Sunday 23 February 2014

Poisonous Writing

Last time I looked at the rather unsavoury ingredients once used in everyday trades. A visit to the British Library in London gave me the opportunity to see some of the illuminated manuscripts of yesteryear. Despite the age of these documents the colours remain quite wonderfully preserved and got me wondering about the recipes to produce the different colours.

It must be said the recipe very much depended upon what was available at the time and thus changed depending upon where the monks and their quill pens were based. I admit I have chosen the worst possible blend in each case, although even the least harmful could never be described as palatable.

In nature red is a warning colour, used by animals to suggest toxicity. When it comes to red ink the same could be said regarding some of the ingredients. Lac is derived from the excretions of certain insects, gathered from the bark of the tree and treated to produce the red colour. It is the same substance which produces shellac. In Britain we were more likely to have used red lead, not exactly the safest of products, or vermilion, found in nature as cinnabar and known to chemists as mercury sulphide.

Saffron will produce a delightful yellow pigment but, pound for pound, the most expensive foodstuff on the planet would be unlikely to be wasted making yellow. Again a mineral solution proved more cost-effective, with limonite being the optimum choice but could not be guaranteed to produce the same shade of yellow every time. This was not the case with orpiment, which was used until the nineteenth century but did have a downside in being incompatible with other pigment bases and, worse still, being toxic in the extreme – a clue found in the chemical name of arsenic sulphide.

At last based on something most of us will have heard of. Verdigris is the coating which forms on the surface of copper over time. It will occur naturally, although boiling copper plates in vinegar accelerates the process. Verdigris is not always the same compound, there are several which are known as such, but all have one thing in common, the element copper making them extremely toxic.

Of course the classic is woad, the plant which Britons once used to paint themselves blue. At last a plant which may actually have beneficial properties, one thought to offer some prevention against cancer. On the minus side the root is used in Chinese herbal medicine and long-term use can do damage to the kidneys. Perhaps this explains why blue pens have always been the most popular?

Not exactly a common colour in illuminated manuscripts but certainly a necessary one. Chalk was the obvious ingredient but that did only sit in suspension and will only prove a temporary solution. Most often the ominously-sounding white lead was used. Correctly lead carbonate was created by popping lead sheets in vinegar to corrode them, then covering the result in dung to lock in the carbon dioxide and complete the process. Such white lead paint was used on the wooden hulls of Royal Navy vessels to prevent infestations of marine worms. While the use of the colour is not directly toxic, the process required to achieve this is undoubtedly so.

Usually carbon as a result of burning, such as lampblack, charcoal, bone, etc would prove difficult to use. Most often the black pigment was created by boiling iron in vinegar, the result then mixed with an extract from oak apples or galls.

Here the monks used powdered gold which was mixed with egg .

Exactly the same as gold, the precious metal was reduced to a powder and mixed with egg. Sometimes tin replaced silver for the same result.

As I researched and wrote this I was reminded of those irritants at school who would lick the (pointed) end of their pencil before writing. They would not have lasted long as medieval monks.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Really Rank Recipes

Virtually none of my writing involves anything later than the end of the nineteenth century, most very much earlier. Examining old maps and records may give glimpses into who was where and when but does not allow us to experience what it was really like to live and work in the towns of Victorian, Georgian, Tudor, Norman or even Saxon England. It struck it was tantamount to watching cookery programming on television, you can see it but neither smell nor taste it. Hence I have uncovered a few recipes used in the industries and processes of the past. You might not want to try these at home.

Common to just about every community since records were kept, the tannery was known for being odious in the extreme. Whenever possible it was situated at a good distance from the residential area. When the hides arrived they were already quite smelly, having been removed from the animal some flesh and fat would remain and that would quickly begin to rot. In order to clean up the hide and to help remove the hairs, the hide would be soaked in urine, concentrated and well-matured worked best. Then the leather would be softened, which required it to be pounded in a solution featuring animal dung (dog and pigeon was seen as particularly desirable). Tanners would tread this in bare feet for around two to three hours.

An alternative to dung was animal brains. Unfortunately not all animals have enough brains to rot their own hide, hence it was sometimes necessary to had something from the other end to help with the mixture.

Leather scraps would be turned into glue. Soaking the rotting scraps in water until it rotted down to produce the valuable adhesive. This took little in the way of man-power. Just let nature take its course, which it would after a few months.

Urine was also used to degrease and clean woollen cloth. Although there was an attempt made to ban this process in the Middle Ages, it was only successful for the larger scale production, those producing their own continued to use the free liquid.

Plasterers will tell you it is one of the hardest manual trades to learn as you have to work quickly to finish the job – in its simplest terms the whole task needs to dry as one, for this helps prevent cracking. When walls were made be interweaving flexible wooden poles through larger stakes, the gaps were sealed with wattle and daub. This was the plaster of its day, and effectively did the same job. Here a mixture of mud and animal dung was blended with straw, to give it some body, and smeared into the walls of the building. When dry it provided a draught-proof and fairly waterproof covering. Unlike the modern plasterer, who mixes and applies the plaster with tools, the wattle and daub was mixed with bare feet and applied with the hands.

But perhaps this was deliberate to cover up the smell of the cooking.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Literary Assassination

November 2013 marked fifty years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. I am always interested in how such moments in history were covered by the media and spent some time viewing old reports. Later I looked back to April 1865 and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Many parallels have been drawn between the two men and the number of coincidences surrounding both their lives and deaths.

One comparison which cannot be drawn between the two is in the media coverage. In 1963 instant communication methods meant the news was reported in the United Kingdom at almost the same time as it did in the USA. A century earlier it took days for the news to filter through and newspapers, at least in local terms, were produced weekly and reports of President Lincoln’s death appeared, in real time, after the ten-day search for John Wilkes Booth had ended in the killer’s death. This also tempered the mood of other reports: in 1963 even the sports pages lacked the usual exuberance, in 1865 columns went unchanged. Alongside the belated reports of the assassination and its aftermath I found the following stories.

No mention of Lincoln’s assassination was found in the first newspaper after the 14th April, news had yet to filter through. However the mood of optimism across the Atlantic was covered, with a mention of how American newspapers had seen the appearance of four eagles circling the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol Dome in Washington DC. This could only mean a good time for all lay ahead under the new presidency. Note this was simply the local rag repeating what had been printed in US newspapers.

A rather odd story came from Prussian Poland, where but two passenger trains ran between Lissa and Posen each day. A similar number of livestock trains were seen daily but government legislation banned any human passengers save for the handlers of the livestock, for which a perfectly acceptable carriage was coupled up. There were no exceptions to this rule, even medical personnel had been turned away resulting in a number of deaths. It was not clear how many, if any, could have been saved had the doctor been allowed to travel. An enterprising German innkeeper saw a possible loophole and purchased advertising space at the station offering his goat for hire. For the equivalent of sixpence (equivalent of £2 today) for every station travelled in each direction this would allow any passenger to travel on the livestock train. The advert also pointed out the goat could be handled by anyone being “so tame it could be controlled by just a slender silk ribbon.”

Silly season sees all sorts of weird stories being covered. Yet surely we could never be so desperate as to include a conversation such as that following the announcement of an engagement. It seems the lady had been asked time and again just why she was contemplating becoming Mrs (name withheld), when he was clearly so different from other men? She responded the questioning with: “Well if he is very much unlike other men, he is more likely to make a good husband.”

A similarly odd subject was covered in the story of a letter written by a lady from Bristol. It seems Alice had written to a well-respected gentleman of the city, stating how she had tried time and again to be formally introduced to a man she had admired from afar adding, “If you are wondering why a mere girl such as I would wish to meet a man of your stature, meet me at the post box outside the chapel at 7:30 that Sunday evening.” No Victorian gent could ever entertain leaving a young lady standing around and so he turned up. He was not pleased to discover he was one of between thirty and forty gentlemen milling around the post box trying to appear nonchalant. For reasons I have yet to fathom they were still there at 8:00pm when the congregation emerged from the chapel. It was suspected Alice was among those emerging from the chapel as there seemed to be a lot of giggling and glances in their direction.

Another post-war story was covered, that of a US deserter. An Irishman by the name of James Devlin, having enlisted with the Union Army, deserted and was subsequently reported by his wife, who collected the reward money. However he could not be found and no wonder for he had re-enlisted under an alias. This alias was also being sought as a deserter, furthermore his wife had also given evidence against her husband and claimed the reward money. Yet again the deserter could not be found, for Devlin had enlisted a third time under yet another alias and had been turned in by HIS wife who, you guessed it, had again received the reward money. What was proving to be a lucrative ruse came to light when Mrs Devlin found her husband had deserted her and was enjoying the ill-gotten gains with another woman. This time she gave factual details as to his whereabouts and he is subsequently arrested. However she regretted her actions when she witnessed him being led out to face the firing squad within the confines of the army camp on the island. It was said her screams and sobbing could be heard across the water on the mainland.

How many of these would be considered world headlines today?

Sunday 2 February 2014

The Police, Peel, Murder and Drayton Bassett

What is now home to the theme park of Drayton Manor was, as the name implies, a large estate. It lies largely within the boundaries of Drayton Bassett. This village uses the name of the family who held this manor for centuries until, through marriage, it passed to the Peels who built the estate. The most famous member of the Peel family is Sir Robert. As MP for Tamworth he delivered what amounted to the first pre-election manifesto. He spoke from the window of the town hall, addressing the crowd gathered below who probably never realised just what they were witnessing.

Even today the name of Sir Robert Peel is more likely to be associated with two other landmark events. Scholars of political history will undoubtedly point to the long-running debate over the Corn Laws which dominated his political career, although most will remember him as the founder of the modern police force. The latter is only partially true. While he did establish the Metropolitan Police Force in London in 1829, the thousand-strong force known as ‘Bobbies’ because of the association with Sir Robert, there had been a professional body to police the capital for some eighty years.

This earlier force were the Bow Street Runners, formed by author Henry Fielding in 1749, they originally numbered just six officers. Yet the name is something of a misnomer as they never ran and considered the term ‘Runners’ derogatory, nor indeed did they patrol a beat. These men were an arm of the courts, hence Bow Street, and arrests were solely as officers acting on behalf of the judiciary. They were disbanded in 1839, ten years after the formation of Peel’s force and eighteen years before legislation meant cities throughout the land had to introduce their own professional police force.

Parliament would have done well to ensure the significant drop in crime in London was mirrored across the land much earlier. Especially considering events of August 15th 1844 in Drayton Bassett. At the time the villagers were dependent upon the Peel estate for a living, be it directly in the service of the family or as tenant farmers. Fifteen years after the first ‘Bobbies’ were seen in London, the term ‘Peelers’ was more likely to be used by the criminal fraternity, the villagers were horrified when they learned of the murder of William Sudbury by William Walker. Perhaps the village ‘Bobbie’ will have been sufficient deterrent to prevent a quarrel escalating to such a degree.

Years later and our story returns to Market Street, Tamworth. The image below shows the town hall where that first manifesto was delivered, the event marked by placing the statue of Sir Robert Peel below the window. The unknown photographer’s position is some twenty yards or so in front of two buildings facing one another on the end of this ancient street. That to the left is now home to a Wilkinson’s store, yet previously had been a Berni Inn named the Peel Arms, named after Tamworth’s most famous son. Opposite we still find the Castle Hotel. One public bar here was renamed after the Peel Arms had closed and chose to adopt another supposed reference to the father of modern policing. However, as we have seen, the name of the Bow Street Runner is incorrect as it had no connection with Peel.

Whilst they should be congratulated in at least attempting to find an original name, and producing an attractive and relevant sign to accompany same, sadly my research when producing books on place names has shown such errors are commonplace and avoidable.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.