasure lies in owning these little discs of beaten silver.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

The Men Named Epaphroditus by L.J. Trafford

Large stone inscription found on the Esquiline Hill. The name Epaphroditus is visible

Roman names are annoying. All those Gaiuses, Luciuses and Marcuses. Gaius Octavius calling his son Gaius Octavius. Mark Antony calling his two daughters Antonia and err Antonia. Every second female in Augustus’ massive clan being a Julia.
It can make it difficult to ascertain whether you have the right Gaius or Julia.

With slaves this is even harder. They have only one name and then on freedom add to it the name (s) of their master or mistress. Their lives are not as well documented as the Roman elite . And they too have popular names that crop up again and again. The most popular name for slaves is Felix, meaning happy (an ironic use given their slave status? Or wishful thinking?) Second to this is Epaphroditus, meaning charming.

I want to take this second name, Epaphroditus, and have a look at a few notable Epaphrodituses who all lived in the same period, the first century AD, querying whether they were in actuality the same man.

The Emperor’s Secretary

Nero, Epaphroditus' master
Our first Epaphroditus is fully known as Tiberius Claudius Epaphroditus and he was an Imperial freedman, that is an ex slave of the Emperor. In this case he was freed by Nero.
TC Epaphroditus appears at three precise moments in the historical record. Firstly in 65AD when a man named Milchus brings him word of a huge conspiracy against Nero. This was the Piso conspiracy that brought down a praetorian prefect, the poet Lucan, Nero’s party planner Petronius and his own tutor Seneca.

That Epaphroditus is the man who Milchus approaches and is able to put the matter before Nero shows that TC Epaphroditus enjoyed a good position in the Imperial bureaucracy. It was about to get better. Nero rewarded him heavily for his role in uncovering the Piso conspiracy. He was advanced into the equestrian rank and bestowed with titles. We even know what these titles were for a whopping big stone was uncovered on the Esquiline Hill in Rome (seen at the top of this post). That Epaphroditus commissioned such a monument to himself shows, I would say, a certain pride in his accomplishments.

The next mention of TC Epaphroditus is in 68AD. A rebellion was threatening Nero. Another emperor, Galba had been declared by the legions. Deserted by his own Guard Nero fled Rome. He took with him three men: the eunuch Sporus (the subject of a previous History Girls post of mine), a freedman named Phaon and Epaphroditus.

That Epaphroditus accompanied Nero on this final journey demonstrates how close and how trusted he was by the Emperor.

It was Epaphroditus who performed the greatest of favours for his master. “Then with the help of his secretary Epaphroditus he stabbed himself in the throat.” Suetonius

However this assistance to Nero would come back to haunt him. The reign of Domitian (81-96AD ) slowly descended into paranoia. Fearful of plots against him from within his own household, Domitian set to make an example. “To remind his staff that even the best of intentions could never justify a freedman’s complicity in his master’s murder, he executed his secretary Epaphroditus who had reputedly helped Nero to commit suicide.” Suetonius

This probably occurred in 95AD. A year or so after he was initially exiled. He was most likely over 70 by this point.

The Philosopher’s Master.
Our second Epaphroditus is linked to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Epictetus ran a thriving philosophy school in the Greek city of Nicopolis in the early 2nd century. He was born around 55AD into slavery and brought to Rome. He himself tells us the name of his master, Epaphroditus - Nero’s freedman.
For a long time this was thought to be the same Epaphroditus who helped Nero commit suicide. My own copy of Epictetus states this as fact. However a paper by PRC Weaver comprehensively unpicks this and casts doubt that they are the same man.

The key passage that Weaver quotes is this tale:

“Epaphroditus once owned a slave, a shoemaker, who he sold because he was no good. As chance would have it he was brought by one of the Imperial household and became shoemaker to Caesar. You should have seen Epaphroditus flatter him then! 

“And how is my friend Felicio today?” Whenever one of us asked. “Where is the master?” he would be told, “He is in conference with Felicio.” 

This doesn’t not sound like a freedman who was in such high standing he was one of only three people Nero took with him during his desperate flight from Rome. The man who gained so many titles after uncovering the Piso conspiracy surely had no need to flatter a cobbler to gain Imperial favour.

Epictetus’ Epaphroditus sounds more like a petty courtier rather than a trusted Imperial favourite.

The Literary Patron.
Bust of Josephus

Our third Epaphoditus is connected to the Jewish Historian Titus Flavius Josephus.  Captured in Judaea in 67AD Josephus defected to the Romans, acting as an advisor/translator to the future emperor Titus. He was later taken to Rome where he wrote several important works including one on the Jewish War.
This work was dedicated to an Epaphroditus. Of whom he says:

“Epaphroditus, a man who is a lover of all kind of learning; but is principally delighted with the knowledge of history; and this on account of his having been himself concerned in great affairs, and many turns of fortune; and having shewn a wonderful vigor of an excellent nature, and an immoveable virtuous resolution in them all. I yielded to this man’s persuasions; who always excites such as have abilities in what is useful and acceptable, to join their endeavours with his.” 

Josephus also dedicates his autobiography to him

“But to thee, O Epaphroditus, thou most excellent of men, do I dedicate all this treatise of our Antiquities” 

His work Against the Greeks is similarly dedicated to Epaphroditus.
This would suggest that Epaphroditus is a patron to Josephus’ works. It would make sense that Josephus’ patron was someone within the Imperial palace. It was standard for the literary inclined to seek influence with the emperor via the imperial freedmen. Martial writes several poems mentioning emperor Domitian’s chamberlain Parthienus and the gifts exchanged between them.
The timing is right too to connect with our first Epaphroditus. Josephus was in Rome from the 70s AD as was our secretary Epaphroditus.
However there is an issue with the publication dates of Josephus’ works, they coincide with the exile and later execution of TC Epaphroditus. It seems unlikely that Josephus would dedicate his works to a man banished from the city by the emperor. Or address a book in the present tense to a man who had been executed. 

The Christian

St Paul, early Christian and epic traveller, was facing some troubles.

“Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters,that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard[ and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.  And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear. "

He’d been arrested after preaching in Jersaleum and upsetting the locals. He’d been dragged from a temple by a mob and only escaped a messy death by handing himself over to some Roman centurions.

He was transported to Rome in the 60s AD to live under house arrest whist he awaited a trial. From here he wrote letters to Christian communities he had visited. Including that of the Greek city of Philippi. The community had sent an emissary to Paul to assist him in any way during these troubles. His name was Epaphroditus and he had brought gifts from the Christians at Philippi. 

“But I have all, and abound: I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God” 

Epaphroditus took his role representing the Philippian church and assisting Paul extremely seriously. So seriously that it made him ill.

“ But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me.” 

Presumably Epaphroditus returned to Philippi to recover. This is the last we hear of him in the new testament. St Paul was sadly killed during Nero’s persecution of the Christians after the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD

The Waiter
I have one final Epaphroditus to offer up as an example of the depth and variety of Epaphrodituses hanging about in the first century AD. It’s from Herculaneum and so we can date it to the 80s AD or the very late 70s if the city cleaners were lax with their wall cleaning.
It’s a piece of graffiti from outside a bar.

Two friends were here.  While they were, they had bad service in every way from a guy named Epaphroditus.  They threw him out and spent 105 and half sestertii most agreeably on whores. 

The Man Named Epaphroditus
OK I think it’s clear these are all different men who happened to live during the same time period in the same part of the world.
But isn’t it more fun to imagine it’s the same man.
The Imperial freedman subject to the whim of an emperor, so that one day he is his most trusted companion and the next day so far from favour as to be jealous of a cobbler.
A ‘charming’ man who was a friend to both a Jewish Historian and a Christian Preacher.
And who keeping it real and down with the folk, supplemented his secretary’s salary with a bit of part time bar work in Herculaneum.

What a guy!

L.J. Trafford is the author of a series of books that feature Nero's secretary Epaphroditus as a character.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Following in the Footsteps of Dirk Hartog by Rosemary Hayes

In October 2016 I went on a month long trip promoting my shipwreck books in Western Australia and taking part in the celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Dutch mariner, Dirk Hartog, in Shark Bay, 500 miles north of Perth.
My fascination with the 17th and 18th century Dutch voyages began eight years ago when I visited the Shipwreck Galleries in Fremantle for the first time.
I was aware of the powerful Dutch East India Company (the VOC), its establishment of headquarters throughout Asian countries and, in particular, its hugely profitable trade in spices: during the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ a handful of nutmegs was so valuable that it was worth more than the price of a house and just a single nutmeg would buy you a horse! But what I didn’t know was that, by 1617, all the great VOC trading ships were required to adopt the new Brouwer route, sailing South from the Cape in South Africa before turning West to pick up the ‘Roaring Forties’ winds and then North towards the East Indies, parallel with the coast of Western Australia or, as it was called at the time, ‘The Unknown Southland’.
The Shipwreck Galleries were a revelation and as soon as I entered I was hooked. As I stared at the salvaged hull of the doomed ship Batavia, at the stone blocks destined for the castle gate in Java and all the rescued artifacts and then read about the mutiny, the shipwreck, the massacre on the Abrolhos Islands, the eventual retribution and the marooning of two young mutineers in 1629, I knew that this was a story which would haunt me and that some day I’d have to write about it.

Why had I never heard of this appalling event in Australia’s history? What if those two young men, Jan Pelgrom, a cabin boy of 18 and Wouter Loos, a soldier of 24, had survived and integrated with the coastal aborigines? If they had, then they would have been the very first European settlers in Australia, nearly 150 years before Cook sailed into Botany Bay!

Since then, I’ve been on quite a journey. I have written two books about the early Dutch shipwrecks off the West Australian coast, ‘The Blue Eyed Aborigine’ (about the notorious Batavia’ shipwreck) and  ‘Forgotten Footprints’ (about the wreck of the Zuytdorp which disappeared in 1712, dashed against remote cliffs, but with evidence of survivors) have visited the Abrolhos Islands where all the Batavia horrors occurred, toured schools in the Eastern States, flown over the Zuytdorp cliffs, travelled by boat parallel with Red Bluff, South of Kalbarri, from which so many early Dutch mariners took their bearings, given the Batavia lecture at the Maritime Museum in Fremantle and, most recently, had an unforgettable trip from Yallingup in the South of the State up to Shark Bay, speaking to schools and other groups about my books and about the rich maritime history of Western Australia and shadowing the voyage of the Duyfken, a replica of the smallest ship of the first fleet to set sail from Amsterdam in 1595.

The replica Duyfken took nearly three months to sail from Bunbury in the south of WA, calling in at ports as she made her way north, with a fantastic exhibition about the Dutch traders and welcoming thousands of school children and others on board, finally arriving in Shark Bay in time to mark the 400th anniversary of the landing of Dirk Hartog at Cape Inscription.

I felt very privileged to be part of the celebrations, to attend the moving opening ceremony, watch the procession of cardboard boats made by local children, admire the costumes for the 17th century ball, crawl over the Duyfken and travel across to Dirk Hartog Island and see the new commemorative plaques and the cleft in the rock into which Dirk Hartog had rammed his original post, with a flattened pewter plate attached. On the plate he had scratched a record of his visit to the island. Its inscription (translated from the original Dutch) reads:
1616 On 25 October arrived the ship Eendracht, of Amsterdam: Supercargo Gilles Miebais of Liege, skipper Dirch Hatichs of Amsterdam. on 27 d[itt]o. she set sail again for Bantam. Deputy supercargo Jan Stins, upper steersman Pieter Doores of Bil. In the year 1616.

The day I left WA to return to the UK, I was able to fit in a visit to the newly opened exhibition at the Maritime Museum in Fremantle – ‘Travellers and Traders in the Indian Ocean’ and see the original of the Dirk Hartog plate (on loan from Holland and having just been brought over by the Dutch King and Queen) and to learn that the very latest research will soon be available into whether Western European DNA found in some Aboriginal coastal tribes can be traced to pre-settlement days.
And yet, whenever I go into Australian schools and ask the question: ‘Who was the first recorded European to set foot on Australian soil?’ nine times out of ten the answer is still ‘Captain Cook.’

Our thanks to Rosemary Hayes for posting this while Celia Rees is delayed in Italy by Ryanair

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

MRS WOOLF AND THE SERVANTS by Alison Light. A reflection by Penny Dolan.

While visiting Helmsley Walled Garden, within the grounds of the castle, I was lucky enough to find MRS WOOLF AND THE SERVANTS by Alison Light, published in 2007, on the second-hand book shelves.
A single scan of the book’s main headings drew me in: The Family Treasure; Housemaid’s Souls; The Question of Nelly and The Lavatory Attendant. Each is followed by a pair of names, one the famous writer and the other a domestic servant. Light’s Bloomsbury servants get almost equal billing with the famous social set.

Light begins by pointing out that in the great Bloomsbury archives, there is little evidence of the other women who were part of  households, the ones who “lived-in”, though far less comfortably, the same walls. Yet the free, independent and creative lives of Virginia the writer and Vanessa Bell the artist depended on the servants who worked for them: in other words, on other women not being free.

Despite the silent archive, Alison Light noticed how frequently Virginia, Leonard and their circle wrote about their servants in their letters and diaries, and so she set out to discover these missing women. Light writes about three servants in particular: Sophie Farrell, who had first worked for Virginia’s beloved mother, charity-case Lottie Hope and the cook Nellie Boxall. She shows a pattern where servants often stayed for many years, although they were passed between members of the wider family as need or as tempers suggested, and poaching of prized servants was often attempted.

The book is a pleasingly thorough inquiry, sharpened by having the viewpoint of someone whose own mother was in service. Light read unpublished letters and documents, visited houses and places where the servants had worked and interviewed descendants and local historians. She looked into their childhood homes, their education, the changing patterns of their employment and at the practical and emotional relationships that existed between a mistress and servant sharing the same roof year after year.

I did enjoy the variety within  this book. Thoughtfully written, each section opens with a long passage of Woolfian lyrical  prose which contrasts well with Light’s brisker accounts of a world where long hours, the collecting of chamber-pots, the carrying of coal-buckets, the lack of hot water taps, the management of unreliable ovens, and days spent in dank basements or cold bedrooms were a constant part of the servants life. Incidentally, she makes it clear that the wealthy rarely saw any need for new labour-saving devices or domestic improvements: they already had household servants saving them labour.

As the new century progressed, the distant mistress and servant relationship was harder to maintain. Back in 1892, Vanessa and Virginia’s childhood home, 22 Hyde Park Gate in Kensington, had been an elegant five-storied mansion where the servants slept in the spaces under the eaves or lived down in the basement. 

Almost two decades later, when Virginia and Leonard Woolf were running their small printing press at Hogarth House and Vanessa and Duncan Grant lived a paint-spattered bohemian existence at Charleston farmhouse in Sussex, there was only a wall marking the distance between the rooms of mistress and servant .

Through several different lives, including glimpses of the Bloomsbury "stars", Alison Light brings in topics as diverse as the popular habit of “poor-visiting”, agricultural changes, the development of the kitchen and celebrity cooking for Charles Laughton. She looks at Virginia’s troubled life both as a feminist writer trying to develop a new style of writing and as an independent woman whose mental health forces her into dependence on her servants. Her own worst instincts often flare out against the servants but they seem to have a way of responding: an uneasy relationship that cannot have been calm.

Furthermore, national events, such as the outbreak of war in 1914, epidemics, the growth of factory work for women, female education and emancipation, new taxes and economic depression brought on more social change. The ideal of “service” no longer fitted the modern world with its increasing demand for equality for all, and the Woolfs – and their servants – had to change along with it. Even so, I wonder how easily discussions went at the Labour party meetings at Rodmell House, which included the Woolf’s servants and employees among its members. 
MRS WOOLF AND THE SERVANTS by Alison Light was a useful if sometimes uncomfortable book to read. I enjoyed it because, from a writing point of view, one has to consider the role of any servants “attending” to a story set in the past, as appropriate to the time and place. 

Are the servants to be included or not, named or not?  Are the servants who live closely with the family, like the Sterkarms in Susan Price’s historical sci-fi novels? Or are they hired servants and bearers, as in Sue Purkiss’s Jack Fortune and the Hidden Valley adventure?

Or are they invisible, with the place run, like Nampara on screen in Poldark, with barely a servant evident? Or would they be no more worth mentioning than a washing machine in a modern house? I suppose it all depends on when: different times have brought different relationships, and that is maybe what I need to think about for the work in progress.

Moreover, reading MRS WOOLF AND THE SERVANTS rather makes one think about  celebrity and other households and the kinds of domestic help and helpers that are needed today.

Penny Dolan

Monday, 16 July 2018

James Cook: The Voyages: at the British Library - by Sue Purkiss

This August, it will be 250 years since James Cook's first voyage to the southern seas. As the introduction to this exhibition states: 'In 1768 the coasts and islands of the pacific, although inhabited for thousands of years, were largely unknown to Europeans. Cook made three voyages and when the third returned to Britain in 1780 most of the blank spaces on European maps had been filled in. Cook's voyages have been celebrated, but also sometimes condemned, ever since.'

Cook's chart of Botany Bay

This points to a difficulty. If you'd looked Cook up in an encyclopaedia when I was a child, it would have told you that he was a hero, a great explorer, who discovered hitherto unknown lands. (A couple of years ago, in a fit of manic decluttering, I got rid of just such a set of encylclopaedias. If I hadn't, I'd be able to quote the appropriate entry to you. There's a lesson there...)

Now, it doesn't look quite that simple.

Cook's first voyage, with the Endeavour, was purportedly to observe the Transit of Venus (now there's a title for a book!) across the face of the sun at Tahiti (or Otaheite, as he knew it), in June 1769. But he also had secret Admiralty orders to search for land in the south Pacific, including the Great Southern Continent, if it indeed existed. If he found land, he was 'to cultivate a Friendship and Alliance' with its inhabitants, to chart its coastline and to investigate its potential in terms of trade. Further, he was 'to take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the name of the King of Great Britain' - albeit with the consent of the inhabitants.

Cook and his ship

On that first voyage, he took with him as a naturalist the young Joseph Banks. I've written about Banks in various History Girl posts, and he features in my recent book for children about plant hunting, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley - he was a fascinating and very influential character. He was also tall, handsome, genial, and one of those charismatic people who gets on very well with everybody - whereas Cook was more dour and introverted: they made a good team. So when it came to getting the 'consent of the inhabitants', Banks was a great help. Certainly in Otaheite he threw himself into socialising with the (mostly) welcoming inhabitants with great gusto. He became good friends with Tupaia, the chief priest of the island - so much so that Tupaia asked to accompany the Endeavour when it was time for the visitors to continue their voyage, and did so as a translator and interpreter. Tupaia also drew and painted scenes from their travels, some of which are displayed at the exhibition, alonside many other contemporary images, artefacts, letters and journals. Sadly, both Tupaia and his young son, Tayeto, died when, on the way back to England, after various adventures in Australia and New Zealand, the ship docked at Batavia for repairs: unfortunately Batavia was rife with fever, and almost half of the company, including the two Tahitians, succumbed.

And the exhibition doesn't shy away from revealing that, although Cook was indeed a great explorer who achieved an enormous amount for his country, there was another side to what he did. The lives of the people he 'discovered' were not just touched by his arrival on their shores: they were to be changed forever, even when the intentions of the explorers were good. Tupaia and his son were one example. Another concerns a later voyage, when Cook, meaning to be helpful, presented the Maoris in New Zealand with domesticated animals - sheep, pigs etc. He thought it would make life easier for them if they didn't have to hunt for their food. But the animals had a huge effect on the indigenous flora and fauna, leading to the extinction of a number of native species.

And it was Banks who suggested that Australia would be a good place for a penal colony - which on the one hand led to the creation of modern Australia, but on the other to the near-destruction of the indigenous Aborigine culture.

Tupaia's drawing of Sir Joseph Banks trading with a Maori - a piece of cloth in exchange for a lobster.
It's such a difficult subject; it's so easy to look at events at that time through 21st century eyes. (I dread to think what inhabitants of the earth in the 24th century might think of some of the things that are going on around the world at the moment.) But I think that the British Library exhibition succeeds brilliantly at celebrating Cook's achievements, while at the same time re-evaluating them to take into account the effect of his 'discoveries' on the lives of those he 'discovered'. The objects on display are interspersed with video interviews with modern descendants of those peoples, and they make sobering listening. Yet the message in the end was, I felt, a nuanced one: that, to paraphrase, we are where we are: but we must take account of how we got there, and not pretend that exploitation didn't take place: we must respect not only the 'discoverers', but also the 'discovered'. The exhibition helps towards that - not least by giving us an insight into the lives and cultures of the peoples of the southern and other seas at the time that Cook first encountered them.

You can find out more about the exhibition on the British Library website, here.