‘Robber’ Snooks: The last highwayman to be hanged in England


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A life of crime

James Snooks was born in Hemel Hempstead on the 16th August 1761, the second of four children to John and Mary Snooks. That is pretty much all that is known of the early life of James Snooks.

The Highwayman. Image from Victorian Toy Theatre.

The next time the name of James Snooks appears is in connection with a case held at the Old Bailey on the 15 January 1800 where he was indicted for stealing a gelding valued at 91 shillings. The horse the property of Thomas Somerset disappeared from his paddock in Preshute near Marlborough on the 1st November 1799. On the 1st December 1799, the horse was discovered by one of Somerset’s men being driven along the Bath road on the way to the Cinque Port Fencibles. The investigation carried out determined that the horse had come into the possession of a Mr James Langhorne who had sold it in a private auction to a Mr Bishop who in turn had sold it to a Mr Marsden, a horse dealer. Mr Langhorne testified that the name “Blackman” was entered in his books as the person from whom he had acquired the horse. Langhorne also stated that after receiving a good character reference from a Mr Chancellor for James Blackman Snooks, he gave Snooks the money owed to him from the sale. After it was discovered that the horse had been stolen, Mr Langhorne’s foreman had searched for Snooks and after a game of cat and mouse had finally caught the prisoner. Snooks was acquitted of the charge due to lack of evidence since no-one had ever seen the horse in Snooks’ possession and Mr Somerset couldn’t be 100% sure that the horse had been stolen and not simply got out of its paddock[1].

Painting by George Stubbs via Wikimedia.

Although Snooks escaped from justice this time, he didn’t learn his lesson. At some point either before or after his trial Snooks took to the road and enjoyed for a time at least, a relatively successful career as a highwayman, his preferred area of operation being the road between Bath and Salisbury. That is until he made during one of his heists, a grave error in judgement which led to the hangman’s noose.

One theft too many

Hemel Hempstead in the 19th Century. Image from Herts Genealogy website.

On Sunday 10th May 1801 at around 10.15pm, John Stevens, a post boy was travelling from Tring to Hemel Hempstead when he was ambushed and robbed at gun point by a single highwayman mounted on a dark coloured grey horse. The man stole six mail bags full of promissory notes and letters. One of the letters contained a large sum of money comprising of £50 and £10 notes. In total the amount stolen was estimated at £500. Once the bags had been emptied of anything of value, he threw away the rest and left them strewn over the moor[2].

The man had chosen an isolated part of Boxmoor near Bourne End to make his attack, probably reasoning that the remoteness as well as being under the cover of darkness would conceal his identity. Unfortunately it was as he was making his get-away that he made a fatal mistake and one which he would live to regret. Along with the empty mail bags and the worthless letters, he also discarded a saddle with a broken strap.

After the highwayman had disappeared, Stevens made his way back and reported the robbery to both the Postmaster and the High Constable John Page (of the King’s Arms of nearby Berkhamsted). The next day they began their investigation.

To catch a highwayman

During the course of his enquiries, Page discovered that several people remembered seeing a man at the King’s Arms fixing a broken girth strap[3]. The man in question was identified as James Snooks. Snooks had previously worked for Page as an ostler a year or so earlier. He was known to have lived in Hemel Hempstead in 1800 and so was perfectly positioned to observe the post boy’s route[4].

The next step was to find Snooks. On top of the ususal £100 reward offered for the capture of highwaymen by Parliament, a further £200 remuneration was promised by the Postmaster General. The high price on Snooks head shows just how serious and determined the officials were to bring Snooks to justice.

The London Chronicle in May 1801 published an article on the crime in which they recounted what took place on the night in question as well as giving a detailed description of Snooks. In most myths, novels and folklore highwaymen tend to be cast into the role of debonair, handsome, roguish adventurers. In the case of Snooks this couldn’t be further from the truth. He was described as in his late 30s/early 40s, 5 feet 10/11 inches tall with short light brown hair and a face left pitted due to smallpox. The Chronicle also states that Snooks was last seen leaving his lodgings at 3 Woodstock Street wearing a blue coat, black velvet collar, Marcella waistcoat with blue and white stripes, velveteen breaches and dark coloured stockings[5].

Snooks had after leaving the King’s Arms headed to Southwark before continuing on to Hungerford. Why he decided to return to his home town where he was well-known seems strange; maybe he was panicking, maybe he was arrogant or maybe he simply trusted in his friends and family to protect him.

London Stage Coach. Via Wikimedia.

Despite his precarious situation it was reported that Snooks could not help bragging about his nefarious deeds and finally his luck ran out. On the 8th December 1801 whilst driving a post-chaise through Marlborough Forest, the driver William Salt recognised Snooks and with the help of his passengers managed to apprehend him[6]. Salt had gone to the same school as Snooks and so was in no doubt about whom he was capturing. When searched £200 were found on Snooks’ person as well as a brace of pistols. Snooks’ career as a highwayman was over.

The evidence

Although it was pretty much universally accepted that Snooks had been the man behind the highwayman’s mask, proving it was a little harder. Due to the theft having taken place at night Stevens was unable to conclusively identify Snooks as the thief.

Earliest £5 note (18th century). Image copyright Bank of England.

The nail in the coffin turned out in the end to be the money itself. Whilst in Southwark, Snooks had despatched a servant to purchase some cloth for a coat on his behalf and to bring him back the change. accidentally he had given the girl £50 instead of a £5 note[7]. £50 in 1800 would have been worth about £900 in today’s money. This note aroused the trader’s suspicions and he contacted the authorities. On investigation the note was traced back to the Tring mail robbery. Snooks must have been aware of his blunder and this was probably why he fled Southwark in such haste.

Trial and Judgement

The Old Bailey. Image via BBC website.

Hanging in chains. Image via Wikimedia.

Snooks was initially imprisoned in Newgate prison before being transferred to Hertford gaol on the 4th March 1802. The trial was held at the Hertford Assizes five days later. The verdict was guilty and he was sentenced to be hanged. Transportation was not an option as the crime was considered “of a nature so destructive to society and the commercial interests to the country”[8].

The actual sentence was for Snooks to be hanged in chains, a rather gruesome means of execution. Page, now promoted to the position of High Constable of the Hundred of Dacorum was given the task of deciding where the execution was to take place. Page decreed it would be held at the place where the crime had been committed. This ruling was not unusual and was often used when officials wanted to make an example out of a particular case.

By the start of the 1800s people were starting to lose their taste for grisly public executions and that was probably the reason why the residents of Boxmoor decided to petition the court to commute the sentence to that of a simple hanging.

Execution day

Two days later on the 11th March 1802, James Snooks was taken from the gaol and transported to his final destination on Boxmoor. As custom dictated the condemned man was allowed to stop for one final drink. It was reported that Snooks when faced with his escorts’ impatience exclaimed “it’s no good hurrying – they can’t start the fun until I get there[9].

Hogarth’s Idle Apprentice. Via Wikimedia.

A large crowd had been gathering since early that morning to witness justice being served. The day had been declared a local holiday and people were excited and eager to hear the highwayman’s last words. Unfortunately from their point of view Snooks failed to live up to their expectations. His audience made their feelings clear as they stamped and hissed as he spoke about the necessity to observe the Sabbath and the need for children to listen to their parents and follow their advice in order to avoid being drawn into a life of crime[10]. At the end of his monologue he offered his gold watch to anyone who was prepared to assure him of a decent burial. No-one accepted his offer and he was strung up from one group of five horse-chestnut trees[11]

Robert Snooks grave, Boxmoor. Image by Rob Farrow Creative Commons license.

His body was eventually cut down and unceremoniously tossed into a makeshift grave which had been layered with straw. A rather unpleasant scene then ensued with the executioner trying to strip the corpse of its clothes insisting that it was his right. Page had to step in and stop the chaos and prevent any further desecration of the body. He ordered the remaining straw to be thrown in on top of the corpse and the grave to be filled in. The officials then retired to the Swan Public House for a drink.

The next day the villagers obviously had a change of heart as they returned to the execution site, exhumed the body, placed it in a wooden coffin and then reburied it at the same spot.

In 1904 the Box Moor Trust placed a small white headstone on a site which is believed to have been the area where Snooks was hanged. The exact location of the grave is unknown. The inscription on the gravestone is simply “Robert Snooks 11th March 1802”. James Snooks has gone down in history as Robert Snooks probably due to a corruption of his nickname ‘Robber Snooks’[12]. The headstone and a small footstone placed in 1994 now stand some 20m off the A41 on Boxmoor Common between Bourne End and Boxmoor.

The last highwayman to be hanged in England

Satire 4120. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

Snooks himself was a common all garden thief. There was nothing distinctive about him in life but in death he achieved a rather unexpected notoriety, that of the last highwayman to be hanged in England.

The occupation of highwayman was becoming less attractive as a criminal activity and by 1815 it was rare for mounted robberies to take place. There were a number of reasons for this decline. One of which was the expansion of gated and manned toll roads and turnpikes which hampered the highwaymen’s escape. Another reason was the increase in 1800 of horse patrols. This together with the newly formed police service[13] which had started in London in 1805 had resulted in pushing the highwayman’s area of operation away from the city and further into more remote locations[14]. A final obstacle and the one that had been Snooks’ downfall was the introduction and greater use of notes as currency. Notes as Snooks found out were traceable and so harder to get rid of than gold[15]. The golden era of the highwayman was over.

M0012499 Tottenham Court Road Turnpike, about 1800.  Wellcome Collection.

Into folklore

As tradition dictates Snooks has become somewhat of a mythical figure and a number of supernatural stories have become associated with him.

Robert Snooks gravestone. Image by Rob Farrow, creative commons license.

It is said that if you run around the four trees where Snooks was hanged you will see his ghost. A slight issue with this particular story but one which seems not to bother this particular restless spirit, is that the trees which now stand near the grave are not the same ones as in 1802 (the original trees were cut down years ago when they became diseased)[16].

One legend states that if you walk around the gravestone three times and call out Snooks name he will materialise[17]. A slight variation on this theme recounts that if you summon Snooks whilst circling the stone twelve times he will appear and join you in a danse macabre!

On a number of occasions it has been reported that the grave site has been disturbed at night by people trying to find Snooks skull and bones to use them in magical rituals[18].

Lastly fresh flowers are often seen at the stone along with children’s drawings. [19]. For me for some reason the idea of children’s sketches being given almost as an offering sends a chill up my spine.


Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
Robert Snooks – Highwayman, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/domesday/dblock/GB-500000-204000/page/2
Last highwayman hung in Hemel Hempstead, http://www.hertsmemories.org.uk/content/herts-history/towns-and-villages/hemel-hempstead/last-highwayman-hung-in-hemel-hempstead
James Snooks, the last highwayman to hang, http://www.watfordobserver.co.uk/news/5759738.James_Snooks___The_last_highwayman_to_hang/
Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
Snook’s Grave, http://www.thegranthams.co.uk/paul/graves/snooks.html
Highwaymen, http://www.hungerfordvirtualmuseum.co.uk/index.php/14-people/254-highwaymen
Whores and Highwaymen, Crime and Justice in the Eighteenth Century Metropolis by Gregory J. Dunston, 2012
Stand and Deliver: a history of highway robbery, David Brandon, 2014
Beware, the ghost of highwayman Snooks, http://www.hemeltoday.co.uk/news/beware-the-ghost-of-highwayman-snooks-1-6380931
10 Notorious Men from European History, http://listverse.com/2016/04/02/10-notorious-highwaymen-from-european-history/
Haunted Hertfordshire: A ghostly gazetteer, Ruth Stratton and Nicholas Connell, 2002
The proceedings of the Old Bailey, JAMES-BLACKMAN SNOOK, Theft > animal theft, 15th January 1800., https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18000115-45-person434&div=t18000115-45#highlight


[1] The proceedings of the Old Bailey, JAMES-BLACKMAN SNOOK, Theft > animal theft, 15th January 1800., https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18000115-45-person434&div=t18000115-45#highlight
[2] Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
[3] ibid
[4] Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
[5] Highwaymen, http://www.hungerfordvirtualmuseum.co.uk/index.php/14-people/254-highwaymen
[6] Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
[7] Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
[8] Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
[9] ibid
[10] Stand and Deliver: a history of highway robbery, David Brandon, 2014
[11] Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
[12] Robert Snooks, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Snooks
[13] Highwaymen, http://www.hungerfordvirtualmuseum.co.uk/index.php/14-people/254-highwaymen
[14] James Snooks, the last highwayman to hang, http://www.watfordobserver.co.uk/news/5759738.James_Snooks___The_last_highwayman_to_hang/
[15] Highwaymen, http://www.hungerfordvirtualmuseum.co.uk/index.php/14-people/254-highwaymen
[16] Robert Snooks – Highwayman, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/domesday/dblock/GB-500000-204000/page/2
[17] 10 Notorious Men from European History, http://listverse.com/2016/04/02/10-notorious-highwaymen-from-european-history/
[18] Robert Snooks – Out of Place Graves on Waymarking.com, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3CAW_Robert_Snooks
[19] Haunted Hertfordshire: A ghostly gazetteer, Ruth Stratton and Nicholas Connell, 2002

Medieval Death: The Cadaver Tomb (transi tomb)


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Danse Macabre by Bernt Notke in Tallin, Estonia. (Image via Wikipedia).

A dark secret in Lincoln Cathedral

Richard Fleming’s tomb and chantry, Lincoln Cathedral.

A visitor wandering the aisles of Lincoln’s fine Gothic cathedral, awed by its vast air ribbed vaulting, intrigued by its curious Medieval carvings – such as the famous Lincoln Imp – and immersed in its impressive Medieval and Wren libraries, would be forgiven for overlooking the tomb of Richard Fleming, the bishop of Lincoln from 1420-1431.

Fleming’s monument forms part of a chantry chapel and is tucked away on the North wall of the cathedral. A cursory glance is all most visitors probably afford it – yet another elaborate memorial to a high churchman. But if you look a little closer, Richard Fleming’s tomb hides a remarkable and macabre secret. In the lower part of the monument, beneath the sculpture of the recumbent bishop in his robes of office, lies a very different image, a shrunken cadaver, ribs protruding, eyes hollow, wrapped in a winding-sheet.  The sculpture offers a visceral reminder of the bodily decay, awaiting high and low alike, after death. Fleming’s tomb is one of the earliest English examples of the Transi or Cadaver Tomb in England. But why would a prominent and influential churchman chose to have himself depicted as food for worms?

Richard Fleming’s transi image. Lincoln Cathedral.

What’s in a name

Kathleen Cohen, in her fascinating book Metamorphosis of a death symbol, explains that the word transi derives from the latin verb transire – trans to cross, ire to go and that this links in with the French word transir, in use from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, and which means ‘to die’ or ‘to pass away’ or ‘ to go’. Transi tombs can, using this basis, be interpreted as depicting the transitional body, from life, to death, and onwards to resurrection.

Gisant style tomb of Charles III in the Cathedral of Pamplona.

Transi or as they are more commonly know, cadaver tombs are similar but also distinct from the more familiar Medieval tombs, known as gisants, which depicted the medieval deceased recumbent and dressed clothes befitting their rank and station. In stark contrast, the transi figure presents the viewer with the deceased in an advanced state of decomposition, sunken eyes, prominent ribs, even covered in toads, snakes and vermin (although this was always more popular on the continent, particularly Germany, rather than in the British Isles).

The cadaverous transi attributed to Thomas Haxby, York Minster.

Cadaver tombs could be double deckers or single – Richard Fleming’s is a fine example of the double-decker with the gisant style representation atop the cadaverous one, while the sadly battered and worn cadaver tomb in York Minster, in the west aisle of the north trancept, is an example of the single-decker, with deceased represented only as a decayed corpse. The York tomb is attributed to Treasurer Thomas Haxby (1418-1425) but according to research by Dr Pamela King, may in fact belong to Treasurer John Neuton, founder of York Cathedral’s Medieval library.[1]

Possibly the most famous cadaver tomb in England belongs to Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury between 1414 – 1443, and is a fine example of the double-decker transi tomb. Other examples of cadaver tombs were employed by lay people, men and women alike, and even royalty (particularly in France).

Medieval Death: Plague and punishment

For many years art and architecture historians shied away from examining any deeper meaning in these grisly monuments, seeing at most either a simple didactic Memento Mori function – reminding the living that they too will die, or a psychological reaction to the horrors of the Black Death. The plague that had killed between 30-60% of Europe’s population had peaked in the 1340’s and many felt that its impact was expressed in these monuments and other Morbid medievalisms.  However, the plague argument can be challenged by the fact that there had been regular outbreaks of plague before the Black Death. Perhaps most convincingly, Italy, the origin of the Black Death in Europe, and which suffered huge numbers of deaths, did not evolve a strong cadaver tomb tradition at this time.  So, while the Black Death may have had some influence on the medieval taste for the macabre, it was not necessarily the driving force behind the development of the cadaver style tomb. [2]

Burying the plague victims of Tournai. 14th Century. Public domain image.

In fact, more recent research by Kathleen Cohen in her 1973 work Metamorphosis of a death symbol and in 1987 Dr Pamela King’s PhD thesis Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England have added new dimensions of temporal and spiritual complexity to these remarkable and shocking monuments.   They argue that they can be viewed as both a reaction to changing social and political situation of the fifteenth century a time when church and nation-state were becoming ever more intertwined – and as a part of the broader spirituality of the Medieval past.  They may be viewed then, not as a simple Memento Mori didactic with the viewer, but a reaction to contemporary issues faced by the church as well as a crucial part of the souls journey through purgatory – a dramatic means for soliciting the prayers of the living for the benefit of the dead.

The very early transi of Jean de la Grange. Avignon. Via Wikimedia.

A Morbid Taste for Bones,  The state of the soul after death

Danse Macabre from the Nuremburg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel, 1493.

As mentioned above, while it is true that lay people, both men and women chose the cadaver tomb for their funerary monument, churchmen seemed particularly drawn to this style of memorial and may have been instrumental in its initial dissemination.  Cohen and others have suggested that this may in part be due to the fact that during the 15th century the church underwent a radical change due to the rise of the nation-state.  As more and more powerful men were rewarded for their loyalty to king and country with ecclesiastical preferments, the church became vastly wealthy and inextricably linked to worldly power.  Henry Chichele (1363/4 – 1443) was a prime example of this type of man: a high-flying ecclesiastical lawyer who was rewarded by Henry V for services rendered to the crown with the archbishopric of Canterbury, in 1414.

Henry Chichele Tomb, Canterbury Cathedral. Image by Flambard via Wikimedia.

Chichele, like many of his contemporary churchmen, chose the cadaver tomb.  And make no mistake, these tombs would have been deliberately chosen by their future occupants, not picked for them by relatives after death.  In a ‘double-decker’ the incorruptible office held by the individual is depicted in the gisant style sculpture above – showing the individual in all the pomp and glory of their office. Beneath, the corrupt human form is depicted decaying and gnawed by worms.  But what was the message they were trying to convey?

The three quick and three dead. Arundel83-1 British Library Collection.

Medieval art and literature often portrayed the body as intrinsically sinful.  Images of a vain and luxurious life were often counterpoised with images of the consequences of sin suffered after death.  The state of the soul after death was of huge importance to Medieval people.  Images such as the Danse Macabre, Mort Roi (king death) and the three quick and the three dead, emphasised that worldly vanity and glory would not help the soul awaiting judgement.  This preoccupation with the state of the soul after death was because Medieval people believed that upon death, the bulk of them would end up in purgatory for an indeterminate period before they reached their final destination, be it heaven or hell.  One of the prime purposes of most medieval tombs was, therefore, to elicit prayers from the living to speed the deceased person’s passage through purgatory to heaven. Cadaver tombs were no different, many, such as that of Richard Fleming, being associated with their own chantry chapel precisely for this purpose.

It was also an element of Medieval Christian belief that the death provided not only a release from the sins of the mortal body, but also from the original sin of Adam.  It was thought that the life of an individual from cradle to grave was a re-run in microcosm of mankind’s fall from Grace.  And with the fall from Grace came the hope for resurrection.  Pamela King decodes the cadaver tomb imagery thus: the physically corrupt body is an allegory for the soul,  the Transi image therefore provides, to paraphrase Dr King, an accessible figure for a metaphysical state. [3]

Part of this concern for the soul expressed itself in a wish to humiliate or abase the mortal (and sinful) body in order to save the soul. Not only wealthy and powerful churchmen could wish to patch up the disjoint between their worldly success and their Christian faith. John FitzAlan, 14th Earl of Arundel (1408-1435) chose a cadaver tomb. Arundel was a highly successful and able commander during the latter part of the Hundred Year’s War.  During his short but highly successful military career he accrued many titles and lands for his services.  Although he died of wounds in France, his will stipulated he be buried in the FitzAlan Chapel at Arundel Castle, his tomb is a double-decker cadaver tomb.

Cadavar tomb of the Earl of Arundel. Image by Lampman via Wikimedia.

In an aside provided by Kathleen Cohen, Arundel, despite being praised as the ‘English Achilles’ for his military skill, could also be ruthless and cruel.  En route to fight in France it is said that he rounded up 60 or so women and girls from a convent in Southampton to ‘amuse’ his troops while at sea.  The unfortunate women, having been raped by the soldiers, were then tossed overboard when a storm overtook the troop ships.  It would seem then, at least to modern eyes, that a powerful and wealthy individual choosing a tomb that humbles and humiliates the body as an act of Christian piety in death, could also display a certain degree of hypocrisy.

Overall though, the transi image can be seen not solely as a reminder that the glories of high office may seem to be long-lasting, but sinful mortal bodies will all end up as food for worms, but also that death and decay are an inevitable part of the process that ultimately lead to resurrection of the good Christian soul. [4]

The End of purgatory and the rise of pagan glory

The fashion for cadaver tombs ran from the fifteenth century to the mid sixteenth century (and beyond, John Donne commissioned an extraordinary monument that would seem to have been influenced by this tradition).  However as the religious climate of Europe changed with the protestant reformation in the sixteenth century, transis too, began to change.  As the new protestant ideology promoted by Martin Luther (1483-1546) and others, rejected the idea that good deeds and indulgences from the church would get you into heaven, and promoted the idea that entry to heaven was based on God’s grace alone, the existence of purgatory was questioned. And if there was no purgatory then there was no need for elaborate tombs and chantry chapels designed to elicit prayers from the living for the dead soul.

The Renaissance also brought with it new ideas that contrasted with the Medieval mindset, including the concept of commemorating the deceased and their worldly deeds.  So, while cadaver tombs continued to be built, in particular by royalty, they began to display a kind of pagan sense of glory instead of the Medieval focus on humility and abasement of the body associated with these types of  tombs. One prime  example of this change is the tomb of Henri II and Catherine Medici, at the Basilica St Denis, built between 1560-1573. Catherine, who was alive when the tomb was created, is said to have disliked the first emaciated image created for her and commissioned a second one.  The replacement sculpture is said to have been based on a Venus from the Uffizi in Florence [5] [6] and presents a very different image from the cadaverous worm riddled transis of the previous century.  While the cadaver tomb still undoubtedly pointed to the resurrection of the soul, in this instance at least, royal vanity demanded a pagan aesthetic!

Tomb of Henri II and Catherine de Medici. Mid 16th Century. Image from Basilica St Denis website.


Transi of Rene de Chalons. Image from French Ministry of Culture.

Cadaver tombs developed from a combination of factors – the concern for the state of the sinful soul after death – its need for prayers in order to achieve salvation, the conflict faced (in particular, but not solely) by high churchmen in relation to growing temporal power versus the spiritual asceticism of Christianity. Although it is hard to imagine that a modern viewer of such a tomb would not take away some form of Memento Mori didactic, it would seem that this was not their primary purpose as understood by Medieval people. As Protestantism spread through Europe, and the Renaissance provided a new emphasis on commemorating the dead, the cadaver tomb changed in style and purpose.

Regardless of their ultimate meaning, a modern viewer, coming across one of these macabre monuments is given a thought-provoking and startling insight in to the Medieval mind.

You can find some notable transi tombs in England in York Minster, Lincoln Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral.

Sources and notes

Uncredited images by Lenora.

Brown, Sarah, The Mystery of Neuton’s Tomb
<https://hoaportal.york.ac.uk/hoaportal/yml1414essay.jsp?id=10.> [1]

Cohen, Kathleen, 1973, ‘Metamorphosis of a death symbol’ [4] [6]

King, Pamela, 1987, ‘Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England’ [2][3]

https://uk.tourisme93.com/basilica/tomb-of-henri-and-catherine-de-medici.html [5]



Wimund: Bishop-Pirate and Scourge of Scotland


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Adhémar_de_Monteil_à_Antioche. 13th Century. Wikimedia.

Wimund’ s background is shrouded in mystery with even the chronicler William of Newburgh, a canon of Newburgh Priory and the author of Historia rerum Anglicarum (“History of English Affairs”), who had direct contact with Wimund and wrote a brief account of his life unable to give a clear picture.

William of Newburgh recounted that Wimund was “born in the most obscure spot in England[1]. From the information that is given Wimund was probably born in Cumbria possibly near the area of Furness.

Wimund himself believed that he was the heir of the Earls of Moray in Scotland although at the time most of his contemporaries viewed this claim as spurious. Recently a re-examination of the evidence has led some historian to give credence to Wimund’s assertion. Many have supposed that Wimund was referring to Angus of Moray, the son of Lulach, King of Scotland, who was killed in 1130 but Richard Oram in his book ‘Domination and Lordship: Scotland 1070 – 1230’ presents the theory that it was in fact William, Earl of Moray and son of Duncan II, who was in actual fact the father of Wimund.

William himself spent some time in Allerdale with his mother’s family after the murder of his father in 1094. Allerdale is also located in Cumbria, so it is not out of the realms of possibility that William could have met Wimund’s mother and had a child by her.

If Wimund was the illegitimate son of William of Moray and so was the grandson of Duncan II of Scotland then it would explain why Wimund believed he had a claim to the crown of Scotland and why he chose to go down the path he did.


Wimund was educated at Furness Abbey. The abbey was founded by the future Stephen I of England in 1127. Although the architecture lacked the grandeur of some of the older and more established religious houses the “isolation of Furness increased rather than checked a power possessed by few religious houses in the north; and the abbot ruled vast territories with feudal independence and social advantage[2].

Furness Abbey. Image source Wikipedia.

It was said that due to Wimund penmanship that he was assigned the task of transcribing old writings in monasteries. Wimund had proved that he was a good scholar, intelligent and astute. He was also ambitious and being fortunate enough to belong to an important religious centre must have made him hungry for advancement and power.

Bishop elect

Walters Manuscript W.163, fol. 109r

In 1134 Olaf I, King of the Isles (which included the Isle of Man, the Hebrides and the Islands of the Firth of Clyde) requested that Furness Abbey should found a sister abbey on the Isle of Man. Wimund was a member of the party that was sent to help establish and manage the Abbey of Rushden. Wimund made a good first impression. He was tall and athletic with a “sweetness of face” and “three admirable requisites – an ardent temper, a retentive memory and competent eloquence”[3]. Therefore it was only natural that when the abbey was granted the right to elect a bishop during the time of Thurstan, Archbishop of York, Wimund was chosen. He was given the title of ‘Bishop of the Isles’ or ‘Bishop of Sodor’ and was described as the bishop of sancta ecclesia de Schith, ‘Bishop of the Holy Church of Skye’.

On the warpath

At some point in the late 1140s, probably after the death of William of Moray, Wimund decided to fight for what he believed was rightfully his.

William of Newburgh’s disapproval of Wimund’s actions rings out loud and clear as he writes “[n]ot content with the dignity of his episcopal offices, he next anticipated in his mind how he might accomplish great and wonderful things; for he possessed a haughty speaking mouth with the proudest heart[4].

Medieval royal family tree. Image source: Harley 7353

Although most historians agree that Wimund began to terrorise Scotland to avenge himself on David whom he believed had unfairly deprived him of his inheritance, there also seemed to be another grievance which involved Gille Aldan, the Bishop of Whithorn. Some researchers have merged the two conflicts but others see them as separate issues[5].

The first, Wimund’s paternal inheritance is well-documented. At the time of William’s death his legitimate heir was not yet ten years of age and so was not able to take on his father’s responsibilities and role. William as well as being the Earl of Moray had possessed the areas of Skipton and Craven in Yorkshire and so David had not only lost a key ally but also a strategic foothold in northern England. This foothold had been vital component in David’s expansion plans as well as his desire to pressurise and dominate the already weakened King Stephen. Wimund obvious believed that he was entitled to a share of his father’s lands and saw David as an obstacle. He may have also seen David as a usurper. If Wimund was the son of William then he could claim the eldest son of Malcolm III as his ancestor which would mean he did in fact have a stronger claim to the throne of Scotland than David who was descended through the line of Malcolm’s youngest son.

The second conflict was with Gille Aldan. Aldan was made the first bishop of the restored bishopric of Whithorn. The appointment was made with the approval of Pope Honorius III. The lands of Whithorn were subject to the Bishops of the Isles and so it could have been that Wimund was trying to prevent the loss of lands belonging to Rushden Abbey.

Whatever the reasons behind his subsequent actions, Wimund managed to raise a large army from the male population of the Isle of Man. His army were either convinced by Wimund’s arguments or money to follow him into battle.

A seafaring warlord

Image source: Histoire de pirates et corsaires 1846.

William of Newburgh describes how Wimund came by boat and descended on Scotland embarking on a “mad career” of pillage, rapine and slaughter disturbing “the tranquillity of a nation happy and contented under the government of a virtuous prince[6].

Standing a head and shoulder taller than his men, he must have been an imposing figure as he sailed around the islands of Scotland striking fear into the hearts of the islanders.

David sent royal troops to deal with Wimund’s threat but Wimund had the upper hand. His army would either dissolve into the forests or take to the sea and just wait until the troops had left. They would then return to carry on attacking and terrorising the local villagers.

Even in an age which was inured to hardship, violence and warfare, being attacked in this manner by a man of god and their own bishop turned seafaring pirate and warlord “this fisher of men turned hunter of men[7] must have been viewed as a strange and disturbing turn of events.

Bishop versus Bishop

It is recorded that an unknown bishop, probably Gille Aldan, refused to pay the levy demanded by Wimund. It is said that the bishop swore that he “never will establish a precedent for one bishop paying tribute to another[8]. Finally the bishop unable to take any more provocation and threats from Wimund raised his own army and met Wimund on the battlefield.

Tower Manuscript 1.33. Image source: Royal Armouries

Despite probably being less skilled in the art of warfare and with less experienced men, the bishop threw the first hatchet and managed miraculously to strike Wimund, wounding him severely. Somehow Wimund managed to escape but seeing their leader felled, the rest of his men turned tail and fled.


Even being seriously injured did not put a stop to Wimund. Somehow he managed regroup his men and continue to be a thorn in David’s side.

Eventually David realised that Wimund was too strong and too dangerous to be stopped by force and decided that a new approach was needed. David who had been given control of the whole of Cumberland and Westmoreland by Stephen in 1136, granted Wimund the lands and monastery of Furness as a symbol of reconciliation.

The reckoning

Although both David and Wimund might have been satisfied with the arrangement, the people of Furness and the surrounding lands which were now under the control of Wimund were less than pleased.

Wimund must have infuriated them with his arrogance and manner and it is highly likely that Wimund treatment of them must have both harsh, ruthless and contemptuous because after a while, they could no longer stomach his presence and plotted to overthrow him.

The people with the consent of their nobles decided to teach their errant bishop a lesson he would never forget. They laid a trap. Somehow they managed to isolate Wimund from his men whilst he was following behind a large party of entertainers. They grabbed him, kidnapped him and bound him. They then proceeded to castrate him making “him a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of Scotland, not for that of heaven” and “as both eyes were wicked, deprived him of both[9].

Castration image from The Romain de la rose. Image source Vincente Lachan I.

A repentant retirement!

Wimund was taken and imprisoned in the castle of Roxburgh. He was later pardoned and retired to the Abbey of Byland in Yorkshire.

It was here that William of Newburgh, whose abbey was only two miles from Byland, came into contact with the notorious bishop.

William stated that despite Wimund’s severe mutilation, his spirit was neither dampened nor chastened. He never expressed regret for any of his actions or the harm that he had caused. Instead the complete opposite, he joked that he had never been beaten in battle except by a silly bishop and boasted of his deeds declaring that if he only had “the eye of a sparrow his enemies should have little occasion to rejoice at what they had done to him[10].

Hardly the traditional image of a humble man of god!

A larger than life figure

Was Wimund a fraud and “a flagitious impostor[11]? It is so hard to tell with the limited information available. Even William who had direct contact with Wimund seemed unable to come to a firm conclusion. The one thing that does suggest that there was some validity to Wimund’s claim is that despite all his terrible actions and the threats he had issued against the king of Scotland, David never exacted the ultimate revenge by executing his adversary. Despite being cruel, brutal and merciless, Wimund must have had a magnetic personality and an unquenchable thirst for life. In some ways he reminds me of a medieval, real-life Long John Silver and he was unique in being the one and only ‘Bishop-Pirate’.

Wimund, larger than life.  Image Source:  Image source Blackadder II by Ben Elton and Richard Curtis.

Bibliography & Images

William of Newburgh, https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-of-Newburgh

King Orry & King Olaf – Ramsey, Isle of Man, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMTWR9_King_Orry_King_Olaf_Ramsey_Isle_of_Man

Óláfr Guðrøðarson (died 1153), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%93l%C3%A1fr_Gu%C3%B0r%C3%B8%C3%B0arson_(died_1153)

Wimund, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wimund 

The exploits of Wimund, http://www.electricscotland.com/history/wars/05TheExploitsOfWimund1141.pdf

The Tale of a Man Called Wimund, http://furnesshiddenheritage.blogspot.co.uk/2016/09/the-tale-of-man-called-wimund.html

William of Newburgh: Book one, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/williamofnewburgh-one.asp#24

Domination and Lordship: Scotland 1070 – 1230 by Richard Oram, 2011
Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Furness, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/lancs/vol2/pp114-131

David I: The King who made Scotland by Richard Oram, 2008


[1] William of Newburgh: Book one, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/williamofnewburgh-one.asp#24
[2]Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Furness, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/lancs/vol2/pp114-131
[3] William of Newburgh: Book one, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/williamofnewburgh-one.asp#24
[4] Wimund, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wimund
[5] ibid
[6] The exploits of Wimund, http://www.electricscotland.com/history/wars/05TheExploitsOfWimund1141.pdf
[8] ibid
[9] William of Newburgh: Book one, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/williamofnewburgh-one.asp#24
[10] ibid
[11] The exploits of Wimund, http://www.electricscotland.com/history/wars/05TheExploitsOfWimund1141.pdf

Ghost Hunting with Ghost North East


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Spencer from S.M.O.G (Scientific Measurement of Ghost) Avengers, The Living Dead, 1967.

When I think of the Avengers, I don’t think of the Marvel superheroes, I think of John Steed and Mrs Peel.  The Mrs Peel series’ were rerun when I was a child and I loved the quirky humour and the eccentric and often surreal storylines.  One of my favourite episodes was The Living Dead, from the 1967 series.   In this episode Steed and Mrs Peel investigate strange happenings at the estate of the Duke of Benedict, including ghostly goings on in a creepy old church.  Here they cross paths with rival ghost hunting factions FOG and SMOG (respectively, Friends of Ghosts and Scientific Measurements of Ghosts).  The over the top characters of Mandy from FOG and Spencer from SMOG perfectly highlight the divide still often found in the ghost hunting community – between the psychic believers and the sceptical scientific types.  To be honest, I’ve never been quite sure which camp I fit into.

In recent years I have been on several ghost hunts operated by various different groups. It’s fair to say that some were more FOG than SMOG and some clearly geared up primarily for entertainment. Nevertheless I enjoyed each one, and some were at truly excellent locations, with compelling and charismatic guides – Chillingham Castle springs to mind (it’s an experience not to be missed for sheer drama of location and the ghostly tradition attached to the castle).  However, one thing that I have often felt lacking on some of the more commercial tours, is the element of investigation – I guess I’ve always had a secret affinity with Spencer from SMOG, despite the allure of FOG.  Ultimately, what I was really looking for was a group that could accommodate both viewpoints.

Chillingham Castle, Northumberland.

I came across Ghost North East by chance, a local not for profit group who investigate locations in the North East of England and the Scottish borders.  Ghost Northeast was founded just under 10 years ago by friends Steve Watson and David Howland.  In Steve’s book The Chronicles of a Ghosthunter he explained:

“..we decided we should open our own group. We wanted it to be 100% genuine and 100% honest.  If nothing happened, then nothing happened.  But, if we did see, feel or hear things then we knew as far as we were concerned that the activity would be real”

They and their team now run regular ghost hunts throughout the North East of England and Scottish Borders, taking in haunted locations such as Jarrow Hall, Ellison Hall, Hexham Old Jail, Jedburgh Jail and Neidpath Castle.

The Ghost Hunter kit

Ghost hunters kit.

The group don’t use mediums or psychics, but do use psychic tools such as the Ouija/spirit board, planchet and dowsing rods.  These methods sit alongside more scientific tools such as lasers, thermal imaging devices, EMF and K2 meters (for detecting electromagnetic fields -such as given off by ordinary electrical devices or, more interestingly, unexplained sources) and the Franks/Ghost box.

The latter is a device which is a somewhat controversial in ghost hunting circles.  The Franks box works by rapidly scanning radio waves for anomalous phenomena.  The device is familiar to many people through its use on popular TV series such as Zac Baggins Ghost Adventures.  While some people believe that it can facilitate communication with spirits, others dismiss its effectiveness citing the credulousness of over eager ghost hunters in attributing random results as being of paranormal origin [1]. My own view is that although it can bring up some interesting results, it would be hard to confirm they were of paranormal origin rather than just wishful thinking.

Ghost North East make the whole ghost hunter kit available to everyone at each location, and ‘ghosties’ are encouraged to be very hands on. Whether their preference is for the scientific or psychic tools, everyone gets to play with the kit and draw their own conclusions from the results.

Three Ghost Hunts:

1. On a dark November night – Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society

The Lit & Phil, as it is affectionately known, is the largest independent library outside of London, and the oldest in Newcastle.  The current building, dating to 1825, is located near the oldest parts of Newcastle (the Close) and Roman foundations can be found in the basement.

The Lit & Phil, Newcastle.

This was my first ghost hunt with the group, and the first thing I discovered was that many people attending were regulars, despite this, everyone was very welcoming and friendly.  Steve Watson the founder of the group welcomed everyone and set out the housekeeping and the ground rules – in short, to respect that everyone has their own equally valid views on the supernatural.  I was impressed by how accommodating the group where to those with mobility issues, although the locations often don’t lend themselves to full disabled access,  the group are happy to cater for the less mobile.

Steve then took the whole group down to the Gentleman’s Library and held a circle and conducted a blessing – in the pitch dark.  Standing in the musty darkness, surrounded by ancient tomes from floor to ceiling, with only the rhythmic ticking of an old clock puncturing the silence, he called out to the spirits and the K2 meter lit up….from that moment, I was hooked.

We were then split up into three separate groups to conduct investigations in different parts of the building (around 8 people max).  Smaller groups made it a much more hands on experience, and we all had a case of equipment to play with, from Lasers, Franks Boxes, EVF meters to dowsing rods and dice.  I was in Peter’s group and we began in ‘the stacks’ – a book store in the basement where they store books and manuscripts, it is a very eerie place, filled with looming shadows and priceless volumes.  A number of people in the group said they felt a quite malevolent male presence down there. I can’t say that I did, however, I’m not sure I would have been willing to stay down there alone even with all those fabulous books (and I don’t scare easily).

Lit & Phil Main Library. Newcastle.

Later in the night, my group went into the main library and tried to communicate with spirits via the Franks Box.  During this experiment I took up the offer to do a ‘Lone Vigil’ in the ladies waiting room, in the pitch black, with only an EVF meter for company!  Not being shy I sat in the middle of the sofa and asked if any spirits would like to come and sit next to me, having previously checked for any reaction on the EVF and getting none.  However, once I made the invitation and rescanned the sofa, the box reacted in a very definite manner.  I withhold judgement on whether a ghost actually did accept my invitation to join me on the sofa, but the timing was most interesting….

Perhaps the most powerful part of the night occurred in the Music Room, where the groups rejoined and formed a circle while the Gnostic Mass was played.  This is a very strange piece of music and whether the music, the darkness or supernatural forces were at play, several people were overcome and had to leave the room…the music player also jumped unexpectedly to particular song, one with significance to one of the Lit & Phil’s early patrons.

By the end of the night, while many of the phenomenon could clearly be explained away, nevertheless, various interesting pieces of information came to light that could be linked to the historical record. I’m giving away no spoilers though!

2. On a frosty January night – Gateshead’s Little Theatre

The Little Theatre Gateshead, is a remarkable building, the current theatre was opened in Autumn 1943 and was the only theatre to be built during World War II. It sits on the corner of Saltwell Road, and faces onto the beautiful Saltwell Park.

The Little Theatre Gateshead

The Little Theatre Gateshead.

The theatre is home to the Progressive Players, whose founding members, Misses Hope, Ruth and Sylvia Dodds, helped to fund the building work in the 1930’s.  However, things did not go smoothly and upon the outbreak of war, the empty house purchased for the theatre was requisitioned for a RAF Barrage Balloon station.  The players only got the site back on New Years Day 1942, when the RAF decamped following a particularly harsh winter.  The theatre also suffered from collateral bomb damage on a misty night in early 1943, when a German bomb hit Saltwell Park just across the street from the theatre.  Windows were blown out, the doors damaged and a tree fell through the roof.  No one appears to have been hurt or killed.[2]

All in all, a promising location for not only theatrical ghosts, but perhaps some wartime spectres as well.

After our orientation and the group circle, which Steve conducted on the stage, we split into our groups.  Unable to help myself, I, yet again, volunteered to do a lone vigil.  I was conducted down a maze of corridors to one of the dressing rooms, and here I waited in the dark, calling out occasionally.  Unfortunately there was no activity that I could discern, and the evening as a whole appeared quite quiet, with little activity on the planchet or otherwise.  However, some other groups did report activity and one individual did become noticeably affected during an invocation on the stage. Despite the lack of activity on this occasion, it was a wonderfully atmospheric venue.

Planchet in use.

The Planchet in use, but no messages this time.

3. On a snowy March night, Jarrow Hall

My third, and most recent outing with Ghost North East, was at Jarrow Hall.  I have to say it was my favourite venue, perhaps that is because the Hall itself is eighteenth century (and I’m a sucker for the Georgians). The falling snow made it even more atmospheric – the North East was in the grip of the mini Beast from the East that night, just getting to the venue was an adventure.  Jarrow Hall is closely associated with the Venerable Bede (considered the ‘Father of English history’) and linked to the Anglo-Saxon monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow.  It houses a lot of Anglo-Saxon artifacts in the museum, and a reconstruction of an atrium style house of the period.

Jarrow Hall by night. Jarrow.

Now, I firmly believe that most paranormal phenomena can be explained rationally, however…..during the group circle that took place at the foot of the staircase, I kept getting the impression of someone peaking round the banisters at the top of the stairs….I’m not sure if it was just peripheral vision going scatty but I was not the only one who felt this.

‘I met a man upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there’….Jarrow Hall Stairs.

There were some very interesting results from the dowsing rods in the museum (linking up with the Anglo-Saxon history of the location). Beyond that, the most active part of the Hall was the back stairs, where some quite extraordinary activity unfolded.  I was with two others using the Ouija board, while another member of the team was seated on the stairs (around the corner and out of the line of sight of the board).  As we asked questions and the glass moved around the board, the information was conveyed almost simultaneously by the person on the stairs, who was convinced that a spirit was communicating directly with them.  A tragic tale was soon pieced together, and culminated with the board spelling out a song title, as the person on the stairs began to sing the same song.

There were some contradictions brought up by the board, and some elements of the information that did not add up, however the overall story that unfolded could be linked to the historical record – as far as could be ascertained. This phenomena could be explained in several ways, from auto-suggestion, telepathy or pure coincidence, whatever the explanation, being a part of the experience was extraordinary (and I can say for certain that I didn’t know the story and I definitely wasn’t pushing the glass!)

The Ghost Hunter

Emma Peel and Mandy from F.O.G (Friends of Ghosts). The Avengers, The Living Dead, 1967.

It’s fair to say that people want different things from ghost hunts, for some people it is pure entertainment – and any creak or strange noise is enough to send them off into paroxysm of fearful giggles, others may want a more spiritual experience – to connect with a supernatural that they firmly believe in, others may prefer a purely rational or sceptical approach.  I have to say, that to my mind, a good ghost hunting group can accommodate all viewpoints and belief systems.

In short, I would say that whether you are Mandy from Friends of Ghosts or Spencer from Scientific Measurements of Ghosts a ghost hunt with Ghost North East will not disappoint.

For those who are interested in reading more about the investigations, full investigation reports are published by Ghost North East in their magazine.

Ouija Board

Ouija board, and EMF readers, a mix of the scientific and the spiritual.

Sources and notes

All images by Lenora unless otherwise stated.

https://paranormalwarehouse.com/franks-box-ghost-box/ [1]

Watson, Steve, Ghostnortheast volume 1: The Chronicles of a Ghost Hunter, 2017



http://www.littletheatregateshead.co.uk/history.html [2]



The Fall of the House of Usher


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If someone were to measure just how ‘gothic’ a story was via a tick-list analysis of stereotypical parts, then Edgar Allan Poe’s classic ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ would cross the qualifying line furlongs ahead of its competitors. A claustrophobic and foreboding location? Yes. A deliciously wordy study of depression and mania, sanity and insanity, the melancholy and the bizarre? Absolutely. A premature burial and a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom? Indeed.

Poe and H.P. Lovecraft never fail to scratch the itch for macabre entertainment when the mood takes me, and while I have always enjoyed them as a reader from childhood, doing audio performances of their work has brought a new and deeper appreciation of the music and rhythm of the language used.

I particularly relished the pronunciation challenges arising from the narrator’s discussion of the various books that Roderick Usher and he had been studying (around 24:30 in) and the fact that the story opens with a couplet in French. In addition, both Lovecraft and Poe had no problem in making single sentences stretch almost over a full paragraph, with punctuation which needs to be carefully noted in order for the main point of emphasis not to be lost.

I hope that you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed recording it.

The Green Children of Woolpit


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Woolpit Sigh Image by Rod Bacon via Wikimedia

The story of the Woolpit children is one which many people know. Countless articles have been written and numerous theories put forward by various people to explain what happened. There are so many ideas and interpretations that I am only going to look at a few of them briefly but in the bibliography below I have listed a number of sources that explore the topic in much more detail.

The Chroniclers

There exists two near contemporary sources which chronicle the events at Woolpit and the appearance of the green children, one of whom is Ralph of Coggeshall and the other is William of Newburgh.

Medieval Scribe c1490_1500. Harley MS4425

Ralph was appointed as the sixth abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Coggeshall in Essex and served from until he retired in 1218 due to bad health. After he stepped down from his duties he took up and continued his house’s Chronicon Anglicanum. His account contains few original documents but he seems to have taken pains to check his facts and collect anecdotal accounts from visitors to the abbey. It is possible that it was from one of these visitors that Ralph discovered the story of the green children of Woolpit[1].

The second chronicler was William of Newburgh. William was a well-respected 12th century English historian and an Augustinian Canon of Newburgh Priory. His work contains important historical accounts as well as being “a major source for stories of medieval revenants, those souls who return from the dead, including early vampire stories and the only source for the bishop-pirate Wimund[2]. The likelihood is that he took many of his facts about the Woolpit green children directly from Ralph, although many of the details differ slightly from the earlier account[3].

The Tale of the Green Children of Woolpit

Sometime in the 12th century  during the reign of either Stephen or Henry II, two young children, a boy and a girl were discovered by reapers. They were found either in a wolf pit by the village of Woolpit or at the edge of a field (according to which account you read). The children were frightened and thin, wore odd clothes and spoke a language incomprehensible to the villagers. The strangest thing about the children was that their skin was green in colour. The children were taken to the house of Richard de Calne[4]. For a few days the children refused to eat any food until they were given broad beans. They eagerly accepted the beans but instead of opening the pods they opened the stalks. On seeing them empty they wept. When shown how to eat the beans correctly they stopped crying. For a long time beans were all they would eat. The boy became depressed and eventually weakened and died but the girl was healthy and thrived. She was baptised Agnes, learnt English, started to eat other food and completely lost her green colouring.

According to Ralph’s account she told the villagers that they had come from a twilight underground world where the sun never shone and everyone and everything was green. One day they followed their cattle into a cave and heard the sound of bells. They walked through the cave towards the sound until they reached the wolf pits where they laid down in a daze, blinded by the sunlight. They became frightened after being woken by the reapers and tried to escape back through the cave but couldn’t find its entrance.

However, William wrote that the girl revealed that her home was called “St Martin’s Land” and that Christianity was practiced there. She said that she was unsure how they had arrived at Woolpit as they had been herding their father’s cattle when they suddenly heard a loud noise and the next minute found themselves at the village.

As Agnes got older she worked as a servant. From Ralph we learn that she was employed in the household of Richard de Colne but was “rather lose and wanton in her conduct[5] and from William that she married a man from King’s Lynne.

What is interesting is that neither William nor Ralph made any attempt to question or explain the story of the green children of Woolpit.

Medieval Ploughing. Public Domain via Wikimedia.

Investigating the tale

A number of theories have been put forward to explain the story of Woolpit’s green children. These can be separated into two main categories, historical or folkloric. There is also an extra-terrestrial hypothesis which is held by a small number of people who believe that the children arrived through a space portal and that their green colour was due to the vegetation on their home planet.

Medieval Aliens? Alleged sighting from Nuremburg 1561. Wickiana Collection Zurich.

The historical angle

Many support the theory that the story does contain a kernel of truth in it. For instance through his research on children escaping their masters, Charles Oman sees something more sinister such as drugging and kidnapping behind the tale. There is a story retold in the area which must have been rooted in a distant memory of two children whose uncle, the children’s guardian, tried to poison them with arsenic. He was said to have left them in Thetford Forest to die so that he could claim their lands and money. The tragic folk tale “Babes in the Wood” was probably based on this story. Arsenic would have turned their skins a green colour. On the other hand Jeffrey Jerome Cohen believes the story is an allegory recalling the differences between the English and the indigenous Britons.

Effects of arsenic. Image Wellcome Institute.

Another interpretation given is that the children were part of the Flemish immigrant community which arrived in the 12th century. The Battle of Fornham, sited in Suffolk not far from Bury St Edmunds, took place in October 1173. It was fought between Henry II and Robert de Beaumont, the 3rd Earl of Leicester. The rebel forces contained a large contingent of about 3000 Flemish soldiers. The rebels were eventually defeated and the Flemish soldiers forced into the swamps near the battle site where most were killed by the local peasants[6]. The children after their parents’ deaths fled into Thetford Forest and lost their way. Suddenly they heard the ringing of Bury St Edmunds’ bells and making their way towards them, they entered the flint mines known as Grimes Graves emerging at the village of Woolpit. The green colour came from a diet deficiency disease such as chlorosis which would have been cured once the children ate nutritious food.

On the surface this last explanation seems plausible enough but in Brian Haughton’s excellent article he presents some problems with this particular theory[7]. Firstly he states that it was Flemish mercenaries who were killed. They were unlikely to have brought their families with them and there is no historical evidence of Flemish merchants or weavers being targeted. A second problem relates to the location of the forest and mines. The forest is 20km from Bury St Edmunds so the children could not have heard the bells and the mines themselves do not end near Woolpit. Also the distances from Fornham St Martins to Woolpit and in particular from the forest to Woolpit are considerable and a long way for the children to walk especially in their weakened state. A last point that he raises is that it is unlikely that a wealthy, educated and noble lord such as Richard de Colne would not have recognised the Flemish language even if he could not understand it himself.

Folkloric elements

Haughton also makes an interesting statement and one which I think cuts to the heart of the matter. He states that the story of the green children has “elements of truth mixed in with mythology and folk beliefs of fairies and the afterlife[8]. Three themes which run through the story; the caves, the beans and the colour green all have links with the supernatural.

The caves

In the past caves were perceived as mysterious and sometimes threatening. Unknown supernatural entities were thought to inhabit them and many believed that they were portals to another world either the land of the fae or to the underworld. As far back as the Greeks, caves were seen as openings to the underworld. For instance Charonium cave in Greece which emited poisonous fumes was believed to be the entrance to Hades.

Owenagcat the Cave of Cruachan. Image via Wikimedia. Davska 2005.

Closer to home there are folktales from all over the British Isles that tell of spirits or the fae dwelling in caves. It was a common belief that if a human entered these caves then they might be rewarded with new talents or skills but should be aware that time worked differently there and a moment with the fae could mean years had passed in the world of mortals.

A famous Irish myth concerns Oweynagat Cave in Roscommon. The cave also known as the ‘Cave of Cats’ was located near the ancient Connaught capital of ‘Cruachan’ and believed to have been the birthplace of Medh, the powerful queen of Connach. The cave was also used by Morrigan, the goddess of fate (in particularly doom and death in battle) who would at sunset drive her otherworldly cattle through the caves to her world[9].

It is not surprising then that if the children were believed to be supernatural and that the land the girl described was otherworldly that they would have reached what became their new home by journeying through a cave.

‘You are what you eat’

In British folklore it is often said that a human should never eat fairy food because by doing so you will bind yourself to their world and you will never leave. In fact it was common if relatives went missing for families to leave food in a basket outside their homes so that their missing kin would not have to eat the food of the faeries. Since it was strongly believed that “you are what you eat” it makes sense that faery food can change a mortal into a faery. Even in Greek mythology Persephone was bound to Hades when she ate some pomegranate seeds.

This idea was thought to work the other way round as well. There is a Scandinavian tale of an elf-maiden who ate mortal food to stay with her lover and there are various Celtic stories of sidhe eating mortal food to become human[10]. In terms of the green children, maybe the loss of their green colouring was seen as the natural result of their eating the food given to them by the villagers so changing their essential physical nature.This is definitely what Willim of Newburgh believed as he wrote in his history “by degrees, they changed their original colour, through the natural effect of our food, and became like ourselves…“. If this idea is accepted then the boy’s death could be seen as his body simply being unable to adapt.

The Sinister broad bean

Broad beans. Image via Wikimedia.

Then there are the beans. It is hard to imagine but fava beans, more commonly known as broad beans have in the past been looked on with some suspicion. To the Greeks and Romans this type of bean symbolised death. Aristotle was convinced that the beans looked like testicles, were evil and that eating them was a one way ticket to Hades! Both cultures thought the shape of the bean resembled the doorway to hell. The Romans also believed that they contained the souls of their ancestors and used to offer them to newly-married couples on their wedding day to attract the souls of male ancestors in order to ask for their help in carrying on the bloodline[11]. Even today on All Soul’s Day, Italian will make cookies in the shape of a bean and eat bean soup.

With the beans being associated with death, spirits and the supernatural it is again not surprising that they turned up in the story of the green children.

The Colour Green

Green is the colour of the forest, nature and the cycle of life. It is also associated with youth, hope and springtime as well as some negative ideas such as wildness, envy, death, sickness and the devil. Faeries and elves are often described as green-hued and wearing green coloured clothing. So when green skinned children appeared it would have been only natural for the villagers to assume they were forest sprites or some other supernatural being.

The old and the new

Green man at Rochester Cathedral. Image by Akoliasnikoff 2008. Via Wikimedia.

Why was it so easy for the villagers and others to so accept that the children were from another world? In my opinion a major reason would have been that although they considered themselves to be strong Christians, beliefs which emanated from the old pagan religion were still firmly entrenched, colouring their perceptions of their world. The merging of pagan and Christian symbols and practices was common. An obvious example is the green man carvings which adorn many early churches. These symbols of fertility, nature and rebirth are visible expressions of the old religion which although supressed was never eradicated. Even the two chroniclers, men who represented the new religion did not seem to question the authenticity of the tale too closely. If Ralph’s version is accepted then you can see the story as a parable i.e. the children are attracted away from their home (pre-Christian) which is without the warmth of the sun to a bright new world by the sound of bells, representing Christianity. Additionally when Ralph describes Agnes as wanton, he could be referring to a wildness which he believed derived from her pagan or otherworldly origins (the fae were considered seducers of men).

Remembering the green children

The green children are still remembered in Woolpit. They appear on a village sign and on the church’s altar cloth. As mentioned before the fable “The Babes in the Wood” has distinct links to the story of the green children. In this morality tale written in the 16th century, two young children are looked after by their aunt and uncle after their parents die. Eager to get his hands on their fortune he pays two men to take them into the forest and kill them. During an argument between the two men, the kinder of the two kills his accomplice. He then promises to return with provisions for the children. He never does and the children left to wander in the forest eventually die. The birds cover their bodies with leaves.

My final thought!

Whatever the truth, I love the way a story probably rooted in fact was embellished with supernatural elements to create a unique, mysterious and fascinating tale which has captured the imagination of so many.

Kylie Minouge as the Green Fairy in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Moulin Rouge’.


Ralph of Coggeshall, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralph_of_Coggeshall
William of Newburgh, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_of_Newburgh
Battle of Fornham, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Fornham
A dictionary of English folklore, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, 2000
Green Children of Woolpit, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_children_of_Woolpit
The Green Children of Woolpit: the 12th century legend of visitors from another world, http://www.ancient-origins.net/unexplained-phenomena/green-children-woolpit-12th-century-legend-visitors-another-world-002347
The Green Children of Woolpit, http://brian-haughton.com/ancient-mysteries-articles/green-children-of-woolpit/
Green children of Woolpit, http://myths.e2bn.org/mythsandlegends/origins24-the-green-children-of-woolpit.html
Welcome to Woolpit village, http://www.woolpit.org/
Creepy History: Who Were The Green Children of Woolpit? https://thoughtcatalog.com/steven-casale/2015/05/creepy-history-who-were-the-green-children-of-woolpit/
The Green Children of Woolpit – Investigating a Medieval mystery, http://eclectariumshuker.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/the-green-children-of-woolpit.html
Folklore, History and the Study of Myth, http://garyrvarner.webs.com/
Oweynagat Cave, Roscommon, Ireland, https://visionsofthepastblog.com/?s=cave+of+cats
Faerie Feast – Writing in margins, http://writinginmargins.weebly.com/faerie-feast.html
Archetypes and motifs in folklore and literature: A handbook, Carole G. Silver, (eds) Jane Garry and Hasan El-Shamy, 2016
The evils of beans, http://writinginmargins.weebly.com/faerie-feast.html
1135~1154: The Green Children of Woolpit, http://anomalyinfo.com/Stories/11351154-green-children-woolpit
William of Newburgh: Book one http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/williamofnewburgh-one.asp#epistle


[1] Green Children of Woolpit, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_children_of_Woolpit
[2] William of Newburgh, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_of_Newburgh
[3] ibid
[4] ibid
[5] ibid
[6] Battle of Fornham, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Fornham
[7] The Green Children of Woolpit, http://brian-haughton.com/ancient-mysteries-articles/green-children-of-woolpit/
[8] ibid
[9] Oweynagat Cave, Roscommon, Ireland, https://visionsofthepastblog.com/?s=cave+of+cats
[10] Archetypes and motifs in folklore and literature: A handbook, Carole G. Silver, (eds) Jane Garry and Hasan El-Shamy, 2016
[11] The evils of beans, http://writinginmargins.weebly.com/faerie-feast.html

A storyteller visits The Haunted Palace


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Ramblingidioms at the Haunted Palace

The Haunted Palace has long been the home of the dark and unusual. Be it history folklore or the supernatural, Lenora and Miss Jessel have always delighted in all things strange and mysterious. It is with therefore with a great fanfare of dramatic gloomth that we would like to introduce the dark talents of Ramblingidioms.

As well as being a gifted writer and poet (see our post on his book of poetry Esto Perpetua), he has recently created a You Tube channel, Ramblingidoms, dedicated to the spoken word. Visitors can immerse themselves in classic yarns, from Dickens to Lovecraft, the supernatural to science fiction.

It seems appropriate to start this literary liaison with a classic Edgar Allan Poe story.  The Masque of the Red Death is a vivid and dreamlike allegory of how death is the ultimate leveler – coming not just for peasants, but for princes too, no matter how wealthy they may be.

So, settle yourself in an overstuffed armchair, rest your feet on the grate of crackling fire, pick up your goblet of red wine…or blood… as Ramblingidioms presents:

The Bonfire of Ballet Girls


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In the nineteenth century the epitome of grace and elegance – and sexual frisson – was to be found in the Romantic Ballet.

Ballet had originally developed in sixteenth century Italy as a ritualised Court pass time and was adopted by royal courts through out Europe.  Early ballet costumes reflected the elaborate styles of the day.[1]

Industrial developments in the nineteenth century saw a revolution in fabric manufacture, allowing for lighter more gauzy fabrics to be mass produced.  This manufacturing development caused a revolution in ballet costumes.

Many of these ethereal dancers became feted stars of the day, but the glamour and fame of these ballet girls came at a high price and it could  sometimes be fatal.

The Romantic Ballet

Marie Taglioni.  V&A collection.

1832 Marie Taglioni brought the house down when she performed La Sylphide in a frothy concoction of white tulle.  Her performance cemented the gauzy white tutu as the derigueur costume of the Romantic Ballet.  It was an ideal fabric for depicting the typical dryads, nymphs and other supernatural creatures that populated the ballet blanche in the nineteenth century, and it also looked divine by gaslight.

The new costume was made of much lighter fabric and revealed more of the ballet dancer’s legs.  But this change from the earlier, heavier, corseted and more restrictive costumes of earlier centuries was not caused by vanity – it was necessitated by the higher jumps and pointe work that ballet dancers were now expected to perform as the technique had evolved.[2][3]

Ballet dress 1781 by James Roberts. V&A Collection.

Alison Matthews David notes that the changes were considered highly scandalous, and many men attended the ballet for less than artistic reasons – after all, these aerial sylphs were all sexually available, for the right price.   The sexual market-place aspect of the ballet had the knock on effect of pushing ballerinas to the front of the stage, nearer to the footlights and their potential patrons, and inadvertently placing them much closer to danger.

Despite the other-worldly, untouchable quality of Romantic Era ballerinas, the cold hard truth was that ballet girls were often lower class girls sold by their parents to ballet companies.  They were underfed, over-worked and often sexually exploited. Yet they dared not complain about their dangerous and exploitative conditions or risk their livelihoods. [4]

Dancing with Death

Skeleton Ballerina. Source Pinterest. Artist unknown.

Consequently ballerinas danced with death on a daily basis, so much so that they regularly incinerated both themselves and their audiences in truly incendiary performances.  The combination ballet and firey death was so ingrained in the popular imagination that tickets to the ballet were macabrely nick-named ‘tickets to the tomb’ due to the risk of death by fire, smoke inhalation or toxic gases [5].  Perhaps this was one of the aspects of the ballet that appealed to the well developed sense of morbidity of the Victorians – ballet at its extreme could encompass both sex and death, an alluring combination.

Media and literature of the day also took a morbid, and at times misogynistic, delight in reporting fatal tragedies when they struck, often lingering on the terrible injuries of the unfortunate girls.

In 1856 Theophile Gautier’s novel Jettatura described the death of a ballerina:

“The dancer brushed that row of fire which in the theatre separates the ideal world from the real; her light sylphide costume fluttered like the wings of a dove about to take flight.  A gas jet shot out its blue and white tongue and touched the flimsy material.  In a moment the girl was enveloped in flame; for a few seconds she danced like a firefly in a red glow, and then darted towards the wings, frantic, crazy with terror, consumed alive by her burning costume.”

Clara Webster by John Brandard.

This is no artistic flight of fancy, Gautier was inspired by the death of real life ballerina Clara Vestris Webster at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, in 1844.

Clara had been playing Zelika, a royal slave, in the ballet The Revolt of the Harem.  In a playful and erotic harem bath scene, she had been throwing water over other ballerinas, when her skirts caught fire on one of the sunken lights being used to represent the bath.  Terrified, the other dancers did nothing to help – fearing the same fate.  Gautier, writing her obituary for the Paris papers, in a spectacular display of misogyny and callousness said:

“it was said that she would recover, but her beautiful hair had blazed about her red cheeks, and her pure profile had been disfigured.  So it was for the best that she died.”

The Media also revelled in the gory details of the girl’s death,  reporting that:

“The body was so much burnt that when it was put into the coffin, the flesh in parts came off in the hands of the persons who were lifting it, and on the same account it could not be dressed.” [6]

As with many similar cases, the inquest found the death to be an accident and attached no blame to the theatre, even though the fire buckets by the stage had been empty.

Clara’s death did encourage more research into the fire-proofing of dresses.  Queen Victoria also helped instigate research into flame-proofing fabrics even putting the royal laundry at the disposal of Dr Alphons Oppenheim and Mr F Versmann.  They found that treating fabrics with Tungstate of Soda and Sulphate of Ammonia solution made fabrics safer.  However there were drawbacks: once washed, the fabrics had to be re-treated.  Despite these promising findings, no safety legislation or regulations were enacted in Britain.

Famous Ballerinas of the Romantic Age. Lithograph by AE Challon

In 1861 the beautiful Gale sisters, Ruth, Cecilia (known as Zela), Hannah and Abeona (know as Adeline), took the USA by storm.  The English ballerinas toured the states wowing audiences wherever they went; however it was their final venue that has made them famous: The Continental Theatre in Philadelphia.

In August 1861 Actor Manager William Wheatley leased the theatre on Walnut Street.  He spared no expense going so far as importing a special effects expert and the beautiful Gale sisters from England.  The Ballerinas had their dressing room directly above the stage, it was fitted out with mirrors with gas jets next to them, in order to maximise the light they gave off.

On the evening of the 14 September 1861 an audience of 1500 people filled the Continental Theatre for the first night performance: Shakespeare’s The Tempest, adapted as a ballet.   Many no doubt hoping for a glimpse of the fine legs of the beautiful Gale sisters as they floated about the set, the audience was unprepared for the horror about to unfold just off stage.

At the end of Act one, the Gale sisters and the corps de ballet had to flit up the narrow staircase to their dressing room 50 feet above the stage – a quick change was required for the next scene.  While the show continued beneath them, the Gale sisters began to change costumes.  Ruth climbed upon a settee to retrieve her gauzy tarletan costume, but the hem caught on the gas jet and within seconds Ruth was ablaze.  In terror, Ruth ran through the dressing room and dashed herself into a plate glass mirror, adding to her horrific injuries.  Her sisters, in trying to help her were caught up in the blaze. [7]

The Gale Sisters on fire at the Continental Theatre. 1861. Frank Leslie Illustrated News 28 Sept 1861

In the panic and confusion they flung themselves from the window onto the street below.  A Miss McBride ran flaming on to the stage and fell into the orchestra pit, where she was eventually put out by stagehands.

Initially Wheatley had called for the curtain to fall and asked the audience to remain seated, however he soon realised the severity of the unfolding tragedy and ordered an evacuation.  It is remarkable that no members of the audience were killed during the fire.

That was not the case with the ballerinas.  Burned and broken ballerinas littered the streets outside the theatre as police, doctors and bystanders desperately tried to help.  Harper’s Weekly described the scenes as ‘most piteous and agonising’.  The burnt ballerinas were taken to taverns and hotels, and eventually by carriage to the Pennsylvania Hospital.  With little or no pain killers available, the journey must have been agony.  Over a four day period between six and nine ballerinas, including all of the Gale sisters, lost their lives. [8][9]

Burning Ballerinas fling them selves from the Continental Theatre. Frank Leslies Illustrated News 28 Sept 1861.

At the Coroner’s Inquest William Wheatley was cleared of all wrong-doing, and it must be said that he and his wife did all they could after the tragedy to pay medical bills and funeral costs for the lost girls.  Wheatley also erected a memorial to them in Mount Moriah Cemetery.   However, one wonders, in his no-expenses spared refit of the Continental, how much expense was spared for safety measures? [10]

The dangers faced by ballerinas in their highly flammable costumes was not entirely ignored by the authorities, in France an Imperial Decree was issued in 1858 which attempted to introduce flame-retardant fabrics for ballet dancers.  When the fabrics were treated it had the unfortunate side-effect of rendering the formerly ethereal white tutu heavy, dingy and stiff.  The safer tutu, where it was available, was often rejected outright by those it was intended to protect, as the case of Emma Livry shows.

Emma Livry. Last star of the Romantic Ballet. Wikimedia.

Emma Livry, the illegitimate daughter of a ballet dancer and a baron,  was the last great star of the Paris Opera Ballet from her debut in 1858 until her death in 1863.

She had been offered a drab flame retardant dress, but Emma simply refused to wear it.  Her attitude may seem blase, but it cannot have been uninformed.  There were too many high profile cases for Emma not to have been aware of the very real dangers faced by ballerinas in their flimsy tulle tutus.

Emma’s unintended final performance was on 15th November 1862, during rehearsals for the ballet opera La Muette de Portia. Sitting down, she raised her tutu above her head to prevent crushing the delicate fabric, the rush of air this created caused a nearby gas light to flame and this set light to her tutu.  The fire blazed to three times her height.  Engulfed in flames, she ran across the stage several times before she was finally caught, and the fire put out.

Her injuries were catastrophic, Emma suffered 40% burns, her stays were burned on to her, although her face was untouched.  She survived for eight months eventually dying on 26th July 1863 of Septicaemia caused by her burns.  She was barely 21.  Shortly before her death she was still unrepentant,  saying of the flame-retardant materials, “Yes, they are, as you say, less dangerous, but should I ever return to the stage, I would never think of wearing them – they are so ugly.” [11]

Bonfire of Vanities

The Gale sisters. Harpers Weekly.

It is important to remember that there were a lot of reasons for Emma, and others like her, to have made such a fatal choice of costume.  It is disingenuous and a little to easy to attribute it to the vanity of these girls.

Flame-proofed tutus were stiffer and dull looking. Tulle tutus looked celestial, glowed softly in the low lights of the theatre, and made the dancers look like sylphlike creatures from another world. Dancers were poor girls, worked to exhaustion for minimal wages.  They depended upon captivating the audience, in particular wealthy men who might become their patrons and lovers, they needed to look stunning to be marketable. If they did not bring in paying punters, there was a real chance they would end up back in the gutter, starving.  The irony is that they risked their lives in order to survive.

Responsibility must also rest with governments who either did not bother with health and safety legislation, or where they did so, they failed to enforce it or hold anyone to account.  More could have been done to make theatres safer places for ballerinas, fire blankets and fire buckets are simple measures but could have been effective safety measures, but too often these measures were overlooked with catastrophic consequences.

Sarcophagus containing Emma Livry’s burnt tutu. Paris Bibliotechque National via Fashion Victims.


The Tragic Gale sisters found their final resting place in Mount Moriah Cemetery.  Though their grave stone is worn and faded now, the New York Clipper reproduced the text of their memorial:

“Over the deep broad grave in Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia, in which repose in eternal silence the four sisters Gale, a memorial tablet has been erected by the subscription of many kind friends who knew the poor girls in their pure life. And upon it has been graven the following inscriptions :

On one side –

With a mother’s tearful blessing They sleep beneath the sod, Her dearest earthly treasures Restored again to God!

And upon the other –

IN MEMORIAM Stranger, who through the city of the dead With thoughtful soul and feeling heart may tread, Pause here a moment – those who sleep below With careless ear ne’er heard a tale of woe: Four sisters fair and young together rest In saddest slumber on earth’s kindly breast; Torn out of life in one disastrous hour, The rose unfolded and the budding flower: Life did not part them – Death might not divide They lived – they loved – they perished, side by side. O’er doom like theatre let gentle pity shed The softest tears that mourn the early fled, For whom – lost children of another land! This marble raised by weeping friendship’s hand To us, to future time remains to tell How even in death they loved each other well.”

Memorial to the Gale Sisters. Image from Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery website.

Sources and Notes

https://bellanta.wordpress.com/2010/02/20/this-holocaust-of-ballet-girls/ [8]


(The above includes extracts from Frank Leslie’s 1861 editorial on the Gale sisters demise). [[7] [11]


Daily Dispatch, October 1 1861, The recent terrible accident at the Continental Theatre in Philadelphia, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2006.05.0285%3Aarticle%3Dpos%D11

Matthews David, Alison, 2015, ‘Fashion Victims The Dangers of Dress Past and Present’ [4]-[6] [9]

http://www.ozy.com/flashback/the-ballet-girls-who-burned-to-death/71244 [11]


The Public Ledger, 18 March 1845 Shocking Death of Miss Clara Webster: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=59&dat=18450318&id=cSA1AAAAIBAJ&sjid=GicDAAAAIBAJ&pg=6310,1978758&hl=en

http://www.tutuetoile.com/ballet-costume-history/ [1]

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/o/origins-of-ballet/ [2][3]

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/r/romantic-ballet/ [2][3]



Nicholaa de la Haye: The female sheriff of Lincolnshire


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Lincoln Castle. Image by Lenora.

In 1215 King John journeyed to Lincoln intending to inspect the castle’s defences and visit its castellan, his faithful subject, Nicholaa de Lay Haye. As John made his final farewell, Nicholaa who was then at least 60 years of age was reported to have asked the king his permission for her to step down from the governorship of the castle citing her old age and weariness. The king was said to have refused to allow her to retire and answered her sweetly saying “I will that you keep the castle as hitherto until I shall order otherwise[1]. The trust that John had in her was not misguided. John as a person found it exceedingly difficult to trust the people surrounding him[2] but Nicholaa was an exception. She had already proven her loyalty to him on numerous occasions and in the not so distant future she would have to draw again on her reserve of strength, courage and sheer bloody-mindedness in support of her king.

The Early Years


Medieval Lady. Source unknown.

Nicholaa was born in the 1150s but the exact year of her birth is unknown. She was the eldest daughter and co-heiress of Richard de la Haye, a minor Lincolnshire baron. On his death in 1169, Nichola inherited the office of castellan of Lincoln castle.

At some point, although the details of the marriage are obscure, Nicholaa wed William Fitz Ernes and had one child. He died in 1178 and shortly afterwards she married her second husband, Gerald de Camville, the son of Richard de Camville with whom she had four children. When present her husbands carried out the castellan duties on her behalf but when absent (which happened frequently) the burden of responsibility lay firmly and squarely on Nicholaa’s shoulders (indeed many contemporaries viewed Nicholaa as much more capable than her husband, Gerald).

Under Richard I reign

Even during Richard’s reign it was clear where Nicholaa and Gerald’s loyalties lay. In 1191 during another one of the King’s absences, the Lord Chancellor and acting regent William de Longchamp issued a demand that the supporters of the king’s younger brother change their allegiance. The bitter dispute between the two men intensified and Gerald to show his support joined John in Nottingham. Whilst Gerald was away, the chancellor ordered a retaliatory attack on Lincoln. For 40 days Nicholaa bravely defended the castle against a contingent comprising of 30 knights, 20 mounted men and a 300 strong infantry[3]. The chronicler Richard of Devizes wrote of that time that Nicholaa acted manfully “not thinking about anything womanly”. On his return in 1194, Richard punished Gerald and Nicholaa for their disloyalty. In 1199 Richard died and John took the throne. In all likelihood the new king would have rewarded those who had remained loyal to him, including of course, Nicholaa and Gerald.


Female Medieval fighter.  Source unknown.

The First Baron War

Nicholaa became a widow for the second time in January 1215 and it was from this point on she truly flourished and showed England what she was made of. That summer witnessed the outbreak of the First Baron War. The cause of the conflict was the king’s refusal to abide by the terms of the Magna Carta which had been signed on the 15 June 1215 at Runnymede. The barons led by Robert Fitzwalter declared openly their opposition to the King and called on Louis, the Dauphin of France for assistance, inviting him to invade England and challenge for the throne. In May 1216 Louis landed on the coast of Kent. John seeing Louis’ advance escaped to Winchester. Louis entered London and was proclaimed but not crowned king. Many of the John’s followers seeing the support that Louis was amassing changed sides. By the 14th June 1216, Louis controlled large areas of England including Lincoln.


Magna Carta.  British Museum Collection.

England’s First Female Sheriff

Throughout this period Nicholaa remained firmly in King John’s camp. In early October 1216 John in recognition of Nicholaa’s long standing loyalty and fully aware of how little support he commanded among his subjects appointed her as co-sheriff of Lincolnshire, along with his infamous and feared henchman, Philip Mark[4]. Shortly after his appointment Philip was relieved of his position possible due to John’s death from dysentery at Newark Castle on the 18 of that month. This left Nicholaa as the Sheriff of Lincolnshire, one of only two women (the other being Ela Longespee) ever to be appointed to the role of sheriff. This powerful position gave Nicholaa the chance to increase her influence and wealth.

Nicholaa De La Haye’s seal. Dutch of Lancaster Collection.

“A worthy lady”

Louis probably in an attempt to arrest control of Lincoln from John’s supporters made one of his own, Gilbert de Gant of Folkingham, Earl of Lincoln. Shortly after the start of the war de Grant headed the first attempted siege of Lincoln Castle by a combined force of the French and the rebel barons. Again Nicholaa led the defence against a city now in the hands of the enemy. She held out and eventually the siege was abandoned after Nicholaa arranged the purchase of a truce. John and his supporters praised her success calling her a “worthy lady”. His opponents were less chivalrous deriding her as “a very cunning, bad hearted and vigorous old woman[5]. A number of attacks on the castle followed all of which Nicholaa staved off successfully (unlike many other castles controlled by men which fell). Surrounded by enemies which included the religious men of the city she must have faced a daily battle for survival. Knowing how near Lincoln castle and the cathedral are to each other they would have been able to observe each other’s movements closely.

John’s death changed the direction of the war. His nine year old son Henry III was declared the rightful successor and crowned at Gloucester Abbey. Persuaded by the powerful, respected and shrewd William Marshal, the king’s guardian and the country’s regent many of those who had welcomed Louis began to have second thoughts. Marshal’s argument rested on the view that a child should not be held accountable for the faults of its’ parent “he was innocent, and a stranger to sin, whom his enemies were endeavouring in their pride to disinherit[6].

The Battle of Lincoln Fair

The Second Battle of Lincoln known as the ‘Fair’ occurred on the 20th May 1217. Roger of Wendover a monk at St Alban’s monastery wrote a first-hand account of the battle. He describes how the French mercenaries trudged to Lincoln, dressed only in rags and how when they arrived were welcomed by the majority of the city’s residents and the clergy who still supported Louis. On arrival they began an assault on the castle but were met by a “shower of stones and deadly weapons” which were thrown in an act of “great courage[7]. William Marshal on hearing of the attack gathered together an army of castellans and knights at Newark and proceeded to Lincoln.

300px-BitvaLincoln1217ortho_Matthew Paris

The Battle of Lincoln Fair from a manuscript by Matthew Paris.

Robert Fitz-Walter and the Earl of Winchester on learning of the enemies approach left to check their numbers. On returning they convinced the French to join them in their attack on the Marshal’s incoming troops but the French only seeing the first section of the Royalist’s army decided to focus their efforts on the assault on the castle, confident that the barons had overestimated the numbers. Marshal sent a contingent of his men led by Falkes de Breaute to force open the north gate of the city. Unseen by the French and their allies they entered the city and positioned themselves on the castle walls, raining down a shower of arrows on their enemies, killing many of the horses from under their riders. They then went to meet their opponents and a violent battle ensued. The Count of Perche, heading the French army refused to surrender and was eventually killed. Seeing their leader’s death the French fled leaving the Royalists in control of the city[8]. Over 300 men were captured but only a few were killed besides the Count, these included the Earl of Winchester, the Earl of Hereford and de Gant.

Inside the Walls


Walls of Lincoln Castle.  Image by Lenora.

The account of what happened outside the castle’s walls is well documented but we have fewer exact details about what was happening inside the castle. Nicholaa moved to the tower as she was too important to be placed anywhere where her life would be in jeopardy. The physical running of the castle was left in the hands of her deputy, Geoffrey de Serland. De Serland was tasked with showing the Marshal’s nephew the secret entrance to the castle and escorting the Bishop of Winchester to a meeting with Nicholaa[9]. Despite this Nicholaa would have controlled the overall plan for protecting the castle. Even if the castle’s inhabitants were afraid I am sure that they would have been reassured and lifted by the iron spirit of their brave, formidable and determined leader, the Sheriff of Lincolnshire. It was Nicholaa’s courage in holding the castle during a dire and tumultuous time that changed the tide of the war leading to the eventually defeat of the barons and the French[10].

After the Siege

Four days later Nicholaa was replaced as Sheriff by Henry III’s uncle, the Earl of Salisbury. On the surface it seems a harsh move after all she had done and achieved but maybe it was her choice or possibly she was glad to no longer shoulder the responsibility, not a far-fetched scenario since only two years earlier she had tried to give up her role as castellan. Initially she may have been relieved but it did not last long as she spent her last years engaged in a power struggle with the Earl.

web-C66-18-m11r-crop_removal_reinstatement NDH_NA

The removal and restoration of Nicola de la Haye as constable of Lincoln Castle and sheriff of Lincolnshire, October 1217.  National Archives Collection.

Nicholaa’s granddaughter and her heiress, Idonea had married Salisbury’s son and Salisbury was determined to wrest control of the castle from Nicholaa’s hands. His means were entirely underhand. Initially he used force and then took hostages in order to convince her to leave. Eventually Nicholaa had had enough and handed him the castle in June 1226[11]. She did have the last laugh though. Dying at her Lincolnshire manor of Swaton in 1230, she had managed to outlive the Earl by four years!


Tradition held that this was the tomb of Nicholaa de la Haye, however the dress suggests a slightly later date.  It may be her niece.  British Battlefields website.

A Remarkable Woman


Medieval Manuscript.  Source Unknown.

For me Nicholaa is a remarkable character. For 30 years she held the position of castellan, a rare feat in a time when women wielded their power behind the scenes and were expected as the ‘weaker sex’ to listen and obey their men. Strong, redoubtable and intelligent she stood at the front of the Royalist cause. Equally astonishing her qualities were widely recognised, respected and admired. She even managed to retain the trust and affection of a notoriously fickle and difficult king whose faith in her abilities led him to appoint her as the country’s first female sheriff. Fittingly Lincoln’s link with John continues to this day as the home of one of only four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta.


Side note: For anyone interested in Lincolnshire and women’s roles, the book by Louise J. Wilkinson is highly recommended.


Lincoln Cathedral, opposite the castle.  Image by Lenora.


King John and Richard I: Brothers and Rivals, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/john_01.shtml
Lady Nicholaa de la Haye, http://magnacarta800th.com/schools/biographies/women-of-magna-carta/lady-nicholaa-de-la-haye/
Nicholaa de la Haye, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolaa_de_la_Haye
Nicholaa de la Haye, England’s Forgotten Heroine, https://historytheinterestingbits.com/2015/06/13/nichola-de-la-haye-englands-forgotten-heroine/
Nichola de la Haye, castellan of Lincoln Castle, https://www.geni.com/people/Nichola-de-la-Haye-castellan-of-Lincoln-Castle/6000000008630635752
The Monstrous Regiment of Women, http://www.monstrousregimentofwomen.com/2017/05/nicholaa-de-la-haye-defender-of-lincoln.html
Nicola de la Haye, http://www.catherinehanley.co.uk/historical-background/nicola-de-la-haye
Lady Nicholaa de la Haye, Women’s Network, https://womenshistorynetwork.org/tag/lady-nicholaa-de-la-haye/
06 – Sheriff De La Haye, http://www.knightstrail.com/the-knights/sheriff-de-la-haye/
English government in the thirteenth century, Adrian Jobson, 2004
The Sheriff of Lincoln a “very cunning, bad hearted and vigorous old woman”, http://www.theobservationpost.com/blog/?p=874
Women in Thirteenth-Century Lincolnshire, Louise J. Wilkinson, 2015
William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Marshal,_1st_Earl_of_Pembroke
Battle of Lincoln (1217), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Lincoln_(1217)
The Battle of Lincoln (1217), according to Roger of Wendover, http://deremilitari.org/2014/03/the-battle-of-lincoln-1217-according-to-roger-of-wendover/
History, https://www.lincolncastle.com/content/history
King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta, Marc Morris, 2015
The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power behind Five English Thrones, Thomas Asbridge, 2015


[1] Nicholaa de la Haye, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolaa_de_la_Haye
[2] King John and Richard I: Brothers and Rivals, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/john_01.shtml
[3] Nicholaa de la Haye, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolaa_de_la_Haye
[4] Lady Nicholaa de la Haye, http://magnacarta800th.com/schools/biographies/women-of-magna-carta/lady-nicholaa-de-la-haye/
[5] ibid
[6] The Battle of Lincoln (1217), according to Roger of Wendover, http://deremilitari.org/2014/03/the-battle-of-lincoln-1217-according-to-roger-of-wendover/
[7] The Battle of Lincoln (1217), according to Roger of Wendover, http://deremilitari.org/2014/03/the-battle-of-lincoln-1217-according-to-roger-of-wendover/
[8] ibid
[9] Women in Thirteenth-Century Lincolnshire, Louise J. Wilkinson, 2015
[10] History, https://www.lincolncastle.com/content/history
[11] Lady Nicholaa de la Haye, http://magnacarta800th.com/schools/biographies/women-of-magna-carta/lady-nicholaa-de-la-haye/

Toxic Socks and other Fashion Fatalities


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The nineteenth century may have seen the grim and grimy Industrial Age take hold of Britain and other industrial nations, painting the world grey as it went, but it was also a time when vibrant colour blossomed, and the fashion industry thrived, unchecked by government regulation.

Fashion plate from Godey’s Ladies Book 1839.

In earlier centuries the fashion conscious had had to make do with traditional animal and mineral dyes which were expensive and involved a complex dying process, as well as (Quelle Horreur!) not holding their colour. Colours such as green were especially hard to create, and required a compound of blue and yellow dyes; while the best quality men’s hats were made from very expensive beaver fur.  Clothing and hat manufacture was often a small scale, artisanal process, and fashion was usually affordable only to wealthier section of society. But in the nineteenth century new chemical and industrial processes began bring fashion to a wider audience.

A Victorian Soiree, possibly American. Source unknown.

Tiger Feet

Stripy socks c1850. The Met Museum.

One of the more noticeable trends of the nineteenth century, and one that all classes could easily participate in, was colourful socks.  Stripes and checks in a plethora of colours became all the rage.  Fuschine and Coraline striped socks created ‘rainbow spanned ankles’ according to the Lady’s Newspaper in 1861.  But such glorious footware was not for everyone, soon reports came in of terrible reactions – one member of parliament was laid up for months because of ‘painful eruptions of the feet’; while an unfortunate Frenchman, proud owner of a pair of British socks in bright red, suffered ‘pustulent, inflamed feet and ankles with acute and painful eczema in red transverse stripes’. [1]  In the case of the unfortunate Frenchman, the cause was the Fuschine dye, aggravated by the socks having  been worn, unwashed, directly on the skin for a stupendous 12 days in a row! Similar reactions were reported in 1871, when a pair of prized purple and yellow socks  left a gentleman’s feet resembling ‘an inflammatory tiger’ [2].

The British Sock trade was a thriving industry and although the Lancet and other journals did report on the phenomena, and some factories returned to more natural dying processes, manufacturers were largely unreceptive to the dangers.

Red, orange and purple dyes seemed to be the most inflammatory, but not everyone was affected.  Studies by William Crookes in 1868, eventually discovered that certain factors increased a person’s risk of chemical burns from these ‘chromatic torpedoes’, these were:

Cotton-silk socks, mid 19C. Met Museum.

  • Not washing them before wearing
  • Heat – the dye could leech from silk or cotton sock to the skin
  • Wearing wool socks in very tight, hot shoes in summer increased risk
  • Individual sweat chemistry

The impact on some sock-wearers may have been bad, but the impact on workers in sock factories was dire. In 1868 Crookes found that workers using a new orange dye, mixed with magenta, often had to give up work after only six months.  They  were debilitated by the corrosive effect of the dye, which left their arms covered in open sores.  [3]

My Chemical Romance

Mid 19C green dress. Bowes Museum. Lenora.

It was a pharmaceutrical chemist called Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742-1786) who began the revolution in colour.  In 1778 Scheele developed a brilliant green pigment, known as Scheele’s or Schloss Green.  Scheele created the pigment from copper arsenite or acidic copper arsenite.  Scheele’s Green was later improved and superseded by a slightly more stable pigment called Paris or Emerald Green.[4]  It was a huge success, green, formerly a most illusive colour to capture, was soon to be found everywhere: from wallpaper, candles, children’s toys and of course, fashionable garments and accessories.  As Alison Matthews David points out, in her excellent and thought provoking book Fashion Victims The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, one of the things that made Scheele’s and Emerald Green so fashionable was that the vibrant chemical pigment looked good in both daylight, and by gaslight.

However, this green revolution was not without it’s victims.  The pigment was made from arsenic and while arsenic was available over the counter for much of the nineteenth century, and used for many household chores, it’s toxicity was not unknown. As a small indicator of how toxic it could be, Wikipedia reports that it was used as an insecticide until the 1930’s.  Newspapers reported on the toxicity of the emerald green and tarlatane gowns worn by fashionable young ladies. Dr AW Hoffman, writing in the London Times in February 1862, reported that ‘[..] green tarletanes so much of late in vogue for ball dresses’ contained half their weight in arsenic. Matthews David calculated that a 20 yard gown could contain up to 900 grains of arsenic – while mere five grains is usually lethal to an adult. Public outrage at the ladies wearing these fashions intensified, in 1862 the British Medical Journal wrote:

‘Well may the fascinating wearer of it [green] be called a killing creature.  She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms.’ 

The Arsenic Waltz, Punch Magazine, 1862. Wellcome Collection.

Foliate head-dresses were also very popular at this time, bringing nature and greenery into the dull drab Victorian cities. Ladies often adorned their hair with nymph-like wreaths and artificial flowers.  Hoffman’s report in the Times concluded that each headdress contained enough poison to kill twenty people.

Soon the plight of poisoned garment workers became headline news. While fashionable green-clad ladies might suffer from occasional rashes or allergic reactions on their decolete or hands from from wearing green gowns and gloves, for the most, they were separated from the poisonous fabric by petticoats and lining materials.  Flowermakers on the other hand, had no such protections.  Often pressing the pigment, in the form of coloured dust, into the fabric, they inhaled the white arsenic on a daily basis and suffered terrible sometimes fatal consequences.[5]

Fleur du Mal – foliate Headdresses, mid 19C. Ryerson Ca.

In November 1861, Matilda Scheurer died an agonising and colourful death. She was nineteen and worked ‘fluffing’ artificial leaves with green powder.  Breathing it in and eating it with her food on a daily basis.  She suffered convulsions, vomited green water from the mouth nose and eyes, the whites of her eyes went green and it affected her vision in that she reported that everything looked green.  After much suffering she eventually died.[6]

Other workers suffered from bleeding sores on their hands and faces, and had their vision severely affected.

Effects of green arsenic. 1859. Wellcome Collection.

The Press, Ladies Societies, and various medical reports began to turn the tide against the green pigment.  Despite fashionable ladies often being treated as the villains of the piece, it is important to remember that societies such as the Ladies Sanitary Association did a lot to help raise awareness of the dangers of green. French Studies also provided evidence of the danger of working conditions for flower makers -finding that no cats or rats survived in the factories, and that workers suffered from scabs, ulcerations, loss of skin and cancerous scars on their legs. [7]

Emerald Green Pigment. Jane Austen World Blog.

Such findings eventually led to countries like Germany and France legislating against dangerous pigments, but Britain did nothing. However, the popularity of green had been irreparably damaged and Matthews David suggests that the fashion for pure white gowns that took hold at the end of the century was partially a reaction to the dangers of colour pigments such as Scheele’s Green.

Mad hatters

The Mad Hatter by Tenniel. 1858. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Hatters have always held a place in the public imagination, ever since Lewis Carol created the memorable Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland.  Whether this literary creation was intended to show the effects of mercury poisoning on hat manufacturers or not (and there is some debate on this), his erratic behaviour and shakey demeaner do seem close to the effects suffered by hat makers.

Men’s hats have formed an elaborate and often expensive part of etiquette and social status for centuries.  In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries beaver was the luxury material that the best hats were made from.  Beaver pelts could be felted without addition of dangerous chemicals such as mercury. Once felted, they could be moulded into what ever shape was currently fashionable: tricorne, bicorne, cone, topper, whatever.  However, their popularity was their downfall, and by the late sixteenth century beaver was extinct in Europe and only available via North American trade routes.  Eventually that source also dried up, and by the eighteenth century inferior local materials such as rabbit or hare were being used.  These pelts, being rougher, required a mercury and acid solution to break down the keratin in them and achieve felting.  The process caused the fur to turn orange, so it became know as carrotting. [8][9]

Fur Industry hat manufacture. 1858. Public Domain via Wikimedia.

There are a number of legends as to how hatters discovered the benefits of mercury, one memorable (if probably apocryphal tale) explains that hatters routinely added their own urine to the heated kettles containing the acidic liquids used in the process.  It was found that one worker’s urine was apparently more effacious than his colleagues – he explained that had been receiving mercury treatment for syphilis (a syringe of mercury to his penis) and thus the benefits of Mercury were revealed to the hatting trade! [10]

Hatting guilds had tried to ban Mercury from the process in 1716, in order to protect quality, the trade was losing its artisanal status as the process became more industrialised, but the defiance was short lived.  Hatters suffered as a consequence.  Mercury is incredibly toxic and a 1925 study by the Bureau International du Travail found that its impaired the neuromotor system. Hatters suffered from trembling and shaking. Evidence could be found in their very shaky signatures.

Medical text books and wax models in the Musee des Moulanges at Hopital Saint-Louis in Paris showed typical symptoms to include clubbed, stained and bulging nails, possibly indicative of underlying heart or lung problems and chronic oxygen deprivation.  They also suffered from erratic behaviour. Hatters wore no protective gloves, they ingested mercury through their lungs and skin on a daily basis and the effects were permanent.

Even today, some museums such as the Victoria and Albert, have to mark these hats as toxic.

Jean-Jaques Grandville satirized the dangers of the hatters trade well, in his illustration ‘La Mode’ – showing a wheel (an agonising French execution device).

Ashes to ashes

Wearing a crinoline. Mid nineteenth century. Source unknown.

Poisonous chemicals were not the only way that fashion could be fatal in the nineteenth century.  Changes to the textiles favoured by fashion could also be catastrophic.  In earlier centuries fabrics such as brocades and heavy silks and velvets were favoured. However the nineteenth century saw new fabrics such as muslins, cottons, and bobbinet/tulle (machine woven lace), often stiffened and made more flammable with starch, become popular.  Such diaphanous, ethereal costumes, that looked delightful by gas light, were much less fire safe than the heavier fabrics of old.

In addition to this structural garments such as the steel crinoline, a prime example of how industrialisation influenced fashion, could be very combustible.  The Crinoline was a large bell shaped structure that trapped air beneath it, thereby creating a chimney or funnel effect that could swiftly incinerate the careless wearer.

Between 1858 – 1864 nearly five million crinolines were manufactured by two Peugeot factories alone – illustrating the impact of industrialisation on production.[11]  Every woman, at every age and level of society wore them.  Some crinolines had  cirumferences of 8 feet.  While they definitely gave ladies presence and allowed them to own the space they occupied, they came with great risks.

Crinoline manufacture 1860. Public domain [?]

One such unfortunate lady, the 18 year old Archduchess Mathilde of Austria, was caught smoking an illicit cigarette by her father.  Trying to hid the offending article behind her, her skirts caught fire and the hapless Archduchess burned to death in front of her horrified father. [12]

A lady goes up in flames. 1860. Wellcome Collection.

Ballerina’s also suffered – in huge numbers – from flammable fashion.  Favouring tulle for their ethereal costumes and dancing very close to the footlights (so the male theatre goers could ogle their legs) they regularly incinerated themselves and their audiences.  In the USA in 1861 Philadelphia’s Continental Theatre saw one such fatal blaze that claimed the lives of 8 (possibly 9) ballerinas [14]. Drury Lane Theatre in London saw the firey demise of the star Ballerina Clara Webster in 1844 and perhaps the most famous victim of the fashion for flimsy tutu’s was Emma Livry star of the Paris Opera Ballet.  Considered the last great star of the Romantic Ballet tradition she had a suitably tragic end, when choosing to reject a dingy and stiff flame retardant tutu in favour of her ethereal tulle, she suffered the consequences, dying 8 months after her tutu caught fire during a rehearsal.

Fire at the Continental Theatre. Frank Leslie Illustrated News 28 Sept 1861.

In 1860, the height of the crinonline’s popularity, the Lancet medical journal estimated that 3000 women a year burned to death. [13]

Fashion Victim

Suddenly, in the nineteenth century to be a la mode was no longer the preserve of the rich; everyone from the society beauty to the scullery maid could participate in this newly democratised world of fashion, however, there was a heavy price to pay.

While the ladies and gentlemen of fashion, as the wearers of these garments, may well have been affected by them, far more victims were of the lower and disenfranchised classes. Ballerinas worked in highly flammable costumes, garment trade workers and mill workers worked in a largely unregulated industry, slaves worked in exploitative conditions on cotton plantations.  The fashion industry in the nineteenth century had a wide and deadly reach.

A lot has improved since then, with stricter regulation of chemicals, and improvements in working conditions and workers rights in the West.  However, headline grabbing incidents such as fires in Bangladeshi sweatshops and Chinese workers at risk of Silicosis from sandblasting jeans, [15][16] is a reminder that continued demand for cheap, fashionable clothing may have simply hidden the problem from us, by transferring manufacture to less regulated areas of the globe. Until these global issues are addressed, fashion will still claim it’s sacrifices amongst the poor.

The Wellcome Collection.

Sources and notes


Matthews David, Alison, 2015, ‘Fashion Victims The Dangers of Dress Past and Present’ [1]-[3], [5]-[8],[10]-[13], [16]

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/10/dress-hat-fashion-clothing-mercury-arsenic-poison-history/ [15]



https://tidingsofyore.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/ballerinas-on-fire-1861/ [14]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Wilhelm_Scheele [4] [9]