Sep 292015

130 September marks the launch of Volume II of a book called Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. It promises to be an extraordinarily eclectic mix  of stories, and there is going to be something in there for you whether your interest is in Saxon princes, or life in the Middle Ages,  or what it was like to be living in the Georgian era. The stories reflect the huge and varied research carried out by the fifty or so authors, and I am proud that a few of my stories are to be included.

Anyway, linked to the launch I thought I would do a post on customs. Given the time of year, it seemed appropriate for the custom to be linked to the end of September, and that means …. harvest suppers. In my recent blog on 26 September I mentioned that my ancestor William Snooke listed in his diary that he had attended a harvest supper. I can recall going to  these suppers when I was  a child, but I had always assumed that they were linked to the Church.  It turns out that this is a comparatively recent association – around 1843 – when the vicar in a Cornish parish church established a Thanksgiving Service and encouraged parishioners to turn up with  farm and garden produce to decorate the church. That would then be eaten afterwards.

1When I was living in a farming community on the Somerset levels I can remember  that Harvest Suppers were highly organized events, attended by just about the entire village, usually held in a big tent or marquee. Cue much drinking of Somerset Cider and general merriment… It was an opportunity for the community to come together and celebrate, and it was only when I acquired a son-in-law who is a farmer that I began to appreciate what a landmark the end of the harvest actually is. For the entire year there is not one penny coming in to the farmer’s coffers (well, apart from the odd grant from Brussels…) while the farmer is labouring away ploughing, spreading manure, planting, spraying and doing whatever else that farmers do. And then, after a crescendo of work concentrated into the short period of August and early September, the harvest comes in and whoopeeee they can then try and flog a mountain of seeds. Small wonder that there is a collective sigh of relief at a chance to sit down with friends and neighbours and compare stories of how their yields are bigger than anyone else’s, or how they judged the weather forecast more accurately than their neighbour did.

Harvest Moon, courtesy of

Harvest Moon, courtesy of

These harvest suppers were behind the tradition taken to the New World with the Pilgrim Fathers, who gave a thanksgiving supper in 1621 when the first harvest was successfully brought in. I assume that harvesting is a bit later along the East coast of America, hence the tradition of a November Thanksgiving Day. In Britain we don’t have a set date for the Harvest Supper, but it is generally held close to the Harvest Moon, which is the name given to the first full moon after the Autumn Equinox. A harvest moon was always popular with farmers, because it starts to rise in the East just as the sun is setting in the West. There was no period of total darkness, meaning that work could go on late into the evening. This year the Harvest Moon was visible on the nights of 27/28 September, and for anyone interested in super-moons, or why they appear orange through the thicker atmosphere of the earth’s horizon as the moon rises, see an article on the Earth-Sky site here.

From the "It was a work of  Craft" website

From the “It was a work of Craft” website

There were always interesting traditions linked to the end of the harvest, none more so than the view that it was bad luck to cut the final piece of corn. In some areas the harvesters would do the last bit, called the neck or mell, blindfolded. In other places the farm workers would hurl the scythe or sickle at the last few blades of wheat left standing, so that they were not in contact with the harbinger of ill-fortune at the time the last piece fell. In other areas of the country the gleaners would take home the last few pieces of corn, and then bend and fold them into corn dollies. These would hold the last few grains and, come the Spring, those grains would be the first to be sown. In other words: last out, first back in. There are some lovely examples of corn dollies and the like, here. Different areas of the country had different designs, from bells to crosses and dresses, but all had their roots in pagan idolatry.

So much for customs: for more on Castles Customs and Kings it is available on and at

The website for the regular blogs by the English Historical Fiction Authors can be found here.

(And the title “Shine on, Harvest Moon? It was written by vaudeville husband-and-wife team Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth, and was debuted by the  Ziegfeld Follies in 1908. In the ’30s it was the title of a western film, and in 1944 a biographical film about the lives of Bayes and Norworth used  it as the film’s  title.)

Sep 202015

I like this Clerical Alphabet from Richard Newton, showing a wonderful set of clerics illustrating the following verses :

A was archbishop, with a red face

B was a Bishop who longed for his place

C was a curate, a poor Sans Culotte

D was a Dean who refus’d him a Coat, Even grudg’d him small beer to moisten his throat.

F was a Fellow of Brazen-nose College

G was a graduate guileless of knowledge

H was a high-flying Priest had a call!

I was an Incumbent, did nothing at all

K was Kings Chaplain as pompous as Dodd

L was a Lecturer dull as a Clod

M was a Methodist Parson, stark Mad!

N was a Non Con and nearly as bad

O was an orator, stupid and sad.

P was a pluralist, ever a-craving.

Q a queer Parson at Pluralists raving.

R was a Rector at Prayers went to sleep.

S was his Shepherd who fleec’d all his sheep.

T was a Tutor, a dull Pedagogue

U was an Usher, delighted to flog

V was a vicar who smok’d and drank grog

W was a wretched Welch parson in rags

X stands for tenths, or tythes in the bags

Y was a Young Priest, the butt of Lay Wags

Z is a letter most people call Izzard, and I think what I’ve said will stick in their gizzard!

No, I am not sure what happened to the letter “E” (or “J” come to that) but the point is that the doggerel verse shows a healthy contempt for the whole pack of clergy – high or low, they were all attacked as being worthless. Richard Newton often pilloried the clergy, and made fun of their foibles, and he drew this alphabet in 1795, when he was just eighteen years old. Sadly, he was to die three years later, a brilliant caricaturist with a marvelous sense of humour, an immense talent who feared and respected no-one. I did a blog about him back in October 2012 and you can find the link here

As ever, I am grateful to the Lewis Walpole Library for the use of the image, which appears on their site here. If you visit it you can use the “zoomify” feature and examine all the figures in greater detail. I recommend it  – some of them are great fun!

Sep 142015
(c) Penrhyn Castle; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sir Samuel Pennant 1709 – 1750. Attributed to Isaac Seeman, and shown courtesy of the National Trust, it shows him wearing his badge  of office as Lord Mayor.

Spare a thought for the Old Bailey court officials in the  Eighteenth Century, for theirs was not always an easy or pleasant task. Look no further than the fate which befell the Lord Mayor of London, one Sir Samuel Pennant, in 1750. Along with Sir Thomas Abney, judge of the Common-Pleas, the under-sheriff, some of the counsel, several of the jury, and another fifty or so other court officials, dignitaries and dogsbodies – all met their death. Why? Because they caught typhus, which had spread from the adjoining prison, the notorious Newgate Gaol.

Typhus, generally known as gaol fever, killed far more prisoners in the Eighteenth century than were ever sentenced to death by the honourable judges. One report at the time suggested that a quarter of the prison population died of typhus, which was a bacteria spread through the bites of the lice and fleas which flourished in the unsanitary conditions of the prisons. Oh, and by the way, although ‘typhoid’ means ‘of or pertaining to typhus’ the disease of ‘typhoid’ has no connection with typhus. Different bacteria altogether….

Court of Sessions building, Old Bailey.

The Sessions House, Old Bailey.

It is not as if people were unaware of the link between the fetid unhygienic conditions in which prisoners were kept, and the fatal illness which thrived. Indeed when the Old Bailey buildings had been rebuilt after the Great Fire of London, a large part of the proceedings took place in the yard, open to all weathers. This was so that officials were not confined to stuffy rooms, and it helped lessen the chance of disease spreading. But in the 1730’s the decision was made to re-face the building with large masonry blocks and to reduce the width of the access in order to prevent the mob storming the building. In turn it meant that the yard was closed off, along with the fresh air that it brought to the court.


(c) National Trust, Penrhyn Castle; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sir Samuel Pennant. (c) National Trust, Penrhyn Castle; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Poor Sir Samuel: he had only been made Lord Mayor the year before. The National Trust have two splendid portraits of him in all his finery. Clock the gold embroidery – that is some waistcoat!  But it was no protection against the spread of the typhus bacteria. With sixty officials perishing in the one outbreak it is surprising that it took another twenty five years to rebuild the Sessions House. Meanwhile, people obviously assumed that there was a link between the actual stench and the disease. To this day judges on formal parades carry nosegays, as a reminder of the long-held belief that aromatic herbs would lessen the risk of fever. So important was it to mask the foul odours that on 9 Oct 1772 the Annual Register remarked: “ Several workmen were this day employed at the Old Bailey in making a new ventilator, and other necessary precautions, to prevent the effects of any malignant distemper in the ensuing sessions, several persons having died, who attended the last session. Among other precautions, a contrivance is made, by a pipe, to carry the fumes of vinegar into the Sessions House, while the court is sitting.”

In practice a new court of sessions building was constructed, opening in 1774. I have no idea when they stopped pumping in vinegar fumes, but it is interesting to see these early experiments in trying to impose standards of hygiene which would combat disease.

Sep 092015

1 BuildingVisiting Quarry Bank near Manchester a few weeks ago reminded me that Manchester’s nick-name was ‘Cottonopolis’ because in the 1800’s it was the centre of the cotton milling industry. Quarry Bank, started in 1784 and extended in the 1790’s and over the following one hundred years, originally  harnessed water power to drive the machinery which prepared the yarn for spinning, but later moved on to steam power in order to power the actual looms. What you see today is no empty run of buildings, but a restored industrial building into which much of the original machinery has been placed.

2 BuildingThere may not be looms for hundreds of nimble-fingered youngsters to be employed carrying the cans of spools, or threading the heddles on the looms, or cleaning the dust which clogged the working parts of the machines, but there are enough in working order to get something of the flavour of what it must have been like 200 years ago. The clattering noise from just one machine is pretty deafening: multiply it to reflect the fact that in the 1830’s there were over three hundred looms operating, and the cacophony must have been terrifying.




You can trace the whole process through from the arrival of the sacks of cotton bolls through to the cotton being prepared as yarn, to it being loaded onto the looms and made into different fabrics. Nowadays it seems to be drying-up towels mostly…

Display of all the differe t types of material made using cotton, from fustian to moleskin

Display of all the different types of material made using different thread, from fustian to moleskin

Display card from the 1790's showing the different patterns available.

Display card from the 1790’s showing the different patterns available.









There are explanations of the different types of fabric woven there – and although I had come across the word ‘fustian’ before I had not appreciated that it was made using a linen thread for the warp and cotton for the weft. It became known as “Manchester Cotton”. All is explained in easy-to-understand graphics. There is also a detailed explanation of how the water mill worked, and how steam power transformed the manufacturing process.

4 yarn

6 threads

Workers suffered from cotton-dust on the lung – similar to asbestosis – and the working conditions must have been appalling. But the visit to Quarry Bank is worthwhile if only to see the casualties of the great Industrial Revolution – wealth and prosperity certainly came at a price in terms of “quality of life” for the poor sods who had to work in Blake’s “dark satanic mills”.

8 loomsDo get the chance to visit Quarry Bank if you are in Manchester – the National Trust have done an excellent restoration job, and have just about managed a balance between making it an educational centre aimed at ten year olds and restoring it to something of its original glory. There are enough machines working on every floor to help you overlook the simplistic explanations, the “now, boys and girls, what do we think went on here?” to make it a fascinating experience. Even for a curmudgeon like me…Imagine 320 of these machines in the weaving sheds, all working flat out ....

Imagine 320 of these machines in the weaving sheds, all working flat out ….

Sep 042015

I have to start with a confession: I am not a lover of bag-pipes. Or accordions. Or indeed anything you have to squeeze in order to make a noise. ‘Droning’ just about says it all…

I find them  discordant, loud, and fit only for dirges, but if bagpipes and so on are your thing, well, good for you, but don’t invite me round to any of your parties! The phrase ‘squealing like a stuck pig’ springs to mind – which is why I was so delighted to see this caricature  entitled “Musick on an entire new plan” which was published by William Holland some time between 1782 and 1801.


It  is on the ever-fascinating Lewis Walpole site. A musician with a wooden leg is squeezing a baby boar while holding its tail, playing a tune as per the written score. I am not entirely sure if the porcine  noise  is made by its mouth or its backside – take your pick!

The artist may have been taking a swipe at the humble bagpipe, as here, with the 1793 “The strolling bagpiper.”


Or it may have reflected the fact that  the latter years of the century saw a whole range of new instruments coming through into popularity. My first thought was that it was aimed at a precursor of the accordion. The text books suggest that this was invented by Buschmann in 1822, and developed further in 1829 by the Viennese piano and organ builder Cyrill Demian, But there are also reports that an earlier pain-inducing machine  was invented by a Swede by the name of Friedrich Lohner, who was born in 1737 and died in 1816.

The satire may be aimed at an earlier instrument called a musette de cour, popular in the French court in the 18th Century but very much going out of fashion by the time of the French Revolution. Or it may have been  based on the popularity of the hurdy-gurdy, an instrument described as producing a noise  ‘like a bagpipe mated with a violin’. Wikipedia says that “During the 18th century French Rococo tastes for rustic diversions brought the hurdy-gurdy back to the attention of the upper classes, where it acquired tremendous popularity among the nobility, with famous composers writing works for [it]”

The Travelling Musician', an old soldier playing hurdy-gurdy outside the Mermaid Inn, after John Collet,  1772

The Travelling Musician’, an old soldier playing hurdy-gurdy outside the Mermaid Inn, after John Collet, 1772

Either way, for my money it says all that needs to be said about musical instruments which get the squeeze. I am reminded of a time in Spain when I was enjoying a delightful romantic meal when a pestering accordion player came round the tables, single-handedly destroying the charm of the evening. I stood up and at the top of my voice howled like a wolf at the poor musician – who promptly fled the building! I sat down to polite applause from my fellow-diners….