Victorian Age

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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Kensal Green Cemetery is an extraordinary place with an astonishing variety of tombstones: Do you fancy ivy twining up crosses, you have it; angels dancing on the roof of a classical columned temple, you have that, too; there are severe Egyptian-style family vaults, as well as pointy Gothic shrines. Furthermore, it is gloriously egalitarian; royalty lies within a stone’s throw of self-made men, quack-doctors, artists, and incongruously modern gravestones with plastic flowers.

General View looking west towards the catacombs

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This week I’m looking at two pairs of mid-19th century ladies’ open crotch drawers which you can see hanging on my washing line in the photo below. As an historical novelist, I need to know what my heroines are wearing, even, or perhaps especially, the undergarments. They affect her posture, her comfort and indicate her status.

Two pairs of mid-19th century open-crotch drawers

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This, believe it or not, is my sewing machine, it dates from between 1898-1904. I’m not sure of the exact date because I’ve never come across another one like it. I bought it for £5 when I was a student and I’ve used it ever since.

Sewing machine with handle in place and ready for use

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A few days ago, I was leafing through an old scrapbook that belonged to my great-grand-father. He was obviously interested in current affairs and what was going on in the world, and the scrapbook is full of cuttings from periodicals like The Illustrated London News. (There are at least half a dozen cuttings about Brunel’s famous Great Eastern, for example.)

The page from my great-grandfather’s Scrap Book which caught my eye.

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This week I’m looking at a poem/picture about love: a tale of a fatal attraction between two children. She, Maud, is a woodman’s daughter; he is the squire’s son and they meet in his father’s woods where Maud’s father, Gerald, is clearing the undergrowth. The story comes from Coventry Patmore’s 1844 poem The Woodman’s Daughter.

The young Pre-Raphaelite artist, John Everett Millais (1829-1896), came across the poem and made it the subject of his 1851 Royal Academy painting.

The Woodman’s Daughter by John Everett Millais

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In the 19th century, screens were very popular and many well-to-do day homes had one. They comprised three wooden frames hinged together, with hessian stretched across each frame and painted to create a base for illustrations. The owners would decorate the screen themselves. They could buy a whole range of painted decorations – often flowers, birds or animals – and customize the screen to suit their own tastes. Looking at the oval photographs of Princess Beatrice (Queen Victoria’s youngest child) and Prince Henry of Battenburg which probably celebrates their wedding in 1886, I’m guessing that my screen dates from the late 1880s, and I suspect that the original owner was female, romantic and about thirteen. I’ve named her Muriel after my great-grandmother.

One of the pictures is interestingly misleading.

Three boys pulling girl in sleigh on the ice

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This is my heroine of the week: the redoubtable – and diminuative (she was only 4ft and 10 ins) – Dame Sarah Ann Swift, the founder of the Royal College of Nursing.

Sarah Swift

Dame Sarah Ann Swift (1854-1937) by Herbert James Draper

Born in 1854, Sarah Swift had had a long and successful career in nursing and proved herself to be an excellent organizer. She had not long retired when war broke out but she immediately offered her services to the government. They accepted and she found herself responsible for the placement of 6000 trained nurses, and VAD nurses, in various war zones. It was 1916, and World War I was about to enter its most bloody stage; the Battle of the Somme, where over one million soldiers were killed.

RCN facing Cavendish Sq

20 Cavendish Square, home of the Royal College of Nursing

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