Saturday 30 June 2012

June competition

We have two sets of books to give away this month:

Ann Turnbull is one of our History Girl Reservists, to whom we are very grateful. She asks the question:
'If you felt compelled to emigrate, where would you go - and why?' She wrote about travelling with a baby in the seventeenth century here.

Five winners may choose either Alice in Love and War or Seeking Eden. You can read about them here and here.

And new History Girl Manda Scott, who will be joining us full time in August, offers five copies of The Eagle of the Twelfth, which she wrote about here 

She asks: 'If you could rewrite history by changing the outcome of just one big battle, which one would it be - and why?'

As always, the competitions are limited to UK readers. Closing date 9th July.

Friday 29 June 2012

Travelling with a baby in 1645 by Ann Turnbull

It's a pleasure to welcome to the blog today Ann Turnbull, whose third book in the Quaker Trilogy is out this month. Seeking Eden is published by Walker Books. Will and Susannah, who first appeared in No Shame, No Fear and returned in Forged in the Fire, here travel to Pennsylvania with their children. This is the story of their oldest child, Josiah and his struggles with love, religious intolerance and the question of slavery.

In the midst of writing these novels, Ann also wrote one called Alice in Love and War, for which she found out a lot of practical detail about what a woman in the seventeenth century might have had to deal with when travelling with a baby:

Ann Turnbull

It’s 1645. There’s a war on. And a young woman is on the road, travelling with a four-week-old baby who is not her own child. How is she going to keep the baby alive? What did people do in the days before infant formula? This was one of the questions I had to research for my Civil War novel, Alice in Love & War.

Wet nurses were the obvious and best solution. The higher levels of society tended to use them as a matter of course, though by the 17th century there was much debate about the pros and cons, and Protestants often saw it as their religious duty to breastfeed.

When a wet nurse was sought, it was vital to find the right woman for the job. Jane Sharp, a 17th century midwife, gave a long list of recommended qualities, the most important of which was that the wet nurse should have given birth to a child of the same sex as the one to be nursed. The nurse should be of good character and pleasant temperament. A woman with a physical defect such as a squint or “black ill-favoured teeth” should be rejected, since any characteristic of the nurse would be passed to the child through the milk. A sanguine complexion was desirable – as were ‘handsome’ nipples!

After the birth, in order to encourage the milk to come in, the mother was advised to express the colostrum by hand and (alas!) to discard it. Sometimes a woman would suckle new-born puppies to bring in her milk. Meanwhile, her baby was probably being fed by a neighbour or someone else who was already breast-feeding. This would continue for a few days until the mother’s milk came in.
If there had been a difficult delivery both the exhausted mother and her child might be offered sweetened wine until breast-feeding could be established.

But what if the mother’s milk failed, or she died, and there was no wet-nurse to be found? Cow’s milk was considered unsuitable, though ass’s milk might be used. But often the answer was ‘pap’. This was made from barley bread or oatmeal steeped in water and then boiled in milk. It was sometimes used as a supplementary feed, but could also be given when there was no mother’s milk available. One wonders whether a newborn baby could thrive on it, but clearly it was widely used. Feeding a baby in this way was called ‘dry-nursing’ or ‘bringing up by hand’.

Feeding bottles - ‘pap boats’ - were often made of pewter with a screw-on top that doubled as a nipple.

Nappies would also have been a problem for a woman on the move with a young child. She would probably have put rags inside the swaddling bands and washed them when she could. It must have been a difficult and messy business, and the swaddling would have made it tempting not to unwrap the baby as often as necessary. In Alice in Love & War I describe sphagnum moss being used on occasion. It seems a likely option, though I have found no record of its use in Britain.

The practice of swaddling may have made travelling with a baby easier as the infant was completely immobilised. (I have a memory of seeing, somewhere, a picture of a firmly swaddled baby hanging from a hook on the wall while its mother does the housework. It appears quite contented.)
Swaddling was believed to help the limbs grow straight and true, and babies were swaddled for about nine months - though the amount of binding would be reduced as they grew more active, and there must have come a time when the baby began to make its own wishes known.

Much of the information about both wet and dry nursing was found for me by Dr Sara Read, who lectures at Loughborough University. Sara has recently published an article on the menopause 
in Notes and Queries.

Alice in Love & War was published by Walker Books in 2009.

The very good news is that Ann Turnbull has joined the History Girls as one of our Reservists. You can read about her at the end of the About Us Page, is the section about our Reservists, who are on standby to fill in when one of our regulars has a crisis, so that your daily fix of a post on this blog is not interrupted.

Thursday 28 June 2012

Taking the Lives of Others, by K. M. Grant

One sentence in a work in progress can take hours of research.  My sentence reads: 'The executed don't pay for rope, more's the pity.'  Then panic.  In 1794, is this true?

In medieval times, the executed's family paid for the faggots for burning. I have seen one of the bills -   I think it was Thomas Cranmer's (1489-1556), he who was executed by Mary for 'refusing' the pope.  You'll remember that Cranmer had previously signed a recantation of his reforming ideals, and put the hand that signed those recantations into the flames first.  To burn properly, he required more faggots than the executioner had bargained for, so extra faggots were added to the pyre and the invoice.  In the illustrations, everybody seems to be sitting very close.  I hope the onlookers got at least a little bit singed.

But did anybody ever pay for rope?  And if so, did they still pay in 1794?  Dig dig dig goes the novelist.  Tick tick tick goes the clock.   One sentence, almost three days' work.  Well, I say work, but for me, research is real pleasure and writing is the work.  So, three days' pleasure investigating a truly horrible subject, the more fascinatingly horrible the more I read.  In an earlier blog, I wrote about the execution of my ancestor Francis Towneley, who was hung, drawn and quartered for his Jacobite support.  Physical horror.  I wasn't really prepared for the mental horror these new researches uncovered.  Yes, there's worse than a good clean evisceration and a head kept in a basket on the dining room table.

Executioners, so I learned from 'The Executioner:  His Place in English Society' (Robins, 1964) have always been reviled.  In England, you might be awarded damages for being mistaken for a hangman.  In Spain, the executioner's fee was thrown for fear of contamination through direct physical contact, and their house was painted red.  Not only that, after the garrotting (the Spanish method of choice - there were special machines called, unsurprisingly, 'garrots') the executioner was himself always arrested, tried and acquitted because he'd committed murder 'by virtue of my office'.  Weird how justice works.  But what about this.   Since being an executioner was seldom a career of choice, you could have your own capital sentence rescinded if you volunteered to hang others.  Thus, so Robin (p.235) tells us, 'in the seventeenth century a man named Derrick was sentenced to death but pardoned and employed to hang twenty-three others'.  Then there's this story, which really got to me:

'In the days of Charles !!, a father and his two sons were tried at Derby Assizes for horse-stealing.  All were found guilty, but the bench of judges offered to pardon any one of them who would consent to hang the other two.  The offer was first made to the father, who violently refused it.  The elder son was then asked if he would kill his father and brother to save himself, but he also declined.  The offer was, however, accepted by the younger brother, John, who apparently showed a certain aptitude for this work for he was eventually appointed to the post of hangman for Derby and a few neighbouring counties, holding this office to a very old age' (pp. 235-6).

Now, the father and older son may have been rotters.  As a form of final redemption, they may have begged the younger son to do the deed to save himself.  But to show an 'aptitude' and carrying on to a 'very old age'?  John!  For shame!

Executioners were a mixed crew:  some showed more than John's 'aptitude':  they enjoyed the work.  Take Mississippi's Jimmy Thompson, for example, who swapped the career of highway robber for that of state executioner, taking 'great delight in travelling about the state killing people in his portable electric chair at $100 a head'; or Richard Brandon, a London bigamist, who 'prepared for his calling at a young age by decapitating cats and dogs'.  Those not so keen often took to the bottle, though even without the bottle, no eighteenth century felon wanted to be topped by John Thrift, whose work, drunk or sober, was so 'sloppy and inefficient' that he often required 'two or three blows of the axe' to finish the job.

Enough!  And where's the answer to my initial question?  The answer is no, in 1794 the executed didn't pay for his or her own rope.  It's not absolutely clear who did pay, but I expect the executioner did out of his salary (£40 a year in the early 1700s).   He could then sell the rope as a souvenir or, for a small fee, display it in the pub.

At the end of my researches, I read the following, which gave me a jolt:  'In England today, according to evidence given before the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, the average fee paid [to] the hangman is £10' (p.239).  The piece was written in 1964 - that's after my birth.  Perhaps it was supposed to be comforting to learn that by this time the rope was burned immediately after the corpse was cut down, but somehow it wasn't.

See how one sentence can lead to a lot of hanging about in unsavoury company?  You're not alone in wondering why I don't just leave the beastly thing out.

Robin, Gerald D. (1964) The Executioner: His Place in English Society, The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Sep 1964) pp 234-253

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Kathleen Scott Part Two by Louisa Young

This is the second extract from Louisa Young's A Task of Great Happiness: the Life of Kathleen Scott

[Kathleen] weighed eleven pounds when she was born, and her hands were nearly as big at birth as those of her two-year-old sister Jane. Jane, known as Podge, and the littlest brother, Wilfrid, were taken in to see the new baby: Wilfrid stared at her, slapped her face and ran away. Podge remembered Kathleen as a baby 'scrambling over poor unfortunate mother'. Not surprisingly, Janie was ill again. She wrote to her sister Zoe, telling her everything the doctor had said: 'I am using my spectacles . . . they do not help me as yet as much as I had hoped . . . failure of sight . .. disease of the kidneys . . . paralysis of the optic nerve . . . my heart etc. is weak. . . I might have burst a little vessel in the brain.' She finished up admitting that 'I have given you a horrible history of my proceedings.' But the proceedings were horrible. She went to the seaside for a couple of days to rest, and wrote again to her sister, in pencil: 'I have been very badly since Thursday, two days in bed and two days creeping around wrapped in a shawl . . .' She had slept in a damp bed, but didn't want to make a fuss and get the servants into trouble. On 1 October 1880 she died of pneumonia, aggravated by what was known then as Bright's Disease—inflammation of the kidneys. She was forty-two, and her youngest daughter was one.

Kathleen, in 1932, recalled her mother thus: 'This long-suffering lady went blind when I was born, and for the brief time that she lived afterwards she lay gently feeling her last lusty baby's face, tracing the small features. Even a dozen had not taken completely from her the sense of the miraculous. How would it have been had she been able to hear, twenty, thirty, forty years later, this same me stretching out my arms to love, or the sun, with a "Thank God my mother had eleven children; just suppose she'd stopped short at ten!"'

The day Janie died Aunt Zoe Thompson took Kathleen, Podge and Wilfrid into the spare bedroom and told them, crying, that their mother was dead. Podge claimed it meant 'nothing, absolutely nothing'. She was speaking for herself. Some years later she and Kathleen saw the corpse of a man who had fallen from scaffolding. Kathleen was haunted by the sight of his boots sticking out from under the blanket on the stretcher, they filled her 'with every form of creepiness'.

The Bruces were very much a Victorian family: huge, resilient, religious, stiff-upper-lipped, and with a streak of eccentricity. They were brought up on Robinson's Patent Barley and Groats, with nursery maids, schoolrooms and white pinafores. Lloyd Bruce was by this time a canon of York and used to pay his little daughters a halfpenny a time to collect wheelbarrows of weeds, and tell them not to spend their earnings all at once. Though he had adored Janie and was grief stricken at her death, nine months to the day later he married a well-to-do widow from Sheffield named Mrs. Parker, who he hoped and believed would help with the children. She had a bonnet with both roses and feathers on it, and the elder children were not at all sure about her, even though she had been a friend of their mother. Douglas, the eldest boy, suggested that they call her mother in gratitude for her coming to look after them, but Rosslyn, the seventh child, said he would only ever call her Mrs. Parker. The only benefit he saw was the fact that Mrs. Parker's sister was married to Sir Luke Mappin, who had built the bear and goat terraces at London Zoo. Even that didn't help much. Rosslyn had a performing flea, and when Lady Mappin came to stay there was uproar because it was discovered on her ladyship's pillow. 'Sorry,' said Rosslyn, 'that's not mine. Mine is a cock flea. That's one of her own.'

Podge recalls nothing between her mother's funeral and being instructed to put on a clean pinafore to go and meet her 'new Mamma'. The Canon married for the children's sake, and Mrs. Parker herself was not entirely happy with the situation. Although eventually all the children came to call her Mamma, she felt that she was 'only Mrs. Bruce'. She did try to enter into the spirit, but even Elma, the eldest sister and the 'sensible one', said that whereas her mother had been 'all gentleness and humility, this one was all pomposity and boss'. Mamma took a great fancy to the toddler Kathleen, and used to read picture books with her after lunch. A favourite was called Wee Babies; Kathleen specially liked the part about the twins Horace and Maurice, who were so alike their nurse couldn't tell them apart—this is the first appearance of a life-long inclination towards males, babies, and in particular male babies. But Mamma did not work out. On one occasion she slapped her husband's face during a dispute about the fish for dinner; after that she took to spending long spells abroad. No one else took much notice of Kathleen.

Podge's first memory of Kathleen was of her in 'a white woolly pelisse and cape, the latter ornamental round the edge with little woolly blobs which you invariably sucked and pulled off. I remember Rachel the nursemaid's grief to find another blobble gone, as usual'. Rachel was popular, and Mamma's sacking her (because she was rather vulgar and could not sew) did not endear her to her new family. The new nurse was called Emma; she had been Janie's maid and Kathleen used to get into her bed every morning and learn German words and prayers. Podge would amuse herself at night by making ogre faces at her baby sister over the edge of her cot to make her cry, until the nursemaids in the room below banged on the ceiling with a broom handle to make them stop. Podge never knew where the banging was coming from, but she knew what it meant.

The Canon was not well, Mamma was largely absent, and Elma was taking over as the organizer of the brood — their great uncle Sir Hervey Bruce even referred to her by mistake as 'your Aunt Elma' rather than 'your sister'. Several of the children, including Podge, were dispatched to Edinburgh to stay with their great uncle William Skene, Janie's uncle, the brother of James and Fifi Skene, to lighten the load. He was perfectly accustomed to this: for the past fifty years his house in Inverleith Row had rarely been without nephews and nieces and great nephews and great nieces staying. In between being Historiographer Royal for Scotland, a writer and scholar of Celtic and Gaelic history and a family lawyer, he liked to take them swimming (even in his old age) and tell them tales of Highland history.

Kathleen said later that Mamma 'appeared to take little or no interest, either during her life or at her death, in the healthy, good-looking, good-humoured army of her step-children', but this may not be quite fair. Mamma offered to take Kathleen as her own child when the others were going off to Edinburgh, and the fact that this offer was rejected may have had some bearing on her deathbed reluctance to leave her worldly goods to the family with whom things had not worked out very well. Kathleen stayed on a year with her father and big sister Irene, who 'took you for her doll', as Podge put it, dressing her up and calling her Baby. Podge, in Edinburgh, missed her little sister, regretted the ogre faces and cried herself to sleep at night resolving to protect Kathleen in future. When, at the age of seven, Kathleen joined her siblings at Great Uncle William's, the protection was needed. On one occasion, Podge reported later, 'we were all jumping from trucks filled with sand (to be used for the erection of the Forth Bridge) on to the sandbanks. You were a timid child and flunked jumping from the same height as they did who were several years older. One of them got behind you and pushed you down—your mouth, eyes and nose were covered with sand. I boil now when I think of it.'

Tuesday 26 June 2012

WHAT'S IN A NAME? - Dianne Hofmeyr

It seems cakes are featuring heavily on the History Girls Blog of late. But the combination of Imogen announcing ‘I’m getting married this week-end’ and my grandson’s naming ceremony this past week-end has made me think about why traditions and ceremonies for certain occasions are so universal and enduring.

Jack’s name was given him by his sister because she has a boy doll named Jack. Barrington was a great grandfather’s name on his mother’s side, Reitz was a great grandfather’s name on his father’s side and the surname Hofmeyr stems from the Mayor of the Court who was the power behind the throne in the Merovingian dynasty. So all very simple... and as a writer not an icer, I decorated the cake with paper bunting and paper Beatrix Potter characters with paper flags announcing his names.

Back in history and in many other cultures the giving of a name was more complex. In Luo tribes, a name for a baby is quite practically decided while the baby is crying. Various names of dead and living ancestors are called out and when the baby stops crying at the sound of a name, it’s believed the spirits wanting this name have been appeased.

In Nigeria a baby’s naming ceremony is celebrated by eating foods that will give the baby certain strengths. Gin or strong drink (protecting the child from becoming an alcoholic). palm wine (libation), chalk mixed with salt (symbolizing happiness), honey, sugar, and bitter kola nuts (duality of life’s bitter and sweet qualities), crocodile pepper (not sure how safe this is but said to be for invoking energy in the child’s speech), coconuts (representing mystery, secrets, and the unknown), yams (staple food of the Edo people), palm oil (symbol of emollient for life’s problems) and water (representing fluidity and having no enemies). And water is the main symbol of renewal and purity in Christian baptism, symbolising a new birth into water as the baby is named.

In Roman times the naming day was much more important than the date of birth. The praenomen was the first given name for a baby. In 100 BC there were only about 18 praenomens commonly used. The second name, or nomen, referred to the clan of the child's family. The cognomen, the third name, referred to the newborn’s family branch. Tiny metal trinkets, were strung around the baby's neck by the guests. The clinking noise was to amuse the child and was also for warding off evil. In addition the child was given a bulla – an elaborate locket made of gold in the case of the wealthy or leather if poor. It contained charms to ward off evil and was presented to the child on the day of birth. A boy removed his bulla only after he received his toga virilis, signifying his Roman citizenship. A girl removed hers on her wedding day.

The giving of trinkets, charms, amulets and rattles has always been a naming day tradition. Rattles at their most basic – toys to divert babies – go back to the 2nd century BC. They’ve been made in materials ranging from dried gourds, seedpods, woven sticks, hollowed-out tortoise shells and bones, to much more elaborate styles in glass, silver and gold which were handed down as heirlooms, such as the gold one in the photograph further down which belonged to Shelley and is marked B*S 1792. Victorian rattles were particularly elaborate and usually made of silver because of its anti-septic qualities.

Successful rattle designs combined several purposes. Some truculent children found them good to throw, or use as hammers or weapons. The addition of whistles and bells was to amuse the child but in more superstitious times, was also to scare away evil spirits. Some had teething rings or sticks for the baby to chew on. These were traditionally made of a hard red or white substance, like coral, bone, mother of pearl and ivory – the red symbolising blood, the white bone and the use of bone or ivory also conferred the strength of that particular animal to fight off the pain of teething.

Not having any antique rattle heirloom to give to Jack Barrington Reitz Hofmeyr, I made him a book of his personal history – of his roots that not only go deep into the green hills of England but deep into African soil as well. I hope he’ll enjoy the snippets, the poems, the alphabet made from animals and butterflies on African stamps, the old yellowed photographs, the receipt for a string of pearls (the receipt still with me but where is the necklace?) the letters tucked away into secret envelopes, one from a great great great grandfather written to his sisters back in San Saba, Texas explaining why newly arrived in London at age 16, he felt compelled to change his middle parting to a side parting, the packet of bright red and black African lucky beans and the fold-out maps with arrows and circles that explore his origins.

For it’s through our names that we first place ourselves in the world. Our names, being the gift of others, must be made our own. They must become our mask and our shields and the containers of all those values and traditions which we learn and or imagine as being the meaning of our familiar past.’
- Ralph Ellison

Monday 25 June 2012


It's funny how you can miss history in the making. Sometimes it’s a single big event. A friend of mine came out of the subway near the twin towers just after the first plane struck.  Everyone was looking up.  She thought the city had been comandeered by yet another film crew, and disappeared into her office - unaware for ages that anything was going wrong.  My husband slept through the Brighton bomb.

But most of us slumber as social developments and political trends unfurl around us.  We’re so close to them that we don’t realise how significant (or how fleeting) they might be.  We may fail to note the everyday things that future historians will take as crucial markers of our time. Each of us has, unwittingly, a store of knowledge about some minor part of history, sometimes from odd or interesting angles.  For me, it was being caught up in a brief social experiment in post-war London. 

I grew up in a block of flats in Camberwell. It was owned by the London County Council, and was part of an attempt to stop council estates becoming ghettos of poverty.  The idea was that some blocks would be what they called ‘Higher Rental Accommodation’.  In other words, the rent was unsubsidised (and rates were not included).  The idea was that the young families of men in ‘settled occupations’ (teachers, civil servants, and various arty types) would be encouraged to move in. The flats were very close to a train line into Blackfriars and Holborn Viaduct – very convenient for Fleet Street -- so several of the residents were journalists  on national newspapers.  There were jazz musicians, and the man who sang ‘Aqua Marina’ at the end of Stingray. In exchange for the extra rent, we got a laundry in the basement, with coppers for boiling up the washing, a mangle, and some very early washing machines (which were usually broken).
Otherwise, the flats were much the same as on other council estates.  The rooms were small and there was wee in the lift.  You couldn’t have pianos or dogs, and a stern notice listed all the rules  - threatening dire penalties for breaking them.  It was signed by Alderman Douglas Houghton, who was the Labour head of the LCC Housing Committee when the flats were built. More than thirty years later, when he was Baron Houghton of Sowerby and I was producing the TV coverage of the House of Lords, I still feared that he would lock me up for playing Knock Down Ginger when I was six.

I think the LCC's original idea was that the tenants would mingle freely with the less privileged families in the ‘real’ council blocks (the Yellow Blocks, as we called them, because of the different colour of the bricks), that we would all go to the same schools, and that snobbery would die.  

Well, it didn’t work out that way, of course.  By the time I was a toddler there was a fence between us and the Yellow Blocks.  We weren’t allowed to use each other’s playgrounds, even though they had a better roundabout, and we had the only slide. People in our flats made a point of describing themselves as ‘ratepayers’ and, incredible as it may seem, our block had an official, council-imposed, colour bar.  It was lifted by the time I was a teenager in the late sixties, but I still remember the fuss about whether a Turkish family was on the right side of the line.
Here’s an example of the casual racism of the time. 

This picture was probably taken around 1958. It shows a group of us from the flats on our way to a fancy dress competition at our primary school.  Although there were black children at the school, it was thought perfectly acceptable for someone to go as one of the black-and-white minstrels.

By the way, I’m the Benny Hill look-alike (not in fancy dress) on the right.  My brother is Father Christmas.  This may be a record of the day on which I found out that he isn’t real…

Some of the social engineering worked.  Most of us did go to the local primary - the only exception I can recall being Kelvin MacKenzie, who (as I remember) was at a posh prep school some distance away. But more people from our side of the fence stayed on to the sixth form and university, and more from the other side ended up in prison.  As it turned out, housing wasn’t the complete answer to inequality – the aspirations and background of the parents in those homes mattered too. 

In some ways, what the experiment did was simply jolt old-fashioned snobbery one rung down the social ladder. Although I can remember no trouble emanating from the Yellow Blocks, I have to admit that I was brought up with an assumption that we were ‘better’ than the people living there. This was the exact opposite of what the social engineers had in mind.  Our flats gave people who - before the war - would have been looked down on by their 'betters' in some suburban enclave a platform of their own from which to look down on others.  Given that many of the residents worked on tabloid newspapers, maybe that had a part to play in disseminating the idea that ‘real’ council estates were places for lesser, feckless, beings.

And it got worse…

When the Right to Buy came in, our flats were among the first to go, and they were rapidly sold on.  Nestled alongside two major hospitals, they were snapped up by doctors needing crashpads and yuppies getting their first step on London’s Housing ladder.  The playground was turned into a car park.  They probably have entryphones now.  I just looked on the internet.  A three bedroom flat there will set you back more than £330,000 these days.  

In the early fifties, our block of flats was part of a much bigger social enterprise.  We were not far from the pioneering Peckham Health Centre, though by the 1960s it was little more than a swimming pool. 

The familiy planning clinic (where sixth formers from my school handed over a guinea to get the pill, and where we were shocked to discover that the nurse there was a resident of our flats) had been the very first in London.
No doubt some of the early residents of our flats had gone there out of idealism – even hoping to walk in the shoes of the pioneers who had set up the Health Centre and the clinic.  I remember babysitting for a young couple when I was in my teens. They told me that they had come because they wanted to live in a ‘community’.  It was the first time I had heard the word. Those young hippies were doomed to disappointment.  Most of our parents never spoke to anyone in the Yellow Blocks. They probably felt they were doing them a favour simply by being there – gently raising the tone.  

 In the end, almost all the tenants of our flats sold up and moved on as soon as they had the chance --  happy to leave those in the Yellow Blocks and the council's rules behind them.  
That probably wasn’t what Alderman Houghton had in mind.         

Sunday 24 June 2012


by Essie Fox

A still from Le Voyage dans la Lune directed by George Melies

In 1865 Jules Verne wrote his novel From the Earth to the Moon in which a rocket was fired from America - Florida to be precise - and after safely reaching its destination the craft then returned to Earth, splashing down into the Pacific Ocean. (There's something very familiar - something rather 1960's about that, don't you think?)

In 1901 H G Wells wrote The First Men in the Moon, a romantic science fiction tale in which, by the means of an anti-gravity shield, two men are propelled to the Moon, meeting its inhabitants and having quite a thrilling time. A film was made in 1964, and another in 2010 which stars Mark Gatiss and Rory Kinnear.

Another still from Le Voyage dans La Lune

But back in 1902, over a century before and based on the novels by Verne and Wells, Georges Melies wrote and directed Le Voyage dans La Lune or A Trip to the Moon - the very first science fiction film that I happen to know about. (Admittedly, this was a year after Queen Victoria's death and therefore not strictly Victorian, but I think it's fair enough to say that the conception and preparation would have been well under way before the actual release date.)
Although the camera view is somewhat static and rather long with none of the character 'close-ups' exhibited in later cinema drama - indeed when watching this short film the viewer might almost be in a theatre observing some intricate pantomime - when considering the date of its genesis I think it is something extraordinary, especially from about 4 minutes in when the rocket first plunges into the Moon...with some charming animation and, in this particular version, an equally charming voice-over and musical interpretation by the Vancouver folk band Maria in the Shower. 

Saturday 23 June 2012

History lies in the soil by Leslie Wilson

My house and garden sit on a minor Civil War battlefield - it was a skirmish, really, but it went on all day and by evening the field, according to locals, ran red with blood. Presumably some of the chemical components of that blood are still present in the soil, helping my plants and vegetables to grow.

When I dig, I find bits of old blue and white china, but also I once turned up a rusting but recognisable end of an old ploughshare, and when the greenhouse was put up, Stewart the Handyman, who levelled the ground, found an old clay pipe, which now lives in our sitting room. But soil itself is the product of a continued interaction between humans and the earth, and is as much part of our history as battles and politics. Indeed, bad harvests have, in the past, been a potent cause of warfare and the toppling of governments, and we need only consider the catastrophe of the American dustbowl to realise the social importance of soil.

There used to be an old cottage in what is now my front garden, before the current house was built. But the picture doesn't show it as having much garden behind: I think most of the cultivated soil was where the road now is - such a waste. Behind was pastureland, and the soil, when I came here, was largely just a thin layer on top of alternate chalk, clay, and gravel - a typical Chilterns geology, I have been told.

The lost soil at the front would have been manured, cultivated, and carefully looked after for years and years and years. Anyone who is lucky enough to garden old soil knows what a benefit that is. I imagine agricultural labourers, like the ones in Flora Thompson's 'Lark Rise to Candleford,' hoeing away in the evenings, and maybe cursing the 'hemmed twitch', the couch grass that still annoys me in the front garden.

I'm told that adding chemical fertilisers to soil actually kills soil organisms. Soil that hasn't been interfered with is a reserve of precious living creatures - from earthworms to microscopic animalcules - who, like our gut flora, have a lot more to say to our survival than we humans like to think. They take what we put in and spread it among the inert mineral components, making the wonder that we call earth.

Here's my grandson, the inheritor of our earth and soil, enjoying it and the potatoes he's picking out of it.

I feed the soil organisms compost, including peelings of oranges from Spain, peach stones from Italy, and bits of more exotic vegetables, thus depositing into the soil the evidence of our own multi-national trading. Newspaper, supermarket vegetables and my own vegetable peelings and outer leaves join grass clippings and such weeds as can be trusted to rot down and not use the compost for proliferation, as the couch and bindweed do. But a more ancient process of assimilation and conversion happens in parallel, as small animals die, and birds and mammals deposit their droppings.

As Eliot puts it, in the four quartets, much better than I can, too: 'flesh, fur and faeces/ Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.' (TS Eliot: Four Quartets).

Friday 22 June 2012


I like to think that, amongst the flora growing down on the damp fields towards the river Cary and tucked away in the oldest hedges, there just might be weeds at Lytes Cary Manor that are descended from weeds that grew there at the time of botanist Henry Lyte.

A modest medieval house on the edge of the Somerset Levels owned now by the National Trust, it is not hard to picture Henry Lyte (c1529-1607) there working on his groundbreaking Herbal in his small, dark study, walking the estate for fresh air and studying the plants around him. His respect for the power and virtues of ordinary, everyday wayside plants is the inspiration for my novel THE KNOT, which pieces together known fragments of his life.

Largely forgotten now, his translation of Flemish naturalist Rembert Dodeons’s Cruydeboeck became the standard work on herbs in the English language during the latter part of the 16th century, and was hugely influential. Lyte called his translation The New Herball or Historie of Plants, and it was published in 1578. In folio, including almost 900 illustrative woodcuts by Leonhart Fuchs, it was the first comprehensive work to list every known plant in English.

With the sole exception of William Turner’s work (the radical Dean of Wells cathedral) who, living nearby and planting his own physic garden, must surely have provided encouragement and instruction, previous Herbals available at that time were in Latin or other European languages, never in English. Descended mostly from classical texts (Dioscorides, Pliny) they were inaccessible to the ordinary man or woman without an elite education. New herbals were becoming the cutting-edge medical manuals of their day, combining received wisdom of the ancients with a new emphasis on observation and study of the natural world. Communities engaged in this new scientific study came from a variety of backgrounds; apothecaries, scholars, aristocrats, explorers and merchants. Turner had produced an original work in English, but it was far from being a comprehensive study. Until Henry Lyte published his massive undertaking, no-one had compiled a list of all known plants in English. This itself must have required an in-depth understanding of botany, so that the finished work is far more than a straightforward word-for-word translation.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Henry intended his translation to be a step towards a more equal distribution of knowledge. It was a time when to translate into the vernacular tongue for the common man to understand was a political act – the Bible itself had only been translated into English within his lifetime. In the preface to the Herball, he states; Bonum, quo communius, eo melius & praestantius, translates this for us as, ‘a good thing the more common it is, the better it is.’ There is irony in the fact that Henry Lyte is so forgotten now, so ignored by posterity. His introduction to the Herball outlines, manifesto-style, how passionately he believed in open sharing of this medical expertise:

'My translation shall make this good and profitable Historie (which hitherto hath lien hid from many of my Countrymen, under the vaile of an unknowne language) familiar and knowne unto them.'

No doubt predicting the inevitable disapproval of the College of Physicians he adds rather pointedly that:  

'The good and vertuous Physition, whose purpose is rather the health of many, than the wealth of himselfe, will not (I hope) mislike this my enterprise, which to this purpose specially tendeth, that even the meanest (poorest) of my Countrymen, (whose skill is not so profound, that they can fetch this knowledge out of strange tongues, not their abilitie so wealthy, as to entertain a learned Physition) may yet in time of their necessitie have some helps in their owne, or their neighbors fields and gardens at home.'

I love his idea that the key to health might be readily available in anyone’s garden plots, on waysides, to anyone who could read in his (or her) mother tongue – and that this text enabled lay men and women to practice medicine, as well as providing clear description of the botanical features of the plants. It would have been invaluable for those unlicensed women practising as herbwives, and gentlewomen running their own stillroom at home to tend to ailments as they occurred both in the household and amongst the poor in the community who couldn’t afford the expense of a doctor.

Henry’s own personal copy of the French version of Dodeons, translated by Charles Lecluse, is in the British Library. Covered in notes in his tiny, immaculate hand, it feels like the closest we can get to hearing Henry speak for himself. His voice is in these notes – observations of local Somerset plants and plants seen in other men’s gardens, cross-references with points of interest gathered from other herbalists – Mattioli, Turner. There are smudges, doodles, marginalia. At the back are assorted notes about the estate, a recipe for horse medicine.

Other clues about his life at Lytes Cary exist. The garden bears no trace now of the layout of his own magnificent garden, but we know from John Aubrey’s 17th century writing that it contained ‘a good collection of plants for that age, some few whereof are yet alive’, and we know that ten years after Henry’s death there were ‘divers sorts of fruite growing at Lytescary’:

Apples, 3 skore, severall sortes
Pears and Wardens, 44 sorts
Plummes, 15 divers kynds
Grapes, 3 severall sortes
Cherries, 1
Wallnuts, 3
Peaches, 1
The Almond Tree
The Figge tree
The Quines tree
The Barbary tree
The Cornishe berrie
The Philbert trees
The black Bulleis
The Sloe

Most of his significant correspondence is lost. We know that there were letters from gentlemen and men of letters relating to the herbal, because his son Thomas mentions them in his commonplace book – only that they existed, not their content. But this commonplace book gives us instead extensive, tantalising glimpses into Lyte family life on the estate at Lytes Cary: the matters of tenancies and rents, taxes and payments of queensilver, personal disputes, trees cut down, acrimonious family lawsuits, ditch digging, hedge planting, land issues, windmills, hopyards and field names (Fatt Moor, Outdrove, the Gore, Swan’s Nest, Dame Christian’s Cross, Clay Furlong, the Ridgway). Thomas also mentions the existence of ‘physick notes, good against the new sweat and other good old remedies’ and then like gold dust for the novelist; ‘my father’s letters written in great anguishe of mynd’ and, ‘unkynd letters and worse dealings betwixt John Lyte (Henry’s father) and his son and heir.’ Looking at these and other documents and references I began to assemble together intriguing snippets, and realised there must surely be a novel in there. When I got to, ‘there went about a most vile report of the sicknes and death of the first wife of Henry Lyte, and likewise of himselfe, by the report of his owne father,’ I was convinced of it, that there was a premise.

Now that I’m done with writing THE KNOT I really miss Henry Lyte’s company, but definitely like to think there’s still something of his spirit up there amongst the weeds on the hill at Lytes Cary. Visit him if you’re passing…

Likewise if anyone happens to be passing Waterstones in Wells, Somerset tomorrow (Sat 23) I’ll be signing copies of THE KNOT between 11am-2pm – drop in and say hello, it would be lovely to see you.

Thursday 21 June 2012

Wedding Cake, anyone? by Imogen Robertson

I’m getting married this weekend, and frankly the way my brain is at the moment you’re lucky this post doesn’t just consist of that sentence repeated again and again. Still, I can’t think a non-wedding related thought, so forgive me and I promise I have got some history in here somewhere. 
Ned and I have gone for a do-it-yourself type of affair. We’re having the party in an eighteenth century barn on a working farm belonging to friends of friends, and I knew it was the right place for us when I walked in there, looked up at the beams and said, ‘Oh, darling! It’s just like the barn where Harriet and Crowther performed their first autopsy!’ Ned teared up a little and squeezed my hand.

The beef is roasting in our kitchen as I type; we’re collecting most of the rest of the food from Borough Market tomorrow morning, and my mother has made the wedding cake. Now, when we asked Mum to make the cakes it was for reasons both practical and selfish. Yes, huge fancy wedding cakes with icing roses and corinthian columns can look lovely, but they aren’t very us and I love my Mum’s fruit cake. I can also pay her with a big smile which helps the budget. Now, what I didn’t realise was we are actually being quite eighteenth century about it. Hannah Glass’s bride cake recipe from her The Art of Cookery, 1774, is really very like what we are going to eat on Saturday, only Hannah places her candied orange and lemon in layers within the cake rather than mixing it all together. I think Mum would have cried if I’d asked her to do that. I also think Mum’s used a little less brandy than Hannah’s half pint per cake. We’re having almond icing like just Hannah’s, though I don’t think Mum whisked it for ‘an hour or two’.

Even the question of fancy icing versus plain is centuries old. In English Etymology 1783, George William Lemon notes that the ceremonial cake had its roots in Roman times, then continues, ‘ - but whatever were the ingredients of the antient bride cakes, the modern are made of such costly articles, that the wealthy now-a-days seem to vie with each other more in the extravagance of the composition than in a knowledge of the institution.’ Indeed.

The tradition of sleeping with bride cake under your pillow to make you dream of your future husband or wife was already established, though in a volume of The Spectator from 1776 a correspondent reports trying this, only to wake to find he couldn’t remember his dream, and he had eaten the cake. Perhaps his experiment failed because he didn’t pass his bit of cake through the wedding band as soon as the wedding rites were over. No one is going to try that at my wedding, I’m afraid. Once the rites are over the ring is staying on my finger and anyone trying to shove cake through it is going to get my hard stare. The writer of an article in The Connoisseur in 1775 did much better, the bride cake under the pillow providing a long allegorical dream of different brides and grooms sharing differently iced cakes that illustrated the wisdom or folly of their marriages. Moral lessons through cake. Who would have thought?

One note brought me up short; in the Lake District it was traditional to break the bride cake over the bride’s head. Sounded like a terrible waste of good cake to me and very messy, so I was delighted to learn in this case the cake was ‘a thin current cake’ and a white cloth was placed over the bride’s head before she was attacked with confectionary. Still, I’ve no idea where that tradition comes from or what the underlying symbolism is. If anyone knows, please share. According to John Nichols in Anecdotes of William Hogarth of 1782, this is about to happen in Hogarth’s third sketch for the ‘Happy Marriage’ series he planned but never finished. At least it looks like a good sized sheet.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

'History in my Hand: The Beauty of Books' by A.L. Berridge

Today I’m going to attempt an entire post without mentioning the Crimea. This is difficult while I’m in the ‘total immersion’ stage of writing about it, but a few weeks ago I found a different and really obvious subject staring me right in the face.

I was in the basement of Goldsboro Books in Cecil Court, the torture-chamber where publishers send us to ‘sign and line’ a seemingly endless stack of our own books. Proprietor David Headley once suggested my ‘lines’ should be the entire opening paragraph, and after churning out the first pile my wrist was so locked I couldn’t write for a week.

I’m wiser now, and the line for ‘Into the Valley of Death’ (which is about the Crimean War, by the way) was simply the last one: ‘the light of her lamp shone like hope’.  But it’s still hard work for authors so used to a keyboard they’ve forgotten how to write their own name, and it was as I paused to shake my wrist that I began to take in the magic of my surroundings.

Books. Hundreds of hardback books gleaming in polished rows along the shelves. Light brushed gently over the satin of matt-finished covers, glinted in the reds and blues of embossed lettering, and flashed in the touches of gold and silver foil. The floor creaked overhead as customers browsed about the shop, but I was alone in a treasure house hushed with the beauty of books.

A particularly beautiful book. It's set in the Crimean War. 
 I returned to my task with a new reverence. The books I was signing were no longer just ‘my novel’; they were tangible, precious things with an existence beyond the words. How can one sign an e-book? What would be the point? Digital download is merely ‘content’, but a real book is an experience bound into physical form. 

And with form comes history. Even what I was doing now was a ritual dating back over many years. At Goldsboro itself I was only one in a stream of writers who had sat at this table – a fact of which Robert Fabbri reminded me when he came in that afternoon to sign copies of his fabulous ‘Rome’s Executioner’ and thanked me for keeping the seat ‘warm’. Sic transit gloria mundi indeed.

The feeling is hardly unique to Goldsboro. Visitors to Brown's Hotel in Albemarle Street will have seen the cherrywood desk at which Kipling wrote 'The Jungle Book', but not all will know that the best part of a century later Steven King sat at the same desk and wrote the entire first draft of 'Misery' by hand. He too wanted to feel part of that chain of history, connected to those who had gone before by the physical reality of a wooden desk, real paper, a real pen - and real books.

 The human part of the chain is fallible. Kipling collapsed here the day he died - only hours after signing a copy of 'The Absent-Minded Beggar' for the head porter, telling him jokingly it would be worth a lot of money when he was dead.
I doubt he'd have minded the irony. He knew what I'm only just learning: that if writers are transient, their books are not.

That's still true today. Some may be pulped, others may land in the hands of those extraordinary people who are capable of putting a book in a dustbin, but as a general rule books survive. When we croon over our latest purchase of a verified antique, we may be quite unaware that our bookshelves contain artefacts even older. If you come from a family of readers they almost certainly do. Even my copy of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ is signed by my great-aunt and was printed in 1926.

Many are far older. Trawling through my own collection I found a number from the 19th century, among them an 1855 edition of Keats’ Poetry – which places it, incidentally, in the time of the Crimean War.

Others include a Young’s ‘Night Thoughts’ dated 1818, and a sadly coverless ‘Miscellany of Prose and Verse’ printed in 1713. 
They’re not worth much, since their condition bears witness to the handling of many generations, but that doesn’t lessen their value to me. When I pick them up I’m holding history in my hand.

And not in the sense of something dead. To read a physically old book is also to gain an appreciation of how it was perceived at the time.
 Which is why I like reading Shakespeare in this particular edition - an 1866 photo-lithograph of the 1623 Folio. I feel a connection to its own first readers by reading it in the same form.

Katherine Langrish evoked exactly that feeling in her beautiful post about Penguin Classics. It's for similar reasons that I love my tatty Penguin crime paperbacks, which summon up a world of ‘between the wars’ austerity – the world in which Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey made their names by being published in a medium many considered ‘pulp’. 

Then there’s this, the oldest book I own.
 It’s a terribly battered thing, but it’s the first part of the narrative poem ‘Hudibras’, and it’s dated 1684 – just four years after Samuel Butler died.

This book would not have seemed strange to him. It would have looked much as ‘Into the Valley of Death’ looks to me, and every bit as beautiful.

But its life still goes beyond that of the author. When this book was printed there was a King on the throne of France and no such place as the United States of America. The man or woman who owned it may have seen Charles I while his head was still on. That’s the chain that binds us all the way back through time: not the author but the readers, the people who’ve owned this and turned its pages. It is impossible to look at a really old book and not wonder through how many hands has it passed – and whose.

Because books travel. They’re gifted and borrowed, they’re passed down the family as their owners die, they end in second-hand bookshops where somebody buys them to start the cycle all over again. Every owner leaves his aura on it. Sometimes it’s regrettably obvious, like the unsavoury yellow stain we’ve all at some time encountered on the pages of a second-hand book. A fastidious friend of mine avoids second-hand books altogether because he never knows ‘whether they mightn’t have been read in the lavatory’. 

But sometimes the traces are altogether more poignant. It wasn’t only authors who signed their books in the last century, and if you look inside some of your older ones you’ll find inscriptions to make you smile – or break your heart. ‘For Mollie on her confirmation, knowing she will be a good girl’.  ‘To Edith, with love.  Michael. July 1914’. If that isn’t history – real, human history – then I’d like to know what is.

I'd like to finish with one of my own favourites, a little leather-bound devotional book called ‘Wilson on the Lord’s Supper’. The original owner was a C.R. Haines, who was a pupil at Wellington, but seems to have gone on to be a teacher at Uppingham. Nothing very special, perhaps – until you look inside.

Attached to the back cover is a little wallet, within which I found three letters dating from 1871. There are two between Haines and his mother (to whom the boy affectionately signs himself ‘C.R. Haines’), and another from his teacher, a Mr A.F. Griffith who is recommending his pupil for confirmation.

Haines was confirmed that year, and that Griffith was right in his estimation of his character is evident in the prayers handwritten into the blank pages of the book, and also the holy pictures carefully pasted in to face them. This isn’t just a book – it’s an album of a life.

And death. One item pasted in his book is this 1892 newspaper cutting about the mysterious demise of that long ago and still beloved teacher.

 There were other losses too. 

A closer look at that last page reveals a list headed ‘My old Uppingham boys killed in the war’.

Haines knew every one of them. He taught them, these children who were sent over the top to mutilation and death, and he records their names in the book that to him was the most sacred. Each is a history in itself, though the name of Lascelles, VC , is the only one so far to which I’ve been able to attribute detail.

Even Haines’ own death is here, reflected in the touching note to his executors added in a failing hand onto the front page.

 I suspect Gregory didn’t ‘wish to have it’, and maybe ‘Richard’ didn’t either. It was cut loose from its family and came first to my father and then to me. But I do ‘wish to have it’, every word of it, and he doesn’t need to have been my ancestor for me to read this with love.

But our day is over. People no longer sign their books or paste in pretty book-plates. Books are dispensable, and as far as e-books are concerned all that physical stuff is ‘history’. So it is, perhaps – but to me ‘history’ is not a derogatory word.

Real books remain a treasure, and one that will survive power-cuts, server failure, famine, plague and war. Even mine will. Some of those books I’ve signed will outlive me, and one day in 2140 someone will pick one from a towering stack in a barn in Hay and wonder who A. L. Berridge was, and what was so special about a thing called ‘the Charge of the Light Brigade’.

I won’t be around to tell him, but my book will. You see, I may not have mentioned this, but it’s set in the Crimean War.

If you’d like to win a signed copy of ‘Into the Valley of Death’ that the author guarantees has never been near a lavatory, then her website is here.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Theresa Breslin Is it a writer’s responsibility…

… to bear witness to what is happening in the times in which they live?

Just as Charles Dickens writing about the plight of young children in London prompted the work of the great Victorian philanthropic organisations, and Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies led to the Act going through the UK Parliament banning the use of chimney boys, I am very much hoping that this Blog contributes to the pressure upon my local Council to halt the scything cuts to East Dunbartonshire Library Services.  

I’d intended to blog about the history of traditional tales as per my research for my book due out just now, An Illustrated Treasury of Folk and Fairy Tales.  But I’ve put that aside to talk about a different kind of history - the history of my own Public Library. My older sister took me along to join The William Patrick Memorial Library as a very young child. From a great height the Dragon Lady inspected me, announced that as I was “from a good family” I was a suitable candidate. When she discovered I was underage (not quite 5) she gave me a reading test. Yes, really! Trembling, and with quavering voice I managed to gulp out a sentence. She nodded. I was in! I entered the magic world of Blyton, Brazil, and Buckeridge, and many, many more. I became a reader, and then due, I’m sure due to the library, a writer.    

Last year, despite my organising a protest outside the Scottish Parliament and fighting a hard campaign, my local mobile service was taken off the road, leaving large housing estates and outlying villages without a library service. I considered this an immoral act made for political expediency so that no councillor representing a specific area would get hassle. When the mobile disappeared I was filled with great despair. At one time I was responsible for Mobile Services. I knew these hamlets, farmsteads, villages, smallholdings and housing estates. I knew the old people, those looking after young children, the teachers, the school pupils. Isolated and vulnerable they had lost a life-link. Teachers, parents and, most importantly, children loved our schools stops which were the foundation of establishing reading as a pleasurable habit rather than merely a tedious decoding chore. The nearest static branch for many of the people became the William Patrick Library in Kirkintilloch.

In the Spring of this year, in the guise of “modernisation” East Dunbartonshire Council admitted that they had made arrangements to alter the Lending Department which occupied the ground floor of the building. When accused of decimating the library our Chief Executive defended himself by saying that he was only reducing it by 10%. (sic) This is a man in desperate need of a dictionary. When we were finally allowed to see the plans the 10% turned out to be a whole lot more.       

The Children’s Department which was on the left hand side of the ground floor has been shut and some shelves allocated in the Adult Lending, losing about 70 in total. No one quite knows what the new “Customer Services” marked to go in its place is for. Neither would it appear does the Council as they are now, belatedly, holding “Consultation” exercises about this. Or maybe they do know but are just not telling us.  

In Kirkintilloch there is outrage about this. William Patrick was our own personal Andrew Carnegie. The library was left as a bequest by his brother in his name. It is well-loved, well-used, and a source of pride.

Under the law of the land the provision of a public library service is a statutory requirement that Councillors of local authorities must fulfil. Even if they establish a Trust to manage and organise the functions, the responsibility for providing library service is theirs.

I think it has become the responsibility of this writer to remind them of this. 

Theresa Breslin will be appearing at the KELMARSH FESTIVAL in July and the EDINBURGH BOOK FESTIVAL in August this year to speak about her latest novel Spy for the Queen of Scots and the Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales. (Illustrator Kate Leiper)