Untold lives blog

138 posts categorized "Domestic life"

05 November 2015

Smugging a Guy

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Guy Fawkes Day is traditionally celebrated in the UK on 5 November to mark the failure of the Gunpowder Plot against King James and his Parliament in 1605.  It was officially a public holiday of thanksgiving from 1606 until 1859. Effigies of conspirator Guy Fawkes are burnt on bonfires and fireworks are launched into the night sky.

Gangs of boys in 19th century London would prepare long in advance for the festivities.  Fuel for bonfires was acquired stealthily: raids were made on poorly nailed fences, deserted buildings with wooden floorboards, loose doors.  These ‘burnables’ were secreted where other collectors would not find them.  Next a Guy had to be assembled – a straw man clothed in an old coat, breeches and stockings.  A wooden head could be made from a barber’s block with a face drawn on with chalk and charcoal, topped by a stiff paper cap painted and knotted with paper ribbon strips. A lantern was placed in one hand and a spread bunch of matches in the other.  The Guy was then tied to a chair and carried through the streets, its owners running up to passers-by with a hat for coins exclaiming ‘Pray remember Guy!’ or ‘Penny for the Guy!’. 

  Guy Fawkes
The Fifth of November from William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825), column 1431-1432 Noc


If two Guys met in the street, a scuffle often broke out as each group tried to capture their rival’s effigy.  A gang who hadn’t made a Guy might acquire one by attacking a weaker group, a mission known as ‘going to smug a Guy’.

Humans could also fall victim to smugging  for a Guy as London cobbler William Smith discovered to his cost in November 1852. Smith was ‘on the drink’ celebrating his birthday with several other cobblers.  After visiting at least 20 different pubs, he and his friends ended up at a house near Seven Dials.  There they met four Irishmen: James Byrne, Patrick Hay, Joseph Cullen, and Robert Hogan.  Smith treated the Irishmen to four or more pots of ‘heavy’.  When they complained that the beer lay cold on their stomachs and asked to be bought gin, Smith refused.  The cobblers adjourned to a nearby beer shop and continued drinking.  The Irishmen followed. Cullen told Smith that they would smug him for a Guy for not buying them gin.  Smith thought he was joking and took no notice.  However as he left to go home, the four men pounced on him.  They tied his hands behind his back and placed him in a truck.  They then blacked his face, knocked his hat over his eyes, pinned some firecrackers to his coat, and dragged him into More Street.  There a crowd of more than 100 people watched as they set fire to the crackers to Smith’s great alarm.  After that, Smith was wheeled to a mud heap and pitched into the middle.  The Irishmen were caught by the police as they ran away.  They were tried for assault and fined 20s each or, in default, to seven days’ imprisonment.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)
British Newspaper ArchiveBell’s New Weekly Messenger 7 November 1852


31 October 2015

Nut-Crack Night

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Hot on the heels of Crack-Nut Sunday comes Nut-Crack Night! On 31 October, Hallowe’en, nuts are tossed into a fire to determine which couples should marry.

Fireside scene
From Sir Walter Scott, Marmion - Introduction to Canto VI (1887) British Library 11647.f.22 Noc

According to one British tradition, unmarried men and women each have a nut named after them.  Two nuts are then put into the fire: if they burn quietly together, the courtship will be smooth; if they jump apart, the wooing will be rocky.  Another tradition has young women testing their sweetheart's fidelity by placing named nuts on the bars of the fire grate.  If a nut cracks or jumps, the lover will prove unfaithful; if it burns or blazes, he has a true regard for the girl making the trial.

Two hazel-nuts I threw into the flame,
And to each nut I gave a sweet-heart's name.
This with the loudest bounce me sore amaz'd,
That in a flame of brightest colour blaz'd.
As blaz'd the nut, so may thy passion grow,
For 'twas thy nut that did so brightly glow.

From John Gay, ‘Thursday; Or, The Spell’ from The Shepherd's Week (1742)


An appealing alternative to Hallowe’en trick or treat and ghosts and ghouls?

From Charles Maurice Davies, Love Lyrics and Valentine Verses, for young and old (1875) British Library Noc


Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)
British Newspaper Archive


17 October 2015

The London Beer Flood 1814

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On 17 October 1814 catastrophe struck at Meux’s Brewery on Tottenham Court Road London.  Eight people lost their lives when a vat full of beer burst, releasing 3,555 barrels of liquid.  The shock demolished the brick wall of the brew-house which was 25 feet high and 22 inches deep and caused a substantial part of the roof to fall in.  The cock of the adjoining vat was broken and the contents poured out, adding to the flood of beer. 


  Beer barrels Noc

A brewery in happier times – image taken from George Cruikshank, The House that Jack built ... (London, 1853) shelfmark 11647.g.15


Those who died were named as:
Eleanor Cooper aged 14, servant to Richard Hawes of the Tavistock Arms, Great Russell Street
Mary Mulvey, a married woman aged 30, and her son Thomas Murry aged 3 by a former husband
Hannah Banfield aged 4
Sarah Baten aged 3
Ann Saville aged 60
Elizabeth Smith, a married woman aged 27
Catherine Butler, a widow aged 65

Richard Hawes gave evidence at the coroner’s inquest held on Wednesday19 October that he was in the tap room of the Tavistock Arms at 5.30pm on the previous Monday when he heard a crash. The back part of his house was beaten in and everything in his cellar destroyed. Beer was pouring into his pub and across the street.  Eleanor Cooper was in the yard washing pots and her body was dug out from the ruins nearly three hours later. She was found standing by the water butt.

One little girl lost her mother, brother and grandmother in the accident.  They were buried and suffocated in the kitchen of a house in New Street adjacent to the brew-house. She escaped because she had just been given permission to go out to play in the street.

Others suffered serious injuries: the brewery superintendent and one of the labourers were taken to Middlesex Hospital and were reported to be ‘in a dangerous way’. The coroner’s jury returned a verdict that the victims had met with their deaths ‘casually, accidentally, and by misfortune’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive - Nottingham Gazette 28 October 1814, Liverpool Mercury 28 October 1814


27 September 2015

Crack-Nut Sunday

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Today is Crack-Nut Sunday, the last Sunday before Michaelmas (29 September).  The name comes from an old English custom whereby the congregation took nuts with them to the parish church on this day and cracked them during the service.

It is said that the practice had its origin in the election of bailiffs and other members of the corporation on Michaelmas Day and the civic feast connected with this.  Young and old members of the congregation participated and the cracking noise often drowned out the words of the priest.


Image taken from Annals of the Parish and the Ayrshire Legatees ... Illustrated by C. E. BrockNoc


In 1907 a newspaper in New York State published an account by an American visitor who had attended a country church in the north of England on Crack-Nut Sunday.  He commented that the service ‘would have driven a New York preacher clean crazy’: ‘Nobody, no matter how pious he might be, hesitated to avail himself of the peculiar privilege granted him, and men, women and children came to church with their pockets stuffed with nuts, which they complacently cracked and munched during the sermon…It can be easily imagined that when forty or fifty people get to cracking nuts with all their might the noise is apt to be something terrific, and many times the minister was hard put to hear himself think’. The custom came to be looked upon as a nuisance but was suppressed with some difficulty ‘so firmly had the nut cracking fever taken hold of the fancy of the people’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
John Timbs, Something for everyone (1861)
The Kingston Daily Freeman 4 March 1907


03 September 2015

The Peter Rabbit Hotel

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As the school summer holidays draw to a close, we bring you a story about a hotel where all the guests were children.

The Peter Rabbit Hotel in St Anne’s-on Sea Lancashire placed newspaper advertisements in 1951 describing itself as a small first-class hotel for children only.  The daily rates were 1½ guineas for babies and 1 guinea for children over 2 years.  Fees increased at Christmas to 2½ and 2 guineas respectively. Permanent residence cost £260 per annum.  An article headlined ‘Storybook hotel has seesaw in the lounge’ appeared in the Yorkshire Evening Post on 14 May 1951.  The author was a young Keith Waterhouse, who started his career as a junior reporter in Leeds.

  Peter Rabbit Hotel

British Newspaper Archive  - Yorkshire Evening Post 14 May 1951. Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board. 


The hotel was the brainchild of Mary Hamilton, a nurse, and Mary Wilkinson, a teacher, who had found it difficult to find care for their children during working hours. Their daughters became the first residents at the Peter Rabbit Hotel.

Waterhouse noted that there were highchairs in the dining room, orange juice instead of gin and tonic, a nine-seater pram rather than a hotel bus, and a matron in place of a maître d’hotel. Children could stay for an hour or for a year, with a maximum of fifteen guests at a time. Girls between two weeks and twelve years were accepted, but the upper age limit for boys was seven years, ‘boys being more of a handful for the staff of two nurserymaids and two domestics’.

Each room was filled with toys and equipped with a toy telephone. The rooms were decorated and named after characters in Beatrix Potter books: Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddle-Duck, and the Flopsy Bunnies. Waterhouse wondered if there was a Fierce Bad Rabbit room for wayward guests, but Mrs Hamilton assured him that she could manage without this. Pollyanna, the specially-built nine-seater pram, was used to transport children back and forth to the hotel’s private beach, and was photographed at Euston Station London full of young guests bound for St Anne’s.

In early 1952 newspapers show a change of name to the Teddy Bear Hotel – a rights issue perhaps?  Advertisements for the newly-branded hotel continued until 1953 and then seem to stop.  Can any of our readers tell us what happened to Mrs Hamilton, Mrs Wilkinson, and Pollyanna?

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records


Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive – for example Yorkshire Evening Post 14 May 1951, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 13 April 1951 and 14 April 1953

Visit Animal Tales – a free British Library exhibition open until Sunday 1 November 2015





25 July 2015

Blessing cars and eating oysters

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Two saints are remembered on 25 July in the United Kingdom - St Christopher and St James.  A number of very different customs and traditions are associated with this day.

St Christopher, a 3rd century Christian martyr, is commonly represented by a figure carrying the child Jesus across a river. He is most often claimed as the patron saint of travellers, but he is also the patron saint of sports, with figures wrestling or fishing accompanying his picture. Both travellers and athletes wear medallions bearing an image of St Christopher for protection and good fortune.

  St Christopher

Image taken from Charles Knight, Pictorial Half-hours (1850) Noc


The link to travellers has prompted special church services to bless vehicles in honour of St Christopher’s Day.  In July 1932, there was a ceremony held on St Christopher’s Eve at St Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church in Nottingham.  Each member of the congregation was presented with a St Christopher medal and after the service Canon Parmentier went outside to bless cars, motorcycles, and bicycles belonging to the worshippers.  In 1950 the vicar of St Botolph’s in Northfleet Kent reported how he blessed all forms of transport outside his church on 25 July.

On St James’s Day it was the tradition for the rector of the parish of Cliff in Kent to distribute a mutton pie and a loaf to however many people demanded this bounty.  The day was celebrated in many counties with customs aimed at increasing the apple crop.  Prayers or verses were said in the orchards and the trees were sprinkled with holy water.  In Sussex young men performed the ceremony of ‘blowing the trees’. Cows’ horns were blown under the apple trees and each man took hold of a tree and recited verses.

25 July was also considered a milestone for hop growers. There is an old saying concerning the likelihood of a good crop:
Till St James’s Day is past and gone,
There may be hops, or there may be none.

Away from the countryside, St James’s Day was the first day on which oysters were brought into the London market, thus flouting the notion that they should only be eaten when there is an ‘r’ in the month.  There was a superstition that anyone eating the oysters on 25 July would have plenty of money throughout the rest of the year.

  Oysters kh128815
An oyster market in England -Denis Dighton (1821) ©Jean Vigne/Kharbine-Tapabor/British Library Board


So it’s time to drive your car or ride your bike to the nearest church before seeking out a plate of oysters. Happy St Christopher’s and St James’s Day!

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
John Timbs, Something for everybody (London, 1861)
British Newspaper Archive: Nottingham Evening Post 25 July 1932, Dundee Evening Telegraph 10 October 1950


07 July 2015

A bread and butter battle

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The lives of Indian industrial workers were described as ‘a bread and butter battle’ in an obituary for Sir Vithaldas D Thackersey in the Bombay Labour Gazette for August 1922. It evokes a pitiful struggle for survival but the obituary and other articles in the Labour Gazette reveal that at least some industrialists were moving towards reform. Honoured as one of Bombay’s foremost mill owners, Thackersey was said to have attached great importance to education for industrial workers.

  Labour Gazette heading
Labour Gazette (Bombay), 1921-22  

IOR/V/25/670/1    Noc

Statistics for Chaupati, a ‘better class’ area,  the ‘typical slum’ at Umerkhadi and the mill area of Parel show striking differences, with literacy being lowest in the mill area. The Chairman of the Bombay Mill Owners’ Association spoke at their annual meeting of the importance of education. ‘Most of our troubles economically and industrially can I think to a great degree be put down to illiteracy and the migratory habits of our workpeople, and education would help to solve our problem, but though much has been said about compulsory primary education, I am afraid Government are a long way off even making a commencement in this direction, so the social conditions of our employees must be improved by welfare work.’

Ginning Factory-India-1926
Female labourers in Ginning Factory, India, 1926 Images Online
Photo 703(22)   Noc

Health was studied in the same three Bombay districts as literacy and again there were striking differences, with respiratory illnesses unsurprisingly causing a much higher rate of mortality in the slum and mill districts than that experienced in the ‘better class’ area. Overcrowded housing was highlighted as a major cause of adult and infant mortality. The President’s address to a welfare conference in 1922 describes the infant mortality in the industrial towns as ‘almost heart-breaking’.

Infant mortality Oct 1921
Labour Gazette (Bombay), Oct 1921
IOR/V/25/670/1    Noc

The overcrowding in Bombay was certainly striking, as according to a note in the August 1922 edition, there was only one building for every 22.3 persons in Bombay city and in Ahmedabad for every 6.2 persons. Interestingly, the overcrowding in Bombay was described as ‘far worse’ than in London. Improving housing conditions in Bombay was a top priority for the Government and it was engaged in an ambitious construction programme to build 50,000 tenements which were expected to house 250,000 people, amounting to about one fifth of the population of Bombay City. It seems that slow steps were being taken to follow Lady Tata’s exhortation to ‘treat the working man and the working woman as human beings’. She urged that ‘It is the duty of employers to place them in such conditions of living, as will enable them to give of their best to the industry, in the service of their country, and it is the duty of the employees to take advantage of all the good things provided for them and to give of their best in return to their employers.’ Many good intentions were expressed and the extent of progress is no doubt documented in subsequent editions of the Labour Gazette which is crammed with information about welfare, wages, the cost of living, industrial disputes and all matters pertaining to employment.

Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records         Cc-by

Further reading IOR/V/25/670/1-34  Labour Gazette (Bombay) 1921-1956

Other blogs about working life:

Buffoons, ear-pickers and sherbet-sellers

A most depressing read

Honest and industrious – petitions to the East India Company

19 May 2015

Famous friends

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Do the names Michael Renshaw, Robert Ferns Waller, Ethel Ford, and Barbara Coombs mean anything to you?  If not, then you might be surprised to learn that the likes of Cecil Beaton, Clarissa and Anthony Eden, Ann Fleming (wife of Ian), T.S. Eliot, Henry James, and Ivon Hitchens were their friends and regular correspondents.  Four recently catalogued collections amongst the Library’s western manuscripts suggest that, at least in the early and mid-20th century, famous people did not mix only with other famous people.  So who were these less than household names, and how did they come to have such celebrated friends? 

Michael Renshaw, by the pool al Leeds Castle, late 1960s/early 1970s. Published with the permission of the Trustees of the Leeds Castle Foundation and Anthony Russell.

Renshaw was, for want of a better phrase, a society figure.  He did have a day job, advertising director of The Sunday Times, but he spent most of his time mixing with high society and going to, and hosting, fabulous parties.  His correspondence is a ‘who’s who’ of the arts, fashion, politics, and the aristocracy.  The letters he received from his famous friends are a rich source of information about their writers.  They also give fascinating insights into life during, and just after, World War II in England and north-west Europe, the Cyprus crisis, and British politics and society in the turbulent 1970s.

Robert Waller, mid-1950s. Published with the permission of Anne Baillie.

Waller was a BBC radio producer, poet, and an early leader of the environmental movement.  He was the private secretary to the literary reviewer and critic Desmond MacCarthy, a role which introduced Waller to a wide literary circle.  Within this circle was T.S. Eliot, who, over 20 years, wrote to Waller with advice on literary and personal matters.

Barbara Coombs, photographed by Ivon Hitchens, circa 1950. Published with the permission of Jonathan Clark Fine Art.

Coombs’s entré into artistic circles came about by the accident of birth.  Her eldest brother was Frank Coombs, painter, and manager of the Storran Gallery with Eardley Knollys.  Although Frank died in World War II it can be assumed that his connection with the art world was the source of Barbara's long friendship with Hitchens, with whom she corresponded for 30 years.  Coombs sat for Hitchens; photographs of his portraits are in her papers, along with photographs, by Hitchens, of Coombs and Mollie, Hitchens’s wife.

Ford met Henry James by way of a different type of coincidence.  In 1907, she and her husband, Francis, who had played cricket for England, bought a Georgian farmhouse in Wittersham, six miles from Rye, where James was living.  The Fords and James became acquainted through a mutual friend, an architect who advised both parties on renovations and alterations to their homes.  This chance encounter led to an eight year correspondence in which James writes of family and friends (particularly the du Mauriers), health matters, and daily life. 

The letters in these four collections are invaluable sources for those researching their writers, but given their unlikely recipients they go to show that sometimes the best, and most useful, information is not to be found in the most obvious places.

Michael St John-McAlister
Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager Cc-by

Further reading:
Rosalind Bleach, ed., Henry James's Waistcoat: Letters to Mrs Ford 1907-1915 (Settrington: Stone Trough Books, 2007).
British Library Add MS 71231, 89045, 89051, 89056, and 89068.
Philip Conford, ed., The Poet of Ecology: A Selection of Writings in Memory of Robert Waller (1913-2005) (Chichester: Norroy Press, 2008).
Michael St John-McAlister, 'Michael Renshaw: A Society Figure in War and Peace', Electronic British Library Journal