Today ‘The Hundred’, the latest cricket tournament ended, with the women’s games proving particularly popular. This has been seen, by several newspapers, as a great step forward for women’s cricket.
However over two hundred years ago there were very popular women’s games. In 1792 The Sporting Magazine reported.
A very curious match of cricket was played by eleven girls of Rotherby, Leicestershire, against an equal number of Hoby, on Thursday, on their feast week. The inhabitants of all the villages adjacent were eager spectators of this novel and interesting contest; when, after a display of astonishing feats of skill and activity, the palm of victory was obtained by the fair maidens of Rotherby. There are about ten houses in Rotherby , and near sixty in Hoby; so great a disproportion affords matter of exultation to the honest rustics of the first mentioned village. The bowlers of the conquering party were immediately placed in a sort of triumphal car, preceded by music and flying streamers, and thus conducted home by the youths of Rotherby, amidst the acclamations of a numerous group of pleased spectators.
I really like it that the only thing the, probably male, reporter found to comment on, other than that the match was well played, was the fact that the tiny village of Rotherby was able to field a full team of talented, cricket playing, young women, (incidentally the difference in population between the two villages was considerable. At the time of the first census, in 1801, Hoby had a population of 294, and Rotherby 95.)
In the late eighteenth century The Sporting Magazine was very popular and was bought by groups of sportsmen as well as individual enthusiasts, I am sure that in the winter of 1792 there were many sporting gentlemen who read the article and raised a glass to the cricketing maidens of Rotherby and Hoby, as we salute their sporting descendants today.
Today is the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the great writer, Sir Walter Scott, The Wizard of the North. This is something I wrote a few years ago concerning the mutual admiration the two greatest novelists of the day had for each other’s work. The Wizard of the North.
Today, the Times published a piece on some work being carried out on one of the treasures of the Wallace Collection, the glorious work by Fragonard, The Happy Accidents of the Swing. In the article it mentioned that one of the things they hoped to discover was, if the elderly gentleman pushing the swing had originally been painted as a bishop, as a tale told about the paintings creation suggested.
This description of the elderly gentleman ‘pushing’ the swing is repeated in both the Wallace Collection’s catalogue and on their website. However if you look closely at the painting you will see that he is not ‘pushing’ the swing, rather he is ‘pulling’ it using a pair of ropes.
And that is the puzzle, if you look at illustrations, and surviving examples, of swings over the centuries it is clear that they were either swung by the person on the swing, or pushed from behind. This happened across Europe, Asia and Africa from the second millennium BC until the present, apart from in Europe during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there the swing was swung by ropes.
Why this should be is a mystery, certainly at this time swinging was seen as an adult, as well as a child’s, recreation and was prescribed as a suitable exercise for elderly persons. Certainly the use of ropes would make swinging an elderly lady or gentleman easier, when they couldn’t swing themselves or it would be inappropriate to push them.
Also swinging was regarded as an ‘adult’ activity in that a young lady could be swung so that a viewer could have an ‘interesting’ view like the lover in Fragonard’s painting. This ‘activity’ is described in the remarkable poetic description of the great gardens at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, by Gilbert West in 1732.
A cool Recess there is, not far away, Sacred to Love, to Mirth, and rural Play. Hither oftimes the youthful Fair resort, To cheat the tedious Hours with various Sport. Some mid the Nine-pins marshall’d Orders roll, With Aim unerring the impetuous Bowl. Others, whose Souls to loftier Objects move, Delight the Swing’s advent’rous Joys to prove: While on each side the ready Lovers stand, The flying Cord obeys th’ impulsive Hand. As on a Day contending Rivals strove, By manly Strength to recommend their Love; Toss’d to and fro, up flew the giddy Fair, And scream’d, and laugh’d, and play’d in upper Air. The flutt’ring Coats the rapid Motion find, And One by One admit the swelling Wind: At length the last, white, subtile Veil withdrew, And those mysterious Charms expos’d to view— What Transport then, O — possess’d thy Soul! Down from thy Hand, down dropt the idle Bowl: As for the skilful Tip prepar’d you stood, And Hopes and Fears alarm’d th’ expecting Croud. Sudden to seize the beauteous Prey he sprung; Sudden with Shrieks the echoing Thicket rung.
But the swing was also used by children, with the pulling ropes attached, though with a much more innocent purpose. In the delightfully titled; Healthful Sports for Young Ladies of 1822, is a description of a swing that would make a modern health and safety enthusiast proud.
The posts which supported the swing were a little decayed since the preceding year, but they were soon repaired. Madame D’Hernilly recommended prudence to the young people in partaking of this amusement, and, as an additional precaution, she took care to be present whenever they enjoyed it, and strictly ordered that no one should swing in her absence. They were prohibited standing upon the seat; neither were two persons allowed to get in at the same time; Ernestina, or Aglaé, or another of their friends, placed themselves by turns upon the seat, which was furnished with a soft cushion; and, while the one who took the exercise grasped the cords tightly with her two hands, two or three of her companions pulled the end of the cord, and thus made it go backward and forward.
And that is almost the last mention of ropes pulling a swing. I have seen a few later pictures, but these are clearly inspired by earlier works. Why they appeared, why they disappeared, I don’t know, but it is little puzzles like this that can make history so fascinating.
[The man (certainly no gentlemen) who pursued the young lady in the gardens at Stowe was a local clergyman, Conway Rand. Randy had been used as a term for a drunken gathering before this date, but it is only after this time it is used for a man who is sexually excited. Officially the origin of that meaning of the word is unknown – but perhaps?]
I was recently listening to a podcast, on the remarkable story of Princess Caraboo, which had an epilogue to the story which I hadn’t heard before. When Mary Baker retired from impersonating a Princess from Javasu, she settled down as a supplier of leeches to Bristol Infirmary (a ‘respectable and genteel’ occupation, according to the Dictionary of National Biography.)
Now it is leech gathering (and not the impersonation of princesses) that is the lost occupation. Medicinal leeches were used as a method of bloodletting, taking blood from person to cure a disease, indeed they were probably a safer alternative to having an incision made with a dirty lancet, as medicinal leeches aren’t known as a major source of infection.
Leeches are native to Britain and although rare now were once widespread, a pond near where I once lived on the New Forest is called Leechey Pond, and were collected from the wild for doctors to use. A woman would walk, bare legged, in shallow water where leeches lived. As they attached themselves to her skin she would remove them and put them in a container. Women were considered better at this as their softer and hairless skin was thought to attract the leeches.
But woman’s involvement with leeches didn’t end there; Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack) describes a doctors visit to her aunt.
Sunday 19 September 1819
Mr Sunderland [the doctor] called to see my aunt and staid near ½ hour. She is to have 2 leeches set on each foot to ease the noise & swimming in the head.
Monday 20 September
My aunt had the leech-woman from Northowram this afternoon. 2 leeches on each foot. Her charge, 6d. each leech as is common, & my aunt gave her a shilling over, for which the woman seemed exceedingly obliged. They seem to have done, my aunt says. She fancies she felt her [head] relieved immediately after the bleeding.
But what to do if you didn’t have a leech-woman in your area, why you would send to the local apothecary, who would supply you with leeches. They would come in small glass jars, always with a broad lip for a cover to be tied over it, as they were notorious for escaping.
You might get a leech or two if the doctor prescribed them, or you might keep some in the house, as we keep a few medicines today. For example Jane Austen wrote to her sister on Thursday June 23 1814;
We had handsome presents from the Gt House yesterday, a ham & the 4 leeches.
But when you had your leeches, who was to apply them – the women of course. It was considered the duties of any well brought up young woman to care for the sick. If there was sickness in the house, the women cared for the invalids, if you lived on your own, and were believed to be unwell, then you could almost guarantee that some young female relative would be dispatched to oversee your care – whatever you, or the young woman, wanted.
Guides to young women’s behaviour detailed how they should handle leeches, the ‘Young Lady’s Friend’ first dismisses any squeamishness;
If you have been with persons who were foolish enough to feel any disgust at leeches, do not be infected by their folly; but reason yourself into a more rational state of mind. Look at them as a curious piece of mechanism; remember that, although their office is an unpleasant one to our imagination, it is their proper calling, and that when they come to us from the apothecary they are perfectly clean, though slippery to the touch. Their ornamental stripes should recommend them even to the eye, and their valuable services to our feelings.
Then explain how to use them;
To make them take hold in the very spot required, you have only to take a piece of blotting-paper, and cut small holes in it where you wish them to bite; lay this over the place, and put the leeches on the paper. Not liking the surface of the paper, they readily take hold of the skin, where it appears through the holes, and much trouble is thus saved. When they are filled, they will let go their hold, and you have only to put them on a deep plate, and sprinkle a little salt on their heads, and they will clear themselves of blood; then wash them in water with the chill off, and put them away in clean cold water.
I don’t know what you think, but I am glad that this woman’s activity has disappeared.
Two hundred years ago, John Keats died in Rome. On his way to Italy he landed for a short time somewhere on the south coast of England, the last time he was to set foot on English soil. A century later Thomas Hardy wrote that;
“In September 1820 Keats, on his way to Rome, landed one day on the Dorset coast, and composed the sonnet, “Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art.” The spot of his landing is judged to have been Lulworth Cove.”
In fact there is some doubt that Keats wrote ‘Bright Star’ during a stop on the Dorset Coast, some people have considered it was written the previous year, whatever the truth, it is a beautiful sonnet, addressed to his lover Fanny Brawne.
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors–
No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.
In 1920 Thomas Hardy used the story as the basis of a remarkable poem, imagining himself as a time traveller;
Lulworth Cove in Hardy’s day
At Lulworth Cove a Century Back
Had I but lived a hundred years ago
I might have gone, as I have gone this year,
By Warmwell Cross on to a Cove I know,
And Time have placed his finger on me there:
“YOU SEE THAT MAN?”–I might have looked, and said,
“O yes: I see him. One that boat has brought
Which dropped down Channel round Saint Alban’s Head.
So commonplace a youth calls not my thought.”
“YOU SEE THAT MAN?”–“Why yes; I told you; yes:
Of an idling town-sort; thin; hair brown in hue;
And as the evening light scants less and less
He looks up at a star, as many do.”
“YOU SEE THAT MAN?”–“Nay, leave me!” then I plead,
“I have fifteen miles to vamp across the lea,
And it grows dark, and I am weary-kneed:
I have said the third time; yes, that man I see!
“Good. That man goes to Rome–to death, despair;
And no one notes him now but you and I:
A hundred years, and the world will follow him there,
(Those of you who have read some of my short essays will know I can go down odd byways, so if you are not interested in curious numismatic history, please go to the end and I think the punchline there will surprise and I hope please you.)
Fifty years ago the government, pandering to foreigners and people who could only count on their fingers, changed our simple currency of four farthings to a penny, twelve pence to a shilling and twenty shillings to a pound, which had worked well for over a thousand years and ensured that every child had to have a reasonable knowledge of mathematics to survive, to a boring system of one hundred pence to a pound.
But I am not going to revisit that controversial decision, rather I want to consider far more controversial coins, the penny and two-penny coins of 1797.
In the 1790’s England’s currency was a mess (so was Scotland and Ireland’s but not quite so bad). The problem was the Royal Mint, it had become stuck in its ways since it was Sir Isaac Newton’s day job, and it didn’t like copper coins.
This may seem odd, but it was true. It felt that coins should be gold or silver. There were plenty of them, in gold there were Guineas, Half-Guineas and Third-Guineas (no Sovereigns then as the pound was a value, not a coin). In silver there were Crowns, Half-Crowns, Shillings, Sixpences, Groats and Threepences. Twenty years previously they had been forced to make Halfpennies and Farthings (again the penny was a value not a coin) but these were not very good and since then the Industrial Revolution had happened.
This had led to the growth of cities and factories, where people to be paid regularly, and without small change it could be difficult. Giving three men a guinea and saying, ‘That’s your pay for a week, sort it out’, wasn’t very helpful.
There were two ways people tried to get by, one was for firms to issue their own money, this worked but caused it’s own problems, the second was forgery. This was so common that one turnpike company complained that half the coins collected one year were forgeries.
A real halfpenny of 1775 and a contemporary forgery
Finally, things had to change and so, the government ordered that a new coinage should be authorised, penny and twopenny coins. There was just one issue, that didn’t seem too much of a problem, the mint insisted that;
The intrinsic value of such [coins], workmanship included, should correspond as nearly as possible with the nominal value of the same.
In other words a Penny should be worth a penny in metal and manufacturing costs, which would have been fine but for two things.
First, vast deposits of copper had just been found in North Wales and Anglesey, Britain was now the main producer of copper in the world, and the cost of the metal had plummeted.
Second, instead of the coins being produced one at a time by a man with a screw press in the basement of the Tower of London, the contract to make them had been given to Boulton and Watt. The coins were to be made using the massive steam presses at the Soho Factory in Birmingham, the most technologically advanced place on earth, manufacturing costs were tiny.
All this seemed great, but it meant that to fit the criteria of the Penny being worth one penny, it would have to be massive. In fact so big that the suggestion made by Charles Darwin’s mad grandfather Erasmus Darwin could be brought to reality. The coins would be made so that, ‘One Penny should weigh On Ounce and each Two Penny piece Two Ounces.’.
The coins are beautiful, but big – and heavy. If you had one shilling and fourpence in your pocket it would weigh one pound (453 grams if you count on your fingers). They were nicknamed ‘Cartwheels’ in part from the broad border and in part from their weight. They were universally disliked and after 1797 they were replaced by coins of the same size we used until fifty years ago.
You would think that coins minted in only one year over two hundred years ago, and rapidly withdrawn would be very rare but they are not. For one reason, remember they weighed one and two ounces. A properly made one ounce weight cost more than a penny, and so they survived, in kitchens and small shops, on the scales as weights!
But you may remember, if you got this far, I mentioned slavery in the title of this piece. A few years ago I found this copper disc, I could see it had been a coin hammered flat, a withdrawn cartwheel penny no longer used as a coin, just a copper disc. Then I turned it over, and felt faint as I read the words crudely stamped on the back, perhaps the greatest slogan ever written.
AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER 1808
This was the motto of the abolitionists, and the date is the year after the Slave Trade was abolished. Tokens were routinely handed out at political meetings, was this made for a meeting celebrating the ending of the ‘the vile traffic in slaves’? or was it a meeting called to restart the campaign to finally abolish slavery throughout the Empire and later the World?
Whatever the truth, it still makes my hand tingle when I handle this tiny scrap of metal with its wonderful message.
A year or two ago I bought, in a mixed lot at auction, an object that was described as a set of ‘folding toothpicks’. I didn’t think they were toothpicks, but they were beautifully made and clearly had some important function, it took a while before I realised they had been very important indeed. This is their story.
In the eighteenth century the terrible disease of smallpox was endemic, every so often there were outbreaks and many people were disfigured or died. There was a form of treatment, inoculation or variolation, which had been introduced to Britain by Mary Wortley Montague at the beginning of the century. But this treatment was, in many cases, as bad as the disease, because variolation involved giving the patient, what was hoped would be, a mild form of smallpox. If you were lucky you would survive, without too many scars, and would then have natural immunity in the future, if not, you died. Position and wealth couldn’t help you, the Princes Octavius and Alfred, the youngest sons of George III both died after being inoculated.
In the West Country people had long noticed that if a person caught the disease cowpox, they were subsequently immune to smallpox. This was possibly one of the reasons that milkmaids were proverbially pretty, their faces weren’t scarred with pock marks. Although well-known it wasn’t until 1774 that one man, a Dorset farmer called Benjamin Jesty, decided to try to recreate this immunity by deliberately giving someone cowpox.
He had caught the disease as a child, so he couldn’t experiment on himself, so he decided to give cowpox to his family, he scratched the arms of his two sons and rubbed in ‘matter’ from a cowpox sore from a cow. They were ill for a few days, and then were thereafter immune to smallpox (this was tested nearly thirty years later). Then he tried it on his wife, this time she became seriously ill, and nearly died. The local doctor said he admired what Jesty had done, and would try and protect him if his wife died and he was charged with murder. Happily she recovered, but the local people regarded him as potential wife-murderer, and in due course he had to leave his home at Yetminster in north Dorset, and had to move many miles to Worth Matravers in the south of the county.
Twenty years later, in Gloucestershire, Dr Edward Jenner began his experiments. He knew of the traditions about Cowpox, he may have heard of Jesty, but he was a doctor and managed to treat his patients without danger. In 1796 he gave a boy cowpox, there was a slight illness, then he tested the boy – he was immune to smallpox. Dr Jenner carried out many more experiments, and finally published his results in a form other doctors would believe, and so saved millions of lived. As the material came from a cow (vacca in Latin) he called it vaccine, and the process of administering it vaccination.
But what has that to do with the tiny object I showed you at the beginning of the blog. It took me a while but I eventually discovered that these are early vaccination points, a persons arm would be scratched and vaccine, the matter from the cow pock on a cow, or a previously infected person, would be transferred to the wound, using the points. The points are made from either bone or ivory as it was found that metals could kill the vaccine.
So, as we await the vaccines that will end the present pestilence, look on this tiny object, which almost certainly saved hundreds of lives, and think of (and thank) those doctors who, in Kipling’s words;
The weather had changed and it was wet and cold as the coach made its way across the moors towards Leeds.
“No passengers today.”
“Who would want to be out today?” Said Tom miserably.
“Perhaps there will be somebody wanting to stop the coach.”
“In this weather, not even a highwayman would be out.”
The guard nodded and they continued their wet way across the moor. Suddenly the mist in front cleared for a moment and they saw a figure standing by the road. As they slowed the guard said, “She looks too poor to be a passenger.”
“If she wants a ride we will take her up. No one should be outside in weather like this.”
“You’re too good.” The guard grunted.
Then there was cry from the coachman. “Nancy!” He threw the reins to the guard and slid to the ground. As he approached the woman she recognised him and covered her face.
“Nancy, what has happened to you?” The young woman just sobbed. Tom almost had to lift her into the coach, which is when he saw she was carrying a baby.
He wrapped a blanket around her, then climbed back onto the box and drove on.
“That was Nancy?” the guard said in amazement.
“Yes, she looks very bad, and she has a child.”
“But why did you help her?”
“She is ill, no Christian could leave someone out in this weather, not if they could help them.”
“But you were going to marry her, then she ran off with another man two weeks before your wedding. Don’t you care?”
“Of course I care, I care for Nancy. I wanted her to be happy, but now she needs my help and I will do what I can.”
“You’re a better man than I am Tom Blakeborough.” Added the guard, as they swung into the inn.
There were passengers waiting for them, so they couldn’t stop long. Tom carried Nancy inside and told the landlady to care for her.
“I will be back tomorrow and pay what’s due then.” He called as he drove away. “Like a true good Samaritan,” the landlady said, as she went to settle Nancy in a warmed bed.
The following day Tom returned, to grave news. “The baby died during the night, and I doubt that she is long for this world.” Said the landlady, leading him upstairs. “She knows she is dying, and is desperate to see you before…”
Tom entered the warm room, a fire was burning and Nancy was wrapped up in the bed. She turned her pale face to Tom, and gave a weak smile. “I’m glad I got to see you one last time.” She whispered, “I want to ask for your forgiveness.”
“There is nothing to forgive.” He replied.
“Yes there is, the man I left you for was a rogue. After a few months I found out that he was a highwayman and was already married. I left him, he was angry and came after me, but was killed in a brawl before he could find me. When I discovered he was dead, I decide to return to my parents, that was when you found me.”
“I am glad I did.”
“I am too, I am happy I can see your kind face one last time.” He tried to say something, she shook her head weakly.
“Tom, I am dying, I know that. I also know something else, I want to tell you something that you must keep secret and only tell to your son.”
“I don’t have a son.”
“But you will, and he too will be a coachman, as will his son and his grandson as far as I can see. And to all of you I make this promise, when you are in greatest need, when speed is of the essence, especially when a life hangs in the balance, I will come to you. I will take the reins and guide you safe through storm and snow.”
She fell back on the pillow, he bent to say something, but realised that she could never hear anything again. He kissed her cold forehead and left the room.
Part 2 The Pardon
The word ran round the inn, and out into the street. The two men were surrounded by well-wishers, but they were still worried. “We have the pardon, but we need to get it to Durham.” He said to the innkeeper then, looking up at the church clock, added. “In under ten hours!” A mutter went round the crowd, to get to Durham in so short a time, that was nigh impossible. What use was the pardon if it arrived too late, an innocent man would hang.
The innkeeper had run to the stables at the back. “Tom Blakeborough.” He shouted, “You’re needed.”
Tom looked up. “But I only just got in!”
“A pardon has just arrived for George Hutton. But it’s got to get to Durham by tomorrow morning. You’re the finest coachman in Yorkshire, and with what’s coming.” They looked to the north, the sky was already dark with the approaching storm.
“Aye, I’ll try.” Tom replied bluntly. Four horses were harnessed up, and less than half an hour after they had arrived the men, and the precious pardon, began their journey.
Seven miles out the rain came down, heavier than he had ever seen, he could hardly see beyond the leading horses head. He had no choice but to slow the coaches pace to a crawl, one of the passengers opened a window, doubtless to ask why he had slowed, took one look at the weather and shut the window.
Tom was concentrating on his rain-soaked horses, when he felt a touch on his hands, he looked down to see a thin, pale hand. Beside him sat a woman, there was a sudden flash of lightning and he saw it was Nancy, Nancy whose new-dug grave he had stood beside two years earlier.
The pale figure gently took the reins from his unresisting hands, and cracked them. The horses sprang forward into a gallop, they couldn’t see but were more terrified of what was driving them than the featureless road ahead. Tom clutched onto the box, it was all he could do to hold on, but Nancy just sat calmly urging on the horses. Inside the coach he could hear the men shouting, but ignored them as he could do nothing, just sit and watch a long dead woman drive his coach into the jet-black night.
He knew they drove through villages, as he saw the occasional light from a window, he heard the sound of the wheels change as they crossed the moors, but it was not until a very grey dawn broke could he get any idea of where they were, and by the time it was fully light he could see the great bulk of Durham Cathedral.
As they entered the city he felt the reins placed in his hands, he turned to thank Nancy but she just smiled and vanished. After this it was a blur, they drove towards the prison, the crowds were already gathering, there were cheers as the pardon was rushed inside, a purse of gold was pressed into his hand, and he finally drove to the inn where he could see his horses settled and collapse into a bed.
He didn’t speak of Nancy then, not for a year, until he told the pretty daughter of the Durham inn keeper, on their wedding night. She kissed him and said, “I saw you as you drove into Durham, I saw the lady beside you, she smiled at me, that was when I knew I should marry you – as she wished it.”
When their son was learning to drive, he told him about Nancy. Though he never saw her, he told his son in turn, as Nancy had predicted all his descendants drove coaches. As horses gave way to petrol and diesel, the story continued to be passed down, father told son, told daughter.
3 Snow Baby
The paramedic recognised the signs, he couldn’t deliver the baby, they had to get the mother to hospital. If they didn’t, and soon, the mother might, and the baby would, die.
It had been clear when they had arrived, but by the time they had got her into the ambulance a foot of snow had fallen, the wind blew flurries of snow into the ambulance as the driver shut the door. Tamsin walked to the cab, she was having trouble seeing the gateposts of the farm, and how she was to see the road across the moors in this weather, she had no idea.
She opened the door and was about to climb in, and stopped in shock. In the driving seat was a thin young woman in a long, old fashioned, dress. For a moment she just gaped, then suddenly remembered her grandfather’s story.
“Nancy?” She gasped, the woman nodded. With a mixture of fear and wonder Tamsin ran round to the other side and climbed in, as soon as she sat they were off. She could see nothing, just snow in the ambulance’s headlights. She held onto her seat belt as the ambulance raced across the moors, swinging round corners heading straight up steep slopes. It didn’t skid or slide but drove smoothly across the snow and ice covered roads.
As her initial terror subsided, she turned to watch Nancy driving the ambulance. She sat there, hands on the wheel, looking forward. Tamsin found herself wondering how a woman who had died more than two centuries earlier had learnt to drive, then laughed at such a silly question. She was in an ambulance, being driven in impossible conditions, by a ghost who had made a promise to one of her ancestors.
Suddenly they were driving through a village, she knew where they were, it would normally take about half an hour driving to the hospital. But now? The blizzard hit again, and everything vanished, she looked across at Nancy who looked back at her and gave her sad little smile.
Then suddenly the snow cleared again and she realised that, impossibly, they were less than half a mile from the hospital. She radioed ahead, checked on the patient, her colleague was amazed that they were there so soon. Nancy swung the ambulance into place, the door at the back opened, nurses rushed to lift the woman out. Tamsin turned to thank Nancy, but she had gone.
A day or two later a nurse called and said that someone wanted to see her in maternity. Surprised she went to the ward to be greeted by a young mother, still pale, with a little baby in her arms.
“I want to thank you, if it hadn’t been for you we would both have died.” Tamsin thanked her, and tried to pass it off, but the mother became very serious.
“I haven’t given her a name yet, and I feel that it is somehow very important. What’s your name, I would like to call her after the person who saved her life.”
Tamsin hesitated for a moment, “Nancy, I would love it if you called her Nancy.”
“Thank you Nancy.” The mother said softly as she bent over her baby girl.
This tale is based on fact, or as much fact as any ghost story can have. The story of Tom and Nance, her betrayal, his kindness, her promise and her subsequent help were recorded over a hundred years ago. As for the later tale, well after the first Tom’s death Nance never reappeared though some of his descendants were sure she would come again, if the situation warranted it. I just made that part of the tale come true.
This is written in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, December 17, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that features stilettos. Who will wear them and why? Go where the prompt leads!
Rather than the footwear, I thought of the blade – and recalled a very unusual parasol handle I once saw in a museum, from there it was a simple step to involve the remarkable Miss Fluart, the eighteenth-century character who has inspired several tales of mine. In one tale she and her friend outwit some men who have been assaulting women at a theatre – leaving one with crushed and broken fingers, now read on.
“So Miss, do you know who I am?”
Miss Fluart looked down at his twisted fingers.
“I think you are the man who liked assaulting women.”
“Harmless, until you took a hand. Now for some fun. No one will hear you scream.”
She looked round the empty Park, stepped back and took a grip on her parasol. He laughed and moved closer to her.
There was a click as she twisted the handle, and withdrew a twelve-inch blade.
He looked into her unblinking eyes, as she held the stiletto to his throat.