A wry view of life for the world-weary

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.


You’re Having A Laugh – Part Eight

Solar Armour

One of the keys to military success, I’m told, is to ensure that your forces arrive at the field of battle in optimal condition. When temperatures are at their height, it would be helpful if the soldiers had some apparel which cooled them down. An article, published on 2nd July 1874 in Nevada’s Territorial Enterprise, described the enterprise of a certain Jonathan Newhouse who had invented something which was known as solar armour, which seemed to be a solution to the problem of perspiring soldiers.

The armour consisted of a long, closely fitting jacket and a cap, both made of sponge about an inch thick. A rubber sack was fitted below the right armpit into which was poured cold water. There was a tube leading from the sack to the cap. Before setting out into the desert the soldier would saturate the sponge and then keep themselves moist by occasionally depressing the sack with their arm.

Having invented the thing, the intrepid Newhouse decided to put it through its paces, choosing the appropriately named Death Valley for the experiment. Alas, for Newhouse, his invention worked too well. An Indian tracker went to a nearby camp and indicated that the men should follow him. About twenty miles from the camp, they saw Newhouse sitting against a rock in his armour, frozen and dead. His beard was covered in frost and an icicle, a foot long, hung from his nose. It seemed that he had been unable to remove the straps to the mechanism and in time his invention had killed him.

The story was soon picked up by newspapers in San Francisco and New York and even crossed the pond where the paper with the largest circulation in the world at the time, the Daily Telegraph, deigned to give it some column inches. But something did not seem quite right about the extraordinary tale. Inventions were a bit Heath-Robinsonish at the time and, as readers of this blog will know, a number of inventors have fallen off this mortal coil at the hands of their invention. The Telegraph, in relating the tale took a rather neutral stance as regards its veracity. Whilst acknowledging the fact that when you ice a bottle of wine by wrapping a cloth around it, the moisture caused by the evaporation is very cold, it would not go as far as accepting the circumstances of poor Newhouse’s demise. Perhaps, it was troubled by the twelve inch icicle hanging from his nose. Instead, rather like Herodotus, it was “not prepared to disbelieve it wholly nor to credit without question.

Still having got the story into so august an organ as the Telegraph, more details started to emerge of Newhouse’s strange death. A further account of an inquest appeared in the August 30th edition of the Territorial Enterprise, recounting the inquest. Bottles of strange chemicals were found in Newhouse’s backpack and the verdict was that “he fell victim to a rash experiment with chemicals with the nature of which he was imperfectly acquainted.

Of course, it was all an elaborate hoax and the truth eventually came out. On the staff of the Territorial Enterprise at the time were Mark Twain and William Wright. The Solar Armour story was the work of Wright who was better known as Dan de Quille and who in the 1860s was tipped to achieve greater literary renown than his colleague. The Solar Armour story was the creation of his fevered imagination and an experiment in to how far a ludicrous story would run. Quite some distance, it would appear.

Shot Of The Week

I love stories around the theme of biter bit and here’s a great one I came across this week.

Robert Meilhammer was in a group of hunters in Easton, Maryland. A flock of Canadian geese flew over ahead and the group, not wishing to miss out on a bit of sport, blasted away and downed several of the unfortunate birds.

However, one of the geese, which weigh between 12 and 14 lbs, had the last laugh, plummeting to the ground and striking our Robert. So severe was the impact that Meilhammer was knocked unconscious and suffered what was described as a “severe head injury.

He had to be airlifted to a hospital in Baltimore where he is said to be in a stable condition.

The goose, alas, is dead.

In a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, spokesperson for the Maryland Natural Resources Police, Candy Thomson, revealed that geese can cause “severe damage” falling from height due to their weight and size. But, hey, not as much damage as a bloke with a loaded shotgun aimed at a passing goose.

Tee-shirt Of The Week

I suppose that for people like me who run a mile to avoid exercise we will never have the satisfaction of wearing one of those tee-shirts that proclaim that the wearer has completed some benighted marathon, half or otherwise, somewhere at some point in time. If it didn’t involve any effort, I would doff my hat to them.

Mind you, I am on the look-out for anyone who completed last Sunday’s Dewsbury 10k, a course which took the runners through the pastoral delights that are Batley and Birstall. Upon crossing the finishing line, they were presented with a fetching blue tee-shirt, emblazoned with a logo which is supposed to represent the outline of Dewsbury’s splendid Victorian town hall.

It didn’t take long for people to point on social media the rather phallic nature of the logo. Was it all a bit of an unfortunate error or was the designer an anarchist making a point?

We will probably never know.

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?

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty Three

Do woodpeckers suffer brain damage?

One of the distinctive sounds to be heard in the garden of Blogger Towers is the drilling of a woodpecker as it tries to dislodge insects from within the bark of one of the nearby trees. It has always struck me that there must be easier ways for them to get their food. After all, each time they strike the tree their beaks and head undergo forces of between 1,200 and 1,400 G, over fourteen times the force that would give a human concussion.

A team of scientists from Boston University School of Medicine, led by Peter Cummings, reported in the ever popular Plos One, carried out some research into the brains of woodpeckers, using exhibits from the Field Museum and Harvard Museum of Natural History. The tell-tale sign for brain damage, in human brains at least, is the build-up of tau protein around our axons. Normally, tau protein wraps around the axons, giving them protection and stability while preserving their flexibility. Too much of it, though, disrupts the ability of the neurons to communicate, causing problems with functions such as emotional, cognitive and motor.

In what is thought to have been the first detailed examination of woodpecker brains, the little grey cells were removed from a number of exhibits and the amount of tau protein was compared with that to be found in the brains of Red-winged Blackbirds. Now, of course, the woodpeckers in question may have been particularly stupid, having allowed themselves to be caught and end up in a museum’s glass case, but the researchers found that there was considerably more tau protein in their brains than in the blackbirds.

Is this indicative of brain damage? Frustratingly, the researchers are not prepared to commit; all Cummings was prepared to say was “We can’t say that these woodpeckers definitely sustained brain injuries, but there is extra tau present in the woodpecker brain.” It is dangerous to assume that what is good for humans must also be the case for other forms of animal life so a bit more research is needed, I guess.

Empirically, though, as woodpeckers have been around for 25 million years and nature evolves – a controversial contention, I know – you would think that they would have developed mechanisms to prevent injurious damage to their bodies. And it seems they have. Researchers have previously established that woodpeckers have particularly thick neck muscles which serve to diffuse the blow when their beak strikes the wood. They also have a third inner eyelid which prevents their eyeballs from popping out.

In 2012 scientists from Beijing’s Beihang University and the Wuhan University of Technology carried out a more detailed examination of the thick bone that surrounds and cushions the woodpecker’s brain, details of which were reported in Science China Life Sciences. It appears that their brains are surrounded by a spongy bone plate made of tiny beams or rods called trabeculae. This provides a protective layer around the brain. Similarly, their beaks contain these same trabeculae. It is thought that the beak deforms during impact, absorbing the impact rather than sending it onwards towards the brain.

So the answer is probably no. Makes sense, I suppose.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone which is now available via

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.

Sporting Event Of The Week (9)

Last Sunday saw what to many observers is the culmination of the Australia Day celebrations – the Tuna Tossing World Championships held at the Tunarama Festival in Port Lincoln in South Australia.

Fifty contestants, thirty men and twenty women drawn from locals and tourists, battled it out for the crown and the prize pot of a thousand Aussie dollars. A variety of styles were deployed but the most successful seemed to be one that was akin to hurling a discus. Contestants had to throw the tuna as far as they could whilst remaining inside a circle.

Local, Estie Mayer-Stander, won the women’s event with a throw of 9.6 metres and Levi Proude proudly won the men’s competition hurling his fish an impressive 18.9 metres. Proude’s throw, though, was a long way short of the all-time record of 37.23 metres, recorded by former Olympic hammer thrower, Sean Carlin.

The idea for the competition came from watching dock workers hurl fish from the decks of boats moored in the harbour and from 1979 until fairly recently real tuna, albeit dead, were used. These days the fish are rubber with a string attached to the tail to give the contestants a better grip.

Social Media Tool Of The Week

I have to admit it, I don’t really understand social meejah. I have the obligatory Facebook and Twitter accounts but the number of my followers remains steadfastly at a level that they were when I pretty much set up the wretched things.

Fans of these forms of digitised social interaction seem fixated on statistics, particularly on numbers of followers and or so-called friends. They will go to enormous lengths to boost them, thus increasing the chances of their latest inanities trending, as I think the term is. The thinking is that success begets success and the more followers you have the more likely your fan club is to grow exponentially.

One company called Devumi, I read this week, buys and sells fake followers so that those who subscribe to their services appear to be more influential than they really are. For just $17 you can generate a thousand followers and they claim to have at least 3.5 million automated accounts to offer.

If you are going to use them, you had better move sharpish. Allegations have surfaced that this is a fraud, that their address in Manhattan is a fake and that the founder’s LinkedIn career summary is somewhat questionable. The New York prosecutor is investigating Devumi as I write.

It was only in November that Facebook revealed that as many as 60 million of its accounts are generated by automated bots. Not all is at it seems in the digital world, it would appear.

And there was me thinking that it was going to be the brilliance of my apercus that would see my numbers soaring into the stratosphere. A man can dream!