Friday 23 February 2024

Family Junk or Family Treasure? by Janet Few

Having recently moved house, for what really must be the last time, I have become acutely aware of just how much ‘stuff’ I have. Much of this has accompanied me on my life’s perambulations from south London, via the Isle of Wight, to North Devon, with a short side spell in Buckinghamshire thrown in. Other items have joined the collection more recently, since I became my oldest relative, a sobering thought. These possessions, some of whose history stretches back four, or perhaps five, generations, come with associated stories, stories that have been diminishing with each retelling. There is the collection of artefacts that great-grandad brought back from India, or was it China? Or perhaps it wasn’t great-grandad at all but his father.


 There’s great grandmother Clara’s quilt that has been worked on by five, soon to be six, generations. 

Then there is grandad Frederick’s games box, a little dilapidated round the edges but still played with. 

The mixing bowl, that was a wedding present to my parents in 1947, has less history attached but it is still in use to make the annual Christmas cake and has a significance none the less. 

I fully appreciate what a privilege it is to have these treasures and I don’t take the responsibility lightly.

What makes these items of material culture, these ‘things’, transform into precious heirlooms. Why am I moving them from home to home and giving them room in my tiny house? It is the association. An heirloom is such because it reminds us of a person, an occasion or a place. It is something that has been, or will be, handed down in the family. A thing only becomes an heirloom, only becomes something that is likely to be treasured and passed on, if the significance of that object is known and handed on too. One of the ways in which I pass my time, is to participate in a project that seeks to preserve the stories of misfortunate women, whose lives might otherwise be forgotten. I am now on a mission to encourage others to record the biographies of their precious possessions, stories that equally might easily be lost.
Acutely aware that, when I am no longer around to be their custodian, my descendants might deposit these items that I treasure in the nearest charity shop, or worse still skip, I recently set out to record the stories behind these heirlooms. At least then my family will be aware of what the are discarding and at the very least, photographs and the stories will survive. So much of the oral history associated with these objects and their original owners has already been lost, I vowed that I would allow no more to disappear. I decided that I would preserve what I knew on what is currently a fledgling website. Eventually, I will ensure that the same information is recorded in other formats too.
I have the gold fob watch, given to my grandfather, Albany, for forty-five years’ service on the railways. This is a man who witnessed serious railway accidents, who took part in the General Strike and who, after a brief spell as a railway porter, chose to revert to being a cleaner because he didn’t want the responsibility that came with promotion. My mother’s wedding dress was hand-made by her from a silk parachute, as post-war rationing was still in force. Unless I tell the story, no one but I will know that what appear to be rust stains down the front are actually blood stains where she cut her hand on the wire holding her bouquet together. Then there is Jessie’s locket. Jessie, born in 1874, was my grandmother’s cousin. She left no descendants. If I don’t tell her story, who will?



We see china, jewellery and other artefacts in antique shops and on online auction sites that were once precious to someone; sadly this is no longer the case. Their stories have been lost. This diminishes them as an object; they are now merely items of material culture, to put it bluntly, they are things. Some are attractive, some are useful, some have a monetary value but they are no longer imbued with the essence of their owner.
Of course, everyone is perfectly entitled to do what they like with their family heirlooms. Not everyone will agree with me but personally, I cringe when I see people on television programmes selling grandad’s medals or granny’s engagement ring so they can renovate the kitchen or jet off on holiday. They may well sell and may even fund that dream holiday but no purchaser will ever have an emotional connection to those items; they will not be bound to the original owners by blood, by memory, or by an invisible chain of shared heritage.

If you are not fortunate enough to have inherited any family treasures, perhaps you have siblings or cousins who have. Seek out those items and make sure their stories are shared. If you are the current custodian, perhaps you too will take on the task of record the history of the heirlooms in your possession.

Friday 16 February 2024

A Gentle Meander by Sheena Wilkinson

Like most History Girls I love reading – fiction, non-fiction, old favourites, new releases, whatever I’m in the mood for. Sometimes, especially if I’m having a vexatious time with the vagaries of the publishing industry, or if life is otherwise stressful, I tend to go ‘off’ fiction for a while. At those times, nothing appeals so much as a good dose of social history – I especially love twentieth century history about the lives of women and girls. 

my go-to bookshelf when I fancy a bit of social history 

Recently, for research for my forthcoming children’s novel set in a girls’ school, I reread Terms and Conditions, Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools, 1939-1979. This is the first of three books by the writer Ysenda Maxtone Graham. My edition is the first, an unassuming, deliberately retro-style cloth-bound hardback published by the wonderful Slightly Foxed in 2016. That the book did well is evident by its subsequent publishing history – it came out in paperback the following year, and since then Graham has published two similar books, British Summer Time Begins, which focuses on the long school holidays, and Jobs for the Girls, about women in the workplace. All the books, which are based round the reminiscences of living people,  range in scope from the 1930s to the 80s/90s, have sold well and been enthusiastically reviewed. 

As someone who writes fiction about the lives of girls and women, at work, at school and at play, these books have been wonderful research material, but also a great joy. Ysenda Maxtone Graham writes with humour and warmth, and the books certainly appealed to those who love a bit of nostalgia, but they are very sharply observed too. 


I particularly enjoyed Jobs for the Girls, where we meet women – and many teenage girls – at work in factories and offices of all sorts, often giving those jobs up on marriage as was expected. By writing about this aspect of women’s lives, Graham is really shining a light on society more widely. 


I’ve always loved reading and writing about women at work; my favourite bits of my novel Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau (Harper Collins, 2023) were the scenes set in the back office of the eponymous bureau. As a lifelong fan of the Chalet School series, I always loved the glimpses of the staff at rest in the staffroom, gossiping, smoking and eating chocolates. (The years I actually spent in a school staffroom, in my former life as a teacher, were less relaxing.)


In my adult reading, too, I love the little details of life in offices, on farms, in hospitals and factories. One of my go-to comfort reads (I am not alone in this) is the Cazalet saga by Elizabeth Jane Howard, and much as I love the relationships and adventures of the central characters, I also relish the domestic minutiae – how will the cook feed all those people and how can she stop the meat from spoiling in the heat? It’s the same instinct that takes me often to my granny’s old recipe books, even though I know I will never cook brains or rissoles.

Of course Howard was writing about the years of her own childhood, and Graham is mining the memories of her interviewees. What I love best are the incidental details in the fiction from earlier decades – how people lit their fires and polished their furniture and cleaned their typewriters and spent their wages at Woolworth’s. Dorothy Whipple’s books are all delightful, but one of her earlier novels, High Wages, though not generally seen as one of her masterpieces, appeals to me because the heroine works in, and gradually rises to own, a dress shop. 


This isn’t  a learned essay; it’s a gentle meander through some favourite books, but I make no apology for that. I’m a History Girl because I love those small domestic details, and always have done ever since I first read about the Fossil sisters saving the penny and walking to see the doll’s houses in the V & A, or about Laura Ingalls curling her bangs with a hot poker, or the Chalet School girls hemming sheets ‘sides to middle’ to increase their lifespan – the sheets’, not the girls’.


I was sad to finish the Ysenda Maxtone Graham books, and I do think many History Girls would enjoy them too. She has written about people, mostly women, at school, in the summer holidays and at work; I wonder where she might go next? Wherever it is, I can’t wait. 


Friday 9 February 2024

Great Minds: 2500 Years of Thinkers and Philosophy (Haig, Lennon, Ducci) - Joan Lennon

I joined the History Girls as a writer of historical fiction for 8-12 year olds, way back in 2012. 

And now I write historical non-fiction for 8-12 year olds. It's not as different to writing historical fiction as I used to think. You still do the research - you still get that big grin on your face when you unearth the diamond detail - you're still telling a story. And you're still spending time with compelling characters who quickly become as real, or realer, than your own family. They certainly occupy a lot of brain space.

In Talking History: 150 Years of Speakers and Speeches, the pattern was laid for the collaboration between the writers - Joan Haig and me - and Andre Ducci the illustrator. 

Our second book is about philosophy. In Great Minds: 2500 Years of Thinkers and Philosophy we spread the historical net even further. 

If you want to talk about philosophy, the 8-12 year old group is the way to go - low on preconceptions, assumptions and prejudices, high on curiosity, energy and questions. Which is perfect for an area of human endeavour based on looking at questions and then looking at answers. Questions like:

What does it mean to be good?

Who am I?

What is time?

How can we tell if something is true?

What makes something beautiful?

And dozens more.

In the book we looked at questions and answers from different countries, cultures and times. And we introduce the reader to the people who have shaped the way we see the world. 

Fascinating is an overworked word, but the back stories of these people are just that. 

Of course, each story is different, but it was interesting how many of them start with being mediocre at school, described as too shy, only average, messy, female or black or both (and therefore really shouldn't be schooled at all). A goodly number, like Gandhi and Marx, had terrible handwriting, though a notable exception was the Ethiopian philosopher Zera Jacob who made a living by his beautiful calligraphy. As often as not, they came from poverty or lived in war-torn times or experienced colonialism. But not always - there is no template for a philosopher!

Something that shone out for me particularly was how often these philosophers were also polymaths. The specialism of the present day is so sure of itself that it can blind us to how this has not always been the case. Ibn Rushd was also a medical doctor, a musician and an astronomer; Gandhi was a lawyer who also hand-spun cotton; Mary Midgley studied animal behaviour and raised children. Philosophy speaks to every part of life.

P.S. We've had some lovely reviews - thank you! And to learn more about Andre's fabulous work on the book, visit My Book Corner's Meet the Illustrator interview with him here.

Joan Lennon website

Talking History: 150 Years of Speakers and Speeches Templar Books (2022)

Great Minds: 2500 Years of Thinkers and Philosophy  Templar Books (2023)

The Slightly Jones Mysteries - Victorian detective stories for 8-12 year olds

The Wickit Chronicles - Medieval adventure stories for 8-12 year olds

Friday 2 February 2024

THE LANGUAGE OF FANS ... by Susan Stokes-Chapman

It exercises the office of the zephyrs, and cools the glowing breast. It saves the blush of modesty by showing all we wish to see, yet hiding all that we desire to conceal. It serves the purpose of a mask, covering the face that would remain unknown. It keeps off the rude beams of the uncourtly sun ... or from the fiercest ravage saves the brilliant eye and blooming cheek. It hides bad teeth, malicious smiles and frowns of discontent; stands as a screen before the secret whisper of malicious scandal; expresses the caprices of the heart, nay sometimes even speaks; in a word it has a thousand admirable qualities, and may justly be entitled one of the nobelest inventions of the human mind. 
Extract from: The Grand Magazine, London, November 1760

A fan is a lovely thing to have in hot weather or when you're cooped up in a stuffy room, but according to The Grand Magazine a fan had many other uses - it was the perfect foil for a woman who wished to hide themselves, whether that be because they were shy, or hoped to conceal bad breath and teeth, or simply avoid attention altogether! It was also said that the fan could be a powerful tool in other ways, enabling a lady to speak without forming the words on her tongue. In the edition of The Spectator published on 27th June in 1711, Joseph Addison stated that ‘women are armed with fans, as men are with swords’. One might presume from this rather pert comment that fan-wielding ladies could be extremely brutal in vanquishing an unwanted suitor. For instance, placing the fan on the left ear would indicate she wished to be rid of him; carrying the fan in her right hand would state the suitor is too willing; and to really hit the point home a woman might draw the fan through her hand which would very bluntly mean I hate you.

There were more positive forms of fan-made communication - making eye contact whilst carrying the fan in the left hand (but in front of her face) would suggest a lady was desirous of an acquaintance. If the handle was pressed to her lips she would be saying (rather forwardly) kiss me

These 'secret' communications have come to be known as The Language of Fans.

Lady Holding a Fan by Francesco Bartolozzi

It seems, however, that the likelihood of a gentleman actually understanding this vast mode of vocabulary is rather slim - there were, after all, over two dozen different moves and gestures to become familiar with - and it was Parisian fan maker Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy who ultimately sought to reveal the secret code. In 1827 he published a leaflet which revealed a comprehensive list of fan etiquette, which proved to be vastly popular.

The concept is rather romantic, isn't it? The Language of Fans. But the more unglamorous truth of it is that Duvelloroy hoped to  boost the sale of fans after they had fallen out of fashion following the French Revolution, and it appears the ploy worked for he later became a supplier of fans to Queen Victoria herself.

Artists Unknown

Still, it might be fun to try and master the code if you ever find yourself carrying a fan at formal gatherings (a Jane Austen re-enactment or a Bridgerton-themed ball) - just try not to inadvertently call someone cruel, or say you're engaged when you're not!

If you have an interest in 18th & 19th Century fans, The Fan Museum in Greenwich is the perfect place to visit. There you can view fans of all shapes and sizes in a glorious catalogue of designs - fans carved form ivory and tortoiseshell, leafs made from silk and gauze, embellished with embroidery or paint.

You can even find out how traditional fans were made (which was really useful for the short story I wrote for The Winter Spirits). Here are just a few of my favourites which I photographed during my visit back in August '23:


My short story 'Widow's Walk' (set in the Georgian period) featuring a troubled fan maker, can be found within The Winter Spirits, published in hardback October 2023, and out later this year in paperback. You can order a copy by clicking the image below:

Twitter & Instagram: @SStokesChapman

Friday 26 January 2024

When the Old becomes New Again, by Gillian Polack


I have been saved from a post I didn’t want to write by an email on 1 January. Today, you see, is a national holiday in Australia. Australia Day embodies so many dreams and so many conflicts and so much hurt that it would be a very good subject to write about. Not this year. This year too many people hurt and I don’t want to write about people hurting. Or I could talk about the Birthday of Trees, which has just finished. Not this year, either. The Birthday of trees is a wonderful day, but it’s Jewish and it’s not that easy to be publicly Jewish in the world right now. Besides, that email changed everything. It gave me something good to write about, where no-one gets hurt. Except trees… some days I cannot win.

That email concerned a novel (Chocolate Redemption) that had been announced a few years ago. It had been delayed by COVID and by crises and by the world being generally Very Difficult. To start my year (literally, on New Year’s Day), I received the edits from the publisher and the knowledge that it’s finally emerging into daylight. I don’t know yet if the title will remain, but until the release date is announced, then I shall refer to it as Chocolate Redemption, because this is its name in my heart of hearts.

Chocolate Redemption is not just any novel. A long time ago, about the time The Middle Ages Unlocked was on its way, my readers asked me “Why don’t you write more fiction that uses your knowledge of the Middle Ages? You have a PhD in Medieval History and we like to read stories set in the Middle Ages. Write them, please.”

I wrote a time travel novel (Langue[dot]doc 1305) and my readers said, “That was great, but we need more. And it should be different to the time travel novel.”

I answered them, “Maybe one day, when I’m ready to explore the Middle Ages from a different direction.”

I had, to be honest, already started writing this novel. I was on a retreat in the Blue Mountains, at the wonderful writer’s house, Varuna. I finished Ms Cellophane, the novel I went there to write, and I began another. I wrote the first chapter there, and did a ll the research, and wrote an outline. After that, it took me a long time, because life kept getting in the way.

I hesitated to talk about it, too. It wasn’t really a proper fantasy novel. It wasn’t really fully a novel about our world, either. It broke so many genre models. I finished it, and then I put it on hold because I was worried about it. I didn’t think it worked. So I sat on it. And I sat on it. And I sat on it some more. I’m one of those writers who doesn’t always trust their own ability to carry a dream through. With this novel, which (just to be really clear) had amazing support from beta readers, I felt I had failed. So I sat on it some more.

While I sat, I refined it. I was worried about the black dye in one section. I’d included dying because of the place it was set (a town that produced much glorious fabric) but also because I wanted to make the same pun I’d made in Poison and Light. If one has a tenterfield and one is Australian, then the tenterfield needs a saddler. There are bad jokes like this in all my novels, little Easter eggs for readers who enjoy spotting them. Except that in Chocolate Redemption, the tenterfield uses the original definition and is for cloth dying. I wanted the black dye to be accurate, so I asked my textile archaeologist friend, Katrin Kania. I did this throughout the novel. I made sure that there was a basis of historical fact underlying all extrapolation and all whimsy. The invented world for the fantasy side of the novel is mostly Medieval rather than mostly invented, and even the inventions are based on extrapolations: that cloth was my reminder of how I had achieved this. I do that with all my novels. I leave reminders in of the path I travelled to get there.

Then I sat on it some more still. Along the way, I wrote a short story about dancing in a churchyard after the Great Plague, then I wrote another that was a finalist for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, so my patient readers were not left without any of my Middle Ages. They were just missing this one novel I had written and about which I was unaccountably shy.

Really, there’s nothing scary about this novel. I should not have put in on hold for years. It’s what a novel would look like if half of it were a fantasy Middle Ages with the fantastical was grounded in our actual knowledge of the Middle Ages, rather than in the Medieval themes we often read in fantasy literature. And yet it wasn’t an historical novel at all.

I had not quite emerged from The Middle Ages Unlocked (a non-fiction guide to Medieval England I wrote with <drumroll> Katrin Kania), so my approach to the history was precise. Where else did I get my knowledge? It helps, sometimes, to work with other writers and learn from them. I was working, at that moment, with Felicity Pulman, a marvellous Australian writer of Young Adult novels. She asked me for advice on Medieval Winchester for a detective series she was writing (the Janna Mysteries), and it was that advice that led me into my own approach. The town in Chocolate Redemption is loosely based on Winchester, as me doffing my hat to Felicity. If you’ve not read her writing before, Ghost Boy is particularly clever in its emotional force and its use of history.

Eventually I got over myself and Odyssey accepted the novel and then COVID hit and life went awry again. On January 1 this year I read the edits. Odyssey’s editor was ecstatic about the story and the characters and especially one particular love scene and… I felt very stupid about my lack of confidence.

The novel is about women’s lives. Small lives. Lives that the rest of the world fails to see properly. I love the richness of women’s lives. It was a lot of fun to write about an apothecary in a Medieval town and her Jewish best friend and her love and all her professional concerns, and her kitten, and floods and fury and all the stuff a town goes through in a year.

The Medieval section is about the lives of younger women. Old enough to be independent, but young enough to have big decisions in their immediate future. The Katoomba (modern Australian) section is about an older woman, whose daughter is in the middle of the big decisions and whose life has reached a quietly impossible point.

The novel includes chocolate, and it’s about mapping our streets and our lives.  

For me, it’s a bit of an oddity. It falls between genres. Lives of women do this, all the time. The mapping others do of our lives doesn’t actually match with the way we live. That’s the heart of the story.

I’ll put out an announcement on social media when Odyssey settles the release dates. In the meantime, if anyone wants to be included on the review copy list, send me a note and I’ll forward it to my publisher. Because Odyssey (the publisher) is in New Zealand review copies will be ebooks only. New Zealand is a long way from anywhere other than Australia and islands in the very south Pacific. Postage costs and time for the post to reach far-distant places are other aspects of those small lives I so enjoy writing about.

In the meantime, my January gift to myself is finally being able to talk openly about Chocolate Redemption. Bringing it out of hiding was a difficult thing. Watching others read it and form opinions is going to be exciting, but even more difficult. I shall buttress the emotions with chocolate.

Friday 19 January 2024

Ally Pally Prison Camp by Maggie Brookes

Growing up in North London, Alexandra Palace has always been on my skyline. The first palace opened on Queen Victoria's 54th birthday, burning down 16 days later, but being immediately rebuilt.

When I was young, I would confuse the radio mast on top of one of its towers with the Eiffel tower. In my teens it was the place we went roller skating, fulfilling its original purpose as the 'People's Pleasure Palace'. As I grew up and went to work for the BBC, I equated it with the birthplace of television and a major TV production centre. It wasn't till much later that I read a paragraph in a local history book which told me it had been a civilian internment camp during the first world war. I immediately became interested, and my research was eventually published in a book which combined extracts of memoirs and letters with photographs, paintings and my own poems.

I discovered that at the beginning of the war it had been kitted out as a temporary home for the thousands of Belgian refugees who were flooding into Britain as the Germans over-ran their homeland. Then in 1915, after the sinking of the Lusitania, when anti-German riots broke out, about 42,000 German, Austrian and Hungarian men between the ages of 17 and 55 were rounded up and taken to internment camps, also known as concentration camps. 3,000 civilian men were imprisoned at Alexandra Palace in North London. The artist George Kenner was one of them, and this blog features his wonderful paintings.

Many of the men who were taken to Ally Pally in 1915 had left Germany as children, many owned business in England. Most lived in London and had English wives and children. They were the lucky ones. The unlucky ones were taken to a camp at Stratford, run by a sadistic commandant.

They were marched up the hill where they were registered, queuing in the rain and having all their belongings examined. They were rich and poor, bankers and barbers, waiters and stockbrokers. The prisoners were divided up into three battalions, and because this was England, the divisions were based on their social class.

The skating rink was for Battalion C, the business and professional men like George Kenner. The Great Hall (now used as a vast exhibition space) was the sleeping quarters for Battalion B, the working class, and a thousand men slept there. Their beds were within an arms length of each other and there was no privacy. They kept their few belongings under their beds.

One of the men who slept in the Great Hall with the labouring classes was a Hungarian tailor called Benny Cseh, whose pitiful letters to his wife Mabel are in the Imperial War Museum. Much of their correspondence concerns a 2s 6d postal order which went missing, and the fact that she sent him pears which became squashed. He described his day: 'We get up at 6am, breakfast at 7am, go outside till 12. Dinner at 1, go out till 7, out till 9, bed at 10pm. Every morning, running round the horse race track.'

Another man whose letters are in the Imperial War Museum was the young RH Sauter, the nephew of John Galsworthy, and a Harrow educated aspiring artist. He lived in one of the towers with the upper classes, in far superior conditions.

The men occupied themselves according to their status and experience, running a post office, laundry, carpenter’s workshop, tailor's shop and barber's shop. Many were employed in the kitchens, where the great organ bellows powered the ovens. In 1915 the menu was reasonably good, including stewed meat, goulash, corned beef and herrings. Those with money could buy cakes, cheese, butter and jam.

The men could receive letters and parcels and were allowed a weekly visit, which seemed to range in time from 15 minutes for labouring men, to 2 hours for the upper classes. Benny Cseh describes the agony of the short visit: 'I was very much disappointed with your visit. Not with you my dear, but with the time, as I did not know how to divide that 15 minutes between you and Ilona. I have been told she was crying for me when you left.'

Paul Stoffa's memoir details the visits: 'It was pathetic to watch the painful excitement of the men whose visitors were due that afternoon. Long before three o’clock they assembled with their little bundles of flowers and toys for the children.' The visitors were 'elegant young women with engagement rings on their fingers, poor working women with a bevy of half starved children… None of the women visitors came empty handed: but their parcels had to pass the censor first. Whilst some of the well-to-do men received huge parcels containing all manners of expensive delicacies, the small packets containing perhaps only a pinch of tea and a diminutive piece of butter, bore eloquent testimony to the self-sacrificing affection in which these poor women held their husbands.'

As well as finding work to occupy themselves the men gave lectures, calling themselves the 'University on the Hill.' They used the theatre for Sunday services, started an orchestra and had a weekly cinema. Their favourite was Charlie Chaplin. In the summer they sailed boats which they’d made themselves, on the boating pond. One man, called Otto Weiss, was allowed to keep canaries in cages.

As the war drew on, the civilian internees where joined by prisoners of war billeted at Ally Pally on their way to other camps and even a group of missionaries, captured in West Africa. But not all the prisoners were what they seemed. One man had been taken from a German ship and was classed as an enemy alien, until someone realised that the language he was speaking was Welsh! There were even reports of an escape, during an Zeppelin air raid, though this is impossible to verify.

As time went on, conditions at Ally Pally grew more harsh, and the diet became 'rice, rice, rice, three times a day with swedes and turnips and salt herrings.' They were served biscuits which were broken and full of worms and maggots. They sent some for analysis but the report said the worms were harmless and they should eat them. More fights erupted over food than any other cause.

Two camp heroes emerged from adversity: the deputy commander, Major Mott, and one of the prisoners, the anarchist / socialist Rudolf Rocker. He managed to get many important concessions for the prisoners but became very ill during the harsh winter of 1917 when the heating in the Great Hall wasn't working and everyone froze. 'It was terrible at night; the coughing and groaning kept us all awake.'

The food and physical conditions became worse and worse, but there were things which caused more mental anguish. There was no welfare state of course, and the men had no means of supporting their wives and children. The Society of Friends, the Quakers, sold the toys the prisoners made and took food parcels and clothing to the wives and families.

The constant noise, and constantly being surrounded by so many people caused many men to have nervous breakdowns. So many in fact that a Swiss doctor studied the condition which he called ’Barbed Wire Disease.'

Throughout the war, the YMCA ran classes, Rudolf Rocker gave lectures about art and literature, and the men found something to do according to their class and habit. 400 allotments were cordoned off on the slopes of Ally Pally, and of all the ways of passing the time, this seemed to have the most positive effect.

Finally, the end of the war drew near, and the men spent the morning of November 11th 1918 in great nervous excitement, until, at 11am guns were fired, to mark the end of the war.

A little later, newspapers arrived, which set out the armistice conditions. RH Sauter wrote this in a letter on Armistice Day: 'I have just read the armistice conditions and now I see the real ideals for which the money-grubbing lawyers of the 23 nations have been fighting. Here one is living among the defeated … it is upon their fathers, their mothers, their relatives and friends that these conditions of slavery have been imposed. The whole of Germany, one great internment camp. I see the child of this very day, like a ghost, haunting the future, another war.'

When I first read that, I was so shocked and appalled that even on armistice day it would seem obvious to an ordinary young man that another war was inevitable, that I decided to end my book at that point. But for the men at Ally Pally, life went on. Slowly, slowly they were called to hearings, to decide who could stay in Britain. Many were deported back to Germany. Rudolf Rocker was deported, but was refused entry by Germany. George Kenner, the artist whose paintings feature in this article returned to Germany where two of his children died in the great depression, before he eventually went to America.

And the century rolled on, towards another war …

Huge thanks to Christa Bedford for permission to use the wonderful paintings by her father George Kenner.

Friday 12 January 2024

The Turban in Fashion by Kathryn Gauci


Doris Kenyon

We’ve all seen glamorous photographs of Hollywood stars like Greta Garbo looking stunning in her turban, yet Hollywood was not the first to make the turban all the rage. What began as a long piece of cloth wrapped around the head, usually fully covering the hair, the turban has a long and varied history. The earliest origins reach back as far as 2350 B.C. found on a Mesopotamian sculpture of Assyrian or Sumerian origin. From this time onward, it appears in artworks from India to Turkey, through Central Asia, and into Africa. It is known that the prophet Mohammad (570-632) wore one, known as Imamah, emulated by Muslims devotees, kings and scholars, thereafter. The Imamah consists of a cap with a cloth around it, often still seen in parts of Africa today. 

Luigi De Servi (Italian, 1863 - 1945) Portrait of An Arab Gentleman


For the most part, the turban is linked to religion, and a particular colour denotes the significance of a rank or tribe. In India, it is referred to as a pagri (headdress). Pink is associated with spring and worn for marriages; saffron is associated with valour and sacrifice, and white with peace.

 The Interior of the Chora Church, Istanbul

There are many examples of turbans worn in Byzantine times. Byzantine soldiers wore them and there are Greek frescos in Cappadocia with figures depicted in a style still worn by their ancestors centuries later. 

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri better known as (il) Guercino Italian Baroque painter (1591-1666)

In the United Kingdom, turbans were worn by men and women since the sixth century, but it is mostly through the great paintings of the Renaissance, and Dutch, Belgian, and German masters, that we really came to know them. This is due to intrepid travelers and diplomatic and trade exchanges with the Ottoman, Persian, and Mughal empires of the East – the spice and silk routes that brought us far more than the turban. 

One of the first and most famous images of the turban being worn as a fashion accessory in the west was in the iconic Dutch painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring by artist Johannes Vermeer painted  in 1665. The oil painting features a European girl wearing an exotic dress, a large pearl earring, and a turban tied around her head, thought to be inspired by Turkish traditions of the time.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by artist Johannes Vermeer


Eugene Francois Marie Joseph Deveria - Odalisque,1840

Eléonore de Montmorency
Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Giuseppina Grassini in the role of Zaire - 1805, detail

Niclolas de Nicholy, Melchoir Lorch, J.B. Vanmoor, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Miss Julia Pardoe, and La Baronne Durand de Fontmagne, took the oriental fashions back to Europe, eventually giving rise to what is known as Orientalism and which took the Western world by storm in the 18th, 19th, and earlier part of the 20th-century. Even though many Orientalist ideas are filled with Western ideals, there does remain some truth in the original fashions of the time.

Suleiman the Magnificent
The Ottoman turban went from being something enormous, as depicted by Mehmet I and Suleiman the Magnificent, to something much smaller and more practical. Women in particular wore them with grace and panache; the finest materials were often enhanced by a jewels or feathered aigrettes. 


  Turban with tall feather aigrette, designed in 1911 by Paul Poiret.

Jewelled gold aigrette in the form of a carnation belonging to one of the Ottoman sultans. Aigrettes were attached to turbans as ornaments, and also presented as gifts by the sultans to foreign rulers and statesmen.

Whilst the turban itself, particularly in the case of a man, may have been plain, the cloth that covered them certainly was not. The Ottoman house had rooms had plenty of decorative wall niches and one was reserved for the turban. When not in use, it would be covered with an exquisitely embroidered cloth. The base could be fine linen, silk, or wool. Exhibits in the Sadberk Hanim Museum in Istanbul vary in size, but they are almost always square. 155x155 cm, 110 x110 cm, etc. 

18th century embroidered turban cover


Detail showing embroidery motif of a turban cover

The compositions show a highly decorative small round centre, and around that, in the body, are intricate repeating patterns, either singular, or intertwined. The embroidery thread is silk, white or gold metal-wrapped silk, and the stitches anything from running stitch, satin stitch, contour stitch, or tambour work. These were given as gifts and of the highest quality and beauty. It’s often possible to tell who they belonged to by the motifs. An admiral might have a cover decorated with ships, while a military pasha might have tents.

Mahmud II

The turban went out of favour in the 19th century when Sultan Mahmud II attempted to modernize the empire. It was replaced by the fez until the birth of the Turkish Republic in 1925. Sultan Abdülmecid, Sultan Abdülhamid II, Sultan Abd-ul-Aziz, and Sultan Abdul Hamid II followed suit.

Meanwhile, in Western fashion, the turban was gaining popularity. In her book, Women’s Hats, Headdresses and Hairstyle, author Georgine de Courtais traces its popularity among fashionable Englishwomen, saying, “For ‘full dress’… some kind of headdress or cap was considered almost essential... the turban in some shape or form was by far the most popular form of headwear (between 1790 and 1810).” Some women’s magazines in the 1820’s referred to them as matronly, but The Ladies Magazine would inform its readers that turbans, “continue in undiminished favour” as late as 1835.

From  a series of Costume Parisian fashion plates of  the 1790s to 1820s


Georges Lepape, Denise Poiret released from the golden cage at 'The Thousand and Second Night' party, 1911, gouache.

Despite all that went before, the glamour of the turban exploded with fashion designers like Paul Poiret, and the appetite for the “exotic” in the burgeoning film industry. Here, we also have to acknowledge the extraordinary splendor of the Indian Maharajahs with their rich culture and penchant for opulence, particularly when it came to jewels. 

  Maharaja of Patiala, Yadavindra Singh.

According to an account by Alain Boucheron on his family business in the book “The Master Jewelers” that was cited in the Times: "The flamboyant Maharajah... arrived at Boucheron's in 1927 accompanied by a retinue of 40 servants all wearing pink turbans, his 20 favorite dancing girls and, most important of all, six caskets filled with 7571 diamonds, 1432 emeralds, sapphires, rubies and pearls of incomparable beauty.”

Lily Damita

Etta Lee (1906 - 1956) This Hawaiian-born actress had a successful career in early Hollywood spanning the 1920s - 30s,

Naturally, this explosion of cultures quickly caught on and was sought by the wealthy fashionistas of the first half of 20th century, who took it to glamorous heights. The couturier, Madame Grès, who created dresses for Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, Vivien Leigh, Barbra Streisand, and many others, loved to decorate her head with turbans. Elsa Schiaparelli was another couturier who wore it.  

Madame Grès
Greta Garbo

From the 1900’s onward, this was also a time when there was a plethora of fashion and movie magazines, which showed how to wear it. Along with the popularity of sewing machines in many households, this now meant the turban look was possible for the less wealthy. Everyone aspired to look like a Hollywood glamour girl.

Lana Turner. The Postman Always Rings Twice

How to tie a turban. 1920's tutorial

Even WWII could not stop the turban look. In France, the French milliner, Madame Paulette, (Pauline Adam de la Bruyère) is credited with reviving the turban, claiming to have been inspired by the designs she saw on French girls cycling the streets of Paris during the war. She later went on to create hats worn by Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich,  and Greta Garbo. Although the hat still remained popular in Europe throughout the war, the wearing of a turban was helped by the fact that women were working in manual jobs in factories and farms. The turban was a design that could be created with minimal sewing skills and helped to conceal the hair when access to hairdressers, shampoo, and even water, was limited.

"How a British Woman Dresses in Wartime Utility Clothing". Official wartime  photograph

The Ministry of Information in the UK showcased a turban as part of a series of photographs to promote possibilities for wartime chic during a period when utility clothing rationing interrupted the traditional fashion industry. While DIY turbans were easy to construct – a wartime British Pathé film even demonstrated how to make a selection of designs with a couple of knotted scarves as part of its Ways and Means series – many materials used for making hats were excluded from the worst rationing strictures during the war, and this may help to explain the rise in whimsical hat styles for those who could afford them.

After so many changes, one might ask – is the turban here to stay? Will it become popular again? With all its designs, textures, practicalities, and global influences, I think so.