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, 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.
(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;
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.
We have just started to enjoy our Advent Calendar, a splendid fabric one made by Helen, with little pockets in which sweets can be inserted.
I realised as I was filling it that it is some time since I have written a blog about curious links and connections, so here is one now.
Take another look at the calendar and answer these questions;
How is this picture linked to Peter Pan?
And can you work out the very tangential link to Jane Austen.
Now have a chocolate and think about it.
Right, now for the answer.
You will see from the picture that the sweets we chose to use were Quality Street. If you go back a few years the packaging always included a picture of a Napoleonic soldier and a late Georgian Lady (1830’s ish) who were informally known as Major Quality and Miss Sweetness.
In 1936, when the sweet maker Harold Mackintosh decided to produce a selection of individually wrapped toffees (the range soon expanded to include other types of sweet as well) he looked around for a name for his new collection. He found it in the title of a popular comedy, Quality Street. This had been written by J. M. Barrie, hence the Peter Pan connection.
The story has a suitably comedic plot, set during and after the Napoleonic war, which involves the heroine, delightfully named Phoebe Throssel, pretending to have a flirty niece, played by herself, leading to misunderstandings and rapid costume changes.
As well as being popular on stage, there was a beautiful illustrated edition published.
The illustrations by Hugh Thompson, helped give rise to the images on the packaging of the sweets. While Hugh Thompson is generally considered one of the greatest illustrators of Jane Austen.
I have just been looking through a collection of extracts from newspapers and other sources for the years 1774 to 6.
Does any of this sound familiar?
The Public Advertiser, Friday, November 3rd. 1775
The present violent Cold and Cough, with which all ranks of people are more or less afflicted, is equally dangerous as general. Thousands are confined to their beds by it; many have lost their speech by it, and one Weston, a broker on Saffron hill, has totally lost his hearing by it.
There is thought not to be a single family in London of which one or more are not affected with a violent cold. The physical people attribute this disorder to a noxious quality in the air; and ’tis observed the same person does not catch it twice.
Supposing the disease was spread by bad air, experiments were made;
The Public Advertiser, Saturday, November 4th.
The malignancy of the air was tried on Thursday morning last in the Spa fields by fixing a piece of raw meat to the tail of a paper-kite, which (after being suspended about forty minutes) came down quite putrefied, and in one part nearly perforated.
The pestilence also affected the arts;
The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser Tuesday, November 7th.
The desertion of the theatres in consequence of the disease with which so many are afflicted, has been productive of one agreeable effect, that of bringing Mr. Garrick forward in Benedict much earlier than was expected. It cannot be matter of surprise that Roscius should have escaped the infection, as his spirits and constitution seems proof against the attacks of age itself; after above thirty campaigns, his ardour and execution appears rather to increase. Last night he supported the character with undiminished excellence, and in the speech where he meditates, and then resolves on marriage, he soared beyond himself.
People seemed to have happily congregated, spreading the pestilence to the profit of the doctors. Some people thought that doctor’s treatments were very ineffective (which they probably were) and self-medicated.
George Cumberland, letter to his brother Richard, Friday, November 10th.
At the play. Garrick acted and the house was so full you could not have thrust your little finger in, notwithstanding [the] “plague” sweeps us away by dozens…. Everybody has had cold, and many violent ones too. . . . The sons of Galen have made a harvest of it, and much human blood has been spilt every hour . . . but with the assistance of black currant jelly, warm broth for dinner, egg wine at night, joined to abstinence from malt liquor, I have as nearly got the better of as violent a cold and sore throat as most have had, – a cold . . . that would have produced an apothecary five pounds with good management ….
At least this treatment wouldn’t do any harm!
Reading on in the collection, as today, there were problems with some of the American colonies, but only one case of voter fraud.
The Annual Register, Tuesday, September 17th 1776
At this sessions a gentleman was tried for perjury, in polling twice for Mr. Wilkes at the late election; but it appearing that what he did was the effect of an habitual intoxication or rather permanent stupidity thereby produced, he was acquitted.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the saying goes.
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.
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)