Monday, 24 December 2018

A Georgian Cartoonist's Christmas

According to contemporary cartoonists, Georgian Christmas celebrations were not the scenes of pious, orderly behavior and domestic bliss the Victorians liked to portray. Take this cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson, from 1804, "Christmas Gambols".

Drunken servants party in the kitchen in less than spiritual fashion. What would their masters think? Note the mistletoe at top.

"At Home in the Nursery" by George Cruikshank, 1825, portrays a chaotic Christmas party for children at the home of Master and Mrs. Twoshoes. The children are certainly enjoying themselves! Not quite like Christmas at Bob Cratchitt's.

Lewis Walpole's, "A Pleasing Pastime, Christmas Quadrille Party," 1826 shows four gentlemen braving ice skating with hilarious results, probably after tippling a bit too much.

"Drawing for a Twelfth Night Cake at St. Anne's Hill," was the work of George Cruikshank's father Isaac.  It portrays an all male celebration at the country house of Charles James Fox in 1799. The image emphasizes Fox's sympathy with revolutionary France, then at war with Britain (liberty caps). Twelfth night celebrations were often rather wild affairs. Like most Georgian celebrations, I suppose.

Placid or Chaotic, Enjoy your Holidays. God Bless Us All, Everyone!

Monday, 17 December 2018

St. Mary's Church, Beddington Park, a Little Gem in South London

I have walked by St. Mary's Church in Beddington Park, Surrey many times. The other day the church was open for visiting and I wandered in for a look about. I found an interior of artistic beauty and considerable historical interest. 

There has been a church on the site since Anglo-Saxon times. It was probably a wooden church. It is listed in Domesday Book (1086) a survey of most of England and Wales carried out by orders of England's first Norman king, William the Conqueror. 

Most of the present church dates from the 14th and 15th centuries, including the tower. But just past the tower, on the right of the central aisle, one comes to a Purbeck marble font dating from the 12th century.

The roof of the nave and chancel are wooden and highly decorated. The organ screen was designed and made in the workshop of arts and crafts pioneer William Morris in the late 19th century. It is believed that Morris painted part of the screen. 

View of the organ screen, on left.

To the right of the chancel is the Carew Chapel, which probably dates from the late 15th century. The chapel was dedicated originally to the family that owned Carew Manor next door. Many Carews were commemorated and buried under here.

The chapel contains an impressive tomb, a monument to Richard Carew (d. 1520). On the front of it a man, his wife, and seven children are portrayed. This was Sir Nicholas Throckmorton and his family. Sir Nicholas inherited the estate after the death of a later Carew,  his uncle Francis, and adopted the Carew name. 

There is much more to see at St Mary's, which is certainly worth a visit.  

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Hunting the Feejee Mermaid: from Charleston to London

I took a trip across London not long ago to visit the Horniman Museum and Gardens. The Horniman contains much of interest in its natural history, ethnography, and botanical collections. I must admit, however, that the star attraction for me was a famous hoax: the Feejee Mermaid. 

I had first stumbled onto the Feejee Mermaid while researching an article on the influence of two pseudo-sciences, mesmerism and phrenology, in antebellum Charleston, South Carolina. The Mermaid had been exhibited there in 1842 by the great American showman of the day, P. T. Barnum. He claimed it had been caught by fishermen in Fiji. A contemporary drawing of it reveals that this was not much like the beautiful, siren-like mermaids of legend. 

The Mermaid proved a big hit despite its grotesque appearance. It also sparked a major controversy among Charleston's intellectuals, with some, Rev. John Bachman, a highly competent naturalist, denouncing it as a crude fake. Others, notably Richard Yeadon, editor of the Charleston Courier, pronouncing it as genuine. 

Disagreement in Charleston over the mermaid's bona fides became quite heated, with both sides accusing the other of violating the Southern code of honor. Bachman and Yeadon traded insults and came close to the dueling field, an outcome only prevented by the intervention of mutual friends. 

I summarized the Charleston mermaid dispute in the article I mentioned above, because the animosities carried over into the debate over mesmerism a few months later. 

But back to the Horniman Museum. I arrived to discover that the ballyhooed Mermaid was not there! In the place where it was supposed to be, there was a placard with a picture of the mangy critter and the words "the following object has been temporarily removed from display." I learned from one of the guides that it was on loan to a museum in the USA. The object that was not there looks like this:

That the main thing I came to see was away on tour was not the only surprise I was in for. The object that was not in the Horniman is called the Feejee "Merman," not the Feejee "Mermaid." Due to its absence, of course, I was unable to verify its sex or gender. I subsequently learned that there was not one mermaid or merman but at least several, perhaps many. 

Learning from Barnum, other circuses and promoters secured (or constructed) their own mermaids or mermen for their sideshows. Some of them were made in Japan, including Barnum's and the one in the Horniman. The Barnum mermaid was exhibited elsewhere, including Cape Town and England for twenty years before a collaborator of Barnum, Moses Kimball, acquired it. Most naturalists denounced it as a fake, but the promoters who exhibited it and others were more interested in the revenue it produced. 

Some accounts say that Barnum's mermaid was destroyed in a fire; others say it survived. The Peabody Museum at Harvard University claims that the object below is the Barnum mermaid, but other "mermaid experts" disagree. They argue it was one of many that were exhibited during the nineteenth century. 

My visit to the Horniman was a failure in that I did not see the Mermaid or Merman. But I learned that the history of the "Feejee Mermaid" was much more complicated and interesting than I had thought. 

Further Reading: 

The Feejee Mermaid; Early Barnum Hoax: Live Science

Kenneth S. Greenberg, "The Nose, the Lie, and the Duel in the Antebellum South," The American Historical Review, Vol. 95, No. 1 (Feb., 1990), pp. 57-74.

Peter McCandless, 'Mesmerism and Phrenology in Antebellum Charleston: Enough of the Marvellous,' The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 58, No. 2 May, 1992, pp. 199-230.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

London's Invisible River Fleet

One of London's numerous underground rivers, the River Fleet is perhaps the most famous. The Fleet once ran pure and freely from Highgate and Hampstead down the valley now occupied by New Bridge St., Farringdon St., and Farringdon Rd. before emptying into the Thames.

The Fleet was once called the River of Wells because there were so many wells along its course, some of them holy. It was also surrounded by various religious foundations, monasteries, convents, and friaries. Henry VIII erected Bridewell Palace along its banks, but his son Edward VI gave it to the City of London to serve as a school for boys and a house of correction for women of ill repute. An interesting juxtaposition of functions that. "Bridewell" later became a general house of correction for many types of offenders, and the term became generic for such institutions. 

One reason the royals gave up Bridewell may be the fact that the river had become a foul open sewer, clogged with animal carcasses from nearby Smithfield Market, refuse from tanneries, and the wastes and castoffs of untold numbers of Londoners. 

The noxious miasmas that the Fleet "Ditch" -- as it was often called -- exhaled may be the reason why it was surrounded by prisons, workhouses, and cheap housing. It was a good place for housing if not thinning out the poor and undesirable. Many criminals had their haunts along or near its banks. Dickens placed Fagin's den in nearby Field Lane on Saffron Hill.

The Fleet river/ditch/sewer was gradually covered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Today it is almost forgotten, but you can see evidence of it as it flows into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge. Or, you can see the water at its source in Highgate and Hampstead Ponds.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Scandal: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and the British Election of 1784

The Westminster parliamentary election of 1784 is famous for a number of reasons, perhaps most notably for the active involvement of Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806). Her political activities were the stuff of scandal. At the time, British women were unable to vote or run for Parliament. They would not gain those rights for more than a century. Georgiana's scandalous behavior was not to defy the electoral laws but the convention that women, at least "respectable" women, should not actively canvas for votes on behalf of men. [Below: Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough]

Georgiana's marriage to William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, was not a happy one. The Duke was unemotional and adulterous. The Duchess sought refuge in society, the theatre, gambling, and visiting pleasure gardens. Gambling became an addiction, and she racked up enormous debts. 

As celebrities do today, she attracted the attention of the media, in press and print. Artist Thomas Rowlandson produced many cartoons in which she was the subject, such as the two below showing her at the gaming table and at Vauxhall (in center of the crowd with her sister). Many other notables are pictured at Vauxhall, including Dr. Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and James Boswell, seated at the left.

The candidate Georgiana helped was Charles James Fox, leader of the parliamentary Whigs. In 1780 she had stood on the hustings with Fox. In 1784 she went much further. She went about the streets of Westminster, canvassing voters and trying to convince them to cast their vote for Fox. He was not only running to keep his seat as an MP, but hoping that the Whigs he led would gain enough seats to allow him to replace his rival, William Pitt the Younger, as Prime Minister. 

The Westminster electorate was relatively large for the time and included men of the middling and lower ranks. For a duchess to mix and touch -- some claimed even kiss -- such folk seemed scandalous to many contemporaries. Cartoonists had a field day, notably Rowlandson. The image below, "The Devonshire; or Most Approved Method of Securing Votes" shows the Duchess kissing a butcher. 

More licentious, and completely fanciful, "The Poll" shows Georgiana and Albinia, Countess of Buckinghamshire, on a see saw trying to "tip the balance" between the two leading candidates, Fox and Sir Cecil Wray. Albinia openly supported Wray, and met the same criticisms as Georgiana. Both women are shown exposing their breasts, symbolizing their scandalous behavior. Fox is on the right with his hands in the air. The phallic-shaped rocks the seesaw rests on add another level of suggestiveness.

The image below shows Georgiana processing to the hustings with other canvassers, including other women.

Despite all the negative publicity Georgiana received, Fox was reelected as one of the two Westminster MPs. Who knows, her efforts may even have helped him win over voters. His goal of becoming Prime Minister was thwarted, however, because Pitt gained a solid majority of supporters in Parliament.

Georgiana did not enter the political fray again so publicly. She continued for years to mix with and influence Whig leaders like Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and the Prince of Wales, the future George IV. 

She also had an affair with a member of the Whig inner circle, Charles Grey, with whom she had an illegitimate daughter. The affair ended when her husband threatened her with divorce and never seeing her children again. Georgiana, who had strong mothering instincts, chose her children over Grey. He was furious at the rejection, but had some compensation. He later became an earl, Prime Minister, and had a tea named after him. 

The portrait below by Joshua Reynolds, shows the Duchess playing with her daughter, also named Georgiana. 

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Along the Wey: Walking the River Wey Navigations, Surrey, England

On a fine summer's day, we took a walk along the stretch of the River Wey Navigations between Guildford and Godalming in Surrey. The walk is @5 miles, a bit longer with a diversion to Chinthurst Hill. 

The word "navigations" refers to the fact that the river, once impassable, was made navigable in the 17th and 18th centuries by canalizing large sections of it, and building a number of locks. 

The navigations allowed barges carrying chalk, charcoal, timber, and other materials to move freely around rapids and shallows and ply their trade along the Wey, down to its junction with the Thames at Weybridge, and on to London. Below is a barge loaded with what appears to be chalk.

The increased trade greatly improved the local economy. The success of the navigations helped to inspire the building of many canals throughout Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The canal age is long over, of course, and nowadays, most of the Wey traffic, both on the water and along the old towpaths, is recreational. It is possible to take a horse-drawn canal boat from Godalming along much of this stretch of the Wey. For adetailed history of the navigations and more, see The Wey Valley 

[For a detailed history of the Wey Navigations and much more, see 

Our walk began at Guildford Station. From there to the Wey and  is about a 15 minute walk. We were surprisingly soon in open countryside. The scene below is taken from the towpath on the outskirts of Guildford.

One of our most surprising discoveries was a couple of pillboxes, built in 1940 to defend against an anticipated Nazi invasion. 

Another discovery was to find that some water was private. Had Nestle been here? 

We came across the above while making a diversion at Broadford Bridge along the old Wey and Arun Canal to nearby Chinthurst Hill. It is topped by the folly below, built in the 1930s to look like a ruined medieval tower. It was an excellent spot for lunch and a rest with fine views of the surrounding hills and valleys.

This fellow, who we saw on our way up (and down) the hill, agreed with us on the rest part.

We were also treated to other displays of nature along the Wey.

We ended our walk in the pretty market town of Godalming, which is famous, among other things, for having hosted Czar Peter the Great at a town hotel during a visit to England in 1698. Among other things, Peter had come to learn about English shipbuilding. 

Of course, we couldn't resist stopping at The Star, an award-winning pub with an amazing selection of ciders and perries. 

From The Star to Godalming Station is but a short walk, and after we had drunk our fill of cider and perry, we made our way there and back to London. We fully enjoyed our day out along the Wey.

For information on walks along the Wey, see Walk This Wey. 

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Cutting up at London's Smithfield Market

Smithfield, the site of London’s ancient meat market, lies just north of the old city walls. It was an open air market for centuries. The image above shows the old open air market just before it closed down to make way for the massive Victorian structure that occupies the site today. That building, part of which is pictured below, opened in the 1860s. Smithfield is the largest meat market in the UK and one of the largest in Europe.

For centuries, cattle, sheep, poultry, swine, and horses have been brought from all across Britain to feed and transport London. The name of a nearby street, Cowcross, proclaims the final path that many a beast took to its place of execution. (Image: Cowcross)

After slaughter, their carcasses were tossed into the nearby Fleet River, or Fleet Ditch as it became known, as the river congealed into a gooey, foul-smelling mass of animal remains and human wastes, an open sewer of ill fame.

The River Fleet was covered over in the 18th and 19th centuries and now runs below ground under Farringdon Rd. and Farringdon St., exiting into the Thames at Blackfiars Bridge.

Smithfield was not only a place for animal slaughter. People were chopped up and otherwise disposed of there as well.  The most famous, thanks to Mel Gibson, was William Wallace, AKA “Braveheart” who was hung, drawn, and quartered at Smithfield for having had the balls to defend his country from the rapacious Edward I. In one of its many errors, the film shows Edward dying at the same as Wallace was being executed. In fact, Edward died two years later. (Below: Memorial to Wallace across from Smithfield, on the outer wall of St, Bartholomew's [Bart's] Hospital) 

In the 1550's, “Bloody Mary” Tudor had several hundred Protestants burned here for their refusal to abandon their "heresy."

In 1381, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, Wat Tyler, was treacherously killed here by the mayor of London while parleying over the peasant’s demands. The peasants were aroused by a new tax, a poll (head) tax, to pay for an imperialistic war against France, the so-called Hundred Years War. Although Tyler was killed and the revolt subsided, the government abolished the tax. 

Six hundred years later, Margaret Thatcher, defied history and tried to introduce a poll tax in the UK. As in 1381, the people revolted again, a revolt that helped lead to her ultimate downfall.