Category Archives: Historical tales

The Two Dolls – Or an anti-racism story from Georgian England

As a contribution to Black History Month I give you this story which was written in 1830, I will tell you more at the end.

A lucky day it was for little Fanny Elvington when her good aunt Delmont consented to receive her into her family, and sent for her from a fine old place, six miles from hence, Burdon Park, where she had been living with her maternal grandfather, to her own comfortable house in Brunswick Square. Poor Fanny had no natural home, her father, General Elvington, being in India with his lady; and a worse residence than the Park could hardly be devised for a little girl, since Lady Burdon was dead, Sir Richard too sickly to be troubled with children, and the care of his grand-daughter left entirely to a vulgar old nurse and a superfine housekeeper. A lucky day for Fanny was that in which she exchanged their misrule for the wise and gentle government of her good aunt Delmont.

Fanny Elvington was a nice little girl, who had a great many good qualities, and, like other little girls, a few faults; which had grown up like weeds under the neglect and mismanagement of the people at the Park, and threatened to require both time and pains to eradicate. For instance, she had a great many foolish antipathies and troublesome fears, some caught from the affectation of the housekeeper, some from the ignorance of the nurse: she shrieked at the sight of a mouse, squalled at a frog, was well-nigh ready to faint at an earwig, and quite as much afraid of a spider as if she had been a fly; she ran away from a quiet ox, as if he had been a mad bull, and had such a horror of chimney sweepers that she shrank her head under the bedclothes whenever she heard the deep cry of “sweep! sweep!” forerunning the old clothesman and the milkman on a frosty morning, and could hardly be persuaded to look at them, poor creatures, dressed in their tawdry tinsel and dancing round Jack of the Green on Mayday. But her favourite fear, her pet aversion, was a black man; especially a little black footboy who lived next door, and whom she never saw without shrinking, and shuddering, and turning pale.

It was a most unlucky aversion for Fanny, and gave her and her aunt more trouble than all her other mislikings put together, inasmuch as Pompey came oftener in view than mouse or frog, spider or earwig, ox or chimney-sweep. How it happened nobody could tell, but Pompey was always in Fanny Elvington’s way. She saw him twice as often as anyone else in the house. If she went to the window, he was sure to be standing on the steps: if she walked in the Square garden, she met him crossing the pavement: she could not water her geraniums in the little court behind the house, but she heard his merry voice singing in broken English as he cleaned the knives and shoes on the other side of the wall; nay, she could not even hang out her Canary-bird’s cage at the back door, but he was sure to be feeding his parrot at theirs. Go where she would, Pompey’s shining black face and broad white teeth followed her: he haunted her very dreams; and the oftener she saw him, whether sleeping or waking, the more her unreasonable antipathy grew upon her. Her cousins laughed at her without effect, and her aunt’s serious remonstrances were equally useless.

The person who, next to Fanny herself, suffered the most from this foolish and wicked prejudice, was poor Pompey, whose intelligence, activity, and good-humour had made him a constant favourite in his master’s house, and who had sufficient sensibility to feel deeply the horror and disgust which he had inspired in his young neighbour. At first he tried to propitiate her by bringing groundsel and chickweed for her Canary-bird, running to meet her with an umbrella when she happened to be caught in the rain, and other small attentions, which were repelled with absolute loathing.

“Me same flesh and blood with you, missy, though skin be black,” cried poor Pompey one day when pushed to extremity by Fanny’s disdain, “same flesh and blood, missy!” a fact which the young lady denied with more than usual indignation; she looked at her own white skin, and she thought of his black one; and all the reasoning of her aunt failed to convince her, that where the outside was so different, the inside could by possibility be alike. At last Mrs. Delmont was fain to leave the matter to the great curer of all prejudices, called Time, who in this case seemed even slower in his operations than usual.

In the meanwhile, Fanny’s birthday approached, and as it was within a few days of that of her cousin, Emma Delmont, it was agreed to celebrate the two festivals together. Double feasting! double holiday! double presents! never was a gayer anniversary. Mrs. Delmont’s own gifts had been reserved to the conclusion of the jollity, and after the fruit was put on the table, two huge dolls, almost as big as real babies, were introduced to the little company. They excited and deserved universal admiration. The first was a young lady of the most delicate construction and the most elaborate ornament; a doll of the highest fashion, with sleeves like a bishop, a waist like a wasp, a magnificent bustle, and petticoats so full and so puffed out round the bottom, that the question of hoop or no hoop was stoutly debated between two of the elder girls. Her cheeks were very red, and her neck very white, and her ringlets in the newest possible taste. In short, she was so completely a la mode that a Parisian milliner might have sent her as a pattern to her fellow tradeswoman in London, or the London milliner might have returned the compliment to her sister artist over the water. Her glories, however, were fated to be eclipsed. The moment that the second doll made its appearance, the lady of fashion was looked at no longer.

The second doll was a young gentleman, habited in the striped and braided costume which is the ordinary transition dress of boys between leaving off petticoats and assuming the doublet and hose. It was so exactly like Willy Delmont’s own attire, that the astonished boy looked at himself, to be sure that the doll had not stolen his clothes off his back. The apparel, however, was not the charm that fixed the attention of the young people; the attraction was the complexion, which was of as deep and shining a black, as perfect an imitation of a black boy, in tint and feature, as female ingenuity could accomplish. The face, neck, arms, and legs were all covered with black silk; and much skill was shown in shaping and sewing on the broad flat nose, large ears, and pouting lips, whilst the white teeth and bright round eyes relieved the monotony of the colour. The wig was of black worsted, knitted, and then unravelled, as natural as if it had actually grown on the head. Perhaps the novelty (for none of the party had seen a black doll before) might increase the effect, but they all declared that they had never seen so accurate an imitation, so perfect an illusion. Even Fanny, who at first sight had almost taken the doll for her old enemy Pompey in little, and had shrunk back accordingly, began at last to catch some of the curiosity (for curiosity is a catching passion) that characterised her companions. She drew near – she gazed – at last she even touched the doll, and listened with some interest to Mrs. Belmont’s detail of the trouble she found in constructing the young lady and gentleman.

“What are they made of, aunt?”

“Rags, my dear!” was the reply: “nothing but rags,” continued Mrs. Delmont, unripping a little of the black gentleman’s foot and the white lady’s arm, and showing the linen of which they were composed-; – “both alike, Fanny,” pursued her good aunt, “both the same colour underneath the skin, and both the work of the same hand – like Pompey and you,” added she more solemnly; “and now choose which doll you will.”

And Fanny, blushing and hesitating, chose the black one; and the next day her aunt had the pleasure to see her show it to Pompey over the wall, to his infinite delight; and, in a very few days, Mrs. Delmont had the still greater pleasure to find that Fanny Elvington had not only overcome and acknowledged her prejudice, but had given Pompey a new half-crown, and had accepted groundsel for her Canary-bird from the poor black boy.

NOTE. — About a month after sitting to me for his portrait, the young black gentleman whom I have endeavoured to describe, (I do not mean Pompey, but the doll,) set out upon his travels. He had been constructed in this little Berkshire of ours for some children in the great county of York, and a friend of mine, travelling northward, had the goodness to offer him a place in her carriage for the journey. My friend was a married woman, accompanied by her husband and another lady, and finding the doll cumbersome to pack, wrapped it in a large shawl, and carried it in her lap baby fashion. At the first inn where they stopped to dine, she handed it carelessly out of the carriage before alighting, and was much amused to see it received with the grave officious tenderness usually shown to a real infant by the nicely dressed hostess, whose consternation, when, still taking it for a living child, she caught a glimpse of the complexion, is said to have been irresistibly ludicrous. Of course my friend did not undeceive her. Indeed I believe she humoured the mistake wherever it occurred all along the north road, to the unspeakable astonishment and mystification of chambermaids and waiters.

The Strangers cropped

This story was written by Mary Russell Mitford, a noted writer in the first half of the nineteenth century. Her life story is remarkable, I won’t go into details, please look her up, but she finally achieved success with her stories about rural life. These were first published in various magazines, and then brought together in several volumes under the collective title of Our Village. The Two Dolls is to be found in the fourth volume published in 1830, and subsequently included in one of many collections of her stories called Children of the Village.

These stories are based upon her life in Three Mile Cross near Reading in Berkshire, including a mixture of real and imaginary people. One real person, who appears in the background of several stories, was a professional doll maker. So I suspect that the doll was real (and probably the story of his travels to Yorkshire are true), though Pompey and Fanny Elvington are just delightful and remarkable fiction.

1 Comment

Filed under Black History Month, Georgian, Historical tales, Regency, Remarkable Women

Sir Walter Scott & Jane Austen – a matter of admiration.

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Historical tales, Jane Austen, Regency

A Matter of Self Defence or, Miss Fluart’s ‘Admirer’

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.

Seaside - 1809 v2 Ackermann's Fashion Plate 18 - Promenade Dress

“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.

“Will anybody hear you scream?” She replied.

4 Comments

Filed under Georgian, Historical tales

A Tradition Begins – and Ends

Truro Cathedral

The old singer watched as the happy crowd left the cathedral. The Bishop came over to him and shook his hand.

“I didn’t think it would be like this, it was just an old tradition.”

“Yes, but a wonderful one, you would go round the town singing carols and using them to tell the Christmas story. I just brought it inside.”

“But it was wonderful, will you do it next year?”

“And the next, and others will do it as well, soon there will be carol services everywhere. It was once your family tradition, now it will be everybody’s.”

In 1880 Edward Benson organised the first service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Truro Cathedral. Partly based on a local tradition of singing various carols around the city on Christmas Eve, it is considered the predecessor of the carol services now held and enjoyed throughout the world.

This is written in response to the Carrot Ranch December 3, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes family traditions. Go where the prompt leads! I have, of course, gone back in time to the creation of many family traditions,

6 Comments

Filed under Christmas Musings, Historical tales, Victorian

The Vicar and the Sleeping Butterfly

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew

The Rev. Octavius Pickard-Cambridge walked briskly through the stooked wheat sheaves on his way to his tiny church of Winterborne Tomson. As the service commenced he saw a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly fluttering at the window, during his sermon it settled on one of the beams over his head, folded its wings and seemed to fall asleep. He smiled to himself at the idea that his sermons could even make butterflies sleep.

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew, pulpit

The following week the corn had been carted away, and his path ran through stubble. As he climbed into his pulpit he glanced up, and noticed in surprise that the butterfly was still there. It had settled by a small knot in the wood, so he could tell it hadn’t moved since the previous week.

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew, chancel roof

The following Sunday it was still there, and the next. Outside the church the seasons changed, leaves browned and fell. The first frost covered the ground, and made patterns on the church windows.

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew, South wall

But the butterfly slept on.

Christmas came, the singers packed into the West Gallery roared out the ancient Christmas Carols.

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew, west gallery

But the butterfly slept on.

Snow came, and it was hard to trudge to the church on a Sunday, the water froze in the font so a baby had to be christened with water brought in a kettle from the Manor House.

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew, font & cover

But the butterfly slept on.

The snow melted and February lived up to its country name of ‘fill-dyke’, water puddled on the church floor.

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew, interior

But the butterfly slept on.

Until finally the seasons turned, flowers poked their heads through the brown leaves, blossom began to turn the hedges white. As the church door was opened the butterfly finally awoke, and during his sermon the vicar saw it find its way out of the door.

That evening the Rev. Octavius Pickard-Cambridge settled down and wrote an account of what he had seen, the first time anybody had watched a hibernating insect continuously throughout the winter.

Sleeping butterfly1

4 Comments

Filed under Historical tales, Scientific History, Victorian

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.

DSC01193

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)

Leave a comment

Filed under Apples, Georgian, Historical tales

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.

eilmer-pub-sign-1-1

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Flight, Historical tales

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!

5 Comments

Filed under Historical tales, Scientific History

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

4 Comments

Filed under Historical tales, plague, Victorian

The Attack on the Exeter Mail

Night had fallen as the mail coach pulled up in front of the Inn, the ostlers ran out to change the horses, postbags were exchanged, and mugs of ale were passed to the driver and guard.

Then

The lead horse screamed, in the gloom the driver saw that something had leapt onto the horses neck. He could see blood flowing, but what was it? The terrified ostler swung his lantern round, and they could see. Now it was for the men to scream, it was impossible!

In Wiltshire, in 1816, the Exeter Mail had been attacked by a Lion!

This completely true tale, it happened on the 20th October 1816, is written in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, January 30, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a postal carrier in an extreme situation. I think a lion attack is pretty extreme.

5 Comments

Filed under Georgian, Historical tales, Regency