This is the first in a slightly belated series of spooky (and slightly silly) seasonal posts. All Hallows Eve may have come and gone, but the clocks have gone back and the nights are drawing in. The end of the year is not far away, which makes this the perfect time to be telling tales of ghostly apparitions around the fire – indeed, Christmas ghost stories are a genre unto themselves.
Dealing with inclement weather at this time of the year is nothing new. We’ve had some snow in London already this December, but it’s unlikely to be a white Christmas here this year. The early 19th century was a chilly time, though, as illustrated by this witty 1821 etching by Richard Dighton from the Wellcome Library collection. This unfortunate chap has just had his fashionable top hat knocked into his eyes by falling snow being shovelled above – just as he passes a shop selling ice skates (I love the shop’s name: ‘Careless Skate Maker’. Not sure I’d want to be shopping there if I was wanting to get out on the ice!). This was obviously a common annoyance in a wintery 19th century London, and it didn’t matter if you were an elegantly dressed gentleman like this one – the snow would still get you!
It’s almost Christmas Eve. Wherever you are, and whether you have snow or not, keep safe and warm out there…
For links to more festive reading, click here!
No, the date in the title of this post isn’t a typo. This final festive selection from the BFI National Archive really is a rare and unusual late Victorian film short, which uses some extremely clever and – for the time – groundbreaking special effects to show a Christmas Eve visit from Santa Claus to two excited young children. Made by G.A. Smith (1864-1959), an ex-magic lantern operator, hypnotist and one of the pioneers of British cinema, this is, in the words of Michael Brooke at the British Film Institute, “one of the most visually and conceptually sophisticated British films made up to then”. Aside from that, it’s also an endearing and rather sweet encapsulation of the thrill of a childhood Christmas Eve, all distilled into less than a minute and a half…
For more from the BFI National Archive, visit their website or their excellent YouTube channel. You can also find more BFI festive goodies (and numerous other seasonal posts) on Another Kind Of Mind here.
And a very Merry Christmas to one and all!
For many people, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a bit of Charles Dickens. Indeed, there is a strong argument to be made that it was the popularity of his works (and the often sentimental descriptions of the festive season therein) that actually went a long way towards reinventing the festival and creating what we now see as a ‘traditional’ Christmas. But even if you’ve never read any of his novels, there is one of his stories that everyone knows because its characters and events have become an integral part of our culture of Christmas – and it is the story behind that particular story I’ll be looking at today, on this Christmas Eve…
Born in February 1812, Charles Dickens had a peripatetic childhood, his family frequently moving to where his father’s job as a pay clerk in the Royal Dockyards took them. In the 1820s, his spendthrift father was jailed for debt, and the young Charles went to work in a blacking factory making shoe polish to help the family’s often parlous finances. This experience of family disruption and what we would now call child labour must have left deep psychological scars on the young man at a formative time in his life – it was certainly something he drew on in his later writings, as the reader can see in his ‘Christmas Books’ amongst others.
All this upheaval during his youth meant that Dickens had little formal education (he was mostly self-taught having effectively left school by the time he was 15), but his childhood experiences had made him ambitious and determined to make a success of himself from an early age. Starting out in a solicitor’s office, he worked his way into journalism and was a parliamentary reporter by the early 1830s. But he was also writing fiction, and his first short story was published in 1833. Three years later, the initial installment of his still-popular novel The Pickwick Papers was published and he rapidly became a household name as a result of its immediate success.
I was in the library today. While flicking through the pages of a book on the 1832 Reform Act, I found this little story. You can imagine my reaction (and yes, I did get a dirty look from the librarian for laughing…):
[A] little girl asked her mother, ‘Mamma, are Tories born wicked, or do they grow wicked afterwards?’ To which the mother replied, ‘They are born wicked and grow worse.’
Whether this parental exchange really happened is immaterial – the story obviously struck a chord at the time. And, not far off two centuries later, absolutely nothing has changed…
I don’t often write about sport, but I couldn’t let this one pass me by. I was rummaging in amongst my small library of football books today, searching for a particular quote (which is actually a whole other blog post in itself. Probably), when I found this little gem.* Apparently taken from the 1897 edition of the club handbook, here’s some useful – if perhaps slightly patronising – advice on how to be a proper 19th century Spurs fan:
Hints to Spectators
Learn the rules well before criticising.
Respect the rulings of the referee and refrain from unseemly demonstrations so common on many football fields when decisions are unpalatable – the best of referees make mistakes.
Applaud good football impartially.
Don’t let a defeat discourage you. It is at this time that encouragement is most wanted by players.
Don’t express your disapproval of a player so that everyone can hear, it only upsets him and he loses confidence.
This season’s team will doubtless accomplish some fine performances. Don’t, in your enthusiasm, forget that there is such a thing as mistaken kindness where athletes in training are concerned.
Don’t stop at home when the team goes away; they want your support more than ever when on opponents’ grounds.
Let visitors go away with the impression that the Tottenham crowd are good sportsmen.
Whether at home or away don’t forget the ‘Tottenham whisper’.
It’s amazing how little some things change over the course of a century – quite a few of these ‘hints’ are still clearly recognisable as issues within the game as a whole, and rightly so in some cases! However, despite being a life-long Spurs fan, I have absolutely no idea what the ‘Tottenham whisper’ is. Can anyone enlighten me?
* Powley, Adam and Cloake, Martin – ‘The Spurs Miscellany’ (Vision Sports Publishing, London; 2007), p.116
I’m a regular rummager of charity shop bookshelves – it really is amazing what you can discover gathering dust in forgotten corners. A recent bargain acquisition was Ed Glinert’s fascinating volume, The London Compendium, an engrossing guide to the hidden nooks and crannies of the capital. It’s one of those wonderful books that can be read cover to cover or, as I’ve been doing, dipped into at various points simply out of curiosity or personal interest.
And it was while dipping into the section on east London (an area that is currently in the news with the opening of the Olympic Games this week) that I discovered a remarkable story that I had never come across before. A story that I couldn’t resist sharing with you…
Meet Charles Jamrach, Victorian animal importer, exporter, breeder and retailer. And we’re not talking about kittens, hamsters and goldfish either – Jamrach’s Animal Emporium, on the East End’s then-infamous Ratcliffe Highway, was probably the only place in 19th century London where, almost unbelievably to our modern sensibilities, “the casual buyer could obtain, for instance, a lion, no questions asked”¹, as Glinert wryly puts it. Jamrach’s many customers included P.T. Barnum’s circus, London Zoo, various menageries and wealthy (and well-connected) individuals who wanted something more than just a moggie or a mutt.
Today marks the 197th anniversary of one of the strangest and most surreal disasters ever to hit London. It all started on October 17th 1814 in the premises of Meux and Company Brewery on Tottenham Court Road…
These days we see that part of central London as being an area of very expensive real estate, but in the early 19th century it was almost exactly the opposite. Tottenham Court Road was then part of the notorious St Giles ‘rookery’, which was probably the worst of all the slums in London (Hogarth’s satirical and moralising print Gin Lane was set in 18th century St Giles).
Almost fifty years after the beer flood, when the worst of the rookery had been demolished in slum clearances, the writer and reformer Henry Mayhew could still describe St Giles in scathing terms in A Visit to the Rookery of St Giles and its Neighbourhood (1860):
The parish of St. Giles, with its nests of close and narrow alleys and courts inhabited by the lowest class of Irish costermongers, has passed into a byword as the synonym of filth and squalor. And although New Oxford Street has been carried straight through the middle of the worst part of its slums—”the Rookery”—yet, especially on the south side, there still are streets which demand to be swept away in the interest of health and cleanliness…
London is a city full of strange and surprising things; where the ancient and the modern co-exist (not always peacefully) amidst layer upon layer of this city’s sprawling history. An intriguing example of this is Postman’s Park; a small and rather lovely peaceful green space in the middle of the busy City of London – an unexpected oasis which is also home to one of the most poignant and unusual memorials in the country.
Today, when we think of a ‘traditional’ Christmas, it is a Victorian-style celebration we are envisioning. Christmas trees, crackers, pantomimes, cards – all these now-familiar seasonal things were either invented or popularised by the Victorians. There are, however, three people in particular who are now considered mostly responsible for the creation of what is today seen as a very British, very Victorian take on Christmas – although, strangely enough, only one of them was actually a Brit!
The first of this trio was a member of the royal family. The introduction of the Christmas tree to Britain is traditionally thought to be down to Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert. However, it is more likely that it was George III’s German wife, Queen Charlotte, who brought the first tree to Britain – Albert merely popularised them.
In the early years of their marriage, Victoria encouraged German Christmas customs to make her husband feel more at home in Britain, and approving press coverage meant that it wasn’t long before the Christmas tree became wildly popular with the British people. The middle classes, in particular, were soon copying this royal idea in their own homes, decorating their trees with candles, small toys and gifts, cards, sweets and other goodies (like sugar plums – see below).