A wry view of life for the world-weary

Category Archives: Culture

Coincidences Are Spiritual Puns

Violet Jessop (1887 – 1971)

Whether you agree with G K Chesterton’s analysis or not, there is something deeply fascinating about coincidences. I particularly enjoy stories of people who have cheated death on a number of occasions. They provide proof that some people can sail through traumatic experiences unscathed. One of the most pre-eminent examples is Miss Unsinkable, Violet Jessop.

As a young child Violet had already shown a remarkable propensity to look death in the eye, contracting tuberculosis and given just a few months to live. Proving the medics wrong, she survived and at the age of 21 took a job as a stewardess on an ocean-going liner. To achieve this position Violet had to overcome institutional prejudice. Although women worked on passenger ships they were usually of a certain age, the owners thinking that a young slip of a girl would cause too much of a distraction to the lusty matelots. To secure her position, she attended interviews wearing dowdy clothes and without make-up in an attempt to distract attention from her age and appearance. It worked and she secured a position in 1908 on the Royal Mail steamer, the Orinoco.

Sailors are superstitious characters and call unlucky crew members and passengers Jonahs after the biblical character who investigated the insides of a whale. Had they known that Violet was on the crew list, many a sensible sailor or passenger would have avoided the ship like the plague. Violet’s chapter of disasters started when she secured a position with the prestigious White Star Line and its luxurious liner, the Olympic. On 20th September 1911 the Olympic was sailing in the Solent in parallel with HMS Hawke. In manoeuvring the Olympic struck the Hawke’s bow which had been designed to ram ships, and the hull of the Olympic was holed above and below the waterline. Although two of the watertight compartments were flooded, the Olympic was able to sail under its own steam back to Southampton and no one was seriously hurt.

Then Violet took a position on board the White Star Line’s newest and most luxurious liner, the Titanic which the owners claimed was unsinkable. On the night of 14th/15th April 1912 the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, taking with it some 1,500 souls. Violet, though, was one of the lucky ones, being ordered by one of the ship’s officers to get into lifeboat number 16 to show the passengers that it was safe to do so. Her one regret, she recorded in her memoirs, was that she left her toothbrush on board.

To many a life ashore might have seemed appealing but not for Violet who transferred to the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic. During the First World War the Britannic was commandeered by the Navy and Violet saw service as a nurse aboard the ship which ferried troops back and forth across the Aegean. On 21st November 1916 it struck a mine planted by a German U-boat, sustaining substantial damage and sank so quickly that Violet and her fellow crew members hadn’t time to man the lifeboats. Clutching her toothbrush – she had remembered it this time – Violet jumped overboard, striking her head on the ship’s keel as she was sucked under. It was only years when she was complaining of frequent headaches that she learned that she had fractured her skull. Miraculously, only 30 died in this incident.

After the war Violet transferred to the Red Star Line and worked on ships for a number of years. The albatross that had hung around her neck had clearly disappeared because the rest of her career passed without incident. She died at the ripe old age of 84 of congestive heart failure.


Book Corner – February 2018 (2)

The Darkening Age – Catherine Nixey

History, they say, is written by the victors but there is a growing trend in modern historiography to explore events from the side of the losers or those whose views were never represented – women, the working classes, the poor etc. Nixey’s mission, in this stimulating and controversial book, is to explain just how the Christian religion and culture destroyed and almost obliterated the Greco-Roman culture. As a student of the Classics and an agnostic, intuitively I was on her side.

The book has a modern relevancy as Westerners wring their hands and decry the destruction of ancient sites by fanatical Moslems. But here in England we have had our own round of religious-inspired destruction when Henry VIII’s acolytes took their axes and hammers to the abbeys and monasteries which were the bastions of Roman Catholicism. All this, if Nixey’s account is to be believed, was knocked into a cocked hat by the systematic and mindless iconoclasm of the early Christians who set about crudely to damage and destroy the many statues of and temples built in honour of the old gods.

The Christians were concerned by the ability of the demons of the old gods to pollute them and cause them to deviate from the true path, worshipping their one and only God. Decapitating statues, gouging eyes, knocking off body parts, hacking at stone pediments was, to them, a cathartic process. They were particularly concerned about the demonic qualities of the smoke and stench of sacrifices to taint their souls. Perhaps there is an innate Christian spirit in me which comes to the surface from time to time when someone suggests a barbie.

Roman religion was polytheistic which was quite handy because it allowed the assimilation of new gods and those who had served their purpose to be quietly dropped. Christianity, however, was decidedly monotheistic and had no truck with any namby-pamby ideas of co-existing with or being assimilated into a polytheistic society. Although it is hard to conceive of Roman society as being in any way liberal, perhaps the modern take on this story is that when a determined group of religious fanatics take on a more easy-going society, there is only going to be one winner.

And the Christians were an odd lot, scorned by the Romans for being uncouth, illiterate and unclean. Extreme Christians delighted in the ascetic aspects of their religion, not washing for fear that the sight of their naked flesh would overcome them with lust, wearing uncomfortable clothing – hair shirts were the least of the strange apparel chosen to mortify their sinful flesh – and putting themselves through unimaginable physical trials to demonstrate their holiness.

Christianity, after all, is essentially a masochistic religion and, perhaps, the desire to torment yourself was a perverse reaction to the end of imperial persecution. Nixey, I think, underplays the degree of persecution that the early Christians underwent – there were certainly waves of imperially-sponsored persecutions – and she paints tragi-comedic scenes of Christians queuing up, begging to be martyred, the golden ticket to paradise. Perhaps it is necessary to do this to counter her accounts of the systematic destruction of the old culture and ways. In both aspects I think she is a little fly with the evidence and asserts things which are probably more suppositions than hard facts.

That said, the Christian persecution of the pagans, as they became known, did occur. From 330CE temples were destroyed, Athena’s head was decapitated in the sack of the temple in Palmyra in 385, the magnificent temple of Seraphis was destroyed in 392. The list goes on. And then there was the attacks on the intellectual communities including the murder of the mathematician, Hypatia, in 415 and the closure of Plato’s Academy in 529. Worse still was the destruction, deliberately or through neglect of most of the Classical canon. It is a miracle, and I use the word deliberately, that as much has survived as it has.

Nixey’s book sheds light on a rarely told tale of the consequences of the so-called triumph of Christianity. My only quibble is that her narrative is not as certain as she makes out.

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Seventeen

Anna Maria Helena, comtesse de Noialles (c1826 – 1908)

Wealth does not make you immune to the lottery of life. Take the curious case of the English noblewoman, Anna Coesvelt, who in 1845 married Charles-Antonin, the second son of the duc de Mouchy and prince-duc de Poix. The marriage did not last long and worse still, their only child died at birth. This tragedy probably left Anna with a lasting desire to have a child, something she resolved in an extraordinary way.

Taken by a portrait of a child by Ernest Hebert, hanging in the Paris Salon in 1863, Anna wanted to buy it. Unfortunately, it had already been sold but undaunted, she made enquiries of the model, one Maria Pasqua Abruzzesi with the intention of adopting her. Abruzzesi’s father agreed to the transaction for two bags of gold, insisting that his daughter be raised as a Catholic and as an equal. Anna agreed, the deal was struck and the poor girl was taken to England where her upbringing was far from conventional.

Maria was only allowed to wear loose-fitting clothing for fear of constricting her circulation – an imposition which at least exempted the child from wearing a school uniform at her boarding school. Believing that children who drank milk were less likely to become drunkards, Anna provided Maria with a supply of fresh milk from her herd of dairy cows. The cows served another purpose, being encouraged to graze near the house. The open windows ensured that the aroma from the trumping cattle circulated through the rooms, Anna believing that methane was good for the child’s health.

Anna herself followed an unusual health regimen. She would have a string of fresh onions hung from her bedroom door to ward off infections but fearing this was not effective enough, would flee England when the leaves started to drop from the trees, thinking this was a sign that the air was not healthy and influenza was about. To prevent the onset of bronchitis, she would eat prodigious quantities of herring roe. Anna was also concerned about her appearance and to prevent wrinkles would wrap stockings (silk, natch) stuffed with squirrel fur around her head.

Other eccentricities included only eating food if it was served to her whilst she was sitting behind a two-foot high silk screen and sleeping with a loaded gun by her bedside. Anna enjoyed a glass of port – who doesn’t? – but insisted that it was served to her at sunset, mixed with some sugar and diluted by fresh rainwater. She was also concerned about her eyesight and commanded her servants to wrap a piece of blue silk around her brass bedroom door as protection against excessive glare. When it fell off, it would cause her to shriek in terror.

In her will, Anna set aside some money to create an orphanage for the daughters of clergymen. Needless to say, anyone staying there didn’t have a normal existence. They were examined by phrenologists to ensure that they were “firm spirited and conscientious,” were prevented from being vaccinated against contagious diseases and those under the age of ten were taught no mathematics other than the multiplication tables.

Anna did use her wealth to some good, funding Elizabeth Blackwell in her struggles to become the first female doctor in the United States and was a major shareholder and financier of the English Woman’s Journal which, in the 1850s, campaigned on women’s employment and equality issues. But she was an odd fish by anybody’s standards.

What Is The Origin Of (167)?…


Last year (2017) the Guardian newspaper here in Blighty announced that it was moving from its existing Berliner format to tabloid form sometime in 2018, leaving just the Telegraph in a broadsheet format. There was a time when there was a clear divide between what were termed as the low-brow, populist papers which were in tabloid format and the broadsheet newspapers, which were more serious and respectable. As with most things, the desire for convenience and usability has won out but it did leave me wondering where the term tabloid came from. My investigations revealed an interesting story, worthy of many a column inch.

Firstly, it is a made-up word, the brain child of the pharmaceutical manufacturer, Henry Wellcome, who was searching for something to describe the highly compressed pills that his firm, established with Silas Burroughs in London in 1878, was producing. Tablet, which in a literal sense meant a small table, had been used since the 16th century to describe the sort of medicines which were made up as solid rectangular, dry packages. This was not good enough for Wellcome as he wanted to stand out from the crowd. Taking the root tabl- he added the suffix –oid which meant resembling, having the form of or the likeness of. So pleased was he of his neologism that Wellcome registered it as a trademark in 1884.

Wellcome’s problem was that his linguistic creation proved to be a bit too successful. In the following decade or so, tabloid began to be used in the vernacular to describe anything of a small, compressed nature. Innovations in the field of journalism saw the launch of the Daily Mail in May 1896, whose size was half that of a broadsheet, establishing what are now the commonly accepted dimensions for a tabloid. The Mail’s hallmark was a succession of news stories told in a simple and condensed style rather than using the grandiloquent prose of the longer established journals. The Daily Mirror soon followed suit.

Small newspapers with condensed articles soon earned the moniker of tabloids. On 1st January 1901, the Westminster Gazette gave its readership notice of a change of editorial policy, advising that “the proprietor intends to give in tabloid form all the news printed by other journals.”  The term tabloid journalism was established.

These were unwelcome developments for Wellcome who decided to fight back in defence of his trademark, suing a Manchester firm, Thompson and Crapper, in 1903 for using the word tabloid without permission. Not unreasonably, in their defence, Thompson and Crapper pointed out that the word was now firmly ensconced in the nation’s vocabulary, citing such uses as opera in tabloid, knowledge in tabloid form, tabloid missives and so on. In other words, Wellcome had been victim of his own linguistic genius and by taking this unwarranted legal action was attempting to stifle the development of the noble English tongue.

Nevertheless, Wellcome won his case. While the judge agreed that the word had developed legs of its own and was now used in contexts that were outside of the Wellcome’s original conception and, indeed, had become an accepted description of something in a compressed form, nonetheless he upheld Wellcome’s right to enforce his trademark.

How times have changed. We would scratch our head to associate tabloid with a compressed form of pharmaceutical but would readily accept it as a noun to describe a small newspaper. Sometimes you can be too clever for your own good.

The Streets Of London – Part Seventy

Puddle Dock, EC4

It was not just the Great Fire of 1666 or the German bombers in the early 1940s that wrought a significant change to the topology of London – it was also the town planners in the 1960s. One victim of their zeal to reclaim the foreshore of the Thames and to make Upper Thames Street a main road was Puddle Dock, now a pale shadow of its former self linking the reconfigured road with Queen Victoria Street. As its name suggests it was once the site of a dock, although what was stored and conveyed there was not the usual merchandise.

Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, published in 1864/5, has the Thames running through it as one of its major motifs and the memorable opening scenes feature Lizzie Hexam and her father, Jesse, rowing along the river on the look-out for dead bodies to fish out. But it wasn’t just bodies that found their way into the water. For a city with a population that was growing like topsy and with rudimentary sanitation at best, the Thames was a convenient receptacle for the detritus and excrement accumulated during the day. At Puddle Dock was sited a laystall which is where cattle were held before they went to market and where dung and other forms of detritus were stored before being disposed of by the fives barges which operated from the dock somewhere downstream into the Thames. It must have stunk to high heaven.

As often is the case, John Stow, in his invaluable Survey of London, published in 1598, gave some insight as to what went on there and the origin of the name. He wrote, “then there is a great Brewhouse, and Puddle wharf, a water gate into the Thames, where horses use to be watered and therefore filed with their trampeling, and made puddle, like as aso of one Puddle dwelling there: it is called Puddle Wharfe.”  The dock is shown on John Rocque’s 1746 map and marked as Dung Wharf. A newspaper article from 5th July 1722 gives a sense of the hustle and bustle of the area and the tragedies that could befall the unwary – the use of the pronoun another suggests that it was not unusual. “Another Misfortune happened Yesterday at Puddle-Dock, where a little Boy was killed by a Cart loaded with coals. The Child was stooping down to take up some thing from the Ground when the Cart Wheel ran over his head, and crushed it to Pieces. The Carman is absconded”, the report noted ruefully.

William Maitland’s The History of London, published in 1756, provides a succinct summary of what went on there at the time; “on the banks of the River Thames are the Wharfs of Puddle-dock, used for a Laystall for the Soil of the Streets, and much frequented by Barges and Lighters for taking the same away, as also for landing of Corn and other Goods.” A sense of the stench and inconvenience to all is provided in a report of a case, the King v Gore, to be found in the Evening Mail of 25th November 1836. There we read that “the affidavits of several persons residing near Puddle-dock were read, in which they stated that their health was impaired in consequence of the stench arising from the filth which was allowed to accumulate at this dock.” The defendant argued that “he was obliged, by the covenant of his lease, to allow all persons to place any filth they chose there” and that there had been “a laystall ever since the great fire of London.” The case was unresolved.

In more recent times, the Mermaid Theatre could be found there until it closed in 2003. Now it is just a nondescript, if considerably more fragrant, street but one with a fascinating history.

What Is the Origin Of (166)?…

Nothing to sneeze at

Well, despite having a flu injection, I have endured the usual round of winter colds. Apart from a runny nose and a sore throat, the most obvious sign of my affliction has been frequent, and volcanic, outbursts of sneezing. Of course, I use a handkerchief to catch whatever my nose expels but it set me wondering about the origin of nothing to sneeze at which we use to denote that something is worth having or is worthy of our attention.

Sneezing is an affliction which has been with us since the year dot and so it is no surprise that the root of the verb can be found in the Old English word fneosan, which meant to sneeze or snort. During the 15th century the opening f dropped off and nese or neese was used to describe the act of sneezing. At some point thereafter the letter s was added to the opening of the word, giving it a more emphatic form and, to some ears, making it more imitative of the act itself.

Our phrase first made its appearance in printed form in John Till Allingham’s play, Fortune’s Frolic, first produced at Covent Garden in 1799. There we find the line, “Why, as to his consent, I don’t value it a button; but then £5,000 is a sum not to be sneezed at.”  There it is, in all its glory, with the modern meaning of something that shouldn’t be rejected without some careful consideration. The antithesis of the phrase appeared slightly later in A Winter in London by Thomas Skinner Surr, published in 1806. The novel contains the sentence, “He tells me it is the sort of thing a young fellow of my expectations ought to sneeze at.” That neither usage needed any explanatory gloss suggests that these were phrases with which the audience and readers would be familiar with and that they were part of common parlance.

But why did sneezing come to represent an expression of disdain? Some commentators suggest that the 18th century was an era of volcanic nasal eruptions, courtesy of the habit of taking snuff. Perhaps, if a bewigged gentleman of the time heard something with which he disagreed, he would reach for his snuff-box, inhale the fine grained tobacco that is snuff and sneeze violently. Appealing as this explanation may be, it seems to me to be a bit far-fetched. After all, it would be quite a performance and the time taken to produce a stentorian response would rob the moment of its drama.

It seems to me that the answer is to be found in a parallel phrase, to sniff at. An earlier citation can be found for this phrase, in Jonathan Swift’s poem entitled The Grand Question Debated: Whether Hamilton’s Bawn should be turned into a barrack or malt-house, written in 1729. The Irish satirist wrote, “So, then you look’d scornful, and snift at the dean”, clearly an expression of disdain or contempt. Thomas Carlyle, in his The French Revolution: A History, published in 1837, wrote, “Camille Desmoulins, and others, sniffing at him for it” and, in a passage that the modern reader could easily misinterpret, “Dusky D’Espréménil does nothing but sniff and ejaculate.”

The Swiftian citation suggests that sniffing as a sign of disdain was already established in the mid 18th century. Perhaps the adoption of sneezing was simply a stronger expression of disdain, the explanation being as simple as that. Who knows?

Book Corner – February 2018 (1)

Capital Crimes – London Mysteries – edited by Martin Edwards

Perhaps Sherlock Holmes was right after all. In The Adventure of the Copper Beeches Conan Doyle’s greatest fictional creation avers that “the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” The reason – “The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.” It may be that this is why I found Edwards’ collection of stories from the 1890s to 1940s centred on London less satisfying that its countryside companion.

As someone who commuted regularly on the London underground, John Oxenham’s A Mystery of the Underground struck a contemporary and disturbing chord. It tells of a stalker who terrorises the District line using made up newspaper stories. So disturbing was the story when it was first published that passenger numbers on the line slumped in 1897. The book opens with a Conan Doyle story but one that doesn’t feature the famous resident of 221b Baker Street. The Case of Lady Sannox is a macabre story of revenge in which an arrogant surgeon undertakes one last procedure before a secret assignation with his paramour. The story ends with a horrific twist.

H C Bailey’s The Little House also has a modern twist. The detective, Reggie Fortune, is called upon to investigate what seems to be a simple case of a missing kitten but leads to him unearthing a disturbing case of child cruelty. The Tea Leaf by Robert Eustace and Edgar Jepson is a classic example of a locked room mystery. Two men enter a Turkish bath, argue loudly but only one leaves alive. The case centres on how the murder was committed and the solution is intriguing, if not ingenious.

But for every good story, there is one that defies belief. The Finchley Puzzle by Richard Marsh features an amateur sleuth, Judith Lee, who can lip read. This ability has earned her the enmity of London’s criminal fraternity and they try to do away with her using a box of poisoned chocolates. And poisoned confectionary features in Anthony Berkeley’s The Avenging Chance. R Austin Freeman’s Magic Casket taps into the threat of the yellow peril as Japanese criminals harass an elderly woman while J S Fletcher’s The Magician of Cannon Street is just plain daft.

Still, in a collection of 17 stories which tries to represent fairly the diversity of crime writing using the metropolis as its focal point, there is enough good material to keep the reader pleasantly entertained. I particularly enjoyed Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins upon which Alfred Hitchcock based his film, The Lady Vanishes, and The Hands of Mr Ottermole by Thomas Burke which builds up to a shocking finale.

It is well worth a read but follow Sherlock’s advice – seek out the countryside first.

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixty Four

Cigares de Joy

Smoking is rather frowned upon these days and with good reason, given its linkage with cancer, strokes, heart attacks and the like. Cigarette packets are decorated with lurid pictures of some of the problems consuming tobacco cause and smokers with a penchant for a spot of gallows humour take delight in trying to collect the full series of pictures. I suppose they make a useful self-diagnostic kit.

That being the case, it seems somewhat strange to the modern eye that smoking some form of cigarette could be healthy, let alone being helpful to asthmatics but such were the claims for the delightfully named Cigares de Joy. The advert showed a rather vacant-looking young woman, Joy perhaps but not personified, puffing away at a cigarette. The copy advised the reader that said cigarettes “afford immediate relief in cases of asthma, wheezing and winter cough and a little perseverance will affect a permanent cure.” What not to like?

Naturally, the Cigares de Joy were “universally recommended by the most eminent physicians and medical authors” and were so safe to use that you could liberally dispense them to the weaker members of your family or, as the advertising copy claimed, “agreeable to use, certain in their effects, and harmless in their action, they may be safely smoked by ladies and children.” A box of 35 reefers would set you back half a crown and were available from most chemists and stores. Alternatively, you could send your money to Wilcox & Co of 239, Oxford Street in London who would dispatch them to you pronto, without passing on the postal charge.

The Cigares de Joy were described in the Medical Times and Gazette of 1875 as “very useful little agents for inhaling the smoke of stramonium.”  So what was stramonium? To give it its full name, Datura stramonium is a member of the nightshade family and was known by a variety of names in England including jimsonweed, Devil’s snare, the wonderful Hell’s bells and Thornapple, to name but a few. The Elizabethan herbalist, John Gerard, was an enthusiastic exponent of Thornapple, writing in his Herball of 1597, “the juice of the Thornapple, boiled with hog’s grease, cureth all inflammators whatsoever, all manner of burnings and scaldings, as well of fire, water, boiling lead, gunpowder, as that which comes by lightning and that in very short time, as myself found in daily practice, to my great credit and profit.

In Ayuverdic medicine, stramonium was used to deal with the symptoms of asthma, the leaves being smoked in a cigarette or a pipe. It is thought that the practice was introduced into Europe by the Physician General of the East India Company, James Anderson, towards the end of the 18th century. So there would seem be some medical provenance for the efficacy of the Cigares de Joy.

There was one significant downside about the use of stramonium. It was used in certain parts of the world as an analgesic in surgery or for the setting of bones and was known to be a powerful hallucinogen and deliriant, producing intense visions. Indeed, the tropane alkaloids that it contained were fatally toxic in doses only slightly higher than would be used for medicinal purposes. If you smoked too many of the Cigares in too short a time, you would feel high and run the risk of causing yourself harm at best or killing yourself at worst.

They were still available to buy shortly after the end of the Second World War. Unlike many of the cures we have seen, there is a plausible case for arguing that the Cigares de Joy did some good, in moderation, and ingesting was the quickest way of getting the drug into your lungs. But to modern sensibilities, it all seems a bit odd.

What Is The Origin Of (165)?…


While we are on the subject of pejorative terms for our social superiors, we may as well look at toffee-nosed. It means snobbish, supercilious or stuck-up, never a good look. From an etymological standpoint, it has nothing to do with toffee. In fact, the derivation is from tuft via toff.

Our voyage of discovery starts among the dreaming spires of Oxford University. During the 18th and 19th centuries sons of the landed aristocracy were allowed to wear ornamental gold tassels on their mortar boards. Very fetching they must have looked too. These were known as tufts and, by extension, the wearers were known as tufts. By the 1870s wearing tufts went out of fashion, although there were some who tried to cling on to the tradition. The Westmoreland Gazette reported in March 1894 that “Lord Rosebery was one of the last undergraduates of Christ Church who wore the gold tassel, known by the name of tuft.”  And the tradition was sufficiently well-known amongst the hoi polloi for WS Gilbert to lampoon the fashion in Princess Ida, written in 1884; “you’ll find no tufts/ to mark nobility, except such tufts/ as indicate nobility of brain.

At some point during the early to middle 19th century the noun tuft, used to describe these scions of nobility, morphed into toff, almost certainly via toft. Quite how, no one knows. What seems clear, though, was that it was a term used by the lower orders to describe stylishly or fashionably dressed men. Henry Mayhew, in his London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1851, reported, “if it’s a lady and gentleman, then we cries “A toff and a doll”.” The adjectival form, toffy, soon followed and through etymological ignorance this was transformed into toffee, to trick the unwary in later years into thinking that it has something to do with the sugary brown sweet that plays havoc with your fillings.

The phrase toffee-nosed, though, emerged during the First World War as a description of officers who adopted a superior air. Perhaps the most graphic illustration of its usage is from TE Lawrence’s account of war-time life, The Mint, published in 1922 under the pseudonym of JH Ross. There he wrote, “China got into disgrace there. ‘I wasn’t going to f**k about for those toffy-nosed buggers, so I got back after f**king twelve, and they shoved me on the fizzer!” The ever useful Notes and Queries defined in an article entitled English Army Slang as Used in the Great War on 10th December 1921 toffee-nosed as stuck up, as did Fraser and Gibbons in their 1925 book, Soldier and Sailor Words.

Stuck-up had a longer legacy, appearing in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, published in 1839. Mrs Squeers describes the eponymous hero to her husband thus; “he’s a nasty stuck-up monkey, that’s what I consider him.” The idea behind the image of stuck-up is that of haughtiness, being superior to others, perhaps even to avoid the whiff of the great unwashed. This is the sense of nosed in our phrase.

Before we leave this subject completely, for collectors of obsolete but rather splendid words, I leave you with tufthunter. This was a noun used to describe those who fawned before and sucked up to the aforementioned tufts. Thackeray was spot on when he wrote of one, a Mr Brandon, in Shabby Genteel Story, published in 1840; “Mr Brandon was a tufthunter of the genteel sort; his pride being quite as slavish, and his haughtiness as mean and cringing, in fact, as poor Mrs. Gann’s stupid wonder and respect for all the persons whose names are written with titles before them.

I Predict A Riot – Part Thirty

The Richmond Women’s Bread Riot of 1863

Fortunately, I have not experienced wartime conditions and their concomitant deprivations (yet) but it is easy to understand how things can get desperate. Take Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy in the American Civil War.

The population had tripled in pretty short order as civilians and soldiers took refuge there. The Union blockade meant that little in the way of imported foodstuffs was making its way to the capital. The problems were compounded by the fact that most of the menfolk who worked on the land were now fighting for the Confederate cause, farmland had been destroyed during the fighting and what food was available was used to feed the troops. The consequence of all this was that the cost of food increased tenfold from their pre-war levels.

In March 1863 the city was struck by a massive snowstorm which, when the snows melted, made the roads impassable, further exacerbating the logistics of feeding a population that was growing daily as a consequence of the influx of wounded soldiers. A call from the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, for a day of fasting on March 27th went down like a lead balloon.

A group of women, led by Mary Jackson and Minerva Meredith, the latter described by Davis’ wife as “tall, daring, Amazonian-looking,” decided that enough was enough. They summoned a meeting of like-minded women at the Belvedere Hill Baptist Church on 1st April and decided to march on the Governor’s office to demand that he, John Letcher, do something to alleviate the food shortages. So the following day a group of some one hundred women, armed with axes, knives, and other assorted weaponry, assembled in front of the Governor’s office, shouting “Bread, bread” and “Bread or blood.

Letcher came out and tried to pacify the crowd, to no avail. Instead, his words seem to have inflamed the situation and the women – by now their numbers had grown considerably to upwards of a thousand, broke into the government’s storehouses and neighbouring shops and took whatever they could lay their hands on. Although Letcher summoned the public guard, their numbers and resolution were insufficient to hold the crowd back. Order was eventually restored when the Confederate President, Davis, summoned some troops, and climbing on top of a wagon, threatened to order them to shoot, if the crowd didn’t disperse. He pulled out his watch, ostentatiously measuring the passage of time.

At first, it seemed as though the rioters would defy the President but as the fifth minute was beginning, they started to disperse and make their way home. Some 60 rioters, including Mary Jackson, were arrested and indicted on charges of rioting and theft.

Did the bread riots make any difference? There were no further civil disturbances in Richmond because the authorities increased the security around the city by positioning cannons at strategic points. But the authorities did redouble their efforts to improve the distribution of foodstuffs to the poorer residents. A case of carrots and sticks. Interestingly, the Confederates realised that news of the riots would have an adverse effect on the morale of their troops and did their best to suppress the story. However, you cannot keep a good story down and rumours of the disturbance gained a wider circulation, thanks to some Union prisoners who had been in the city at the time, and made the front page of the New York Times on 8th April. The civil war, of course, rumbled on for another couple of years.