Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Mud-larks of London: Dirty Endeavours on the Banks of the Thames

What is a mud-lark?
After 24 hours of constant rain the ground has turned to slush, which seems as good an excuse as any to post about mud-larks.
The Mud lark -
Illustration from Mayhew's
London Labour and the London Poor
In Victorian times necessity was the mother of invention and many poor people were driven to extraordinary lengths to make a living. A mud-lark is one such example, where people survived by scavenging through the mud left by the receding water of tidal rivers. The Thames is a capitol example as it was a water-way busy with all types of shipping where there was the potential for crew or passengers to drop things overboard.
Mud larks circa 1871
Mundane Treasure
In London, the mud-larks worked both banks of the Thames, covering a large area between Vauxhall Bridge and Woolwich. They weren't expecting to find gold, silver, or precious stones, - their treasure was of an altogether more mundane sort such as coal, rope, old-iron, copper nails, or even bones. Anything that might have come detached from a ship, or fallen overboard during repairs, had value to the mud-lark.

Boldness Rewarded
Sometimes the mud-lark become over bold, such as one boy (as described by Henry Mayhew, the chronicler of Victorian life) who got fed up picking up coal from the shoreline and climbed on board a empty coal barge, where he swept up the leavings. His endeavor earned him 7 days imprisonment in a House of Correction. Not that he seemed to mind too much as he remarked that he preferred incarceration to being a mud-lark, as at least had a meal every night.

Caps for Baskets
Indeed, the mud-larks arouse Mr. Mayhew's pity as he remarks that at one set of stairs (down to the fore-shore) he counted a dozen children wading through the mud, aged between 6 and 12 years old. Muddy slush dripped from their clothes and they left a puddle where they stood. When their basket was full, they'd remove their cap and fill it – adding to the general impression of filth and dirt. Spending all their time in mud, it wasn't worth wearing shoes (not that they could afford them), but these children felt the cold just like any other.
"It is very cold in winter, to stand in the mud without shoes."
A mud-lark
The tidal shore of the Thames, as seen from the Millenium Bridge
Note the Shard in the background.
The only positive in the dismal picture, it that mud-larking was an early form of recycling.  The mud-lark sell scavenged coal to the poor. Whilst the iron, bones, and rope they sold to rag shops. Any tools, such as hammers or saws, they exchanged with seamen for biscuits and meat.

A Twist  in the Tale
Henry Mayhew wrote in 1951, and by 1904 although a person could claim "mud lark" as his occupation, public sensibility decreed it an unacceptable pursuit. The word however, re-emerged around 1936 when schoolchildren re-invented mud-larking but with a twist. This time they challenged passers-by to throw coins into the mud, and then entertained the onlookers by running to fetch (and pocket) it.
The shore of the Thames
A recent twist is that metal-detectorists who ply the banks of the Thames looking for historical artefacts, also call themselves mud-larks. Indeed, there is a London Mud-lark FB page, where examples of recent finds are shared. 

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Rubbish! A Short Muse on Why Dustbins are so Called

Refuse in on my mind a lot at the moment, because over the Christmas period our dustbin has not been emptied. When the dustmen come tomorrow, it will be a full 4 weeks since their last collection. Not great.

Dustbins are funny things. For instance, have you noticed how they have "No hot ashes" stamped into the side? This seems rather peculiar given that so many households rely on central heating now, and no longer have a hearth and a real fire. Even stranger when you think about it is the term "dustbin". (In fairness this is largely supplanted by "wheelie bin" but I'm of an age to still refer to a bin as a dustbin.) Have you ever wondered how they got this name?

There's an old saying: Where there's muck there's brass.
Would it surprise you that dust was once a valuable commodity? In fact, in the 19th century the demand for dust was so great that dust-collectors paid the householder for the privilege of taking away their dirt, and then sold it on for a profit to brick manufacturers and for fertilizing poor soil.

So where did all the dust come from?
Coal fires.
White ash, cinders, and fragments of unconsumed coke were waste products from the coal fires used to supply heat, hot water, and cooking facilities to domestic houses. In the 1850s it was reckoned an average household burnt 11 tons per house, with poor people consuming around 2 tons. All of which created a considerable amount of dust and ash.

If this dust was simply emptied onto  the street, the roads would have quickly become submerged beneath grey powder and filth. The answer was for each household to keep a bin in which to store the ash (a dust-bin), which was collected by a designated dust-contractor. The later needed the equipment to handle the waste, such as a horse, cart, baskets, shovels, and a buyer for the ash, or a plot of land on which to dispose of it.

The trade was so lucrative that dustmen paid for the privilege, and recouped outgoings by selling the dust on. However, as city's expanded, there was less and less land that needed fertilizing, and more and more households producing dust. Thus the market changed and it was no longer made business sense to pay for a dust-round. Instead, positions were reversed and parishes had to pay dust-contractors to take the rubbish away – a situation similar to today.

When Henry Mayhew wrote in 1851 about the dust-men of London, he reckoned there were 90 contractors, servicing around 300,000 houses – each looking after around 3,333 properties.

Speaking personally, I'd settle for less fascination and an empty bin. So let's hope the dustmen call tomorrow…

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014 - Top of the Posts!

A time of reflection.
As 2014 draws to a close I hope it has been a happy and fruitful year for you all. On a personal level, it's been a year of changes and for a cautious person I made some bold decisions.

At this time I like to look back and see which have been the most popular posts. It never ceases to amaze me that once again the runaway winner is Cat's Eyes: Seeing is Believing. With over 42,000 views in 2014 alone (not counting all the years its been top since first posted) I can only assume that the school curriculum includes the topic of light-reflective studs in the road and school children everywhere are eagerly Googling the subject.
So, apart from Cat's Eyes, which were the most popular posts of 2014?
In reverse order, they are:

A huge thank you from me, to you – for visiting Fall in Love with History. At the time of writing the blog is just 2,619 visitors short of half-a-million readers – amazing! Thank you!

If you have any topics you would like featured in 2015, please leave a comment. I'd be happy to oblige.
Kindest regards,

Grace x

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

A Festive Quiz: some Georgian Slang

This week's blog post is by way of a festive quiz.
Guess who this dapper fellow is – as described using Georgian slang.

"Our friend in no crack lay and has the best intentions when he enters your crib – even if he needs no locksmith's daughter to get in. He is a trifle fubsey in the mid-section and has crook shanks. He is brandy faced with a malmesbury nose topped with barnacles, and sporting a turnip pate. He is smartly dressed in matching red inexpressibles and an upper toge. "

Have you guessed the mystery fellow yet?

If you are left scratching your upper storey, here is a translation.

Our friend is no house-breaker and has the best intentions when he enters your house – even if he doesn't need a key to get in. He's a trifle plump around the tummy and has bandy legs. He is red-faced with a jolly red nose topped with spectacles, and a thatch of white hair. He is smartly dressed in matching red breeches and top coat.

Of course, it's Saint Nicholas – better known as Santa Claus!
A very merry Christmas to one and all.
Be of good cheer, and I'll see you again in the New Year.

Happy Christmas everyone!

Saturday, 20 December 2014

The Angels of St Helens - A Christmas Celebration

For the second year running the village of St Helens on the Isle of Wight is celebrating Christmas by hosting angels. The community has come together  to create angels as a means of raising money for local charities. So, without further procrastination meet the angels of St Helens. 
An angel in the garden of a house on Latimer Road
The bus shelter on the green is converted into a manger
A beer barrel angel outside the Vine public house
A tribute to World War I veterans
A painting on the village green
A choir of angels made from plastic milk cartons!
Wine bottle  angels outside a bistro
A bay window angel
Another front garden angel
An angelic neighbour
A giant angel
The driftwood angel on the green
Angelic shadows
And this one? I'm not so sure about this one...

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

St Albans in the Time of the Wars of the Roses

Last Saturday I had the great pleasure of meeting up with old friends who I hadn't seen for 18 years. What made the day even more special was that we discovered a mutual love of history that had grown over the years. As a result, we spent the first part of our reunion on a tour of the battlefields of St Albans.

What's that, I hear you say?

You didn't know there were battles at St Albans (psst, Don’t tell anyone but neither did I). The battles in question were the first and second battles of St Albans during the Wars of the Roses. Now the history of the conflict was fascinating and a steep learning curve as far as I was concerned. But what I found most intriguing was the snippets of information our guide, Peter, let slip about life in medieval St Albans.

The Six Bells public house -
and the site of the first hotel in England.
 We set out from the Verulamium Museum and made our way along St Michael's Street, to stop outside the Six Bells pub. There has been a hostelry on this site since the 15th century, and apparently what is now the car park has the reputation of being the site of the first hotel in England.  [In truth, I'm not convinced. A quick Google search came up with the Old Bell, Marmesbury - but heck, it's a nice story and they've both got "Bell" in the name.] 

A short walk away we enter Fishpool Street (see picture below)
Notice the deep brick wall separating the road from the pavement. Apparently,in medieval times there was once a fish pond where the road is now, maintained by St Albans Abbey. When the pond was drained, the difference in height between the ground and the pavement made it easier for ladies and gentlemen to alight from horse-drawn carriages. 

We didn't walk far at all before we came to another pub, this time The Red Lion.
Here Peter revealed some interesting titbits of information. Apparently the landlord of an Inn (as opposed to a tavern) was liable to cover the cost of any thefts that occurred on his premises - be it clothing, a purse, or even a horse. He was also obliged to find a bed for the night for any visiting nobleman, regardless of whether the accommodation was already full or not. The idea, it appears, was to raise the standard of clients at an Inn by providing a superior service. However, tavern keepers were under no such obligation and tended to attract an altogether more rowdy class of customer. 

The Abbey Gatehouse
Another short walk and on our right is the famous abbey of St Albans, with the gatehouse visible between the trees. It was from the roof of this same gatehouse that the then Abbot watched the first battle of St Albans unfold. 

The base of the Clock Tower
Entering St Albans itself, the battle started at the foot of the Clock Tower and the bell, Gabriel, tolled to mark the start of the Wars of the Roses. Incidentally, the black lampost slightly to the left of centre, marks the spot of the St Albans "Eleanor Cross". The original monument to the grief of a grieving king over his late wife was survived until the 1650s when it was accidentally demolished when a cart ran into it. 
The lampost marking the site of the original Eleanor Cross,
with the Clock Tower in the background
Turning through 180 degrees with my back to the Clock Tower, you find yourself facing the Wax House Gate. This was were enterprising merchants sold candles to pilgrims as the last medieval "retail outlet" before the Abbey itself. 

The Wax House Gate
The last opportunity for pilgrims to buy candles
And the final nuggets of medieval history are to do with the churches of St Albans. Apparently, the church of St Peter (the tower of which is the highest point in St Albans) was built within line of sight of the Abbey, at what was considered the further distance permissible for a pilgrim to crawl in penance. 
In the photos below I'm standing in the market on the same spot, facing first towards the Abbey, then turning through 180 degrees to face the tower of St Peters church. I don't much fancy crawling that distance on my knees! 
Facing towards the Abbey (the church tower to the right of centre) 

Turning on the spot to face St Peter's church. 

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

A Short History of Wigs

What did you buy this Black Friday?
If you treated yourself, the chances are a wig was low on your list of must-have items. But in the 18th century a wig was very much on your wish list if you wanted to be in the "pink of fashion" (a Georgian expression meaning a trend-setter.)

For nearly 140 years, from 1660 to the late 1700s, wigs were all the rage. Also known as perukes or periwigs, they were introduced to England when Charles II was restored to the throne. From his time in French exile he adopted the fashions of King Louis XIII and XIV for long, shoulder length wigs.

Over the ensuing century the shape of wigs changed according to different fashions, with a gradual trend towards shorter wigs, such as those a barrister wears today. The exception of course was in the 1770s which was the heyday for the ladies to wear madly, impractical tall wigs.

Whilst wigs were in fashion, a whole new vocabulary arose to describe the different types. For instance, a queer flash was an old wig that had seen better days, a rum flash was a long haired wig, and the bulky wigs worn by clergymen were humorously known as cauliflowers.

During the 18th century, being a wig-maker was a highly skilled and lucrative profession. This was just as well because these craftsmen were nick-named skull-thatchers. (Mind you, being a hairdresser was much worse – they were known as nit squeezers.)

Wigs were powdered with ground flour, to give them the desired (?) white or grey-blue appearance. But by the 1780s people were falling out of love with wigs, and young men began to powder their natural hair and left wigs to the older generation. In 1795 the government taxed hair-powder, which all but did for the wig-wearing and it went out of fashion altogether.

So how do you feel about wigs: the answer to a bad hair day or a pain in the neck?