My brother has just re-posted this on his blog. Something I wrote for him seven years ago, about our grandfather, his remarkable life and a unique war time souvenir.
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Charli Mills latest prompt is here
July 13, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about an unexpected landing. It can be acrobatic, an unplanned move or created into a metaphor. Go where the prompt, or chickens, lead.
As people who read my blog will realise that, amongst many other things, I am fascinated with the early history of flight. By definition flight involves landings, often the most dangerous part of the whole affair.
The men looked at the strange contraption and smiled, they didn’t laugh as that would upset Sir George.
“Climb in there Thomas.” He said, pointing at the small boat with wheels. Thomas grinned at his companions as he sat down and held the tiller.
The men took the ropes and pulled, the machine trundled across the grass, getting faster and faster, then –
The men stopped, open mouthed, the machine was flying.
As the world’s first glider landed Thomas staggered out white faced, he wasn’t laughing now.
“Please sir, I want to give notice, I don’t want to fly again.”
Thomas Appleby was the coachman employed by Sir George Caley, and was the test pilot of his pioneering glider. On landing he is said to have given notice saying ‘he was employed to drive coaches not fly through the air.’
And seventy years later
“I saw light under the wheels, it left the ground.”
Geoffrey grinned, “Then let’s see if it will fly properly.”
He turned back to the aeroplane, a complicated construction of wood wire and fabric. Buttoning up his tweed jacket he climbed up and nodded at his assistant.
The propeller swung and the engine started. He opened the throttle and the aeroplane bounced across the field, suddenly the bouncing stopped, he looked down, he was flying.
He rose to about fifty feet, then turned slightly.
Suddenly he had a thought – I got up here, but how do I get down?
In 1910 the great aircraft designer Geoffrey De Havilland built his first flying machine at Highclere castle. He told the story of managing to get it in the air, then working out how to land after he had taken off for the first time!
I said, when I was beginning to tell the tale, that some of the more remarkable features of the story were based on fact, and suggested that people might like to guess what they were.
They were not the basic features of the story. The idea of two women living together, one of whom was quite prepared to carry a gun, come from the book – Hermsprong, published in 1796, where the wonderful Miss Fluart first came into being.
I have discussed highwaywomen in a previous blog, and as loyal men took to the road during the aftermath of the civil war, the idea of a tough woman doing so was plausible at least. Smugglers certainly used ghost stories to keep people away from some parts of the coast.
One real oddity I mentioned at the beginning of part 2, was the curious fact that county maps in England and Wales never interlinked. Even if the same mapmaker, made maps of adjacent counties and at the same scale, the county boundaries never matched!
However the really weird facts concern the ghost!
I have based Lady Susanna Sterling on two notable West Country ladies, Lady Howard (unidentified) rides in a coach pulled by horses that are sometimes headless. She collects the souls of the dead and, on at least one occasion, deliberately hunted down an evil-doer.
‘About a century ago, a certain George Mace, of Watton, was the ring leader of a gang of’ local poachers. One night he and his followers met near the Hall and arranged to split up into small bands for the night’s work. They were to meet again before the moon went down in a shed behind the Hall. At the appointed time all came to the shed, with one exception-Mace. The poachers waited for a considerable time but their leader did not appear. At last, when they were becoming both angry and alarmed, they heard the sound of approaching wheels and saw a coach drive up to the door of the Hall. It was more brilliantly lit up than any natural coach of those days. They saw its steps let down, its door opened and shut again with a bang, though they could not see by whom. No sooner had the door closed than the lamps went out and the coach itself vanished utterly and without a sound. The frightened men knew they had seen the Spectral Coach but they could not tell for whom it had come. They were not left long in ignorance. Next morning George Mace’s dead body was found lying’ outside the Hall on the very spot where the coach had waited. Dr. Jessop’s informant said there was nothing to show what had killed him. There were no marks of violence on his body nor any signs of sudden illness. His time had come, and he had been fetched away by a Power which even the boldest poacher cannot hope to defy.’
However my main source for the ghost was to be found in Mrs Susanna Gould, known as Madam Gould.
‘She was a woman of very strong character who ruled her dependants firmly and was reputed to be absolutely fearless; during her last illness she refused to go to bed, and died in her chair on April l0th, 1795’
Nearly seventy years after her death the estate was inherited by her great-nephew, the folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould. He was fascinated to discover that, not only did he have a family ghost, but it was one that took an active part in caring for her descendants and the estate.
‘When one of Baring-Gould’s children was ill, the nurse was roused from sleep one night by a knock on the door and a woman’s voice saying: “It is time for her to have her medicine.” Opening the door she saw no one, on another occasion she entered the room where the children were asleep, to see a tall woman in old fashioned clothes bending over their bed.’
And on another occasion.
‘One old woman told Baring-Gould that as a girl she had stolen some apples from the orchard. Her pockets were full and she had one in her hand when she saw Madam Gould, all in white, standing by the gate and pointing to the apple. The terrified girl flung it away and ran to a gap at the other end of the orchard. But the ghost was there before her, pointing to her pocket, and there she stayed until all the stolen fruit was thrown down on the grass.’
But there were problems with having a ghost in the family, which gave me the idea for the opening of the story.
‘In 1864, a man returning from Tavistock by night saw the white-clad ghost at the mouth of a mine-shaft, and broke his leg whilst scrambling hastily over the opposite hedge. Baring-Gould relates that this nearly cost him and his wife a meal. The man’s sister was cook to the Rector of Bratton, and when she heard that the Baring-Goulds were coming over, she refused to cook for any member of that family because Old Madam had caused her brother’s accident.’
All the quotes come from Haunted England by Christina Hole, published in 1940.
The Sunday Living History Interview – Percy Francis, Royal Flying Corps -Grandfather of Geoff and Gordon Le Pard
A guest post on Sally’s blog co authored with the Tangentalist
Chris Eastaugh, an old school friend, recently posted a picture of cake he had made on Facebook and posed the question, ‘An article about Victorian sweetmeats, Gordon Le Pard?’ I may well look at other historic cakes in the future but now I would like to bring my Christmas Musings to an end at Twelfth Night, considering Twelfth cake.
Today we regard Twelfth Night as the occasion for putting the Christmas decorations away, however at the beginning of the nineteenth century, this was when the main Christmas celebrations took place. At the centre of the celebrations was Twelfth Cake. This was an impressively decorated cake, usually supplied by a professional pastry cook, their windows were one of the sights of the period.
In London, with every pastrycook in the city, and at the west end of the town, it is “high change” on Twelfth-day. From the taking down of the shutters in the morning, he, and his men, with additional assistants, male and female, are fully occupied by attending to the dressing out of the window, executing orders of the day before, receiving fresh ones, or supplying the wants of chance customers. Before dusk the important arrangement of the window is completed. Then the gas is turned on, with supernumerary argand-lamps and manifold wax-lights, to illuminate countless cakes of all prices and dimensions, that stand in rows and piles on the counters and sideboards, and in the windows. The richest in flavour and heaviest in weight and price are placed on large and massy salvers; one, enormously superior to the rest in size, is the chief object of curiosity; and all are decorated with all imaginable images of things animate and inanimate. Stars, castles, kings, cottages, dragons, trees, fish, palaces, cats, dogs, churches, lions, milkmaids, knights, serpents, and innumerable other forms in snow-white confectionary, painted with variegated colours, glitter by” excess of light” from mirrors against the walls festooned with artificial “wonders of Flora.” Horne Table Book 1841
These crowds attracted naughty children, who delighted in a particular form of disobedience.
On Twelfth night in London, boys assemble round the inviting shops of the pastrycooks, and dexterously nail the coat-tails of spectators, who venture near enough, to the bottoms of the window frames; or pin them together strongly by their clothes. Sometimes eight or ten persons find themselves thus connected. The dexterity and force of the nail driving is so quick and sure, that a single blow seldom fails of doing the business effectually. Withdrawal of the nail without a proper instrument is out of the question; and, consequently, the person nailed must either leave part of his coat, as a cognizance of his attachment, or quit the spot with a hole in it. At every nailing and pinning shouts of laughter arise from the perpetrators and the spectators. Yet it often happens to one who turns and smiles at the duress of another, that he also finds himself nailed. Efforts at extrication increase mirth, nor is the presence of a constable, who is usually employed to attend and preserve free “ingress, egress, and regress,” sufficiently awful to deter the offenders.
However the more acceptable entertainment took place at home.
First, buy your cake. Then, before your visitors arrive, buy your characters, each of which should have a pleasant verse beneath. Next look at your invitation list, and count the number of ladies you expect; and afterwards the number of gentlemen. Then, take as many female characters as you have invited ladies; fold them up, exactly of the same size, and number each on the back; taking care to make the king No.1, and the queen No.2. Then prepare and number the gentlemen’s characters. Cause tea and coffee to be handed to your visitors as they drop in. When all are assembled and tea over, put as many ladies characters in a reticule as there are ladies present; next put the gentlemen’s characters in a hat. Then call on a gentleman to carry the reticule to the ladies as they sit, from which each lady is to draw one ticket, ,and to preserve it unopened. Select a lady to bear the hat to the gentlemen for the same purpose. There will be one ticket left in the reticule, and another in the hat, which the lady and gentleman who carried each is to interchange, as having fallen to each. Next, arrange your visitors according to their numbers; the king No.1, the queen No.2, and so on. The king is then to recite the verse on his ticket; then the queen the verse on hers; and so the characters are to proceed in numerical order. This done, let the cake and refreshments go round, and hey! for merriment!
Then a very strange thing happened, as Christmas celebrations developed into the modern form, Twelfth cake and the parties associated with them vanished, and vanished very quickly. Only twenty years after the above accounts were written, the Twelfth Cake was simply a memory.
The celebration of Twelfth-Day with the costly and elegant Twelfth-cake has much declined. Formerly, in London, the confectioners’ shops on this day were entirely filled with Twelfth-cakes, ranging in price from several guineas to a few shillings; the shops were tastefully illuminated, and decorated with artistic models, transparencies, &c. We remember to have seen a huge Twelfth-cake in the form of a fortress, with sentinels and flags; the cake being so large as to fill two ovens in baking.
One of the most celebrated and attractive displays was that of Birch, the confectioner. Mr Samuel Birch, born in 1757; he was many years a member of the Common Council, and was elected alderman of the ward of Candlewick, and served as Lord Mayor in 1815, the year of the battle of Waterloo. The alderman used annually to send, as a present, a Twelfth-cake to the Mansion House.
The upper portion of the house in Cornhill has been rebuilt, but the ground-floor remains intact, a curious specimen of the decorated shop-front of the last century. Chambers Book of Days 1864
So tonight, eat a little bit of remaining Christmas Cake (if you have some), and think of one of our lost Christmas traditions.
Monday December 26th 1814
The morning was crisp and bright, the Squire and the Rector were watching as the tree was removed from the pond. The estate woodsmen had cut the stump clear and now three teams of horses had been chained to the tree and were in the process of dragging it clear of the water. Ice cracked as the horses strained, slowly it began to move.
The gentlemen were distracted as a post chaise stopped on the road behind them. A tall gentleman in a long brown coat stepped out, he walked over to see them.
“Excuse me gentlemen, can you direct me to two ladies of the name of Beddoes.”
Sir Thomas looked the brown man up and down and asked.
“Is this to do with Mr David Beddoes?”
The man looked surprised, “What do you know of Mr Beddoes?”
“Only what I have read in the newspapers, and that he is Miss Beddoes cousin.” He paused, then continued. “Allow me to introduce myself, I am Sir Thomas Scott and this is the Reverend Edward Grainger, we are the local magistrates and well acquainted with the Miss Beddoes.”
“Excellent, I am John Shallard, an officer from Bow Street, and I have come to enquire if the Miss Beddoes have any knowledge of their cousin, we believe he came here at the end of November.”
“I believe he did too.” Replied the Rector, “But do not stand out here in the cold, come into the Rectory and we will tell you all we know, then we can visit the Miss Beddoes in their cottage.”
They had just turned away from the pond when there was a shout, they turned to see a man running towards them.
“Rector,” he panted, “in the pond, I fear ‘tis a body.”
“I feared as much,” he replied, then turning to the Runner, “Come with us sir, I am afraid what we find may be of use to you in your enquiries.”
Down by the pond there was a mass of clothing bobbing in the water.
“Go and get the thatch hook from the church, that should reach. I don’t want any of you going in this water.” ordered the Rector. Shortly afterwards two men came running back carrying the long wooden pole with a hook at one end, used for pulling burning thatch from a building. It took three tries before the hook caught on the bundle and it was dragged to shore.
“It’s not one body, it’s two!” shouted one of the men.
The Rector murmured a quiet prayer as Mr Shallard bent and looked at the bodies. They seemed to be wrapped together, he stood up.
“Gentlemen, this is the strangest thing I have ever seen. These bodies are tightly wrapped together, as though one was holding onto the other. However that cannot be as one body has been dead for some time, the other but a little while.”
The Rector and Sir Thomas looked down, at the same time they said, “Michael Scott!”
“Michael Scott,” said the Bow Street Runner, “I know him as Mr Frank Gifford, he had rooms in the same building as Beddoes and Smyth. Do you know who the other man is?”
The face was horribly distorted, both the gentlemen shook their heads, then Dr Gardiner said.
“The buttons on his coat, they are missing.”
“Does that mean something?” Asked the Runner, he eased the coat open and pulled out a watch. Sir Thomas held his hand out, and looked at it closely. He showed it to the Rector, then said.
“This watch bears the monogram of David Beddoes. I suspect the body is his.”
“But why should the body of David Beddoes, who has been dead for at least a month, be grasping the body of Frank Gifford or Michael Scott, who is only recently dead?”
Sir Thomas and Dr Grainger sat on a bench in his garden, looking across the village green. A flock of geese and three goats grazed peacefully.
“Where has Lady Scott taken my wife?” Asked the Rector , “She seemed so agitated, as though there was no time to lose.”
“She and Charlotte have taken your wife to Stanton House, apparently there is some problem with the colour of the cloth for the curtains in the great parlour. They are meeting the linen draper there.”
“Poor man, I pity him.” Dr Grainger paused, “The house will be ready well before the wedding.”
“I never thought it would be James that wanted to postpone the wedding, though I admire him for it. Wanting to be ordained and the Rector of Stanton before they marry.”
They looked across towards the pond again, it was covered with little white flowers.
“As though it was covered in snow,” said Sir Thomas, he paused, “do you ever wonder what happened that night?”
The Rector was silent for a moment, then he leant forward and spoke quietly, “When the door opened, I was the only one who could see clearly. For a moment I saw Michael Scott, I will never forget the terror in his eyes, then he was pulled backwards, and the door slammed.”
“Pulled, who by?” said his friend quietly.
“All I could see were arms round his body – they seemed to be made of snow.”
It suddenly seemed very cold.
Friday December 23rd 1814
The Rev Edward Grainger was eating a boiled egg and sipping tea, the Squire’s copy of the Morning Chronicle was open on the table.
“How curious,” he said, lifting his head he realised that all his family had finished breakfast and left the table. He rapidly finished his tea, discovering that it was now ice cold. He knew his wife, would probably be involved in planning the dinner for Sunday, he followed the old traditions of the village and gave dinner to six poor men and six poor women at Christmas.
He guessed his children had already left the house so he put on his coat and walked towards the green, as he left his gate he saw that there were several people standing around the snowman. As he approached Charles, his younger son ran across to him.
“Come and look father, the snowman, it must be magic.”
He walked up, the snowman stood there as it had done yesterday. He saw his elder son with the girls from the manor, all sensibly wrapped up in thick cloaks with fur muffs, accompanied by Miss Grey their governess.
“James, what is this about a magic snowman then?”
“It’s not magic, it is just very strange. Yesterday the head was facing towards the Rectory, now it is looking across the green towards the park.”
“Perhaps the men knocked it when they moved the tree branches,” The Rector looked around at the disturbed snow, showing traces of where the branches had been moved and cut up the day before.
“But the branches had all been removed by the time we had finished.”
“And what about the buttons?” added Charles. The Rector looked closer at the snowman, down the front were a row of large brass buttons. “They were pebbles yesterday.”
“And they won’t come out.” Added Frances, the youngest of the three girls, “I think it is our cousin, perhaps he really is a wizard.”
The Rector touched the buttons, they were covered with a layer of ice. Only the bottom one could be prised loose, he looked at it, it was very muddy and discoloured but he thought he could make out a monogram.
“I am afraid there is no magic here my dear.” He smiled at Miss Grey. “They are covered in ice and frozen onto the snowman. Also look how dirty they are, I think they must have been on an old coat or something similar that had been lost in the pond. They were probably dragged out yesterday by the branches, someone found them last night and thought they would look good on the snowman. They have got initials on them, I will take this and get it cleaned, my wife may well recognise it.” He paused and looked at Frances. “But what was that about Mr Scott.”
The girl blushed bright red and buried her face in her muff, her elder sister replied for her.
“Fanny thinks Mr Scott is a wizard because there is a wizard called Michael Scot in one of Sir Walter Scott’s stories.”
“I don’t think so my dear.” Said the Rector kindly, “there may have been wizards in Scotland hundreds of years ago, but not in Berkshire today.”
“But he is still a horrid man.” Said Frances defiantly. Eager to change the subject the Rector turned to Charlotte.
“You young ladies must be feeling very cold, why don’t you go to the Rectory and get warm.”
“But isn’t mama getting ready for the dinner on Sunday, the one for the poor people?” Said Charles.
“Then we can help.” Said Charlotte, turning towards the Rectory.
“Parson’s wife in training.” Said Mary to Frances, as they followed their sister. Dr Grainger could see that both Charlotte and James were blushing. As the young men turned to follow the girls he said.
“James, will you come with me to the church, I want you to help me see that everything is ready for Sunday.”
An early nineteenth century decorated church
Slightly reluctantly he followed his father across the frozen green. The church door was open and inside Caleb Smith was standing by a ladder, holding up a branch of holly to his son, who was putting the greenery along the ledge that ran along the bottom of the gallery.
“Still putting up the greenery then.” Said the Rector with a smile.
“T’is the old way sir. I know you don’t care for it but I hope you won’t be stopping it.”
“Oh no, Caleb, I have no wish to stop it. You can keep putting up the decorations as long as you are sexton.” Then, as he turned to walk up towards the communion table, he said quietly to his son, “Though, when he is gone, I doubt there will be anybody who will wish to continue with the tradition. In a few years there will be no more Christmas decorations in the parish.”
“I don’t know.” Replied his son, “I rather like it, and I know Charlotte – Miss Scott likes it as well.”
“Then when you have your own parish, you can decorate your own church.” Said his father with a smile.
“But that will be many years in the future, I know how hard it is to get a living, to get to the point where I can support myself.” He followed his father into the small vestry, where they took the communion plate from a strongbox.
“This will need polishing before tomorrow, we will take it back to the Rectory.” James said, stepping back towards the door. His father stopped him.
“You will be ordained next year, and as soon as you feel that you are capable of taking over a parish then the living of Stanton Lacy is yours.”
“But isn’t that one of your livings, father.”
“No, I am nominally the Rector, but have been holding it for you for the past seven years. The living is in the gift of Sir Thomas and this has been done with his full consent. Both he and I want you to be the Rector of Stanton Lacy.”
“But,” James sat on the tiny wooden chair, his father smiled down at him. He looked stunned, before he could recover himself his father launched another broadside.
“And of course there is Miss Scott.”
“Charlotte, what do you mean?”
“Well, you will shock the entire parish if you tell me you don’t love and want to marry her.”
“The entire parish thinks I want to marry her, everybody, her parents?”
“Of course, especially her parents.”
James was now so pale his father thought he might faint.
“Well, do you love her, do you want to marry her?”
“Of course I do, but I never thought I could, she is a baronet’s daughter. What will her father say if I asked for her?”
“He will probably say yes, but ask you not to get married for a few years, not until you are settled.”
“Oh,” James paused, “What should I do then?”
“Go and talk to Miss Scott now, tell her all I have told you, then I suggest you return to the Manor House with her and talk to her father. I am sure you will find it easier than you think.”
They left the church by the side door and had reached the churchyard gate when they heard a scream. Across the green they saw several people around the snowman, their bright red cloaks showing that some of the girls from the Manor were there, as was a man on horseback. James ran fast across the frozen ground, his father following as fast as he could.
As he approached James could see that the man on horseback was Michael Scott, he was threatening Mary and Frances with his crop, there was no sign of Charlotte. Charles was standing in front of the girls, trying to protect them.
“I will ask again, where did you get the damn hat?” he pointed at the snowman, the Rector saw that it now boasted a battered tricorn hat, the colour had probably once been blue, with light coloured lace along the top edges.
“I just found it by the pond,” sobbed Frances, “And Charles put it on the snowman.”
“Don’t lie, you knew what you are doing, he gave it to you, didn’t he? Tell the truth?” Scott lashed down at the two girls.
“Stop that.” Shouted James, and swung at him with the bag he was carrying. The heavy communion plate hit his arm and he swung sideways, dropping his riding crop. His horse stepped a few paces to one side, Charles bent down and picked up his fallen crop and struck the side of his horse. It neighed and cantered a few paces away from the group. As Mr Scott regained control he turned the horse back to see Dr Grainger and James standing in front of the children.
“Leave here and never return.” The Rector shouted, then he turned his back on the rider and looked at the two girls.
“Are either of you hurt?”
“No sir.” Replied Mary, who was still holding her sister. “He struck at us and missed, then Fanny screamed and James came running.” She smiled at him. He was looking at the bag, aghast.
“Father, I think I have dented the cup. I am afraid I have damaged the communion plate.”
“Don’t worry, everyone even the archbishop would praise you for what you did. But now, let’s get into the Rectory. The girls mustn’t stand outside any longer.”
As they walked up the path the door opened and Mrs Grainger and Charlotte ran out, Miss Grey a few paces behind them. Charlotte wrapped her arms round her sisters and Mrs Grainger wrapped hers round her sons. From the look Charlotte gave James, it was clear that she would have much preferred wrapping her arms round him.
A few minutes later, sitting in the warm parlour, the girls sipping hot drinks Dr Grainger looked at his sons and said.
“The girls cannot walk back across the park now, it is not only getting dark but they are too shocked to do so. James, will you ride to the manor and let Sir Thomas know what has happened and ask him to send the carriage.”
The boys went to harness the horse and, a few minutes later James was riding as fast as he dare on the frozen ground. It wasn’t long before he strode through the front door of the Manor House, only to be greeted by a frightened Lady Scott.
“What has happened? My girls, are they all right?”
“Everybody is all right, they are all at the Rectory.”
At that point Sir Thomas entered, asking exactly the same questions. Now James was able to tell his story, only to be interrupted twice, first by Sir Thomas shouting an order to his servants to bar the house to Michael Scott, then to order the carriage. After James had finished his story he was embraced by Lady Scott whilst Sir Thomas shook him firmly by the hand.
There was no possibility of the carriage going to collect the girls without Lady Scott so Sir Thomas and James waited in the hall whilst she got her cloak and bonnet. Sir Thomas smiled at James.
“I must thank you again for protecting my daughters.”
“I was happy I was able to do so.” He paused, took a deep breath and added. “I would like to continue to protect them, particularly Charlotte.”
Sir Thomas tried to look stern, and failed. “I suppose I should ask you what your prospects are, but I suppose I know that better than you.”
“You mean Stanton Lacy?”
“Yes, when did you learn about it? I know your father hadn’t told you yesterday.”
“He told me this afternoon, just before he told me that everybody knew that Charlotte and I were in love, and suggested that I should talk to you”
“What did you say to that?”
“Nothing, because that was when we heard Fanny scream so I left my father and ran to protect them.”
“Now how can I refuse my consent to the man who left his own father in those circumstances to help my daughters.” He smiled, “I would prefer if you had a long engagement, as Charlotte is very young, but with three women involved I don’t think you and I will have any choice in the matter.”
James looked dazed, he hadn’t expected it to be so easy.
“Your mother and my wife, they have been planning Charlotte’s and your wedding for years, and I am sure that Charlotte will want to have her say as well. All you should do is sit back and say, ‘Yes Dear’, I have found that is always the best idea.”
“What’s a good idea?” Asked his wife who had just returned to the hall. Sir Thomas handed his wife into the carriage before replying.
“Oh, James had just asked permission to marry Charlotte.”
James, sitting opposite, was amazed at her reaction, she sprang to her feet, just as the carriage bumped on a frozen rut, and fell half across her husband. He burst out laughing.
“There’s no need to react so violently. It’s all right, I refused of course.”
“Refused, how could you,” she burst out, “when that is what Elizabeth and I have been planning for years.” Then she saw her husband’s laughing face and sat back, smiling at James.
As soon as they arrived Lady Scott ran into the Rectory and went straight into the parlour. Mary, Frances and Charles were seated at a table by the fire, playing spillikins. Miss Grey was quietly reading.
“Where is Charlotte?” she demanded.
“She is with Mrs Grainger, they are looking at the clothing that will be going to the Alms House for Christmas.”
“Parson’s wife in training.” Said Mary, her mother smiled and said, “Quite right.”
Mary looked stunned as Charlotte entered to be embraced by her mother, then everybody entered and there were explanations, congratulations, mulled wine and happiness, in the midst of all this everybody seemed to have forgotten the reason that the carriage had been sent to pick up the girls.
Sir Thomas remembered as all his womenfolk were climbing into the carriage. He bent down to the Rector and said.
“I want to talk about this, I will come tomorrow, will that be all right?”
“Of course,” his friend replied.
As the carriage drove away he looked across the green. He was certain now, the snowman had moved, it was half way across the green. He felt very cold, and it was not from the hard frost.
Last year I was challenged to write a Regency ghost story, and this is the result. My brother kindly posted it on his blog (I wasn’t blogging then) and has just re-blogged it here. I have decided to publish it here as well, so read on.
The Snowman (Robert Johnson circa 1790) later engraved by Thomas Bewick
Thursday December 22nd 1814
That morning the Rev Edward Grainger scraped the ice off his study window and looked across his garden towards the village. His garden, in which he spent a great deal of time in more clement weather, dipped down towards the road, on the other side of which was the wide village green, and beyond that the church. This morning however something was different, he looked closer and realised that the tree beside the pond, which had been frozen since late November, had split in two, one half still stood, the other had fallen into the pond and smashed the ice.
Pulling on his coat, he walked down the path and across the green to where several men were standing around the fallen tree.
“Morning Sir.” Caleb Smith, the sexton, touched his hat. “T’would be the cold did it, I suppose.”
“I am sure you are right.” The Rector replied, “The squire told me the other day that several trees in the new plantation had lost branches in the past few weeks.”
“It would be easy enough to get the wood out of the pond, two pair of horses could do it. But what would become of the timber.”
“Well, it would be no good for anything other than firewood. The tree belongs to the parish, so I suggest that the wood goes to the alms house.” He smiled at the old sexton. “I am sure that you can find the men to cut the wood, the parish will pay.” Adding, “As it will be cold work, send the men to the Rectory kitchen afterwards, there will be hot ale for all.”
Smiling the sexton began rounding up the men. As the Rector turned back towards his house his two sons, just returned from school and university for the holidays, came running out towards him. They looked at the smashed ice on the pond.
“Sorry lads,” the sexton said, “There is no way you can skate today, t’will be a day or two before the ice is thick enough to skate on again.”
“That’s all right.” said James, the eldest, “We were going to build a snowman anyway.”
An hour later he saw that his sons had organised the rest of the village boys, to build a large snowman beside the path that crossed the green, as the dusk came on it looked very realistic, just like a large man in a greatcoat looking towards the Rectory.
That evening the Rector, accompanied by his wife and elder son, drove across the park to the Manor House. Sir Thomas had sent his carriage to bring the Rectory family, together with the Misses Beddoes, the daughters of the previous Rector, who lived in a cottage beside the church. The Rev. Grainger often joked that their home was more convenient for the church than the Rectory, which always made them giggle.
Lights from the manor house shone across the frozen snow of the park as they approached, the cold was bitter, the hot bricks that they had been given as they began their short journey were now ice cold. Their welcome was warm enough to disperse the cold, Lady Scott loved entertaining and was always looking for a reason to hold a party, and Christmas gave her the perfect excuse for bringing together all the neighbouring families. Most of the people gathered in the great hall they knew, but there was one gentleman there they had never seen before, he was introduced as Michael Scott, a distant cousin of Sir Thomas.
“In fact I know nothing about him,” the baronet said to the Rector later in the evening, “I was introduced to him at my club in London, as a distant relative, and Jane insisted on inviting him down. I thought he might be interested in one of my daughter’s but he makes no efforts there.” He looked across to where James was dancing with Charlotte, the oldest of his three girls. Lady Scott broke in.
“Yes, they make a lovely couple. It would be delightful if they did marry.” “But not for some time, they are much too young.” The Squire replied, but his tone expressed approbation of the idea.
This pleasant conversation was suddenly interrupted by a commotion on the other side of the large room.
“You are mistaken, I doubt you have the wit to recognise your own cat if it stuck its claws into your skinny legs in the dark.”
Mr Scott stormed out of the room, leaving the two misses Beddoes sobbing, Lady Scott and Mrs Grainger ran across to calm them. A few moments later Sir Thomas and the Rector joined the ladies in the small room where they had taken the shocked spinsters, curious to know what had caused the commotion. The women were all sipping tea, and were talking quietly over what had happened.
“It is so strange,” Mrs Grainger began, “It was about nothing. Miss Beddoes mentioned that she thought she had seen Mr Scott in the village before and he got very cross about it.”
“Yes” interrupted Miss Henrietta, the younger of the two sisters. “It was nothing, It was about a month ago, the night was very cold but the moon was bright and I had seen a ring round it.”
“So she called me to the window.” Interrupted Miss Beddoes. “And on the green we saw two men, one looked just like our cousin David, he was wearing that old hat he always did, the one trimmed with white lace.”
“And the other looked like Mr Scott.” Continued her sister, and then they walked into the shadow of the tree by the pond.”
“But it couldn’t have been Mr. Scott. Because Mr Scott said it wasn’t him.”
“And it couldn’t have been David as he would have called to see us, however late it was.” Henrietta finished triumphantly.
Curious, but concerned for his neighbours, the Rector said. “But you are still shocked, I will send for the carriage and we will take you home straight away.”
“Oh No.” said the Miss Beddoes simultaneously, “We don’t want to spoil anything, and the young people are having so much fun.” She looked across to where James and another young man were serving slices of cake to several young ladies, including the squire’s daughters.
The Rectory party were amongst the last to leave. As they were putting on their coats and cloaks, the Rector was reminded of the events of the morning. Charlotte bent towards his son and said softly.
“If I can I will come and see your snowman tomorrow.”
“Well take your sisters and Miss Grey, and wrap up warm, my dear.” said her mother, who had overheard the conversation.
“Take this Reverend.” Said her husband, handing the Rector a newspaper, ‘I have finished with it.” Sir Thomas took the Morning Chronicle whilst the Rector took The Times, the papers were very expensive and were published weekly, so the two gentlemen took one each and exchanged them regularly.
As they walked up the path to their front door the Rector looked back across the village green. On the far side lights showed where the Misses Beddoes were getting out of Sir Thomas’s carriage. He stopped, puzzled until his wife called him inside. He was certain the snowman had been to the left of the path, but it was now clearly on the right.
To be continued
A few nights ago the Christmas Lights were turned on in the neighbouring town, the weather was wet and horrible, and there were the usual comments on how different the weather is not to how it was in the past. This is, of course, completely wrong. Bad weather disrupting Christmas Celebrations is hardly new, in the nearby village of Stinsford in 1819 the weather on Christmas Eve was so bad that the singers were unable to visit the Manor House, though they did manage to make it the following day and, after singing for the occupants, enjoy a supper of beef and beer.
This group of singers would probably have included Thomas Hardy senior, the father of the novelist, who was to immortalise the Stinsford singers as the Mellstock Choir in Under the Greenwood Tree. These singers, mostly men but sometimes including a few women, were to be found all over England and Wales, preserved the tradition of Christmas Carols through the long eighteenth century.
For carols, now an integral part of Christmas, almost vanished. In Brand’s Popular Antiquities of 1795 one writer says that his part of the county was so remote and unsophisticated that , ‘They still kept up the Christmas Carol’. The carols were sung by singers going around, usually on Christmas Eve, occasionally in houses or pubs, but not in churches! Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was controversy in the Church of England as to whether music and singing was permissible. These traditional carols, mostly themes of feasting and drinking, were hardly likely to be acceptable. For example the original Welsh version of ‘Deck the Halls’ is hardly suitable for church.
Oh! how soft my fair one’s bosom,
Oh! how sweet the grove in blossom,
Oh! how blessed are the blisses,
Words of love, and mutual kisses.
There were exceptions, God Rest You Merry Gentlemen and While Shepherds Watched are perhaps the best known of these traditional carols. However whilst the Church of England was divided on church music, the non-conformist churches were generally much more accepting, and produced some wonderful carols.
As well as founding Methodism, Charles Wesley was the most prolific, and most popular, song writer the world has ever known. He wrote many carols, but the best known has a rather curious history.
Hark the Herald Angels Sing began as a hymn by Charles Wesley Hark how all the wrekin rings in 1739. This was revised and rewritten (much to the irritation of Charles) and by the mid nineteenth century it had more or less achieved the form we know it by today. The tune began as a cantata by Mendelssohn in praise of the German printing industry, part of the 400th anniversary celebrations of Gutenberg’s invention of printing. He didn’t think that the tune would be suitable for sacred music. After Mendelssohn’s death William Cummings, professor at the Royal Academy of Music, and a Mendelssohn enthusiast, carried out minor revisions to the latest version of the words of Hark the Herald Angels Sing and major revisions to Mendelssohn’s tune, to create the carol we know today.
Incidentally, why do so many people just refer to carols by the composers of the music, not the authors of the words. Many people are surprised when I say that the poem Goblin Market is the second most popular poem by Christina Rossetti, not realising that she wrote In the Bleak Mid-winter. Incidentally she was also the model for one of the finest, in my opinion, depictions of the Annunciation. Ecce Ancilla Domini by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Well, we have travelled some way from the carol singers calling at Stinsford Manor that wild Christmas in 1829. But the singers hardly travelled at all, over the years, even though the carols changed, they continued to go round the village singing each Christmas. Today the many-great grandsons and granddaughters of the singers will continue the long tradition, though they are more likely to end at the church hall for tea and mince pies than beef and beer.
I was looking for something else when I found, behind a Victorian maternity pincushion, Edwardian starting pistol, Trench Art paperknife and all the other detritus that exists in the cupboard in my study, this –
It is, of course, a Fire Insurance Plaque. It belonged to my grandfather, who was probably responsible for the colour, though some were once painted. These date to the eighteenth and early nineteenth century and were affixed to houses to show who they were insured with, and allowed the private fire brigades, run by the insurance companies to give those houses priority if they caught fire. It is apparently a myth that the private fire brigades would deliberately ignore uninsured houses, or those insured with other firms, simply because fire was such a terrible danger in the towns of the period.
In Blandford in Dorset, for example, a fire in 1731 destroyed most of the town, this provided the opportunity for John and Willian Bastard, arguably the finest provincial architects of the first half of the eighteenth century to show their skill. Their name can cause confusion amongst people who are unacquainted with Dorset’s architectural history, when I said of a village church;
“It has a very fine Georgian interior, which is hardly surprising as the patron of the church was a Bastard.”
Some people thought I was reflecting on the morality of the gentleman, not indicating his architectural ingenuity.
Blandford Forum Church
Today some people tell you to constantly check that you are getting the best deal in your insurance by shopping around, complaining that most people just renew with the same firm year after year. This practice of regular renewal is not a new phenomenon. In the 1790’s Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh insured his country house, Uppark in Sussex, with the Sun insurance company, and a lead plaque was attached to the property advertising the fact. This was an unusually sensible move for a very rakish gentleman, the house still contains a dining table on which the young Emma Harte danced ‘in a state of nature’, she later married Sir William Hamilton and is known to history as Lady Hamilton. The insurance premiums were paid, year on year as an elderly Sir Harry married a teenaged dairy maid, who continued to pay the company as she carefully managed the estate, adding state of the art servant’s quarters which were partly underground, which inspired a young H G Wells, whose mother was housekeeper there, to create the subterranean lair of the Morlocks.
As wars were won and lost, and empires rose and fell, the premiums to the Sun Insurance Company for Uppark continued to paid, with little significant claims being made, until 1989 when a careless builder set the roof alight. The subsequent restoration of Uppark caused a significant dip in the profits of Sun Life Insurance, and led to the house being aptly renamed ‘The Phoenix of the Downs.”
And that was what I thought about when I found this two hundred year old bit of lead at the back of a cupboard.