Tuesday, 19 April 2022

It's a small (historical) world

It's a small world, so they say, and it can sometimes seem like that in the field of historical research: people crop up in the most unexpected places, and entirely separate casework can suddenly coincide in very curious ways. The following example of this would be hard to beat.

A current project has me looking for the papers of the eminent scholar Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge - now there's a name - and yet just today, working on an entirely different case, the same man leaps off the page of a 19th-century gossip magazine called The World. Said magazine was the work of the author and journalist Edmund Hodgson Yates; in fact it made his fortune, and he obviously had a keen sense of what sold as it was very much the Hello! of its day, complete with 'at home with' type articles and breathless accounts of the doings of various celebrities of the day. Not then, the sort of publication where one would expect to find a severely intellectual man such as Sir Ernest, but there he was alright, twice mentioned in a lengthy puff piece about the novelist Henry Rider Haggard. Budge apparently wrote letters to Haggard in Egyptian hieroglyphics - I'd have been disappointed if he had not.       

Sunday, 12 December 2021


'Persuading the publick to part with money they do not have in exchange for goods or services they neither need nor require.' 

Thus Dr Johnson's definition of advertising in his famous dictionary, published after much labour in 1755. Well not quite (although the word is there, differently defined), but I like to think it's the sort of thing he might have come up with had he witnessed the modern advertising industry in the full vigour of its operations. Rather than the deception and malevolent guile which we are accustomed to today, I prefer the rather blunter methods of an earlier age - this no-nonsense advertising gem aimed at the farming community appeared in the Buckinghamshire Herald of 16 December 1949, and made me smile:

Rats cannot resist RODINE

They eat it greedily and die!

All it needed was a picture of one of the brutes writhing in its death throes, but the editor of the Herald spared us that. 


Thursday, 7 October 2021

A sobering thought

I'm one of the rather rare breed that is fascinated by the history of local government, but even I will concede that you don't start reading the annual reports of the St George-in-the-East Metropolitan Vestry (established, as you will all know,  by the 1855 Metropolis Management Act) expecting much in the way of historical interest or drama. Yet then on page 31 of the Vestry report for the year ending March 1861 - the Medical Officer's list of 45 coroner's inquests for that year - you come across six simple words:

'No. 23. From exposure and want - a Chinaman'

And it seems to me that there is a whole world of life and tragedy here. Who was he, this Chinese man who succumbed to a lonely death on the streets of Wapping over 150 years ago.? Did anyone, anywhere, mourn his end? I would like to think that there was someone, but this terse and unforgiving statement in the 1861 annual report of the St George-in-the-East Vestry is probably the only evidence - and faint at that - that he ever lived upon this earth. Without it, he would have gone down in utter silence. A sobering thought indeed.

Saturday, 27 February 2021

Natural History in the Middle of London

 'What's hit is history, what's missed is mystery.'

A rather gnomic comment, unless you are a birdwatcher who knows something of the history of their hobby. For rather than the simple, unalloyed pleasure of watching birds, your Victorian/Edwardian naturalist seems to have felt that his day (and it was inevitably a he, of course) was not complete without having shot a number of the objects of his study out of the sky.

The phrase immediately came to mind while poking about in the stacks of Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (where I am lucky enough - still - to work part-time) when I chanced upon L/SMB/E/5/2, the accessions book of the Stepney Borough Museum covering 1904-1933. An unremarkable volume perhaps, but I couldn't resist a peek and there under 15 May 1911 was confirmation that the Museum paid four shillings and took receipt of two specimens of the Blue-headed Wagtail (Motacilla flava flava)! These unfortunate Motacillas had been shot by one R. M. Presland at Walthamstow (Marshes, presumably) in August 1910, along with a Grey Wagtail (what did the man have against Wagtails I wonder). I immediately took against this Presland character, forming a mental picture of a mustachioed, trigger-happy oaf in tweeds, apt to blast away indiscriminately at anything that came in range. My dislike increased when I saw, with incredulity, that Presland also sold the Museum other specimens: a Red-backed Shrike, a Little Stint, a Brown Owl - a Tawny Owl presumably - a Blackcap and a Tree Pipit, the latter purchased for six old pence!

But personal dislike of this hitherto obscure historical character aside, a couple of points are worth making about this archival curio; firstly, who would have thought that the collections at THLHLA, with their overwhelmingly urban bias, would have furnished us with such a fascinating nugget of natural history. And secondly, were these specimens really Blue-headed Wagtails -  a pretty rare bird I thought, and the Wagtails are easily confused. 

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Fake News 1662-Style

Found and copied - word for word - from CO 5/1380: Acts passed by the Virginia Legislature 1662-1715

23 March 1662: [Act] XCI

Divulgers of False News

Whereas many idle and busy-headed people do forge and divulge false rumours and reports, to the great disturbance of the peace of His Majesty’s liege people in this colony [Virginia]: be it enacted, that what person or persons soever shall forge or divulge any such false reports, tending to the trouble of the country, he shall be, by the next Justice of the Peace, sent for, and bound over to the next County Court; where, if he produce not his author, he shall be fined two thousand pounds of tobacco, or less, (if the Court think fit to lessen it) and besides, give bond for his behaviour, if it appear to the Court, that he did maliciously publish, or invent it.

I would not have believed this had I not read it, and would have dismissed it as fake news about fake news...

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Medical woes, but then again maybe not

Things medical have been uppermost in everyone's mind for most of 2020, and it will doubtless continue this way for many months to come. It has been a grim period, but I've got off lightly and whenever I get to moping about how I haven't been able to go to the pub or a gig (shame about the Las Kellies show at the Shacklewell Arms on 26 March being cancelled, but there we are) I force myself to read again the following document, which I happened across at TNA shortly before lockdown.

SP 78/100/102 f. 331

Viscount Scudamore to Sir John Coke, Paris, 18/28 April 1636

Sir Francis Crane was cutt this morning. Within an hour after, the stone was brought to mee. It is almost as big as an ordinarie hen-egg; & of that shape; & rough well neere all over. Hee went to it cheerfully, & so endured it. They were not in the operation longer than you may judge I have been writing thus farre. Some 7 hours after I sent to congratulate wth him. And then he spake heartie, & said hee had lived now so many houres, meaning that his freedom from his former payne made him think his present being different as life & that wch is not life or worse. But when the urine passeth through the wound his payne is great. In a word, Mr Davison thinks him as well as could bee expected hee should bee now.

Enough to make you shudder; the modern world may be a cesspool and getting worse, but at least we - or at least some of us - have medicine (for the time being).

(Poor Sir Francis's ordeal was all in vain - he died from gangrene on 26 June.)   

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

London American Civil War Veterans

A remarkable - to me at least - snippet of information emerges from the murky pages of the South London Press, 16 May 1919, in the form of a short report on a meeting of the London Association of American Civil War Veterans, held at the Bermondsey Ragged School, Gedling Street. Salient details as follows:

  • Colonel Bevington, treasurer of the Association, provided tea, while Mr F. W. Smith, secretary, took the chair (Mr Ambrose Pomeroy JP, the vice-president, was unable to attend). The business before the meeting included arrangements for decoration day and also organising a visit Windsor.

Of course a quick search of Google reveals that those in the know have long known about this Association, but its existence came as a surprise to me; hopefully this fragment will add a little more to the scholarly knowledge about the organisation. (And it goes to show, yet again, that if you really want to drill down through the layers of historical sediment forget The Times etc. and go for the local press - much more interesting and useful.)