Friday, 30 September 2022

Women of the Road - Real-Life Highwaywomen

by Deborah Swift

There is something very appealing about the highwayman’s disguise – the tricorne hat, the cloak, the breeches and boots – and even more so when this disguise is worn by a woman. Contrary to popular belief, records show that there were women who risked the noose, to make their living on England’s rutted and treacherous roads, and who showed their own unique brand of ruthlessness and courage.

Double – Crosser Joan Phillips

Joan was the daughter of a rich and well-established farmer. Her beauty (and wealth) brought her to the attention of Edward Bracey, a small-time crook, who planned to seduce her, persuade her to marry him, and then abscond with her dowry, leaving her flat. 

Joan was intelligent enough not to fall for this plan, and though allowing herself to be seduced, foiled the rest of the plan. Edward Bracey, according to the Newgate Calendar ‘was very agreeably deceived; for Joan was as good as he … she consented to rob her father, and go along with him on the pad; all which she accordingly accomplished.’ 

So Joan was determined to gain an upper hand, and they never did marry, but Joan and Edward frequently robbed together on the highway, though it seems Joan was always the one in control.

Joan had a long criminal career including running an inn, but eventually, the Law caught up with her and she was arrested in 1685 after robbing a coach.  She was tried under the name Joan Bracey, found guilty, and executed the same year in Nottingham. Records diverge on how old she was when she died, some saying she was as young as twenty-one. 

Watch a video about her 

BBC Criminal Histories "The Highway Woman"

Tudor Highwaywoman Mary Frith

Mary Frith (nickname - Moll Cutpurse) was the daughter of a shoemaker and lived in Aldersgate Street near St Paul’s Cathedral. From an early age she was often in trouble with the law for stealing. To try to reform her, a minister tried to ship her off to New England in America, but Mary dived off the ship and swam back to shore.

From then on, she was arrested frequently for robbery and was held in various prisons - The Old Bridewell, the Compters and Newgate. She was branded on the hand on several occasions – this was a common punishment for thieves. Her stamping ground was St Paul’s Church (now the re-built Cathedral) where she would cut the strings of purses, (hence her nickname) and she also traded as a ‘fence’ for stolen goods and a pimp for younger women. Victims of pickpockets who had lost jewellery or valuables would come to Mary, and she would trade with the criminal underworld to return the items for a cost.

Mary was nearly always dressed as a man, drank in taverns and carried a sword. She is also credited with being the first woman to smoke a long clay pipe. She had a long association with the theatre and by the turn of the century she was performing on stage in men's clothing at the Fortune Theatre. On stage she bantered with the audience, fenced in mock fights, and sang, accompanying herself on the lute.

She was a keen horsewoman and was once bet twenty pounds that she wouldn’t ride from Charing Cross to Shoreditch dressed as a man. Of course she won the bet, and made it all the more entertaining by doing it on Morocco, the most famous performing horse of the day. Her riding skills enabled her to turn highwaywoman during the English Civil War. A staunch Royalist, she robbed the Roundhead general, Sir Thomas Fairfax by holding up his coach on Hounslow Heath.

We know a lot about her because The Life of Mrs Mary Frith of 1662 was one of the first biographies of a female criminal to be published in England and was highly influential in bringing women’s lives to the public interest. It is thought that Defoe’s book, Moll Flanders, was based on her life.

Heiress and Highwaywoman Katherine Ferrers

Lady Katherine Ferrers was the inspiration for the 1945 film The Wicked Lady, starring Margaret Lockwood and James Mason, which tells the story of a 17th century aristocrat and heiress who turns to highway robbery. Katherine was supposedly persuaded to a life of crime by her highwayman lover Ralph Chaplin, but he was caught and hanged on Finchley Common. After his death she worked alone, but was caught when she held up a coach and shot the driver; unfortunately it was a trap, and two of the occupants of the coach were armed and shot back. Fatally wounded, she galloped home to Markyate Manor, where she was found lying on the front steps - dead, but still dressed as a highwayman.

This of course is not the real story. The real story is one of plunder and possession in The English Civil War, and a time when rural farmers were trying to keep their lands out of the pockets of the aristocrats and were experimenting with new ways of communal living. In my young adult books about the life of Katherine Ferrers I explore these themes, and I enjoyed deconstructing and reconstructing the legend.


Outlaws and Highwaymen - Gillian Spraggs 

The Elizabethan Underworld – Gamini Salvado

Dunstable History Society

Pictures: Wikipedia, East End Women's Museum, Project Gutenberg

Find me and my books on my website

Friday, 16 September 2022

‘Veni, Vidi, Vocab’: the story behind my Pocket GCSE Latin Etymological Lexicon by Caroline K. Mackenzie

When in Rome… Photo © Caroline K. Mackenzie

I have a confession to make: although I loved Latin at school, I didn’t enjoy learning vocab. In fact, I usually left it to the last minute and would end up revising while on the school bus on the morning of a test. [Note to any Latin pupils who may be reading this - this is not a good idea!] Fortunately, I had a lovely teacher who encouraged me and eventually I looked forward to discovering new Latin words and the access they gave me to some amazing Latin literature, such as Virgil and Ovid.

Years later (after a Classics degree and a decade as a lawyer in which I regularly used Latin), I found my true vocation (or ‘calling’, as ‘voco’ means ‘I call’). I became a Latin and Greek teacher. Vocab was something I taught (and still teach) each day. Some of my pupils found the long lists of words at the back of textbooks rather daunting. Together we created some fun ways to approach these lists. One idea was to think of an English derivative from the Latin, e.g. ‘dormio’ (I sleep) gives us ‘dormitory’ and ‘dormouse’. Likewise, ‘nox, noctis’ (night) gives us ‘nocturnal’ and when combined with ‘ambulo’ (I walk) produces ‘noctambulation’. That’s a great word for ‘sleepwalking’!

‘insula’ illustration © Amanda Short

‘insula’ in Latin means an island or a block of flats. It gives us words such as ‘insular’, ‘insulate’ and ‘peninsular’ 

Some pupils drew pictures in their vocab books to help them memorise tricky words. So when I decided to write a Latin vocab book I asked the artist Amanda Short to create 20 special illustrations to help bring the book to life. Amanda (whose name appropriately derives from ‘amo’ (I love) !) carefully researched Roman life and mythology before producing her beautiful designs. Of these, if asked to choose a favourite I am tempted to say the ‘tandem’ one as it is so ingenious and witty [see my earlier blog on my first Latin Lexicon: ]; another contender is the ‘insula’ illustration which cleverly depicts two different meanings in one image. However, the gorgeous dormouse (for ‘dormio’, mentioned above) steals the show for cuteness!

‘dormio’ illustration © Amanda Short

Bloomsbury and I wanted to create a book that would help students and teachers whichever GCSE syllabus they are following, so we have included every word on each of the vocab lists for the two exam boards. The book includes notes to help explain some grammar and a glossary of Latin words and phrases in common use. Some of these appear in this blog, such as ‘e.g.’. Also, I couldn’t resist this more unusual one: ‘quidnunc’. It refers to an inquisitive, gossiping person - the Latin literally means ‘what now?’.

The word entries are spread out with lined spaces next to each one for readers to add their own notes or more derivatives. I hope students will really enjoy the Lexicon and that it makes learning vocab a fun and fascinating part of their Latin studies. Of course, the book is not just for GCSE pupils - it may also be useful for anyone interested in languages and etymology generally. It could be your secret weapon when tackling the daily crossword or even playing Scrabble. Did you know you can even buy a Latin version of Scrabble?

Latin Scrabble, anyone? Photo © Caroline K. Mackenzie

As its name suggests, the Pocket GCSE Latin Etymological Lexicon is small enough to fit into a schoolbag - so it can even be read on the school bus. However, for any GCSE pupils still reading this, a caveat: unlike I did, don’t leave it until the last minute! When it comes to learning your Latin vocab, don’t delay: seize the day. As the Romans would say, ‘carpe diem!’

Pocket GCSE Latin Etymological Lexicon by Caroline K. Mackenzie is now available to order from the Bloomsbury website:

With thanks to: everyone at Bloomsbury Academic, Amanda Short, Professor Paul Cartledge, Dr John Taylor, Caroline Lawrence and Dr Daisy Dunn.

Twitter: @carolinetutor

Post Scriptum

Given the historic events of this week following the sad death of Queen Elizabeth II, it seems only fitting to conclude this post with the following addendum. 
The Lexicon happened to be published on the day that Queen Elizabeth II died. When someone contacted me to say their copy had strangely fallen open on page 107, I looked at the entries on that page to check the significance. I shall let the page speak for itself (‘res ipsa loquitur’).

Extract from Pocket GCSE Latin Etymological Lexicon

Friday, 9 September 2022

Ghosts on a Wire by Linda Wilkinson

We welcome Linda Wilkinson as a guest to our blog today. Her play, Ghosts on a Wire, opens at the Union Theatre on 21st September.


Linda Wilkinson by Tony Hutchings

Drama and Industry in Blackfriars

The Bankside in Southwark has been home to many innovations of note, not least of these being the first steam powered grain mill in the world and then the largest gas fired electricity generator, the Pioneer, which in a later incarnation stands as Tate Modern.

From the 18th century onwards, this area was a place of “dirty” Industries. It was a cash cow for City of London businessmen, who were happy to keep the filth over the river on the south side and rake in the profit.

The Pioneer, built to serve the square mile, resulted in the decimation of swathes of streets and communities. The pollution it unleashed was monumental. It physically destroyed the sole remaining pub, the Waterman’s Arms, which was next to this smoke, heat and vibration spewing leviathan.

It also saw some of the earliest attempts by Victorian philanthropists to address the resulting air-pollution. One of these being Octavia Hill, who has a long history in the area, which is present up to this day.

In 2019 Southwark Council under its Blackfriars Stories stream commissioned a play about the Albion Mill, the aforementioned steam powered grain mill, which was performed at the Union Theatre, a stones’ throw from the site of the Mill itself.

In 2020 a second play, this time about the Pioneer and its historical impact on the environment and peoples of Southwark was planned. Little did anybody know then then that Covid would see this endeavour, and the production of the play that became Ghosts on a Wire, halted for two years.

London is awash with history and this particular part of the south bank of the Thames is particularly rich in Industrial heritage and also the presence of some intriguing characters.

30 August 2022 was the 225th anniversary of the birth of Mary Shelley, who features as one of the ghosts in the new work. She, like Michael Faraday, the putative inventor of electricity, and William Blake the visionary were habitués of Blackfriars where the historical events enacted in the drama take place.

Germane to the plot is the Leverian Museum. This natural history and ethnographic collection stood for some years at 3 Blackfriars Road, not far from Michael Faraday’s later workshops.

Leverian Museum © Adrian Chappell

It was a place of curiosities and strange skeletons and fed into the growing interests into the natural world and inexplicable phenomena, such as lightning, which in turn led to early experiments into electricity. Here at the Leverian, luminaries of the period would gather to watch demonstrations and hear readings from works. Blake would most certainly have been an attender of this collection, which was famous in its day.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the industrial pollution of Blackfriars was at its height, Octavia Hill, co-founder of the National Trust, was working on building some of her model cottages in Southwark. This inventor of social-casework, was also an early proponent of the clean-air-movement who fought to keep London’s open spaces clear and free for the working population to use freely as they wished. With a group of like-minded women, she also founded the Blackfriars Settlement, which functions to this day, its ethos unchanged during the 130 years of its existence, to create and provide community services and support.

Octavia Hill's Blackfriars Settlement © Adrian Chappell

Given this multifarious series of events, endeavours and notable people, all of whom circulated around a small area of Blackfriars, it shouldn’t be surprising that modern echoes come through. In 2020, when the play was mooted, the cost-of-living crisis was not a consideration. The Housing crisis was already upon us, but not the choice between heating, eating, cooking or indeed washing. That energy prices would rise by thousand-folds and that the poor might die as a consequence was not on any agenda.

A play about the poor versus the wealthy, about electricity profiting one sector of society whilst the lack of it causing others to go hungry and become homeless, one had hoped to be something for the historical records, but sadly no.

However, it’s always amazing to find the resilience, joy and hope that people find in their lives, even when facing adversity. The Publicans of the destroyed Watermans’ Arms being of note. The court case which they took “Shelfer versus the City of London Electric Lighting”, stood for over a century. Life went on, even for the Watermen who did the final “Bovril” runs on the Thames who found work in newly Unionised industries. Octavia Hill, whose fight for the disadvantaged seemed endless, in the end gave the Nation one of its greatest gifts.

Interior The Waterman's Arms © Adrian Chappell

London’s rich and varied history is cyclical, always winners, always losers. Places of dearth, become places of wealth until the pendulum reverses. Today St Paul’s cathedral looks over the river at the Tate Modern where, if you can but imagine it, a pike-pond once provided fish for Mediaeval Royal Tables. Ghosts of the past exist everywhere in our great City, you need not look far to find them.

Linda Wilkinson

Friday, 2 September 2022

'Defiant to the End' by Karen Maitland

Remains of the Novices Dormitory in Battle Abbey
Photo: Giogo, Wikimedia Commons
There are many infamous people in history I am thankful I never had to encounter, but some historical characters I would love to have met. One of those is the redoubtable dowager Lady Magdalen, Viscountess Montague, (1538-1608), mistress of Battle Abbey. Alhough I think, in life, she might have been just as intimidating as the fictional dowager Countess of Grantham, immortalised by Maggie Smith in ‘Downton Abbey’.

For even in her 70th year, Lady Magdalen was still bravely defying King James I and his ministers by hiding Catholic priests disguised as servants in her house and hosting forbidden Masses for as many as 120 people in her secret chapel, right under the noses of the men sent to trap her. She also allowed an underground Catholic printing press to operate from one of her houses. The authorities believed she was using Battle Abbey to smuggle priests into England from Europe and helping fugitives to escape from England. But though the notorious spy-master, Robert Cecil, tried repeatedly, he never managed to bring her to trial.

Mary of England (1516-58)
 & Felipe II of Spain (1527-1598)
Painting - 16th Century
Royal Museums Greenwich

Magdalen Dacre was born at Naworth Castle, Cumbria. At 13 she was sent as gentlewoman to the Countess of Bedford. At 16, she joined Queen Mary’s household, and became the Queen’s great friend and confidante. In 1554, when Mary married Felipe II of Spain, Magdalen was one of the bridesmaids. Magdalen was unusually tall and pretty, but was very religious, spending much time in prayer and wearing a coarse linen smock under her court clothes.

In 1558, Magdalen married widower, Anthony Browne, Viscount Montague. Montague owned three estates, including Cowdray House in East Sussex and Battle Abbey. Magdalen, raised Montague’s twin children from his first marriage, his first wife having died in childbirth, and bore ten children of her own.

In February 1555, her husband went to Rome on Queen Mary’s behalf to try to persuade Pope Julius III to actively back the restoration of Catholicism in England. In 1557, he joined the Privy Council. He was an executor of Queen Mary’s will and chief mourner at her funeral. After Elizabeth became Queen in 1558, Montague publicly denounced proposals to elevate the status of the Protestant religion and was replaced on the Privy Council.

In 1569, Viscount Montague, together with his son-in-law, the Earl of Southampton, and Magdalen’s brother, was implicated in the ‘Rising of the North’, a plot by Catholics to depose Elizabeth, but escaped punishment.

Part of the ruins of Cowdray House
Photo: Simon Burchill, Wikipedia Commons

In 1586, Montague proved his loyalty to Elizabeth as one of the peers who tried Mary, Queen of Scots, King James' mother. In 1588, Montague prepared to defend England against the approaching Spanish Armada, raising a troop of cavalry. 

In August 1591, Elizabeth visited Montague at Cowdray House, where he entertained her lavishly for a week whilst hiding his Catholic priests and servants within the house throughout her visit. But though he was favoured by Elizabeth, he was also kept under close watch, not least because his estates were so close to the coast, where foreign spies could easily come and go.

The 1st Viscount Montague died suddenly in October 1592 and his widow, Magdalen, afterwards lived mainly in Battle Abbey until her death. Battle Abbey was said to contain a subterranean passage through which priests were smuggled into England and it would have been easy for her to move fugitives between her three properties.

Anthony-Maria Browne
2nd Viscount Montague
Circa 1592
Artist: Unknown.
Source: Christie's

Under Elizabeth, Magdalen’s house was searched only twice, and only one of the priests she was hiding was discovered and arrested. But she always refused to aid treasonous plots. However, Guy Fawkes was for short periods in both her husband’s and grandson’s employ, and after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, her grandson, Anthony-Maria Browne, 2nd Viscount of Montague, was arrested because of this association, but released for lack of evidence.

Whereas under Elizabeth, Magdalen’s ‘crimes’ had been largely ignored, King James and spy-master, Robert Cecil, were determined to close down what had come to be known as ‘Little Rome’ and have Lady Magdalen arrested. She drew the particular attention of the notorious pursuivant, Richard Topcliff, who claimed to have discovered a holy well in Battle Abbey grounds to which she led women ‘as if on pilgrimage’. Three men were sent to try to get proof that Lady Magdalen’s servants were priests in disguise, but all three failed. Two she managed to get imprisoned themselves on various charges and the third, Master N. Benet, mysteriously fell into a shallow pit at the end of the town and was killed. This was bizarrely deemed to be ‘suicide’ by the local coroner and Magdalen’s chaplain, Father Richard Smith, records gleefully that as a result Benet ‘was buried like a dog at the roadside’.

In 1607, the Privy Council announced Lady Magdalen should not be sentenced for her refusal to attend Protestant services, because of her age, status and former loyalty to Queen Elizabeth. It was decision which infuriated both Robert Cecil and King James, because ‘age and status’ certainly hadn’t prevented many others being fined, imprisoned or their property confiscated. The influence of a family friend, Lord Buckhurst in the Privy Council probably helped to prevent her from being prosecuted for recusancy in 1607, but after his death, she was left without a protector.

Effigy of Lady Magdalen, 
now in Easebourne Church, Sussex
Source: Tudor Effigies

Lady Magdalen died at Battle Abbey, Sussex on 8th April 1608 at the aged 70. Five priests came to her house the day before to say Masses for her. It wasn’t until after the death of this remarkable woman, that the Privy Council actively pursued and punished her tenants and servants.

Writing as KJ Maitland, her new novel, 'Traitor in the Ice', the 2nd in her Jacobean crime thriller series, is set at Battle Abbey in 1607 when Daniel Pursglove tries to infiltrate Lady Magdalen’s household. 'Traitor in the Ice' is published by Headline, 2022.

Friday, 19 August 2022

Is this even the right place? Sheena Wilkinson

Last week my husband, his three sisters and I set out to walk to their late mother’s home place – the small one-storey farmhouse where she had been born and reared until she married in 1962, in a place known locally, though not on any maps,  as the Muck (which doesn't sound pretty, but possibly comes from the Irish for pig). Shortly afterwards, the house was abandoned. It may already have been run down; the lane was too far from the road; it was the sixties, and the appetite was for new bungalows, not damp old cottages. There are so many places like it all over Ireland. Their skeletons have become one with the landscape – houses fallen into roofless walls, walls tumbled into ditches and buried under ivy and nettles. I wrote about it here a couple of years ago. (


But this was different: this was a house whose descendants still live in the same area. And yet my husband had never been here in his life. There was uncertainty as to whether we even had the right place, much checking of the landscape against her long-ago stories – could that be the hollow where the dog fell through the ice and drowned? Was that the path she would have taken up to school? We discarded the other two or three abandoned houses in sight – that one was too big; that one too small, only a byre, and the other one still had a roof and walls so did not fit my late mother-in-law’s description of ‘a ruin’. 

The August landscape was stunning – we had walked up a lane bursting with wild raspberries and honeysuckle, leading to a land of undulating green drumlins, yellow fields of stubble, with the dark shadow of the Mournes in the background. A piebald cob and his friends grazed the field where the house lay derelict, fresh dung suggesting that they used its walls for shelter. We clambered over nettles and stones, marvelled at the tree growing right up through what might have been an outhouse, argued about which way round the house faced, looked up with some trepidation at what was left of the roof – would it withstand our visit? 

How could you not have been here before? I demanded. Surely you were interested in where your mammy grew up? I suppose, for a child, a long walk up a lane to an empty house wasn’t that exciting. But I could have stayed all day, trying to reconstruct the house in my mind, noticing how the stone walls had been panelled over at some stage; trying to work out if the room we stood in was a living room or a bedroom -- the small fireplace suggested the latter; wondering what would have hung from the hooks which clung stubbornly to the remains of a door. The people who lived here died before I married into this family, but I knew their names and had seen their photographs. 

How long does a house sit derelict before it stops being sad and starts being interesting?


I don’t think it ever stops being sad. 

I don't blame my husband for not making the pilgrimage earlier, when his mother could have filled in the blanks for us. Not all children are budding History Girls, as I had been, pestering Mummy for stories of the olden days – her girlhood in the fifties and sixties, and my granny for tales of the real olden days – she was born in 1908. The houses they told me about – the big house in Irish Street, Downpatrick where my granny took in lodgers; my other gran’s more modest terraced house in east Belfast – are long gone too, and not reclaimed by the kindness of nettles and grass, but demolished and built over. 

I will return to the Muck. It's not my family history, not really, but these old houses and their secrets are everyone's history. 



THE REST IS HISTORY. Tom Holland, Dominic Sandbrook and the best podcast of all. By Adéle Geras


At the beginning of 2021, I was still doing my one hour Lockdown Walk every day. I would come out of my front door, turn left or right and see where the road took me. I wear hearing aids and used to listen to radio  all the time, as I trod the streets. This was usually LBC radio because I like most of the presenters and during this solitary-ish time, it was good to hear voices, opinions and arguments from everywhere about  what was happening in the world. 

Here are two things you may not know about me. First, I'm a  news junkie. I read two newspapers every day and still have one of them delivered. I watch tv  news and discussion programmes. I loved the daily press briefing during the pandemic and followed the whole Covid saga from the beginning.
Secondly, I have various bees in my bonnet and a stable full of high horses on to whose backs I like to clamber from time to time. 


One of these is a passionate belief in the paramount importance of History as a subject for study. I think everyone should have History lessons until  they're at least 16 years old.  When a poll appears telling us that  75% of teenagers think Churchill is an actual bulldog advertising a building society, I could weep. The utter ignorance I see everywhere I look depresses me greatly.


That's background. Here's the story. On one of these walks I came across a new podcast. Someone had mentioned it on Twitter. It was called The Rest is History and I loved it instantly. I have since listened to every single episode.  

The excellence starts with the format.  Two good friends chatting informally. That's it. They share a love of  History and of the odd nooks and  corners and fascinating titbits that crop  up all the time.  They talk about everything, from the  history of Ancient China to the Cold War, taking in fashion that can kill you, childbirth, Burgundy, (the territory not the wine)  Alexander the Great, Justinian and Theodora....on and on. I've put up some pictures here to demonstrate the range, but this leaves out delights like the World Cup of Kings, (and Queens and Gods) and the wonderful Historical Love Island, which was won by Stanley Baldwin and the Empress Theodora. She  would, believe me, have been right at home there, at least in her youth. I can't begin to tell you how many excellent topics there are to be found on the podcast. Most recently, the podcasts Tom and Dom have given us about Russia, Putin and the Ukraine War have been unmissable.

They often bring in experts. Tom's brother James knows everything about the Second World War and I like imagining the  Holland brothers' childhood and what life must have been like in their house when they were children.  

The two men have different specialisms. Crudely put, Tom is Ancient and Dom is Modern. (You will find their  photographs at the end of this post and it's not a reflection either of their merit nor of my opinion of them that the sizes are so different. What this this means is: I'm very bad at putting up photos on the blog....that's the size they were when they appeared on my computer and I don't know how to make them the same as one another! Apologies.)

My best advice is: look each of them up on Google. They are writers. They are thinkers. They appear on television. Tom is a cricketer. One of the best short series on the podcast has Tom taking Dom around London pointing out all kinds of historical glories which Dom doesn't appreciate nearly enough, possibly because he's wearing new shoes and they're killing him. Other series on the Falklands, Watergate, the American Civil War are also brilliant. One of my favourite recent shows had Sarah Churchwell speaking about Gone with the will see it in a different light, I promise you, after you've heard this podcast.

There's now a Rest is History Club, complete with chatrooms and privileges. You get ad -free podcasts and special episodes.  They do live events. They're on Twitter and very active there.

Best of all, they're tireless. They simply never stop. A new episode airs almost every day and the standard remains impeccable. The lovely banter and fun between the two of them seemingly never flags. Listen to one episode....I guarantee  you will be hooked. 


Friday, 12 August 2022

Eye Marvels - Joan Lennon

The last year or so I've been eye obsessed, as my cataracts got thicker and my outlook got blurrier. Two operations later (plus some months of having to be patient while my sight settled down) and I am thoroughly enjoying my shiny new eyes. But don't worry if you are squeamish - I'm not going to post a history of cataract surgery, fascinating (and toe-curling) though that is. Instead, I'd like to share with you J. H. Brown's fabulously-titled book Spectropia: or, Surprising Spectral Illusions, Showing Ghosts Everywhere, and of any Colour, published in 1865 by Griffith and Farran, whose offices were to be found in the Corner of St Paul's Churchyard (Entered at Stationers' Hall). 

It is a book about seeing ghosts.

To see the spectres, it is only necessary to look steadily at the dot, or asterisk, which is to be found on each of the plates, for about a quarter of a minute, or while counting about twenty, the plate being well illuminated by either artificial or day light. Then turning the eyes to the ceiling, the wall, the sky, or better still to a white sheet hung on the wall of a darkened room (not totally dark), and looking rather steadily at any one point, the spectre will soon begin to make its appearance, increasing in intensity, and then gradually vanishing, to reappear and again vanish ; it will continue to do so several times in succession...

J.H. Brown created his book to speak out against the 'mental epidemic' of such 'absurd follies' as 'spirit-rapping and table-turning'. He goes on to explain the wonderful mechanics of the eye and its heightened deceivability. And then, on with the show!  

Thanks to The Public Domain Review it's possible for us to have a go at experiencing these surprising spectral illusions ourselveshere, even if we don't own a physical copy of the book - which, though it may not have been a absolute best seller, was still popular enough to go into a 4th edition.


(I would love to have a read of some of Griffith and Farran's other publications, such as the New and Popular Books for the Young advertised on the back cover, including The Headlong Career and Woful Ending of Precocious Piggy and the slightly dodgy sounding The Loves of Tom Tucker and Little Bo-peep.)

Joan Lennon website

Joan Lennon Instagram

Friday, 5 August 2022

AGE OF ELEGANCE ... by Susan Stokes-Chapman

My last blog post focused on Georgian jewellery, the crowning glory of any outfit. Of course, while those finishing touches were undoubtedly all-important we cannot ignore the actual fashions of the era these beautiful jewels enhanced, and how tailors and dressmakers drew on the elegance and grandeur of the ancient world.

It was the Enlightenment that started it - the Age of Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, creating ideals of living centred on the value of human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge (obtained by reason and a vindication of the senses), as well as ideas of liberty and progress. This movement inevitably led to the admiration of classical civilisations such as Rome and Greece, which began to translate into fashions most typically associated with the Regency period.

Women’s fashion lost the rigidity of corsets and embraced instead neo-classical looking clothing. Dresses were designed to make ladies silhouettes appear elegant and slender, with flowing material and waistlines that clung beneath their breasts (known as Empire Line), whereas men’s fashions took on the lean and statuesque characteristics of the Grecian hero.


It is easy to see why the Ancient World was so favourable. With the advent of archaeology and many beautiful finds becoming available for public consumption (the Grand Tour favoured by the aristocracy had much to do with it), the elegance of the imagery really drew the eye. Men were clean shaven, with attractively curling hair and strong athletic bodies to stir virile masculinity, and the women were smooth-skinned, beautifully coifed, and everything graceful - the epitome, then, of the 'ideal' human being. 

© Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum

The first Grecian-style gowns were simple shifts made of muslin. Other materials were used as well, but muslin dominated the fashion plates. These gowns had very little shape to them - shape was instead achieved with the tie under the breast that created the iconic Empire Line we all know today. This style gave a lot of freedom and comfort to the wearer as the dresses were light, needed very little underpinning and were worn with flat shoes - no heels to make your feet hurt! Shades of white were the main colour of choice, and often pale pastel colours were worn during the day while darker colours came in the form of shawls, trims and tunics tipped with gold were often worn over a plain dress, and really gave the impression of Greek and Roman styling.

Such outfits were accessorised with reticules, some of which loosely echoed the shape of a Grecian urn, and hoods which paid homage to the Grecian caul, a cloth or net that covered the hair in an elongated shape at the back:

To veer back to jewellery briefly, one particular accessory came into fashion - tiaras. They were apparent in portraits at the time, but if you consider too the mosaics and pottery discovered from digs in Greece and Rome such as those depicted below, you can understand why tiaras became particularly fashionable:

© The British Museum

Further, cameos were the more obvious accessory that acknowledged the Ancient World. In 1805 the Journal des Dames wrote: ‘a fashionable lady wears cameos at her girdle, cameos in her necklace, cameos on each of her bracelets, a cameo on her tiara.’ Below is a portrait of Queen Louise Augusta of Prussia by French portrait maker Madame Le Brun, depicting one such cameo on her tiara.

The English potter Josiah Wedgwood made a killing from his jasperware depicting classical scenes. Below is a belt clasp mounted in cut steel frames with Matthew Boulton's faceted steel studs, which shows the image of a priestess making a sacrifice. Georgian women (and some men) often wore cameos like this.

© The Walters Art Museum

And speaking of priestesses, in the below painting of Lady Hamilton (another by Le Brun), Lord Nelson's mistress is depicted as a dancing priestess. The layered garment and patterned underdress could be both Regency dress or Grecian robe, the likeness is so close! Note in the background Mount Vesuvius is erupting - the excavations of Pompeii were another source of the Georgian's fascination with the ancient world.

For men, there was a little less frippery required. Gentlemen wore breeches made of fabric that stretched comfortably across the legs which accentuated their shape, and skin-tight pantaloons gave the virile look of the much admired classical statues. The dandy Beau Brummell (bottom figure) believed that the point of men's fashion was to 'clothe the body that its fineness be revealed'.

Of course, not all body shapes are the same! For women, even if they were of a more ample figure the Empire Line dresses were still very flattering, but for men who were a little more scrawny and did not possess the muscular curvature so admired of Grecian heroes, many had no qualms about fitting themselves with false curves, as this caricature below depicts! Next to this cariacture is a surviving example of a padded stocking.

There are so many things to say about Georgian fashion, but for the purpose of this blog I simply wanted to highlight the visual similarities between Regency fashions and the ancient world. Personally I really feel they were on to something, and I think it high time the fashions of the period made a comeback. They were elegant, regal, cool in the summer, and flattered everyone no matter their shape and size - what more could you possible ask for?


My Georgian-set debut novel Pandora acknowledges this obsession with the ancient world, and you can order by clicking the image below:
Twitter & Instagram: @SStokesChapman