Friday 29 October 2021


Over this last while, “History” has given me a hard time, bringing its echoes too worryingly close. The swirl of the pandemic sings of Plague and Pestilence; the sewage regulations swamping Westminster brought Bazalgette to mind and rule by media release makes me wondering how future historians, if any exist, will unpick meaningful facts and figures from the tangle of false news. 

And so, in need of balm, I visited Fountains Abbey, one of my favourite places.

                File:Fountains Abbey crop, Yorkshire, UK - Diliff.jpg ...

From Studley Roger, the deer park drive leads towards the spire of St Mary’s church, beautifully made in Victorian High Gothic style. Behind, still, in the autumn mist, are the two square towers of Ripon cathedral from where, each Boxing Day, a procession of pilgrims walk the long straight path, turning away well before they reach the spire. The walk passes into the valley of the River Skell, going towards the great ruined abbey, echoing the route of the twelve Cistercian brothers who founded the original abbey.

However, on its way, the path now leads them through the beauty and vanity of the Studley Royal Water Garden. Created in the eighteenth century by John Aislabie and son, the garden is a model of eye-catching Georgian landscape art. Surrounded by rich woodland, the garden contains closely-mown lawns, precisely positioned classical statues, a “natural” lake, a few ornate dams, a stretch of canal made for leisure not toil, and a set of mathematical perfect ponds designed to reflect the sky.

File:Water Garden - Studley Royal Park, North Yorkshire ...

Winding carriage-paths brought small parties of guests, along with refreshments and servants, to any one of the small follies, each sited to offer a particular View. The Temple of Piety, down in the valley, has a particularly beautiful sound quality, so it is easy to imagine the Aislabies and guests listening to sweet music as they gaze across at the surface of the perfect, circular Moon Pond.

John Aislabie needed this watery retreat, because his personal circumstances became badly muddied. As Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1718, he knew the British Government needed to fund the vast debts incurred by the French wars. 

He, and others, became closely involved with the South Sea Company who, setting up a public-private enterprise, bought a contract from the British Government for a large proportion of that national debt. The shares changed hands at increasing value, which led to a frenzy of share-buying schemes spreading through many levels of society, bringing the promise of pensions increased and growing riches to anyone with savings to invest.


John Aislabie - Wikipedia

However, there were problems with the scheme. Profits were far less than promised and the South Sea bubble famously burst. The market collapsed, followed by bankruptcies, penury, suicides, riots, threats to the Crown and a change in both Prime Minister and party. An enquiry decided that those – in particular officials and members of the government - who had profited from the scheme should have their riches confiscated.

John Aislabie, as Chancellor, was expelled from Parliament, held for a time in the Tower of London and was never given a peerage. Although the profits he made through South Sea deals were confiscated, after legal battles, he retained the property and wealth he owned before the crash. Disgraced, though still wealthy, he returned to Studley Royal in Yorkshire and devoted his energies to developing his garden. He had, as one might say, great plans for the place.

High up, along one ridge, reached through the pitch-dark point of a serpentine tunnel, is a row of small follies: a classical pillared temple stands above a steep drop; on another crest stands an octagonal gothic tower, and another has a sheltered cooking area outside where servants could heat food or drink. One, reached by a steep path, is known as Surprise View. Suddenly, far below through the trees, runs a stretch of the River Skell with the fashionably picturesque ruins of the abbey rising in the distance. Back then, it was a borrowed view: those holy stones were not yet estate property. John Aislabie had tried to buy the abbey grounds, imagining Fountains as his own genuinely gothic folly, but the owner refused to sell. Nevertheless, from that position, guests could appreciate what was certainly a “stolen” view.

Eventually, Aislablie’s son William purchased the estate so both Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal were owned by the family. William also took his father’s place as one of the two Members of Parliament for Ripon, serving long enough to becoming “Father of the House” so the indignity did not seem to overshadow the name for long.

Always, when I visit the garden, I admire the charm and perfection of that eighteenth century vision and feel glad that the National Trust takes care of the place. Yet, whenever there is a whiff, or breeze or gale of financial corruption in high places, I cannot help think of the small folk thrown into poverty by the South Sea Bubble crash and its engineers.

But today, as I put together this post?

Looking into the story, I found something not mentioned when I wrote “South Sea Bubble” in my school Economic History O-Level notes, adding a small pencil drawing of a sailing ship in the margin. South Sea Bubble seemed such a noticeable, almost pretty name. We never questioned nor were told by our teachers quite what it involved, other than it was a big financial event that had caused trouble and we might need to remember it for an exam.

Slave ship - Wikipedia

Today, as I thought of Aislabie and that crash, I started googling what exactly the South Sea Bubble Company did. What was it trading in at this time? There is much complicated analysis of the Treaty of Utrecht and schemes and plantations and territories and other matters. 

But - and obviously - there is also, with awful inevitability, a horrifying fact and a terrible number. 

The contract that the South Sea Company signed was to supply almost 5,000 slaves to the Spanish Plantations in Central and Southern America.

Annually, for thirty years.

Atlantic slave trade - Wikipedia

It was so obvious, once I'd looked beyond the South Sea Bubble here-at-home story. 

Studley Royal is still that peaceful place to visit, but the water in John Aislabie’s great garden seems less clear today. 


All thos echoes, still echoing.

Penny Dolan


Friday 22 October 2021

Adventures in plant hunting - Sue Purkiss

 Some of you may recall that I have an interest in the history of plants, and particularly in the extraordinary adventures of the plant hunters. (To find previous posts on the subject, just put: Sue Purkiss, plant hunters, in the search box to the right.) So much so that my last book, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, draws on real histories to tell the story of a boy who goes plant-hunting in the Himalayas at the end of the eighteenth century. The plant hunters were - and are - incredibly brave (some might say foolhardy!) and resourceful, so it struck me that they would be an excellent subject for a children's book - and so, I think, it proved.

So when I noticed that among the luminaries appearing at the Wells Literature Festival was one Ambra Edwards, promoting her new book The Plant Hunter's Atlas, I of course booked a ticket and sallied forth, a week ago, to find out more. 

The book is published in association with Kew, and is lusciously illustrated with botanical paintings. As the title suggests, it is organised into geographical areas, and tells of the plants which were discovered (by the west: of course, indigenous people already knew all about them, and in many cases were indispensable in helping the emissaries from Kew and the Royal Horticultural Society in their mission to find new plants) - and the people who discovered them. So we meet old friends such as Sir Joseph Banks, who travelled with Captain Cook on his voyage to discover the Great Southern Continent, botanising enthusiastically, and fraternising possibly even more enthusiastically with the inhabitants of Otaheite (Tahiti), and on his return to England headed up Kew and was responsible for promoting the careers of scientists like the astronomers William Herschel and his sister, Caroline, as well as sending out plant hunters far and wide, in search of plants which would be useful for economic purposes as well as to ornament private gardens. Here too is David Douglas, who must have been one of the most unlucky plant hunters ever. He botanised in North America, and was subjected to storms, shipwrecks, dishonest guides, and every other plant-hunting misfortune you can think of, finally meeting a horrible end when he fell into a pit with sharp spikes at the bottom, designed to capture wild animals.

One of the gorgeous illustrations.

There are many more, but we are also introduced to some extraordinary plants. Take, for instance, the Corpse Lily, found in Sumatra. This produces 'the largest single flower in the world', which can grow to four feet across and weigh up to ten kg. It's a parasite, growing on the Indian chestnut vine: it takes more than two years to flower, and then the bloom - which smells of rotting meat - lasts for a mere week. Then there's Davidia Involucrata, the handkerchief tree, of which a single specimen was found by Dr Augustine Henry in China in 1888. He sent seeds back to Kew, but they failed to germinate, so in 1899 a young man called Ernest Wilson was sent to China to track down this one tree. He had to contend with an outbreak of bubonic plague and the Boxer Rebellion, as well as mountains and river rapids - but, astonishingly, he managed to find the site of the tree from a mere cross on a map: only to find that it had been cut down to clear the site for a smart new wooden house. Fortunately, a few weeks later he came across a small group of the precious trees. Imagine the relief!

The book is a treat, which I am still reading through - and Ambra's presentation was brilliant. But by coincidence, a few days ago another plant history treat came my way, when some friends invited us to go with them to The Newt in Somerset, an extraordinary garden created by South African businessman Koos Bekker, under the direction of Italo-French architect Patrice Taravella. We all know about Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton, who created gardens in the 18th century which involved the digging out of lakes, the rerouting of rivers - even the relocation of entire villages. Things these days are not usually done on this kind of scale, and this is why The Newt is so striking - it very much is a creation of that degree of magnitude. Everything is beautifully done, from the newly built tithe barn made out of warm golden stone which provides the reception area, to the curving elevated path made out of metal which takes you through the woods, to the gardens themselves - which of course were not at their best this week, but must look spectacular in spring and summer.

But the treat I mentioned lies at the end of that metal walkway. Inside a building which is tucked into the hillside, with a living roof, is a museum of garden history. And it's fascinating. Of course, it has extraordinary stories to tell. But it's the way it tells them too: it uses technology in a breathtakingly innovative way, so that in a relatively short space of time, you learn an enormous amount about garden history - from the Romans, through Islamic gardens, taking in Chinese and Japanese gardens, Eurpoean and British ones, right up to today. I'll let the pictures tell a little of the story.

The entrance, with tithe barn, cider-making on the left, and a fire in the foreground to ward off the chill.

The Parabola, with drystone terraces and lots of apple trees.

The vegetable garden. Love the flowerpots.

The Japanese room in the museum of garden history. You walk on a pond...

A Wardian case. Was very interested to see this - until the invention of the Wardian case, 
it was a very dodgy enterprise to try and transport living plants across oceans.

Beautifully displayed garden tools - here, flower pots and pliers.

Friday 15 October 2021

Doubts of a Dress Historian

by Susan Vincent

Fashion plate,'A Sea Coast Promenade Fashion', La Belle Assemblee, 1 October 1809, V&A Museum, London, Given by the House of Worth, Accession number: E.22396:496-1957. Photo: V&A Museum 

Lately I’ve been reassessing my relationship with history. I wonder whether amusing myself in the backwaters of the past has done anyone any good, me included.

I look at the endeavours of scholars who are spending careers looking for solutions to current crises – poverty and pollution, loss of habitats and loss of health, oppressions and untruths. Then I compare it to what I’ve done over the last decades, and, morally speaking, posh frocks just don’t cut the mustard.


Mantua and petticoat of white ground brocaded silk (close up), 1733–4 (woven), 1735–40 (made), V&A Museum, London, accession number T.324&A-1985. Photo: V&A Museum

Many years ago I used to be a primary school teacher. I spent five years (it felt like longer) sitting on tiny chairs immersed in the children’s huge potential. There is nothing more miraculous than seeing a child learn to read and write. Suddenly, it seems, they conquer those incomprehensible symbols and are emperors of all the lands they now effortlessly survey. One day they are making scribble marks, the next they won’t go out to play because they want to keep writing their infinitely unfurling story. They are making new worlds. They know they are learning. They know they are clever. It is, truly, awesome to see. And God knows how it happens. It’s like magic.



Child’s worn shoes. Image from Hippopx, Creative Commons usage 





It’s not that I want to go back into the classroom. Who has the energy for that? It’s partly the nature of small children, but it’s also the soul-sapping demands of a deeply flawed educational and social system that the schools are shoring up. Also, as I’ve always said, teaching is ethically, emotionally, and logistically challenging, but its intellectual demands are slight. So let’s just accept that somewhere over the years I was studying for my doctorate and having my own child, the teaching boat sailed away, unregretted though fondly remembered.

But helping even one child be happier or more empowered has a vastly higher moral value than enjoying myself amidst the footnotes. It’s not that history isn’t important. As therapists know so well, revisiting a personal past to understand it anew can be profoundly beneficial. Are historians society’s therapists, helping groups to a new understanding of the communal past, enabling a resolution? This certainly over-aggrandises what I do. I would love to have been a truth-teller to power, a bold voice that illuminates past wrongs, but mine – like most people’s – is a more modest story. Less cinema epic and more small-screen home movie. 

Gloves, leather, metal thread, British, c.1780, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Miss Irene Lewisohn, 1940, Accession number: C.I.40.142.2a, b. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art




I hope that what I’ve written has, in a small way, made the past more human; I’ve tried to be respectful of those long-dead people, seeking to understand them in their own terms, not mine. I’ve tried to listen to what they were saying themselves, rather than use them as a mouthpiece for my own views. (As we are painfully observing, in many cultural venues ventriloquism like this has become the norm, with historical figures being blamed for holding ideas and values different from ours, or for having personal failings.) I have also hoped that my work has been able to shed a little light slantwise on the present, showing up the constructed nature of what we do. How we dress and craft our bodies might look ‘natural’ in our eyes, but it’s a piece of cultural learning that, if we wish, we can cast aside for another. If our habits and judgements of appearance are hurtful to ourselves or others, we have options. We can do things a different way. 


Suit (detail), wool, silk, metallic thread, James McCreary and Co. Department Store, New York, 1894–6, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of The New York Historical Society, 1979, Accession number: 1979.346.25a–c. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art


But all this is horribly pompous. I’ve spent the last decades researching and writing about historical dress practices, not for high-flown reasons of betterment but because I enjoyed it. But now I’m asking if this is sufficient justification? And I’m also asking whether – undeniable enjoyment aside – it has been of any personal benefit? I wonder about the long-term effects of always looking backwards, about the helpfulness – or not – of perpetually dragging the past into my own future. Do historians get a kind of historical astigmatism that distorts their vision? I sometimes feel like one of those Victorian seamstresses hunched under the flaring gaslight, wearing her eyes to blindness stitching white on white. (Which, I hasten to add, is not to trivialise the tragic experiences of these exploited women.)

If I had my time again, I think I would choose differently. Maybe something in environmental science, or designing sustainable and life-affirming buildings, or making things grow, or…? But there I go again, looking backwards. I think I should break the habit and start looking the other way. I have, I hope, plenty of time to come, a gift still waiting to be unwrapped day by day. Is it time to move out of yesterday’s beautiful, dappled shadows? 


Button, quartz, garnets, metal, Hungarian, c.1780, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, From the Hanna S. Kohn Collection, 1951, Accession number: 50.231.252–.257. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

But maybe my eyes are now unsuited to the demanding light of today? Dorothy Sayers’s novel Gaudy Night is more than a detective story. Published in 1935 the who-done-what plot is threaded in and out with an exploration of the proper place and role of a woman. Should she be a wife and mother? Can she build a place in the world of the intellect? Will she unwoman herself if she does? Is it defensible to take a job that a man ‘should’ be doing, usurping him when he needs to be able to support a family? The character Harriet, and presumably Sayers too, conclude that the only moral choice is to do what you’re good at. Like the parable of the talents, you’ve got to use the gifts you’ve been given, whether in homemaking or textual analysis, or crafting detective plots. It’s in letting your aptitudes wither that the ethical shortcoming lies.

There are obviously weak points in this argument. It doesn’t, one imagines, apply to dictators or paid assassins. But for most of us it makes sense. Looked at this way, I should stay amongst the footnotes and the evidence, the remains and the lost traces.

But really, I just don’t know.
 Fragment (detail), pattern woven silk, central Asian, 8th century, V&A Museum, London, Accession number: LOAN:STEIN.320. Photo: V&A Museum