The Curious Tale of the Wormesley Pippin

Our village orchard was planted some fifteen years ago, by children from the local school. At the base of each tree there is a little label giving the variety and who planted it. At this time of year there is a regular stream of villagers collecting apples to eat or cook.

A few days ago I went to pick a basket of the lovely Beauty of Bath, a classic eating apple. The adjacent tree had large pale green fruit, and looked like a cooker, curious I picked some and read the label ‘Wormesley Pippin’. The name fascinated me and I looked it up in a very old apple book, and so discovered the tale of the apple and the remarkable Thomas Andrew Knight.

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Thomas Knight was worried, the revolting French might have spread revolution and war across half a continent, but this was much more serious, his new orchard had canker. He knew the disease usually affected older trees, but all of these had been planted in the past three years. He enquired of neighbouring farmers, all told the same story, new trees often got canker.

He had been sent to University with the vague idea of his becoming a clergyman, but he hadn’t enjoyed it, apart from the Botanic Garden, here he learnt of the new discoveries of men such as Stephen Hale and Carl Linnaeus, who had shown how plants actually worked. Now Thomas Knight was to use their methods to solve the problem of apple canker.

He knew that apples never bred true, a pip would grow into an apple unlike its parent tree, and to spread a variety trees had to be grafted. He had learnt to graft when he was a child, attaching a small piece of the desired tree onto a rootstock so it would grow into a prefect replica of the original. Then it struck him, a branch of the original tree! He remembered a sermon he had heard in Oxford, ‘a child carries the seeds of its own death’, the sermon had been a splendidly cheery one, on how as soon as a child is born it should prepare for death. But Thomas Knight wondered, perhaps it could be true in another way. Everything had a natural lifespan, trees certainly lived longer than people, but what about an apple tree? The new trees were essentially parts of the original tree, his orchard might be only a few years old but some of the varieties were centuries old, the new trees weren’t in fact new, they were very old and dying of old age. (He was fortunately very wrong)

He thought he knew the problem, but what was the answer. All the farmers talked of ‘chance-come’ apples or pippins, apples that grew from pips that had good characteristics, but he knew that for a thousand pips sown perhaps one might make a good apple. But he knew something that the local farmers didn’t, Linnaeus had discovered exactly how plants reproduced (he described it in such detail that some people regarded his works as pornographic). He was going to use this new knowledge to selectively breed apples!

Spring came and he begun, developing ways to hand fertilise apples, carefully collecting the fruit and planting the seeds. There were many failures, but enough success to make it worthwhile. As the long French war waged on, as enemy troops landed not too far away, only to surrender to formidable red cloaked Welsh Women, Thomas Knight began to see his new varieties spread.

His fame spread too, Sir Joseph Banks heard of his work, persuaded him to come to London where he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society and became the President of the Royal Horticultural Society. But he never enjoyed London, and as soon as he could he returned to Herefordshire, he still corresponded with the society, his work on selective breeding in plants was used by Charles Darwin, his notes on peas inspired Gregor Mendel and his experiments on the effects of gravity on seedlings directly influenced experiments carried out on the International Space Station.

But that was in the future, now as Napoleon was advancing into Russia, Thomas Knight cut an apple from a new grown tree and tried it for the first time. It was an eater as well as a cooker, he was delighted and later declared it ‘My favourite apple, the best I ever produced.”


And that was the Wormesley Pippin that began this story. (Incidentally it makes excellent Dorset Apple cake)

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The First Flight

This week’s prompt from Charli at the Carrot Ranch is; August 13, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a first flight. It can be anything or anyone that flies. What is significant about the first? Go where the prompt leads!

As readers of my blog will realise, I am fascinated by the early history of flight, so could hardly pass on this prompt. So here is the story of what was probably the first serious attempt to fly, certainly in Europe.

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He stood on the edge of the tower, checked his linen covered wings, took a deep breath and jumped.

They worked! He glided for nearly two hundred yards before the gust hit him, he struggled as he dropped, his wings broke his fall.

He awoke in the infirmary with a broken leg. The Abbot beside the bed.

“Brother Elimer, my old friend, there must be no more flying. I don’t wish to bury you next time.”

“But if I had a bigger tail I could fly”

“Not now.” The Abbot was firm, “One day perhaps.”

The year was 1005.

.

.

All true, the story is recorded by the historian William of Malmesbury, who was a monk at Malmesbury Abbey just like Elimer. He almost certainly knew people who had known Elimer in old age.

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How to Tell a Comet

Last night, or rather earlier this morning we saw the comet Neowise, visible in the northern sky. It made me think of this delightful Victorian poem.

How to Tell a Comet, or Astronomy Made Easy.

Though you may not know a planet
From the bird that’s called a gannet,
Nor distinguish Sagittarius from Mars;
Though the beasts in that strange zoo
May all look alike to you,
And you lump the whole caboodle just as “stars;”

Though you cannot place the lion,
Nor correctly trace Orion,
Nor discern the jewelled belt he proudly wears,
Nor the big and little hounds,
Through those happy hunting grounds,
Nightly chasing up the big and little bears;

Though you cannot tell the Dippers
From your grandpa’s old felt slippers,
And to name the constellations you would fail,
There’s one thing that you may know
And be very sure it’s so,
You can always tell a comet by its tail.
Its airy, hairy, winking, blinking, flowing, glowing tail;
Its fiery, wiry, gleaming, streaming, flaring, glaring tail.

Unfortunately I cannot lay my hands on the book where I found it, so I cannot give you any more information about the poem.


The picture comes from, ‘Comets and their General and Particular Meanings, According to Ptolomeé, Albumasar, Haly, Aliquind and other Astrologers’ of 1587.

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Filed under Poems, Scientific History, Victorian

A Dream of Airliners

Men dream, these men dreamt of airliners.

The wings vibrated as the tiny steam engine spun.
“Good to go.” Called Henson.
Stringfellow released the tail and the Aerial ran along the line gathering speed, as it came free at the end the wings lifted it and the machine flew across the room, dropping into the catch net at the far end.
For a moment the engineers looked stunned, then grinned and shook each other’s hands.
The world’s first powered flying machine, the first aeroplane (albeit a model), had flown.

The first step to realising their dream had been made.

Stringfellow Monoplane 1848
The First Aeroplane

John Stringfellow and William Henson built the first working model aircraft in 1848, and flew it in a large room of the mill Stringfellow owned in Chard, Somerset.
They dreamt of building a massive steam powered airliner.

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The Aerial over London

This was written in response to this week’s prompt at the #carrotranch. Apparently the reference has something to do with pop music, however my knowledge of popular music is limited, particularly after the beginning of the last century, so a true historical tale instead,


June 18, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes good vibrations. What is unfolding? Is someone giving off or receiving the feeling? Where is the story situated? Gather some good vibes and go where the prompt leads!

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The Curious Scissors Net, another Entomological reconstruction

During lockdown people have been encouraged to try handicrafts, also to get out and enjoy nature. Now as a reenactor who enjoys experimental history, there was an obvious thing to do – make an eighteenth century butterfly net.

Some time ago I described how I made a reconstruction of a Clap, or Batfowler net to see how this improbable looking butterfly net functioned. Rereading Moses Harris’s The Aurelian a little while ago I was inspired to make another improbable looking insect net, the Scissors or Forceps Net.

He begins by describing;

Racket Nets. Which are form’d of Wire about the Size of a Raven’s Quill, turned round to a Circle, bending the Ends outwards by way Shanks, which are made fast in a Brass Socket;  this Circle or Ring of Wire is covered with Gause, and bound round with Ferret [A stout tape most commonly made of cotton OED]; a round Stick of about two Feet in Length is fitted to this Socket, by Way of Handle. These Sort Of Nets are what an AURELIAN should at all Times carry about him; a Pair of these of about six Inches Diameter are the most convenient for that Purpose. The chief Use of these Sort of Netts are for catching Moths, sitting against a Tree, Wall, or Pales; or a Moth or Fly sitting on a Leaf, may be conveniently caught between a Pair of these.

The Fly Catching Macaroni

Then he tells us that;

The Scithers Net are no more than a small Pair of these Racket Nets; fixed on two Pieces of Iron which are rivetted across each other, with two of the Ends turn’d round in the Form of Rings, for the Admittance of the Thumb and Finger; in short, a Pair of Toupee Irons, or Curling Tongs, such as is used by a Hair-Dresser, are very well adapted for this Purpose, with a round Net fixed to the End of each Tong with binding Wire, or small Twine well waxed; these Nets are principally adapted to take small Moths, &c.

Scissors Net cartoon

So to make a Scissors Net, I first needed a pair of tongs. Whilst I have (as one does) a pair of Georgian Curling Tongs, I didn’t want to use these so I needed a pair of tongs of similar proportions. After a while I found some old barbeque tongs which could be adapted.

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I then needed to make the wire loops, I unfortunately don’t have a Ravens Quill, but online enquiries (thank you 18th Century Sewing facebook group) suggested just under 1/8 inch diameter. Fortunately wire coat hangers are about the right size.

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Unfortunately I cannot find anybody who produces ferret these days, but it was easy enough to create a stiff cotton tape, and finally create the net.

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Then I had to work out how they were to be used, the delightfully named Letitia Jermyn, in 1824, she tells us that;

The forceps are about ten or twelve inches in length, provided with fans of a circular or other form, and are covered with gauze; they are held and moved like a pair of scissors, and are used to catch the insects when at rest.

In later editions of her book (1836) she adds further advice

The leaves should be expanded as wide as possible, and the prey approached very cautiously, and when within reach, close them upon it suddenly, including the leaf or flower on which it rests.

Whilst William Curtis, in 1771, advised using them to catch wasps and bees as;

These insects being armed many of them with poisonous stings, it will be necessary to use the forcep nets to catch them with.

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I soon discovered that they were very easy to use, especially when taking insects sitting on flowers, and on a plant like bramble I was able to capture insects without risking the net being caught. As to why the net fell out of use, I suspect it was simply the problem of carrying a number of nets. Difficult when was no longer accompanied by a servant.

On day I might well make a pair of Racket Nets, as described by Moses Harris, or the oddest of all nets, and also the simplest.

The Casting Net, described by Letitia Jermyn in 1824 (she dropped it from later editions of her book);

If they {insects} are beyond your reach, you must use a casting net, which may be made thus:- tie a weight (a halfpenny for instance), in one of the corners of a piece of gauze, about the size of a common handkerchief, a lighter weight in the second corner, and a bit of very light wood in the third : the inequality in the weight and bulk of these substances, will occasion the gauze to open, when thrown from the hand : a thin piece of twine, a yard to two long, may be tied to the remaining corner, by which the net may be drawn in at pleasure. The art of spreading it to its full extent may be acquired with very little practice.

The vision of a Regency Lady throwing a weighted handkerchief over a butterfly of moth is a delightful one, which it would be lovely to recreate.

Sources

Curtis, William. 1771 Instructions for Collecting and Preserving Insects

Harris, Moses. 1776 The Aurelian or Natural History of English Insects

Jermyn, Letitia. 1824 The butterfly collector’s vade mecum; with a synoptical table of British butterflies.

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The Amazing Jar that changed the world

He looked in amazement at the little fern, growing in the sealed jar. According to Dr Ward it had been growing there for three years.

“But what nourishes it?”

“Sunlight.” He replied, “Water evaporates, and condenses in the jar. Minerals feed the leaves, and return to the soil, all it needs is light.”
“Is it of any use?”
“Use! Glass boxes filled with plants, on a ships deck, will carry them safely around the world. We will move useful plants wherever we want. This could end famines, create industries and beautify gardens, it could change the world.”
It did.

Unpacking a Wardian Case at Kew in the 1920’s photo from Kew Gardens

All true.
In 1829 Dr Nathanial Ward tried to hatch out a moth chrysalis, it died, but a tiny fern seedling growing in the jar continued to grow although Dr Ward did nothing. Realising what this might mean he experimented and a decade later had a successful box for transporting pants around the world. Properly named the Wardian Case, after its inventor, it was used to transport medicinal, food and commercial crops around the globe. It really did change the world.

 

Written in response to this week’s carrotranch prompt
May 7, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story to nourish. The characters can nourish or be nourished. What else can be nourished? A tree? A setting? Does the sunset nourish the soul? Go where the prompt leads!

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Blunders in two Emmas or Anachronistic Tree Blossoms

Jane Austen planned her stories very carefully. She seems to have worked out the action of her tales with a calendar or diary beside her. This has meant that later scholars could work out exactly when they were written but, apart from Persuasion, the actual year the tale is set doesn’t seem to have mattered to Jane Austen. Rather she wanted to avoid the mistakes of other novelists, who can suggest June lasts eight weeks, or summer has eight or nine months.

 

Another aspect of her work is the absence of description, we hardly know what any character or place looked like, so when she does describe a scene it is noteworthy. This comes from Emma, in the novel we are told that it is in June, a party is going to Donwell Abbey to pick strawberries, when they stopped to look at Abbey Mill Farm.

 

The considerable slope, at nearly the foot of which the Abbey stood, gradually acquired a steeper form beyond its grounds; and at half a mile distant was a bank of considerable abruptness and grandeur, well clothed with wood; and at the bottom of this bank, favourably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey Mill Farm, with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it.

It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive.

….. There had been a time also when Emma would have been sorry to see Harriet in a spot so favourable for the Abbey Mill Farm; but now she feared it not. It might be safely viewed with all its appendages of prosperity and beauty, its rich pastures, spreading flocks, orchard in blossom, and light column of smoke ascending.

And this is one of Jane Austen’s most famous mistakes. Can you spot it? well here’s a clue. These pictures were taken in our village orchard yesterday, 7th May.

The apple trees are in full bloom, indeed some are already beginning to go over. As Edward, Jane’s brother, who was a very practical gentleman farmer said.
“Jane, where did you get those apple trees that blossom in June?”

 

Fast forward two hundred years, to the latest film version of Emma, a very entertaining version, with absolutely brilliant costumes. When it comes to the proposal scene, in the film given as mid-summer, in the book it can be dated to 9th July. Emma is seen standing by a Horse Chestnut tree in full bloom,

and guess what is also flowering in our village at this very moment.

Did the film maker deliberately reference Jane’s blunder, or did she just think that the candles of a Horse Chestnut make a beautiful backdrop to a pretty young woman, as indeed they do.

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Georgian Lockdown – Or regulating my Beaureau

A few days ago, in her column in the Daily Telegraph, Victoria Coren Mitchell, commenting on our present times, wrote;

 

Most of us have veered sharply in one of two directions: into the future or into the past. Some have relaxed into a rather 18th-century life of sketching, singing and snoozing, with an hour’s constitutional each day to take the air. Others have grabbed the 21st century by the throat, downloading Zoom and Skype, taking mass online Zumba classes and launching podcasts.

 

Now as somebody who never quite got on with the twentieth century it is obvious which way I would go. So today I found myself regulating my Beaureau. My wife had pointed out that several generations of spiders had created interesting artworks between my larger Galilean thermometer and Rush Light holder, so I spent several hours turning this.

Into this

Discovering the desiccated remains of arachnids, and other invertebrates, small tools of various dates and part of a Mammoth tooth (in other words the usual things one has on a desk).

 

But how, you might ask if you have managed to get this far, is this Georgian?

 

Well, I remembered a passage in the diary of Edmund Rack of Bath, which not only mentioned tidying a desk but also covered the problem of toilet paper shortage!

 

January 14 1780
In the morning regulated my Beaureau and put the useless papers on a string for necessary purposes.

 

As Mr Rack was a scientist who was friends with William Herschel and corresponded with the likes of Sir Joseph Banks, one wonders what was in the ‘useless papers’ he recycled as toilet paper!

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Welcome at Last

A brick smashed through the window, glass fell on the praying sisters.
“Why do we stay, Mother?” Asked one of the newly founded Anglican Order of Sisters. “No one seems to want us.”
Then – Cholera.
No one knew how it spread, people fled and the rest died alone, no one helped – until the sisters took charge.
They cared for the dying, comforted the living, and became beloved by the people of Plymouth.
A little later a small women came and asked.
“Can you help me? I desperately need nurses.”
The Mother Superior smiled “Of course we can – Miss Nightingale.”

 

A terrible, wonderful and true tale.

In the 1840’s a High Anglican order of nuns faced massive abuse, encouraged by Evangelical Anglicans, when they established a house in Plymouth. Until there was an outbreak of cholera, in which hundreds died. There was little help for the poor, apart from the nursing care of the sisters. After this they were understandably regarded as heroines.

A few years after this Florence Nightingale asked the nursing sisters to join her in the Crimea, where they formed the core of the nurses in her hospital at Scutari.

 

This in response to this weeks Flash Fiction Challenge from the Carrot Ranch

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Filed under Historical tales, plague, Victorian

Our Fathers of Old – An Old Poem for Our Times

One of my favourite Kipling poems, and very apt for these troubled times.

Excellent herbs had our fathers of old–
Excellent herbs to ease their pain–
Alexanders and Marigold,
Eyebright, Orris, and Elecampane–
Basil, Rocket, Valerian, Rue,
(Almost singing themselves they run)
Vervain, Dittany, Call-me-to-you–
Cowslip, Melilot, Rose of the Sun.
Anything green that grew out of the mould
Was an excellent herb to our fathers of old.

Wonderful tales had our fathers of old,
Wonderful tales of the herbs and the stars-
The Sun was Lord of the Marigold,
Basil and Rocket belonged to Mars.
Pat as a sum in division it goes–
(Every herb had a planet bespoke)–
Who but Venus should govern the Rose?
Who but Jupiter own the Oak?
Simply and gravely the facts are told
In the wonderful books of our fathers of old.

Wonderful little, when all is said,
Wonderful little our fathers knew.
Half their remedies cured you dead–
Most of their teaching was quite untrue–
“Look at the stars when a patient is ill.
(Dirt has nothing to do with disease),
Bleed and blister as much as you will,
Blister and bleed him as oft as you please.”
Whence enormous and manifold
Errors were made by our fathers of old.

Yet when the sickness was sore in the land,
And neither planets nor herbs assuaged,
They took their lives in their lancet-hand
And, oh, what a wonderful war they waged!
Yes, when the crosses were chalked on the door-
(Yes, when the terrible dead-cart rolled!)
Excellent courage our fathers bore–
None too learned, but nobly bold
Into the fight went our fathers of old.

 

If it be certain, as Galen says–
And sage Hippocrates holds as much–
“That those afflicted by doubts and dismays
Are mightily helped by a dead man’s touch,”
Then, be good to us, stars above!
Then, be good to us, herbs below!
We are afflicted by what we can prove,
We are distracted by what we know.
So-ah, so!
Down from your heaven or up from your mould
Send us the hearts of our Fathers of old!

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