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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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!

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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

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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.

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Lincoln Cathedral, opposite the castle.  Image by Lenora.

Bibliography

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

Notes

[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

https://hyperallergic.com/133571/fatal-victorian-fashion-and-the-allure-of-the-poison-garment/

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://www.racked.com/2017/12/19/16710276/burning-dresses-history

https://thepragmaticcostumer.wordpress.com/2014/06/11/drop-dead-gorgeous-a-tldr-tale-of-arsenic-in-victorian-life/

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

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scheele%27s_Green

 

 

 

Will Kempe: The Elizabethan dancing clown

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 The end of an extraordinary adventure

On the 8th March, a noisy and excited throng of spectators gathered together to witness the final stage of a remarkable event, one which had long been anticipated and which had captured the imagination a city. The onlookers came from all walks of life and surrounded by music, singing and dancing they waited impatiently for the entrance of a man who was one of the most famous clowns of the Elizabethan theatre.

Elizabethan revellers. Source unknown.

Suddenly a figure was seen jumping and skipping its way through the heaving crowds from the direction of St Stephen’s Gate towards Thomas Gilbert. Gilbert had been selected to make the initial welcome on behalf of Norwich and to read his poem in honour of this man and the occasion. Once the initial greeting was over, the man continued on his way, dancing through the marketplace towards the Mayor’s House followed by his excited audience and a fanfare of music. His progress was hampered by the sheer number of well-wishers who unthinkingly blocked his way resulting in him accidentally stepping on a girl’s petticoat causing it to fall down leaving her red faced. Unable to continue on his original course he suddenly and to everyone’s amazement jumped the wall of St John Maddermarket Church reaching in a few short leaps the Mayor of Norwich’s house, the official welcome committee and the end of his dancing marathon.

The man behind the clown

The man who had undertaken this extraordinary endeavour was Will Kempe, a comedic actor who was not only beloved by his public but was also held in high esteem by his peers. Kempe was acclaimed as the worthy successor to Richard Tarleton, the greatest clown of the era and instrumental in turning the theatre into a form of mass entertainment. A dedication in Thomas Nashe’s An Almond for a Parrot (1590) praises Kempe calling him “that most comical and conceited cavalier, Monsieur du Kempe, jest-monger and vicegerent general to the ghost of Dick Tarleton[1].

Will Kemp. Woodcut c1600. via Wikimedia.

Kempe’s origins are obscure. Guesses for his date of birth range widely from the 1540s to the 1560s. Some researchers have speculated that he had strong links to Norwich, others that he was related to the Kempes of Olantigh in Kent[2]. It is possible that before turning to the stage he worked as a servant for the Earl of Leicester, since in May 1585 he is mentioned as part of the Earl’s own acting troupe, travelling with them to the Netherlands and Denmark[3]. He played with a number of other troupes including the Lord Strange’s Men and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He was even requested to perform for Frederick II of Denmark at Elsinore[4].

Kempe had also for a time been the ‘clown’ of choice for the popular playwright William Shakespeare, performing in a number of his plays at the Rose theatre. Kempe’s name appears as one of 26 actors listed as performers in the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays and it is believed that Shakespeare created the characters Dogberry in Much ado about nothing and Peter in Romeo and Juliet specifically for Kempe.

An unusual wager

The Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare. National Portrait Gallery.

Attempting bizarre journeys to gain public attention was nothing new in the 16th century. The eccentric self-styled ‘water-poet’, John Taylor was famous for his crazy stunts. On one occasion he tried to sail in a brown paper boat from London to Kent with dried fish stuck to his makeshift oars[7]. Unsurprisingly he failed. Kempe’s wager was simple, there was no time limit and he was allowed to rest and recover for any number of days but he had to dance the entire way to Norwich. George Spratt was engaged as an overseer to ensure that Kempe did not cheat. Kempe himself laid down a sum of money before he left on condition that he would receive 3x the amount when he completed the challenge[8]. It turned out to be one of the cleverest and most successful acts of self-promotion to ever be attempted and for one month, his name was on the tip of everyone’s tongue and his star which was beginning to fade, shone brightly.

The road from London to Norwich

Kempe’s started his dance in London, leaving from the Lord Mayor’s house on the 11th February 1600 in Whitechapel surrounded by onlookers who gave him “bowed sixpences and groats and hearty prayers”. A woodcut on the front of Kempe’s published account of his journey show him wearing an elaborate costume possibly similar to that worn by clowns and fools. As well as Spratt, Kempe was attended by Thomas Slye, a taberer and William Bee, a servant.

Jester by William Merrit Chase. Pennsylvania Acadamy of Fine Art.

From Whitechapel, Kempe danced his way to Mile End and from there to Stratford and then on to Ilford. From Ilford his route to Norwich passed through Romford, Burntwood, Chelmsford, Braintree, Sudbury, Melford, Bury, Thetford, Rockland and Hingham. His journey was punctuated with many stops, some intended, others unexpected. Sometimes it was due to weather conditions such as heavy snow in Bury, at other times due to physical exhaustion and on occasion simply because he was enjoying the attention he was receiving. He jigged through all types of landscapes including woods, bogs and heaths. Some places were more difficult to cross than others such as an area near Braintree where he fell into a pothole and strained his hip whilst other areas such as the route from Bury to Heath were so easy that he “counted the ten miles no better than a leape[9].

On the 8th March, after a delay of three days, to allow time for an appropriate celebration to be arranged, Kempe entered Norwich where he was received by the Mayor of that city. Kempe had achieved his goal, he had danced from London to Norwich, a distance of over 100 miles and had done so in nine days (even it did take nearly a month in reality to complete). He deservedly received a number of accolades and prizes including five pounds in Elizabethan Angels, a pension for life of 40 shillings and the Freedom of the Merchant Adventurers[10]. In return Kempe donated to the city his dancing shoes (which must have been pretty worn by that time) which were fastened to the walls of the Guildhall.

Whipping up a dancing frenzy

As he danced his jig (a dance made up of skips and leaps) crowds appeared to cheer him on. Some people offered him hospitality whilst a few other enthusiastic souls decided to join Kempe in his dance with differing degrees of success.

Kempe talks in his pamphlet about the many people he met along the way, these included a 14 year old girl who danced for an hour in his room in one of the pubs in which he was staying; his host in Rockland whose nervous and rather odd welcome speech left Kempe slightly bemused “thou art even as welcome as the Queen’s best greyhound”; two youths who tried to dance with him but misjudged a broad stretch of water and fell into a muddy pothole; a butcher who despite being described as a “lusty tall fellow” gave up after only ½ mile; and the fool of Master Colt’s who accompanied him for one mile before they “parted faire in a foule way[11].

Peasant Wedding by Pieter Breugel II.

Kempe’s most successful dancing companion was a “comely lass” who took up the challenge after calling the butcher “faint hearted”. Kempe fitted her out in bells and she danced alongside him for the one mile to his next stop where she was rewarded with a skinful of drink and an English Crown. Kemp was so impressed with her that he invented a rhyme in her honour, which begins

A  Country Lasse browne as a berry,
Blith of blee in heart as merry,
Cheekes well fed and sides well larded
Every bone with fat flesh guarded,
Meeting merry Kemp by chaunce,
Was Marrian in his Morrice daunce…
,[12]

The Great Wooden Spoon of Ilford

In Ilford he stopped at a local tavern and was entreated to take some refreshment there. Ilford was famous for its unique measure of ale which was known as a ‘Great Spoon’. A spoon is the equivalent nowadays of two pints and so a great spoon would have been much larger. The exact amount is unknown, although there is some speculation that the ale was poured into a large wooden utensil possibly in the shape of a spoon from which customers could quench their thirst. For as long as I can remember there has always been a pub called ‘The Great Spoon of Ilford’. Now owned by Wetherspoons, the pub keeps the memory of Kempe’s visit alive, displaying a board, hung outside showing him dressed in all his dancing finery on route to Norwich. According to Kempe’s own account he refused all offers of alcohol on his journey as he states “it stands not with the congruity of my health[13].

An unusual dancing achievement

At the time Kempe’s success was celebrated and much commented on. Kempe dedicated his own account to Anne Fritton, maid of honour to the Queen, entitled “Kemps Nine Daies Wonder Performed in a Daunce from London to Norwich…written by himself to satisfie his friends” and to also correct any false information that was being spread. Kempe introduces himself as “Cavaliero Kemp, head-master of Morrice-dauncers, high Head-borough of heighs, and onely tricker of your Trill lilles, and best belshangles”.  Other critics were less enthusiastic. Not everyone was a fan of Kempe’s antics. In Ben Johnson’s poem “On the Famous Voyage” he scorns those that engage in these types of betting activities and mentions Kempe and his “famous Morrise, unto Norwich[14].

Kemp’s Men of Norwich, Morris dancing troupe. Source Facebook.

Kempe’s dance still ignites the imagination of many today and on its 400 year anniversary,  Morris dancers from all over the UK joined together to re-enact Kempe’s dance including members of Kemp’s Men who keep alive the Morris dancing tradition[15]. More recently in April 2015, Rick Jones to celebrate Shakespeare’s anniversary also recreated Kempe’s journey. Jones started from Southwark Cathedral and danced through many of the same places that Kempe had done, dressed in a similar costume and carrying a lute[16]. He completed the journey in exactly nine days. In Norwich a new walkway connecting Bethel Street to Theatre Street was named Will Kemp Way and a statue erected to Kempe can be found in Chapelfield Gardens in Norwich, carved by Suffolk sculptor, Mark Goldsworthy[17].

Kempe’s final swan song

Kemp’s memorial. Image by Keith Evans via Wikimedia.

Kempe’s extraordinary dancing feat turned out to be his swan song and little was heard from him afterwards.  In 1601, an entry in an account book belonging to Philip Henslowe, the manager of the Rose theatre, records that he had made Kempe a loan of 20 shillings[18]. At about the same time Kempe was reported to have joined the Worcester’s Men. No one really knows why Kempe fell into such financial straits and why he fell out of favour. Kempe died in poverty and obscurity possibly during a plague outbreak in 1603[19]. This date would tie in with an entry in St Saviour in Southwark Parish which simply mentions the death of “Kempe, a man”[20]. Whether this is the jigging, eccentric, flamboyant, larger than life William Kempe, dancer extraordinaire, is unclear but it does seem that the man that once lit up the Elizabethan theatre, left his final stage with barely a flicker.

Thomas Gilbert’s Welcome Poem honouring Will Kemp

W   With hart, and hand, among the rest
E    Especially you welcome are
L    Long looked for as a welcome guest,
C   Come now at last you be from farre.
O   Of most with the city, sure,
M   Many good wishes you have had;
E    Each one did pray you might indure,
W   With courage good the match you made
I     Intend they did with gladsome hearts
L     Like your well wishers, you to meete:
K    Know you also, they’l doe their parts,
E    Esther in field or house to Greece
M    More you than any with you came
P     Procur’d thereto with rump and fame [21]

Bibliography

Will Kempe, http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/willkempe
Will Kempe, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Kempe
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
William Kemp, www.bardstage.org/william-kemp-actor.html
The water poets, pageants and the Thames, http://blogs.bl.uk/english-and-drama/2012/06/the-water-poet-pageants-and-the-thames.html
Kemp William, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Kemp,_William_(fl.1600)_(DNB00)
Will Kemp’s Jig, http://www.amaranthpublishing.com/Kemp.htm
Will Kemp, www.literarynorfolk.co.uk/Norwich/will_kemp.html
On the famous voyage by Ben Johnson, https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/famous-voyage
Richard Tarlton, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Tarlton
Shakespeare’s jester William Kempe’s historical 1600 journey from London to Norwich has been recreated, Eastern Daily Press, http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/shakespeare-s-jester-william-kempe-s-historical-1600-journey-from-london-to-norwich-has-been-recreated-1-4062384
Kemp’s Men of Norwich, http://kempsmen.org.uk/wp/
A last Elizabethan journal by G.B. Harrison
Will Kemp, http://www.heritagecity.org/research-centre/whos-who/will-kemp.htm
William Kempe, https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Kempe

Notes:

[1] Will Kempe, http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/willkempe
[2] Will Kempe, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Kempe
[3] Will Kempe, http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/willkempe
[4] ibid
[5] Hamlet by William Shakepeare
[6] William Kemp, www.bardstage.org/william-kemp-actor.html
[7] The water poets, pageants and the Thames, http://blogs.bl.uk/english-and-drama/2012/06/the-water-poet-pageants-and-the-thames.html
[8] William Kemp, https://www.en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/kemp_william
[9] Will Kemp’s Jig, http://www.amaranthpublishing.com/Kemp.htm
[10] Kemp William, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Kemp,_William_(fl.1600)_(DNB00)
[11] Will Kemp’s Jig, http://www.amaranthpublishing.com/Kemp.htm
[12] ibid
[13] Will Kemp’s Jig, http://www.amaranthpublishing.com/Kemp.htm
[14] On the famous voyage by Ben Johnson, https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/famous-voyage
[15] Kemp’s Men of Norwich, http://kempsmen.org.uk/wp/
[16] Shakespeare’s jester William Kempe’s historical 1600 journey from London to Norwich has been recreated, Eastern Daily Press, http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/shakespeare-s-jester-william-kempe-s-historical-1600-journey-from-london-to-norwich-has-been-recreated-1-4062384
[17] Kemp’s Men of Norwich, http://kempsmen.org.uk/wp/
[18] Will Kempe, http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/willkempe
[19] Will Kempe, www.Shakespeare-online.com/biography/WillKempe
[20] William Kempe, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Kempe
[21] Will Kemp, www.literarynorfolk.co.uk/Norwich/will_kemp.html

Claude Duval: The highwayman of hearts

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Stand and Deliver!  the dandy highwayman

…He continued his highway robbery, but he made two bad blunders-not from the point of view of a thief, but from that of the gentleman in him. The first was when he stopped an opulent looking chariot, which he found to contain two ladies, their maid and their jewels… and he had hastily retired after tendering a naive apology…[1]

The dandy highwayman. Image source: Adam and the Ants, Stand and Deliver, 1981. CBS Records

Taken from the Queen of Regency romance novels, Georgette Heyer, ‘The Black Moth’, the novel tells of the English Lord Jack Carstares who is forced to become a highwayman after taking the blame for a cheating scandal a few years before in order to save the life of his younger brother, Richard. As you would expect from this type of novel which is not exactly a gritty factual account of the period (although personally I don’t care as I adore Heyer) her portrayal of a highwayman follows the romantic image. He is handsome, noble and courageous, fallen on hard times through no fault of his own and even though forced to lead a life of crime behaves gallantly towards women. Although real life highwaymen were miles away from Heyer’s Carstares, the idea of the courteous masked man of the road did have its roots in stories of real flesh and blood highwaymen.


The First Gentleman Highwayman

One of which is Claude Duval. Duval’s memoirs were written by William Pope whilst Duval was imprisoned at Newgate. It is largely thanks to Pope’s (at worst fictional and at best embellished) biographical account that Duval has been turned into a folkloric legend. Duval in turn has paved the way for all future depictions of the chivalrous highwayman.

The Early Years

Normandy in the 17th Century. Image source: public domain[?]

Duval was born in Domfront in Normandy in 1643 to a respectable but poor family. His father Pierre earned his living as a miller whilst his mother, Marguerite was the daughter of a tailor. Pope refutes an idea that must have been circling at the time that Duval was actually English and had been born in Bishopsgate, London. His reason is completely irrational but at the same time rather revealing “If he had not been a Frenchman, ‘tis absolutely impossible that he should have been so much beloved in his life, and lamented at his death by the English ladies[2]. Obviously the French were considered to be much more skilful and successful in the art of love and seduction than Englishmen! Duval’s life seems to have been the stuff of prophesy. Pope recounts a story that tells of a friar who seems to have been struck by this ability when looking at the young Duval. The friar predicted that Duval would be a traveller when he was older, would never be short of money and would be successful with women above his station[3]. His parents were as you would expect delighted with the news although the friar either did not see the whole picture or purposely held back some salient details as to how Duval would achieve his fame and fortune. Possibly for the best!

A Parisian Education

The Rakes Progress by William Hogarth.  Image source: public domain.

In his early teens Duval left Domfront to travel to Paris and make his fortune. He seems to have fallen into the employment of a group of English Cavaliers who had followed the exiled Charles II to France. Duval settled in the St Germain district of Paris and spent his time running errands for the Englishmen and working at a place called St Esprit, which was a cross between a tavern, an ale house, a cook shop and a brothel. It was here that he probably learned the ways of the world and became a connoisseur of women as well as dabbling in a little stealing on the side. On Charles II’s restoration to the British throne in 1660, Duval accompanied the returning Englishmen to England working in either the stables or as a page boy in the household of Charles Lennox, Duke of Richmond[4].

A knight of the road

Claude Duval, theatrical lithograph from 1850. Image source: public domain.

Duval only worked for the Duke for a short time before he was dismissed. It was rumoured that he may have got a bit carried away with his master’s fiancée or she with him[5]. He was said to have rented a house in Wokingham and continued to live the high life, but being overly fond of women, drinking and gambling plays havoc with your finances especially if you don’t have much to start with. Duval finding himself financially embarrassed seems to have decided to turn to a life of crime. He was obviously good at it as he somehow became the leader of a gang of notorious highwaymen. As a highwayman Duval seems to have found his purpose in life, choosing a lifestyle which brought him the fame, fortune and women which he craved. He revelled in being an infamous highwayman preferring to operate on the roads to London where the richest picking could be found. In particular the area of Holloway between Highgate and Islington became his patch and despite his genteel manners he had no qualms about living a life of crime and debauchery. He was also clever enough to be in control of his own publicity carving his image as a debonair and courteous highwayman.

 “Yes Sir. I have had sport enough from a son of a whore…”[6]

He also wanted it to be known that he abhorred the use of violence. This must have been from a sense of fun and theatrics rather than from any practical reason as you would hang just the same whether you killed a man or not. An example often given is of Squire Roper, the Master of the Royal Buckhounds from whom he stole 50 guineas and left tied to a tree[7]. Squire Roper was not amused and complained bitterly about the way he had been treated. This was in sharp contrast to the well-heeled ladies who tried their hardest to be robbed by Duval!

A musical interlude involving a flute and a coranto

The most famous episode from his life and which has been romanticised to such a degree that it probably has squeezed any truth from it is the account of Duval holding up a carriage in Hampstead Heath (or possibly Bagshot Heath in Surrey according to some reports). On seeing the carriage appear he made the standard call ‘Stand and Deliver’. Inside the carriage were a beautiful young lady and her older husband. Determined not to be seen as frightened and impressed with the handsome face of the highwayman she suddenly produced a flageolet which she just happened to have on her (why springs to mind – did she expect to be held up or did she always carry musical instruments on her person in case the need might arise for a tune?) and started playing. As you would expect of a highwayman along with his pistols and sword he also carried a flute and in response started to play as well. Duval then asked the musical lady whether she could dance as well as she played. She accepted his invitation and with I guess music being played by one of Duval’s equally versatile men, the lady and the highwayman danced a coranto under a moonlit sky. Duval showed his skill and grace by out dancing all but the greatest of French dancing master despite wearing rather restrictive riding boots[8].

The lady’s husband naturally a bit miffed at this point strongly suggested that his wife get back into the carriage. As the husband started to give orders to drive off Duval politely reminded him that he had to pay for his evening’s entertainment. Now either the gentlemen only gave Duval £100 which was accepted by him in good humour and “with a flamboyant sweep of his feathered hat[9] despite knowing full well that there was a further £300 hidden under the man’s seat or Duval only accepted £100 despite being offered the full sum. According to Leigh Hunt this episode was “an eternal feather in the cap of highway gentility[10]. Even though it is hard to believe that Duval had time for a romantic musical interlude in the midst of a theft whilst avoiding arrest it is definitely an enchanting tale.

Claude Duval by William Powell Frith, 1860. Image source: public domain.

A less than chivalrous incident

Another episode which does not show Duval in such a favourable light was reported to have occurred in Blackheath. Duval and his men stopped a coach containing a number of ladies, one of whom was feeding a baby with a silver bottle. Apparently Duval on seeing the bottle grabbed it but after being admonished by a member of his gang who reminded him about the need to protect his reputation, Duval grudgingly gave it back. A slightly different version possibly circulated to counteract any negative publicity states that it was in fact one of Duval’s men who snatched the bottle and it was Duval who convinced his man to give his prize back.

Escape to France

On the 19 November 1669 a royal proclamation was issued with Duval named first in a list of notorious offenders and a reward of £20 placed on his head. The London Gazette described him as “the most wanted highwayman in England[11]. Duval was forced to leave England and return to France to wait until things had cooled down. Although back on home territory and probably trying to lie low, Duval was unable to keep out of trouble. Finding highway robbery less lucrative over that side of the Channel since carriages travelled with less money and more guns Duval decided to return to England.

Capture and trial

Unfortunately shortly after his return Duval’s luck ran out. It was reported (although no corroborating evidence exists[12]) that during a drunken night of revelry at the Hole-in-the-Wall in Chandos Street in London, early in 1670, Duval was finally arrested. Pope states that if Duval hadn’t been drunk (and considering three pistols and a sword were found on him) he would never have been taken so easily. Duval was arraigned and convicted at the Old Bailey of six counts of highway robbery (with others known of but not proved). It seems that even at this stage Duval was convinced that he would be pardoned by Charles II but in the end due to the judge, Sir William Morton threatening to resign if the conviction was overturned Charles decided to stay well out of it.

The Idle ‘Prentice executed at Tyburn. William Hogarth. Image source: public domain.

Execution

Whilst Duval was imprisoned it seems he was not short of company as a steady flow of wealthy women; some of whom might have been his victims and others simply eager to get a glance of the devilishly handsome highwayman. It seems he did not disappoint as many of them petitioned the king and other leading officials on his behalf and “…Not a few accompanied him to the gallows, under their vizards, with swollen eyes and blubbered cheeks[13]. On the 21 January 1670 at the age of twenty seven, Duval was hanged at Tyburn. According to records as well as the ladies quite a few men attended. The men were possibly relieved that the spell that Duval had cast on their wives, daughters, sisters and even mothers would finally be vanquished.

A Celebrity Hanging – Captain jerry Jackson goes to the gallows.  Image source: Michael Winner’s 1983 adaptation of The Wicked Lady.

Lying in state

After his death, Duval was cut down and brought in a mourning coach to a pub near Covent Gardens. He lay in state for several days although the name of the deceased was withheld from the pub owner so as not to cause any problems. The bed posts were covered in black drapes, candles lit and the body watched over by several men in black. He was visited by a number of veiled women who stricken with grief took their last tearful leave of Duval.

A chivalrous thank you and fitting epitaph

Duval managed his reputation or legend to the last. If true a note was found on his body when his clothes were searched which included a thank you to all the women who had visited him, tried to attain a pardon for him, comforted him and would accompany him on his final journey to the gallows. He also reassured them that he was prepared for his death and had made his peace with his maker. Duval made a last dig at the men in their lives as he states that he admits that his obligation to them is great since they have loved him “better than your own country-men, better than your own dear husbands[14]. Duval was buried in the churchyard of St Paul’s (possibly under the name of Peter Duval) and his headstone bore the epitaph

Here lies Du Vall:

Reader if male thou art,

Look to thy purse;

if female to thy heart.

Much havoc has he made of both;

for all men he made stand,

and women he made fall.

The second Conqueror of the Norman race,                                          

Still one for the ladies

Even in death Duval’s amorous activities seem to have continued. His ghost is believed to haunt the Holt Hotel in Oxfordshire. The hotel was previously known as the Hopcroft’s Holt, a staging post on the north road to Oxford and was a favourite drinking hole and possible headquarters of Duval. Duval’s ghost is said to be particularly fond of Room 3 and many women are said to have felt they were being watched[16]. Duval’s link with the inn is commemorated in a painted carved wooden sign displayed outside the hotel.

The Holt Hotel Oxfordshire. Image source: RAF_Upper_Heyford website.

A gracious leader of thieves

Duval is considered to be the first gentlemen highwayman and for some he “brought class and dignity to the profession of highwayman[17]. Whether he really deserves the praise he has garnered is open to debate as although he fascinated women of all ages, he was when it came to it a thief, a charming one but still a thief. It should also not be forgotten that he rode with men who were hardened criminals and in all likelihood did not ascribe to the same code of conduct. He must have wielded power as he was believed to have controlled a gang of up to fifty men and robbed houses and convoys as well as carriages and coaches. They would not have followed him if they thought him to be a weak, foppish and ineffectual leader however gallant he was! He was also successful as he managed to evade capture through his own skills and cunning for ten years, outperforming most of his fellow highwaymen. None of them really expected to live a long life and die in bed.

A considerably less chivalrous highwayman – Dick Turpin. Image source public domain.

The legend of Duval

The myth of Duval life later became even more elaborate with some people claiming that he once saved the life of Charles II and that he was more than a friend to Nell Gwynne[18]. As with every legend there is no separating myth from fact. The image of the charming witty debonair and handsome highwayman galloping through the country with his pistols at his side and dressed in a curly wig, black hat and eye mask is defining appealing. In my mind I imagine him cut from the same cloth as the highwayman described by Alfred Noyes in his poem ‘The Highwayman’

…He’d a French cocked hat on his forehead,

a bunch of lace at his chin,

A coat of the claret velvet,

and breeches of brown doe-skin;

They fitted with never a wrinkle.

His boots were up to his thigh.

And he rode with a jewelled twinkle

His pistols butts a-twinkle,

His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky…

Bibliography

The memoirs of Monsieur Du Vall: Containing the history of his life and death, William Pope, 1670

Stand and deliver: a history of highway robbery, David Brandon, 2010

Claude Duval, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_Duval

Claude Duval, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Claude-Duval

Claude Duval: Gentleman highwayman, http://www.sloughhistoryonline.org.uk/ixbin/hixclient.exe?a=query&p=slough&f=generic_theme.htm&_IXFIRST_=1&_IXMAXHITS_=1&%3Dtheme_record_id=sl-sl-claudeduval&s=1MBABDA5YeF

Claude Duval (1643-1670), http://www.berkshirehistory.com/bios/cduval.html

Claude Duval –  the romantic highwayman, http://www.hounslow.info/libraries/local-history-archives/claude-duval/

Claude Duval – The Gallant Highwayman, http://stand-and-deliver.org.uk/highwaymen/claude-du-vall.html

1670: Claude Duval, gentleman highwayman, http://www.executedtoday.com/2010/01/21/1670-claude-duval-duvall-gentleman-highwayman/

Highwaymen, http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Highwaymen/ The ladies love Claude Duval, http://www.roguesgalleryonline.com/the-ladies-love-claude-duval/

The Highwayman, Alfred Noyes, 1906

The Old Bailey: Eight Centuries of Crime, Cruelty and Corruption, Theresa Murphy, 2011

The thief of hearts: Claude Duval and the Gentlemen Highwayman in fact and fiction, John and Philip Sugden, 2015

Antiques at the Holt, http://www.antiques-at-the-holt.co.uk/holt.htm

Foul deeds of suspicious deaths in Hampstead Heath and St Pancras, Mark Aston, 2005

Duvall, the dandy highwayman from Domfront, http://www.normandythenandnow.com/tag/claude-duval/ The Holt Hotel, https://www.hauntedrooms.co.uk/product/holt-hotel-oxford-oxfordshire

The Black Moth, Georgette Heyer, 1921

Notes

[1] The Black Moth, Georgette Heyer, 1921

[2] The memoirs of Monsieur Du Vall: Containing the history of his life and death, William Pope, 1670

[3] ibid

[4] Stand and deliver: a history of highway robbery, David Brandon, 2010

[5] Duvall, the dandy highwayman from Domfront, http://www.normandythenandnow.com/tag/claude-duval/

[6] ibid

[7] Claude Duval, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_Duval

[8] Claude Duval – The Gallant Highwayman, http://stand-and-deliver.org.uk/highwaymen/claude-du-vall.html

[9] The Old Bailey: Eight Centuries of Crime, Cruelty and Corruption, Theresa Murphy, 2011

[10] The ladies love Claude Duval, http://www.roguesgalleryonline.com/the-ladies-love-claude-duval/

[11] Duvall, the dandy highwayman from Domfront, http://www.normandythenandnow.com/tag/claude-duval/

[12] Claude Duval, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_Duval

[13] The memoirs of Monsieur Du Vall: Containing the history of his life and death, William Pope, 1670

[14] ibid

[15] Stand and deliver: a history of highway robbery, David Brandon, 2010

[16] The Holt Hotel, https://www.hauntedrooms.co.uk/product/holt-hotel-oxford-oxfordshire

[17] The Old Bailey: Eight Centuries of Crime, Cruelty and Corruption, Theresa Murphy, 2011

[18] The Holt Hotel, http://www.antiques-at-the-holt.co.uk/holt.him

A haunting tale for Halloween: The Stockwell Ghost

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Astonishing Transactions at Stockwell

Kennington Common and Church 1830. Image Source: Vauxhall History online.

In the eighteenth century Stockwell was a rural hamlet in Surrey, repleat with rolling fields and shady lanes flanked by hedgerow. It boasted less than a hundred dwellings mainly centred around a village green, upon which flocks of sheep ambled whilst sparrows and yellow hammers sported in the skies above.  It was a veritable rustic idyll.

Mrs Golding was an upstanding and well-regarded member of the community, a lady of independent fortune who lived alone, but for her maid, Ann Robinson. Her house was situated close by the Tower public house.  A more respectable and unremarkable old body it would have been hard to find.  However on twelfth night, Monday 6 January, 1772, her unobtrusive life was suddenly cast into turmoil.

Mrs Golding’s peaceful forenoon was rudely shattered when her young maid servant, a girl of about twenty, and employed little more than a week, burst into the parlour to exclaim that the kitchen was being turned upside down by hands unseen.  Alarmed, Mrs G accompanied the girl to the aforesaid chamber and to her utter astonishment was witness to the following events:

‘Cups and saucers rattled down the chimney – pots and pans were whirled down the stairs, or through the windows; and hams, cheeses and loaves of bread disported themselves upon the floor as if the devil were in them.’ [1]

While the astounded old lady contemplated the strange turn of events, things escalated –

‘a clock tumbled down and the case broke; a lantern that hung on the staircase was thrown down and the glass broke to pieces; an earthen pan of salted beef broke to pieces and the beef fell about’ [2]

Image Source: La Vie Mysterieuse in 1911.

Soon the cacophony of chaos had drawn quite a crowd. But although Mrs Golding and her neighbours may have feared the devil was at play in her pantry, nevertheless she was also sensible enough to consider that the house may be about to come tumbling down about their ears, and hastily summoned Mr Rowlidge, a carpenter, to inspect the building.  His assessment was that the weight of an extra room added to an upper floor was occasioning the disruptions and that immediate evacuation was required.  Mrs Golding fled fainting to her neighbour, Mr Gresham, for shelter.  She left Mr Rowlidge and his associates to retrieve her remaining possessions – and her maid, who had repaired to an upper chamber.

Mr Rowlidge and his companions urgently impressed on the young woman the need to vacate the property, yet Ann repeatedly ignored their entreaties. Eventually the young woman sauntered downstairs, with such an air of unconcern that it quite amazed Mr Rowlidge and his companions.

In the house next door, Mrs Golding was in a dead faint. Such was her violent reaction to the sudden calamity that it was misreported that she had expired, and her niece, one  Mrs Pain, was summoned from her home at Rush Common close to the nearby settlement of Brixton Causeway.

Image source: unknown.

Of the witnesses present, one was a surgeon, Mr Gardner of Clapham.  He was called upon to practice his art on the trembling Mrs Golding by letting her blood.  Mr Gardner intended to examine the blood later, so it was left to rest in a basin.  The congealing mass was too tempting to the disruptive spirit in attendance upon the unfortunate Mrs Golding, and the jellied lump of blood was observed to spring from the basin, which itself then shattered upon the ground.

The bouncing blood did not bode well, soon the many valuables transported from Mrs Golding’s and stowed in Mr Gresham’s parlour were under supernatural attack. China stored on a sideboard came crashing down, shattering a pier glass placed beneath it.  Pandemonium soon reigned in the Gresham household – as it had done in Mrs Golding’s.

In terror, Mrs Golding fled to another neighbour, Mr Mayling, for respite.  Deciding that her neighbours had been put too much trouble by the devilish commotions, she quickly departed Mr Mayling’s house to that of her niece at Rush Common.  If Mrs Golding had hoped the strange events had ceased, she was to be disappointed.  During dinner, the maid was sent back to Mrs Golding’s house and later reported all was quiet there.  Things were less quiet at the Pain’s – at 8pm:

“a whole row of pewter dishes, except one, fell off a shelf to the middle of the floor, rolled about a little while, then settled, as soon as they were quiet, turned upside down; [..] two eggs were upon one of the pewter shelves, one of them flew off, crossed the kitchen, and struck a cat on the head, and then broke to pieces.” [3]

The Domestic Cat by Thomas Bewick.

Other items soon flew about – a pestle and mortar, candlesticks, brasses, glasses and china, a mustard pot jumped about, even a ham, hung on the chimney, and a flitch of bacon, all went flying.  There were many witnesses, family and friends alike, many of whom were so afraid that they fled in terror, fearing witchcraft or the devil was at work.

And during all of this tumult, one person one person carried on as if nothing was amiss.  Ann Robinson.  Ann continued to flit between the kitchen and parlour wherever the family was.  She just would not sit still.   Hone reports in his Everyday book that she:

“advised her mistress not to be alarmed or uneasy, as these things could not be helped.”

Following this strange advice, Mrs Golding and the Pain’s began reconsider Ann’s apparent sang froid.  

At 10pm the services of a Mr Fowler were called upon, he was asked to sit with the ladies but fled at 1am, being so terrified by the goings on.  Mrs Pain fled to bed, Mrs Golding paced amidst the ruins of her possessions.  By the early hours of the morning, unable to withstand the destruction any more Mrs Golding left her niece and went to the timorous Mr Fowler’s.   Ann returned to the Pain’s to help Mrs Pain retrieve the children from a barn to where they had been evacuated.  Hone reports that all was quiet at Mr Fowler’s, until Ann returned.

Image source:

Once again, a litany of destruction ensued – candlestick struck lamp, coals overturned and Ann informed Mr Fowler that such events would pursue Mrs Golding wherever she went.  Terrified, Mr Fowler bid his neighbour leave, but first he entreated her to:

“consider within herself, for her own and the public sake, whether or not she had not been guilty of some atrocious crime, for which Providence was determined to pursue her on this side of the grave.” [4]

This slight to her good character – that her travails must be divine punishment for a crime she had committed irked Mrs G and she soon gave short shrift to Mr Fowler’s admonitions and declared:

“her conscience was quite clear, and she could as well wait the will of Providence in her own house” [5]

Unsurprisingly, when she returned home, her supernatural attendant accompanied her – a box of candles was overturned, a table danced, and a pail of water mysteriously seethed and boiled.

For Mrs Golding and Mr Pain her nephew-in-law, the evidence was stacking up against the unflappable Ann.  A trap was set.  Ann was to go on an errand back to Rush Common.  During that time, about 6 -7am on Tuesday morning, all paranormal activity ceased.  Upon her return she was dismissed on the spot as the cause of the diabolical destruction.  As if by magic, all disruption ceased and Mrs Golding was never again to suffer such travails.

Stockwell ghost: poltergeist or hoax?

At the time, the Stockwell ghost was almost as notorious as the Cock Lane Ghost of the 1760’s.  Interest was so great that the main witnesses, Mrs Golding, John and Mary Pain, Richard and Sarah Fowler and Mary Martin, the Pain’s maid, even went so far as to publish a pamphlet a few days after the events, on 11th January 1772: An authentic, candid, and circumstantial narrative of the astonishing transactions at Stockwell … Surry … the 6th and 7th … of January, 1772 …  

The Cock Lane Ghost, artist unknown. Image source: Wikimedia.

The curious thing about the Stockwell haunting is that so many people considered it to be genuine, even after the main witnesses began to express their doubts, it was reported that even years later, many locals attributed events to the supernatural. [6] And this in the eighteenth century: the century famed for the Enlightenment and for thinkers such as Hume, Diderot and Voltaire who to tried to take God out of the equation by presenting a ‘disenchanted’ world free from religious superstition.  However, in tandem with this new rationalistic world view, came an enthusiastic popular religion in the form of Wesley’s Methodism, and Wesley himself claimed to have experienced a poltergeist called ‘Old Jeffrey’ at the family home Epworth Rectory.  And of course, old superstitions die-hard.

Faced with chaotic, frightening and inexplicable events, many apparently rational people will question their view of the world before looking for more prosaic explanations.  In fact, many ‘sober’ and respectable persons attended Mrs Golding, ostensibly to express their sympathies for her not inconsiderable financial losses, but also with an undoubted air of rubbernecking at someone else’s misfortune.  Many came away terrified and convinced of the diabolical origin of the disturbances and some no doubt, like Mr Fowler, questioned what the respectable Mrs Golding had done to bring down Providence’s displeasure. As seen with the Cock Lane Ghost, there was an enduring popular belief that ghosts often returned in order to right a wrong or uncover a crime.[7]  Mrs Golding stood to lose much more than just her china and plate, she stood to lose her good character.

Eighteenth Century Servant Girl. Image Source: Life takes lemons blog.

Poltergeist activity is often associated with young girls.  Anthropological studies suggest the are an expression of inter-personal conflicts or domestic violence within kin-groups.[8]  In the case of young servant girls, away from home and family, perhaps in a restrictive or oppressive environment, it is understandable that some found it tempting to rail against the power imbalance between master (or mistress) and servant.  The historical record certainly provides many examples of young servants perpetrating hoaxes on their employers.[9]

Even if one gives Ann the benefit of the doubt and attributes her sang froid and comment that such things were normal, to the fact that the poltergeist was attached to her and perhaps for her it was normal, it seems fairly clear that the young Ann Robinson was faking it (in order to clear the house for an illicit liaison).  The pamphlet points the finger of blame strongly in her direction, whilst stopping short of making an outright accusation, claiming rather to be simply recounting events as they happened (even maids can get litigious). However,  all doubt must have been dispelled several years later when Ann finally confessed to her part in orchestrating events.   Her confession was made to one Reverend Brayfield and was reported by William Hone, in his Everyday Book of 1825:

‘She had fixed long horse hairs to some of the crockery, and put wire under others; on pulling these the ‘moveables’ of course fell [..] Ann Robinson herself dexterously threw many of the things down, which the persons present, when they turned around and saw them in motion or broken, attributed to unseen agency’

19th century kitchen maid. Image source: unknown.

It is worth noting that not everyone was convinced by this confession: Catherine Crowe, famous for introducing the term poltergeist into the English language in her 1848 work The Night-side of Nature, was convinced the phenomena was real.  But she was in the minority.

Ann may well have been a simple serving-maid, but many of the middle and upper class writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century believed that servants were routinely committing similar dastardly deeds, and pulling the wool over their unsuspecting employers eyes.[10] All of which suggests that the ‘umble folk had a pretty good grasp of basic psychology, allowing them to tap into popular fears to get the better of their betters.

The god-fearing folk who witnessed events at Stockwell were often so terrified that they would refuse to look upon the shattered items for fear of what devilish imps they might see – thereby giving the nimble and nefarious Ann further opportunity to create mayhem, even going so far as to add a paper of chemicals to a pail of water to make it ‘boil’.

If not for the ultimate callousness and meanness of the trick – Mrs Golding was an elderly lady and she was badly frightened as well as suffering considerable financial loss – young Ann was clearly a force to be reckoned with.  One wonders if she ever repeated the tactic on future employers – or if her descendants can be found employed in todays popular Halloween entertainment, the Haunted House.

Happy Halloween

 

Sources and Notes

Crowe, Catherine, 1848, The Night-Side of Nature:

https://archive.org/stream/nightsideofnatur02crowiala#page/240/mode/2up

Davies, Owen, 2007, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts [7] [8] [9] [10]

Hone, William, 1825: The Everyday Book: [2] [3] [4] [5]

https://archive.org/stream/everydaybookorgu01hone#page/30/mode/2up

MacKay, Charles, 1852, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds: [1] [6]

https://archive.org/stream/memoirsextraord13mackgoog#page/n248/mode/2up

http://vauxhallhistory.org/stockwell-ghost/

 

The Grave Humour of the Georgians

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The Grave humour of the Georgians

It is well-known that the Victorians had a love of all things macabre and death-related: from elaborate funerals to Memento Mori – in the nineteenth century death was in vogue. However, their eighteenth century ancestors, the Georgians, despite being less obviously morbid, certainly knew how to get a kick out of death when the mood suited them.  As Autumn is now upon us, and Halloween fast approaches, a little bit of Georgian ghoulishness may suffice to whet the appetite!

Laughing at death

Scapini Tarot, Image from SheWalksSoftly website.

The tendency for some humans to laugh at death has been likened to a kind of instinctive cognitive behavioural strategy – it allows individuals to face what they fear most, such as their own inevitable demise, whilst offering them the catharsis of laughter [1]. In the past, when death was such a visible part of most people’s lives, a bit of dark humour might help cut death down to size- to tame it a little. Of course, the terrors of the grave could also offer up a damn good scare. In the eighteenth century, the newly emergent Gothic novel found a ready audience of people who revelled in its dark aesthetic. Science and technology also offered opportunities for experiencing horror first hand in the forms of mechanical automatons and the immersive horror offered by magic lantern phantasmagoria shows. In short the Georgian’s were some of the first horror fans.

The following anecdotes have been shamelessly plundered from Julian Litten’s erudite and engrossing book on all things funereal: The English Way of Death: The Common Funeral since 1450.

An invitation to drinks with Sir William Pendarvis

For every thrill seeking eighteenth century libertine, there was an equal and opposite moralist, ready to offer their censure of decadent or immoral behaviour – whilst still relishing the details.

Mrs Delany, strong on piety and moral improvement, related the following tale of death-based debauchery, which occurred in about 1720:

“Sir William Pendarvis’s house was the rendezvous of a very immoral set of men. One of his strange exploits among other frolics, was having a coffin made of copper (which one of his mines had that year produced), and placed in the great hall, and instead of his making use of it as a monitor that might have made him ashamed and terrified at his past life, and induce him to make amends in future, it was filled with punch, and he and his comrades soon made themselves in capable of any sort of reflection; this was often repeated, and hurried him on to that awful moment he had so much reason to dread.”

This early eighteenth century baronet would seem to be no different from many of his dissolute peers, such as the irreligious Philip Wharton of Hell-fire infamy, but perhaps a kinder parallel exists with the irascible Squire Weston of Fielding’s novel, Tom Jones. Mrs Delaney had personal experience of the hard-drinking Pendarvis clan, she had been married at seventeen to sixty year old Alexander Pendarvis, so she clearly had good reason to be unimpressed by Sir William’s antics. But perhaps at the end of the day, Pendarvis was just another of the species of the carousing and bibulous English squire – albeit with a dark sense of humour – no doubt a dreadful husband but probably a great drinking buddy.

I wonder if he was buried in his punch bowl coffin?

‘Mine’s a double!’. Image by Thomas Bewick. British Museum Collection.

Colonel Luttrell’s death masque(rade)

On 6 February 1771 Mrs Cornely held a Masquerade at the Pantheon in London. Such gatherings were popular in the eighteenth century and one could expect to see the usual throng of merrymakers dressed as harlequins, monks and medieval princesses, eager to party the night away. However, one guest, Colonel Luttrell, took things a little too far and his costume somewhat killed the atmosphere. RS Kirby, who witnessed the debacle, related that Luttrell cast such ‘a pall of gloom’ over the other guests that he had to leave almost as soon as he got there. And the reason for this downturn in the festivities…he had come dressed as a coffin!

Remarkable characters at Mrs. Cornely’s masquerade, 1771. British Museum Collection.

Satan-Machines and the human condition

Before elaborating on the third tale of ghastly Georgian humour, in which Lord Tylney alarmed his guests with a gruesome garden ghoul, some preamble may be justified.

Philosophers have argued what it is that makes us human since time immemorial. In the seventeenth century Rene Descartes, in his Passions of the Soul and The Description of the Human Body,  argued that humans and animals were basically automatons, humans distinguished only by their ability to reason. It was natural then, for life-like mechanical automatons to become part of that debate, similar today’s philosophical debates concerning when and if artificial intelligence might achieve sentience. Jessica Riskin, in her essay Machines in the Garden shows that far from viewing these human-machines as soulless – as we often do now – in the past they were often seen as capable of acting unexpectedly, playfully, wilfully and responsively. [2] This certainly comes across in Lord Tylney’s extraordinary display (described in the next section) with a choreographed event involving interaction between the living participants and the automatons.

Millennium Clock, Museum of Scotland. Photo by Lenora

What may seem unusual is that Tylney’s spectacle was so viscerally frightening. The most famous automatons, such as the exquisite silver swan at Bowes Museum or the dainty little keyboard player beloved of Marie Antoinette, may be slightly uncanny, but they are intended to be objects of beauty not fear. Nevertheless, historically, it was not unusual for automatons to be of a more menacing form. For many years the Catholic Church had been using mechanical and hydraulic automata as part of their clocks and organs to illustrate religious themes. But they had also been using automata to scare the devil out of their congregations with much more gruesome automatons – a famous example being the Sforza Devil.

The Devil of SforzaThe Devil of Sforza by G.dallorto (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

Many of these ‘Satan-machines’ had a pretty dramatic repertoire – wild rolling eyes, demonic expressions, chomping jaws, flapping wings and arms. Evan a tiny monk, created in 1560 by Juanelo Turriano, and now in the Smithsonian, that marched about offering benedictions in a rather sinister manner. Clearly these machines were intended primarily for the spiritual and religious improvement of the congregation, but Riskin also points to plenty of instances where their antics caused amusement [3]. Of course, they were also good for business, drawing crowds of the curious and the faithful.

While the church used automatons in their mission to save their congregations souls, those who could afford to, used automatons for entertainment. Many princes of the church, royalty and noble families in Europe used hydraulic machines to create jump scares and booby traps for unsuspecting guests – water spouts could be triggered to drench guests and mechanical humans, animals, and dragons lurked about gardens and in grottoes to delight and amaze onlookers.

Lord Tylney’s Clockwork Cadaver

Perhaps the most interesting of Litten’s anecdotes occurred in at the fabled and ill-fated Wanstead House, Redbridge, London.

Wanstead House in the 1780’s. Collection of the British Museum.

Wanstead House is most famous as the home of the beautiful and tragic Catherine Tylney Long, whose sad spectre is said to still haunt the grounds of the park. In 1768, long before the lovely Catherine met her tragic end, it was the setting of a spectacular or should that be spooktacular *sighs* practical joke that would be the envy of many modern haunted houses.

The following account is from the pen of an Italian Noblewoman, a guest at Wanstead and witness to the macabre piece of immersive theatre orchestrated by John, 2nd Earl Tylney (1712-84):

“Many lights appear in the trees and on the water. We are off and have great excitement fishing up treasure… tied to bladders. His Lordship is hailed from the shore by a knight, who we are told is King Arthur, have you the sacrifice my Lord, who answers no, then take my sword and smite the water in front of the grot and see what my wizard has done, take also this dove and when asked, give it to the keeper. Off again to some distance from the grotto, the lights are small and the water still, the giant eagle appears and asks, have you the sacrifice, no my Lord answers, so be it and disappears in steam.

His Lordship smites the water with King Arthur’s sword, all the company are still, a rumble sucking noise comes in front of the opening of the grotto the water as if boiling and to the horror of all the company as though from the depth of hell arose a ghastly coffin covered with slime and other things.

Silence as though relief, when suddenly with a creaking and ghostly groaning the lid slid as if off and up sat a terrible apparition with outstretched hand screeching in a hollow voice, give me my gift, with such violence, that some of the company fell into the water and had to be saved and those on the shore scrambled in always confusion was everywhere. We almost fainted with fright and was only stayed from the same fate by the hand of his Lordship, who handed the keeper the dove the keeper shut its hand and with a gurgling noise vanished with a clang of its lid, and all went pitch. Then the roof of the grotto glowed two times lighting the water and the company a little, nothing was to be seen of the keeper or his coffin, as though it did not happen. [sic!]” [4]

A Phantasmagoria; Conjuring-up an Armed Skeleton.1803 James Gillray

His Lordship may have been intending that some beautiful creature would swoon into his arms at the dramatic events, but he may have been a little disappointed that it was the lady in question – as Lord Tylney was not that way inclined.

Litten credits Lord Tylney with the concept for the event. Perhaps he had been influenced by the ghoulish phantasmagoria shows so popular at the time or automatons on display in noble houses and gardens both in England and on the continent. He certainly spent much of his life living in Italy where there were they had been popular for centuries.

But who was the macabre mechanic who breathed life into the drama? Litten looks to clues in the tableau to find the author of the mechanical pyrotechnics. The King Arthur motif would seem to be significant, as are the words ’see what my wizard has done’. Merlin was Arthur’s wizard, could this also be a covert reference to the extraordinary talents of John Joseph Merlin, famed for his exquisite automata such as the silver swan at Bowes Museum in Co. Durham. The eccentric inventor had arrived in England in 1760 and quickly made a reputation for himself (and not just for automata, Merlin had a penchant for cross-dressing and was a keen, if not always proficient, roller-skater). In the small world of the London elite, it is not unlikely that Tylney crossed paths with the brilliant John Joseph Merlin. Especially as Merlin’s penchant for cross-dressing may have appealed to Lord Tylney who is believed to have been homosexual. Merlin would certainly seem an ideal candidate for executing such an elaborate and memorable spectacle – although it is unlikely we will ever know for sure.

Tylney’s macabre drama draws on a long tradition of using automatons to scare and to entertain, but he also draws on elements of cutting edge contemporary culture with his emphasis on the Gothic with its predilection for knights and ghouls and good old jump scares. His guests had the opportunity for a good (safe) scare and a drenching if they weren’t too careful!

Saved from the flames

It is interesting to note that Julian Litten was given this tantalising titbit of Georgian horror by one Stuart Campbell-Adams, who explained that it was nearly lost in the mists of time. In a suitably gothic twist, this vignette of eighteenth century ghoulishness was amongst Tylney family papers intended to be consigned to the flames following the dissolution of Wanstead House. Only the quick thinking of either a maid or female relation of Catherine Tylney-Long saved them from destruction. Whoever the lady was, she clearly had a wicked sense of humour!

Sources and notes

Litten, Julian, ‘The English Way of Death The Common Funeral Since 1450’ Robert Hale, 1992 [4]
Riskin, Jessica, ‘Machines in the garden’ at-http://arcade.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/article_pdfs/roflv01i02_03riskin_comp3_083010_JM_0.pdf [2] [3]
It’s Good to be Bad: The psychological benefit of dark humour’ by Meg, 2014) at – http://megsanity.com/article.asp?post=14 [1]

Margaret Finch, Queen of the Gypsies

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Sarah_Egerton-as-Meg-Merrilies-177x300

Theatrical image of Sarah Egerton as Meg Merrilies. Public domain [?]

Old Meg she was a gipsy;
And liv’d upon the moors:
Her bed it was the brown heath turf,
And her house was out of doors.

Her apples were swart blackberries,
Her currants, pods o’ broom;
Her wine was dew of the wild white rose,
Her book a church-yard tomb.

Her brothers were the craggy hills,
Her sisters larchen trees;
Alone with her great family
She liv’d as she did please.

No breakfast had she many a morn,
No dinner many a noon,
And ‘stead of supper she would stare

Full hard against the moon.

But every morn, of woodbine fresh
She made her garlanding,
And every night the dark glen yew
She wove, and she would sing.

And with her fingers old and brown
She plaited mats o’ rushes,
!
And gave them to the cottagers
She met among the bushes.

Old Meg was brave as Margaret Queen,
And tall as Amazon:
An old red blanket cloak she wore,
A chip hat had she on.
God rest her aged bones somewhere–
She died full long agone! [1]

John Keats by William Hilton. National Portrait Gallery.

John Keats by William Hilton. National Portrait Gallery.

This poem was written by John Keats for his sister Fanny, in either the July or August of 1818, whilst on a walking tour of Scotland with his friend Charles Brown. The beauty of the Kirkcudbrightshire coastline with its “craggy moors towering inland[2] reminded Brown of Sir Walter Scott’s evocative descriptions in his book ‘Guy Mannering’. Brown recounted the story to Keats who was unfamiliar with the book.

The character of the gypsy Meg Merillies in particular caught Keats attention. In the novel Meg plays a pivotal role in moving the plot forward and is instrumental in bringing the story to its happy and resolved conclusion. Scott eschews the widely held view of gypsies as criminal (e.g. horse thieves) and sinister and instead presents a romanticised version. Meg is portrayed as mysterious and enigmatic fulfilling the traditional role of the kind and generous wise woman and healer who uses her otherworldly senses to help those around her.

Scott based his character of Meg on the famous Scottish gypsy Jean Gordon who lived in the first half of the 18th century. Jean is described in contemporary sources as being unusually tall (six foot), having a remarkable appearance and an unusual dress sense[3]. She was regarded by all who knew her as honest and respectable, unfortunately for her, her sons were not. On the 5th June 1730 her three sons and two of their wives were hung for sheep stealing at Jedburgh. Two years later, Jean herself was arrested possibly for vagrancy and banished. In 1746 she was grabbed and drowned in the River Eden after angering a crowd with her vocal support for Bonnie Prince Charlie.

WHW_Scotland_sm

View of the highlands of Scotland.  Lenora.

Keats’s Meg is as much a part of the physical landscape as she is the world of people. The verses emphasise the harshness of the life she leads and her poverty but for me the overriding impression it leaves is one of freedom. Despite the overall beauty of the words it is the first line of the last stanza ‘Old Meg was brave as Margaret Queen’ which always catches my eye. Although it refers to the Scottish Queen Margaret, it conjures up in my mind the image of another Margaret, another queen who fits the theme of the poem so perfectly, that is, Margaret Finch, Queen of the Gypsies.

Gypsy Hill

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Roma generally travelled around the country making a living as best they could, returning to London and its outskirts during the winter months. The largest identified group of Roma congregated in Norwood, Surrey. The main families were believed to be the Lees and the Coopers who “were reputed to be rich, [and]…were not held in disrepute like poorer gypsies in some other areas”.[4]

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Old postcard showing Gypsy Hill Norwood, early 20th Century. Bromley Historic Collection.

The popularity of Norwood was due to its “remote and rural character, though lying so handy for both London and Croydon[5] and this is one of the reasons why Finch and her community decided to settle there. A hill in Norwood originally derogatorily nicknamed Beggar’s Hill eventually due to its strong historical and cultural association with the Roma became known as Gypsy Hill.

7512905_orig

Gypsy encampment. Source uncertain.

A leader of her people

As so very little is known about the life and background of Margaret Finch, her role as the Queen of the Gypsies has to be gauged from other sources. To be named as the Queen is the ultimate accolade so the fact that Margaret was elected to the role shows how important and respected a person she would have been in her community.

Fortune-teller-3

Gypsy fortune-teller. Source unknown.

How old she would have been when she was elected is unknown, it could have been at any age depending on when her predecessor decided to name a successor. Evidence from a newspaper article published on the 2nd August 1899 gives some idea of the characteristics needed to fulfil the role of Queen. The article reports on the election of Laurel Harrison, 17, to replace her grandmother Snake Mary who at the time was 94. Laurel is described as carrying “herself well and has the dignity befitting her new position. She is said to possess the gift of intuition to an unusual degree, being this especially well fitted for her future as the principal fortune teller of her people[6]. It is more than likely that as in the case of Laurel Harrison the role of Queen was passed on in Finch’s own branch of her family as after Margaret’s death her niece ‘old Bridget’ took on the role. After Bridget’s own death in August 1768, her niece, another Margaret became Queen.

In her role, Margaret’s advice would have been sought on any important issues affecting the Roma society. The Roma have an extremely complex socio-political structure made up of nations or ‘natsiia’ which are then broken down into other subgroups with the family being the smallest unit. One of the most important components of the structure is the Kris or Council of Elders which deals with any issues or disputes which are too complex or grave to be dealt with by the bandoliers (rulers of the Communities). Margaret would have had the power to choose each bandolier for each community and would have used her wisdom and experience to choose a suitable candidate. She would have also elected the head of the Kris which unlike the other Elders was a permanent position. As the leader of the combined Gypsy nations she would have had the final word in all decisions or instructions among the tribes with all the members pledging loyalty to her.

It is not surprising then that when Margaret Finch, Queen of the Gypsies chose to settle in Norwood in Surrey it became the beating heart of Gypsy London.

hannahlakey2_d1903

Queen of the New Forest Gypsies, Hannah Lackey, died 1903.  Photographer John Short c1900.

The most famous gypsy of her age

Finch was a unique individual. As the Queen of the Gypsies she must have inspired fear, devotion and respect from amongst her own people. Not much information is known about her early life but more than likely she had spent the first half traveling throughout Britain. It is only when she grew older and settled permanently in Norwood that descriptions of her appeared. As an old woman she was described as “a withered, wild and grotesque[7] figure with bony, claw-liked hands who lived with an emaciated terrier and smoked a pipe.

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Margaret Finch etching: Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Her singular appearance and behaviour fascinated people who travelled large distances to visit her and ask her advice. According to one report Margaret lived in a conical shaped hut made out of branches at the base of an ancient tree at the lower end of Gypsy Hill.

A report published by James Caulfield a year after Margaret Finch’s death stated that the “oddness of her figure and ye fame of her fortune-telling draw a vast concourse of spectators from ye highest rank of quality, even those of ye lower class of life”[8]

Margaret Finch’s reputation was such that she was considered the greatest and most famous gypsy of her era. This may have been the reason why in his History of Signboardsthe author Larwood tries to suggest the possibility that Margaret was one of the gypsies that Samuel Pepy’s wife visited along with some of her companions in August 1668 at Lambeth[9]. Although there is no concrete evidence to suggest that Margaret was at Lambeth on that date and some of his calculations are suspect (he states that Margaret was seventeen at the time but if her age at the time of death was roughly correct, she would have been in her thirties), it does show the depth of her fame.

The role of fortune telling ♠ ♣ ♥ ♦

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Gypsy fortune-teller.  Source unknown.

As a foreign people in a foreign land, looked on with suspicion due to their unusual lifestyle, looks and customs, gypsies would have had limited employment choices and so had to make a living as best they could. Their numbers added to those already travelling through the country searching for work i.e people forced off their land due to land enclosures and later the Industrial Revolution as well as war veterans. With the limited opportunities open to them they became pedlars, hawkers, street performers and fortune tellers.

Fortune telling has been an important source of income for many gypsies over the centuries. In general fortune tellers were regarded with suspicion. This situation was not helped by the fact it was known that groups of professional vagabonds disguised as gypsies travelled to fairs to rip off anyone they could. By the late 18th century it was not uncommon to find male con artists dressed in a green robe and wearing a false beard (beards equalled wisdom) purporting to be from the mystical East. Stories abounded of young serving girls allowing in pretend gypsy women who promised to tell them their future for a shilling and then proceeded to steal their master’s silver plate or cloth. It was nearly impossible for most people to differentiate between genuine and fake gypsies. This combined with the pervading fear of the other, those who did not fit into the commonly accepted pattern of social behaviour, made gypsies both fascinating and frightening.

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Gypsy fortune-teller with girls.  Felbrigg Hall, National Trust.

Not only was fortune telling a way to earn money but it would have given Margaret an aura of mystery and magic as well as an opportunity for her to make contacts amongst non gypsies. Usually gypsy society is insular with contact with non gypsies (except when it is necessary) disapproved of but the role of Queen was also seen as a contact point between the two societies. From the people that came to her to find out their futures, Margaret would have been able to learn about changes in the social and political climate and to discover secrets and useful information[10]. Gypsies used many different divination methods to predict the future such as crystal gazing, tea leaves and palmistry, the method that Margaret was believed to favour was cartomancy.

cartomancy-playing-cards

Cartomancy, whereby a meaning was ascribed to each card in a standard deck was extremely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Louisa Lawford in her 1851 book The Fortune-Tellergives a list of the card meanings[11]. Although there is no surviving written record of the meanings that Margaret would have assigned to her cards it is highly possible that they would have been very similar for example,

Ten of Clubs – fortune, successes or grandeur; reversed, want of success in some small matter

Ace of Clubs – signifies joy, money or good news; reversed, the joy will be of brief duration

King of Hearts – a fair liberal man; reversed, will meet with disappointment

Seven of Hearts – pleasant thoughts, tranquility; reversed, ennui, weariness

Ten of Spades – tears, a prison; reversed, a brief affliction

Queen of Spades – a widow; reversed, a dangerous and malicious woman

Seven of Diamonds – satire, mockery; reversed, a foolish scandal

Nine of Diamonds – annoyance, delayed; reversed, either a family or love quarrel

Above all Margaret must have been a shrewd woman as she ran a highly successful business. She would have been well aware how much her image contributed to her popularity. She would not have been so successful if she had given people unfavourable or distressing readings. In was in her interest to keep her clients happy and that included maintaining an exotic and bizarre appearance.

The end of an era

When Margaret Finch died on the 24 October 1740 she was reported to be about 109 years old. She had spent over half a century telling fortunes. She was buried in St George’s, the Parish Church of Beckenham. It is said that a large crowd gathered to see her on her final journey accompanying her body in a procession which included two mourning carriages. In death as in life she remained a strange and unique character. She had to be buried in a deep square box because due to her habit of sitting with her chin resting on her knees, her muscles had become so contracted that she could not alter her position.

 

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Funeral Procession by Thomas Bewick

In one way Margaret was lucky to die when she did as only four years later King George II’s Vagrancy Act was passed. Although bills against vagrancy had been in existence since the mid-16th century (when the number of people with no fixed abode rose due to the dissolution of the monasteries) with punishments fluctuating in severity from slavery and death to whipping and branding and where at one point it was illegal just to be a gypsy, this new law ushered in a new era, establishing strict guidelines on how to deal with ‘vagrants’. The Act allowed the authorities to arrest anyone they didn’t like and those without a visible means of subsistence such as “unlicensed pedlars, fencers, jugglers, bearwards, minstrels, fortune tellers and gamesters[12].

As the century finally due to a close the situation of the Norwood gypsies was becoming increasingly precarious. In August 1797, 30 men and children were arrested under the Vagrancy Act and in 1802 the Society for the Suppression of Vice brought charges against the Norwood fortune tellers. Faced with forced enclosure of the Common and persecution, the gypsy families including the Lees and the Coopers finally left Norwood for good. By 1808, the area was being referred to as the place which was “once the haunt of a numerous horde of gipsies[13]. Remarkably the small building which Finch had lived in was still standing.

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Gypsy Encampment.  Source unknown.

Things did not get any better. In the Vagrancy Act of 1824, Section 4, it is clear that gypsies were being singled out and closely monitored as the authorities attacked them through one of their main means of survival “every person, pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of his Majesty’s subjects[14] were to face the full force of the law. The Roma were only removed from the Vagrancy Act in 1989!

The legacy of Margaret Finch

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Romantic image of a gypsy.  Source unknown.

Margaret Finch was considered one of the most remarkable people of her time and her fame and those of the Norwood gypsies continued after her death. For instance, in 1777 a very success and popular pantomime called ‘The Norwood Gypsies’ was performed in Convent Gardens. A number of publications believed to be either written by or inspired by the Norwood gypsies were published including the Norwood Gypsy Fortune-Teller which was extremely popular with all levels of society. The book claimed to be able to teach its readers the art of divination including telling fortunes by grounds of tea or coffee and by lines in the hand, the science of foretelling events by cards and ‘directions to choose a husband by the hair’!

Not only did Margaret earn money for herself and her community but her presence generated income for local businesses, Norwood, and the roads leading to it; on a fine Sunday, resembled the scene of a fair; and, with the greatest difficulty only, could a seat or a mug of beer be obtained, at the place called the Gipsy-house.”[15]. From that time onwards there has always been a pub near the site which has taken it name from its famous inhabitants including the Gypsy Queen and Gipsy Tavern (both of which have now closed). The latest inheritor of the title is the ‘Gipsy Hill Tavern’.

On a last note, in the Victorian artist John McCullum 1851 painting of the lych gate at St George’s Church you can see the small figure of a woman on the right. Many believe this to be Margaret Finch. Even today crystals mainly amethysts are left at the lych gate[16]. Amethysts are believed to be a calming and meditative stone which help people make contact with the psychic and spiritual realms. The stones are only ever to be found at this spot in the churchyard. Maybe they are left as a tribute to Margaret Finch or as recognition of the spiritual essence of the place, or simply as a reminder of this area’s unique nature. Whatever the reason the memory of the gypsies of Norwood and their famous Queen lives on.

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John McCullum’s 1851 painting of the lych gate at St George’s Church

Bibliography

Keats: Poems Published in 1820, John Keats
Summary and Analysis of Meg Merillies by John Keats, https://beamingnotes.com/2014/09/21/summary-analysis-meg-merilies-john-keats
Jean Gordon, www.scottishgypsies.co.uk/jean.html
The Norwood Gypsies, http://www.rwhit.dsl.pipex.com/chp14.htm
The Norwood Gypsies, http://romanygenes.com/the-norwood-gypsies/4574799978
Reading Eagle, August 2nd 1899, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid-19558
South London Gypsy History http://transpont.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=margaret+finch
The History of Signposts by John Camden Larwood, 1868
The Gypsy!, http://larp.com/jahavra/gypsy1.html
The Fortune-Teller or peeps into futurity, Louisa Lawford, 1861
Vagrancy in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, Sara Byrnes, http://www.cornellcollege.edu/english/blaugdone/essays/vagrancy.htm
The Norwood Society, http://www.norwoodsociety.co.uk/articles/85-the-norwood-gipsies.html
Margaret Finch, www.beckenham.history.co.uk/margaretfinch
Vagabands and Beggar, www.rictornorton.co.uk/gu10.htm
Gypsies and Travellers, www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Gypsy-travellers.jsp
19th century fortune telling from the drawing room to the courtroom, https://mimimathews.com/206/01/11/19th-century-fortune-telling-from-the-drawing-room-to-the-court-room
Romani people in fiction, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romani_people_in_fictionhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romani_people_in_fiction
Gypsies – Sociopolitical Organization http://www.everyculture.com/Russia-Eurasia-China/Gypsies-Sociopolitical-Organization.html

Notes

[1] Keats: Poems Published in 1820, John Keats
[2]Summary and Analysis of Meg Merillies by John Keats, https://beamingnotes.com/2014/09/21/summary-analysis-meg-merilies-john-keats
[3] Jean Gordon, www.scottishgypsies.co.uk/jean.html
[4] The Norwood Gypsies, http://www.rwhit.dsl.pipex.com/chp14.htm
[5] The Norwood Gypsies, http://romanygenes.com/the-norwood-gypsies/4574799978
[6][6][6] Reading Eagle, August 2nd 1899, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid-19558
[7] South London Gypsy History, http://transpont.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=margaret+finch
[8] ibid
[9] The History of Signposts by John Camden Larwood, 1868
[10] The Gypsy!, http://larp.com/jahavra/gypsy1.html
[11] The Fortune-Teller or peeps into futurity, Louisa Lawford, 1861
[12] Vagrancy in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, Sara Byrnes, http://www.cornellcollege.edu/english/blaugdone/essays/vagrancy.htm
[13] The Norwood Society, http://www.norwoodsociety.co.uk/articles/85-the-norwood-gipsies.html
[14] Vagrancy in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, Sara Byrnes, http://www.cornellcollege.edu/english/blaugdone/essays/vagrancy.htm
[15] South London Gypsy History, http://transpont.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=margaret+finch
[16] Margaret Finch, www.beckenham.history.co.uk/margaretfinch

Enon Chapel – Dancing on the dead in Victorian London

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Slums, sewers, corpses, a corrupt clergyman, a pyramid of bones, and …dancing on the dead. Sometimes the Victorian’s failed, quite spectacularly, to live up to their prim and proper reputation.

Bunhill Fields burial Ground, London.

London’s burial grounds: a mass of putrefaction

GFK_King Death

London in the mid nineteenth century had a problem: a burgeoning industrial and commercial centre with a population pushing at 2.5 million living souls, it also had an ever growing population of the dead. Inner city burial had been carried out in London for centuries -it has been observed that London, even today, is one huge grave, if you only know where to look. But by the mid nineteenth century fears of disease spread by the miasma from inner city graveyards and a fashion for wealthier people to be buried in suburban cemeteries, meant that London’s remaining inner city burial grounds were often terribly overcrowded and unsanitary. One such place, the ‘Green Ground’ on Portugal Street, a burial ground for the nearby workhouse, was described by George Walker as:

‘[A] mass of putrefaction’ and ‘The soil of this ground is saturated, absolutely saturated, with human putrescence,’ the author noting that ‘The living here breathe on all sides an atmosphere impregnated by the odour of the dead.’ [1]

It was not uncommon for gravediggers to chop into or even discard earlier burials in order to cram new ones into overcrowded graveyards:

‘What a horrid place is St Giles Churchyard! It is full of coffins up to the surface. Coffins are broken up before they are decayed, and bodies are removed to the “bonehouse” before they are sufficiently decayed to make removal decent’

So reported the Weekly Despatch in September 1838.

No wonder that women rarely attended burials. Yet these places were often the only resort open to the poor. One scandalous case that provided a catalyst for a change was the infamous Enon Chapel….

Dudley street, seven dials: 1872

Dudley Street Slums, London, 1872. Image source Public domain [?]

Enon Chapel – undercutting the competition

Close to the Strand, on the west side of St Clement’s lane, an insalubrious neighbourhood was to be found. Accessed via a narrow court, Carey Street offered slum housing and overcrowding to the poorest of the poor. It was here in 1822, that an enterprising and cynical Baptist minister, Mr W Howse, founded his ministry: saving souls and selling burials. Enon Chapel itself, fitted into this down at heel locale, sited, as it was, above an open sewer which ran though its vault.

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Image by Hogarth. Public domain [?]

In 1822, fear of the resurrection men was still strong. Burke and Hare had yet to set up their fearsome murder trade north of the Border, but before them were others, stealing fresh corpses from graveyards for the anatomists table. This popular fear may have been one of the factors in Mr Howse’s calculations in setting up his burial business at Enon. It had a vault. At barely 59 feet by 12 feet it wasn’t a large vault, but Mr Howse was an enterprising individual and knew how to spin a profit from almost nothing. In 1823 Enon was licensed for burials.

GFK Covenantors Prison_gravediggers markBurials in the vault at Enon Chapel were a mere 15 shillings. This compared very favourably to the competitors – close by at St Clement Danes it cost £1.17s2d for an adult burial, and £1.10.2d to bury a child – and that only covered a churchyard burial.[2] At a time when poor families would often have to warehouse their dead in their homes until they had saved enough for burial, Enon Chapel had a clear advantage over the competition: offering both secure and, more importantly, affordable burials.

Things went well for Mr Howse for a number of years, if people marvelled at how capacious the tiny vault was, nobody asked any awkward questions. Even when worshippers retched into their hankerchieves or fell unconscious at the noxious stink that was rife in the chapel, especially in warm weather, they said nothing. It may have been harder to ignore the long black flies that emerged from the decaying coffins, or the ‘body bugs’ that would infest worshippers hair and clothes, and neighbours of the chapel noted that meat, if left out, would putrefy within an hour or two. By the 1830’s rumours were beginning to circulate, but still nobody suspected the true scale of the horror beneath their feet.

A Modern Golgotha uncovered

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In 1839, following some concerns with goings on at Enon, the Commissioner of Sewers inspected the open sewer under the Chapel with the view that it should be covered or vaulted. However, their investigations took a grusome turn when they discovered human remains, some of them mutilated, discarded in the sewer – whether by design or accident, it was not clear. Oddly enough, despite the sheer horror of this discovery, the remains were not removed and burials did not stop. Mr Howse continued his profitable venture burying up to 500 people a year in the vault until his death in 1842. In total around12,000 people were buried in a vault measuring only 59 feet by 12.

In part, he appears to have managed to cram so many corpses into so limited a space because he discarded the coffins (he and his wife used them for firewood).  This would no doubt have increased the stench exponentially – Julian Litten, in his book The English Way of Death, notes that intramural vault burials usually required a triple encasing for the corpse, in both wood and soldered lead, so as to ensure that the coffin was water-tight and air-tight [3].  Discarding the outer shell of the coffin, Howse disposed of the occupants in deep pits filled with quicklime to help the bodies decompose.

It was also said that extensive building work, such as at Waterloo Bridge, allowed Howse to secretly remove upwards of sixty cart loads of decomposed human remains for use as landfill and bone-meal in the building trade; other remains were unceremoniously dumped in the Thames. It said that it was not uncommon to find a disembodied skull rolling down the streets around Enon Chapel.[4]

Dancing on the dead

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Contemporary image of Enon Chapel’s notorious ‘Dancing on the Dead’. Image Source: Wellcome Images.

When Howse died in 1842, burials ceased and Enon Chapel was closed. The new tenant, Mr Fitzpatrick, took up residence in 1844. Despite making the surprising discovery of a large quantity of human bones buried under his kitchen floor, he was not put off, and simply reburied them in the chapel. Later tenants, a sect of Teetotallers, went one better. In the true spirit of Victorian enterprise, combined with a large and profitable dash of Victorian ghoulishness, they reopened Enon Chapel for dances using the great marketing tagline of  ‘Dancing on the dead’:

‘Enon Chapel – Dancing on the Dead – Admission Threepence. No lady or gentleman admitted unless wearing shoes and stockings’

Who says teetotallers don’t know how to have fun!

The Poor Man’s Guardian, somewhat disdainfully, reported on these events in 1847:

‘Quadrilles, waltzes, country-dances, gallopades, reels are danced over the masses of mortality in the cellar beneath”

The dances seem to have been very popular, proving that even the Victorian poor, many of whom may have known people interred beneath them, had a dark sense of humour. That, or a pragmatic view of their own mortality and the fleeting nature of pleasure.

George ‘Graveyard’ Walker

George 'Graveyard' Walker

George ‘Graveyard’ Walker. Image source: Wellcome Institute.

Not everyone appreciated this grim humour.  George ‘Graveyard’ Walker, a surgeon whose practice was in the vicinity of Enon Chapel, and who had a side-line as a public health campaigner, was Not Amused. And with good reason, he had had the misfortune to have viewed Enon Chapel vault in all its gory glory, first hand. In his book, Gatherings from grave yards, a survey of 47 London burial grounds,  published in 1839, Walker described it thus:

‘This building is situated about midway on the western side of Clement’s Lane; it is surrounded on all sides by houses, crowded by inhabitants, principally of the poorer class. The upper part of this building was opened for the purposes of public worship about 1823; it is separated from the lower part by a boarded floor: this is used as a burying place, and is crowded at one end, even to the top of the ceiling, with dead. It is entered from the inside of the chapel by a trap door; the rafters supporting the floor are not even covered with the usual defence – lath and plaster. Vast numbers of bodies have been placed here in pits, dug for the purpose, the uppermost of which were covered only by a few inches of earth….Soon after interments were made, a peculiarly long narrow black fly was observed to crawl out of many of the coffins; this insect, a product of the putrefaction of the bodies, was observed on the following season to be succeeded by another, which had the appearance of a common bug with wings. The children attending the Sunday School, held in this chapel, in which these insects were to be seen crawling and flying, in vast numbers, during the summer months, called them “body bugs”..’ [5]

As well as a genuine disgust at the way material gain had trumped over moral and religious scruples at Enon Chapel, Walker, and many others at that time, considered the proximity of these putrefying burial grounds to human habitation to be injurious to public health.  It was believed that, similar to sewage, badly overcrowded burial grounds were giving off a deadly graveyard miasma. Walker, himself, had a flair for the dramatic, describing the miasma as ‘the pestiferous exhalations of the dead’.

This miasma was believed to cause diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Gravediggers and those living close by cemeteries were at particular risk, but the threat was to the population as a whole.

A Court for King Cholera

Victorian Image showing a slum court, with the living and the dead side by side.

The public scandal of Enon Chapel and its ilk, along with the tireless campaigning of philanthropists such as George Walker and reformer Edwin Chadwick, led to a Parliamentary Select Committee being set up in 1842. The committee was tasked to look at improving London’s overcrowded and unsanitary burial places. The law took it’s time, but pressure from Walker and The National Society for the Abolition of Burials in Towns eventually forced the government into action. The Burial Act of 1852 would seal the fate of London’s overcrowded inner city burial places, allowing the government to close them down. It also and allowed the creation of suburban garden cemeteries such as Highgate and Brookwood. Cemeteries that were designed as much to be enjoyed by visitors, as to bury the dead.

Roll up, Roll up – for the gravest show on earth!

There was to be one last macabre act in the tale of Enon Chapel. In 1848 Walker purchased the Chapel with the promise that he would give the inhabitants of the vault a decent burial, at his own expense, at Norwood Cemetery. This philanthropic gesture however, was somewhat marred by Walkers morbid sense of theatre. Rather than discretely disinterring the bodies and having them respectfully removed to their final resting place, he chose to open the event to the public. To drum up interest he had attendants strolling up and down the street holding skulls, a sure fire way to entice in the average Victorian death lover. And the public came in their droves – upwards of 6000 came to tour Enon Chapel and to view the immense pyramid of bones unearthed by Walker.

A Pyramid of Bones, photograph by John Sullivan.

A Pyramid of Bones. Image source: John Sullivan public domain.

Despite criticism, Walker defended his approach in a typically Victorian way, he emphasised that the spectacle was educational (the same argument used by Madame Tussaud to elevate her Chamber of Horrors to a moral level) and he wasn’t precisely selling tickets – but he did accept contributions from visitors. Less educational and more sensational was the highlight of the Enon tour. Visitors came face to shrivelled face, with the long-dead proprietor Mr Howse. ‘A stark and stiff and shrivelled corpse’ identified by his ‘screw foot’ [6]

A case of poetic justice, the greedy speculator responsible for the desecration of so many of the deceased, found his own final resting place disturbed in the most unseemly way.

Footnote – it’s all in a name

It is interesting to note, as Catherine Arnold does in her fascinating book Necropolis, London and its dead, that if you look beyond the traditional explanation for the name Enon (the place near Salim where John the Baptist baptized converts), a far darker etymology emerges. Arnold points to Hitchcock’s Bible Names Dictionary which provides one possible meaning for Enon as ‘Mass of darkness’ – how very, very apt.

Enon Chapel is long since gone, the London School of Economics sits on its site now and the bones of the dead lie in an unmarked communal grave at Norwood.

If you want to find out more about London’s hidden dead, see the excellent and funny You Tube video by Caitlin Doughty and Dr Lindsay Fitzharris at the end of the sources section)

Sources and notes

Images by Lenora unless otherwise credited.

Arnold, Catharine, Necropolis: London and its dead, 2007 [1] [2] [4]

Cochrane, Alex

http://www.unofficialbritain.com/enon-chapel-death-horror-and-dancing-in-victorian-london/

Fitzharris, Dr Lindsay

https://thechirurgeonsapprentice.com/2014/06/17/public-health-victorian-cemetery-reform/

Gibbon, Andrea,

https://writingcities.com/2015/04/08/the-deathly-surprise-on-portugal-street/ [5]

Jackson, Lee

http://blog.yalebooks.com/2014/10/31/dirty-old-london-graveyards/ [6]

Jackson, Lee

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jan/22/death-city-grisly-secrets-victorian-london-dead

Litten, Julian, ‘The English Way of Death, the Common Funeral since 1450’,1992 [3]

Valentine, Carla,

http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/enon-chapel-londons-victorian-golgotha

Find out where the secret burials of London are with Caitlin Doughty and Dr Lindsay Fitzharris:

 

Lovey Warne of the New Forest: the smuggler in scarlet

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Smugglers by John Atkinson. Public domain.

Britain has an amazing selection of local beers and ales which you can often only find at a few select pubs close to where they are produced. Many of them have been given names which have a strong regional historical or cultural relevance. Manufactured at the Ringwood Brewery, Lovey Warne is one such ale. Classified as a golden or blonde ale, it has a moderate toasted malt and caramel aroma and a bitter citrus taste[1]. It is named after a famous local figure, the female smuggler, Lovey Warne and its amber colour is meant to symbolise her scarlet coloured cloak.

When people think of smuggling in the 17th and 18th centuries in Britain they immediately think of the coasts of Cornwall and Dorset. Books such as Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier set in the wild, remote landscape of Bodmin Moor and Winston Graham’s Poldark series have also helped cement this connection in people’s minds. People tend to forget that smuggling went on all over Britain and how well organised and sophisticated the smuggling network became at its height.

Free trading: A respectable occupation

Smuggling or Free Trading as it was otherwise known became an important source of income for many families hit hard by exorbitant taxes. These unpopular taxes implemented to help pay for the wars on the continent and fill the Treasury’s coffers, had left many families on the brink of starvation. So in order to augment their meagre or in many cases non-existent wages many people turned unsurprisingly to smuggling. People from all levels of society were involved in the trade with the high-duty goods such as brandy, tobacco, lace and tea bringing the best profits.

Revenue men in a gangs lair. Copyright National Maritime Museum.

Smuggling was considered by many to be an honourable trade and a recognised occupation. In addition many people even though not directly involved in the trade themselves were sympathetic to the smugglers’ cause. One such sympathiser, a farmer by the name of Burt Chubbs helped rescue smugglers being chased by excise men. He hid them in his barn and then misdirected the officers by claiming the smugglers’ wagon had broken his leg whilst heading towards Burley[2]. This attitude together with the deep mistrust rural communities felt towards outsiders and especially the King’s men known for their corruption meant that it was nearly impossible to convince anyone to become an informant and most rewards for information were left unclaimed.

A centre of smuggling: The New Forest

The New Forest. Source Wikipedia.

One such area which became well-known as a centre of the smuggling trade was the New Forest. The New Forest (one of the most beautiful areas in England) in Hampshire lies inland away from the harbours of Christchurch and Bournemouth in Dorset. The dense forest which would have then extended much further south made an ideal hiding place for contraband transported from the coast. Indeed many of the villagers who lived within the boundaries of the forest played an important and active role in the distribution of these goods and it was once claimed that every labourer in the forest was either a poacher or a smuggler or both. In the mid-18th century, it was written “We hear from the New Forest in Hampshire that smugglers have got to such a height in that part of the country that scarce a week passes but great quantities of goods are run between Lymington and Christchurch[3]. Another source showing the scale of the operations stated that he had heard of “twenty or thirty wagons laden with kegs, guarded by two or three hundred horsemen, each bearing two or three tubs, coming over the Hengistbury Head, making their way, in the open day past Christchurch to the Forest[4]. Some parts of the forest are still known as ‘the Boatyard’ despite being miles from the sea.

Smugglers Road and Vereley Hill in the distance. Image by Jim Champion via Wikimedia Commons.

A smuggler’s refuge

The picturesque New Forest village of Burley with its traditional cottages and pretty lanes is located about 4 miles south east of Ringwood. Today it is a charming stop for tourists visiting the New Forest but go back about three hundred years and the village reveals its much darker past. The village once a close-knit secretive community was a main centre for smuggling in the region. The village was so infamous that the revenue men preferred not to enter it unless they absolutely had to as they were aware that the villagers were able to raise an armed mounted troop of men at short notice more than capable of dealing with the King’s officials.

Burley in the 1940’s. Image source: new forest explorer website.

One of the main pubs in the village, The Queen’s Head Inn was used to store contraband and not long ago during building work a secret smugglers’ cellar was discovered. In the room the workmen also found some long forgotten loot including pistols, cutlasses, brandy bottles, coins as well as several straw hats from Italy[5]. It is even claimed that prior to the discover of the cellar, strange noises such as groans were heard coming from their direction, these sounds promptly stopped after the discovery. I wonder were the noises warning people away from or directing them to the cellar?

The infamous Warne Brothers

Hiding contraband. Source Copyright National Maritime Museum London.

In Burley you will find a small street called Warnes Lane named after the notorious Warne family who lived nearby. The Warne brothers Peter and John were believed to have run the Christchurch smuggling fraternity in the first quarter of the 1800s. They possibly acted as ‘landers’. The lander’s role was to move goods away from shore and inland as quickly as possible. They would then either hide the contraband somewhere safe such as a pub or a church or pass it on to their clients. It is rumoured that there was an oak tree in Burley where the gang would meet to discuss their plans. Peter and John lived with their sister Lovey in a house at Crow Hill Top called Knaves Ash. Knaves Ash was perfectly positioned for moving contraband unseen due to the number of tracks that converged at the house[6]. One of the most famous of these sunken tracks was known as Smugglers’ Road. It begun near the inlet village of Chewton, passed through Burley, continued onto the turnpike road at Picket Post and ended at Ridley Wood.

Not much is known about the Warne family but their father may have owned or managed one of the pubs in Burley[7]. If he did then there is a possibility that it could have been the Queen’s Head Inn. Although it was the brothers who were a leading force in the smuggling ring it is their sister Lovey (probably short for Loveday) who has passed into New Forest folklore.

The legend of Lovey Warne

The legend goes that Lovey would walk along Vereley Hill watching for any sign of the revenue men. If she saw them she would turn her cloak inside out to display a red lining which she would wear to warn the smugglers. The romantic image of Lovey wandering the heath in her red cape has captured people’s imagination and she has been immortalised not only in alcohol but also in music and books.

Lady Smugger. Source: public domain [?]

Signalling to the smugglers was not the only contribution Lovey made to her brothers’ business. For a while she took an even more active role. On orders from her brothers she would ride on her pony (most likely one of the New Forest ponies, known for their sturdiness and stamina) to pre-arranged meetings with ships’ captains in Christchurch harbour. There she would go to the captain’s cabin, undress, wind herself in valuable silks, put her clothes back on and return home[8]. As she left the ship she would have passed by the inept and oblivious revenue men who even if they were suspicious were under official orders not to search women. At home the silks would have been removed and possibly sold at the market at Ridley Wood which dealt in both legal and illegal goods.

The scam continued for a time until one incident when Lovey’s luck nearly ran out. One day as she left a ship she was stopped by a revenue man and invited for a drink at the Eight Bells in Christchurch, an offer she would have been unable to refuse without arousing suspicion. Once at the pub, the revenue man became a little too friendly, touching her legs and thighs and getting a little too close to the hidden silks. Acting quickly she jabbed the man in the eye with her elbow and fled whilst the landlady sat on the man pretending to tend to his damaged eye allowing Lovey the time she needed to get away[9]. It is believed this incident put an end to Lovey’s front line participation.

Lovey and her brothers pretty much disappear from history at this point. The only further brief glimpses we have is a possible record of Lovey marrying at the age of seventeen in Christchurch in around 1814 and a story surrounding her death. The church of St John the Baptist was built in Burley in 1839 and Lovey was one of the first villagers to be buried there. According to the story she wanted to be buried with her beloved pony but permission was not granted and instead the pony was buried in the middle of a ring of fir trees outside the churchyard[10].

Old Postcard of St John the Baptist Church, Burley. Source FGO Stuart.

The usefulness of a good, sturdy petticoat

It was not unusual for women to play a prominent role in the smuggling trade. Although they may not have been physically able to move the heavy tubs, they did contribute in other ways. Like Lovey they could act as look outs, be responsible for keeping the cargo hidden or deliver messages. Again just as Lovey had done many women would wrap themselves in silks and carry them hidden but openly past the revenue men who were powerless to do anything about it.

Rigging out a smuggler by Thomas Rowlandson.

Women would also transport alcohol by hiding cow or pig bladders filled with brandy and gin underneath their thick petticoats. In 1799 George Lipcomb described meeting some of these women. He was initially shocked by their “grotesque and extraordinary” appearance “till upon enquiry, we found that they were smugglers of spirituous liquors…and, indeed they were so heavily laden, that it was with great apparent difficulty they waddled along[11]. Sometimes being so overburdened was useful, in Gosport a woman called Maclane was the only survivor when the Queen Charlotte boat sunk, she was saved from drowning by “being buoyed up with a quantity of bladders”[12]. In Folkestone women would disguise themselves as laundresses and hide liquor in baskets covered with linen.

Women were also involved in processing commodities. They would cut and dry ordinary leaves to mix in with the tea leaves to increase its bulk for selling and dilute French brandy. Brandy was shipped in its pure form, which made it easier to transport in large quantities but was undrinkable. The women would also heat the liquid and change its colour from clear to the honey colour which the British preferred[13].

Despite the fact that women were not allowed to be searched a number of them were arrested on smuggling related offences such as the 70 year old Catherine Winter, a Weymouth seamstress who served an 18 day sentence in 1844. Other evidence from the Register for Dorchester Gaol between 1782 and 1853 lists the names and occupations of more than 64 women from the surrounding villages and towns in prison on smuggling charges[14]. The end of the Napoleonic War together with the tax reforms of 1830 finally brought the country much needed social and economic relief and as a consequence made smuggling much less appealing.

Although smuggling did of course continue albeit on a much lesser scale the golden era of Free Trading was over and the New Forest shook off its disreputable reputation and eventually become what it is today, a beautiful and popular tourist destination.

Lovey Warne, still famous today. Source: unknown.

Bibliography

The New Forest, Bournemouth & Poole – smuggling, www.smuggling.co.uk/gazetter_s_13.htm

Burley, http://www.thenewforest.co.uk/discover/burley.aspx

Lovey Warne, www.perfectpint.co.uk/real-ale-beers-info/9852/Ringwood-Brewery/Lovey-Warne

Lovey Warne of the New Forest, http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/lovey-warne-of-new-forest.html

The New Forest Smugglers, http://www.thenewforestguide.co.uk/history/new-forest-smugglers/

New Forest Smugglers, http://inewforest.co.uk/new-forest-smugglers/

Burley 1958, http://www.royhodges.co.uk/Burley.pdf

Smugglers Cove, http://dorsetsea.swgfl.org.uk/html/smuggler/smug_mr3.htm

Women and the smuggling trade, http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/women-and-smuggling-trade.html

Smuggling in the eighteenth and early nineteenth Century, http://lugnad.ie/smuggling/

Dorset – Smugglers Coast, http://dorset-ancestors.com/?p=910

Cindy Vallar, Smuggling, www.cindyvallar.com/smuggling.html

Smuggling in and around Burton Bradstock, http://www.burtonbradstock.org.uk/History/Smuggling/Smuggling.htm

Notes

[1] Lovey Warne, www.perfectpint.co.uk/real-ale-beers-info/9852/Ringwood-Brewery/Lovey-Warne

[2] Burley 1958, http://www.royhodges.co.uk/Burley.pdf

[3] The New Forest, Bournemouth & Poole – smuggling, www.smuggling.co.uk/gazetter_s_13.htm

[4] The New Forest Smugglers, http://www.thenewforestguide.co.uk/history/new-forest-smugglers/

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] Lovey Warne of the New Forest, http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/lovey-warne-of-new-forest.html

[8] The New Forest, Bournemouth & Poole – smuggling, www.smuggling.co.uk/gazetter_s_13.htm

[9] Lovey Warne of the New Forest, http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/lovey-warne-of-new-forest.html

[10] Burley 1958, http://www.royhodges.co.uk/Burley.pdf

[11] Smuggling, http://www.cindyvallar.com/smuggling.html

[12] Smuggling in and around Burton Bradstock, http://www.burtonbradstock.org.uk/History/Smuggling/

[13] Women and the smuggling trade, http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/women-and-smuggling-trade.html

[14] Dorset – Smugglers Coast, http://dorset-ancestors.com/?p=910

 

Greyfriars Kirkyard: Covenanters, Bloody MacKenzie and things that go bump in the night.

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Edinburgh is a city rife with duality, it is a city where surgeons shake hands with murders, superstition vies with enlightenment and the cruel compete with the sentimental. And in a city like Edinburgh, the dead, like the poor, will never be far away. Greyfriars Kirkyard crouched behind the Grassmarket, protected by high walls and overlooked by the tall tenements of Candlemaker Row, is famous as the resting place of the great and the good: from Buchan to Greyfriars Bobby. But those walls also encompass darker tales: of plague pits, resurrectionists and the brutal suppression of religious dissent.

Mary Queen of Scots and a surfeit of bodies

King Death.

From the 1400’s to the 1500’s the Kirkyard was a Franciscan convent garden situated on the outskirts of the town; however by the mid sixteenth century pressure on the existing burial ground at St Giles led Mary Queen of Scots to make a gift of the land for use as a cemetery [1]. This was in 1562 and was not a moment too soon, as plague ravaged the city in 1568 and many of its victims ended up in plague pits in the Kirkyard. To further add to its grisly history, the severed heads of criminals executed on the Grassmarket were displayed at entrance of Greyfriars Kirkyard closest to it. As the body-count rose, so too did the ground level[2]. It is worth remembering that as with most old cemeteries, there are a lot more bodies than there are visible monuments…so tread carefully, because every step is likely to be over someone’s grave.

Tenements and Grave Monuments back to back.

The pale gold Dutch-barn-style church that visitors see today looks timeless but it is not the original Greyfriars Kirk. A late Gothic-style church was begun on the site in 1602 and took nearly twenty years to complete. The old kirk didn’t have much luck; it was damaged during the Civil War and partially destroyed in 1718 when the town’s gunpowder supply, which some bright spark had decided to store in the church tower, blew up. Eventually a new kirk was added to the surviving old kirk, but ill-fortune dogged that too, and a fire in 1845 destroyed the remaining old kirk and damaged parts of new. All seems peaceful now, although if you look closely you can still see some remaining scorch-marks on the brickwork, a reminder of its eventful past[3].

Greyfriars Kirk

The National Covenant of Scotland

One of the most tragic elements of the history of Greyfriars, and one with potentially long lasting psychic consequences, is its link to the doomed Covenanter movement of the seventeenth century.  An old legend about the conversion of Scotland to Christianity claims that there was a covenant between God and the community of Scotland before the first king, Fergus, began his reign (c310AD). To many Scots this cemented the idea that Scotland, not England, or even Rome itself, was the first true Godly Kingdom; it reinforced the belief that no king could stand between the Scots and their covenant with God. In England, the King was the head of the Church but traditionally in Scotland the Kirk had no such figurehead. This would prove a sticking point between the Scottish Covenanters and King Charles I [4].

King Charles I. Image source unknown.

Charles I, despite his Scottish birth, critically misread the mood of the Scots when he and Arch-Bishop Laud introduced the Authorised Prayer Book in1637, it was an attempt to bring the reformed Catholic Church, epitomised by English Episcopalianism, to Scotland, and it was required that the book be read out in Scottish Kirks. This was not a wise move by the king. Described as ‘This Popish-English-Scottish-Mass-Service-book’ by John Row, a minister at St Giles [5] its attempt at introducing a national church, with the king as its head, served only to inflame calls for Scottish religious independence.

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On 23 July 1637 the reading of the Authorised Prayer Book in Scottish Kirks led to the Prayer Book Riots, in which stools were hurled at the Dean and Bishop of Edinburgh in St Giles, and the Bishop designate of Argyll was shouted down at Greyfriars Kirk for trying to introduce popery by the backdoor.

The Prayer Book Riots in Scotland, 1637. Image source Wikipedia.

Charles I and Arch-bishop Laud were attempting to introduce an Arminian inspired version of the church across Britain. The Arminian view considered that the Church of Rome was a true church even if misguided. In short, Charles and Laud wanted to introduce a reformed Catholic Church across England and Scotland. This was a red-rag to a bull for Scottish Presbyterians, as Simon Schama wrote: ‘The mere notion that the Church of Rome was not actually the abominable institution of the Antichrist, sent them into a paroxysm of wrath.’ [6] Something had to be done to protect the godly church in Scotland from the corrupt and popish church that Laud and his bishops were trying to impose on Scotland.

Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Image source Wikipedia.

The King, far removed from his Scottish roots, would not renounce Arch-bishop Laud, Bishops in general, or his idea of what the church should be, and tensions were running high. In fact, Charles thought much of the resentment was being fanned by France, rather than local sentiment, and made it clear he would treat such views as traitorous. The ground was ripe for religious rebellion.

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On 28 February 1638 before the pulpit in Greyfriars Kirk, the National Covenant was signed. Prayers were offered, Psalms sung and sermons delivered. The New Jerusalem was to be in Scotland. Over the next days and weeks the covenant was displayed and signed by multitudes, rich and poor, young and old, men and women alike. Simon Schama notes that such was its importance to the national psyche it became almost a measure of patriotism– to be a true Christian and a true Scot you must sign the covenant [7].

The Signing of the Covenant in Greyfriars Kirkyard, by William Allan 1838. City of Edinburgh Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation.

On the surface the document maintained the Kings Peace, but under the condition that the king could be lawfully challenged if he broke the covenant. Schama also points out that Covenanters did not see their demands as threatening to the King as such, with the proviso that if the King should threaten them in their religious freedom, then they would take up arms [8]. This was unlikely to go down well with the autocratic Charles I.

National Covenant of 1638.  source National Library of Scotland.

Later in 1638 the Glasgow Assembly went even further and broke the links between the Scottish Church and English government. The die was cast and the King would have to take decisive action.

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So began half a century of unrest, punctuated by Civil War, regicide, the protectorate and finally the restoration of a king in exile. In fact Charles II was assisted on his return by the Scottish Covenanters, on the proviso that he agree to leave Presbyterianism well alone in Scotland. However, Kings have short memories once their crowns are secure, and he soon went back on his word and began persecuting the Covenanters. The scene was set for the final tragedy that was to play out in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

The Covenanters Prison

Fast forward to1679, following the final defeat of the Presbyterian Covenanters at the battle of Bothwell Brig on the 22nd June, around twelve-hundred Covenanter prisoners were marched in disgrace to Edinburgh. Declared rebels and traitors they faced execution or at best, transportation to the colonies to work as indentured slave labour. However, many had much worse suffering to endure in the months ahead.

The Covenanters Prison.

Today, the visitor can view the prison through locked gates – a wide grassy avenue is flanked by unremarkable family vaults of pale stone; however things were very different in the seventeenth century. Inner Greyfriars yard covered about 3 acres, with high walls and only one gate (not the current gates that visitors see) [9]. Facilities to house and accommodate the prisoners were non-existent – they were effectively penned up in the open air for upwards of four months and given a miserly ration of 4oz of food per day. Vulnerable to exposure, malnutrition, disease and despair many died during their internment, especially as the year turned towards winter. The conditions in the Covenanters Prison were so harsh that it has been called the first concentration camp [10].

Location of the Prison in Inner Greyfriars Yard. Source Early Modern Commons website.

Such a huge influx of people created a logistical nightmare in Edinburgh; this is why Inner Greyfriars Yard, as it was known then, was used as an overflow prison. Estimates vary as to how many prisoners were held here, certainly the number reduced over time. Dr Mark Jardine’s view that there were initially1184 prisoners housed in Greyfriars Yard and Herriot School (next to it) seems compelling, it is based on the evidence of how many penny loaves were issued as rations to the prisoners (1184 on 1 July, one for each prisoner).  The numbers rapidly reduced during the summer as many were released after being, often forcefully, encouraged to swear the Kings Peace, an oath of loyalty to the King that some hardcore Covenanters called ‘the black bond’. Added to this, others of course would have died from the terrible conditions, or been executed or transported thereby further reducing numbers as time went on [11] [12]. It must have felt like a bitter irony for the Covenanters to have been imprisoned next to the place from which their movement first took wing.

Eventually judicial fate met those who remained and many were executed on the Grassmarket. By Mid November only around 250 prisoners remained in Greyfriars. They were condemned to transportation, and having survived the privations of the Covenanters Prison, they must surely have felt some relief. However, fate, proved to be merciless when the ship carrying them, The Croune, sank off the Orkneys, and of the 250 or so chained prisoners only 60 or so made it back to dry land alive [13] [14].

The Covenanters Memorial in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

The Killing Time and Bloody MacKenzie

Sir George MacKenzie. Image source Wikipedia.

Presbyterian historians refer to the period of persecution during the reign of Charles II until the Glorious Revolution in 1688, as The Killing Time. During this time, countless Covenanter ministers were forced out of their livings, ordinary people were fined if they didn’t attend the King’s church and torture and extortion were routinely used to break the spirit of the Covenanters. Unable to practice their religion in public, Covenanters resorted to meeting in fields in ‘conventicles’ but that soon became perilous, with a death penalty for any preacher caught in the act.

The Sanquhar Declaration of 1680 brought matters to a head, Covenanters renounced allegiance to Charles II, in response to this treasonous behaviour, the Scottish Privy Council went all out against the Covenanters allowing field executions of those in arms or refusing to swear loyalty to the King. The Oath of Abjuration, as it was called, was, in itself, designed to offend, thereby revealing hardened Covenanters for summary execution.

Margaret Wilson, one of the Wigtown Martyrs. Executed by high tide in 1685. Source Wikimedia.

Sir George MacKenzie (1636/8-1691) is a name that has become synonymous with the persecution by the crown of the Covenanters, earning him the epithet Bluidy Mackenzie. He persecuted them from the bench, while John Graham of Claverhouse earned the name Bluidy Clavers for his summary field executions.
But Sir George Mackenzie wasn’t entirely evil. As an essayist he was enlightened in his views against the persecution of witches, and one of his lasting legacies was the Advocates Library, later the National Library of Scotland, in Edinburgh. In fact, during the 1660’s when Mackenzie was a budding lawyer, he actually defended a number of Covenanters. Things changed from 1677 though, when he was made Lord Advocate – the king’s representative in Scotland.

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It has be argued by Bruce Lenman and J Mackie in their book A History of Scotland, that as Lord Advocate, Mackenzie was responsible for executing King Charles II’s policy regarding suppression of the Presbyterian Covenanters, therefore Mackenzie effectively had no choice but to execute government policy. He and Bluidy Clavers may have acted entirely within law in their dealings with Covenanters – although I doubt the Covenanters felt that justice was being served to them [15].


It is easy to romanticise the persecuted Covenanters, fighting to preserve their religious independence and perhaps Scotland’s independence as well; however they did not speak for all Scots – many highlanders, after all, were Catholic. And to modern eyes, they can be viewed as hard-line religious extremists, ready to bring down the government in order to impose their austere religious ideology. The truth is no doubt somewhere in between, with most ordinary people simply wanting the freedom to choose how they worshipped their God. What is not in doubt is the terrible suffering endured by the people immured in Greyfriars by order of their King, and such suffering may well have left a permanent imprint…

Flowers left at the Covenanters Prison gate.

The Mackenzie Poltergeist

The Black Mausoleum, Bluidy MacKenzie’s final resting place.

Mackenzie died in 1691 and somewhat tactlessly, was interred in his elegant mausoleum in Greyfriars Kirkyard, within spitting distance of the Covenanters Prison. Robert Louis Stevenson, writing in 1897, reported the evil reputation that Mackenzie and that part of Greyfriars Kirkyard had acquired:

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‘When a man’s soul is certainly in hell, his body will scarce lie quite in a tomb however costly, sometime or other the door must open, and the reprobate come forth in the abhorred garments of the grave’ . He went on to report a local children’s game: ‘Fool hardy urchins [thought it] a high piece of prowess to knock at the Lord Advocate’s Mausoleum and challenge him to appear. “Bluidy Mackenzie, come oot if ye dar”’ [16]

The doors to the Mausoleum.

One such foolhardy urchin, in the form of a homeless man looking for shelter one stormy night in 1999, took the dare and got more than he bargained for. Breaking into the Mausoleum he found an underground chamber containing the coffin of Bluidy Mackenzie. Perhaps thinking it contained valuables, he tried to break into it, but in the darkness he stumbled and fell into an open pit filled with the bones of plague victims. The terrified man burst screaming from the Mausoleum, just as a grounds man, walking his dog, approached it. The combined terror is thought by some, to have amplified the dark energies held within the tomb, and given rise to what has become known as the Mackenzie Poltergeist (see Jan-Andrew Henderson’s The Ghost That Haunted Itself, for more on the Pheromone Theory.)

Interior of the Mausoleum, showing the entrance to the crypt.

Since then the phenomena around the mausoleum and the Covenanters Prison has escalated, visitors have reported being pushed and scratched and feeling nauseous to the point of passing out. The death of popular local Spiritualist Colin Grant, following an exorcism at the Mausoleum and prison, in January 2000 added a tragic dimension to the growing legend of the poltergeist.

Grant believed there were many spirits  trapped there in pain, plus ‘something else as well, something much stronger.’ [17]The local tour company City of the Dead, who hold keys to the Covenanters Prison, have reported many such instances that would support this view – after all, the poltergeist is undoubtedly good for business! Having been on one such tour, I can certainly attest to the eerie feeling walking into the Covenanters Prison on a dark night. During that tour I took some photographs which are below, and there were some interesting anomalies. Lots of orbs, especially in the Prison, and what may be either Pareidolia (the human desire to see faces where there are none) or just possibly, a misty face above a grave stone. I leave you to be the judge.

The Black Mausoleum

Nightime shots at Greyfriars Kirkyard

I have to admit that not being an expert on paranormal investigation, or external physical causes of light anomalies in photographs, I am yet to be convinced that ‘orbs’ are evidence of spirits.  However, I do find them fascinating and have captured some previous images at Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, and now at Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh.

Conditions at the time:

  • Early March
  • Dry and cold
  • No visible insects
  • Early blossom on the trees – loose petals could have caused some anomalies
  • Although the graveyard was very dark, lights from surrounding buildings could have created anomalies
  • Building work on the Kirk during the day could have created dust in the atmosphere

Pareidolia or paranormal? On the right, hovering above the gravestone, a misty face?

Detail of above, area where a face may, or may not, be discerned.

 

Is that an orb, inside the doorway of this vault?

Inside Covenanters Prison: two, maybe three, orbs in the vault of the roof? (the tomb itself is of later date).

Inside the Covenanters Prison – orbs hovering above the vaults?

Not much happening here – house lights in the distance, perhaps another factor in the light anomalies?

No orbs, but evidence of early blossom in the trees which could have contributed to the anomalies.

Bloody MacKenzie’s mausoleum by night. Unfortunately, no orbs here – does that mean the poltergeist is not at home………?

Visit Greyfriars Kirkyard

Greyfriars Kirkyard is open to the public.  You can also do nigh-time tours of the Kirkyard and enter the Covenanters Prison with City of the Dead Tours.

Sources and notes

All images by Lenora unless otherwise credited.

Forde, Matt, http://www.unexplained-mysteries.com/column.php?id=220743

http://www.greyfriarskirk.com/   [1] [2]

Hayden, Gary, http://www.scotlandmag.com/magazine/issue37/12008443.html [10] [16]

Henderson, Jan-Andrew, ‘The Ghost That Haunted Itself’, 2001, Mainstream Publishing [2] [13] [17]

Jardine, Mark, https://drmarkjardine.wordpress.com/2016/12/05/the-covenanters-prison-edinburgh-1679-history-scotland/ [9] [11] [14]

Schama, Simon, ‘A Hisory of Britain:The British Wars 1603-1776’, BBC [4] [5] [6] [7]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Mackenzie_of_Rosehaugh [15]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Covenanter [12]