Wednesday 26 December 2012

Christmas Crackers - a happy Christmas to you!

Some feline chuckles for you this festive season.
An indulgent post of my favourite Cheezburger cat pics.
Which is your favourite?

Don't you just love that expression?

Maintaining dignity under difficult conditions.

Says it all, really.

So precious!

A bit more subtle this one - but worth thinking it through.

OK, hands up, this is my favourite - although it's a close rung
thing with the picture below.
For you Star Wars fans.
Actually, this is pretty high on my 'like' list -
especially as I'm a vet.

A bit of motivation for that post Christams diet.

So - which is your favourite?

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Unofficial London- Sexism, Regency Style.

"Sir, the great chair of a full and pleasant town club is, perhaps, the throne of human felicity."
Dr. Johnson on clubs.
Thanks to
In a Georgette Heyer novel, I think it's 'The Grand Sophy' - the heroine decides to throw over convention and take a drive along St James's Street in her high-perch phaeton. Her relatives were shaken to the core - and the reason for their shock?

In regency times St James's Street was a male dominion, the home of gentlemen's clubs and shops of masculine interest where a chap could purchase a new gun, buy his cigars or the latest shaving soap in peace. Can you imagine that in the 21st century - a whole road given over to gentlemen? The temptation was too much for me and with the pluck of a modern day Sophy, I went for a walk along St James's to see what had become, in particular, of the clubs.
The bottom end of St James's Street - near St James's Palace,
in Georgian times.
In the early 19th century a satirical poem published in the Comic Hand observed how on a gentleman split his time between wife, mistress and his club. In the Regency there were three premier clubs: White's, Boodles and Brooks - all situated on St James's Street and providing a private escape in which to gamble. Each club had a distinctive atmosphere and catered for slightly different niches, but each boasted comfy chairs, grand interiors and first-rate service.
St James's Street in Victorian times -
Whites' club on the left.
In Sophy's day, as she turned off Piccadilly the first gentlemen's club she would pass was White's at number 37. Further down, Boodles at number 28, and on the opposite side of the road, 60 St James's Street, Brooks'.
Hogarth's "The Rake's Progress"
Set in St James's Street with St James's Palace in the background.
White's was the most exclusive club, so rarified that it was said that on the birth of  Horace Walpole's son and heir, the new father despatched his butler to put the child's name down for White's, before even registering the birth. However, the down side of White's were the fortunes wagered at the gaming tables, the club known as 'the bane of English nobility' because of reputations and inheritances lost there.

As Walpole wrote:
"In less than two hours, the Duke of Cumberland lost four hundred and fifty pounds at Loo [a card game] Miss Pelham won three hundred and I, the rest. On another occasion, I lost fifty-six guineas before I could say Ave Maria."
Whites' famous bay window - as it is today.

It was White's famous bow window that Sophy wanted to see on her drive. The bay was created when the main entrance was moved, and it's view was considered the prime location to see and been seen (even though, according to Beau Brummell's rules, no one sitting in the window should acknowledge a greeting from the street.) Indeed, that arbiter of male fashion, Brummell, adopted the bay as his unofficial state room. When in 1816 gambling debts forced Brummell abroad, Lord Alvanley took the position of honour.  Alvanely reputedly bet 3,000 pounds on which of two raindrops would reach the bottom of the bay window first.

Whites' in the modern day.
MP George Selwyn, was a member of White's - his claim to fame is that he was a member of parliament for 44 years and did not once make a speech in the House of Commons.
In the modern day a former chairman was Ian Cameron, father to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron.
Boodles' Club - in the 1960's.

Sophy then passed Boodles , which was the domain of the country set - fans of hunting, shooting and fishing - and of course, gambling.  The club was originally called 'Savoir Vivre' but was later renamed after the head waiter, Edward Boodle.
Boodle's as it is today.
 In modern times - Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels was a member.

Brooks's in the modern day.
Brooks's was the most overtly political club and became the unofficial Whig party headquarters although membership wasn't restricted to politicians. Members included Sir Joshua Reynolds, William Wilberforce and the Prince of Wales. The founder, Brooks, was a wine merchant of whom it was written:

whose speculative skill
In hasty credit and distant bill,
...nursed in clubs, disdain[ed] a vulgar trade,
Exult[ed] to trust, and blush[ed] to be paid

Brooks's gaming room.
 It seems George Selwyn (see White's Club) wasn't a fan since he described Brooks as:
"the completest composition of knave and fool that ever was, to which I may add liar."

My walk along modern St James's left me struggling to imagine the former glory of this road. In Sophy's day, from with her view from a high carriage, it must have been a daunting and spectucular sight, but now the car is king, the building looked sad and a little neglected. However, I can report that walking along past the clubs in no way created a scandal - which is a sign of progress....of sorts.

Man is a social animal - Aristotle.


Wednesday 12 December 2012

Christmas Stockings - a History.

Where did the tradition of hanging out Christmas stockings come from?

As a child, I remember the magic of on Christmas Eve, being given a pillow case to put at the bottom of the bed. Between getting up to look through the window for Santa's sleigh , and then crawling to the bottom of the bed to see if he'd called already, sleep was an elusive thing - but all part of the excitement of Christmas.
For many children having a pillow case or Christmas stocking waiting to be filled with presents is all part of family tradition - but have you ever stopped to wonder how this slightly odd activity originated?

"They [Christmas stockings] had to hold candy enough to make the child sick, and toys enough to make him unhappy because he did not know which to play with first."
Susan Warner, The Christmas Stocking - a novel. 1854.

In fact, historians are unclear about exactly when and where the tradition started. Perhaps the earliest origin is a 4th century story about a nobleman who spent all his money providing food for his three daughters during a time of famine. This kind-hearted man even sold his land and moved into a small cottage, using the money to buy bread for the local villagers. On a trip to market his three daughters met and fell in love with three handsome men, but they were unable to marry unless they had large dowries. The plight of the impoverished noble man reached the ears of a travelling preacher, Saint Nicholas, and the story goes that Nicholas knew the good man would be too proud to accept charity, so he waited until the household slept, crept in and filled the daughters stockings with gold coins as they hung up to dry by the fire…providing a dowry and a happy ending.

Slightly later stories start to emerge of a Germanic/ Scandinavian figure, Odin, and how children left carrots or straw in their shoes, to feed Odin's magical flying horse. By 16th century Holland, there are written records of children putting wooden clogs by the fire, filled with hay to provide refreshment for Sinterklass reindeer on Christmas Eve. In the morning they rose to find the favour returned and Sinterklass had left small presents in place of the hay.
This tradition went through a bit of a lull until the advent of stories of Santa Claus leaving presents for children resurfaced in the mid 19th century.

"On Christmas Eve, each child hangs up one of its stockings in a place where it can easily be reached, in order that Santa Claus may come into the bedroom during the night and deposit some little present in it. And when the child wakens in the morning, sure as fate, in the stocking is a Christmas pie…cut and baked in the shape of a little baby, with currants for eyes…an orange, a ball …or some other article brought by a nocturnal visitor."
Victorian account of Christmas Eve in County Durham.

The idea of Santa Claus bringing presents came to England from America around 1865 - 1870, but accounts of children hanging out stockings pre-date this. Perhaps two traditions melded into one because by 1898 the habit was common place.

"By and by the younger ones are packed off to bed, and with us, as the world over; their stockings are hung at the bed-foot to await the mysterious visit of Santa Claus."
1898, Richard Blakeborough writing about a Yorkshire Christmas.

 Just bear in mind, that this was provisional on good behaviour. Badly behaved children might well find not presents, but a lump of coal at the bottom of their stockings….

Wishing you all a very happy and healthy Christmas!
Grace x

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Unofficial London - Step Back in Time.

Of these wonderful old shops, which is the cuckoo in the nest?

Last Saturday I visited St James's Street and Piccadilly, London, to research gentleman's clubs (but that's another story and another blog post!). I was delighted to find some wonderful old shops that appeared as they might have done when Beau Brummell strutted down St James's or Oscar Wilde went to buy cigarettes. An added bonus were the lovely Christmas displays - so as I'm getting into the festive spirit I've posted some photos and a little trivia associated with each shop.
But which shop is fake and only pretending to be old…read on for the answer!

Fortnum and Mason - this photo courtesy of Andrew Marriott.
Fortnum and Mason.
The Fortnums were originally high-class builders who moved to London after the Great Fire, to cash in on the capitals reconstruction. William Fortnum became a footman to Queen Anne. William had the idea of collecting the royal households waste candle stubs and melting them down to make new candles, which he then sold to Hugh Mason who in 1705 had opened a small shop in St James's market.
Fortnum and Mason - Christmas window display 2012.
Over the centuries Fortnum and Masons have continued that tradition of entrepreneurship. From 1795 to 1839 they offered their own postal service, with collections made six times a day. At the Great Exhibition of 1851, Fortnum's won first prize as importers of dried fruit (incidentally, they also supplied dried fruit to the troops at the Battle of Waterloo, 1815) And when Queen Victoria wanted to send strong beef tea to servicemen tended by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, it was Fortnum and Masons she turned to.

Hatchards - 2012.
Also just around the corner from St James's Street, on Piccadilly, is Britain's oldest surviving bookshop. Since 1797 the current site has been occupied by a bookseller, pioneered by John Hatchard.

Lobbs window - 2012
Lobbs was founded in 1829, and the original John Lobb was a lame farm hand, whose skill with the last and awl won him awards and brought him to the attention of royalty. His shop was established at 9 St James's Street, on site of Lord Byron's bachelor pad, and to this day still sells traditional hand crafted boots

Truefitt and Hill - 2012
Truefitt and Hill
William Francis Truefitt first sold gentlemen's grooming products in 1705. Just six years later he had established himself as "Court hair cutter" and "Court head dresser", and along with his brother Peter, later went on to became Wigmaker to King George III.

Berry Bros and Rudd - 2012.
Berry Bros and Rudd
Another business with links to George III is Berry Brothers and Rudd. Being close to St James's Palace, no doubt their attractive window displays of exotic goods such as tea, coffee, cocoa, spices and snuff, soon attracted royal attention.

They were established in 1698, and still trade from their original site, 3 St James's Street, London. Today they are principally known as fine wine and spirit merchants, and in 1994 were the first wine retailer to open an online shop.

James J Fox -2102
James J Fox - cigar merchant
This is the world's oldest cigar merchant - so old that they there is a museum in the basement! They first started retailing cigars in 1787, although the Fox family wasn't involved until 1881 when the great great grandfather of the current owner opened a retail shop. Customers have included Winston Churchill, who bought his cigars here, and Oscar Wilder, who defaulted on his bill of 37 pounds, for gold tipped cigarettes of which he reputedly smoked 100 a day.

Burlington Arcade - 2012
 Burlington Arcade -
No post on Victorian shopping would be complete without a mention of the Burlington Arcade. The arcade was built to stop litter and dead cats being tossed over Lord Burlington's garden wall - (for more see a previous post here:  )

 And the cuckoo?
Did you guess?
The answer is: Truefitt and Hill - because although the business dates back to Georgian times, this shop was only established in 1994 and merely looks old, as opposed to the other premises which really are old! 
The contents may have its roots in Georgian times
but this shop was established in 1994.
Well done for making it this far!
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Friday 30 November 2012

Is "Happy Ever After" Just a Fairy Tale?

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Romance readers expect a 'happy ever after' ending - but is this just a fairy tale?
Whilst doing research for my historical romances, it is amazing how the truth can be stranger than fiction. In the past, when couples married if their dreams didn't come true and a husband tired of his wife, it seems selling the spouse was an acceptable means of disposing of her. If this theme seems familiar, it may be because Thomas Hardy used the subject of wife-selling in his novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Wife-selling on market day.
Since a wife was legally her husband's property and there were no laws against selling a spouse, it seems it was not an unusual occurrence.
The toll book of the Bell Inn, Birmingham records such a sale:
‘Samuel Whitehouse….this day sold his wife, Mary Whitehouse, in the open market to Thomas Griffiths…value 1 shilling. Taken with all her faults.’
31st August 1773
It was even noted with alarm (or sarcasm?) in the Times on 22nd July 1797:
‘The increasing value of the fair sex is esteemed by several eminent writers to the certain criterion of increasing civilization…and refined improvement as the price of wives has risen at that market [Smithfield] from half a guinea to three guineas and a half [GBP 294 today!].’

Indeed, another example was the clergyman, Thomas Snowdell, who married during the brief reign of King Edward VI (Henry VIII's son). When Edward died and his half-sister Mary took the throne, Queen Mary changed the law such that married clerics faced a choice between giving up their living…or their wife. The Rev. Snowdell decided his stipend was the more important of the two options and sold his wife to the local butcher!
Contempary drawing by Thomas Rowlandson.
However some husbands were a little too honest when selling their wives, as with farmer Joseph Thomson and his spouse of 3 years. He offered her for auction in Carlisle, listing her bad points as
Born serpent’ and ‘his tormentor.’
Amongst her better features he lists;
‘She can read novels, milk cows, makes butter and scold the maid…she is a good judge of the quality of rum, gin or whisky from long experience of tasting it.’
Thomson wanted 50 shillings (GBP 160 today) but accepted the knock down price of 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog, which all parties were happy with!

We all know marriage is no fairy tale (except in romantic fiction J )but really, part- exchanging a wife for a dog - whatever next?

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Wednesday 28 November 2012

Unofficial London - Goings-On in Fleet Street.

Q. What links Fleet Street to traditional tiered wedding cakes?
A. St Bride's church (read on for more!)
Today's post is about some of the history of Fleet Street, a name synonymous (until the 1980's at least) as home of the British newspaper industry. The name originates from the River Fleet, which is London's largest underground river.
The entrance to the River Fleet in 1750.
Perhaps Fleet Street's most notorious resident was Sweeney Todd - the so-called "Demon Barber of Fleet Street". Todd was reputed to have cut the throats of his clients, stolen their valuables and then disposed of their bodies in pies baked by the enterprising Mrs Lovett. However, despite references to Tod starting in the mid-19th century, there seems no factual basis for his story, indeed there is no Sweeney Todd mentioned in contemporary popular press, listed in the register of the Barbers' Company or in the Old Bailey's records.
Fleet Street in 1890 - note St Pauls in the distance.
The exact origins of Todd's gruesome exploits are unclear but it seems likely there were examples of early 'urban myths' circulating in Victorian times, about what happened to country bumpkins who came to London.
As above on a grey October morning, 2012.
Indeed, Charles Dickens alludes to people being made into pies in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844). Here, Tom Pinch gets lost in the evil city:
"I don't know what John will think of me. He'll being to be afraid I have strayed into one of those streets where the countrymen are murdered; and that I have been made meat-pies of, or some such horrible thing."
Tom's evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalistic pastry, who are represented in many standard country legends as doing a lively retail business in the Metropolis.
Could it be that if Sweeney Todd had not existed, it was necessary to invent him?
The legend of Sweeney Todd - Tim Burton's interpretation-
still capturing the imagination today.
 Whilst on the subject of pies and dining, since the time of the Great Fire of London, Fleet Street was renowned for its taverns and coffeehouses. Tantalisingly, one of these that survives to the present day is Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (a tavern had been on the same site since 1538) destroyed in the Great Fire and rebuilt in 1667, it is open for business to this day. Charmingly, to the right hand side of the entrance is a list of all the monarchs who have reigned since the Cheese opened its doors.
Ye Olde Chesire Cheese -
note to board to the right of the door.
And whilst on the subject of food, this brings us back to what links Fleet Street to the traditional tiered wedding cake design.
The answer is St Bride's Church.
Arguably one of the most ancient churches in London thought to be founded by 7th century Celtic monks under the auspices of St Bridget of Ireland. The church has a number of famous parishioners, such as Samuel Pepys, who was baptised here and then in 1644 buried his brother Tom in the vaults- which were reputedly so full that Pepys had to bribe the gravedigger to jostle bodies around to make room. 
Destroyed by the Great Fire, Christopher Wren was commissioned to redesign St Bride's and in 1703 work on St Bride's was completed, including a 234 foot spire with four octagonal tiers of diminishing size.
The spire of St Bride's, Fleet Street.
Legend has it that an apprentice pastry cook, William Rich, fell in love with his master's daughter. At the end of his apprenticeship Rich set up his own business within sight of St Bride's and gained consent to marry his love. Determined to impress at the wedding breakfast Rich wanted a truly stunning cake and inspired by what he'd seen of St Bride's, created a wedding cake with diminishing tiers…and a tradition was born.
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