Friday, 30 November 2012

Is "Happy Ever After" Just a Fairy Tale?

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Romance readers expect a 'happy ever after' ending - but is this just a fairy tale?
Whilst doing research for my historical romances, it is amazing how the truth can be stranger than fiction. In the past, when couples married if their dreams didn't come true and a husband tired of his wife, it seems selling the spouse was an acceptable means of disposing of her. If this theme seems familiar, it may be because Thomas Hardy used the subject of wife-selling in his novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Wife-selling on market day.
Since a wife was legally her husband's property and there were no laws against selling a spouse, it seems it was not an unusual occurrence.
The toll book of the Bell Inn, Birmingham records such a sale:
‘Samuel Whitehouse….this day sold his wife, Mary Whitehouse, in the open market to Thomas Griffiths…value 1 shilling. Taken with all her faults.’
31st August 1773
It was even noted with alarm (or sarcasm?) in the Times on 22nd July 1797:
‘The increasing value of the fair sex is esteemed by several eminent writers to the certain criterion of increasing civilization…and refined improvement as the price of wives has risen at that market [Smithfield] from half a guinea to three guineas and a half [GBP 294 today!].’

Indeed, another example was the clergyman, Thomas Snowdell, who married during the brief reign of King Edward VI (Henry VIII's son). When Edward died and his half-sister Mary took the throne, Queen Mary changed the law such that married clerics faced a choice between giving up their living…or their wife. The Rev. Snowdell decided his stipend was the more important of the two options and sold his wife to the local butcher!
Contempary drawing by Thomas Rowlandson.
However some husbands were a little too honest when selling their wives, as with farmer Joseph Thomson and his spouse of 3 years. He offered her for auction in Carlisle, listing her bad points as
Born serpent’ and ‘his tormentor.’
Amongst her better features he lists;
‘She can read novels, milk cows, makes butter and scold the maid…she is a good judge of the quality of rum, gin or whisky from long experience of tasting it.’
Thomson wanted 50 shillings (GBP 160 today) but accepted the knock down price of 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog, which all parties were happy with!

We all know marriage is no fairy tale (except in romantic fiction J )but really, part- exchanging a wife for a dog - whatever next?

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Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Unofficial London - Goings-On in Fleet Street.

Q. What links Fleet Street to traditional tiered wedding cakes?
A. St Bride's church (read on for more!)
Today's post is about some of the history of Fleet Street, a name synonymous (until the 1980's at least) as home of the British newspaper industry. The name originates from the River Fleet, which is London's largest underground river.
The entrance to the River Fleet in 1750.
Perhaps Fleet Street's most notorious resident was Sweeney Todd - the so-called "Demon Barber of Fleet Street". Todd was reputed to have cut the throats of his clients, stolen their valuables and then disposed of their bodies in pies baked by the enterprising Mrs Lovett. However, despite references to Tod starting in the mid-19th century, there seems no factual basis for his story, indeed there is no Sweeney Todd mentioned in contemporary popular press, listed in the register of the Barbers' Company or in the Old Bailey's records.
Fleet Street in 1890 - note St Pauls in the distance.
The exact origins of Todd's gruesome exploits are unclear but it seems likely there were examples of early 'urban myths' circulating in Victorian times, about what happened to country bumpkins who came to London.
As above on a grey October morning, 2012.
Indeed, Charles Dickens alludes to people being made into pies in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844). Here, Tom Pinch gets lost in the evil city:
"I don't know what John will think of me. He'll being to be afraid I have strayed into one of those streets where the countrymen are murdered; and that I have been made meat-pies of, or some such horrible thing."
Tom's evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalistic pastry, who are represented in many standard country legends as doing a lively retail business in the Metropolis.
Could it be that if Sweeney Todd had not existed, it was necessary to invent him?
The legend of Sweeney Todd - Tim Burton's interpretation-
still capturing the imagination today.
 Whilst on the subject of pies and dining, since the time of the Great Fire of London, Fleet Street was renowned for its taverns and coffeehouses. Tantalisingly, one of these that survives to the present day is Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (a tavern had been on the same site since 1538) destroyed in the Great Fire and rebuilt in 1667, it is open for business to this day. Charmingly, to the right hand side of the entrance is a list of all the monarchs who have reigned since the Cheese opened its doors.
Ye Olde Chesire Cheese -
note to board to the right of the door.
And whilst on the subject of food, this brings us back to what links Fleet Street to the traditional tiered wedding cake design.
The answer is St Bride's Church.
Arguably one of the most ancient churches in London thought to be founded by 7th century Celtic monks under the auspices of St Bridget of Ireland. The church has a number of famous parishioners, such as Samuel Pepys, who was baptised here and then in 1644 buried his brother Tom in the vaults- which were reputedly so full that Pepys had to bribe the gravedigger to jostle bodies around to make room. 
Destroyed by the Great Fire, Christopher Wren was commissioned to redesign St Bride's and in 1703 work on St Bride's was completed, including a 234 foot spire with four octagonal tiers of diminishing size.
The spire of St Bride's, Fleet Street.
Legend has it that an apprentice pastry cook, William Rich, fell in love with his master's daughter. At the end of his apprenticeship Rich set up his own business within sight of St Bride's and gained consent to marry his love. Determined to impress at the wedding breakfast Rich wanted a truly stunning cake and inspired by what he'd seen of St Bride's, created a wedding cake with diminishing tiers…and a tradition was born.
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Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Unofficial London - Knightrider Street.

The winning entry in the 2004
'Places on Maps That Relate to David Hasselhoff'
Today's blog post considers how medieval Knightrider Street and Knightrider Court, got their names. The etymology of these intriguing streets was mentioned by Stow:
"So called…of Knights well-armed and mounted at the Tower Royal [Tower of London] passing from thence and through that street, west…and hence to Smithfield ….there to turney, joust or to show activities before the King and states of the realm."

Knightrider Street as it appears today.
In other words, this was the route taken by knights on their journey from the Tower of London to Smithfield, to take part in tournaments. The above explanation is doubted by many experts- who fail to offer an alternative explanation!
According to Louis Zetterson in his 1917 book "City Street Names", it certainly seems a street Knyghtriderstrete existed in 1322 but the reason behind the unusual name was already lost even then. Interestingly, on a 1560 map there is a continuation of Knightrider Street, called Giltsword Street and it is hypothesised that this name originated from the golden spurs worn by knights attending the Smithfield jousts.
Here I'm standing in Knightrider Court with my back to
the Thames, facing towards St Pauls Cathedral.
Within sight of St Pauls Cathedral is Knightrider Court, and the story goes that as a mark of respect knights were expected to dismount here to proceed on foot past the holy building. Again, the truth behind this myth is lost to us.
With my back to St Pauls, walking in a straight line from
Knightrider Court, I'm standing on the Millenium Bridge
looking to my left over at The Shard.
Staying in the same area, Ben Johnson's London: a Jacobean Place Name Dictionary, by Prof. Chalfont, sites a road near Knightrider Street, charmingly called Do-Little Lane. This thoroughfare once ran north from Knightrider Street to Carter Lane, just off St Pauls - which is today occupied by Knightrider Court and Sermon Lane.
Again, Stow describes the street in his commentary:
"A place not-inhabited by Artificers, or shop keepers…but serving as a passage from Knightrider Street to Carter Lane."
Another reference is found in the work of the Jacobean playwright, Middleton, "Family of Love", where a character praises a physician as neither:
"The wise-woman of Pissing Lane, nor she in Do-Little Lane, are as famous for good deeds as he."

I'm standing in the same spot as the photo above, but looking right instead of
left, towards Tower Bridge.
All of this set me wondering about the origin of Knightsbridge, that exclusive part of London which is home to Harrods, Harvey Nichols and 275 listed buildings. Apparently in medieval times there was indeed a bridge here, over the river Westbourne (which now runs underground) but agreement ends there.
There are two main theories as to how Knightsbridge got its name. The first involves two knights getting into a fight passing over the bridge, falling in the river and drowning, and the second theory is that the area was synonymous with highwaymen and that it was not safe to pass without a knight as chaperone.
Whatever the explanation, is it me or do street names not have the same resonance these days?  
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Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Unofficial London - Then and Now, Pudding Lane.

"For years there had been warnings of the total destruction of London by fire."
This weeks blog post was inspired by a visit to the where The Great Fire of London started - Pudding Lane - to see how it looks today. But first, a little history...
In 1666 the predictions came true and the city of London was devastated by The Great Fire of London. Given the dry summer, close packed timber framed buildings, abundance of hay, and use of candles, this was hardly a surprise. It is now widely acknowledged that the fire started in a bakery in Pudding Lane, but at the time rumours were rife of political intrigue; of the French, or Dutch, or even Catholics setting fire bombs through shop windows to start the conflagration.

            It was at 2am on Sunday 2nd September that a workman at Thomas Faryner's bakery, Pudding Lane, near London Bridge, smelt smoke and woke the household. Modern experiments have shown that under certain conditions fine particles of flour suspended in the air can become explosive, and it seems likely just such a cloud came into contact with an ember and did indeed explode. The fire took rapid hold, jumping from building to building with startling speed. The mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, was woken with the news but remained unimpressed.
 "A woman might piss it out."

He was wrong. By dawn part of London Bridge was burning and by the time it was exstinguished on Wednesday 5th September, an estimated 13,000 houses and 89 churches, including the Old St Pauls, had been destroyed.

Samuel Pepys records the experience:  

.. all over the Thames, with one's face in the wind you were almost burned with a shower of Firedrops - this is very true - so as houses were burned by these drops and flakes of fire, three or four, nay five or six houses, one from another. When we could endure no more upon the water, we to a little alehouse on the Bankside over against the Three Cranes, and there stayed till it was dark almost and saw the fire grow; and as it grow darker, appeared more and more, and, in Corners and upon steeples and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the city, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of an ordinary fire.
We stayed till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side of the bridge, and in a bow up the hill, for an arch of above a mile long. It made me weep to see it. The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruin.

 The Great Fire cleared such vaste swathes of buildings that a rebuild of approximately ten million pounds in the 17th century, took place. The fire was commerated by building a monument in 1671, designed by Sir Christopher Wren to mark the regeneration of the city. The Monument was exactly 61 metres tall, which is the distance from the monument to the site of Thomas Faryner's bakery.
The Monument in 1794.
So how does the remodelled city appear today?
The Monument - there....behind the stack of portakabins!
And Pudding Lane? Surely some great architectural wonders must celebrate perhaps one of the most well-known streets in London? Sadly not...
Here, ladies and gentlemen, is modern day Pudding Lane -
note the portakabins to the left and street sign on the right.
But I won't leave you feeling totally desolate about this wasted opportunity, there is at least is one beautiful building to rise out of the ashes, the new St Pauls Cathedral.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Dr Johnson on Cats.

CAT - "a domestick animal that catches mice, commonly reckoned by naturalists the lowest order of the leonine species."
Dr Johnson's definition from the 1755 dictionary.

 CAT - "small furry domesticated carnivorous quadruped. A spiteful or malicious woman."
Concise Oxford Dictionary 1977.

Hodge's memorial - Gough Square.
When Dr Johnson wrote that cats were 'commonly reckoned' the lowest feline species, it is my opinion he was being ironic - for the great man was a huge fan of cats. During his life he owned (or 'was owned by'!) several cats, of whom the most well-known was Hodge. In fact, so well-known was Johnson's affection for Hodge that a statue of the cat, appropriately seated on a dictionary, is to be found at the far end of Gough Square.

The attic room Johnson worked in (17 Gough Street)

Dr Johnson did most of his work assembling the dictionary, in an attic room at 17 Gough Square.  According to his biographer, James Boswell, Johnson was in fact a cat lover.
"Nor would it be just….to omit the fondness which he [Johnson] shewed for animals which he had taken under his protection."
This kindness extended to visiting the fish market in person, in order to select the best oysters for his cat since he didn’t want to put his servants out.
"I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature."
A stained glass window at 17 Gough Street, showing the great man.
So did Johnson's partiality for felines colour his dictionary definitions?
How do his definitions compare to the modern equivalent?

Let's take a look and find out.

 To PURR - "To murmur as a cat or leopard in pleasure."
Dr Johnson 1755

 PURR - "Make low continuous vibratory sound expressing pleasure."
Oxford Dictionary -1977

Hmmm, I prefer Johnson's more poetic version, rather than the more scientific explanation.
One, nil to Dr Johnson.

"Purr? That's a tough one. Let me sleep on it."
To LAP - "To feed by quick reciprocations of the tongue."Dr Johnson 1755

 LAP - "To take up liquid by the tongue as a cat does."
Oxford Dictionary 1977.

 Is it just me, or is Johnson's definition more evocative? The Oxford definition is very passive, 'taking up liquid' - how exactly is this done?
Another vote for Johnson, from me.

"Mouse, did someone say mouse?"
MOUSE - "The smallest of all beasts; a little animal haunting houses and corn fields, destroyed by cats."
Dr Johnson 1755

 MOUSE - "Small rodent especially shrew or vole: timid, shy or retiring person."
Oxford Dictionary 1977

This is one of those answers that have you scurrying around the dictionary. If you aren’t sure what a mouse is then you're probably going to be unclear what a rodent, shrew or vole is….
Dr Johnson wins hands down for clarity.

 OK, so I might be biased but it seems to me Johnson's almost poetic language when describing cat-related words exemplifies someone who knows, loves and enjoys observing cats.

Bravo, Dr Johnson, Hodge trained you well!