Victorian Age

I have long been fascinated by the Victorian age. It was a time of huge contrasts, as well as social mobility- certainly for men. But what about women? At the beginning of the Victorian age, they had no legal existence, they couldn’t vote, nor have a bank account, and what work opportunities they had, in factories or shops, say, were were less well-paid than men. As for any more professional position – forget it. The choice of jobs for most middle-class women was being a governess or lady’s companion for, at most, about £35 a year, or, for a few talented writers, actresses, artists or musicians, you might be able to make a decent living, if your father or family were also in the same profession.

The Awakening Conscience 1853 William Holman Hunt, Tate Gallery

However, there was an alternative – a shocking one; become a mistress.

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Open House weekend in London happens once a year, in September; when all sorts of buildings which you can’t usually see inside, both public and private, are open to the public – for free. This year, my niece and I decided to visit the tomb of Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), Victorian explorer, soldier, linguist (he spoke at least forty languages), scholar and prolific author and translator who had long been a hero of mine.

Sir Richard Burton’s tomb in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalen’s in Mortlake

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I have a wonderful book of advertisements in ‘The Times’ from the 1870s. As well as being a mine of information about everyday life in  London at that date, there is also a section of personal advertisements, many of which could be the basis for a novel.

Looking for a plot? How about:

C.C.C.C. Do not despair, my Marguerite. Only have patience. I hope we shall meet on the 3rd at P. Be cautious and attend to all the advice I gave you. Do write to the London address if you possibly can, and tell me what has happened that prevents your writing. If I wrote in l.j. it would betray us. Thine for ever, B.B.B.B.

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I came across this little garden next to Embankment tube station one icy day in March and I was struck by the number and variety of statues and fountains. Why was a languorous bronze female draped up the side of an obelisk in an attitude of extreme grief? And what was the statue of a soldier riding a camel commemorating? Not to mention Sir Wilfrid Lawson, Bt, whose friends erected his statue ‘in loving and grateful remembrance of his splendid leadership and of his pure and unworldly life’? I vowed to return with my camera when it was warmer.

The Antique Bronze van; John and William complete the statues and monuments’ annual clean

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The Historic Dockyard, Chatham, on the River Medway in Kent must surely be one of the most extraordinary places in the U.K. and, I’m ashamed to say, I scarcely knew it existed. It had been a Royal Naval Dockyard since Henry VIII’s time; the diarist, Samuel Pepys, in his capacity as Clerk of the King’s Ships visited regularly in the 1660s.  Charles Dickens’ father worked in the Cashiers’ Office here from 1817-22. At least I’d heard of the Dockyard’s famous ropewalk – over a quarter of a mile long, and still in operation. What’s more, the dockyard is only forty minutes by fast train from London, so I had no excuse not to visit.

H.M.S. Gannet (1878) in dry dock

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The Queen’s Gallery’s new exhibition, Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India, 1875-6, examines a largely forgotten episode in the thirty-four-year-old Prince of Wales’s life, and one which is full of surprises.

1. Perfume holder in the form of a lotus flower presented by the Maharaja of Jaipur. A hidden mechanism allows the petals of the flower to open, revealing a red and yellow enamelled cup. It is made of gold, enamel, diamonds and pearls.

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I just love exploring old factories, mills, dockyards, etc., places where people once worked. I find them very atmospheric, and it’s easy to imagine all sorts of skulduggery going on. So, when I had to chance to visit Three Mills, I jumped at it.

Tucked away in Bromley-by-Bow is one of London’s best kept secrets. Mentioned in Domesday Book, Three Mills has been milling for over a thousand years on a tidal stretch of the River Lea. The third mill, a windmill, was demolished in the mid nineteenth century, and what we have left is House Mill, an 18th century Miller’s House, a Custom House and the Clock Mill. We know that, in the 12th century, the mills were owned by the Cistercian abbey of Stratford Langthorne and, after the Reformation, they became privately owned but continued to mill grain from the surrounding area.

General view: Left: House Mill, Miller’s House, Custom House; right: Clock Mill; the river Lea (not visible) is behind the walls Continue reading

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Henry Wellcome was born in Philadelphia in the U.S.A. in 1853 and came to London in 1880. He made his fortune as a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and founded the Wellcome Trust in London which funds medical research. He was also an obsessive collector of things medical and his collection is wide-ranging, not to say eccentric, and includes a number of objects only tenuously connected with medicine.

Sir Henry Wellcome (1863-1936) by Hugh Goldwin Rivière. Born in America. Took British nationality in 1910. F.R.S. and knighted 1932.

Some early photographs of him in America show him with what looks like a travelling Cabinet of Curiosities and, certainly, this is impression one gets from the Wellcome Trust’s historical collection in London.

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Is Charlotte Brontë’s Edward Rochester, the darkly sardonic hero of Jane Eyre, really a woman in disguise?

Was Sir Leslie Stephen’s 1877 Cornhill Magazine review of Jane Eyre which first suggested it, meant to outrage readers? He argues that Rochester, that archetypical Byronic hero loved by so many female readers, is, in reality, a ‘spirited sister of Shirley’s (Charlotte Brontë’s eponymous heroine from her novel of 1849) though he does his very best to be a man, and even an unusually masculine specimen of his sex.’

 

Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, chalk, 1850. National Portrait Gallery

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