Apr 172015

awawIn my recent blog-post I gave examples of how my ancestor Richard Hall kept an aide memoire listing words which were pronounced differently from the way they might otherwise be expected to be pronounced – and one such word was ‘toilet’. My ancestor made sure that he remembered to call it ‘twaylet’ – or even ‘twilight’, in recognition of the word’s French origin. And of course it had nothing at all to do with going to the loo. Your toilet was an important part of the way you presented yourself to the world – how you dressed and powdered your wig, how you put on your make up, and so on.

aqaqaqSo I thought I would have a look at James Gillray’s print, published by his ‘other half’ Hannah Humphrey in 1810. It is called ‘Progress of the Toilet – The Stays’ and is interesting because of the detail it shows of a lady’s dressing room. Note the  heavy gold-edged red drapes in front of the window, lined with tassels. There is a patterned carpet, the walls are covered with eau de nil wall-paper  and a  small hanging book-case has curtained glass doors. There is a picture of a woman walking across a landscape, with a cloak draping her shoulders, inscribed ‘Morning’. The furniture is rich and delicate – a console table in the background supports a jug of roses; there is a matching trio of chairs, the one in the foreground supporting two blue boxes presumably containing toilet perquisites. The dressing table appears to be swathed in material – who says that it was the Victorians who first covered the legs of their tables? In the foreground Gillray shows a jug and ewer, essential to  a quick wash of the face before the make-up is applied, and the top of the dressing table has an interesting array of goodies, from perfume bottles marked ‘Milk of Roses’ and ‘Esprit de Lavande’ to a mask used at a masquerade, a rosary, and a pin-cushion. There is a ticket to a masquerade in Argyll Street, which was a fashionable area for professionals such as architects and prominent doctors, leading off Oxford Street. A lap dog admires its reflection in the swing mirror which sits atop the table.

The two people in the picture consist of the maid and her mistress, who is being helped into her pair of stays. M’lady is sporting a fine pair of white knickerbockers, and wears a pair of silk stockings embroidered with delicate ‘clocks’ which my hosier-ancestor would have been proud of. She is holding a wooden ‘ruler’ * down her front while the maid tightens the lacing up the back of the stays. Presumably the ruler was intended to make sure the lacing was tightened evenly, to give the best silhouette, while ensuring that a sufficient decolletage is left on display. After all, if you had it, why not flaunt it? Half a boob is reflected in the mirror…The stays themselves are long – level with the base of M’lady’s posterior. Both women wear boudoir caps.

The print appears courtesy of the Lewis Walpole site here and is one of a number of similar depictions of a maidservant lacing up a pair of stays.

aqawaqawA rather more political comment was made by Gillray in 1793 with his ‘Fashion before ease – or – a good constitution sacrificed, for a fantastick form.’ It shows the political activist and reformer Thomas Paine (as in ‘Rights of Man’), red-faced and wearing a tri-colour cockade on his bonnet rouge. He sports the blue and buff favoured by the Whig supporters of Charles James Fox (they had adopted it because it was the colour of the uniforms in Washington’s army – a colour combination which therefore became associated with rebellion and constitutional change). The sign on the corner of the thatched cottage behind Paine reads: ‘Thomas Pain, Stay-maker from Thetford. Paris Modes, by express.’ The words ‘Rights of Man’ appear from a ribbon hanging from Paine’s back pocket, and he seems to be grimly determined to force Britannia into the shape (ie constitution) he is seeking to impose on her. Gillray is stating that Paine’s views are those of the French revolutionaries, and do not fit this side of the Channel. Indeed Britannia looks somewhat uncomfortable, as Paine puts his boot into it, as she braces herself against an oak tree. On the ground lies her spear and an olive branch, and her ornate shield rests against the side of the tree.

The print came out on 2 January 1793, less than three weeks before Louis XVI was dragged off to the guillotine, and only a month before France declared war on Great Britain and the Dutch Republic. As with the first set of stays, the print was published by Hannah Humphreys and likewise is on the Lewis Walpole site, shown here.


*My thanks to Isobel Carr for pointing out that the ‘ruler’ is in fact a busk, a normal part of all corsets. I learn something new every day…


(Post script: I will be taking a pause from blogging for the next three weeks as I am on a lecture tour on  the MS Braemar and I rather expect that I will have limited wi-fi access and therefore unable to deal with comments – or my own inevitable spelling mistakes – until I get back. See you 7th May!).

Apr 152015

Today I am delighted to offer a guest blog-spot to author David Ebsworth, who brought out a fascinating book earlier this year entitled The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour. Over to you David!


a4 Ebsworth1“They say that, on the day after the battle, you couldn’t find a pair of pliers for love nor money. Not for fifty miles around. The new fashion – in London, Paris, Berlin and St. Petersburg – was for dentures fitted with real teeth.

Waterloo teeth

Waterloo teeth

And there, on those few square miles of Belgian soil, lay no less than 50,000 potential donors, most of them dead, the rest so close to it that it didn’t much matter. And it wasn’t just the nature of dentistry that changed in June 1815. The battles fought in Belgium over those few brief days brought an end to 22 years of almost continuous fighting between the European powers in what had been, effectively, the first “world war” – and historians estimate that as many as 7,000,000 military and civilian casualties occurred between 1804 and 1815 alone. Until 1917, this was known as “The Great War.”

a6 Panorama2Those battles also brought an end to that military rivalry between Britain and France which had flared so violently and plagued each of the six centuries since the Anglo-French War of 1202-14.

From now on, France would be our ally in all subsequent conflicts – the beginning of a new and more modern Europe in which Germany and Italy would be born, and the seeds of social democratic government would slowly begin to replace the despotism of the old Royal Houses. It’s a process that’s still evolving, of course. But many other things remained entirely unchanged. International banking continues to fund all sides in current conflict, exactly as they did in 1815. The arms industry is still the main beneficiary of warfare, exactly as it was in 1815. And regardless of the original spark, which may ignite the bonfires of war, it has generally been international banking and the arms industry that have fanned the flames and kept the bonfires burning.

a 1 Bonaparte1So, with this in mind, and the bicentenary of Waterloo coming up, I began to think how I might tell the story from a slightly different perspective.   As usual, I began by looking at the controversies.

Was victory at Waterloo

(a) won by the brilliance of Wellington and the resolute steadiness of his British infantry,  or

(b) truly threatened by the alleged cowardice of his Dutch and Belgian contingents, or

(c) snatched from the jaws of an ignominious British defeat by the timely arrival of Wellington’s dogged Prussian allies, or

(d) simply thrown away, against all the odds, by the French.

You’ll find whole battalions of eminent historians, this year, fighting their own battles, for and against each of these viewpoints.

a5 Catherine Baland at ChiclanaAnd then there were the legends – none striking me so hard as the tale of Charles Napier (95th Rifles) and the broken body of a beautiful female French cavalry trooper he discovered among the thickest of Bonaparte’s dead. It was this tale that set me on the path of researching the many feisty women who fought, in their own right, in their own way, in the French front lines.

By the time I’d finished that research, I knew what I didn’t want to write. Not yet another “boy’s own adventure” story of Waterloo. Not another one-sided account that failed to recognize the battlefield fever and frenzy, the heroism, that gripped British, Dutch-Belgian, Prussian and French alike – nor to at least acknowledge that all the protagonists genuinely believed they were “on the right side.” Hindsight, and the pen of the victors, might have shaped the way we’ve been taught about Waterloo over the past 200 years but, on the day, among the French ranks, it all looked very different indeed!

So I became a bit fixated on some little-known and often forgotten issues.  First, Napoleon faced two very powerful armies, not one – and each of those armies was numerically as strong as his own.  By the time of Waterloo itself, over the previous three days, the French had already fought two major battles and several smaller ones. The French army, and its commanders, had slept little over those few days. By the end of the battle, many French Divisions, almost a third of Bonaparte’s total force, had still not fired a shot nor been engaged. For at least half the battle, a relatively small number of French soldiers held off wave after wave of Prussians trying to come to Wellington’s rescue – in some of the bloodiest fighting which those taking part had ever seen.

And, for most of the battle, Bonaparte – either by choice or through illness – was not even present on the field.

The result of all this has been The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour – a tale of Waterloo told from the viewpoint of two French women participants. But is this Napoleonic chicklit? Definitely not. This is a very traditional action story, and will hopefully appeal to all readers of historical fiction. Somebody’s said that the novel’s perhaps akin to Thomas Keneally’s The Daughters of Mars and, if so, that’s a great compliment.

But I’ll leave readers to make up their own minds!”




David has published three previous novels: The Jacobites’ Apprentice, Finalist in the Historical Novel Society’s 2014 Indie Award; The Assassin’s Mark, set during the Spanish Civil War; and The Kraals of Ulundi: A Novel of the Zulu War. Each of these books has been the recipient of the coveted B.R.A.G. Medallion for independent authors.


Thanks for that, David. More details of David’s work are available on his website here. The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour was published on 1st January and is available through all normal outlets.

Apr 142015

I blogged a few years back on the way that my ancestor Richard Hall wrote down words where the spelling and the pronunciation differed. I thought  that readers might be interested in seeing the original hand-written list of ‘awkward words’ rather than my summary, so here goes:

words 1 001words 2 001words 3 001words 4 001words 5 001   Some of the items are a surprise – such as adding an ‘h’ to artichoke, and calling a ‘cucumber’ a ‘cowcumber’. I have not come across anyone pronouncing ‘swoon’ as ‘sound’  and with his ‘amuns’ for ‘almonds’ and  his ‘fardons’ for ‘farthings’, and his ‘twaylet’ for ‘toilet’, he does sound just a little bit precious!

But perhaps I am looking at things from the wrong end of the telescope: I have a sneaking feeling that Richard Hall would reckon that his great great great great grandson was a tad common…

To end with, I am reminded that when I was researching for my book on Philip Astley I came across the story of how he was teased because he was always unsure about adding an ‘h’ before any word starting with an ‘a’. So, “Hannibal’s army had hardly any armour” would come out as “Annibal’s harmy ad ardly hany harmour”. Poor Philip – and should that make him ‘Philip Hastley’?

Apr 102015

a volcanoToday marks the two hundredth anniversary of the explosion of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (now, Indonesia) – an  event which caused catastrophic damage not just in the Far  East, but to weather patterns throughout the globe. It led to what has been termed ‘the year without a summer’; to countless deaths and starvation; to crop failures world-wide   – and to the most glorious sunsets, inspiring artists like Turner to experiment with ever-bolder use of colours to try and capture Nature’s glory.

Sir Stamford Raffles

Sir Stamford Raffles

The first sign that a catastrophic event was about to unfold was on 5 April 1815, when thunderous explosions were heard upwards of eight hundred miles away. They were noted by Sir Stamford Raffles (the man who went on to found Singapore, and who gave his name to Raffles Hotel) and apparently  five days later ‘a sound like distant gunfire’ was detected on Sumatra, some sixteen hundred miles away. This incredible noise was followed by a massive explosion, estimated as being four times more powerful than Krakatoa, as Mount Tambora blew itself to pieces. Ash, rock, pumice and a pyroclastic flow swept down to the sea on all sides of the mountain , killing tens of thousands of islanders. A tsunami followed, causing more devastation, destroying homes and crops, and resulting in mass starvation throughout the Dutch East Indies.

What the explosion also did was to pump thousands of tons of sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, where the jet stream dispersed the gas over all parts of the globe. Fogs were commonplace, and snow fell in unseasonable times of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, as temperatures plunged. In India the monsoon pattern was disrupted not just that year, but for the three following years. Again, this led to crop failures, starvation, and innumerable deaths from lung disease.

This global phenomenon was called all sorts of different things at the time – from  ‘the year without a summer’  to ‘the Poverty Year’, ‘The Summer that never was’ and the rather evocative ‘Eighteen hundred and Froze to Death.’ In Europe, the drop in temperatures led to the failure of wheat and potato harvests. Mass starvation followed, with the worst famine of the whole of the nineteenth century. Food riots broke out, grain stores were looted – and beggars filled the streets. Widespread flooding followed the heavy rainfalls produced by the abnormal climatic conditions, leading in turn to typhoid and cholera outbreaks spread by contaminated water.

For several decades the dust in the atmosphere gave rise to splendidly-coloured sunsets, captured by Turner throughout the 1820’s and 1830’s, as in these two:

J.M.W. Turner's 'Sunset over a Lake'

J.M.W. Turner’s ‘Sunset over a Lake’

Turner 's 'Sunset' from 1830-5

Turner ‘s ‘Sunset’ from 1830-5

(The picture at the start of this blog of the volcano erupting is actually of Vesuvius, by Joseph Wright of Derby, not of Mt Tambora; but then, Wright never saw Vesuvius erupting (it was dormant when he visited it) so I am using his imaginary view to represent Tambora. It appears courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California).

Apr 022015

CasanovaGiacomo Girolamo Casanova was born on 2 April 1725 in the Republic of Venice, and later went under the title of the ‘Chevalier de Seingalt.’He  visited Britain in 1763 and had some interesting things to say about the country, its customs, and its women. There was rather more to him than just being a randy old rake – he was a polymath, an intellectual, a man who invented a national lottery system for the French, was a writer of mathematical works, an astrologer and a spy. He also translated The Iliad into his native Venetian dialect and wrote a science fiction novel. And in between all that, he seduced a large number of apparently very willing and happy ladies…

Towards the end of his life, when he was employed as a librarian in a remote castle in Bohemia, he wrote his autobiography covering the first 49 years of his life, entitled ‘The Story of my life by Jacques Casanova de Seingalt’. Of the English he says: ‘the people have a special character, common to the whole nation, which makes them think they are superior to everyone else. It is a belief shared by all nations, each thinking itself the best. And they are all right.’

Arriving in London he quickly found lodgings (‘Thus in less than two hours I was comfortably settled in a town which is sometimes described as a chaos, especially for a stranger. But in London everything is easy to him who has money and is not afraid of spending it’)’

Of English life he wrote ‘there is no playing cards or singing on Sundays. The town abounds in spies, and if they have reason to suppose that there is any gaming or music going on, they watch for their opportunity, slip into the house, and arrest all the bad Christians, who are diverting themselves in a manner which is thought innocent enough in any other country. But to make up for this severity the Englishman may go in perfect liberty to the tavern or the brothel, and sanctify the Sabbath as he pleases.’

When he came to London the problem was that he did not speak English – and the whores did not speak Italian or French. He got a friend to translate a notice which he put up in his window, advertising the availability of rooms to let in the house he had rented, to a young lady. The actual wording was “The landlord of the second and third floors probably occupies the first floor himself. He must be a man of the world and of good taste, for he wants a young and pretty lodger; and as he forbids her to receive visits, he will have to keep her company himself.”

The Press got wind of the notice and guessed the reason behind the proviso against having any visitors – he intended to monopolize the young lady himself, and it was not so much a ‘room to let’ as an offer of employment. Casanova was amazed that the Press should write so freely and so openly: ‘Such matters as these’ [ie gossiping about the notice he had put up offering accommodation and speculating as to his intentions] ‘give their chief interest to the English newspapers. They are allowed to gossip about everything, and the writers have the knack of making the merest trifles seem amusing. Happy is the nation where anything may be written and anything said!’

The advertisement worked – a girl he called ‘Mistress Pauline’ responded, was interviewed, and ‘got the job’. True to form, they became lovers, but never on an exclusive basis.

A Victorian print showing Casanova blowing up condoms

A Victorian print showing Casanova blowing up condoms

Casanova was to write: ’I also visited the bagnios where a rich man can sup, bathe, and sleep with a fashionable courtezan, of which species there are many in London. It makes a magnificent debauch and only costs six guineas. The expense may be reduced to a hundred francs, but economy in pleasure is not to my taste.’

On another occasion he describes an unsatisfying and expensive encounter with a prostitute: “It was one evening when I was at Vauxhall, and I offered her twenty guineas if she would come and take a little walk with me in a dark alley.  She said she would come if I gave her the money in advance, which I was fool enough to do.  She went with me, but as soon as we were alone she ran away, and I could not catch her again, though I looked for her all the evening.”

He does not appear to have been a great admirer of English food and drink, writing: ‘One day I was invited by a younger son of the Duke of Bedford to eat oysters and drink a bottle of champagne. I accepted the invitation, and he ordered the oysters and the champagne, but we drank two bottles, and he made me pay half the price of the second bottle. Such are manners on the other side of the Channel. People laughed in my face when I said that I did not care to dine at a tavern as I could not get any soup. “Are you ill?” they said, “soup is only fit for invalids.”

‘The Englishman is entirely carnivorous. He eats very little bread, and calls himself economical because he spares himself the expense of soup and dessert, which circumstance made me remark that an English dinner is like eternity: it has no beginning and no end. Soup is considered very extravagant, as the very servants refuse to eat the meat from which it has been made. They say it is only fit to give to dogs. The salt beef which they use is certainly excellent. I cannot say the same for their beer, which was so bitter that I could not drink it.’

But time and a dissolute lifestyle was beginning to take its toll on the middle-aged libertine. At the age of 38 he met and fell for the charms of a lovely seventeen-year-old London courtesan named Marie Anne Genevieve Augspurgher, known as La Charpillon. She toyed with him for some weeks and then rejected him. (He later wrote in his Memoirs: ‘It was on that fatal day…that I began to die.’) Other rejections followed. Worse, he caught a dose of the clap and left Britain to resume his European travels, feeling decidedly under the weather and much poorer than when he arrived. His memoirs, entitled ‘The Story of my Life’, remain as one of the great autobiographies of all time. As Casanova put it: “Worthy or not, my life is my subject, and my subject is my life.”

I am delighted to say that the old roué gets a mention in my forthcoming book “Sex Scandal and Satire – in bed with the Georgians” and this blog is an extract from it, just to whet your appetite!


Apr 012015

I wonder: when my ancestor Richard Hall was entering in his diary for 1st April 1764 that there had been an eclipse of the sun, did he pause to consider what earth-shattering events might be happening around the globe at that time? If so, it is a fair assumption that he would never have envisaged that in a stables owned by the Duke of Cumberland a just-born chestnut stallion would go on to revolutionize the world of horse racing. It is incredible to think that the genetics of 95% of the world’s race horses can ALL trace ancestry back to that one horse.

Eclipse by George Stubbs

Needless to say, the horse was christened ‘Eclipse’ after the auspicious events of the day of his birth, and he went on to beat the very best of the best – and in such a manner that he was retired early from racing because there were no rivals worth betting on. The manner of his victories – and there were  18 wins from 18 starts – were so convincing that the competition just gave up.

By all accounts the foal was not much of a looker. He only ever grew to 15.2 hands, and exhibited a nasty disposition. He also had a curious style of running, with his nose close to the ground. The Duke didn’t want to keep the yearling, and sold it on to one William Wildman, a local meat salesman and follower of turf racing. Fortunately for the future of racing worldwide, Wildman decided not to geld the wayward creature (a customary measure to curb wild spirits) and instead ordered his jockey to work the horse more-or-less into the ground. Well, it certainly seemed to make him run hard, but the harder he ran the more frisky and hard to control he became. This was never going to be a horse which gave an easy ride to victory…

Up until 1786 there were a grueling series of heats, over four miles, all held on the day of the main race. Horses would therefore need to be able to race as much as twelve miles in a day and hence were not submitted to race until they were around five years old. And so it was that Eclipse went in for the first heat of a race on Epsom Downs, on 3rd May 1769.

The blaze-faced chestnut trounced the rest of the field in the heat, so impressing an Irish punter, serial womaniser and card-sharp by the name of Dennis O’Kelly that he proclaimed that he could name not just the winner but the place of all the runners in the main race. When challenged he replied ‘Eclipse first, the rest nowhere’ (In those days if a horse won by a margin of over 240 yards the field were described as ‘finishing nowhere’). So it proved to be – the rest of the field were left in his majestic wake.

O’Kelly watched the next appearance of Eclipse, at Ascot. It was another procession. He persuaded the owner (Wildman) to sell him a half interest in the horse for 650 guineas and indeed in 1770 bought out the remaining half share for 1100 guineas – O’Kelly got himself a horse which wiped the board, winning a dozen King’s plates. The handicap system of weighting just did not seem to work – the horse was carrying twelve stone and still beat every single one of the opposition by a margin of over 200 yards in every single race he competed in. This was not good for English racing – races were supposed to be competitive, not a mere procession. And so O’Kelly retired the horse as a seven year old after only three seasons, and boy must he have been glad that the stallion was still ‘intact’ and able to do the business in stud! At fifty guineas a time the horse made O’Kelly a fortune – small wonder since 344 of his issue went on to win races. The progeny proved to be ‘light-fleshed and easily trained’. Not only did his male heirs inherit the winning streak, but the mares which he produced turned out to be excellent breeding stock. Poor old Eclipse, he was to end his days totally ‘shagged out’ after being carted round the countryside from mare to mare in the country’s first ever horsebox. What an indignity – a fine horse reduced to being towed around by lesser animals!

Eclipse died aged 24 in 1789, a year after his owner. O’Kelly was a rogue who, thanks to money from Eclipse, attained a measure of respectability which he did not deserve. He suffered greatly from gout and was significantly overweight. The poor chap ended his days on a strict regime – not being allowed to drink more than a pint a day. Of wine that is.

It is inconceivable that Richard would not have known about the horse, for he was as familiar a name as Red Rum, Arkle and Desert Orchid to a more modern generation. The public clamoured for mementos, and unscrupulous parties were happy to oblige.                            Painting by Francis Sartorius: ‘Eclipse’ dated 1776, courtesy of www.atkinsongrimshaw.org

Judging by the number of ‘genuine hooves from Eclipse’ the horse had at least five legs. Indeed there are believed to have been six skeletons masquerading as the real thing. One of them is apparently to be found at the Royal Veterinary College in Cambridgeshire. His heart was weighed and  pronounced to be five pounds heavier than average, and ‘scientists’ scrabbled to write papers explaining his phenomenal speed.

Perhaps the expression ‘Eclipse first, the rest nowhere’ is sufficient to remember him by, for the phrase is still used to this day, both in the UK and America, to describe an overwhelmingly convincing victory. Many happy returns of the day, Eclipse!