Friday 29 April 2022




Opening up the draft of my neglected historical fantasy, I step once more into that mid-Victorian setting. At once I am faced by a strand that involves mystery, magic and the development of glass. But how, at that particular point in time, do glass and magic connect?  

Glass - Wikipedia 

Transparent and pure, glass has long seemed a magical substance. In the furnace, dull sands became a flowing, glowing liquid, hardening again into a solid substance. Glass had been used by alchemists and scientists and, since ages past, offered humans power over light, vision, reflection - and the art of illusion.  As a material, glassbrought sparkle and glamour and luxury. It allowed light indoors, and even, in the windows of cathedrals and chapels, illuminated the heavens and coloured the blessings of God.

Stained glass - Wikipedia 

Better than polished stone or metal, glass could become a mirror, revealing both self and, some said, soul. Superstitions grew. A shattered mirror was rumoured to bring seven years bad luck - the seven years the soul needed to gather itself together again from the fragments - and when death arrived in the chamber, every mirror must be covered in black cloth, lest the soul, as it left the body, fitted into that space behind the glass rather than flying away into the life to come. 

 British governments saw only the quantity of the new paned windows and by 1696, the first Window Tax arrived. The strict and progressive imposition  of the tax led, by 1766, to a spate of walled-up windows as householders tried to avoid the seven-windows-or-more tax ruling.  However, by the time the tax was was removed in 1845, glass had already taken on a new, architectural role within the prosperous cities where elegant shopping galleries were being constructed from glass and ornate cast iron.

Burlington Arcade - Wikipedia, entziklopedia askea.

 The new arcades, each one containing several little shops, all lit from the front, offered the better class of shoppers protection from the weather as well as places to see and be seen. 

The Soho Bazaar opened in London in 1816, the Burlington Arcade in 1819 and from 1830 onwards, other cities created their own arcades.





Glass was finally established as a building material when Paxton’s Crystal Palace, featuring 300,000 tons of plate glass, offered the biggest and grandest bazaar of them all: The Great Exhibition of 1851. As an experience, the Exhibition influenced the design of the new department stores and their celebratory plate glass window displays well into the next century. 

The Crystal Palace - Wikipedia, la enciclopedia libre ... 

 Now, among the many uses of glass in the Victorian era, its role in Magical Illusion has long fascinated me. 

As magic moved from local feasts and show grounds into the gaslit shadows of small theatres, all sorts of lighting effects, illusions and subterfuge suddenly became easier to manage. Magicians, other than with sleight of hand, often relied on reflections and shadows to stage their acts. Now, with the arrival of large sheets of glass, new acts were possible - and so it was that in 1852, Professor John Henry Pepper, English scientist and member of the Royal Polytechnic Institute, demonstrated his famous, theatrical “Pepper’s Ghost”. 

Bsically, the effect is created by using two areas or "rooms". The audience can see inside the main performance "room" - ie the stage - but the second - known as the blue room – was hidden from view at the side.  An enormous, now-available, flat glass plate would be placed carefully at an angle in the main room and at a certain point, the lighting would be altered. At this point the "invisible" screen would reflect whatever was illuminated in blue room. At one the visible room would appear to contain the person or object that was positioned within the brighter-lit blue room. Curtains, drapes and clever lighting effects amplified this popular effect. In December 1862. using this device, there was the first public performance of a scene from Charles Dickens’ The Haunted Man and it was a huge sensation. 

Pepper's ghost - Wikipedia 

The arrival of Pepper’s ghost led to a fashion for short ghostly dramas. Refinements were always being devised: invisible dark-clothed actors manipulatedg white skeletons, phantom swords floated through the air, and disembodied heads and transformations became popular. 

 The other-worldly effect, combined with the growing interest in human spiritual and intellectual powers, proved a huge theatrical success. 

However, Henri Pepper’s Ghost was a troubled creation. 


When Pepper tried to register his patent at the Patent Office - as all serious magicians do - he was refused. A Dutch magician, with the stage name Henri Robin, claimed he had demonstrated an identical trick in Paris in back in 1847, although the supposed trick was later replicated and proved unlikely. 

 Meanwhile, in October 1852, a Parisian artist called Pierre Seguin had patented a small polyscope, a children’s portable peepshow toy that worked on the same principle as Pepper's stage version. Pepper and his partner Henri Dircks attempted to patent a similar children’s device in 1863 but Seguin’s earlier claim across both France and Britain was upheld. 

As a partner, Dircks' name was on all the contracts and paperwork, although his passion was in remodelling theatres to show “ghostly phenomena”.  However, after a while he noticed that Professor Pepper’s was the only name appearing on all the publicity material. and trouble followed. Pepper persisted, determined to retain and improve his magical Ghost and in 1862, he added a twist to Dircks’ own 1862 peepshow toy idea.

By altering the angle of the glass and using the orchestra pit as the blue room, Pepper made his own Ghost into a star attraction across a greater range of theatres and space and created a craze for dramatic theatrical ghosts. There was, however, a most interesting side-effect: a national shortage of large panes of plate-glass. 

The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain - Wikipedia

Writing this post gave me the chance to re-examine Pepper's Ghost but - yet again - I am left with my own mystery to solve. Given that the Ghost is very much a technological creation, is it possible to create a mood of mystery and subtlety in my writing? Can I recreate the magic? One day, I might be able to answer. 

Penny Dolan 


Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer | Hachette Books

ps. If you are at all interested in magicians, tricks and patent wars, do read “Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians invented the Impossible” by Jim Steinmeyer.

Friday 22 April 2022

England's Wild West - Sue Purkiss

 Exmoor is easily bypassed by travellers to the south-west: most people head straight on down to Devon and Cornwall, to Dartmoor and Bodmin - probably without realising what a varied and beautiful area they're missing.

The Exmoor coast

Exmoor became a National Park in 1954. Roughly three quarters of it is in Somerset: the remaining quarter is in Devon. It sits on the west coast of England, and is nineteen miles across at its widest, and twelve miles north to south at its deepest. It has a stunningly beautiful coastline (which forms part of the South West Coast Path), steep wooded combes (narrow valleys), energetic, noisy rivers and streams, temperate rain forests (where lichens and ferns grow on trees, and the grass underfoot is soft and starred with wildflowers) - and it has, of course, the moor itself, the home of graceful red deer and sturdy Exmoor ponies: bare, windblown, desolate on a grey day, starkly beautiful on a sunny one.

It's not only modern visitors who have bypassed Exmoor. Even the Romans appear to have taken a look and decided not to bother - there is little evidence of their activity in this area. It's not an easy terrain to farm, the stone is not the kind you can easily build with, and the weather is challenging. It's gentler on the west side, but in the east, spring is a couple of weeks later than elsewhere. And up until the nineteenth century, there were few dwellings where you could take shelter. No wonder gangs like the Doones could roam with impunity. Even today, there are only a few small towns and villages scattered across vast areas of what looks like wilderness.

We've visited the area for many years - my mother-in-law loved it, and moved near Porlock to live in her later years. But over the last couple of years, we've spent more time on the eastern side, not far from Simonsbath, Withypool and Exford. And this is the heart of the original Exmoor Forest: a large area claimed by the Crown after the Conquest. Like the other royal forests - but probably even more so - it wasn't actually a forest. At the centre of the moor is a spindly, wind-bent tree called the Hoar Oak. It's one of the very few trees there is on the open moor, and it clearly struggles to survive. But there were deer, and they belonged to the Crown - even if the Crown, far away in London, seldom bothered to claim them. For hundreds of years, the moor was administered by Wardens. There were even two female Wardens, Sabina Pecche (from 1295-1308) and Margaret Boevy, who took over from her husband and was the Warden for eight years at the beginning of the eighteenth century. It was her husband, James, who built Simonsbath House in 1654, said to be the only house in the Forest till 1815. (S H Burton, Exmoor, publ 1952)

The Barle valley

We have a favourite walk which starts at Simonsbath. It goes along the River Barle, one of those busy, bubbly rivers that dances over rocks and pebbles, attracting dippers, grey wagtails and dragonflies among many other creatures. At the beginning, the path is edged by extraordinarily gnarled and twisted beech trees, such as you see all over Exmoor: I'll come back to them later. The woods are soon left behind, and on either side of the valley swoop low, bare hills. At the right time of year you may hear cuckoos and curlews, and you may well see deer grazing in the distance - till one among them lifts its head, sensing danger (us), and off they move with a swift and graceful lope.

The Barle again, near to where the remains of the mine workings are.

After a little while, as you approach an Iron Age fort called Cow Castle, you may notice on the left a few oddly shaped humps. Last year, three people were sitting here chatting. They told us that two of them were about to put on wet suits and explore some nearby mine workings - and that the odd humps were all that remained of some mineworkers' cottages.

We were surprised. This had always seemed to us an intensely rural landscape: it was difficult to imagine industrial paraphernalia in this setting. Yes, our new friends told us: in the nineteenth century there had been a man called Sir John Knight, who had bought the whole Forest in 1818. His son had been convinced that there was iron to be found - and so there was, but not, as it turned out, in sufficient quantity to be worth getting out of the ground.

Bluebells and imported rocks in the Knights' wild garden

This rang a bell with me. Back in Simonsbath, the car park was at the foot of wooded slopes rising up above the river. It was spring, and there were bluebells, pink and yellow primroses and white wood anemones. There were paths through the trees, and a few huge white stones, rather artistically placed. A nearby information board explained that this had been planned as a sort of wild garden by the Knight family, and work was under way to restore it.

Intrigued, I found out more - chiefly from a book about Exmoor published in 1952, by a teacher and lover of Exmoor called S H Burton. Sir John Knight was an industrialist who owned foundries in the West Midlands at the beginning of the nineteenth century, in the middle of the industrial and agrarian revolutions. The pressure was on to make better use of the land - to grow more, for an increased population. Meanwhile, the Crown commissioners wanted more timber to build ships for the navy after the depredations of the Napoleonic Wars. So when Sir Thomas Acland put in an application to renew his lease as Warden of Exmoor, it was turned down; the commissioners decided the ancient Royal Forest should be split up and sold, and trees should be planted there.

The Hoar Oak, which is supposed to be in the middle of the moor.

Well, the first part happened: the second was more of a challenge. If the commissioners had trekked across the Chains to see the valiant, but stunted, Hoar Oak, they would have known that these moors were not a natural home for trees. But they didn't. Sir John managed to buy up most of the land, and he determined to make it profitable.

It wasn't easy, and he encountered a lot of failure along the way. Early on, he built a dozen farms, and encouraged his tenants to break the ground and try out some of the new methods, such as rotational farming. They needed to bring in lots of lime - not found locally - to counter the natural acidity of the soil; it was expensive, it was hard, and it didn't really work. The first lot of tenants were unsuccessful. But, undeterred, the Knights - John and later his son Frederic - brought in local men who understand the land, and they learned to work with it, focusing on livestock rather than on trying to grow unsuitable crops.

A hedge that got away.

And back to those extraordinary beech trees. I have seen and admired them, in a vague sort of way, for over thirty years. But I've only just discovered their history. It was Robert Smith, Frederic Knight's innovative land agent, who had the idea of planting beech hedges as a protection from the weather. Beech hedges hang on to their dead leaves all through the winter, until the new leaves appear, quite late in spring. So they form a barrier. Thousands of beech seedlings were planted, and the hedges were properly, painstakingly, tended, with the shoots being partially cut through and then laid, creating an effective screen against the weather.

In recent years, that practice has become less popular - it's expensive and time-consuming. Some - many - hedges are still lain in the traditional way, but others are cut by machine, and still others have escaped: they're now beech trees, rather than tamed hedges. But because of the way they were originally planted - on banks, often faced with stone - you get these extraordinary twisted roots - and the banks are home to tiny ferns, primroses, mosses and lichens: quite lovely.

'Fourfields' - picture by Jo Minoprio

So another thing to thank the Knights for. And one last word on that. We recently went to see the work of an artist called Jo Minoprio, who has a gallery near Landacre Bridge. She does beautiful paintings, but also extraordinary photographs, many of which were of what appeared to be a small wood, at a place which Jo told us was called Three Combes Foot. We went to see it: it's high up, in a pretty bleak part of the moor. It's not, in fact, a wood. It was originally created as a sheep pound - by the Knights: one of their farms, Larkbarrow, is nearby. It was a space surrounded by a hedge, which gave it some protection against snow and other forms of inclement weather. But it's no longer in use, and so the trees have grown, and now it's like entering a hushed and peaceful glade: quite extraordinary.

The sheep pound - I tried, but it was difficult to take a picture which did this place justice.

It fascinates me that a landscape which looks so wild is actually not so wild after all: in fact much of it has been shaped by two generations of one family, quite recently. Before the Knights came to Exmoor, few people lived or farmed there. And they didn't conquer the land: much of it is still wild. But they loved Exmoor, and they did the best for it. and what became of them? Well, sadly, Frederic's son - also Frederic - died at the age of twenty eight, and that took the heart out of his father. He and his wife are buried at Simonsbath. After doing so much for Exmoor, they slipped away into history.

But now their wild garden is being restored, and they are remembered again. They achieved a great deal. 

But I'm quite glad that the iron mines didn't work out.

Friday 15 April 2022

Love and longevity

By Susan Vincent

A few years I was assailed by middle age. As with so many others, it took the form of family history.

Being from Aotearoa New Zealand but having settled in the UK, I started by wanting to discover if there were any distant traces here that I could identify, any remnants of belonging. Everyone in my family had journeyed across the globe in the nineteenth century, in the fifty or so years between the 1830s and 1880s. All were from Britain. It seems that this was the country where they could no longer see a future. But what of their past?

I started to dig … which makes it sound like shovels in a cemetery in the dead of night. But perhaps family historians are indeed something like grave robbers, working the crumbling soil on the watch for gold? I laid bare lots of stories but today’s is about a man who carried a particularly memorable moniker, Thomas Horlock Bastard, esquire.

Born in 1796, in 1858 he married Sarah Vincent, the sister of my great-great-grandfather (who having left for New Zealand eight years earlier, was not at the wedding). It was a second marriage for the widower Thomas, by now aged 62. Sarah, even at 24 years his junior, was well past the typical marrying age; a spinster that no doubt everyone thought was securely settled on the shelf.

 St Matthew's, Rowde, 1860s. Photo: Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre

It was certainly a love match, or at the very least one of affection and respect. The wedding itself, performed by Sarah’s clergyman father at his parish church in Rowde, was a jolly affair. ‘The church was tastefully decorated for the occasion by some of the ladies of the parish’, says the newspaper report, and after the ceremony Sarah walked back to the vicarage along a path that the school children had strewn with flowers. The children also presented her with a Bible ‘as a testimonial of their respect and affection’, suggesting that Sarah taught at the Sunday School or was involved with their education in some way. 

At one o’clock there was ‘a substantial dinner’ for about fifty of the older and poorer residents, comprising roast beef, plum pudding, and ‘plenty of good beer’.[1] This was provided by the bride herself. Immediately I get a picture of a woman who combined a sense of social duty with good humour, and a high degree of agency. It’s a picture that emerges when we also look at her husband, Thomas Horlock Bastard. 


Blessed with a large house in rural Dorset and an independent fortune, Thomas took to philanthropy with vigour and commitment. Interested in a range of causes, his special province was education.

One outcome of this was his building and endowment of a strictly non-denominational secondary school in the nearby town of Blandford in 1863. Actively concerned to improve the status of women, Thomas originally proposed that the school be for girls only but was swayed both by the need to provide for local boys and the belief – surely way before his time – ‘of the advantages which are found to result from educating boys and girls together’.[2] The school was managed by a board of seven governors, two of whom had to be women and (in line with its non-sectarian policy) none of whom could be a clergyman. Utterly convinced of the importance of rational enquiry and knowledge, Thomas also required the school to teach economics and human physiology. 


Thomas’s belief in the desirability – the necessity – of educating women also led him to provide Girton College in Cambridge with funds for two scholarships. In his own words: ‘in all institutions for socially and morally improving our condition, from the infant school to the college, and lecture-room, a great mistake has been made in separating the sexes, any more than in the ball-room or theatre’.[3]


Before founding Milldown School, THB had already in 1855 established a local labourers’ club: note the gender inclusive name. For once more in the teeth of opposition, and possibly uniquely, this was not a working man’s club but for both women and men. Designed to be a mirror of the London clubs that catered for the elite, it was a place of comfort and conviviality, with refreshments, newspapers, books and socialising. Significantly, the club was open every day, including Sundays.

That the one day of the week that was freely available to the working man and woman saw all amenities closed by law was anathema to Thomas. It left them only church and the pub, neither of which he saw as improving venues. He supported the National Sunday League, an organisation that from 1855 campaigned for Sunday opening of museums, libraries, galleries and gardens. Places like the British Museum, the National Gallery and Crystal Palace were on their hit list. 


His secular, rational outlook found most eloquent expression in a pamphlet he published in 1872, Scepticism and Social Justice (digitised by the British Library).

In this he argued, secondarily, that the Bible was not a work of divine inspiration – it was both scientifically impossible and internally contradictory. His main point though was that sceptics – even if wrong – ought not to be discriminated against for their beliefs: people are entitled to freedom of thought.


Other ideas and causes to which Thomas donated time and money were eclectic and diverse: the Playground and General Recreation Society, committed to open-air play spaces for children; the Garibaldi Fund, supporting the unification of Italy; a women’s hospital in London, to which he and Sarah gave £200; the committee for the National Union for the Improvement of Education of Women of All Classes, to which both he and Sarah belonged (a mouthful of a title commonly shortened to the Women’s Education Union). 

"For more than half a century his fresh and burly figure was constantly seen in London paying golden visits to the offices of some unfriended movement which he thought ought to succeed."[4]


A plaster life mask made when Thomas was around 40 helps us see more clearly this ‘fresh and burly figure’, including his receding hair and splendid early Victorian sideburns. Currently in the collection of University College London, the subject is startlingly present, his eyes only momentarily closed.

Bust of Thomas Horlock Bastard. Photos: 2017 University College London. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA licence

THB knew a lot of liberal thinkers. One of them was John Stuart Mill. They frequented some of the same clubs and causes, and after Mill’s death Thomas subscribed to memorial scholarships and a statue of the great man. Having recently read and been captivated by On Liberty, I am now as giddy as a groupie. It’s like the six degrees of separation: my great-great-grandfather’s sister married a man who knew J.S. Mill. How cool is that

Statue of John Stuart Mill, Temple Gardens, Victoria Embankement, London. 
Photo: Ethan Doyle White, Wikimedia Commons


When Thomas himself died, George Jacob Holyoake – free thinker and a founding figure in the co-operative movement – wrote the following: 

There was no reform which promises social or intellectual benefit which he did not promote. There was no change founded on reason of which he was afraid, nor was he afraid to support it. [5]

Who could wish for a better epitaph?


And one last memorable achievement. Although 24 years older than his wife Sarah Vincent, Thomas outlived her by over a year. 

He died in 1898 aged 101, and ‘retained his faculties of thought to the last’.[6]

[1] ‘Rowde’, Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 30 October 1858, p. 8.

[2] Report on the school in ‘Book of the Month’, The English Woman’s Journal, 1 June 1863, p. 279;

[3] T. Horlock Bastard, ‘Labourers’ Clubhouses’, The Englishwoman’s Review: A Journal of Woman’s Work 19 (1 July 1874), pp. 174–82, at p. 178. Girton scholarships reported in ’Record of Events. Girton College, Cambridge’, The Englishwoman’s Review of Social and Industrial Questions, 15 July 1879, p. 308.

[4] George Jacob Holyoake, quoted in ‘Signals from our Watch Tower’, Women’s Penny Paper, 9 (7 July 1898), p. 425.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, but widely reported in his obituaries and death notices.