A year or two ago I bought, in a mixed lot at auction, an object that was described as a set of ‘folding toothpicks’. I didn’t think they were toothpicks, but they were beautifully made and clearly had some important function, it took a while before I realised they had been very important indeed. This is their story.
In the eighteenth century the terrible disease of smallpox was endemic, every so often there were outbreaks and many people were disfigured or died. There was a form of treatment, inoculation or variolation, which had been introduced to Britain by Mary Wortley Montague at the beginning of the century. But this treatment was, in many cases, as bad as the disease, because variolation involved giving the patient, what was hoped would be, a mild form of smallpox. If you were lucky you would survive, without too many scars, and would then have natural immunity in the future, if not, you died. Position and wealth couldn’t help you, the Princes Octavius and Alfred, the youngest sons of George III both died after being inoculated.
In the West Country people had long noticed that if a person caught the disease cowpox, they were subsequently immune to smallpox. This was possibly one of the reasons that milkmaids were proverbially pretty, their faces weren’t scarred with pock marks. Although well-known it wasn’t until 1774 that one man, a Dorset farmer called Benjamin Jesty, decided to try to recreate this immunity by deliberately giving someone cowpox.
He had caught the disease as a child, so he couldn’t experiment on himself, so he decided to give cowpox to his family, he scratched the arms of his two sons and rubbed in ‘matter’ from a cowpox sore from a cow. They were ill for a few days, and then were thereafter immune to smallpox (this was tested nearly thirty years later). Then he tried it on his wife, this time she became seriously ill, and nearly died. The local doctor said he admired what Jesty had done, and would try and protect him if his wife died and he was charged with murder. Happily she recovered, but the local people regarded him as potential wife-murderer, and in due course he had to leave his home at Yetminster in north Dorset, and had to move many miles to Worth Matravers in the south of the county.
Twenty years later, in Gloucestershire, Dr Edward Jenner began his experiments. He knew of the traditions about Cowpox, he may have heard of Jesty, but he was a doctor and managed to treat his patients without danger. In 1796 he gave a boy cowpox, there was a slight illness, then he tested the boy – he was immune to smallpox. Dr Jenner carried out many more experiments, and finally published his results in a form other doctors would believe, and so saved millions of lived. As the material came from a cow (vacca in Latin) he called it vaccine, and the process of administering it vaccination.
But what has that to do with the tiny object I showed you at the beginning of the blog. It took me a while but I eventually discovered that these are early vaccination points, a persons arm would be scratched and vaccine, the matter from the cow pock on a cow, or a previously infected person, would be transferred to the wound, using the points. The points are made from either bone or ivory as it was found that metals could kill the vaccine.
So, as we await the vaccines that will end the present pestilence, look on this tiny object, which almost certainly saved hundreds of lives, and think of (and thank) those doctors who, in Kipling’s words;
The weather had changed and it was wet and cold as the coach made its way across the moors towards Leeds.
“No passengers today.”
“Who would want to be out today?” Said Tom miserably.
“Perhaps there will be somebody wanting to stop the coach.”
“In this weather, not even a highwayman would be out.”
The guard nodded and they continued their wet way across the moor. Suddenly the mist in front cleared for a moment and they saw a figure standing by the road. As they slowed the guard said, “She looks too poor to be a passenger.”
“If she wants a ride we will take her up. No one should be outside in weather like this.”
“You’re too good.” The guard grunted.
Then there was cry from the coachman. “Nancy!” He threw the reins to the guard and slid to the ground. As he approached the woman she recognised him and covered her face.
“Nancy, what has happened to you?” The young woman just sobbed. Tom almost had to lift her into the coach, which is when he saw she was carrying a baby.
He wrapped a blanket around her, then climbed back onto the box and drove on.
“That was Nancy?” the guard said in amazement.
“Yes, she looks very bad, and she has a child.”
“But why did you help her?”
“She is ill, no Christian could leave someone out in this weather, not if they could help them.”
“But you were going to marry her, then she ran off with another man two weeks before your wedding. Don’t you care?”
“Of course I care, I care for Nancy. I wanted her to be happy, but now she needs my help and I will do what I can.”
“You’re a better man than I am Tom Blakeborough.” Added the guard, as they swung into the inn.
There were passengers waiting for them, so they couldn’t stop long. Tom carried Nancy inside and told the landlady to care for her.
“I will be back tomorrow and pay what’s due then.” He called as he drove away. “Like a true good Samaritan,” the landlady said, as she went to settle Nancy in a warmed bed.
The following day Tom returned, to grave news. “The baby died during the night, and I doubt that she is long for this world.” Said the landlady, leading him upstairs. “She knows she is dying, and is desperate to see you before…”
Tom entered the warm room, a fire was burning and Nancy was wrapped up in the bed. She turned her pale face to Tom, and gave a weak smile. “I’m glad I got to see you one last time.” She whispered, “I want to ask for your forgiveness.”
“There is nothing to forgive.” He replied.
“Yes there is, the man I left you for was a rogue. After a few months I found out that he was a highwayman and was already married. I left him, he was angry and came after me, but was killed in a brawl before he could find me. When I discovered he was dead, I decide to return to my parents, that was when you found me.”
“I am glad I did.”
“I am too, I am happy I can see your kind face one last time.” He tried to say something, she shook her head weakly.
“Tom, I am dying, I know that. I also know something else, I want to tell you something that you must keep secret and only tell to your son.”
“I don’t have a son.”
“But you will, and he too will be a coachman, as will his son and his grandson as far as I can see. And to all of you I make this promise, when you are in greatest need, when speed is of the essence, especially when a life hangs in the balance, I will come to you. I will take the reins and guide you safe through storm and snow.”
She fell back on the pillow, he bent to say something, but realised that she could never hear anything again. He kissed her cold forehead and left the room.
Part 2 The Pardon
The word ran round the inn, and out into the street. The two men were surrounded by well-wishers, but they were still worried. “We have the pardon, but we need to get it to Durham.” He said to the innkeeper then, looking up at the church clock, added. “In under ten hours!” A mutter went round the crowd, to get to Durham in so short a time, that was nigh impossible. What use was the pardon if it arrived too late, an innocent man would hang.
The innkeeper had run to the stables at the back. “Tom Blakeborough.” He shouted, “You’re needed.”
Tom looked up. “But I only just got in!”
“A pardon has just arrived for George Hutton. But it’s got to get to Durham by tomorrow morning. You’re the finest coachman in Yorkshire, and with what’s coming.” They looked to the north, the sky was already dark with the approaching storm.
“Aye, I’ll try.” Tom replied bluntly. Four horses were harnessed up, and less than half an hour after they had arrived the men, and the precious pardon, began their journey.
Seven miles out the rain came down, heavier than he had ever seen, he could hardly see beyond the leading horses head. He had no choice but to slow the coaches pace to a crawl, one of the passengers opened a window, doubtless to ask why he had slowed, took one look at the weather and shut the window.
Tom was concentrating on his rain-soaked horses, when he felt a touch on his hands, he looked down to see a thin, pale hand. Beside him sat a woman, there was a sudden flash of lightning and he saw it was Nancy, Nancy whose new-dug grave he had stood beside two years earlier.
The pale figure gently took the reins from his unresisting hands, and cracked them. The horses sprang forward into a gallop, they couldn’t see but were more terrified of what was driving them than the featureless road ahead. Tom clutched onto the box, it was all he could do to hold on, but Nancy just sat calmly urging on the horses. Inside the coach he could hear the men shouting, but ignored them as he could do nothing, just sit and watch a long dead woman drive his coach into the jet-black night.
He knew they drove through villages, as he saw the occasional light from a window, he heard the sound of the wheels change as they crossed the moors, but it was not until a very grey dawn broke could he get any idea of where they were, and by the time it was fully light he could see the great bulk of Durham Cathedral.
As they entered the city he felt the reins placed in his hands, he turned to thank Nancy but she just smiled and vanished. After this it was a blur, they drove towards the prison, the crowds were already gathering, there were cheers as the pardon was rushed inside, a purse of gold was pressed into his hand, and he finally drove to the inn where he could see his horses settled and collapse into a bed.
He didn’t speak of Nancy then, not for a year, until he told the pretty daughter of the Durham inn keeper, on their wedding night. She kissed him and said, “I saw you as you drove into Durham, I saw the lady beside you, she smiled at me, that was when I knew I should marry you – as she wished it.”
When their son was learning to drive, he told him about Nancy. Though he never saw her, he told his son in turn, as Nancy had predicted all his descendants drove coaches. As horses gave way to petrol and diesel, the story continued to be passed down, father told son, told daughter.
3 Snow Baby
The paramedic recognised the signs, he couldn’t deliver the baby, they had to get the mother to hospital. If they didn’t, and soon, the mother might, and the baby would, die.
It had been clear when they had arrived, but by the time they had got her into the ambulance a foot of snow had fallen, the wind blew flurries of snow into the ambulance as the driver shut the door. Tamsin walked to the cab, she was having trouble seeing the gateposts of the farm, and how she was to see the road across the moors in this weather, she had no idea.
She opened the door and was about to climb in, and stopped in shock. In the driving seat was a thin young woman in a long, old fashioned, dress. For a moment she just gaped, then suddenly remembered her grandfather’s story.
“Nancy?” She gasped, the woman nodded. With a mixture of fear and wonder Tamsin ran round to the other side and climbed in, as soon as she sat they were off. She could see nothing, just snow in the ambulance’s headlights. She held onto her seat belt as the ambulance raced across the moors, swinging round corners heading straight up steep slopes. It didn’t skid or slide but drove smoothly across the snow and ice covered roads.
As her initial terror subsided, she turned to watch Nancy driving the ambulance. She sat there, hands on the wheel, looking forward. Tamsin found herself wondering how a woman who had died more than two centuries earlier had learnt to drive, then laughed at such a silly question. She was in an ambulance, being driven in impossible conditions, by a ghost who had made a promise to one of her ancestors.
Suddenly they were driving through a village, she knew where they were, it would normally take about half an hour driving to the hospital. But now? The blizzard hit again, and everything vanished, she looked across at Nancy who looked back at her and gave her sad little smile.
Then suddenly the snow cleared again and she realised that, impossibly, they were less than half a mile from the hospital. She radioed ahead, checked on the patient, her colleague was amazed that they were there so soon. Nancy swung the ambulance into place, the door at the back opened, nurses rushed to lift the woman out. Tamsin turned to thank Nancy, but she had gone.
A day or two later a nurse called and said that someone wanted to see her in maternity. Surprised she went to the ward to be greeted by a young mother, still pale, with a little baby in her arms.
“I want to thank you, if it hadn’t been for you we would both have died.” Tamsin thanked her, and tried to pass it off, but the mother became very serious.
“I haven’t given her a name yet, and I feel that it is somehow very important. What’s your name, I would like to call her after the person who saved her life.”
Tamsin hesitated for a moment, “Nancy, I would love it if you called her Nancy.”
“Thank you Nancy.” The mother said softly as she bent over her baby girl.
This tale is based on fact, or as much fact as any ghost story can have. The story of Tom and Nance, her betrayal, his kindness, her promise and her subsequent help were recorded over a hundred years ago. As for the later tale, well after the first Tom’s death Nance never reappeared though some of his descendants were sure she would come again, if the situation warranted it. I just made that part of the tale come true.
This is written in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, December 17, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that features stilettos. Who will wear them and why? Go where the prompt leads!
Rather than the footwear, I thought of the blade – and recalled a very unusual parasol handle I once saw in a museum, from there it was a simple step to involve the remarkable Miss Fluart, the eighteenth-century character who has inspired several tales of mine. In one tale she and her friend outwit some men who have been assaulting women at a theatre – leaving one with crushed and broken fingers, now read on.
“So Miss, do you know who I am?”
Miss Fluart looked down at his twisted fingers.
“I think you are the man who liked assaulting women.”
“Harmless, until you took a hand. Now for some fun. No one will hear you scream.”
She looked round the empty Park, stepped back and took a grip on her parasol. He laughed and moved closer to her.
There was a click as she twisted the handle, and withdrew a twelve-inch blade.
He looked into her unblinking eyes, as she held the stiletto to his throat.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
But the butterfly slept on.
Christmas came, the singers packed into the West Gallery roared out the ancient Christmas Carols.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
Last night, or rather earlier this morning we saw the comet Neowise, visible in the northern sky. It made me think of this delightful Victorian poem.
How to Tell a Comet, or Astronomy Made Easy.
Though you may not know a planet From the bird that’s called a gannet, Nor distinguish Sagittarius from Mars; Though the beasts in that strange zoo May all look alike to you, And you lump the whole caboodle just as “stars;”
Though you cannot place the lion, Nor correctly trace Orion, Nor discern the jewelled belt he proudly wears, Nor the big and little hounds, Through those happy hunting grounds, Nightly chasing up the big and little bears;
Though you cannot tell the Dippers From your grandpa’s old felt slippers, And to name the constellations you would fail, There’s one thing that you may know And be very sure it’s so, You can always tell a comet by its tail. Its airy, hairy, winking, blinking, flowing, glowing tail; Its fiery, wiry, gleaming, streaming, flaring, glaring tail.
Unfortunately I cannot lay my hands on the book where I found it, so I cannot give you any more information about the poem.