Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Halloween - Ghostly Dogs.

Photo courtesy of
As nights draw in, and the autumn air turns thick with bonfire smoke, the stage is set for the arrival of Halloween ghouls and spooks. These conditions would be perfect for Conan Doyle’s phantom dog, the Hound of the Baskervilles, to set about his chilling work of terror. Does it send a shiver down your spine to learn that Conan Doyle based his deadly hound on a dog from British folklore called the ‘Shuck’?
        From the ‘Black Shuck’ of Orkney to Suffolk and ‘Old Shuck’, stories abound of these ghostly dogs; the size of a Retriever, with blazing eyes. The word ‘Shuck’ is derived from an Old English word ‘Scucca’ meaning a demon, and the Norse believed  a dog baying at night was an omen of death.
Illustration from Conan Doyle's "Hound of the Baskervilles."
Many legends have a 'shuck' dog haunting the gallows as if waiting for a soul to steal. For instance, in 1751 in Tring, Hertfordshire, an old woman was drowned by a chimney sweep because he suspected her to be a witch. He was then found guilty of her murder and sentenced to death by hanging, where upon the gibbet became haunted by a large black dog. The local schoolmaster saw and described it-
‘Eyes of flaming fire, shaggy… and as big a Newfoundland.’
Part of the horror these legends instilled was the fear of losing your soul. Because people believed that the physical body needed proper burial for the soul to be released, any animal that was seen to eat carrion was labelled as evil.

Photo courtesy of Keith Evans.
Black Dog ghosts were widespread in the 15th century. Warwick Castle was subject to just such an apparition after the Earl of Warwick, antagonised an old woman, Moll Bloxham. She sold butter and milk around the castle precincts but always gave short measures. The locals were too afraid to challenge her, certain she would bewitch them. When the Earl cut off the source of her dairy supplies, Moll swore to haunt him and barricaded herself within the castle tower. Uncertain of how to rid himself of an angry witch the Earl called in three priests. However when they broke down the tower door they found not Moll but a snarling black dog with eyes blazing red and immense fangs. Catching site of the priests the Black Dog jumped from Caesar’s Tower into the river below, and was never seen again.

Warwick Castle - photo courtesy of Martin Dawes
In the reign of King Charles II a ghostly black dog, the Moddey Dhoo (pronounced ‘Mauther Thoo’ in Manx Gaelic) haunted Peel Castle, the Isle of Man. This large black dog wandered the corridors of the castle at night, to settle himself by the guardroom fire. The soldiers believed him to be an evil spirit waiting for an excuse to harm them and so were respectful in his presence. However one night, a drunken guard mocked them all as cowards and set off to lock the castle gates, passing through the darkened chapel, cursing and swearing as he went. Minutes later his compatriots froze with fear at the blood-curdling sound of screaming. He eventually returned but was unable to speak, his face twisted with fear. He died three days later and the dog was never seen again. Interestingly, in 1871, excavations in the castle found the bones of Simon, the Bishop of Man who died in 1247 and was famous for his intolerance of drunkenness. Buried alongside him at his feet was the skeleton of a dog….
All over Europe tales of spectral hounds exist such as ‘Gabriel’s hounds’ in Britain, the ‘Wild Hunt’ from Germany and the Scandinavia ‘Woden’s Hunt.’  The latter are hounds that crossed the sky, not dissimilar from the stories of Cherokee Indians - they describe the Milky Way as ‘Where the dog runs.
From Siberia comes the belief the dogs belonging to the god, Tuli, caused earthquakes. These flea-ridden dogs pulled a sledge through the sky, on which rested the earth. Each time the dogs stopped for a scratch, the earth shook and man was aware of an earthquake.

Certain dogs struck fear into the ancient Chinese who believed they could possess their souls. They distrusted the elderly dogs called ‘jen-shih’ or ‘one who imitates a person.’ It was believed they saw and knew too much, granting them power to possess the living and transform people into vampires.

Finally, some dogs were used to break spells and bring good luck. Dog’s blood poured at the village threshold would protect the inhabitants from evil and be a barrier for epidemics.  Three thousand years ago, when a Prince of China undertook a long journey, disturbingly, he would deliberately roll his cart over a dog to crush the poor animal. The blood was said to consecrate the road and the body buried as a sacrifice to the road god for his goodwill. Who knows what ghostly form these sacrificial dogs might then take – the Black Shuck perhaps?

Black dog legends are widespread
and part of local culture.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Halloween - Cats and the Undead.

For centuries cats have been linked to the supernatural - and never more so than at Halloween when spirits from the underworld are said to roam the earth. This superstition has its roots in Samhain, a Celtic festival marking the start of winter, when a portal between the spirit and physical worlds briefly opened. The Anglo-Saxons adopted this festival but renamed it 'Halloween', and later the Christian church rebranded it as the eve of All Saints Day. However, folklore in many countries has it that the devil can enter man’s domain throughout the year, using the cat as his agent. 

Old English tradition said a cat roaming in a graveyard was in search of a soul to possess and worse still, a cat sitting on a gravestone had claimed the deceased for the devil. Indeed, two cats fighting in a graveyard were interpreted as a battle between an angel and the devil, and in medieval Europe black cats represented the devil and white, a healer.

 During the middle ages in Eastern Europe, it was said that a cat jumping over a corpse transformed the deceased into a vampire, whilst in Northumbria a cat that walked over a body would be killed, so as to preserve the soul of the departed. Remarkably similar superstitions existed in ancient China.  On the death of his owner, a cat would be given away until after the burial. The relatives believed that if the cat leapt over the body, the corpse would rise up and miss its chance of redemption.   

 On a more positive note, the Malayan Jakurs held that on their death, a cat would lead them through the fires of hell, spraying as he went to cool the path to heaven. Likewise the Egyptian Pharaoh, Tutankhamen, was led safely to the underworld by a black cat.

A Norse legend, tells that Freya, the goddess of love and fertility, rode in a chariot pulled by two black cats although the latter were actually horses that had been possessed by the devil. The cats served Freya well for seven years, and at the end of this time were rewarded by being turned into witches – disguised as cats.
Freya- and her cat drawn chariot.
Centuries old insecurities led the cat to be labelled as the witch’s familiar. The Hungarians even specified the age at which this happened and the cat could be spared by incising a crucifix on its skin before it reached seven. Scotland even had its own sinister cat, the Cait Sith or Highland Fairy Cat; more demon than fairy, this monstrous black and white animal with a spot on his chest, was said to be a transformed witch.

So strong was the association of cats with witchcraft that in 15th century Europe they were synonymous as a symbol of evil. Pope Innocent VIII legalised the persecution of witches, and many women who kept cats were tortured. The hysteria spread, harming women and cats was encouraged in the name of ‘casting out the devil.’ When Elizabeth I came to the throne, some Protestants staged mocking ceremonies of this superstition, by filling a wicker dummy of the Pope with cats, which they threw onto a bonfire. The screams of the cats was said to be,
‘The language of the devil from the body of the Holy Father.’
This sick circle continued with Catholics shaving cats' heads, to represent protestant friars, and then hanging the poor animals.

The Ainu (Aboriginal people of Japan) had a much healthier respect, or even fear, of hurting a cat. Their folklore held that a cat would avenge his death by bewitching the killer, causing him to waste away whilst acting like a cat, and die horribly whilst mewing. The Ainu called this possession ‘Meko Pagoat’ or ‘cat punishment.’
A Japanese ghost cat.
The victim could avoid this fate by eating the cat that he had killed. Indeed, it wasn’t too late even if symptoms started to develop, since killing another feline and that one instead could affect a cure!

Consider then the Irish, three hundred years ago, who believed that to kill a cat brought seventeen years bad luck. A man who drowned a cat would himself die by drowning, and a farmer could expect all his cattle to die. Although a broth of boiled cat was said to cure tuberculosis, people were so afraid of the consequences, that they hired professional ‘hit men’ to kill the cat for them and hence take the bad luck.
The last word goes to the Cat-Goblins of Provence. These are spirits that after sunset appear as cats with glowing eyes, who like nothing better than to cause mischief to humans. The traveller is advised to cover his own eyes against them, seek the help of the saints and make for a lighted building – an excellent excuse to find the nearest hostelry in which to recover!
Happy Halloween everyone!


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Unofficial London - A Very Public Convenience.

Where did the expression, 'to spend a penny', come from?
What has 'bumf' to do with toilet paper?
What is the origin of the word, 'sewer'?'

 Exiting Bank tube station, you emerge from into the daylight within sight of two of London's grandest landmarks: The Bank of England and the Royal Exchange. Both are immense and breathtaking, and are also associated with some most unusual history. Today's blog post takes inspiration from the Royal Exchange and its lavatorial connections.

The Royal Exchange.
 Did you know that the first public conveniences to charge were sited beneath the Royal Exchange? The fee was one penny - hence the euphemism: "To spend a penny."  Use of the urinals was free, but a stall-door was unlocked by a coin-operated locking mechanism designed by magician and illusionist, John Nevil Maskelyne.

Illusionist John Maskelyne - who designed the coin-activated
lock on toilet doors.
However, the subject of alerting people to the location of 'public waiting rooms' (another euphemism!) for gentleman was considering so uncomfortable, that it was unthinkable to advertise a 'ladies'. It wasn’t until many years later that the first 'ladies' sign appeared on London streets.

Public conveniences had been around for centuries before this. Perhaps the most well known medieval example was the 'House of Easement' or 'Long House'. This boasted 128 seats in two rows (one for men, the other for women) and was erected by the Mayor of London, Richard Whittington (of pantomime cat fame) in 1419. Use of the toilets was free but no toilet paper was provided. Boys patrolled up and down the ranks of toilets selling torn up pamphlets or 'bum fodder' and it is from this that the word 'bumpf' originates.
Richard Whittington - the 'cat' in the engraving, was first
drawn as a skull - but because of Dick's popular association with
his cat the artist changed it - hence the slightly odd shape!
This 'House of Easement' had the simplest flushing system of all - the tide! Built over the banks of the Thames, the tidal river swept the refuse away out to sea, the journey from riverbank to open water taking between three and eleven weeks. In fact, the word 'sewer' is derived from the 'seaward' i.e. taking the excrement to the sea!

Thomas Crapper.
The 'public necessaries' beneath the Royal Exchange were built in 1854 in response to a Public Health Act. The man responsible for their design, George Jennings, declared:

"The civilisation of a people can be measured by their domestic and sanitary appliances."

Jennings publically crusading for more public toilets which he called 'halting stations.'
A pioneer of water closet construction, his rival was the perhaps more well-known Thomas Crapper, whose name has long since become synonymous lavatories. Indeed, at this time there were thousands of Victorian toilet patents, of which Crapper held just nine. But it was Jennings who installed a splendid gentlemen's lavatory system in John Wesley's Methodist chapel.

Widget is a big fan of cleanliness - and regularly checks
standards are being maintained.
In one of his famous sermons, Wesley exhorted the congregation that:
"Cleanliness is indeed next to Godliness,"
Which must have been music to Jennings ears as he designed ceramic urinals with a helpful bull's eye target, hand basins dressed with marble and wooden cubicles not unlike confessional boxes? The porcelain handles on the pull chain were adored with the helpful instruction, 'pull and let go', perhaps an exhortation to cleanse the soul as well as the body.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Unofficial London - Going Underground.

How did the London Underground get nicknamed 'The Tube'?
Why did the underground frighten horses?
What is the origin of the announcement: "Mind the gap"?

 In this, the third post on my exploration of the area around Bank station, London, I focus on some startling facts about the history of the underground.
Mind the Gap.
My day out in London started at Bank tube station. What surprised me as I emerged up onto street level was the amazing historic buildings within sight of the station: The Bank of England, The Royal Exchange and the Mansion House. Apparently the Victorian engineers were also overawed, and afraid of being sued by wealthy property owners if their tunnels caused subsidence.
The Bank of England -
neighbouring Bank Tube station.
Their solution was the divert the route of the tunnels to avoid going directly beneath these important buildings. This meant around Bank, there are some of the sharpest bends in the tube network, and some speculate that one particular sharp turn was to avoid tunnelling through the Bank of England's vaults. All this meant that long curved platforms were necessary, which led to substantial gaps in places between platform and carriages. It is because of this that often repeated public announcement, "Mind the gap" first came into being.

The Royal Exchange - across the road from Bank tube station.
Bringing the House down.
Work on the tube network began in 1860 and the stretch of the Metropolitan line between Paddington and Farringdon, was opened on 9 January 1863 to become the world's first underground railway.
To minimise costs and because no one had ever undertaken such a thing before, the initial method of construction was to dig a deep trench, lay down the track, then build a brick arch over it to form a tunnel and then cover everything over. This worked well when the proposed route lay parallel to road, but between Paddington and Bayswater, houses were orientated the wrong way, at ninety degrees to the direction of the track. In addition, on Leinster Gardens, two grand houses stood in the path of excavations.
Leinster Gardens - the fake facade is behind the silver car -
note the blocked out ground floor windows.
The solution was to demolish the houses to allow excavation of the tunnel, then rebuild the facades to conceal the hole behind, which as left open, to allow the train drivers to vent their engines steam - much to the alarm of horses passing by on the road.
Leinster Gardens from the air (courtesy of Bing maps)
Note the fake facade and tube lines beyond.
Because the system was built as cheaply as possible, rather than design new locomotives, pre-existing steam engines were used. Of course, the underground tunnels soon filled with thick coal smoke, as The Times commented:

"A journey from King's Cross to Baker Street is a form of torture which no person would undergo if he could conveniently help it."

In counter-attack the underground's marketing people quickly came up with a story that the smoky atmosphere was actually beneficial to asthmatics! But this propaganda didn't convince the train drivers who grew thick beards to try and filter out the soot. Eventually, common sense prevailed and the engines were modified so the exhaust could be collected and vented in a big blast when the trains passed close to the surface.
The Tower subway carriage of 'Tube'-
Claustrophobic, hot, gloomy and smelly.
The Tube under the Thames.
In 1870 the first deep level stretch of the underground was dug between Tower Hill and Tooley Street and passed under the Thames. Because there was no way to ventilate the tunnel as it ran under the river, and so rather than use steam engines, a special windowless carriage was developed, hauled through this section by a cable. This became known as 'The Tube' - a name which stuck for the rest of the network.
The section of the network was, by all accounts, not a good place for a claustrophobe to visit as recorded by Charles Dickens, jr:

"..there is not much head-room left, and it is not advisable for any but the very briefest of Her Majesty's lieges to attempt the passage in high-heeled boots, or with a hat to which he attaches any particular value."

Traversing this section sounds deeply unpleasant: the tube was hot, humid, the cable mechanism very noisy, the travelling compartment windowless with gloomy gas-lights and to top it all - the carriage frequently got jammed in a dip in the middle of the route. After just three months the train was scrapped and the tunnel converted to pedestrian use.

 I went down and down between two dingy walls until I found myself at the round opening of the gigantic iron tube, which seems to undulate like a great intestine in the enormous belly of the river.
Contemporary account by Edmondo De Amicis.

Statue of J H Greathead, near Bank station.
The Second Tunnel under the Thames.
James Henry Greathead along with another engineer, Peter Barlow, developed a device that successfully drilled much larger bore tunnels. Their device consisted of an iron cylinder, just over 7 ft in diameter, fitted with screw jacks that allowed it to be inched forward. As the labourers excavated beneath the safety of the shield, so the device was advanced and a permanent lining of cast iron segments fitted in place behind them. Over time Greathead refined the device to include the use of compressed air and hydraulic jacks, which are now standard features of tunnel construction.

Widget says: "Does this lead to a tunnel - and are there
cat biscuits at the end of it?"
And finally, a Victorian wonder the underground system may have been, but sometimes it seems as though it's still stuck in Victorian times - with the heat, congestion and general state of decay. What are your impressions of the underground: a system to be proud of or something to be tolerated?

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Unofficial London - At 6's and 7's.

What is the origin of the expression, "At sixes and sevens" - an idiom meaning a state of confusion or disarray?

It wasn’t something I had thought about until a recent trip to the environs of Bank tube station, London. My meanderings led me to the Guildhall Art Gallery and an exhibition, "Butcher, Baker and Candlestick Maker", about the 850 year history of Livery Companies. But the inspiration for this post came later when I mentioned my visit to a fellow vet, as we removed a diseased spleen from a 50 kg German Shepherd! (*1)
The Guildhall Art Gallery, London.
Livery companies date back to medieval times as a means of controlling quality, price, wages and working conditions. From the Saxon word "gegildan", meaning to pay, guilds were set up to regulate standards. Groups, or guilds of like-minded men and women (*2) met together, often in churches, and made it their business to care for the orphans and widows of their members; hence the long tradition of charitable activity. The monarch of the day also became involved, granting Royal Charters to Livery Companies (as a means of raising money for the treasury!). By the early 16th century 48 such Livery Companies existed.
Clothworkers Hall - Dinner 1856
Many guilds had their headquarters in large houses or halls, often bequeathed by wealthy members. The halls were lavishly decorated, but sadly most were destroyed in the Fire of London, 1666. Indeed, the Guildhall built around 1411, was the only secular stone building to survive the great fire.

So what has this to do with "At 6's and 7's"?

Of the 48 guilds, a list of precedence was drawn up, based on wealth and political power. Competition to be high on the list was fierce.

The Great Twelve Livery Companies.

#1        Mercers
#2        Grocers
#3        Drapers
#4        Fishmongers
#5        Goldsmiths
#6        Merchant Taylors
#7        Skinners
#8        Haberdashers
#9        Salters
#10      Ironmongers
#11      Vintners
#12      Clothworkers.

The Skinners - Coat of Arms.
 In the middle ages, the Lord Mayor of London held an annual parade on the Thames, during which the guilds sailed past on barges [incidentally, this is where 'float'  originates. The barges 'floated' past and the term became associated with processions.] However, events came to a head when rivalry between the Merchants Taylors and the Skinners erupted over which of them had the honour sixth place. They treated the Lord Mayor's parade as private boat race, fighting broke between the two barges and lives were lost. It took nearly a century for a compromise to be reached, when in 1484 the Mayor, Robert Billesdon, proposed that Merchant Taylors and Skinners should alternate sixth and seventh place, swapping over each Easter.

Merchant Taylors - Coat of Arms.
It is possible that the expression, 'at sixes and sevens' predates this - in 1380 Geoffrey Chaucer mentions, "to set the world on six and seven," in Troilus and Criseyde. He uses it in this context to mean "to risk ones life" or "to hazard the world." However it seems likely that the Merchant Taylors/ Skinners dispute confirmed the idiom in the English language.

Merchant Taylors hall, Threadneedle Street.
(*1) My colleague mentioned he went to Merchant Taylors school, Northwood. He recounted the dispute between the Taylors and Skinners, and how lives were lost on the Thames - and this whetted my appetite to find out more!

(*2) Most companies originally admitted women to their ranks, but this was stopped around 1800.
Queen Margarete of Anjou, wife of King Henry VI, is entered in the roll of the fraternity of Our Lady under date XV year of King Edward IV (A.D. 1475)