The Fall of the House of Usher


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

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

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

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

The Green Children of Woolpit


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Woolpit Sigh Image by Rod Bacon via Wikimedia

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

The Chroniclers

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

Medieval Scribe c1490_1500. Harley MS4425

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

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

The Tale of the Green Children of Woolpit

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

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

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

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

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

Medieval Ploughing. Public Domain via Wikimedia.

Investigating the tale

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

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

The historical angle

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

Effects of arsenic. Image Wellcome Institute.

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

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

Folkloric elements

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

The caves

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

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

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

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

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

‘You are what you eat’

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

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

The Sinister broad bean

Broad beans. Image via Wikimedia.

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

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

The Colour Green

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

The old and the new

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

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

Remembering the green children

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

My final thought!

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

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


Ralph of Coggeshall,
William of Newburgh,
Battle of Fornham,
A dictionary of English folklore, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, 2000
Green Children of Woolpit,
The Green Children of Woolpit: the 12th century legend of visitors from another world,
The Green Children of Woolpit,
Green children of Woolpit,
Welcome to Woolpit village,
Creepy History: Who Were The Green Children of Woolpit?
The Green Children of Woolpit – Investigating a Medieval mystery,
Folklore, History and the Study of Myth,
Oweynagat Cave, Roscommon, Ireland,
Faerie Feast – Writing in margins,
Archetypes and motifs in folklore and literature: A handbook, Carole G. Silver, (eds) Jane Garry and Hasan El-Shamy, 2016
The evils of beans,
1135~1154: The Green Children of Woolpit,
William of Newburgh: Book one


[1] Green Children of Woolpit,
[2] William of Newburgh,
[3] ibid
[4] ibid
[5] ibid
[6] Battle of Fornham,
[7] The Green Children of Woolpit,
[8] ibid
[9] Oweynagat Cave, Roscommon, Ireland,
[10] Archetypes and motifs in folklore and literature: A handbook, Carole G. Silver, (eds) Jane Garry and Hasan El-Shamy, 2016
[11] The evils of beans,

A storyteller visits The Haunted Palace


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Ramblingidioms at the Haunted Palace

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

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

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

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

The Bonfire of Ballet Girls


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

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

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

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

The Romantic Ballet

Marie Taglioni.  V&A collection.

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

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

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

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

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

Dancing with Death

Skeleton Ballerina. Source Pinterest. Artist unknown.

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

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

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

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

Clara Webster by John Brandard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Famous Ballerinas of the Romantic Age. Lithograph by AE Challon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonfire of Vanities

The Gale sisters. Harpers Weekly.

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

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

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

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


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

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

On one side –

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

And upon the other –

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

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

Sources and Notes [8]  

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

Daily Dispatch, October 1 1861, The recent terrible accident at the Continental Theatre in Philadelphia,

Matthews David, Alison, 2015, ‘Fashion Victims The Dangers of Dress Past and Present’ [4]-[6] [9] [11]

The Public Ledger, 18 March 1845 Shocking Death of Miss Clara Webster:,1978758&hl=en [1] [2][3] [2][3]



Nicholaa de la Haye: The female sheriff of Lincolnshire


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Lincoln Castle. Image by Lenora.

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

The Early Years


Medieval Lady. Source unknown.

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

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

Under Richard I reign

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


Female Medieval fighter.  Source unknown.

The First Baron War

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


Magna Carta.  British Museum Collection.

England’s First Female Sheriff

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

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

“A worthy lady”

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

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

The Battle of Lincoln Fair

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

300px-BitvaLincoln1217ortho_Matthew Paris

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

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

Inside the Walls


Walls of Lincoln Castle.  Image by Lenora.

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

After the Siege

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

web-C66-18-m11r-crop_removal_reinstatement NDH_NA

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

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


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

A Remarkable Woman


Medieval Manuscript.  Source Unknown.

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


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


Lincoln Cathedral, opposite the castle.  Image by Lenora.


King John and Richard I: Brothers and Rivals,
Lady Nicholaa de la Haye,
Nicholaa de la Haye,
Nicholaa de la Haye, England’s Forgotten Heroine,
Nichola de la Haye, castellan of Lincoln Castle,
The Monstrous Regiment of Women,
Nicola de la Haye,
Lady Nicholaa de la Haye, Women’s Network,
06 – 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”,
Women in Thirteenth-Century Lincolnshire, Louise J. Wilkinson, 2015
William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke,,_1st_Earl_of_Pembroke
Battle of Lincoln (1217),
The Battle of Lincoln (1217), according to Roger of Wendover,
King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta, Marc Morris, 2015
The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power behind Five English Thrones, Thomas Asbridge, 2015


[1] Nicholaa de la Haye,
[2] King John and Richard I: Brothers and Rivals,
[3] Nicholaa de la Haye,
[4] Lady Nicholaa de la Haye,
[5] ibid
[6] The Battle of Lincoln (1217), according to Roger of Wendover,
[7] The Battle of Lincoln (1217), according to Roger of Wendover,
[8] ibid
[9] Women in Thirteenth-Century Lincolnshire, Louise J. Wilkinson, 2015
[10] History,
[11] Lady Nicholaa de la Haye,

Toxic Socks and other Fashion Fatalities


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

Fashion plate from Godey’s Ladies Book 1839.

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

A Victorian Soiree, possibly American. Source unknown.

Tiger Feet

Stripy socks c1850. The Met Museum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Chemical Romance

Mid 19C green dress. Bowes Museum. Lenora.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Effects of green arsenic. 1859. Wellcome Collection.

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

Emerald Green Pigment. Jane Austen World Blog.

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

Mad hatters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ashes to ashes

Wearing a crinoline. Mid nineteenth century. Source unknown.

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

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

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

Crinoline manufacture 1860. Public domain [?]

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

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

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

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

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

Fashion Victim

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

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

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

The Wellcome Collection.

Sources and notes

Matthews David, Alison, 2015, ‘Fashion Victims The Dangers of Dress Past and Present’ [1]-[3], [5]-[8],[10]-[13], [16] [15] [14] [4] [9]




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…

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]


Will Kempe,
Will Kempe,
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
William Kemp,
The water poets, pageants and the Thames,
Kemp William,,_William_(fl.1600)_(DNB00)
Will Kemp’s Jig,
Will Kemp,
On the famous voyage by Ben Johnson,
Richard Tarlton,
Shakespeare’s jester William Kempe’s historical 1600 journey from London to Norwich has been recreated, Eastern Daily Press,
Kemp’s Men of Norwich,
A last Elizabethan journal by G.B. Harrison
Will Kemp,
William Kempe,


[1] Will Kempe,
[2] Will Kempe,
[3] Will Kempe,
[4] ibid
[5] Hamlet by William Shakepeare
[6] William Kemp,
[7] The water poets, pageants and the Thames,
[8] William Kemp,
[9] Will Kemp’s Jig,
[10] Kemp William,,_William_(fl.1600)_(DNB00)
[11] Will Kemp’s Jig,
[12] ibid
[13] Will Kemp’s Jig,
[14] On the famous voyage by Ben Johnson,
[15] Kemp’s Men of Norwich,
[16] Shakespeare’s jester William Kempe’s historical 1600 journey from London to Norwich has been recreated, Eastern Daily Press,
[17] Kemp’s Men of Norwich,
[18] Will Kempe,
[19] Will Kempe,
[20] William Kempe,
[21] Will Kemp,

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.


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…


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,

Claude Duval,

Claude Duval: Gentleman highwayman,

Claude Duval (1643-1670),

Claude Duval –  the romantic highwayman,

Claude Duval – The Gallant Highwayman,

1670: Claude Duval, gentleman highwayman,

Highwaymen, 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,

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

Duvall, the dandy highwayman from Domfront, The Holt Hotel,

The Black Moth, Georgette Heyer, 1921


[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,

[6] ibid

[7] Claude Duval,

[8] Claude Duval – The Gallant Highwayman,

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

[10] The ladies love Claude Duval,

[11] Duvall, the dandy highwayman from Domfront,

[12] 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,

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

[18] The Holt Hotel,

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:

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

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

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


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- [2] [3]
It’s Good to be Bad: The psychological benefit of dark humour’ by Meg, 2014) at – [1]