Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Zoophagy - Victorians and Exotic Meat!

Red Squirrel.
Photo courtesy of British Wildlife Centre

Whilst on holiday on the Isle of Wight, I was lucky enough to see not one, but two, red squirrels. Granted, they aren't the brightest creatures on the planet (the first one ran alongside the car trying to outpace it, rather than escape up a tree!) but they win hands down in the cute stakes.

Sadly, red squirrels are becoming a rare sight in the UK, pushed out by the hardier and more aggressive grey squirrel. The later are a non-native species to Britain and were introduced in Victorian times by a naturalist, Frank Buckland - and this is where the zoophagy comes in - he imported grey squirrels to eat!

Zoophagy is the pursuit of eating animal flesh - and the more unusual the better.
Doctor Frank Buckland.
Born in 1826, Frank Buckland trained as a doctor, although his first interest was always natural history. To give him his due, he paid some attention to the medical profession because he noticed most nurses couldn’t read! He tested nurses with a medicine label.

 What the label actually said was:
'This lotion to be applied externally only.'
However the nurses' reply was:
Two spoonfuls to be taken four times a day.'

Buckland eventually gave up his medical career to pursue his love of natural history, and became an expert in fish production. However, he took it as his personal mission to broaden the traditional 'roast beef' diet of the British and was a pioneer of zoophagy. Buckland regularly dined on delicacies such as mice in batter, horse tongue, squirrel pie and stewed mole (the latter reportedly tasted like "poo".)  Indeed, Buckland had friends at the Royal Zoological Gardens (now London Zoo) who contacted him when an animal died, in case he wanted to eat it!
Non-native grey squirrel. Photo courtesy of Brian Marshall. 
In a quest to be even more adventurous, in 1859 he founded the Acclimatization Society. Their aim was to search for new and more exotic meats to eat, and at the society's inaugural dinner in 1862 the menu included roast kangaroo, boiled sea slug and grilled parrot. Such was his renown that it was said when he walked past:
"Elderly maidens called their cats indoors."

It was to broaden his dining options that Buckland came to import the grey squirrel form North America, with the subsequent disastrous decimation of our native red squirrels.

Distribution of red vs grey squirrels in the past 70 years.
Courtesy of British Red Squirrel Society.
As an aside, if you are tempted to think grey squirrels are 'cute' - it is an offense punishable by 2 years in prison, to nurse and re-release an injured grey into the wild in the UK. If you find a grey squirrel in distress, then by law you are required to take it to a veterinarian for humane destruction. This may seem harsh, but in 2001 the grey population was estimated at 2.5 million and the red squirrel is only hanging on in certain protected areas, including the Lake District and the Isle of Wight.

As a vegetarian myself, researching this post set me thinking about what makes some meats acceptable to eat, and others repulsive. What is your opinion? Why should it be OK to eat lamb or chicken, but we squirm at the idea of mole or parrot?
Photo courtesy of British Wildlife Centre

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Unnatural Deaths

The main entrance - Appuldurcombe House - sadly behind the facade is a ruin,
the building destroyed by a World War II bomb.
Q. What do a priest, John Smith and an heir to Appuldurcombe House have in common?

A.  They all died unnatural deaths on the Isle of Wight.

This week I'm on holiday and my blog post was inspired by a recent ghost walk around Appuldurcombe House, near Wroxall. A monk (!) conducted the tour through the ruins and recounted some of the gory tales of unnatural death pertaining to the house in its heyday when it was the most important estate on the IOW (Isle of Wight).

Sadly, the house is largely now ruins - destroyed by a WWII bomb.
Appuldurcombe's history starts in the 16th century with a page to King Henry VII, called James Worsley, whose family originated in Lancashire. The boy Worsley was educated along side the future King Henry VIII. The tale goes that no person was allowed to harm an heir to the throne, so when the young Henry misbehaved, his tutors whipped his friends to make the prince feel guilty- it is from this practice that the expression 'whipping boy' originates.
The future Henry VIII must have had quite a guilty conscience because when he became king he appointed James Worsley as Keeper of the Wardrobe, knighted him and gifted him a monastery that stood on the site of the current Appuldurcombe House. (On James' death he bequeathed his best gold chain to Henry VIII and his largest standing cup to Thomas Cromwell.)

A marble floor under which 4 Worsley children are buried.
Not the love hearts at the corner of the design : 2 blue and 2 pink, denoting 2 boys and 2 girls.
But what of unnatural deaths?
Well, James Worsley had a son, Richard. Under King Henry VIII, one of the Worsley's responsibilities was to protect the IOW from French invasion. Indeed the King is said to have visited to inspect the state of local defences, and gifted his host a fine Holbein portrait of himself.

Richard organised regular military manoeuvres which included the use of live firearms. However one day it was raining and the gunpowder got wet. Richard's two sons took the damp powder to a gatehouse to let it dry out, unfortunately the barrel got too close to the fire and the whole lot exploded -demolished the gatehouse and killed 6 people including both of Richard's sons and heirs.

Part of the cellar network beneath Appuldurcombe House.
Moving forward in time to the mid 1600's, we find the Worsley's were secret catholics at a time of persecution. The punishment for harbouring catholic priests was severe - a red hot poker up the derriere and so people went to great lengths to hide visiting cleris and those wishing to conduct mass had a number of secret hiding places or 'priest holes.' Appuldurcombe was no different and had a tunnel leading from the cellar to woodland 500 feet away. Unfortunately, the excavation of the tunnel followed a natural geological fault that dipped at one point and was prone to collecting water. This meant the escapee had to hold his breath, crawl underwater a few seconds before emerging on the other side.

The entrance to the 'priest tunnel' within the cellars.
One Father Ewan was not so lucky. He used the tunnel and was never seen again. It was assumed he'd got safely away into the woods and no one worried, until a while later a dreadful smell filled the cellars. It seems he drowned in the natural dip and it wasn’t until heavy rain and decaying body parts washed down the tunnel that anyone was any the wiser.

The ornamental pond into which John Smith was thrown and left to his fate.
Our third unnatural death is that of a school boy, John Smith. By Victorian times the house had passed out of the Worsley's hands and for a short time became a hotel, and then a school. The Rev. Pound established "a college for young gentlemen." However, it seems his school was not a happy place and bullying was rife. One boy, John Smith, was mercilessly picked on because he was short. One freezing November night John's dormitory mates plotted to throw him in the large ornamental pond outside the main entrance. They had to break the ice to get him in, and worse still, he was unable to get out unaided. The pond is 8 ft deep at the centre and 5 ft deep at the edges, with a vertical lip that meant unless you were tall it was impossible to grasp the ledge to pull yourself out.
The room (now ruined) where John Smith hung himself.
Poor John Smith was left in the freezing water and was only rescued when a master happened past. Despite this the bullying continued and a short while later, sadly John took his own life and hung himself.

A hint of the splendour that once existed.
And finally, much of the information for this post was obtained from a pamphlet printed by the Department of the Environment, Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings Department, published in 1967. I found the leaflet in a tea-shop near Freshwater, selling second hand books. The cover price was 35p, but the tea-shop resold it for 3 GBP - strikes me that this is quite a good mark up. Anyone any idea what 35p from the 1960's is worth in today's money?
Widget- ghost or cat?

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

My Guilty Secret - London Trivia #4

Photo courtesy of
I have a guilty secret - I quite like watching 'Bargain Hunt' - (for my US friends, this is a daytime TV show where generally clueless couples buy trash from antique fairs with the aim of selling it at auction for profit. The couple that makes the most profit, or smallest loss, wins!) Hosted by the epitome of an English gentleman, Tim Wannocott, halfway through the show Tim visits a place of historical interest and on the occasion that inspired this post, he visited the Sir John Soanes museum London.
Tim Wonnacott - photo courtesy of the BBC.
Sir John Soanes was the Georgian architect who designed the Bank of England, amongst other notable buildings. But what sparked my interest during Tim's segment, was the sheer eccentricity of Soanes home - which also doubled as a museum in his lifetime. Soanes was a collector of architectural artefacts and filled his house with antique marble fragments of statues and friezes, mainly from ancient Rome. From the glimpse I got on the TV it looked too interesting to miss and living close to London I went to visit.

Soanes Museum - the cream coloured building to the left of the picture.
Soanes Museum is at 12 - 14 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London and entry is free!
Greek and Roman marbles line the stairwells, a full sized Egyptian sarcophagus in the basement, a room of Hogarth's mounted on hinged walls. In the basement, Soanes created an atmosphere reminiscent of catacombs or Roman burial chamber, of which the centre piece was the magnificent Egyptian sarcophagus of King Seti I; bought by Soanes when the British Museum refused to pay 2,000 pounds for it. With hieroglyphics as yet deciphered in his time, and a very important antiquity, Soanes celebrated the arrival of his new piece with three evening parties, illuminated by three hundred oil lamps and attended by nearly a thousand people.

The Bank of England - designed by Sir John Soanes.
Mrs Soanes must have had the patience of a saint to put up with the stamp of her husband's overwhelming personality, but by all accounts they were a happy couple. A mark of Soanes' eccentricity was his 'Monk's Parlour.' This was a downstairs room designed in a gothic fashion, with dark sombre colours and heavy furniture to illustrate the importance of light (or lack of it) in creating atmosphere. What is even more delightful is that when Soanes wanted to be alone he would claim:
"Padre Giovanni has come to visit," and disappear into the Monk's Parlour to take tea. However since Padre Giovanni was fictitious, actually a play on Soanes' own name 'John' - his visits were an excuse to enjoy solitude.

The sarcophogus in Soanes house - and yes it is as mad as this!
 I've gone a long way round the houses to say I'm proud that my 'guilty secret' inspired a visit to a place I hadn’t heard of before- and I feel less guilty as a result!
Have you ever visited somewhere you saw on TV and were blown away by the experience?
Do leave a comment and join the conversation!

Portraits of Sir John Soanes by Sir Frances Chantry.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Dead Cats and Commercialism - London Trivia #3

Today's tale of London trivia tells how the exclusive shopping venue, the Burlington Arcade, Piccadilly came into being.
The original triple arch entrance to the Burlington Arcade.
For those unfamiliar with London, the Burlington Arcade is a parade of high-end shops housed in Georgian splendour, beside the current home of the Royal Academy, Burlington House. However, did you know that in 1819 these Georgian shops came into existence to stop dead cats falling on Lord Cavendish when he sat in his garden?

Interior of the Burlington Arcade today.
 In the early 19th century Lord George Cavendish was the owner of Burlington House. But no matter how splendid his residence, Lord Cavendish derived little pleasure from sitting outside because of a constant rain of oyster shells, apple cores, bottles and even the odd dead animal. This was because an alleyway ran alongside his property and the passers-by liked to lob their rubbish over his garden wall.
The Burlington Arcade - interior.
Cavendish's solution was to commission Samuel Ware to design a arcade of small shops in the alleyway, and do away with the nuisance of the uncouth public dumping their rubbish over his wall. The result was the Burlington Arcade, which still exists as a retail mall to this day. Opened on 20th March, 1819, the mall reputedly cost 49,000 pounds to build, rent for a single unit was a little over 12 pounds a year. One of the first lease holders was patronised by the Prince Regent to supply gold lace for his uniforms.

The Burlington Arcade to the left and the edge of the Royal Academy to the right.
Originally a single storey building, an upper level was added in 1906 with apartments to let (as one wit put it, "To a better sort of courtesan".) The original triple arch entrance was removed in 1931 and a new design added, which was much disliked at the time. The shops are small but famous for selling expensive, luxury goods - hence quality over quantity.
Lord George Augustus Cavendish.
 A beadle (the Georgian equivalent of a security man) patrolled the mall in order to stop the 'wrong sort' entering. The first beadles were recruited from the Cavendish family regiment of the 10th Hussars to enforce a strict code of conduct within the arcade which included: no running, whistling or playing musical instruments, no carrying large parcels and no babies' prams. In the 19th century the beadle had a leather armchair at the entrance on which to sit whilst keeping an eye on visitors. It was also the beadle's job to ring a hand-bell to tell the shops to close. To this day there is still a team of four beadles(but no chair) and they have the authority to eject you from the arcade if behaving inappropriately.
Widget- because she's cute...and I wouldnt want her falling on my head!
So finally, if you visit the longest covered street in Britain, spare a thought for the Burlington Arcade's original reason for being - to stop dead cats falling on Lord Cavendish's head!

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

London Trivia #2 - Where is the centre of London?

Photo courtesy of
To celebrate London 2012, in this second post of historical trivia I attempt to answer the question: where is the centre of the capital? I had some vague notion that the statue of Eros at Piccadilly Circus marked the spot, but it turns out I am wrong! Neither is it Buckingham Palace or St Paul's Cathedral…so where is it?
Buckingham Palace from the air- photo Thomas Nugent.
The actual spot is marked by a brass plaque in what was medieval Charing Cross (more of this later), near the currentTrafalgar Square and the equestrian statue of King Charles I.

Statue of Charles I , southern corner of Trafalgar Square.
To find out why this spot is defined as the centre of London we need to go back to the 11th century and the time of Edward the Confessor. Edward was one of the last Anglo-Saxon kings (reigning 1042 - 1066) and he pledged to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, but civil unrest meant he couldn’t leave his kingdom. In recompense for breaking his vow he decided to build a large church. He chose an area of high ground  near the marshes of the Thames, demolished the existing monastery and started building that which later became Westminster Abbey.
Edward the Confessor, depicted in the Bayeux tapestry.
However merchants in the old city of London considered it an unreasonable distance to travel to Westminster and the new seat of authority, and so when traders wanted to hear the latest government policy they met at a half way point -  Charing Cross. It is this spot, marked by the brass plaque and is still the official centre of London, so much so that people working within a 6 mile radius can claim London-weighting for their expenses and are entitled to extra payments.

Westminster Abbey - built of the site of Edward's church. Photo Karen Matthews.
And finally, I mentioned medieval Charing Cross, near Trafalgar Square, a short distance from the modern Charing Cross. The original spot was marked by the memorial cross erected by King Edward in 1290, to mark the route of his beloved wife's, Queen Eleanor, funeral procession. The giant cross became such landmark that when the new Charing Cross railway station was opened in 1865, to drum up publicity the original monument was removed and a new and grander memorial erected beside the station to establish a landmark.
Charing Cross station - from the London Eye. Photo Mike McMillan.