Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Counting wafers

The picture-postcard St Malo Chapel, near Bréhand, is rich with historical associations. When royalists rose up against the republic in 1794 and fought in Brittany, this chapel was a rallying point for local people opposed to republican conscription. Boishardy, a leading chouan (royalist), was killed nearby and according to local legend was due to marry in the chapel that day. The current building is the result of substantial restoration in the nineteenth century.

However, one of the most eye-catching items in the simple interior is a wooden peg board. It had a very practical purpose: on arriving at mass, anyone intending to take communion would move the peg down a hole. Thus there would be a count of exactly how many wafers needed to be prepared.

While the peg on a string may be a long way from symbols of military glory, it speaks a great deal of the frugality and common sense of everyday life.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Ghost signs (36): Frigidaire

This rather well-preserved advertisment is in Pontivy, Brittany. It tempts passers-by with 'a real Frigidaire, produced by General Motors (France)' but they'll have to go all the way to Lorient to get it - about 35 miles.

Despite the fine condition and bright colours, this advertisement is probably well over half a century old. In 1955, General Motors moved from the crown logo shown here to a distinctive script.

The old logo had been around for longer than you might imagine. Fridges were first sold in 1913. Alfred Mellowe founded the Guardian Refridgerator Company way back in 1916, but as each handmade fridge took a week to assemble the business wasn't exactly a storming success. In fact, by 1918 he had to sell out to General Motors as he was nearly bankrupt. The Frigidaire and its crown logo were born.

However, the earliest machines required a separate compressor and motor, often housed in a different room, and cost more than a car. The first self-contained unit was the 1923 Frigidaire, and fridges became more common towards the end of that decade. The example pictured to the left had its mechanism in the circular unit on top. They were relatively affordable at a mere US$300; it would be some time, however, before the fridge would become common in Europe. When this advert was painted, well under 10% of French households had a fridge.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Wind power

Wind turbines have become a common sight in Brittany. Their French name is éolienne, named for Aeolus, ruler of the winds in ancient Greek mythology. It may not be the most appropriate allusion, given that in Homer's Odyssey he provides a warning of the dangers of messing with wind.

Homer was stranded on Aeolus' island, Aeolia, so the keeper of the winds gave him a west wind to take him home. He also, with that dangerous generosity so common in Greek myths, gave him a gift bag of all four winds. Odysseus' crew thought that the bag contained gold and silver, so they opened it just before reaching home. Released, the winds blew the hapless ship straight back to Aeolia, where the disgruntled Aeolus refused to give further assistance.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

From the archives: Mary Rogers, Postman's Park

One of the pleasures of travelling is finding unexpected connections. As I walked around the Guernsey Folk and Costume Museum, which tells the story of island life, I came across a link to today's archive post from the Postman's Park series.

The twin-screw steamship Stella was operated by the London & South Western Railway Company between Southampton, Jersey and Guernsey as an extension of its railway service to the coast. Its rival the Great Western Railway ran a service from Weymouth; the two competed on the speed of their crossings, often racing each other from the Casquets reef to St Helier. Although the companies did not officially acknowledge the competition, passengers were well aware of it and the newspapers reported it.

On 30 March 1899, both companies were running their first daytime service of the year. Travelling to the Channel Islands, the
Stella hit thick fog. It was nearing the Casquets reef, notorious for its danger and the number of ships which had been lost there. Although the Casquets did have a lighthouse, the light was not visible due to the weather conditions, while the Stella didn't hear the fog signal until too late. The captain believed that the reef was still several miles ahead, a mistake which had tragic consequences: still at full speed, the Stella ran aground on the Casquets and sank in eight minutes.

Press reports stated that the conduct of those on board was exemplary, with no men leaving the ship until all women and children were in lifeboats - this appears to have been exaggerated as one lifeboat contained a number of men but only one woman, while some women and children seem to have been left on board. Those who made it to the lifeboats suffered a long night in cold seas. One capsized at launch, although survivors clung on to it; finally righted by a huge wave, it was flooded and swept along by the tide for nearly 24 hours before being found. Among those who died during its night at sea were the mother and brot
her of Bening Mourant Arnold, who survived only because his mother had tied the laces of his football to his shirt collar. Tragically, according to his father's memoir, Bening had sighted the lights of Alderney harbour but because another passenger believed that two red lights meant danger, they rowed away and were carried down the French coast.

Among the 105 who died was Mary Rogers, the senior stewardess. She was born in Frome, Somerset but married a seaman from Southampton. By the time of the disaster she was a widow with two grown-up children and a dependent father; her husband had been washed overboard the Honfleur six years earlier. When disaster struck the Stella, it is said that she calmly got the women out on deck and into lifeboats. One woman was without a lifebelt; Mary gave her her own. She then refused to get into the boat herself, as it was already full and she would not risk endangering it. She waved it goodbye; as the ship went down, her reported last words were, 'Lord, have me.' Her body was never found. (The accuracy of this account has been questioned by Jake Simpkin's research, but whether or not the story's details are all true, her conduct and that of the other stewardess Ada Preston certainly deserved praise; 'the greatest admiration' was expressed by the Board of Trade inquiry.)

Mary became a national hero. Feminist Frances Power Cobbe proposed a memorial; £570 was raised and the money was sh
ared between Mary's family and the construction of a memorial on the quay at Southampton. Mary also has a stained glass window in Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral; a memorial was placed on the harbour wall at St Peter Port, Guernsey in 1997. William McGonagall, best known for his poem on the Tay Bridge Disaster, was also moved to verse on this occasion although he did not mention Mary Rogers. In his inimitable style, he begins:
'Twas in the month of March and in the year of 1899,
Which will be remembered for a very long time;
The wreck of the steamer "Stella" that was wrecked on the Casquet Rocks,
By losing her bearings in a fog, and received some terrible shocks.
Rather more elegantly, Mary's plaque on the Watts Memorial reads:


Following the disaster, the two steamship companies finally agreed to co-operate. They ran services on alternate days, pooling ticket receipts: there would be no more racing. As for the Stella, its wreck was rediscovered in 1973 by divers Richard Keen and Fred Shaw. They kept its location a secret until it was rediscovered by John Ovenden. With David Shayer, he has published a book on its discovery.

In the Guernsey Folk Museum courtyard is the captain's skiff from the Stella. Smaller than the ship's lifeboats, it nonetheless carried 14 people to safety during the events in which Mary Rogers lost her life.

For all Postman's Park posts, click here.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Lavender's blue

Lavender seems to have it all: looks and smell, medicinal and antiseptic qualities, and culinary uses. It preserves well as an essential oil, dried flower or pot pourri ingredient. Bees love its generous nectar.

There's something very French about lavender - although more Mediterranean than Breton! However, that hasn't stopped us growing plenty in the garden. Today I used some to make lemon and lavender biscuits:

Cream together 100g butter and 50g caster sugar. Add 175g flour, 1 tbsp of fresh lavender flowers and the zest of about 1/3 lemon. Press together into a dough, and roll out.

Cut out the biscuits and place them on a greased baking tray. Cook in a hot oven (about 220C) for about 10 minutes until golden-brown. (The lavender flowers will still have their pretty green-and-blue appearance.) Cool on a wire rack, and then eat!

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Random statue 8: Victor Hugo

Best-known for his books The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables, Victor Hugo also had strong interests in politics and interior design. Both are evident in Guernsey, where this statue stands in Candie Gardens looking out to sea.

Hugo opposed Napoleon III, and as a result had to leave France in 1851. He and his family moved to Brussels and then Jersey before settling in Guernsey, where he remained until 1870. His family home was in Hauteville, St Peter Port; his mistress Juliette Drouet lived nearby.

The interior of Hauteville House is very much Hugo's creation, its design quirky and dramatic. Guided tours reveal the contrasts of light and shade, distinctive woodwork (often reusing table legs, chest panels and beds to create new and dramatic pieces), rich decor, integral political statements and, finally, the simpler rooms at the top of the house where Hugo actually slept and wrote.

Hugo kept the house even after his return to France. He had completed works including Les Miserables here, and Toilers of the Sea is partly set on the island. His family later gave the house to the City of Paris, who now operate it as a museum. The garden has been recently restored and, like the house, has impressive views across the harbour and sea: views which his rather dashing statue is no doubt happy to share.

Images and panorama views of the interior of Hauteville House are here.

Monday, 21 June 2010


I recently went on a guided walk through culinary St James's, led by Joanna of Westminster Walking, which I'd definitely recommend. It's probably one of the parts of London I'm least familiar with, so there were a few unexpected gems - including this non-culinary one outside the Economist Building.

Eclipse is a sculpture by Angela Conner, its two discs of slate and marble moved solely by the weight of the water. There's something rather hypnotic about the combination of water, movement and texture.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

From the archives: Peter the Great in Deptford

A look not just at the visit of the Russian Czar but also at Deptford's strangest statue:

Henry VIII established the first Royal Dockyard in Deptford, in 1513. Ships were built and repaired there; the 'Sovereign of the Seas' was launched in 1637, a 100-gun, 1500-ton warship nicknamed the "golden devil". Deptford was therefore a natural choice for Peter I, Tsar of Russia when he travelled to Britain in 1698 to study shipbuilding techniques. Although Peter travelled incognito and disguised himself as a carpenter to work at the dockyard, it is unlikely that he was not recognised.

He stayed in diarist John Evelyn's house, Sayes Court: it was convenient for the dockyard, and also enjoyed a semi-rural location outside London. However, as a modern young man, Peter not only wanted to learn about the latest science and technology but also enjoyed drunken parties. These caused hundreds of pounds' worth of damage, a fortune at the time; Evelyn was particularly upset at the injury to his holly hedge although by 1704 he boasted that it "mocks the rudest assaults of the weather, beasts, or hedge-breakers. "

Today, Peter the Great's visit is commemorated by a riverside statue which was a gift from Russia, designed by Mickhael Chemiakin. It is, frankly, bizarre: Peter (who was 6'7" tall but appears normally proportioned in contemporary portraits) is strangely elongated with a tiny head, and accompanied by a dwarf and an empty chair.

For all Peter the Great posts, click here

Friday, 18 June 2010

Sclater Street

This little collection of signs seems to sum up a lot of the Brick Lane area's history.

Moving from the general to the particular, Sclater Street used to be home to a bird market. Montagu Williams QC, writing in 1894, described it thus:
Here was to be seen the East End bird-fancier in all his glory, surrounded by his pets and his pals. This little Street in Shoreditch forms the common meeting-ground for buyer and seller, chopper and changer, and I can safely say that nowhere in London is there to be seen so interesting a concourse of people. They are all absorbed in birds and bird-life. If you stand at one end of the narrow street and cast your eyes towards the other extremity, the scene presented is one long line of commotion and bustle. You hear remarks such as these: “Don’t desert the old firm, guvnor;” “Come, now, that’s a deal ;“ and “Wet the bargain, Bill.”

One side of the crowded thoroughfare is entirely taken up with shops, in the windows of which are to be seen all manner of wicker and fancy cages—from the largest “breeder” to the tiniest “carrying cage “—and birds of every description dear to the fancy—linnets, mules, canaries, chaffinches, bullfinches, starlings, and “furriners.” The cages are ranged in rows all round the wall.

Each vendor is busy shouting out invitations to the crowd to come and buy or “do a deal,” which, in most cases, means a “swop,” with a bit thrown in on one side or the other just to balance the bargain. The wares are not confined to the inside and outside of the shops. In the gutter and roadway are crates and boxes tenanted by fowls, pigeons, guinea-pigs,. and hedgehogs.

An incessant chatter goes-on. Jews and Gentiles squabble and bandy words over the respective merits of their posses­sions. Nearly every one in the crowd has something under
his arm, tied up in a handkerchief—his own dinner, some dainty provender for his dickies, or what not. While Jack is showing to his intimates and admirers the linnet he has matched to sing against Tom Cooper’s at the Well and Fountain, Jim is vehemently, and in no very choice language, exclaiming against his bird for losing his last match “by a note.”
Read the rest of his description at Victorian London. A later observer in 1911, George R Sims, would describe similar scenes:

You press your way in and find that the shops are mostly packed with linnets, canaries, love-birds, Japanese nightingales, parrots, bird-cages and fittings, and all the necessaries and luxuries of pet-land. There are shops of all descriptions, but the bird industry predominates. Here along the kerb are hawkers, too. A man with a "spiteful sister" pantomime wig on is doing a roaring trade in fancy articles; a man dressed as a jockey is selling tips for the races. He presumes so far on the gullibility of his hearers as to assure them that he has left a racing stable by an early train and is to ride in the big event for which he is selling the stable secret. Here are barrows with limed twigs, with clods of turf for skylarks, and all kinds of bird-seeds set out for the fancy.

But it is in the roadway, in the densest part of the crowd, that you find the dominant note of the day's dealings. There you see everywhere little groups of men, each with a bird in a small cage, tied up in a blue bird's-eye pocket-handkerchief. The tying is all to one pattern. One side of the cage is open to the light, and the bird within is being eagerly examined by quiet connoisseurs. The fanciers, who bring their own birds to the fair and compare notes with acquaintances, do not say very much and are not very demonstrative. There is a reserved, almost melancholy, look on their faces. They suggest the patient listeners rather than the eager talkers. Most of them spend their leisure listening to their own birds or other people's.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Princess Alice

Even at a glance, the decoration high on the facade of the Princess Alice in Commercial Street catches the eye. A closer look (or zoom lens) shows that it's mosaic, hence the unfaded colours and sense of texture.

Although the pub dates from 1850, it was rebuilt in 1883. Its name evokes the Victorian era as thoroughly as the facade does: the princess was Queen Victoria's second daughter, born in 1843.

Unfortunately, many of the associations are unhappy. Princess Alice herself married shortly after her father Prince Albert's death from typhoid, in a ceremony described by her mother as 'more of a funeral than a wedding'. Life with her new husband Prince Louis of Hesse was not easy: homesickness was followed by the Austro-Prussian War. Hesse was on the Austrian side, but Alice's sister Princess Victoria was married to Prince Frederick of Prussia which hardly made for easy relations. As a friend of Florence Nightingale and social reformer, Alice took an active part in organising hospitals for the wounded; Queen Victoria saw her daughter's interest in the human body as coarse, which did nothing to improve their tense relationship.

In 1873, Alice's youngest son died in a fall. Her relationship with her husband also worsened, and she was unhappy both in Hesse and in England. Worsening health meant that when in 1877 she became Grand Duchess, her increased duties exhausted her. The following year, she died of diphtheria caught from her son; it had already killed one of her daughters. She was 35.

There is a more famous and even unhappier Princess Alice, though: the passenger steamship which sank on the Thames in 1878, just a few months before the Grand Duchess's death. On a warm September evening, the boat was full of pleasure-trippers returning from Gravesend. As it approached North Woolwich Pier where many passengers were to disembark, the much larger collier Bywell Castle came towards it. Despite the amount of traffic on the river in this period, there were no clear rules on how vessels should pass each other. The Bywell Castle changed course, which confused the Princess Alice's captain. He swerved, the two ships collided, and the Princess Alice was almost cut in half. It sank within a few minutes and even those not trapped inside found themselves in a heavily polluted, raw-sewage-filled stretch of river, in the dark, wearing heavy clothes. Most of them could not swim. Although a minority of passengers were saved by rescuers, over 600 people died.

This story of two survivors gives some idea of the confusion and misery of that night:
A Thames Division constable, PC56 John Lewis, an ex Royal Naval diver stationed aboard the station-ship Royalist at Blackwall; who had taken the outing aboard the Princess Alice with his wife and two sons, all happened to be on the after deck at the time of the collision and jumped together into the mass of bodies struggling in the river. The Constable caught hold of his wife's hand and swam with a few others ashore onto the Erith marsh, only then to discover the woman he had rescued to be a total stranger. Both the woman and Constable Lewis lost their entire families that evening.
Happily, the pub has a more fortunate history. It even stayed open throughout the Second World War, despite heavy bombing in the area. Although it was for a time renamed the City Darts, it has reverted to its original identity and remains in business today.

Photograph of Princess Alice from Wikipedia.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Ghostly sounds

Yesterday's Making History on Radio 4 explored Bath's ghost signs - and the demise of the town crier - with Sam Roberts. It also invited listeners to submit local signs to the archive.

The episode is on iPlayer here, and the ghost signs segment is about 07:25 minutes in.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

View from the deck

I'm soon making my first visit to Guernsey (any tips and recommendations welcome!), but it won't be my first sight of the island. I've paused at the harbour of St Peter Port on sailings to St Malo, and with these views, how could I not be tempted to return for a holiday?

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Second birthday!

Today, this blog is two years old. I'm celebrating by starting a new weekly feature: a post from the archives. I won't begin with my very first, because it was dreadful (to give you a flavour, the title was 'hello'). Instead, here's one from the following day: the first of many on ghost signs.

One of my current obsessions is with "ghost signs": advertisements which were painted on walls from the nineteenth century to the 1960s, some of which still survive. In fact, there's one more or less opposite the end of my road. A huge amount of information about these, complete with photographs, is on the amazing ghost signs blog.

Taking some photos has been on my list of things to do for a long time, but I've finally started getting on with it. And none too soon: after surviving for so many years the adverts can still disappear overnight. So I was glad to have taken this photo of S Wood & Son's Hare and Hounds Garage sign on Upper Street, N1 before the new owners painted their own name onto it. My feelings about that are mixed: on the one hand, something (albeit a faded, patchy something) has been lost. On the other, it's great to see that people still bother to paint these signs, and there has been a real effort to match the original style. Above all, this has to be infinitely better than simply whitewashing over it.

A lot has happened since that was written. Ghost Signs blog author Sam Roberts has established the wonderful ghost signs archive. As well as contributing some images to the archive, I've continued to blog about ghost signs (more here).

Friday, 11 June 2010

Deptford skulls

St Nicholas' Church, Deptford is probably best-known for the rather magnificent skulls on its gateposts. They are rumoured (probably incorrectly, alas) to have inspired the pirates' Jolly Roger. Grim to modern eyes, they were nonetheless designed to offer hope since they are wreathed in laurel, symbolising eternal life.

The macabre symbols are not confined to the gateway: there are plenty more skulls inside the church. Indeed, a small selection of St Nicholas' skulls gives some idea of the range of meanings they could have in this context.

Some rather special ones are to be found in the Grinling Gibbons panel, The Valley of the Dry Bones. Gibbons, one of the greatest woodcarvers, lived in Deptford before he gained the patronage of Wren and the royals. That perhaps explains how he came to carve this oak panel for the church.

It depicts an Old Testament scene, the prophet Ezekiel's vision of a valley full of dry bones brought back to life by God. This work was originally above the charnel house door in the churchyard but has been in the church itself for the last century or so.

While Gibbons' skulls were coming back to life, those on the memorial to Katherine (or Katherin) Wivell serve as a memento mori. Such reminders of our mortality were intended to spur the viewer into leading a better life, newly aware that the final judgement might not be far away. According to the inscription, Katherine herself need have no fears on that account:
Much lemented by all that knew her A woman whos piety beauty & Virtue none Excel'd.

Katherine was the wife and daughter of sea captains, both apparently reasonably wealthy. When the young Katherine Gunman married Francis Wivell in 1693, her widowed mother and Francis agreed to pay £1,000 each to be settled upon her. (This was a way of giving married women, who could not own property of their own, an independent income. The settlement would not allow her to spend the capital.)

Katherine's father Christopher Gunman had died eight years before her marriage, after a successful naval career. In 1663 he had commanded HMS Oxford on voyages to Lagos and Tangier. There followed several years of cruising the Bonadventure around Tangier and Algiers, before spending some years sailing closer to home. He took command of the Duke of York's yacht in 1669, and his career progressed steadily until he was involved in the wreck of the Gloucester in 1682. However, the Duke of York intervened on his behalf to revoke the sentence of the court martial and Gunman was soon back in command of the Duke's yacht.

Katherine may have lived in comfortable circumstances, but her life was not long and was marked by tragedy. She died aged 39 in 1713, leaving a husband, son and daughter; six children had already died. That must have given the reminders of mortality extra poignancy for her surviving family.

However, the memento mori was often subject to an alternative interpretation: that since life is fleeting, we should remember to enjoy it while we can. As the Old Testament also advises,
Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die.
If you would like to eat, drink and view these skulls for yourself then St Nicholas' Church offers the opportunity to do all three tomorrow (Saturday 12 June) at a Community Festival.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Notting Hill time capsule

In the late 1950s, the lifts at Notting Hill Gate tube station were replaced by escalators. A passageway was closed off and is no longer accessible to the public. Sealed inside, posters still covered the walls. From films to toothpaste, the advertisements offer a frozen moment of commercial art and daily life.

Away from light and people, forgotten until the passage was revisited during work at the station, they have remained in remarkably good condition. After a brief moment of attention, they have been left safely in situ once more (perhaps to be rediscovered in another half-century).

Thanks to a series of photographs taken by mikeyashworth for London Underground, we can share this snapshot of late-1950s advertising. The full set of pictures, with more information, is here.

Image: a 1959 poster advertising the River Thames, photographed by mikeyashworth.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Pentacycles and postboxes

After seeing lots of London's postal heritage in the wild, I visited the Postal Museum Archive: a huge collection of all things GPO, including some real rarities. The collection takes in road, rail, sorting machines, stamp machines, telephone kiosks, Rowland Hill's desk...

The history of the postbox is beautifully illustrated by a whole series of examples. The earliest are particularly eye-catching: a lot of experimentation was required before the standard models were settled upon. Vertical slots proved to let in the rain; some kind of protective overhang was useful for the same reason; and the distinctive red colour won out over a more muted green because people realised that postboxes were more useful if they were easily spotted.

A lot of the discussion about postboxes centred upon their appearance. As with any new innovation, people worried about their effect on the landscape. One option was to encourage them to blend in, hence the early popularity of dark green.

Another was to make them a decorative feature, and I particularly liked the high Victorian example with lavish gilded decoration. There was one important oversight in the original design, though: so much attention was paid to amimal heads and garlands that there was nowhere to actually post letters through! A flap was hastily added on the top, emphasising that functionality was a last-minute afterthought.

Another design error occurred with the 'anonymous boxes' of the 1880s. They remembered the slot this time, but forgot the Post Office branding including name, royal cipher and crown.

Among the vans of various vintages, a more low-tech but very eye-catching exhibit was the pentacycle. The Post Office was quick to experiment with cycles for its postmen, and this must have been one of the more extraordinary trials conducted. A sort of penny farthing on steroids, it has one large central wheel and four smaller ones (hence its alternative names of centre-cycle or hen and chicks). Although it was apparently popular with the postmen of Horsham, where it was trialled, the design was not generally adopted.

More photos on flickr.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Past imperfect

Sometimes, old buildings owe much of their charm to the fact that their historic environment has gone. The past was often noisier, smellier, more unhealthy and more polluted than the present. Thus the tranquil scene here would have been very different in the mid-nineteenth century when these cottages were built.

Bridgwater used to be a thriving port. Ships were built here; they brought coal and timber and left laden with agricultural produce, bricks and tiles. The docks opened in 1841 to accommodate them and to link the river to the Bridgwater to Taunton Canal. These houses overlooked the heart of that activity; nearby were warehouses, an animal feed mill, brick and tile kilns, and a steam engine operating the railway bridge (which slid apart to allow ships to pass).

Today, Bridgwater Docks no longer welcome cargo ships. Declining industry and competition from rail and road were among the factors which led to their closure. Frequent dredging, necessary to keep this tidal river clear enough for larger vessels to navigate, has long since ceased. Most of the industrial buildings have been replaced by residential developments. However, signs of the past endure, including this terrace. It can perhaps be considered a beneficiary of the changes to the town as it now quietly casts its reflection over calm water.

Sunday, 6 June 2010


On Saturday, the Wellcome Collection hosted an evening of Quacks and Cures. Along with talks, debates, leeches and naval surgeons, there were plenty of advertisements and medicine shows peddling questionable patent medicines!

Used as we are to the NHS, it seems extraordinary to us that you'd share your symptoms with someone who had a stall at the local market and then take whatever mysterious substance they might prescribe for you. However, when medicine had to be paid for privately, 'official' doctors were expensive and often didn't have great success rates, and there was plenty of appealing sales patter along with the pills and potions, it makes sense that these quacks could usually make a living at their trade.

Let's move away from the Wellcome Centre and back in time to visit two practitioners. First, one whose potion has lived on in popular culture: Lydia Pinkham, immortalised in song as 'Lily the Pink'. Her story is a reminder that many people labelled 'quacks' sold products in which they genuinely believed, and which may have been effective.

This American woman concocted a tonic designed to relieve menstrual cramps and symptoms of menopause, Lydia E Pinkham's Medicinal Compound. She was an abolitionist and feminist who originally gave her remedy freely to family and neighbours. When her husband was financially ruined in the 1870s, she marketed the tonic commercially and her advertising also encouraged women to write to her. The responses, signed 'Mrs Pinkham' but later written by members of staff, shared information on women's health issues and recommended exercise and a healthy diet - probably far more valuable to many of her customers than the tonic itself.

The compound, a mixture of alcohol and herbs, survived into the twenty-first century although not to the original recipe. As for that song, it's a (polite) version of various drinking songs. They grew up during the Prohibition era, when the high alcohol content of Pinkham's tonic meant that it enjoyed a new popularity with both women and men.

One of the more unusual quack stories, though, has less to do with the medicine than the seller. We know almost nothing about what the travelling quack Charles Hamilton sold in the 1740s, although Hamilton seems to have been much more salesman than healer. He had trained under two 'mountebanks' before setting up on his own account. His travels through England brought him to Wells, Somerset in 1746. There, he would marry his landlady's niece before they moved on - but in nearby Glastonbury he was unveiled as a woman, Mary Hamilton. 'Mrs Hamilton' denied all prior knowledge of her husband's sex although it took several months of marriage before her 'husband' was exposed.

The Corporation of Glastonbury reacted with horror and employed a lawyer to prosecute Hamilton. However, they and the court were faced with a problem: they had no idea what offence to charge Hamilton with. There was no specific offence addressing sexual activity between women, and marriage was regulated by the church. Other cases in London had used fraud charges since under English law a husband became owner of all his wife's property, but this doesn't seem to have occurred to the Somerset prosecutors. Finally, they settled upon a charge of vagrancy - often used as a 'catch-all' and serious enough to see Hamilton imprisoned for six months and publicly whipped four times. Despite this vicious sentence, the Bath Journal was able to suggest something of a happy outcome to the story: curiosity-seekers flocked to the prison to visit Hamilton, 'to whom she sells a great Deal of her Quackery'.

Like Lydia Pinkham, Mary/Charles Hamilton made an impact upon popular culture. Henry Fielding wrote an anonymous pamphlet retelling her story, supposedly repeating her own account but in fact almost entirely fictitious. The first run sold out almost immediately and the popular pamphlet was reprinted. The history of the quack, after all, is often as much about their ability to entertain as their healing powers.

All the photos were taken at Quacks & Cures.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Salisbury Cade

A newspaper cutting of 3 December 1720, although only a sentence long, leads us into the history of a London-based institution:
Yesterday the Corpse of Dr. Cade, late Physician to St. Bartholomew Hospital, was carried to be interred at Deptford in Kent.
Looking for more information about Dr Cade, I soon found that his full name was Salisbury Cade and he qualified as Doctor of Medicine at Oxford. In 1694, he became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. On his appointment as one of two physicians at St Bartholomew's Hospital in 1708, he moved from south-east London to Old Bailey.

The Royal College of Physicians had been given its charter by Henry VIII, and existed to regulate physicians (those who had medical degrees, in contrast to the trades of apothecaries and surgeons). It saw itself as an elite body, admitting only Oxbridge graduates until 1835 and excluding women until 1909. Nonetheless, it was also concerned with public health and a few years after Cade became a fellow it would open England's first public dispensary, providing free treatment to the poor.

There was plenty of competition and disagreement between the branches of medical practice at that time, and the Royal College was at the centre of this despite having fewer than 200 members at any one time. (There would be significant growth in the nineteenth century and today it has over 20,000.) It enjoyed regulatory powers for the whole of England, and its powers to punish unqualified practitioners were resented by the other medical branches who saw the body as a protectionist one. The apothecaries were also pretty displeased that the Royal College's London Pharmacopoeia had a monopoly on regulating the composition of medicines.

Not until a quarter of a century after Cade's death would surgeons break away from barbers to form their own Company of Surgeons, which became the Royal College of Surgeons when granted its own royal charter in 1800. Apothecaries similarly had their origins in the City livery companies - they were part of the Grocers', but after much petitioning separated to form the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in 1617. However, despite this recognition of their skills they continued to be regulated by the Physicians. In 1704 they won the Rose Case against the Royal College of Physicians: the House of Lords held that they could prescribe and dispense medicines. Only with the Apothecaries Act 1815, though, did they get the right to examine, license and regulate practitioners.

Cade was, then, in the branch of the medical profession which enjoyed the highest status at that time. He appears to have enjoyed some success within the Royal College: in 1716 and 1719 he was its censor. That role involved orally examining candidates who wished to enter the College and dealing with disciplinary matters.

Although all we know of Cade's birthplace is that it was in Kent, he was a scholar at Lewisham grammar school and until 1708 lived in Greenwich. Those facts suggest a strong connection to the area which may explain why he was buried in St Nicholas, Deptford.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

St Dunstan's Wharf

This marvellous facade in Narrow Street is a reminder that along with the hard work, poverty and grimness, there was also pride and prosperity in Docklands. The plaque mixes decorative flora with a reference to the building's namesake. Dunstan, Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury in the 10th century, lived for some time in a tiny hermit's cell in Glastonbury. There, he was allegedly tempted by the devil and responded by pinching his nose with iron tongs.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Ghost signs (35): Marcella cigars

On a bank holiday trip to Southend, I couldn't resist this ghost sign for a tobacconist (I'm guessing Marsh?). It promises Marcella cigars for 3d each, or five for a shilling - in modern terminology, buy four and get the fifth free. My first thought was 'gosh, that must date from a time when prices didn't change too often.' My second was, 'what exactly were Marcella cigars?'

A quick look around eBay was enough to locate several newspaper adverts from 1908 making this same price offer, which suggests a very rough age for the ghost sign. Around this period, their slogan was 'All ranks smoke Marcella cigars', illustrated with a line of soldiers. Marcellas were made by the Imperial Tobacco Company.

ITC had itself only been born in 1901, when a number of British tobacco brands joined together to fight off the threat of takeover from the American Tobacco Company. Larger members included Wills, Lambert & Butler, and John Player & Sons. (ATC's head, James Buchanan Duke, had failed to endear himself when he visited Players to announce 'Hello, boys. I'm Duke from New York, come to take over your business.') Although united in one company, the thirteen firms who made up Imperial Tobacco continued to manufacture and trade under their own names. It's therefore probable that Marcella were a family firm before that date.

I haven't managed to track down the start and end dates for Marcella, but they were certainly still making cigars after the Second World War. An advertisment from 1950 shows that there were now several types of Marcella: whiffs (small cigars) at 7d, Elegantes at 1/3d and Chicas at an extravagant 1/7d each. In this post-war world they were, apparently, appreciated by 'men at leisure' playing cricket, sitting in the garden or relaxing at home.