The Art of the Pickpocket and Cutpurse: Thief-trainers – Part 2

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Child criminals. Image courtesy of Dorset History Centre.

Although many children were arrested again and again for stealing, a few were never caught, moving silently amongst crowds like ghosts and melting away into thin air. Those that were trained by a thief trainer possibly had a better chance of survival than those working alone or in small groups, but not by much. Even though the names of fences of goods such as Ikey Solomon and child thieves have come down to us through the public criminal records not many of the thief trainers were ever caught, maybe due to lack or proof or because many members of the gangs were too afraid to rat out their bosses.

Despite the fact that there were lots of thief-trainers both male and female in all the big cities in England most are shadowy nameless figures. Even those that are known such as Thomas Duggin of St Giles and Jemima Matthews of Upper Keate Street in the Flower and Dean Street rookery, who sent eight children out daily to steal in 1820[1], little is known of their background.

Cabbage Ann of Angel Meadow

There are some exceptions for example Cabbage Ann (real name Ann Powell) who lived in the infamous slum of Angel Meadow in Manchester. A widow aged 42, she ran a grocery shop and lodging house and was acquainted with criminals from across England. She was also well-known for regularly giving shelter to thieves. Despite her obvious fishy and underground activities she seems to have been a slippery character. The police to their frustration never seemed to have enough evidence to arrest her.

Angel Meadows slums. Courtesy of Manchester Libraries.

Finally in 1867, she was arrested after a stolen coat belonging to a milkman was found in her cellar. She denied all knowledge and accused 13 year old Michael Crane. Crane admitted to the theft and having left it without permission – whether he was truly responsible or taking the fall for Ann we will never know. To the authorities dismay she was let go but not before the Judge, Mr Fowler issued a damning statement “you are a regular trainer of young thieves – one of the worst women in Manchester – and I will take care to help the police in every possible way to get you transported as soon as possible[2].

Grassing up the Boss

Although as said before most young thieves refused to dob in their leaders, some did – maybe hoping for a reduced sentence. One such case was reported in the Manchester Guardian on 28 May 1821, when a boy arrested on the charge of petty felony led the beadles to the lair of a 50 year old thief-trainer or fence who was with three other boys trying to melt down and disfigure a brass cock. The group was arrested and the man condemned to 14 years transportation[3].

Transportation to Australia. Courtesy of Hall of Names website.

Another famous story of a young thief turning against his master was the case of John Reeves and Charles King.

The Fall of Charles King

Charles King is for me a fascinating character because he managed to successfully work both sides of the law and reap awards – both as a thief-trainer and as a policeman remaining undetected for years.

During the heyday of his shady activities King was employed as a Metropolitan police detective and was considered a worthy man and who regularly received praise from his superiors for his “extraordinary vigilance”. In his other life he visited daily, the Prig’s Haunt in Tyndal’s Building, Gray’s Inn Lane where he would train ‘outcast’ boys to become efficient burglars. He demonstrated how to use various instruments and tools which would help them in their work and taught them how to pickpocket without being noticed. He would swing a coat on a line and get the boys to practice their skills both singly or in twos and threes. Possibly if the boys got out of hand King could punish them by arranging their arrest and conviction as he knew where and when they would be.[4].

Eventually King’s luck ran out when one of his most successful boys, 13 year old John Reeves turned against him. Reeves had been in and out of prison for years. He had started thieving from a young age. His first arrest had been for stealing bread from Newport market for which he was imprisoned for seven days; his other charges included stealing a bunch of cigars and pinching bacon from shops. According to Reeves he started on his career as a pickpocket after his 6th arrest (maybe it was around this time he first met King). Despite being caught numerous times he was considered a successful thief and must have brought King a tidy sum, for instance one week he managed to steal £100 worth of goods. It was even reported that he could afford “to keep a pony and to ride in the parks”[5].

It seems strange that all of a sudden Reeves agreed to testify against King since by his own admission King always watched over and protected him; trying to get him off charges and never giving evidence against him. Maybe Reeves was threatened or promised a lighter sentence (he was at the time serving a two year sentence for theft at Bridewell) or maybe he was just fed up with being controlled by King.

Image Courtesy of Victorianera.org

King was arrested and tried on the charge of ‘larceny from a person’ on the 9 April 1855[6]. The account of the proceedings can be read on the Old Bailey online records. The crime had taken place on the 31 December 1853, at the Serpentine where crowds of people had gathered to skate on the frozen lake. He was accused of having planned and orchestrated the theft. Reeves stated that he had known King for three years having first met him in Soho. Their association was confirmed by other witnesses seeing them together at other locations.

Reeves described what happened that day; how he met King at a public house in Pulteney Street, Soho, how they met up with other thieves many of whom he recognised at Hyde Park, how he was instructed to steal from a lady watching the skaters from a bridge, how King removed the money and placed the empty purse in the hollow of a tree and how the money was divided up. He also stated that King tried to obstruct another boy from being arrested by tripping a man up. Unluckily for King, Benjamin Sims, a Park Keeper had noticed King and his group acting shifty around the tree. After the party had moved on he found and handed the purse into the police. Other police on duty also recognised King including Police Sergeant Hubbersley who spoke to him and noticed some boys close by who seemed to be following King’s instructions[7].

At the time of the trial King was 32 and married with four children. He had left the police and was running a coffee shop possibly in Soho where he also lodged. He was arrested on the 3 January 1855, and was taken to Bow Street Station. Based on the evidence he was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years transportation to be served in Western Australia.

So the incredible criminal career of corrupt policeman-cum-thief trainer King came to a sudden end. When the full extent of his crimes was revealed it must have been a shock to many who had worked with him. Their feelings were summed up by a fellow policeman who said that he “had never heard a whisper against his character up to the time this charge was made against him[8].

Concluding Thoughts

Society changed as more people began to campaign to eradicate poverty. The rise of orphanages and free schools together with the razing of slums and their replacement with housing associations such as the Peabody Trust ended much of the need for schools of thievery. Unfortunately, even though the image of a man wearing a long coat with a handkerchief in his pocket teaching urchins to remove it silently is no longer relevant, criminals taking advantage of neglected children and leading them into a life of crime will never disappear completely.

Victorian children. Image courtesy of Victorianera.org

Bibliography

Thomson, J & Smith, Adolphe: Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – Street Life in London, 1877, http://www.victorianlondon.org/publications/thomson-35.htm

Garwood, John: Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Million-Peopled City, 1853, http://www.victorianlondon.org/publications4/peopled-01.htm

White, Jerry: London in the Nineteenth Century: ‘a Human Awful Wonder of God’, Bodley Head, 2016

Hindley, Charles (ed.): Curiosities of Street Literature: Comprising ‘Cocks,’ Or ‘Catchpennies’, 2012 (digital version)

Old Bailey Online Records: Charles King, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=def1-484-18550409&div=t18550409-484#highlight

Mayhew, Henry: The London Underworld in the Victorian Period: Authentic First-person accounts by beggars, thieves and prostitutes, Dover Publications, 2005

Gilfillan, Ross: Crime and Punishment in Victorian London: A Street-Level of the City’s Underworld, 2014

Kirby, Dean: Angel Meadow: Victorian Britain’s Most Savage Slum, Pen & Sword History, 2016

Day, Samuel Phillips: Juvenile Crime: Its Causes, Character, and Cure, (original published in 1858), Sagwan Press, 2018

The Cornhill Magazine, Volume 2; Volume 6, October 1862

Vaughan, Robert: The British Quarterly Review, Volume 35, January and April 1862

Duckworth, Jeannie: Fagin’s Children: Criminal Children in Victorian England, Bloomsbury Academic, 2003

Notes

[1] London in the Nineteenth Century: ‘a Human Awful Wonder of God’

[2] Angel Meadow

[3] Fagin’s Children

[4] Curiosities of Street Literature: Comprising ‘Cocks,’ Or ‘Catchpennies’

[5] London in the Nineteenth Century: ‘a Human Awful Wonder of God’

[6] Old Bailey Online Records – full account of the proceedings

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibi

Reading a headstone – popular graveyard symbols and their meanings

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Popular graveyard images explained

This is the companion piece to my stroll through a graveyard post, which covered a very brief history of British cemeteries and headstones. In this post, I’ll be looking at the meaning of some of the common images and symbols that can be found on historic headstones up and down the UK. It’s important to be aware that because the topic of graveyard iconography is so vast, and can vary widely depending upon locality and beliefs, this article is not intended to be comprehensive. Instead I will focus on some popular eighteenth and nineteenth century memorial styles, many of which I have come across during coronavirus inspired rambles around my local area.

Anchors

Anchors have Christian symbolism as well as a more prosaic meaning denoting sailors or the Royal Navy. In Christian tradition they go back to the catacombs of the early Christians, and were secrete symbols of Christianity, like the fish. Anchors symbolise hope[1]. The example below is from a war grave and denotes a member of the Royal Navy, the other from an earlier grave, possibly of a mariner.

Angels

Cemeteries are often filled with sculpted angels casting their benign gaze over the graves of the Victorian departed. There are several popular types of angel with different meanings. Grieving angels drape themselves in mourning over the dismantled altar of life, angels clutching flowers rue the fleeting nature of life, praying angels emphasise religious faith. Other angels are more judgemental – the recording angel with their book and the angel Gabriel with his horn, a sentinel waiting to call the Christian dead to rise of the day of the last judgement. and some angel images are unique, such as in the monument to Mary Nichols in Highgate Cemetery, which depicts an angel sleeping on a bed of clouds.

Arches

Arches symbolise victory of life or victory in death [2] or the gateway to heaven [3]. This would send a reassuring message to the mourners as they passed under the grand arched entrance to All Saints Cemetery in Jesmond.

All Saints Cemetery entrance, Jesmond, Newcastle.

Arrows

Arrows are memento mori, symbolising the dart of death piercing life, and can sometimes be found wielded by skeletons, to drive home the link to mortality. The arrow below is linked with a pick, symbolising mortality, and a knot which was often used to symbolise eternal life.

Books

Books can appear in a variety of forms, open, closed, piled up. They can represent the Bible or word of God, the book of life, learning. A closed book might symbolise a long life, an open or draped book can symbolise a life cut short (4). The example below acts as a Memento Mori, reminding the living that they too will die, and is augmented with a skull and bones rising up through the earth.

Chest tombs

Chest tombs were popular from the seventeenth century, the leger stone on top, with details of the deceased, was raised up on a chest-like structure. The body is not buried in the chest, but beneath the structure. The example below is from St Lawrence’s church, Eyam, Derbyshire, and incorporates the skull and crossbones iconography (the essential remains that Christians believed were required in order to rise on Judgement Day).

Cherubs

Cherubs often symbolise innocence and are popular on the tombs of children. The cherub below left is from Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, and rests its elbow on a skull, an obvious symbol of death and mortality. The example on the right, from Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle, the cherub holds arose and flower bud, the rose can symbolise heavenly perfection or mother, while the broken bud could represent the fleeting nature of the young lives commemorated by the monument [5].

Clouds

Clouds represent the heavens, below, an angel peeks out from behind the clouds, which are pierced by the rays of the sun.

Columns/broken columns

Columns again hark back to a classical tradition. A broken column represents a life cut short, often the head of the family. The example on the left is from Jesmond Old Cemtetery, Newcastle, while the one on the right, with the addition of a wreath for remembrance is from Highgate Cemetery, London.

Coats of arms

Usually designates a family or individual or location. The example below seems to be from a proud Novocastrian, as it was erected in St Andrew’s church in Newcastle and the crest bears some similarity to the coast of arms of Newcastle (three towers), rather than to the family name of the deceased. It also shows a mason’s compass and set square.

Crown

The kingdom of heaven.

Doves

Doves can be seen flying downwards and upwards, with broken wings and carrying olive branches. Broadly speaking a dove flying up is the soul flying up to heaven, flying down, the holy spirit coming from heaven.

Flying faces

As discussed in my previous post A stroll through a graveyard a flying faces developed out of the Memento Mori image of the flying skull, reminding the living that they too would die. Winged skulls gradually morphed into flying faces during the eighteenth century, representing the soul flying up to heaven. Later the face became cherubic and represented innocence. The Three examples below are, from left to right, from All Saints Churchyard, Newcastle and Holy Trinity, Washington Tyne & Wear.

Globe

See world, below.

Hands

Hands are popular motifs on headstones and can have a variety of meanings, from the hand of god coming out of the clouds, to the offering of prayers in blessings. Hands can also indicate that the deceased is going to heaven (pointing upwards) or may have died suddenly (pointing downwards). The example below left shows a handshake, which can be between a married couple or fraternal, alternatively, if one hand appears limp, it can indicate God taking the hand of the departed [6]. The example on the right shows a hand with a heart, this can indicate charity and generosity, but it can also indicate the deceased was a member of the Oddfellows fraternity [7].

Hourglass

Hourglasses are memento mori, reminders of mortality and that life on earth passes quickly. They can appear with wings, to symbolise how ‘time flies’ and on their side, to demonstrate how time has stopped for the deceased. Below left, from an eighteenth century headstone from St Andrews, Newcastle, on the right, a more pointed link between the hour glass and mortality, from Holy Trinity, Washington, Tyne and Wear.

Ledger stones

Ledger stones are flat against the ground and often cover family plots, the stones filling up as the graves receive more burials.

Memento Mori Scenes

Many early headstones from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries combine a variety of memento mori images into scenes designed to remind the living of their own mortality and the importance of living a good life in order to go to heaven. The examples below are from various graveyards around Newcastle and show that some masons had seemed to have a particular flair for the macabre!

Obelisks

Obelisks are an ancient Egyptian symbol that represented life and health, and/or a ray of the sun. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, Europe was gripped by a passion for all things Egyptian. Obelisks became popular as funerary monuments, particularly in the Victorian era. On the left, obelisks in an overgrown patch of St Peters, Wallsend, and on the right, from Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle.

Occupations

Many headstones list the occupation of the deceased, but some go further, below left is an example of an artist’s paint palette and to the right, a classical scene depicting a physician, naturally enough, on the side of the monument to a doctor.

Portraiture

Funerary portraiture can be found on monuments and tombs from ancient times and isn’t always restricted to those of historical importance or aristocratic lineage. In the Victorian period, photography became more widespread and trends such as post mortem photography were embraced, photographs can even found on some headstones from the period. Preston Cemetery in North Shields has a rare surviving example, I viewed it once many years ago, but I’ve not been able to locate it since.

The example below left, is that of Dr James Milne at St Peter’s churchyard Wallsend (the above classical scene is also from his monument) a man well respected locally, the monument was erected by his friends. The other example shows renowned renaissance humanist scholar, and one-time tutor to Mary Queen of Scots, George Buchanan, and can be found in Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.

Scythes

Memento mori symbols, carried by Death or the grim reaper, symbolising the cutting off of life. The example below, from Grey Friars Kirkyard incorporates the hourglass to emphasise the fleetingness of time.

Sexton’s tools

Sexton’s are the church officials who look after the churchyard and dig graves. Their tools can appear on gravestones as an indication of their occupation, or more generally as a symbol of mortality. This example is from the Covenanters Prison, in Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.

Shells

Shells can be used as a decorative motif, but also have a Christian origin, in particular scallop shells are associated with pilgrimages (still popular today on the Camino Trail). After the Jacobite rebellions in the eighteenth century, they could also be a political gesture, indicating allegiance with the king over the water. The example below is from the seventeenth century mausoleum of the infamous Bloody Mackenzie in Grey Friars Kirkyard.

Skulls

Whether winged or floating above cross bones, skulls represent mortality and act as Memento Mori. Trevor Yorke notes that from the medieval period onwards, it was believed that the skull and crossbones were the bare minimum bodily parts required to ensure resurrection on the day of judgement.

Snakes/Ouroborus

Originally an ancient Egyptian symbol for health that entered the western tradition via the Greek Ouroboros, a snake swallowing it’s own tail, symbolises eternal life. This example is from All Saints Cemetery, Jesmond, Newcastle.

Here the Ouroboros symbol for eternal life is coupled with the scythe symbolic of death.

Square and compass (Masonic/Freemasons)

The square and compass is a found on the funerary monuments of members of the Freemasons, often accompanied by a ‘G’ representing God and Geometry. The Square and compass are a reminder to Freemasons to keep their actions within the tenets of Freemasonry [8].

Table tombs

Table tombs have the ledger stone on top, supported by legs and forming a table structure. The burial is beneath. The examples below are from Tynemouth Priory in Tyne and Wear.

Torches

Torches represent human life, death, and eternal life. If they are pointing down and have no flame they represent a life extinguished, whereas if they are pointing down but still alight the represent the eternal life of the soul. The example below symbolises bodily death but the eternal life of the soul.

Urns

Urns hark back to the funerary urns of ancient Greece, in which cremated remains would be interred. They became popular from the eighteenth century and endured into the Victorian period, possibly because they denote the body being cast off in preparation for the souls journey to heaven [9]. They could also appear with flames atop – symbolising the eternal flame of friendship or religious fervour. Other urns appear are covered with drapery, which can symbolised the curtain between life and death or the casting off of worldly garments[10] and often denoted the death of an older person [11] (and when coupled with a weeper, became a popular classical image).

Wheatsheaves

Wheatsheaves are most often associated with a long life, although where only few stalks are found, this can indicate that the deceased was young. The example below, from Grey Friars Kirkyard, is combined with a skull and crossbones.

Women in mourning (weepers)

The image of a woman, with loose flowing hair, mourning over a tomb or an urn, was very popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In this example from Jesmond, the weeper holds a wreath (see below for meaning).

World (globe)

The world or globe image represents worldly pleasure and is often coupled with death in order to emphasis the wages of worldly pleasure (and sin) are death, as shown in these examples from Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.

Wreaths

Wreaths are classical in origin, being awarded to athletes in the ancient Olympic games. In funerary art their circular shape represents eternal memory. Wreaths of bay leaves represent triumph over death, while wreaths of roses, like the example below, from Highgate Cemetery, London, can represent virtue and heavenly bliss (12).

This list represents only a snippet of the cemetery symbols that can be found. I hope this encourages you to go out and explore your local historic cemeteries and graveyards and to be able to read some of the richly symbolic funerary language used by our ancestors. Please remember to be quiet and respectful when you visit your local historic cemeteries, some may still be in use, and many monuments may be fragile.

Happy headstone hunting!

Sources

BBC – London – History – Victorian Memorial Symbols

Snider, Tui, 2017, Understanding Cemetery Symbols

Symbolism Meaning: Animals – Art of Mourning

Symbols – TheCemeteryClub.com

The Symbolism of Victorian Funerary Art – Undercliffe Cemetery

Yorke, Trevor, 2017, Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials

Notes

  1. The Cemetery Club, Symbols
  2. ibid
  3. BBC, Victorian Memorial Symbols
  4. Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
  5. ibid
  6. ibid
  7. ibid
  8. ibid
  9. ibid
  10. ibid
  11. The Cemetery Club, Symbols

Available now on Amazon! The Haunted Mirror: History, Folklore and the Supernatural, from the Haunted Palace Blog

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Published 16 May 2021, 230 pages

Paperback £8.99

Kindle £3.99

Buy now on Amazon, click here: The Haunted Mirror: History, Folklore and the Supernatural from the Haunted Palace Blog (The Haunted Palace Blog Collection): Amazon.co.uk: ., Lenora, Jessel, Miss: 9798505220504: Books

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A compendium of dark history, strange folklore and mysterious hauntings culled from the Haunted Palace Blog. Lenora and Miss Jessel have selected and re-worked some of their favourite posts for your enjoyment.

Did you know that a prodigious palace once stood in the London Borough of Wanstead and Woodford but a dissolute Earl threw it all away, leaving his heart-broken wife to haunt its ruins forever? Or that Victorian tourists flocked to the grim spectacle provided by the Paris Morgue – the best free theatre in town? Or that a murderous jester is reputed to have lured people to their deaths at a castle in Cumbria? Join us as we explore a past populated by highwaymen, murderers, eccentrics, and lost souls.

Lavishly illustrated with specially commissioned art, engravings and photographs from the Haunted Palace Collection, and national collections.

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The Art of the Pickpocket and Cutpurse: Schools of Fobology – Part 1

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Training with Fagin

When the breakfast was cleared away, the merry old gentleman and the two boys played at a very curious and uncommon game…The merry old gentleman, placing a snuff-box in one pocket of his trousers, a note-case in the other, and a watch in his waistcoat pocket, with a guard chain round his neck, and sticking a mock diamond pin his shirt, buttoned his coat right round him, and putting his spectacle-case and handkerchief in his pockets, trotted up and down the room with a stick…All this time the two boys followed him closely about; getting out of his sight so nimbly, every time he turned round…If the old gentleman felt a hand in any one of his pockets he cried out where it was; and then the game began all over again. [1]

This passage from Oliver Twist is the most famous description of the training of young thieves in literature. Although it is a fictional account, as with all Dickens’ books it was taken from real life stories and events he had witnessed, read about or heard of from the people involved. The details of how pickpockets learnt their trade are corroborated by numerous factual accounts and Saffron Hill where Dickens placed The Three Cripples, Bill Sikes favourite alehouse was actually a lodging house in the Victorian period. Next to the lodging house was a pub called The One Tun which Dickens patronised. This public house was established in 1759, and is one of only two pubs of this name still in existence and trading in London today[2].

The One Tun of Old Pye Street

Incredibly there was another One Tun public house during the same period which also boasted a connection to Dickens. Although both pubs were located in slums, the pub in Old Pye Street managed to reach new lows even in a city noted for areas of abject poverty. The name of this infamous area of London paints a vivid picture – The Devil’s Acre. The Devil’s Acre was only a few yards from Westminster Abbey and the prestigious houses which surrounded it. The irony of its location was not missed by Dickens who wrote “The most lordly streets are frequently but a mask for the squalid districts which lie behind them, whilst spots consecrated to the most hallowed of purposes are begirt by scenes of indescribably infamy and pollution; the blackest tide of moral turpitude that flows in the capital rolls its filthy wavelets up to the very walls of Westminster Abbey”[3]. This notorious rookery (a popular slang word for slum in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) with its narrow streets, gloomy alleyways, overcrowded and dilapidated buildings was home to thousands of destitute and poor inhabitants, many of whom eked out a meagre living through criminal activities and prostitution.

Dorset Street 1902. Jack London, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The pub in Old Pye Street was known to be a hideout for a thief-trainer and his boys, orphans who had been taken off the streets. On a visit, Andrew Walker, a member of The City of London Mission, was horrified to find the children living in such a place. He nicknamed it ‘The School of Fobology’[4] and witnessed first-hand, children being taught the art of pickpocketing. His report so shocked the Mission that the wealthy philanthropist, Adeline Cooper in 1853, bought the pub and along with the famous social reformer, the Earl of Shaftesbury, founded the first Ragged School which gave free basic education for poor children. Interestingly the landlord left without paying his rent and stripped the pub of all its furnishings and fittings. By 1871, the school had around 133 pupils[5].

The Billigsgate Cutpurses

One of the earliest known schools of theft was found at an alehouse at Smarts Key near Billingsgate in 1585. It was run by Wotton, a gentleman who had fallen on hard times. The Recorder, Fleetwood, wrote that somehow Wotton convinced all the cutpurses in the area to come to his house. He set up a school to train thieves and devised some ingenious methods to help them learn their trade. Two objects were hung from the roof, one a pocket and the other a purse. The pocket contained counters and was hung up with hawk’s bells and a little scaring bell. The purse held silver. The boys would try to remove a counter and the silver without disturbing the bells. Those that managed to get the counter became a “public foyster”(pick-pocket) and those that took out the silver was “adjudged a judicial nypper” (cutpurse or pick-purse)[6].

Life on the Streets

Amongst the filth and poverty and largely ignored were the street children. Neglected and abandoned both by their parents who were often in prison, absent or dead and society to whom they were either invisible or treated like vermin, they stole to survive. The large number of children in prison or in Houses of Correction is heart-breaking. In 1849, in England and Wales 10,460 children under 17 had been arrested and convicted[7]. Living on the streets, preferable to the brutal workhouse, was dangerous and so many preferred to band together into child gangs as there was safety in numbers.

See page for author, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It is therefore no wonder that the professional thief-trainers had their pick of candidates. For street children suffering malnutrition and living in filth this represented a step up as they would gain a roof over their head and food in their belly. Thief-trainers would look out for boys and girls who were quick, sharp and steady. Sometimes they would notice a child stealing and approach them. If the child was good-looking this would be another point in their favour.

As well as teaching them the tools of their trade they would also instruct them on how to behave and dress in fashionable places such as railway stations and race-courses so they could blend in with the crowd. As for the thief-trainers they gained a source of income and knew that if the child got caught it was nearly impossible to trace the crime back to them and so they could “concoct crimes with a readiness and a recklessness arising only from impunity”.[8]

How to be a Thief

Nearly two hundred years later the Annual Register of the 5 March 1756, records another school which had managed to achieve notoriety[9]. The school was sited in a public house near Fleet Market where a club of boys were instructed on pickpocketing. Taken from the evidence given by the four boys who were arrested, an idea emerges of the techniques and skills which the boys were taught at this school.

Stage One: The ability to remove a handkerchief out of the thief trainer’s pocket and then a watch. They were taught to go for small light objects such as scarf pins which were easy to remove and hide; how to bump into and distract their prey; and where they could find the best pickings such as at crowded fairs and firework displays. Practice made perfect and eventually the trainee thief could remove the items without the owner being aware that their property had gone.

Image courtesy of www.janeaustenslondon.com

Stage Two: The next stage was how to pilfer from a shop. The first important step was to choose a shop with a hatch. One boy would distract the owner or manager by gaining entry whilst the other would lie on his belly close to the hatch. The hatch would be left slightly ajar when the first boy left. Once the owner had disappeared from the shop floor the second boy would crawl in on all fours and take whatever items they could, including money from the till. They would then escape the same way.

Stage Three: This stage saw the pickpocket move on to breaking and entering. Here they were instructed to work in pairs. The boys would be sent to a potentially lucrative target and pretend to be beggars. They would then lie down under the shop’s window and feign sleep whenever someone passed them. During the intervals when they were unobserved they would scrape out the mortar from around the bricks in the wall (which were usually thin and poorly constructed). Once they had a hole big enough, one of them would crawl in and steal anything they could carry and the other would hide the gap with his body, pretending to be asleep[10].

Lodging Houses and Flash Houses

Lodging houses also gained a bad reputation and as with public houses sometimes functioned as schools for thieves. These schools flourished during the Victorian era largely due to the end of apprenticeships and the march of industrialisation which worsened conditions in the slums.

Generally the training techniques did not vary that much wherever the children received their education. An unidentified lodging house trained both boys and girls (girls were often used as decoys and could be more successful as thieves since they could get closer to wealthy ladies without arousing suspicion). In this school a doll was hung up and dressed in the image of a gentleman or lady and a purse placed in its pocket. The purse contained 6 old pence and a bell. Again the children had to remove the money without ringing the bell[11].

Pubs because they sold alcohol were seen as places of vice and disrepute and so it is not surprising that they often became centres “for thieves and other evil-doers”[12]. Those pubs which had a particularly bad reputation became known as ‘flash-houses’ and were labelled “nurseries of crime”[13]. It was believed that in the first half of the 1800s, at least 200 flash-houses functioned in London. Here the police and crooks would drink side by side. Often the police ignored any dubious goings on within their walls such as the fencing of stolen goods since they provided such a rich source of information for any more serious criminal activities in the area. The infamous Mrs Jennings of the Red Lion in White Cross Street ran a very profitable flash-house where she acted as a fence, hiding goods behind cupboards and at the same time controlled a number of boys and girls who reported to her and lived with her [14].

Final Thoughts

In my mind the image of the Victorian thief and their training will always bring to mind Ron Moody from the musical Oliver dressed in a tatty green coat with handkerchiefs hanging out of his pockets dancing and singing You’ve got to pick a pocket or two to a group of cheerful urchins. Although, I know that in reality life for these children was far from jovial, I do find it fascinating that the musical does in its own way show the reality of how juvenile pickpockets and cutpurses were trained.

So who were the thief-trainers? That is another post…

Ron Moody as Fagin in Carol Reed’s 1968 musical drama film, Oliver!

Bibliography

Thomson, J. & Smith, Adolphe: Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – Street Life in London, 1877, http://www.victorianlondon.org/publications/thomson-35.htm

Garwood, John: Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Million-Peopled City, 1853, http://www.victorianlondon.org/publications4/peopled-01.htm

Rookeries, flash houses and academies of vice, https://forromancereaders.wordpress.com/2009/10/03/rookeries-flash-houses-and-academies-of-vice/

Slum Living: London’s Rookeries-, http://georgianlondon.com/post/49461306842/slum-living-londons-rookeries

Cholera and the Thames: The Devil’s Acre, https://www.choleraandthethames.co.uk/cholera-in-london/cholera-in-westminster/the-devils-arce/

White, Jerry: London in the Nineteenth Century: ‘a Human Awful Wonder of God’,  Bodley Head , 2016

Hindley, Charles (ed.): Curiosities of Street Literature: Comprising ‘Cocks,’ Or ‘Catchpennies’, Palala Press, 2012

Lower Thames Street, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol2/pp41-60

Saffron Hill, https://exploring-london.com/tag/the-three-cripples/

Day, Samuel Philips: Juvenile Crime: Its Causes, Character, and Cure, Samuel Phillips Day, (originally published 1858), 2014

Rookery (slum), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rookery_(slum)

Dickens, Charles: Oliver Twist

Plaque: One Tun pub – Saffron Hill, https://www.londonremembers.com/memorials/one-tun-pub-saffron-hill

The One Tun Ragged School, Perkins Rents, c.1870, http://www.museumoflondonprints.com/image/750780/the-one-tun-ragged-school-perkins-rents-c-1870

Rookeries, flash houses and academies of vice, https://forromancereaders.wordpress.com/2009/10/03/rookeries-flash-houses-and-academies-of-vice/

One Tun, 3 Perkins Rents, St John, Westminster, https://pubshistory.com/LondonPubs/WestminsterStJohn/OneTun.shtml

Notes

[1] Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

[2] Plaque: One Tun pub – Saffron Hill

[3] The Devil’s Acre

[4] Cholera and the Thames – The Devil’s Acre

[5] The One Tun Ragged School, Perkins Rents, c.1870

[6] Thames Street

[7] Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Million-Peopled City

[8] Juvenile Crime: Its Causes, Character, and Cure

[9] Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Million-Peopled City

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] One Tun, 3 Perkins Rents, St John, Westminster

[13] Juvenile Crime: Its Causes, Character, and Cure

[14] Rookeries, flash houses and academies of vice

A Stroll through a graveyard: a very brief history of British cemeteries

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With the Coronavirus lockdowns of 2020/2021 many of us have had to find our pleasures closer to home than usual.  One of my favourite past-times has been visiting some of my local graveyards and taking a leisurely stroll amongst the tombstones and monuments.

Overgrown urban cemeteries and churchyards provide a haven for nature, an escape from the bustle of the modern world, and respite from the claustrophobia of a national lockdown. Often protected from traffic and pollution, and hidden from sight behind high walls, they can easily be overlooked by passers by. Yet within those high walls you can find butterflies dancing on delicate wildflowers, squirrels sheltering in the branches of ancient trees and foxes hiding amongst the tangled brambles.  Cemeteries are also steeped in cultural history and rich in public art, with elaborate memorials and tombs, describing a rich and varied iconography of death and remembrance. I have done a separate post on some of the common cemetery symbols found on headstones.

As the subject of burial and funeral monuments is a vast one, this article will be by nature selective, focusing mainly on traditional Christian burial practices found in mainly English cemeteries and churchyards. However, it is important to note that there are also many examples of different regional styles and practices as well as those of other faiths, all of which can also be found in our historic graveyards.

Bluebells at Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle upon Tyne

A very brief history of traditional British cemeteries and their monuments

Romans, Saxons and Medieval burial

Many British churchyards sit on much older pre-Christian burial grounds, and may contain remnants of those earlier times, occasionally these remnants can be seen today. It has been suggested that the Romans may have invented (or at least developed the idea of) the headstone as we know it [1]. The Roman tombstone below (L) can be found in Holy Trinity Churchyard, Washington, Tyne and Wear, and does look remarkably similar to later headstones.

Medieval churchyards did not contain many stone grave markers, so were ideal places for community activities such as fairs and village games (until the puritans put a stop to jollity, that is). Often the only stone monument was a large cross, although many of these were destroyed during the Reformation of the sixteenth century [2]. The example below (M) is the Mercian Cross, a Saxon cross from the eighth-tenth centuries, which can be found in St Lawrence’s church, Eyam, Derbyshire. In this period, only those of very high status would merit an individual burial and memorial, many people would expect to end up in a charnel house. Initially ‘wet’ bodies (i.e. fresh, fleshy bodies) were stored in stone coffins until they decomposed and became ‘dry’ (i.e. bones). The bones would then be stacked in the charnel house. The stone coffins below (R) can be seen at Tynemouth Priory, Tyne and Wear. If you were wondering where the corpse liquor went, some stone coffins also contained a hole to let it drain out [3].

From pomp and purgatory to the resurrection men

Richard Flemings Tomb at Lincoln Cathedral
Richard Fleming’s tomb and chantry chapel, Lincoln Cathedral.

Our relationship with the dead has changed over time. Purgatory as an actual place was introduced as a concept from the late twelfth/early thirteenth centuries. This lead to a drive to encourage the living to ease the passage of the deceased through purgatory with prayer. Gruesome monuments, such as Cadaver Tombs, (which depicted the deceased as rotting corpses) were often linked to chantry chapels to elicit prayers for the dead. This provided the living a sense of moral and religious satisfaction while assisting the dead towards  salvation [4, 5]. Other, less macabre tomb monuments, called gisants, emphasised the earthly status of the deceased, showed them in fine regalia, as if in prayer or sleeping.

Gisant monument for Sir Ralph Grey and his wife, 1443, St Peter's church, Chillingham, Northumberland
The Gisant style monument for Sir Ralph Grey (d1443) and his wife, Elizabeth. St Peter’s church, Chillingham, Northumberland.

While most people in the medieval period were buried in unmarked graves, tombs or memorials of the great and (often not so) good were sighted inside churches and the higher the status of the deceased, the closer to the altar (and God) they would be placed. In later times this also protected the dead from body snatchers. This resulted in some very dubious practices, such as at Enon Chapel in London, where cut price burials resulted in the dead being piled up to the rafters in a tiny crypt, in order to line the pockets of the rapacious minister.   In the past, these intramural burials in churches were notorious for causing a bit of a stink (and worse in the case of Enon chapel), but such burials can result in problems even today. Recently, the floor of Bath Abbey, which is paved with ledger stones, flat grave markers, was restored to stop the floor sinking into the cavities caused by the decayed bodies beneath. (Somerset Live).

The Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century, which made the concept of purgatory redundant for many, the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 that ousted the party-pooping puritans, combined with a rising class of wealthier farmers and merchants, created a sea-change in funeral monuments. From the end of the seventeenth century churchyards begin to fill up with tombstones, recording personal status, family ties, occupation and epitaphs, as well as some very macabre iconography [6].

As with burials inside the church, burials outside had their pecking order. Burial on the east side of a churchyard was preferred, with the body facing east in order to rise on the day of judgement. Burial on the north side was reserved for the illegitimate, criminals, suicides and strangers, and was therefore a less favourable location [7]. There is a wonderful description of this in MR James’s The Ash Tree, the executed witch, Mrs Mothersole, is said to have been buried on ‘that unhallowed side of the building‘. In some areas these ‘undesirable’ burials would take place outside the church yard itself or the corpse would have to be unceremoniously bundled over the wall of the churchyard, after being refused the usual welcome by the vicar at the lych-gate [8].

While post mortem social status was a pressing issue for some, from the late eighteenth century, body snatchers were a real fear for many. This was the case right up until the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832 (which solved the problem of supply of cadavers for the anatomists table by co-opting the corpses of the poor and destitute). To protect the dearly departed from such ‘resurrection men’ elaborate precautions were put in place and they can still be found in some graveyards today.

Image by https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/0a/b0/95f14983a9a287f3932cd1e71806.jpgGallery: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0010462.htmlWellcome Collection gallery (2018-03-24): https://wellcomecollection.org/works/b2gb3sp8 CC-BY-4.0, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36452434

Famous examples of post mortem protection can be found in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh which boasts a very fine mortsafe.  While the infamous Burke and Hare may have preferred to obtain their bodies by seeking out ‘future corpses'[9] in the drinking dens of the old Town, many others were stealing corpses from graveyards to supply Edinburgh’s famous medical schools. 

Mort safes in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

Tombstone trends

As more people were able to afford permanent grave markers, churchyards began to fill up and certain styles of headstone became popular. Headstones began short and stout, gradually becoming taller and less chunky as the centuries progressed – although this could depend on the quality of the local stone. More elaborate ornamentation and inscriptions became popular, however, the execution of the design could depend on the skill of the mason, many of whom may have been illiterate, as is seen below.

The examples above, from St Andrew’s, Newcastle, and Tynemouth Priory, Tynemouth, show eighteenth century grave stones with the text cramped together, of uneven size, and occasionally with words broken over lines. The example on the right also shows some naïve attempts at decoration.

The size difference between the early 18th Century gravestone on the left, and the nineteenth century one on the right. St Peter’s Church, Chillingham.

These headstones were often in three parts – decoration at the top, details about the deceased (names, dates, occupation, family ties) then an epitaph or scriptural quote at the bottom. Some stones also have the mason’s name as well.

These earlier grave stones had their inscriptions facing away from the actual burial plot, and some had a ‘body stone’ covering the burial, or a small ‘footstone’ indicating the length of the grave. In some cases the direction of the headstone was reoriented by the Victorians. The Victorians often marked the limits of a grave or family plot using kerbstones or railings [10].

As the times changed, so did decorative motifs, one of the most notable metamorphosis being that of the infamous grinning skull and crossbones. This first evolved into a flying head before morphing into a chubby cheeked cherub (a more sentimental, but no less disquieting images, to my mind).

Seventeenth and early eighteenth century skull and crossbones motifs, usually found in the top section of decoration, acted as a memento mori, reminding the living that they too would soon be dust (so they should behave themselves and lead good lives). This tradition evolved into flying faces, which symbolised the soul flying up to heaven, and later still, in the late Georgian and Victorian period, morphed into flying angels/cherubs, symbolising innocence (they were often used on the graves of children [11].

The taste for the macabre in graveyard symbols lingered well into the eighteenth century, but by the closing decades, tombstones could be found with tranquil classical iconography, in keeping with Georgian taste for all things ancient Roman and Greek. 

Late eighteenth century tombstone with classical motifs, St Andrew’s, Newcastle.

By the nineteenth century, it was the rising urban middle classes who drove the developments of tombstone designs.  Huge gothic follies, classical urns and columns sprouted up across the land. Crosses and Angels as grave markers even made a come-back, shunned after the Reformation and centuries of anti-Catholic feeling in England, they underwent a renaissance in the nineteenth century and can be found in abundance in many Victorian cemeteries. 

Victorian Gothic, the funerary monument of the Reed family, at Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle.

The Civic minded Victorians also came up with the concept of the Garden Cemetery, situated in the suburbs, laid out like parks and dotted with attractive grave monuments, these cemeteries not only addressed the problems of overfull and unsanitary urban burial grounds, but made a visit to the grave of a loved one into a pleasurable day out [12]. 

The Victorians also helped to democratise death, through their more industrialised production techniques, machine cutting inscriptions, standardised patterns, and a budget range of guinea graves, and community burial clubs. As the nineteenth century progressed more and more people could have a permanent marker to meet their budget. The downside of this was that the idiosyncratic and personal memorials of earlier times were often replaced with standard shapes, such as the ubiquitous lancet gravestone,  and more generic  religious or moral sentiments. Of course, this doesn’t meant that the families and friends of the departed grieved any less, only that the outward language of death and the business of burial had become more of an industry [13, 14].

The ubiquitous lancet headstones found in Victorian cemeteries across Britain.

New materials also played their part, with machine cut inscriptions, lead lettering and occasional iron headstones (very appropriate for such an industrial age).

This unusual but appropriate iron headstone was chosen for William Crawford, an Iron Founder, and can be found in Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle. Unfortunately, it has weathered badly.

The twentieth century saw the mass death of the First World War, with Cenotaphs, empty tombs, for recording the deaths of millions, and many soldiers buried on foreign shores.  You can find the occasional pristine war grave, striking in its simple poignancy, amongst the unruly ivy clad headstones of a previous era. However, it was inevitable that death on such an industrial scale, with so many families left grieving without a body to bury, would cause a fundamental change in how the dead were commemorated, World War I was the beginning of the end of the lavish Victorian way of death. 

Today, in Britain, cremation far outstrips burial, nevertheless, you can still find some unique and personal grave monuments on occasion. A particularly poignant example can be found in Westgate Crematorium in Newcastle, where a huge black marble edifice stands for a young man, dead before his time, and which includes a marble motorbike. While this may not be to every ones taste, it is a unique and very personal memorial.

St Peter's church, Wallsend.
There has been a church on this site since the 12th Century, St Peter’s church was rebuilt in 1809 and remodelled in 1892. Wallsend, North Tyneside.

Who lies beneath

Cemeteries are filled with the famous and not so famous, all with their individual tales that remind us that these mossy and ivy cloaked monuments hid the bones of people just like us, who lived and loved and sometimes suffered.

Dame Mary Page, 1729, Bunhilll, London

Grave monuments could be very personal in the eighteenth century, one could say, too personal, as this famous monument to Dame Mary Page at Bunhill cemetery in London demonstrates. The unfortunate Dame Mary died in 1729, the inscription describes her final years “In 67 months she was tap’d [tapped] 66 times, Had taken away 240 gallons of water without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation.”

The Keenleyside Monument, 1841/2, Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle

This canopied monument featuring a reclining cherub rests beneath mature trees in Jesmond Old Cemetery and hides a terrible family tragedy. The monument was erected by Thomas William and Louisa Keenleyside in memory of their children, Eleanor, 2 years old, Charles, 12 years old, and James who was 10 years old. The children died in quick succession between December 1841 to January 1842, victims of the Cholera epidemic that raged through the city. Epidemics and other diseases such as scarlet fever were common in the Victorian period, and could rip through a family taking siblings one after another. It is hard to comprehend how Thomas and Louisa came to terms with this heart wrenching loss, although this monument may have been part of that process.

Tom Sayers, 1865, Highgate Cemetery, London

You would be forgiven for thinking this monument in London’s Highgate Cemetery was the grave of a large dog, but in fact is commemorates Tom Sayers, Victorian superstar prize-fighting bare-knuckle boxer, who died in 1865. Sayers had a turbulent personal life, so the chief mourner at his funeral was his mastiff, Lion, who rode alone in a pony cart behind the hearse. Sayers kept the hound next to him even in death, and Lion was immortalised by sculptor Morton Edwards and forms the most prominent feature of Sayers monument [15].

Epilogue

For me, the apogee of cemetery design came in the nineteenth century, when over-crowded, unsanitary urban cemeteries, such as Bunhill Fields, were replaced with leafy suburban garden cemeteries.  Highgate cemetery, Abney Park and Kensal Green were intended as pleasure grounds as much as for memorialising the dead.  Recently, I have spent many hours exploring my local cemeteries and churchyards, discovering fascinating facts about my area – the pastoral poet buried in the centre of Newcastle, the Georgian composer, organist and music critic buried in St Andrews, as well as countless ordinary people, whose lives flicker before us briefly in their epitaphs.

Ledger stone for eighteenth century Newcastle composer and organist Charles Avison. Avison died in 1770, but the ledger stone was replaced in the nineteenth century.

The Coronavirus pandemic has claimed so many lives, however, once the pandemic itself has entered into the pages of history, I hope that we will not forget the quite pleasures of walking in these public gardens of the past and experiencing that fleeting connection with those who have gone before us.

All Saints, Newcastle.

Part 2 will look at the meaning behind some of the symbols found on headstones.

Sources

Cohen, Kathleen, 1973, Metamorphosis of a death symbol

King, Pamela, 1987, Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England

Morgan, Alan, 2004, Beyond the Grave, Exploring Newcastle’s Burial Grounds

Ross, Peter, 2020, A Tomb With a View, The Stories and Glories of Graveyards

Rutherford, Sarah, 2008, The Victorian Cemetery

Snider, Tui, 2017, Understanding Cemetery Symbols

Victorian Web, Funerary monument to Thomas Sayers (1826-1865), Western Cemetery, Highgate, London N.6. (victorianweb.org)

Yorke, Trevor, 2017, Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials

Notes

  1. Alan Morgan, Beyond the Grave, Exploring Newcastle’s Burial Grounds
  2. Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
  3. ibid
  4. Pamela King, Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England
  5. Kathleen Cohen, Metamorphosis of a death symbol
  6. Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
  7. Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
  8. Peter Ross, A Tomb with a View, The Stories and Glories of Graveyards
  9. The Order of the Good Death (death positive movement)
  10. Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
  11. Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
  12. Sarah Rutherford, The Victorian Cemetery
  13. Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
  14. Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
  15. Victorian Web, Funerary monument to Thomas Sayers

Which Mortality Remindin’ Shirt is for You? | The Order of the Good Death

The White Plague: TB the world’s forgotten killer

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Dr Croghan and the Coughing Cave People

In the state of Kentucky, beneath a national park, you will find the longest known cave system in the world. Mammoth Cave lives up to its name, comprising more that 630km (400 miles) of known passageways, but it is not the geology which is the subject of this blog. It is a story so dark and extraordinary that it has inspired visitors to believe that even now, they still hear spectral coughing in the endless caverns.

Mammoth Caves, Kentucky by Dr. Nuno Carvalho de Sousa Private Collections - Lisbon Date: 1887. Public domain.

Mammoth Caves, Kentucky by Dr. Nuno Carvalho de Sousa Private Collections – Lisbon Date: 1887. Public domain.

In  1842, a Kentucky doctor lead a group of volunteers to live deep within the bowels of the cave, in the pitch-darkness, for months on end. Who was Dr John Croghan? And why did he believe that leading 15 patients into the unique conditions of Mammoth Cave may be the key to treating tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis

In the nineteenth century, Tuberculosis was an un-treatable condition. Germ theory was not yet dominant in understanding the cause of disease, and a working antibiotic would not be developed for more than 100 years, meaning that this mysterious illness was most often a death sentence. Known variably as Consumption, Pthisis, Scrofula, and the White Plague, Tuberculosis is a bacterial disease which most commonly affects the respiratory system. Those who did survive would frequently suffer with flare-ups and respiratory difficulties for the rest of their lives.

Dropsy Courting Consumption, Thomas Rowlandson (British, London 1757–1827 London), Hand-colored etching

Dropsy Courting Consumption, Thomas Rowlandson, 1810. Public Domain.

The most common lay term for Tuberculosis was Consumption, referring to the wasting effects of the disease. This rapid weight loss, pale skin, and fever lead to a gaunt and spectral appearance and extreme fatigue. Much has been made in historiography and popular culture of the ways in which Tuberculosis was portrayed at the time as a ‘romantic disease’, revealing the sensibility of the sufferer, and leading to the creation of some of the world’s greatest art and literature. So influential was this romanticization of tuberculosis that it became fashionable for both women and men to be waif-thin, emphasize their collarbones, and powder their faces to appear as pale and feverish as possible.

Late-stage tuberculosis is nonetheless extremely uncomfortable for those infected and, despite this morbid link between beauty, genius, and death in the wealthier sections of society, tuberculosis did not discriminate based on class and was an epidemic of biblical proportions amongst the lower classes in urban areas.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, a great deal of effort and resource was being invested by the learned men and philanthropists of the age to find a cure and a means to prevent transmission. Though medical professionals disagreed about the cause of the disease, many understood it to be contagious and public health campaigns often encouraged quarantine (a next to impossible feat in the cramped and squalid conditions in which poor and working-class individuals lived and worked). Meanwhile, charitable organisations funded sanatoriums to separate sufferers from the general populous, and learned men continued to argue and debate over their observations and experimental treatments.

Unfortunately, their valiant efforts were limited by contemporary understanding of what diseases were and how they were transmitted. Whilst Galenic medicine and the notion that diseases were caused by an imbalance in the four humours continued a significant decline as a prevalent way of understanding the body and diagnosing patients throughout the nineteenth century, treatments for diseases did not keep pace with the new discoveries of anatomy and pathology. For this reason, despite the improvements in observation and diagnosis, the treatment for many diseases by even the most preeminent doctors continued in the tradition of focusing on emetics, bleeding, and regimen. The term ‘regimen’ refers to a prescribed daily routine based the idea that certain food, drinks, locations, and temperatures may have an impact on the health of patients. However, the prevailing, and best available treatment for tuberculosis in the early and mid-nineteenth century was bed rest, short walks, and fresh air.

Dr John Croghan and the Mammoth Cave

John Croghan of Louisville, Kentucky was a doctor from a wealthy local family, searching for a treatment for tuberculosis. Having worked as a founder and director of the Louisville Marine Hospital from 1823 to 1832, he was himself diagnosed with Tuberculosis. In 1839, Croghan purchased 2,000 acres of land, including Mammoth Cave, and several enslaved individuals for $10,000. Part of his intention was to profit from the tours of the cave, which had been started in 1816. However, Croghan also had another motive…

His plan was to open a large health resort deep within the cave system. The foundation of his experimental treatment was to use the temperate climate of the cave, and its presumed stabilizing effect on the body to potentially temper or cure tuberculosis. Croghan noted the steady temperature of the cave and believed the air to have curative properties, observing that other organic matter did not appear to wither or decay in the cave. Croghan confirmed 11 tuberculosis patients, four companions, and the child of a patient to live in the cave over the winter of 1842.

The logic of the assumption that the conditions in the cave may improve their condition rested in the humoral tradition, whereby respiratory issues were usually attributed to an excess of phlegm; an imbalance of coldness and wetness. Therefore, the appropriate treatment to correct this imbalance was to maintain a consistent, temperate environment, devoid of changes and extremes, as could be experienced in Mammoth Cave. (This may seem an odd logic but to this day, you may still receive advice that exposure to intemperate climates and wetness may induce illness, despite nigh on a century of evidence that colds are caused by viruses. Thus, still why we refer to rhinoviruses as the common ‘cold.)

The characteristics of the cave which Dr Croghan chose seemed ideal for his purpose. In the winter of 1842, Dr Croghan led his patients down into the caves where they, as far as we know, willingly engaged in his experiment. They were to live in the cave indefinitely, or until they were well enough to leave. The residents of the cave had little access to anything beyond the meals delivered to them by enslaved people. Photographs show individuals standing and sitting on simple stone and wooden huts, some of which are still standing to this day in the belly of the cave.

Consumptive’s Room, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. (Photo: Library of Congress/LC-USZ62-64952) A TOURIST VISITING MAMMOTH CA

Consumptive’s Room, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. (Photo: Library of Congress/LC-USZ62-64952)

For five months, Dr Croghan’s patients lived as a commune in the depths of the limestone caves. Their only light came from lard-oil lamps and simple fires, with the constant belch of smoke and fumes filling chambers and lungs with noxious gases. They read episcopal sermons and ate wholesome food, delivered by the enslaved persons who lived outside the cave formation.

A server named Alfred noted, “I used to stand on that rock and blow the horn to call them to dinner. There were fifteen of them and they looked more like a company of skeletons than anything else.”

All the while the experiment ensued, tourists were still being guided throughout the cave system. Both servers and tourists alike spoke of the eerie sight of pale, spectres emerging from shadow, smoke, and flame, hacking and coughing in the muted torchlight.

They encountered “a bizarre scene. Pale, spectral figures in dressing-gowns moved weakly along the passageway, slipping in and out of shadowed huts, the silence of the cave broken by hollow coughing and muttered conversations.”

The results of this experiment, to the modern observer, would appear almost inevitable. Of the fifteen people who descended into the Mammoth Caves, five died before the experiment was unceremoniously ended. Their bodies were laid out on a stone now known as ‘Corpse Rock’. Whether the time which the remaining participants spent in the cave had any bearing whatsoever on their lifespan is impossible to say now in any certainty. However, with the benefit of modern medicine it is reasonable to state that confining tuberculosis patients together in damp, dark environments brimming with toxic smoke pollution is unlikely to have had any sort of positive effect on their vitality. Dr Croghan himself passed away as a result of Tuberculosis in 1849.

Legacy

The unequivocal failure of Dr Croghan’s experiment was commonly discussed in the popular press, but the story seemed only to gain more traction as the American middle-classes gained more disposable income, and tourism became a common all-American pass-time. A very famous and entertaining spooky story has always been a very good selling point when advertising a tour… Just ask the tour guides of Whitechapel. Remarkably, the industry around these tours in the late nineteenth century became so acrimonious that it led to the wonderfully named ‘Kentucky Cave Wars’, where rival land-owners would sabotage signs and spread misinformation about Mammoth Cave in order to deceive the public to coming to their own private cave tours. Like an episode of Wacky Races.

By the late nineteenth century, Mammoth Cave was an internationally noteworthy natural curiosity and was the subject of a number of short stories and periodicals. In 1877, 35 years after the beginning of the experiment in Mammoth Cave, Harper’s Weekly published an article which included two engravings, documenting and dramatizing the morbid history of the cave. With a circulation in excess of 100,000, Harper’s Weekly was a very successful and ubiquitous publication in the USA. The inclusion of such an article suggests that there was still significant interest in the story of Dr Croghan and his patients long after their demise. In fact, the first line of the page reads “The Mammoth Cave of Kentucky has been so frequently described both in our own and other periodicals that the two engravings on this page will need but a brief mention.

Henry Duff Linton’s Harper’s Weekly engraving The Mammoth Cave - House Formerly Used by Consumptive Patients, 1877. (Photo: Library of Congress/LC-USZ62-119566)

Henry Duff Linton’s Harper’s Weekly engraving The Mammoth Cave – House Formerly Used by Consumptive Patients, 1877. (Photo: Library of Congress/LC-USZ62-119566)

The engravings are accompanied by the following, very short description:

“[The first image] represents the ruins of a hotel which was built in one of the larger chambers of the caves for the accommodation of consumptive and asthmatic patients, the equable temperature and nitrous atmosphere having been recommended as a remedy for diseases of the lungs. It has been long abandoned, however, invalids having found little to no alleviation for their sufferings, whatever benefit may have been derived from the peculiar air having been more than counterbalanced by the depressing influences of a sojourn under-groundthe second sketch shows a party crossing the cave river, which has received the somber[sic] name of the Styx.

Named for the mythological Greek river which marked the boundary of the lands of the living and the dead, it is possible that the macabre history of the cave also wound its way into the naming of landmarks and features.

H.P. Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft by Lucian Bert Truesdale, 1934.

H.P. Lovecraft was an American writer, famed for his horror and science fiction.

In 1905, Lovecraft published a short story about a man lost in Mammoth Cave who comes across an anthropomorphic beast in the darkness. He writes:

The creature was described as having snow-white hair, rat-like claws on its hands and feet with pale, white skin.  Its eyes were black, lacking irises and sunken into its skull.  Finally, it was very gaunt.”

In the story, Lovecraft mentions that a colony of consumptives lived in the cave in a gigantic grotto.

Knowing what we do about the physical symptoms of tuberculosis, and the infamy which of the story of Dr Croghan and the consumptives maintained in the popular psyche, it appears that the beast in the cave is heavily inspired by the stories of those tourists who claim to have seen patients shuffling about the cave in their dressing gowns, looking pale, gaunt, and one step from death.

Rambles in the Mammoth Cave, During the Year 1844 by a Visiter

Rambles in the Mammoth Cave, During the Year 1844 by a Visiter (via Walkabout books)

Modern TB

In 1882, more than 40 years after Dr Croghan’s experiments, Dr Robert Koch isolated the cause of Tuberculosis: Mycobacterium Tuberculosis. This discovery was the first step on our continuing journey to finally understand, control, and treat Tuberculosis; from the development of the BCG vaccine in 1921 and the discovery of the antibiotic Streoptomycin in 1943, to the four drug cocktail which was discovered in 1966 and is still widely used in treatment today. Contemporary scientists continue to work tirelessly, pushing on in leaps and bounds to imagine new, innovative ways to improve the health of people all over the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) have an ambitious target to eradicate Tuberculosis by 2030.

However, as concerns rise about increasing incidences in the UK, multi-drug resistance, and how to combat the socio-economic inequality which continues to stifle our ability to manage pandemic and endemic diseases, one has to wonder; have they tried Mammoth Caves?

Sources

History of Tuberculosis:

Eastbury Manor House: Barking’s hidden gem and its Gunpowder Plot Myth

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Eastbury Manor.  Image by Gordon Joly Attribution Sharealike 2.5

In the middle of Barking surrounded by a council estate stands a Grade I listed Elizabethan manor house. I have heard people gasp when they first see it, not just because of the beauty of the building but because its sheer existence is so surprising. Its location seems incongruous almost as if it has been dropped from a great height and landed in an alien landscape. In fact, Eastbury Manor is one of the last reminders of a time when Barking was part of one of the most powerful and wealthy institutions in England.

The Most Powerful Abbesses in the Kingdom

Barking Abbey: curfew tower by Rept0n1x – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia. org/w/index.php?curid=10960052

The Benedictine monastery of Barking was founded in AD666 by Erkenwald, later Bishop of London. Erkenwald appointed his sister, Ethelburga as the Abbey’s first Abbess. Barking was built originally as a ‘double house[1]’ which meant that monks and nuns lived in separate communities but were both under the control of the Abbess. In 870, the Vikings attacked and the lands surrounding the monastery became part of Dane Law territory until the 900s when the English retook the area. The abbey and nunnery were rebuilt this time as a single-sex institution. Further building work and remodelling took place again in the 12th century[2].

Over the next 600 years, the abbey grew in both wealth and size as it gained new charters relating to taxation and control of Barking water mill and tolls as well as accruing more and more holdings. The seat of abbess became highly sought after with kings and powerful barons desiring the position for their wives and female relations. Initially, the king had the power of choosing the abbess but later it became an elected seat at the insistence of the pope during the reign of King John.

The abbey was the richest and most powerful institution in the kingdom and the Abbess of Barking the most important religious female role in England with all other abbesses subject to her authority. Unfortunately, its eminence ended with Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. In 1539 the Abbey surrendered, it was one of the last religious houses to be dissolved as the final abbess, Dorothy Borley was a friend of the King’s Representative[3].

In 1541 the abbey which had played host to William the Conqueror and had been ruled by some of the most influential women in medieval history including Mary Beckett (who had been promoted as abbess by a guilt-stricken Henry II to atone for the murder of her brother, Thomas Beckett[4]) was dismantled and the reign of the Abbesses of Barking came to an ignoble end. The nuns were given large pensions, the abbey’s treasures confiscated and the lands divided up and sold. Included in the property was the land on which Eastbury Manor House was later built.

The Early Years

There might have already been a house built on the land but no residence is mentioned in the listing of the halls (which included Mucking and Westbury) belonging to the abbey at the time of the dissolution. The land which was primarily marshland was acquired by Sir William Denham who had made his fortune in commerce and had been elected Master of the Ironmongers’ company seven times. He had also served eleven years as Alderman of Coleman Street Ward[5]. On his death, he still owned the lands of Eastbury although there is no evidence that he had ever lived on the property. Eventually, the estate came into the possession of Clement Sysley who was responsible for the building that exists today.

The Building of Eastbury Manor

In the booklet published by the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, it says that the ‘architectural expert, Sir Nicholas Pevsner believed that various distinctive features were characteristic of the 1550s’[6]. He suggested that based on features such as the lead rainwater hopper head which has been dated to the 1570s the building took many years to complete. The political stability under Elizabeth I is reflected in the changing building styles. Eastbury Manor House was built with large windows on the outside instead of around a central courtyard with windows facing the centre and easily defendable outer walls.

Elizabeth I in coronation robes. By anonymous – Scanned from the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson, ISBN 1855142287., Public Domain, https://commons.  wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6639542

 

Eastbury Manor House is a handsome timber-framed building with red-brick work ‘enhanced with diaper-work patterns in a grey colour bricks’[7]. The main part of the house has two storeys with an attic above and cellar below. The manor has two wings. The western wing contained the sleeping quarters and the east side the ‘Great Chamber’. On the ground floor was the ‘dining room, vestibule, hall and buttery, plus a parlour and kitchen[8]. Originally there would have been two octagonal turrets linking the floors but only one has survived.

The house has some interesting features. If you look at the wall of the entrance to the building you can see a blocked slit window. This window ‘once gave light to a hidden space above the porch ceiling but below the floor of the chamber above[9] and is believed to have been used by Sysley as a strong room where he kept his valuables and important documents. Upstairs in the two main rooms above the hall, the remains of wall paintings are still visible. These stunning murals depict pastoral and fishing scenes framed by painted columns and archways. The building would have had murals in many of the rooms but unfortunately, the majority of them have been lost.

The house was known as a ‘gentry house’ as despite the wealth of its owner and the expensive materials used i.e. glass in all the windows and red brick in its construction it was still a provincial residence. Time has stood still for this building as it was never extended and so remains a perfect example of Elizabethan architecture

A Confused History

Although the actual structure of the Manor House is pretty simple to understand it is a completely different story when it comes to who was living in the house after Sysley’s death in 1578.

Monument to Sir Thomas Vyner, attributed to Jasper Latham in 1672, at All Saints’ Church in Gautby. Image by Richard Croft CC BY-SA 2.0

What is clear is that on Sysley’s death his wife Anne gained possession with the proviso that it would be passed onto their son Thomas ‘to him and his heirs forever at Eastbury[10], it was not to be. Thomas appears to have had serious money troubles and had to ask his mother’s second husband, Augustine Steward for assistance. So far so good but now things start to go adrift. Some sources state that in 1592 Thomas ‘granted a 500 year lease to his stepbrother, Augustine Steward the younger[11]’ but others imply that Thomas still owned the building at this time. The phrasing used is confusing as it says that Thomas was in possession to ‘just before 1608[12] which could mean anytime between 1592 and 1608. If the later date is correct that maybe Steward was living in the property as a tenant. Other possible occupants of Eastbury at this time were the diplomat and tax collector John Moore and his Spanish wife Maria Perez de Recalde. Some researchers believe that they were responsible for the commissioning of the wall paintings in the early 1600s.

Things get clearer later on when in 1628 Martin Steward sells Eastbury to Jacob Price. The house for some reason did not stay with one family for very long. Most of the owners rented the property out to tenant farmers, who worked the land and on occasion housed their animals on the ground floor, rather than live in it themselves. The most well-known purchaser was Sir Thomas Vyner, Lord Mayor of London from 1653-1654 who bought the manor house in 1650[13].

The chronology for the late 16th and early 17th century of who lived when at Eastbury becomes really important when trying to work out if the most famous legend associated with the manor house has any grounding in truth. This is its connection to the plot to blow up the House of Lords more commonly known as the Gunpowder Plot.

Eastbury Manor and the Gunpowder Plot

17/18th Century Broadsheet. Unknown (printed for P. Brooksby, I. Deacon, I. Blare, I. Back.), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

To a large extent, the writer Daniel Defoe can be blamed for the longevity of the myth. Around 1770 he wrote in the publication ‘Tour throughout the whole island of Great Britain

“a little beyond the town, on the road to Dagenham, stood a great house, ancient, and now almost fallen down, where tradition says the Gunpowder Treason Plot was at first contriv’d and that all the first consultations about it were held there”

Aside from the tradition that the conspirators met at Eastbury to discuss the plans for the blowing up of parliament, there was also a story circulating that Lord Monteagle was staying at the manor house when he received the anonymous letter that led to the discovery of the plot. Another tale refers to the plotters plan to return to Eastbury and watch the flash and the ensuing commotion from the top of one of the towers[14].

There are many holes in these scenarios for one thing Lord Monteagle stated that he received the letter at his town house in Hoxton[15]. The only tenuous connection is a baptism entry from the local parish records that suggests that at some point in Monteagle’s life he may have resided in the area but there is nothing to link him to residing at Eastbury. In addition, the idea of watching the aftermath of the explosion from Eastbury is definitely far-fetched. The only basis for this is that apparently, Fawkes hired a Barking boat to ferry him and another man to Gravelines, northern France.

William Parker, 13th Baron Morley, 4th Baron Monteagle (1575 – 1 July 1622) By John de Critz – Berger Collection: id #5 (Denver, Colorado), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6436462

Those that in the past believed that the conspirators met at Eastbury usually base their supposition on the link between Francis Tresham and John Moore and his wife Maria, the Moores’ supposed presence at Eastbury and the fact they were all recusants. Their theory may go something like this: John and Maria being recusants who harboured ill-feeling toward the king and parliament and wanted the country to return to Catholicism allowed Francis, who was related to them through John’s step-daughter’s marriage to Francis’ younger brother Lewis, and the conspirators to meet at Eastbury.

The problem is that although John and Mary were recusants i.e. they refused to attend services of the Church of England and were likely disappointed that James was not more sympathetic to the Catholic cause, there is no evidence that they ever worked against the crown and indeed John Moore held an important official role.

On the other hand, Francis Tresham did know about the plot against the government and had previously been imprisoned for plotting against the crown. He had also been involved in what was called the ‘Spanish Treason’ in which he travelled to Spain with Thomas Wintour and more suspiciously Guido (Guy) Fawkes[16]. By 1605 he had seemingly renounced his treasonous activities and even sworn loyalty to James. Francis was also related by marriage to both Edward, 10th Baron Stourten and William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle (whose father was also a recusant).

The fly in this ointment is that Tresham did not learn of the plot until the 14 October 1605 only three weeks before the planned attack. All details on the how and the when would have already been decided on. Maybe Robert Catesby, the plot’s chief instigator and the others were concerned that Tresham was a liability due to his reputation as a hot-headed[17] and his family connections. Indeed when Tresham raised concerns about the safety of Monteagle and Stourton he was told that unfortunately the innocent must also suffer for the greater good. This has led to many historians believing that Francis Tresham was the author of the anonymous letter warning Monteagle not to attend the opening of the House of Lords. The letter once deciphered was shown to Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Sainsbury and the King. Monteagle joined the search of the House of Lords’s undercroft where Fawkes was found with a match and the gunpowder. On being tortured Fawkes revealed the names of his co-conspirators including Tresham. The men were arrested and taken to the Tower. Tresham died of a urinary tract infection before he could be charged with treason. Despite not being formally charged his head was removed and displayed alongside Robert Catesby at Northampton and his body thrown into a hole at Tower Hill[18].

So unless Moore and his wife were involved themselves in the plot without Tresham’s knowledge and were without question living in Eastbury at the time, the legend does not really hold water. As a child I grew up hearing the story and believing in it and so was really disappointed when I learnt it was a myth, I would have loved it to be true!

The gunpowder plotters. National Portrait Gallery: NPG 334a

The manor house preserved for posterity

By the beginning of the last century, the house was in ruins. The Great Tower staircase was demolished in 1814, the wooden flooring and fireplaces had been removed and only the west wing was liveable. Luckily it came to the notice of Octavia Hill and C.R. Ashbee and they began a campaign to buy the house from its then owners. Eventually, the manor house was taken under the guardianship and protection in 1917 of the National Trust and restored with the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham later managing it on their behalf. It is now a popular wedding venue as well as holding cultural and educational events. So although the gunpowder plot connection is debunked, Eastbury is still a wonderful place to visit and we are so lucky to have it.

And of course…

…there are the resident ghosts, roughly about five of them including one of a young girl who has been sighted in the upper rooms but who can only be seen by women and children!

Bibliography

Tour throughout the whole island of Great Britain, Daniel Defoe

The ancient parish of Barking: Manors, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol5/pp190-214

Barking Abbey, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1003581

Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review, Volume 7, Sylvanus Urban, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=RaE3AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA664&dq=eastbury+manor&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi1zPnbprDdAhUqK8AKHc1pBcg4RhDoAQhMMAg#v=onepage&q=eastbury%20manor&f=false

House of Benedictine nuns, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol2/pp115-122

Barking Abbey, http://valencehousecollections.co.uk/exhibitions/barking-abbey/

At Eastbury Manor, http://spitalfieldslife.com/2018/07/01/at-eastbury-manor/

Eastbury Manor House: Historical notes, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/bk11/pp13-18

Eastbury House, https://www.barkingdagenhamlocalhistory.co.uk/barking-eastbury-house

Eastbury Manor House, Upney, https://lostcityoflondon.co.uk/tag/lord-monteagle/

William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Parker,_4th_Baron_Monteagle

Connections to the Gunpowder Plot, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lists/connections-to-the-gunpowder-plot

Francis Tresham, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Tresham

Tresham baronets, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tresham_baronets

A guide to Eastbury House, Susan Curtis

British Express: Eastbury Manor House, https://www.britainexpress.com/attractions.htm?attraction=1431

Notes

[1] Barking Abbey (Valence House)

[2] Barking Abbey – Historic England

[3] Barking Abbey (Valence House)

[4] Ibid

[5] Eastbury Manor House: Historical notes

[6] A Guide to Eastbury House

[7] Ibid

[8] Eastbury House

[9] British Express: Eastbury Manor House

[10] At Eastbury Manor

[11] The ancient parish of Barking: Manors

[12] Eastbury Manor House: Historical notes

[13] Ibid

[14] Eastbury Manor House: Historical notes

[15] Eastbury Manor House, Upney

[16] Francis Tresham

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

The Witchcraft Werewolf Trials of Amersfoort och Utrecht

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Shapeshifters on Trial

By Lucas Cranach the Elder – Gotha, Herzogliches Museum (Landesmuseum), Public Domain via Wikimedia.

In The Netherlands in the 1590s, tales of the Devil’s evil machinations once again conjured up fear and horror in the minds of the inhabitants of Amersfoort and Utrecht. This time the cause was a trial that combined accusations of witchcraft and sorcery with the unnatural state of animal shapeshifting.

The trial held in 1595, led to the execution of Folkt Dirks a 62-year-old farmer from the Hoogland province of Utrecht and his 17-year-old daughter Hendrika along with members of their ‘coven’; Anthonis Bulck and Maria Barten. The main evidence against them was provided by Dirks’ sons, in particular 14-year-old Hessel and 13-year-old Elbert.

Elbert in his testimony spoke of having had made a pact with the Devil, along with his father, sister, older brother, and two younger brothers; 11-year-old Gijsbert and 8-year-old Dirk. He also claimed that the Devil had given his father a hairy belt after receiving the family’s oaths of loyalty. The belt gave them the power to turn into wolves. In this form, they had, after accepting the gift, immediately gone to the fields in Eemland, where he, together with his older brother, and his father had drunk the blood of cattle [1]. Elbert continued that the Devil had also ordered them to undress and had changed them into cats. In this guise, they had been taken to a place near Amersfoort where they had found other cats with whom they danced until two in the morning [2].

“The Water Torture.— Facsimile of a Woodcut in J. Damhoudère’s Praxis Rerum Criminalium: in 4to, Antwerp, 1556.” – Used to illustrate. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Hessel’s confession ran on very similar lines to his brother’s. He recalled that on one occasion while he was with his godmother, the Devil had come down the chimney along with a woman who danced for the Devil’s pleasure. In the original text, the woman is described as a “red cat (Tom)” (although it is unclear if she was already in the form of a cat when she first appeared). The Devil had given him a piece of black leather and a black cloth with pins in it [3]. Eventually, the Devil had stopped the woman’s dance with the words “Thou ugly beast, now you will go with me” and had tied a leather belt around her, changing her into a wolf. The Devil and the female were-wolf had then, along with Hessel (also in his wolf form) flown up the chimney to a field, where they attacked and fed on the local livestock [4].

After hearing this evidence, the local officials brought Folkt Dirks to listen to his sons’ accusations. After having gone through two separate stints of torture, the water test, and hearing his sons condemn him to his face, Dirks finally broke and on his knees confessed to being an emissary of the Devil, practicing witchcraft, and having taken the form of a wolf. He told his torturers how after receiving a black doublet a few years earlier he had been compelled to commit evil acts and had been given the ability to shapeshift. On the 14 June 1595, Dirks was sentenced to death. He was burned at the stake the very same day [5].

A week later, Hendrika Dirks, followed in her father’s footsteps. She admitted to having surrendered to the Devil when she was eleven years old and having for the last few years been sexually intimate with him. She spoke of attacking cattle in the fields [6] and described how she, accompanied by some unnamed female relatives, attended dances during the witches’ sabbath in the form of either a cat or a wolf [7] (there seems to be some confusion here as to which). During her interrogation, whether under duress or not, she gave her torturers the names of others whom she claimed had been present at these orgies. Based on her testimony; Grietje Segers, Cornelius Hendrik Bulck and his son Anthonis and Maria Barten were also condemned. Grietje Segers committed suicide in prison but Cornelius Hendrik Bulck managed to escape and was never heard from again. Anthonis and Maria were tortured and were finally executed alongside Hendrika [8].

The lives of Dirks’ sons; Hessel, Elbert, Gijsbert and Dirk were spared due to their youth but they were severely whipped until their backs ran with blood. They were also forced to watch the executions of their sister and Maria

The case of Folkt Dirks is an interesting one. It is more than likely that the Dirks’ family had been under suspicion for a long time. If they hadn’t then Hessel and Elbert must have really hated their father and sister in order to accuse them of committing such terrible, heretical crimes. At certain points during the trial, the boys seemed confused, unsure of what they were saying. This is reflected in their testimonials where they sometimes contradict themselves e.g. they state that they had never taken part in the mutilation of cattle but a local official testified that they had admitted to him of having been involved. Maybe they were under pressure to testify or were being controlled or were simply terrified.

One story which had floated about for about a year prior to his arrest, alludes to Dirks’ dark skills and in particular his unnatural control over animals. According to a female neighbour, Dirks had bewitched her horse with the words “what a nice bay that is, god bless him” [9]. The woman gives no further details about why he would want to curse her horse. Possibly she thought he had done it out of envy or spite. It is also interesting that another rumour existed that Dirks’ wife was descended from a matrilineal hereditary line of witches. Although there is no mention of her (probably she had already died), it might explain the accusations against Hendrika and possibly why it was considered safe to allow the boys to go free.

There is one more case that occurred at the same time in the same area and that was the trial of Kanti Hans and his wife. They admitted to being followers of Satan and having been given the power to turn into bears as a reward. There is no evidence as to why they were arrested and since their statements were made whilst they were being tortured, it is difficult to believe the sincerity of their confessions. The fascinating point with the case of Hans and his wife is that they were given the power of transforming into bears and not wolves. Compared to the number of witchcraft trials happening in Europe at the time, only a small proportion included accusations of shapeshifting into were-wolves [10] and even less involved were-bears.

German Woodcut 1722. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Studies of this case have agreed that the judgment passed on the Dirks’ family was one based on witchcraft rather than on werewolfery (although werewolf trials at that point in time were being held, albeit in much lower numbers than witchcraft trials). That being said there is one main element of both these stories that link them to the more straight-forward trials of suspected were-wolves e.g. the 1598 trial of Peter Stumpp, that is the role of the wolfskins and bearskins in the Dirks’ and Hans’ confessions.

The Battle Lust of the Berserkers

By Hans Baldung – Source: R. Decker, Hexen, Frontispiz (2004), Public Domain via Wikimedia.

The idea that a bite can cause a person to become a were-wolf is a relatively recent idea. More common in the past was the belief that the change was caused by a salve rubbed on the body or by the wearing of animal skins. The concept of the transformational power of animal skins has a long history which more than likely originated with the emergence of powerful and feared fighters who eventually became the berserkers of Viking sagas and legends.

When someone talks of berserkers the image that appears in our heads has been so strongly influenced by the mythology that arose around them that it is hard to extract the reality from the fantasy. The berserkers ‘bear-shirts’ were originally an elite group of warriors who served under the Scandinavian kings in honour of Odin, alongside another group known as the wolfskins (heathen wolves). There seems to be confusion in the sources over whether or not the wolfskins were part of the berserker brotherhood or a separate group altogether [11]. It is possible that berserkers and wolfskins form two subcategories of one group, with each choosing a different totem and as a result assuming the characteristics and mannerisms of that animal. It is more than probable that these warriors wore either a wolf or bear skin over their armour [12]. This would have accomplished a number of things; the skins would have provided insulation from the harsh weather of Northern Europe, afforded them extra protection in battle which would partly explain their reputation as being invulnerable to weapons and also given them the “appearance of grimness and ferocity” [13] which would strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. Add this to them being intoxicated with battle lust; biting their shields, attacking boulders and trees, and even killing each other whilst waiting [14] and you get a striking image.

The Haraldskvadet, a 9th-century skaldic poem honouring King Harald at Hatrsfjord perfectly captures the maniacal nature of the berserkers when it describes how the “Berserkers roared where the battle raged, wolf-heathens howled and iron weapons trembled” [15]. It is not then surprising that their foes seeing the berserkers’ primeval and maniacal behaviour would assign them supernatural powers, abilities which to their minds would have been attributed to the wearing of animal skins.

The Legend of Sigmund and Sinfjotli

Woodcut image of one of the Vendel era Torslunda plates found on Öland, Sweden. It probably depicts the god of frenzy Óðinn followed by a Berserker.  Public domain via Wikimedia.

This idea that by covering yourself in animal skins the wearer can take on the power of the animal was passed down through popular tales and legends in northern Europe and was initially associated with sorcery. In the wild saga of the Volsungs, it is told how Sigmund and his son Sinfjotli came across a house where they found two men asleep and above them hanging up, wolfskins. Knowing that the sleeping men had dealing with witchcraft the brothers dressed themselves in the wolfskins and were immediately overtaken by the “nature of the original beast” [16]. With the power of the wolf, they went on a ten-day rampage which ended when Sigmund gave his son a lethal bite on the neck. The son only survived because a kind raven gave Sigmund a feather imbued with healing powers [17].

The Werewolf of Landes

By Hans Baldung – Source: R. Decker, Hexen, Frontispiz (2004), Public Domain via Wikimedia.

The belief that wolf skins could turn someone into a wolf was not confined to Northern Europe, it existed all over Europe and even further afield. Eventually, the story subtly changed and by the medieval period, it was believed that it was the Devil who gave those who he wished to corrupt, pellets or belts, in order to commit atrocious acts in his name.

This can be seen in the story of Jean Grenier who lived in Landes in the South of France. Jean admitted to local officials that he had sold his soul to the Devil who had in return given him a salve and wolf pelt which had conferred on him the power of transforming into a wolf. He said he had the wolf skin in his possession and that he went out hunting for children to devour at his master’s command.  Jean’s evidence matched the circumstances surrounding reported child disappearances and several children testified to having been attacked by him. An enlightened sentence for the time stated that Jean was an imbecile and dismissed his confession of being in league with a demonic figure. Jean was sentenced to confinement at a local monastery for the rest of his life [18].

The Beast of Bedburg

The most notorious and famous werewolf case is that of Peter Stubbe, a wealthy farmer who lived in the late 1500s in Bedburg, Germany. He was accused of the killing and mutilation of livestock and multiple murders including 13 children and two pregnant women, whose foetuses he ripped from their bellies, feeding on the unborn babies’ hearts. He was also believed to have sexually molested his own daughter and having killed his son and eaten his brains. The townspeople of Bedburg initially believed that the crimes had been committed by wolves but later feared that it was the responsibility of a demonic force or a werewolf. At his trial, Stubbe admitted to having received a wolf’s pelt from the Devil at the age of 12 which would turn him into the likeness of a wolf with an insatiable hunger. He said when he removed it, he would return to his human state again. His confession obtained on the rack does make one wonder about its veracity. His punishment was severe and terrible, he was placed on a wheel and his flesh removed with red hot pincers. His arms and legs were broken and his head cut off. His daughter and mistress were accused of being his accomplices, strangled and their bodies burnt along with his. Suffice it to say, the belt was never found [19].

Composite woodcut print by Lukas Mayer of the execution of Peter Stumpp in 1589 at Bedburg near Cologne. Public domain via Wikipedia.

One recent interpretation of Stubbe’s case is that the accusation was motivated by greed and jealousy; Stubbe was a very wealthy and powerful man. It would have been in some people’s interests to destroy him and his family and in that, they were successful!

Conclusion

Returning to the Dirks family, the fascinating part of their story is not their being accused of witchcraft; witchcraft trials were numerous during this period, but the werewolf side of it. In many countries in Europe, witches were believed to have the power to shapeshift, so these accusations were not unusual in itself but linking their tale and that of Hans and his wife to were-wolves and were-bears is. It combined two elements that people in the medieval period feared the most, witches and werewolves, whilst at the same time continuing a long-held belief that went back to the berserkers and the power of the ancient gods.

The Company of Wolves. Directed by Neil Jordan. Palace Pictures 1984.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Werewolf Witch Trials, https://www.revolvy.com/topic/Werewolf%20witch%20trials&item_type=topic

Willem de Bleucourt, https://www.faculty.umb.edu/gary_zabel/Courses/Phil%20281b/Philosophy%20of%20Magic/Arcana/Witchcraft%20and%20Grimoires/deBlecourt-womenaswitch.pdf

The Truth about Viking Berserkers, https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.historyextra.com/period/viking/the-truth-about-viking-berserkers/amp/

The Wild and Insane Viking Warriors, https://www.historia.ro/sectiune/general/articol/the-wild-and-insane-viking-warriors

Berserkers and other Shamanic Warriors, https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/others/berserkers-and-other-shamanic-warriors/

History of the Werewolf Legend, https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.history.com/.amp/topics/folklore/history-of-the-werewolf-legend

Lycanthropie en weerwolfprocessen in de Nederlanden tijdens de zestiende en zeventiende eeuw, https://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_tie002200201_01/_tie002200201_01_0037.php

The Werewolf of Bedburg: The true story of a monster that terrorized a German village, https://www.liveabout.com/the-werewolf-of-bedburg-2597445

Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe, ed. Alison Rowlands, 2009

Peter Stubbe, http://www.scaryforkids.com/peter-stubbe/

Germany’s Brutal Werewolf Belt and The Gut-Wrenching Execution of Peter Stubbe, https://www.ancient-origins.net/history/germany-s-brutal-werewolf-belt-and-gut-wrenching-execution-of-peter-stubbe

Werewolf Witch Trials, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Werewolf_witch_trials

Werewolf Trials, https://m.ranker.com/list/werewolf-trials-facts/Inigo-gonzalez

The Book of Were-Wolves, Sabine Baring-Gould, 1865

Mythical Creatures: Mysteries, Legends and Unexplained Phenomena, Linda S. Godfrey, 2009

NOTES

[1] Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe

[2] Lycanthropie en weerwolfprocessen in de Nederlanden

[3] Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe

[4] ibid

[5] Werewolf Witch Trials

[6] Lycanthropie en weerwolfprocessen in de Nederlanden

[7] Werewolf Witch Trials

[8] ibid

[9] Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe

[10] Werewolf Witch Trials

[11] The Truth about Viking Berserkers

[12] The Book of Were-Wolves

[13] ibid

[14] The Truth about Viking Berserkers

[15] ibid

[16] The Book of Were-Wolves

[17] History of the Werewolf Legend

[18] The Book of Were-Wolves

[19] History of the Werewolf Legend

Medieval Death: The Danse Macabre

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Denise Poncher before a Vision of Death_Getty

Ms. 109 (2011.40), fol. 156 c 1493-1510. Getty collection.

In the late Middle Ages, life was tough and brief, and King Death presided over all.  Plague, social upheaval, famine, and the Hundred Years War had all taken their toll on the population and this was reflected in the dark art of the fifteenth century.

Ars Moriendi, or Art of Dying, texts set out how a Christian could have a Good Death; Memento Mori images, such as the three living and the three dead, reminded people of the transient nature of earthly pleasures – and the judgement to come;  Cadaver or Transi tombs begged the passer-by to pray for the departed and so to quicken their passage through purgatory.

Grim traditions for a grim time.  However, the late Middle Ages also saw the development of the gleefully morbid Danse Macabre or Dance of Death which could be found in Northern Europe and as far south as Italy. It is worth noting that the subject of the Danse is a vast one which encompasses performance, literature and the visual arts.  This post will focus mainly two of the more well known, but now lost, visual representation of the Danse at Holy Innocents Cemetery in Paris and Old St Paul’s in London.

Origins of the Macabre

Nuremberg_chronicle Dance of Death (CCLXIIIIv) Via Wikimedia

Macabre, a word that evokes not just morbid themes, but also hints at a certain fascination or even relish for the subject.  A word that fits the art of the post plague Medieval world like a decaying body fits a tattered shroud.

There is scholarly debate as to the origin of the word macabre. It has been argued to be Hebrew, Arabic or a derivation of the Biblical name Maccabeus (the slaughter of the Maccabees was a popular subject of Medieval Mystery plays) [1].  Whatever its true origin, it soon became indissolubly linked with a particular form of Medieval Memento Mori art, the Danse Macabre.

The first literary reference that partners it with the Danse Macabre appears in 1376 in Jean Le Fevre’s Le respit de la mort, written, appropriately, when Le Fevre was recovering from plague.  Here ‘Macabre‘ appears to be a character or a personification of death:

I did the dance of Macabre
who leads all men to his dance
and directs them to the grave,
which is their final abode.[2]

This poem exemplifies the Medieval literary penchant for didactic poetry.  Such poetry often took the form of a conversation between the body and the soul, and usually had a Christian, moral theme entreating the reader to eschew the vanities of life in favour of preparing the soul for the afterlife.  This genre sat comfortably alongside other Memento Mori traditions such as the Three Living and the Three Dead.  Its didactic form was also a perfect fit for the Danse Macabre theme – with the personification of Death summoning his unwilling victims to the grave.

The hours of Dionara of Urbino’), Italy, ca. 1480

Dancing in the graveyard

The Danse Macabre usually depicted a line of dancers, from different estates in society, partnered by cavorting skeletons.  Dancers are drawn from all levels of the social hierarchy – from Popes and emperors, princes of the church, kings, labourers and even children. Later depictions added women and newly emergent professional classes such as doctors and merchants – all clearly identifiable by stereotypical dress.

Often text or dialogue accompanies each pair of dancers, death calling each one and the dancer bemoaning their fate. Examples were found on charnel houses, cemetery walls and in churches. As a subgenre of the popular Medieval Estates Satire, the Danse Macabre hammered home, like nails into a coffin that, no matter your position in society, death was the great leveller [3][4].

Marchants Danse Macabre, pope and emperor

Guy Marchants Danse Macabre from Holy Innocents Cemetery. c1491 -92.

The first known artistic representation Danse Macabre was to be found, appropriately enough, on the walls of the charnel house of Holy Innocents Cemetery, Paris. Holy Innocents cemetery was the oldest in Paris, dating from the end of the twelfth century and was situated next to the bustling marketplace of Les Halles. The cemetery would have been bustling with people, traders, scribes, sex workers. The Charnel house, a place where the bones of the dead, high and low, were all mixed together regardless of rank, would have been an ideal location for the mural.  The Images at Holy Innocents were also accompanied by Le Fevre’s text, forever linking the two in the popular imagination and creating what some have likened to a Medieval comic strip with images and speech ‘bubbles’ [5][6].

Locating the Danse Macabre in a cemetery fitted with folk belief as well, it has been noted that in popular culture, it was not uncommon for people to report seeing corpses dancing in graveyards [7]. Overall, the average Medieval person was concerned with the unquiet dead, sinners roaming about with unfinished business amongst the living – as many contemporary reports of revenants, attest.

Charnel House at Holy Innocents/Cimetière des Innocents, Paris. Via Wikimedia.

The mural was commissioned between August 1424 and Lent 1425, a period of truce in the One Hundred Years war.  The Treaty of Troyes gave Henry V, right to the throne of France, when he died in 1422, his son Henry VI, became king of France and England.  However, as Henry VI was only a baby, France was placed under the regency of John of Bedford, Henry VI’s uncle and a well-known patron of the arts.

The image is a macabre carnival – death mocks and pulls at his dance partners, the fat abbot is told he will be the first to rot, while death flirts with the handsome chevalier and gropes the physician.  There are 30 couples in all, from the highest to the lowest.  With an ‘authority’ figure to introduce the dance, and another authority figure and a dead king to deliver the moral of the dance [8].  As John Lydgate put it:

Come forth, sir Abbot, with your [broad] hat,
Beeth not abaissed (though thee have right).
Greet is your hede, youre bely large and fatte;
Ye mote come daunce though ye be nothing light.
[..]
Who that is fattest, I have hym behight,
In his grave shal sonnest putrefie. [9]

The subject matter of the mural may have been influenced by the contemporary political situation – the figures mainly depicted the ruling and martial classes, the king, constable and, of course, a corpse king.  It was also this political situation, a lull in the hostilities, that allowed English poet John Lydgate to visit Paris in 1426.

Lydgate was impressed with the image and accompanying text and was influenced to write his English translation of Le Fevre’s text with the addition of extra characters drawn from Mystery plays and masques of the time.  Lydgate also introduced some female characters to the text [10].

Danse Macabre at Tallinn by Bernt Notke

Danse Macabre from Talllinn by Bernt Notke c1500.

In 1430 a version of the Danse Macabre was painted at the Pardoner Churchyard, Old St Paul’s, London (commonly known as the ‘dauce of Poulys‘).  Both image and text were influenced by the Mural at Holy Innocents. This version depicted 36 dancers from different stations in life, summoned by death.  The St Paul’s images were augmented with dialogue between death and his victims, this time provided by John Lydgate’s translation ‘Out of the Frensshe’ [11].  Writing in 1603 in his Survey of London, John Stow described the St Paul’s Dance, thus:

“[..] About this Cloyster, was artificially and richly painted the dance of Machabray, or dance of death, commonely called the dance of Pauls: the like whereof was painted about S. Innocents cloyster at Paris in France: the meters or poesie of this dance were translated out of French into English by Iohn Lidgate, Monke of Bury, the picture of death leading all estates, at the dispence of Ienken Carpenter, in the raigne of Henry the sixt.”

Stow’s comments highlight how influential the Danse Macabre at Holy Innocents was on subsequent versions.

Another common feature of both Holy Innocents Danse Macabre and St Paul’s was that they were situated in busy areas bustling with life and frequented by the public, both became popular, and thought provoking, attractions.  Sadly, neither survive – Holy Innocents Cemetery was completely removed at the end of the eighteenth century and the mural at St Paul’s was destroyed in 1549.

Marchant's Danse of Death

Holy Innocents Cemetery by Guy Marchant c1491-92.

Many other examples of the Danse Macabre were created in the following decades, notable ones having existing at Basel (c1440), Lubeck (1463) and Tallinn, Estonia (1500).  Each was tailored to its own locale and reflected the patrons who commissioned it – where Holy Innocents focused on the martial classes, Lubeck featured more from the merchant classes.

Sadly, many examples are lost, surviving only in copies or as fragments of vast originals – such as the fragment at St Nicholas’ Church Tallinn by Bernt Notke (a copy of his earlier lost work at Lubeck).  Clearly, later ages did not share the Medieval fondness for macabre public art.

So, how did the Medieval viewer read such an audio-visual experience?

The Unwanted Dance Partner

Danse Macabre by Bernt Notke, image via Wikimedia.

Danse Macabre by Bernt Notke via Wikimedia.

The most obvious message that even an illiterate Medieval viewer could take away from the Danse Macabre, is that death is the great leveller.  No matter how high your estate, in the end death is coming for you.

The Danse was also personal, all of the estates of society could be found, so whether you were a king, a merchant or a labourer, or even a child, you could find your own representation in the danse; some of them even set the dance in a recognisably local landscape, for added impact.  The viewer could also, in a sense, participate in the dance, because many of the life size frescoes within churches, such as that at Tallinn, required the viewer to process along the fresco in order to see all of the original 48-50 figures[12].

The danse was also undeniably slapstick.  Viewers would have been familiar with figure of death or devils and their comedic antics in Mystery plays and even court masques so the viewer could laugh at the expense of their betters as they are dragged to the grave by a cavorting skeleton, whilst also being viscerally reminded of their own mortality.

A medieval burial, from a Book of Hours made in Besançon (detail), France, c. 1430–1440, Rare Books Collection, State Library Victoria.

A medieval burial, from a Book of Hours made in Besançon (detail), France, c. 1430–1440, Rare Books Collection, State Library Victoria.

But more than that, the Danse subverted the natural order of things.  The dead should be at rest, subject to the funeral mass, and quiet in their graves, not cavorting about.  It’s notable that many of these images were associated with graveyards – often sights of lively activity, commercial and personal, so much so that in Rouen in 1231 and Basel in 1435 edicts were passed prohibiting dancing in graveyards [13].  The Danse images were challenging the norm.  Dancing in Medieval thought was primarily associated with sin, paganism and seduction. Placing images of a sinful activity in a holy setting would seem to point to their purpose being penitential or confessional [14].

But, what of the text that sat alongside the images.  In a world where the majority of people were illiterate, how important was it?  While the images convey death as the great leveller, the dialogue between death and the living, prompts people to remember that earths glories are temporary, pride is the greatest sin of all, and that they should repent and prepare their souls for the afterlife.

However, while only a few would have been educated enough to read the text themselves, the message of atonement it conveyed would not have been lost on the illiterate.  The images would have been viewed in the context of lively sermons on the subject and oral tales reinforcing the message that death could strike at any time, so you should prepare your soul.  After the ravages of the Black Death this would have been particularly poignant [15].

The reformation and Death gets a reboot

The Abbess by Holbein 1523/5. Public domain.

In the sixteenth century, the religious and political landscape of Europe was drastically altered by the Protestant Reformation as well as technical innovations like the printing press. Nevertheless, it was during this period that the Dance of Death had its most famous reboot.  In 1523-25, Hans Holbein produce his famous version of the Dance of Death, however, rather than a public fresco in a church, his work was a series of woodcuts often reproduced in codex/book form.  This broke up the dance into a series of pages and also provided a more private and personal experience for the viewer. And, also, from a modern perspective, reinforces the link between the format of the Dance and modern graphic novel or comic strip art forms. Holbein’s Dance of Death also repurposed the genre as a tool of social satire and religious reform, rather than as a moral or religious lesson [16]. 

Dancing down the ages

The heyday of the Danse Macabre as religious symbolism was the Late Middle Ages, however, the striking visual image of death harrying the living has remained a popular subject for artists throughout the ages, although its message may have changed.

In the nineteenth century, Thomas Rowlandson collaborated with poet William Combe to produce the satirical series The English Dance of Death in 1815.  In the twentieth century, Ingmar Bergman’s Iconic film the Seventh Seal (1957) used Dance imagery, and in the twenty-first century, English Heavy Metal Band Iron Maiden’s 2015 album was named for the Dance of Death.

The English Dance of Death, Thomas Rowlandson 1815. Image from Haunted Palace Collection.And if you thought that the Dance of Death was now just the preserve of historians and heavy metal fans, one school of thought has it that the modern predilection for dressing up in scary costumes at Halloween can be linked back to that most macabre of medieval traditions [17].

Sources and notes

Binski, Paul, Medieval Death, Cornell University Press, 1996 [3] [13] [14] [16]

Cook, Megan, L, and Strakhov, Elizaveta, Ed. John Lydgate’s Dance of Death and Related works, Medieval Institute Publications, 2019 [1] [2] [4] [5] [7] [9] [10] [11]

Dodedans – St Paul’s dance, [8] http://www.dodedans.com/Epaul.htm#:~:text=The%20most%20famous%20dance%20of%20death%20in%20England,%28And%20fro%20Paris%20%2F%20to%20Inglond%20hit%20sent%29.

Ebenstein, Joanna, Ed. Death: A Graveside Companion, Thames & Hudson, 2017. [6]

Gertsman, Elina, The Dance of Death in Reval (Tallinn): The Preacher and His Audience, in Gesta Vol. 42, No. 2 (2003), pp. 143-159 (17 pages) Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the International Center of Medieval Art [12] [15 [17]

Platt, Colin, King Death: The Black Death in England and its aftermath in late-medieval England,  UCL Press.

Review: Where the Night Rooks Go by Philip G. Horey

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Where the Night Rooks Go by Philip G Horey

Frogman Publishing, 2019, 267 pages.

About the author

Philip G. Horey is from the North East of England. He is a Commercial Diver and Photographer. For 30 years he lived on the West Coast of Scotland after having sailed there in an old ship’s lifeboat in 1985. He now lives on the outskirts of Newcastle. ‘Where the Night Rooks Go’ is his first writing foray into the legends and folklore of the British Isles having previously published two pictorial books ‘3rd Hung Kuen Championships 2018, 70-75 kg: Full Contact’ and ‘Islands of the Blue Men’, a pictorial voyage to the Shiant Islands.

Book Review

Horey is fascinated by the unknown and in his new book, ‘Where the Night Rooks Go’ delves into the mysterious legends which envelope some of the most fascinating places and locations in Scotland and England.

The book is divided into twenty-two chapters with each chapter concentrating on one specific location or theme, exploring both the history and legends which surround it. The book covers a range of topics from spirits to the undead to UFO sightings. The book includes poetry written by well-known writers, as well as stories and legends from oral tradition and is illustrated with the author’s own photographs. All of this adds to the sense of otherworldliness which permeates through the pages.

Sandlewood By by Philip G Horey

Sandwood Bay by Philip G Horey

The book opens up with the poem ‘The Haunter’ by Thomas Hardy. A wonderfully atmospheric poem which was written by Hardy, himself a firm believer in ghosts, after the death of his wife, Emma, in 1912. The poem is written from the perspective of his deceased wife, whose increasing frustration at her inability to communicate with her grieving husband, is powerfully conveyed in the last stanza of the poem. The poem itself is the perfect introduction to the book and sets the tone for what follows.

Some of the stories Horley recounts are already well known such as the Loch Ness Monster, Culloden and Chillingham Castle with its multitude of ghosts and grisly stories. Others, less familiar such as ‘The Mermaid of Sennor’, ‘Windhouse’ on Shetland, ‘Sandwood Bay’ and ‘The Cloutie Tree’ are just as fascinating. Even with those legends that have been told and retold countless times, the author with his own unique style manages to resurrect them, making the reader feel that they are being introduced to the stories for the very first time. One particular chapter, ‘Bomber County’ was particularly moving. The loss of so many young men in horrific circumstances is in itself, heart-breaking but Horey in his description of the many hauntings associated with the airfields and crash sites stirs both our compassion as well as our dread. In a very different tone, Horey gives a detailed description of a ‘ghost hunt’ which he participated in, at Castle Menzies in Scotland. The ensuing account is hilarious, as he describes both the other participants and the various scenes he witnessed, revealing here, as elsewhere, both his self-deprecating sense of humour as well as his sympathy for the stories of those individuals he is recounting.

Throughout the book, Horey uses his photographs to illustrate the tales, capturing their spirit and enhancing their effectiveness. Horey is a skilled and clever photographer and I was particularly impressed with the powerful imagery of his black and white photographs.

Castle Menzies by Philip G Horey

Castle Menzies by Philip G Horey

Whilst describing the creaking door of an aircraft hangar at night, which had caught his attention and stirred his imagination, Horey ponders whether it is this that is the reason “why ghosts are more associated with the night, when one’s senses can more easily focus on something so subtle and vague, something easily overlooked with the distractions of the day?”. This sentiment for me sums up the feeling of the book; which is one of mystery, wonder and eeriness, with an author who believes that sometimes we are better off not really knowing the answers to our many questions.

I would strongly recommend ‘Where the Night Rooks Go’ for all who are interested in the supernatural, history and folklore. The book veers from achingly sad to amusing and back again but it is always informative and fascinating. It is well-written and on the whole, a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Where the Night Rooks Go by Philip G Horey is available at Frogman Publishing at http://www.spanglefish.com/frogmanpublishing/index.asp

Culloden by Philip G Horey

Culloden by Philip G Horey