Thursday 29 December 2011

New Year - A new take on an old custom?

Did you know, in the UK, New Year's Day was only declared a public holiday in 1974?

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Rich with the symbolism of the old year passing and welcoming the new, it seems right to see the New Year in - as a time for fresh starts and resolution.
Be it full-blown celebration or quietly 'staying up to see the New Year' what will you be doing this year? Here are just a couple of the traditions associated with New Year.

Allendale guisers. - an new take on an old custom?

The term "guiser" is likely derived from the word "disguise" and used widely in English customs, denoting people dressed up to adopt another persona. The Northumbrian town of Allendale has a tradition on 31st December, whereby forty fancy-dressed guisers parade through the streets, carrying barrels of burning pitch on their heads. They are accompanied by a brass band and the ceremony culminates at midnight with a large bonfire lit in the Market Place.

            The barrels are cut down to a depth of 12 inches and filled with rags and shavings soaked in paraffin, although originally tar would have been used, and set alight. The more romantic traditionalists say this custom has its roots in ancient fire worship carried out by the Vikings, Celts and Druids - whereas the truth is slightly less exciting!

            It seems in the mid 1800's someone came up with the idea of burning tar barrels to light the path for the band that traditionally walked the streets on New Years Eve. Nearly a hundred years later, during the second World War, it seems the villagers were so proud of their tradition they were reluctant to stop it when blackouts were imposed.

            "When war broke out and many of the guisers were called up for military service, blackout regulations enforced the cancellation of the bonfire. To maintain continuity of the custom, the local carpenter, Launcelot Bell, designed a…small tar barrel which he carried unlit…On the customary site of the bonfire he placed it inside a tin trunk, set fire to it and closed the lid. All the local people then danced around the trunk."
A New Year's Gathering - the tradition.

            The tradition of large crowds of strangers gathering together on New Year's Eve is widespread and most cities have a focal spot where this takes place. In London, the Illustrated London News (1897) records significant numbers collecting outside St Pauls Cathedral to hear the newly installed bells ring in the New Year. All went well for the first few years until the crowds became over large and 'uproarious' and cathedral authorities stopped the New Year bell ringing. Undeterred, the crowds still gathered.
            A letter to the Times in 1935 voiced the opinion that there was nothing inherently wrong with mass-gathering but they should be better organised - especially the singing, as recorded below:

            "In England we seldom sing en masse, except at football matches. In this respect our failing on New Year's Ever are particularly deplorable….emotion finds no orderly outlet….Leaderless, they make no united musical effort. Instead, individuals and small groups sing. The strains of a dozen banal and tuneless ditties intermingle depressingly."

So how will you see the New Year in? Any "banal and tuneless ditties" for you…or something altogether more uplifting? Do comment and tell us about your New Year traditions...and dont forget there's a giveaway prize for one lucky person!!

Click link to full list of blog hop participants.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Cancel Christmas!

Yesterday, I finished my Christmas shopping and so, at last, I'm beginning to feel quite festive.  Love it or hate, Christmas is going to happen!
But this wasn’t always the case.
Oliver Cromwell
In the mid 17th century, England entered an unstable period of civil war. Statesman and General, Oliver Cromwell led his armies to fight against the monarch, Charles I - and ultimately had the king beheaded. Cromwell's supporters were Puritans, a group who, amongst other things, believed it was their mission to purge the country of decadence.
The Puritans believed you would ascend to heaven so long as you lead a blameless life on earth, and with this aim frivolity and excessive behaviour were banned. Woman had to wear a long black dress, white apron and headdress and no makeup. The men required to have short hair and dress head to toe in black.
Small wonder then that the heady excesses of Christmas day were frowned upon. December 25th was traditionally a public holiday, businesses closed, people attended church as well as exchanging presents, dancing, singing and drinking. The Puritans saw this as a frenzy of disorder:
'More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides ... What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used ... to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.'
Philip Stubbes. 

On 8 June 1647, Protestant Puritans were in power and passed, "An Ordinance for Abolishing of Festivals." - You guessed it! They cancelled Christmas.
"Ordained, by the Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled, that the said Feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter and Whitsuntide, and all other festival days commonly known at Holy-days be no longer observed …within the Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales."

Olde Father Christmas.
Predictably, this was an unpopular move with the majority and the fate of Christmas became a rallying cry. "Old Father Christmas" became spokesman for those opposed to the new law and pamphlets soon appeared with his jollity contrasted against the gloomy piety of the Puritans.
People rebelled in their own way - some refused to open their shops on December 25th, others continued to cook a special roast meal and others attended secret services - although not always without consequences.
"I went with my wife to London to celebrate Christmas Day. Mr Gunning preaching in Exeter Chapel…as he was giving us the holy Sacrament, the chapel was surrounded with soldiers…"
John Evelyn 25 December 1657.
Charles II.
The Puritan campaign against Christmas lasted until 1660 when it was swept aside by the Restoration and the fun-loving Charles II.
So whatever your opinion on the excesses of Christmas, just be glad we live in times where we have the option to celebrate!

Grace x

Wednesday 14 December 2011

'Twas The Night Before Christmas.

"Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,
                                 Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."
                                 Clement Clark Moore (1779 - 1863)


At this stop on the Virtual Advent Tour, to get you in the Christmas spirit I'm posting about some of the traditions surrounding Christmas Eve.

In modern times it seems Christmas decorations go up as soon as the Halloween ones come down, but this would have been unheard of for our great-grandparents. In their day it was considered unlucky to decorate the house before Christmas Eve and a busy time was had by all putting up greenery and trimming the tree, buying in fresh food (there were no fridges or freezers!) and visiting church. Holly, mistletoe and pine were the most popular decortaions.The Victorians are widely attributed with the introduction of kissing under the mistletoe, but in fact the tradition dates back to the 16th century. An interesting but little known twist to the mistletoe tradition is:
"… once kissed under the mistletoe should be burnt, or those couples who kissed beneath it would be foes for the rest of the year."

It was said that any girl NOT kissed under the mistletoe would not be kissed in the forthcoming year, and to put mistletoe under a young woman's pillow would cause her to dream of her future husband.  
Incidentally, any holly brought into the house at any time other than Christmas was believed to result in death.
A table being readied with Christmas fare.
For farmers, Christmas Eve was a time to give extra food to the animals - not just as a treat, but in the hope that they needed less attention on Christmas day itself.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Christmas eve was also a popular time for traditional 'performers' to visit, such as carol singers, or sword dancers (if you lived in North East England), the Hooden Horse (a Kentish tradition) or guise dancers (a Cornish tradition) Not only were the performers likely to find people at home but they would likely be filled with good cheer, and even if no money was forthcoming, they would likely welcome strangers with food and drink.

The Gentleman's Magazine of 1824 records some Christmas Eve celebrations in Yorkshire.
"At eight o'clock in the evening, the bells greet 'old Father Christmas' with a merry peal. The children parade the streets wth drums, trumpets, bells or…even a poker and a shovel, taken from the humble cottage fire."
Christmas Eve was also said to be a good night for an unmarried woman to divine the identity of her future husband. Apparently this good time to meddle in the dark arts because ghosts and other spirits were said to be powerless on this night. The method of doing this was recorded by Sidney Addy in 1890.
"If a girl walk backwards to a pear tree, on Christmas Eve and walk around the tree three times, she will see an image of her future husband."
And finally, at the midnight hour church bells would ring and many people would open their doors to welcome Christmas in. It was said that on the stroke of midnight cattle would kneel down in their stalls and bees hum the Old Hundreth Psalm in their hives.

Do you have any Christmas Eve traditions - do leave a comment and share them.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Monumental Vertigo!

I'm not good with heights - in fact, that's something of an understatement. The number of historical buildings that I have exited on my bottom, for fear of open staircases and exposed battlements is a long one. Numbered amongst these is The Monument in London - but for once it seems I am in good company.

James Boswell, writer, visited The Monument in 1762. Half way up the 311 stone steps he suffered a panic attack (can't say I blame him. The Monument feels like a tall stone tomb inside with a dizzying spiral staircase - I got less than half way before I froze and could go neither up nor down - stuck against the wall while people pushed past…but that's another story.) Boswell did better than me and overcame his fear to reach the top to see what was to be seen from what was in the 18th Century the highest viewpoint in London.

His opinion was less than glowing:
"Horrid to be so monstrous a way up in the air, so far above London and all its spires."
A rash of suicides meant the viewing platform was caged in 1842.

So what is the Monument?

As well as being the tallest isolated stone column in the world, at 202 feet. It stands as tall as it does distant from the start of the Great Fire of London, in a baker's shop in Pudding Lane, 2 September 1666. Built on the site of St. Margaret's Church (the first church to be destroyed in the fire), Fish Street, it commemorates the Great Fire.
Designed by Sir Christopher Wren (designer of St. Paul's Cathedral) and Robert Hooke, Wren wanted to put a statue of King Charles II at the top. But king declined pointing out:

"I didn’t start the fire."
Instead, a flaming urn of gilt bronze placed on the summit.

During the Great Fire itself surprising few lives were lost but 13,000 homes destroyed and great swathes of London raised to the ground. However, the damage was more extensive than necessary because superstitious people refused to fight the fire, Charles Mackay explains in his 1841 collection, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and quotes from eye-witness accounts:

"The writer, who accompanied the Duke of York….through the district between Fleet-bridge and the Thames, states that their efforts to check the progress of the flames…were much impeded by the superstition of the people."

It appears there was a widely held belief at the time that Mother Shipton prophesied that:
"London in sixty-six will be burnt to ashes."

Those that should have known better even convinced others to do nothing.
"A son of the noted Sir Kenelm Digby…persuaded them that no power on earth could prevent the fulfilment of the prediction, for it was written…that London was to be destroyed."
So people stood back and watched, instead of acting to prevent the disaster.

"Hundreds of person, who might have rendered valuable assistance and saved whole parishes from devastation, folded their arms and looked on. As man …with less compunction, gave themselves up to plunder the city."
Charles Mackay.

So finally, harking back to my abortive attempt to climb the Monument, who else has had an embarrassing experience in a public place?

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Lillie's Love Nest.

The Jersey Lillie "Lillie Langtry."
A chance mention in a local paper of the Langtry Manor hotel, triggered this week’s blog post. The Langtry Manor resonates with me because my wedding reception was held there and its where I spent the first night of married life. Now I wont bore you with how my wedding was organised at 2 weeks notice and a quirk of fate meant our dream venue was free…because what I wanted to share was the history of this fascinating building and how it was Edward VII’s love nest for his mistress Lillie Langtry.
Pencil sketch of Lillie by Frank Miles.

To understand the Langtry Manor, you need to know about the lady it was bought for. Lillie Langtry was born in Jersey, 1853 as Emilie Charlotte Le Breton. The daughter of a clergyman, with six brothers she grew up a tom boy. Eager to have adventures of her own and surprised by the male interest, she married young Edward Langtry just six weeks after meeting him. It was a rushed ceremony, with the couple dressed in travelling clothes, because Edward wanted to catch the tide for his yacht “Red Gauntlet”
Lillie, as Cleopatra.

But Lillie’s new life bored her and after a bout of illness, she went to London to convalesce. In April 1877 she was walking in Hyde Park when a young artist, Walford Graham Robertson spotted her. He noticed a young woman and approaching and from her plain black bonnet and dress assumed her to be a milliner’s assistant. Robertson goes on to record:

“…the girl looked up and I all but sat flat down in the road. For the first and only time in my life I beheld perfect beauty!”

Her looks and creamy complexion soon earnt her the nickname ‘the Jersey Lillie’. Her beauty made her famous and provided an entrĂ©e into society. The Countess of Warwick described her thus:

“She had dewy violet eyes, a complexion like a peach. How can words convey the vitality, the glow, the mazoing charm tha made this fascinating woman the centre of any group she entered?”

Edward VII.

Artists flocked to paint her and a portrait by Sir John Millais came to Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) attention. He had his equirries engineer a discrete meeting with Lillie, which eventually led to her becoming his mistress. The problem then presented itself as to how they could meet privately. The Prince of Wales chose the rising seaside resort of Bournemouth, for their love nest. A building was commissioned and started in 1877 with Lillie’s initials carved into the foundation stone. Made of red brick (in subsequent decades painted a horrid peach colour) she called the building “The Red House” and had a wall plaque mounted saying “Dulce Domum” (Our Sweet House.)
The Red House - or Langtry Manor - as it is today.

The Red House became a refuge for Edward VII from the rigours of court. He had a peep hole built into the dining room wall, so he could check who was present before deciding whether to enter or not. Above this same room is a mintrels gallery, carved with the motto:

“They say? Let them say!”

With the passage of time The Red House was sold and became a hotel 'The Langtry Manor.' There were numerous secret passages and stairways, for him to visit his mistress anonymously. Although Edward took other mistresses, he remained friends with Lillie to the end of his life.
Lillie divorced Edward Langtry in 1887 and went on to enjoy a career on the stage. She died aged 75 in 1929.
Lillie endorsing Pears soap!

All of which means that you can appreciate the significance of the Langtry Manor and what a romantic location it was for my wedding.
How about you - what memories do you have of your wedding venue?
Leave a comment and share it with us.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Royal Pseudonyms.

My pen name is Grace Elliot. I use a pseudonym because as a veterinarian, some clients aren't comfortable having their pet treated by an author of historical romance! But it appears I’m in august company, since in the past royalty were not averse to using an alias (although for different reasons I’m sure!)

King George III wrote under the name of Ralph Robinson when he submitted an article to “Annals of Agriculture” in 1787.
However his son, George IV (who became prince regent and the name behind the Regency period) was altogether more frivolous and wrote love letters under the name “Florizel” This was because George fancied himself in love with the actress Mary Robinson, who appeared as Perdita in a production of “Florizel and Perdita.”

She [Mary Robinson] is I believe almost the greatest and most perfect beauty of her sex.” George IV

Mrs Mary Robinson or 'Perdita.'

The daughter of a failed businessman and the dupe of a lying hound of a husband, Robinson supported her family by going on the stage, aged 14, as a protegee of David Garrick. She must have been gorgeous, especially with her legs on show in the breeches parts so common in Shakespeare. Critics recognised her outstanding beauty, but also praised her acting ability in a number of roles. In 1779, the teenage Prince of Wales went to Drury Lane to see Garrick's adaptation of The Winter's Tale, and was smitten. She was the first of his many mistresses.

George IV, in later life.

.In return, she obtained a bond of £20,000 from the future George IV (equivalent to nearly £1m today), jewels, carriages, a house in Berkeley Square and Parisian fashions that dazzled society. George Romney, Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds painted her portrait for free. Newspapers and scandal sheets reported her every move; ladies of the town rushed to ape her manners and her style.

The Balmoral Estate, Scotland.
Queen Victoria also used a pseudonym when travelling unofficially - The Countess of Balmoral or the Countess of Lancaster - not exactly slumming it! However few people were fooled and hailed the Countess with “Vive la Reine d’Angleterre.” She also liked to fantasize when at Balmoral that she was an ordinary person and so instructed the servants to act as though she was invisible if they encountered her when out walking.

In her journal, Queen Victoria describes how she and Prince Albert used pseudonyms on a journey.

“We decided to call ourself Lord and Lady Churchill and party….however Brown [John Brown, Victoria’s personal servant]  forgot this and called me ‘Your Majesty’ as I was getting into the carriage and Grant [head keeper] called Albert ‘Your Royal Highness’; which set us off laughing but no one observed it.”

My latest release, “Eulogy’s Secret” is about identity and how appearances can be deceptive. It’s an interesting thought - how much who were are depends on who people think we are!

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Cat's Eyes - Seeing is Believing.

The invention of the reflective road stud widely known as the ‘Cat’s Eye’ was inspired by a near miss in 1933 when Yorkshireman, Percy Shaw, whilst driving in thick fog swerved to avoid hitting a cat. The reflection of the car’s headlights hit the back of the cat’s eye and alerted him in a nick of time. Perhaps even more significantly, the cat was standing near a dangerous bend in the road that led to a sheer drop over a cliff - so not only was the cat’s life saved, but very likely Shaw’s.

After this near death experience it became Shaw’s mission in life to develop a light-reflecting warning for roads and in 1935 he started his own company, “Reflecting Roadstuds Ltd.”   Shaw’s other innovation was the mechanism (again the inspiration drawn from actual cat’s eyes) whereby the glass was embedded in a moveable holder which depressed into the road when run over. This pushed the lens against a rubber coating which wiped it clean; much like a cat’s eyelid does against the cornea. To ensure fairness, The Ministry of Transport held a competition for rival designs but after two years Shaw’s were the only ones still in one piece or not silted up with road dirt.

 As far back as classical Egypt, a cat’s eyes were worthy of note.  The goddess Bast, also called Bastet, is widely known today as the “Cat Goddess. Legend has it that, by day, Bast would ride through the sky with her father, the sun god Ra, his boat pulling the sun through the sky. But by night, she transformed herself into a cat (renown for its superb night vision) to guard her father from Apep (also known as Apophis), a serpent who was her father's greatest enemy.

Even in the middle ages, the properties of cat’s eyes were recorded as in this excerpt from John Bessewell’s book from 1597:

“He [the cat] is sly and willie, and seeth so sharpely that he overcommeth darkness of the nighte by the shynigne lyghte [shining light] of his eyne [eye.]”

In 1868, Charles Ross enlightened (excuse the pun) readers of his work, “The Chit Chat Book of Cats” with an explanation of the workings of a cat’s eye.

“The illumination of a Cat’s eye in the dark arises from the external light collected on the eye and reflected from it. The cat is furnished with a bright metal-like , lustros membrane, called the Tapetum, which lines part of the hollow globe of the eye…this membrane is especially beautiful and lustrous in nocturnal animals.”

Modern science tells us that the lustre is due to a high percentage of rods in the retina - which are especially sensitive to light, but Mr Ross’s description perfectly describes the qualities of Shaw’s cat’s eye invention!

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Walking Eagle...and other Toilet Humour.

With thanks to the internet and my sharp eyed husband for the following (alleged) Tony Blair story:

On a recent trip to the United States, Tony Blair, Ex. Prime Minister of the UK, addressed a major gathering of Native American Indians. He spoke for almost an hour on his plans for a CarbonTrading Tax for the UK and Europe At the conclusion of his speech, the crowd presented him with a plaque inscribed with his new Indian name - Walking Eagle. A very chuffed Tony then departed in his motorcade, waving to the crowds. A news reporter later asked one of the Indians how they came to select the new name given to Tony Blair They explained that Walking Eagle is the name given to a bird so full of shit that it can no longer fly.

I love learning about words and phrases and with Tony Blair in mind, I discovered an interesting origin to the common British term for a toilet, politely referred to as “the cloakroom.”

It started with the Normans who introduced the first fixed room for what we would now call an indoor toilet. The White Tower, at the Tower of London, built shortly after the Conquest, has garderobe shafts built into the thickness of the walls. (These shafts faced away from the city of London so that the newly beaten subjects wouldn’t see the stains left by the conquerors’ faeces) These garderobes were little more than a room with a seat over a hole, and called garderobes because they were literally places to “guard robes.” It seems the ammonia rich environment was an excellent way of killing fleas and other unwelcome parasites, and so your most precious garments would be hung in the garderobe. It is from this same origin that the term ‘cloakroom’ is thought to have developed.

Whilst on the subject of cloakrooms and toilets, you may be interested to learn that the ancient Romans favoured a sponge tied to a stick, as the most hygienic way of wiping their bottoms - this may well be the origin for the expression “getting hold of the wrong end of the stick.”!