Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

19 December 2014

The Poisoned Mince Pie

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Here’s a cheery tale from the British Library collections to entertain you as you tuck into tasty seasonal fare.  A Romance of a Mince Pie involves a pastry cook, a dog, and some arsenic.

Travel back with us to Victorian England, to the town of Forty Winks.  In the High Street lived pastry cook and confectioner John Chirrup and his niece Pattie.  John was a popular man ‘of easy and festive disposition’ and ‘merry good-heartedness’, famed for his Christmas mince pies.  

  Poisoned mince pie 1
Illustration by Phiz for A Romance of a Mince Pie    Noc

Next door lived ‘snarling, sulky, ill-tempered’ Snitch and his vicious dog Angel.  Angel’s  howling kept John Chirrup awake at night, so grocer Bob Tanks suggested that Chirrup should feed Angel a mince pie made especially for him: ‘There is some things - as a dog don’t bark arter eating them -’. 

Poisoned mince pie 2
Illustration by Phiz for A Romance of a Mince Pie  Noc

So Chirrup ‘bent his furtive way’ to the local druggist and bought some arsenic, claiming it was needed to kill rats.  Returning home, he sprinkled arsenic into a mince pie, spurred on by the sight of Angel biting young Tommy Sawyer. 

Poisoned mince pie 3
Illustration by Phiz for A Romance of a Mince Pie   Noc

Chirrup was about to lock away the pie when he was distracted by Pattie and left the shop. Returning, he was horrified to glimpse a hungry boy running away with the poisoned pie.  Chirrup ‘was not given to gymnastics, but he vaulted into the public part of the shop, and rushed into the street’.   

Poisoned mince pie 4
 Illustration by Phiz for A Romance of a Mince Pie   Noc

However Chirrup lost sight of the thief.  He was convinced that he was culpable of murder and wrote a confession note before attempting suicide by jumping into Drowned Man’s Hole. Luckily he was saved by some fishermen.

 Poisoned mince pie 5
Illustration by Phiz for A Romance of a Mince Pie   Noc

Meanwhile Snitch had come across the mince pie thief ‘in the act of opening a pair of pretty capacious jaws for the first bite’. Snitch grabbed the pie and the boy ran off pursued by Angel ‘who always followed any retreating object with cannibalistic designs’.

Soon afterwards Snitch found Chirrup’s confession and had the pastry cook arrested. Wild rumours swept through Forty Winks as to how many people Chirrup had poisoned.  After a few hours ‘it was announced on good grounds that the confectioner had entered into a contract with a wholesale London chemist for regular supplies of arsenic and prussic acid’.  

Poisoned mince pie 6
Illustration by Phiz for A Romance of a Mince Pie   Noc

Pattie suddenly realised that no-one had actually named her uncle’s victim. Who was dead? The mayor went to the prison to ask Chirrup. Then Mrs Groats, the baker’s wife, found Angel dead after Snitch had fed the poisoned pie to his dog. She realised what must have happened and explained this to the townsfolk. The mayor said he was glad that the troublesome Angel was dead and immediately freed Chirrup.

And there our story ends.  Still planning to reach for that second mince pie?


Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records  Cc-by

For the full story, see- Angus Bethune Reach, A Romance of a Mince Pie (London, 1848) with illustrations by Phiz


17 December 2014

Santa Claus’s coming to Britain

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The modern Santa Claus originated in the New York area where he evolved from Dutch gift traditions surrounding St Nicholas.  His name, spelt Sancte Claus, first appeared in print in a poem in the New York Spectator in 1810.

But it was another poem that helped spread his fame.  What became known as Twas the Night before Christmas was probably written by Clement Clarke Moore and quickly became popular after being published anonymously in 1823.  Although it refers to him as St Nicholas rather than Santa Claus, the poem helped fix the idea that he was a plump, jovial figure with a sleigh and reindeer.

The first mention of Santa Claus in the British Library’s British Newspaper Archive comes from Wick in Scotland in 1852, where children told a reporter that he filled the stockings they hung by the fireplace with presents. 

Santa Claus’s first appearance in British print culture? John O’Groat Journal, 9 January 1852 British Newspaper Archive  

But how Santa made his way across the Atlantic and then established himself in Britain is unclear. His tale may have spread via the letters home of those who had emigrated to the States.  Some may have enquired after the meaning of the American ship Santa Claus that visited England in the early 1850s or the 1860s' racehorse of the same name.  British newspapers reproduced Moore’s poem a number of times from as early as 1855. 

Books also played their part in spreading his fame and encouraging children to hang stockings. In 1853 an American short story by Susan Warner entitled ‘The Christmas Stocking’ was published in London. It was performed at penny readings, and at least five editions of it were published in Britain in the next three years.

His trip across the Atlantic did not leave Santa Claus unchanged. In Scotland, his gift deliveries were often made at Hogmanay.  Most importantly, he often found himself merged with Father Christmas, an unruly and sometimes even debauched figure who had long since symbolised festive celebrations in England.  The two names quickly became interchangeable but Santa Claus was the most commonly used, perhaps until as late as the 1950s when the middle classes became more sensitive about the Americanisation of popular culture.

Shops adopted Santa Claus and used him to sell their festive wares and by the 1890s it was possible to visit him in department stores.  Advertising, like storybooks and Christmas cards, also began to show people what he looked like.  Whereas in America he tended to wear a suit, in Victorian Britain he was usually depicted in a long robe. Nor was it always red, although that colour did predominate long before the interwar Coca-Cola advertisements that are sometimes thought to have changed his sartorial preferences.

Santa kh200411          Santa kh200412
Images Online © Collection IM/Harbin-Tapabor/British Library c.1907 & 1908 Noc

Santa was an ideal way to indulge the growing Victorian reverence for the innocence of childhood. It also had the practical benefit of helping control children’s behaviour.  The mix of commercial and cultural pressures meant that by the end of the 19th century a majority of middle-class families were playing along. So, too, were some working-class ones, although economics curtailed his visits to the poorest of society, causing consternation amongst their children.

Santa Claus’s Victorian journey from the USA to the heart of the British Christmas remains shrouded in some mystery. Newspaper digitisation is allowing that journey to be better charted.  Yet, undoubtedly, hidden in the millions of the British Library’s Victorian pages are further clues as to how he came to, as one 1931 writer put it, ‘reign all over Christendom as the King of Christmas’.

Martin Johnes
Reader in History, Swansea University 

Martin is currently writing a history of Christmas in Britain since 1914 and his previous publications include Wales Since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012).

Further reading:

Neil Armstrong, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century England (Manchester University Press, 2010)

Gerry Bowler, Santa Claus: A Biography (McClelland & Stewart, 2005)

15 December 2014

The talented Mr Fox Talbot Part 5 – Photoglyphic engraving

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In the last of this series on William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), I look at his development of photoglyphic engraving the forerunner of what we today know as photogravure. The photogravure process involves the printing of a photographic image onto paper with ink using a plate onto which the image has been etched.

Talbot started his photoglyphic experiments primarily because he wanted to produce a photographic image which was not subject to fading as sometimes happened with his Calotype photographs. There had already been limited experiments with printing photographic images. As early as 1826, the Frenchman, Nicéphore (Joseph) Niépce (1765-1833) developed a process called héliogravure and there were some attempts to use Daguerreotype plates, the work of Hippolyte Fizeau (1819-1896) in particular being noteworthy. In both cases the results were extremely variable. The primary problem with reproducing a photograph as a printed image was the reliable reproduction of the intermediate tonal areas on the plate (known as halftones). In order to overcome the technical issues Talbot initially sought advice from master-engraver George Barclay (b. 1802) and in later years received advice from Thomas Brooker (1813-1885) and William Banks (b. 1809).

 ‘Proposed method of transferring Photography to Steel Engraving’. (28 November, 1847). Early notes regarding photo-engraving. (Add MS 88942/1/350).  Noc

Talbot developed his process gradually taking out two patents, for photographic engraving (1852), and photoglyphic engraving (1858). It was this second patent that established the basis for photogravure. Talbot’s innovations included the use of potassium bichromate sensitized gelatin for fixing the photographic image to the plate and perhaps more importantly the use of a screen to enable the accurate reproduction of the halftone areas within an image. Both of these innovations are still used in non-digital reprographics today.

After encouragement from the editor William Crookes (1832-1921), Talbot allowed a series of his photoglyphic engravings to be published in Photographic News (22 October, 1858) although he used images by the French photographers Soulier and Clouzard, rather than his own. This increased public awareness of the process and drew praise from many people including Prince Albert (1819-1861). Talbot was asked to exhibit his work and won medals at the 1862 International Exhibition of London and at the 1865 Berlin International Photographic Exhibition.

One of two of Talbot’s photoglyphic engravings published posthumously in the second edition of Gaston Tissandier’s A History and Handbook of Photography (Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1878). (Add MS 88942/3/1/21). Noc

Unfortunately like many of his other ideas Talbot failed to develop photoglyphic engraving into a business and from 1865 he increasingly turned his attentions to Assyriology and mathematics instead. However Talbot’s work was instrumental in the development of the modern photogravure process, perfected by Karl Klíč in 1879 and still known to this day as the Talbot-Klič process.

 Image -5-3
Part of a letter, with examples of photoglyphic engraving, sent by Paul Dujardin to Charles Henry Talbot (William Henry Fox Talbot’s son) in 1880. In his letter Dujardin praises Talbot’s process as superior to others and laments the fact that his name is not more widely known. (Add MS 88942/2/173). Noc


Jonathan Pledge
Cataloguer, Historical Papers  Cc-by

Further reading on William Henry Fox Talbot:
William Henry Fox Talbot; Pioneer of Photography and Man of Science (Hutchinson Benham, 1977) by H. J. P. Arnold.
William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography (Yale University Press, 2013), ed. by Mirjam Brusius, Katrina Dean, and Chitra Ramalingam.