Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Twenty-Seven Of The Gang

James “Jem” Mace was a Norfolk-born boxing champion who operated, primarily, during the bare-knuckle era. He held the English Welterweight, Middleweight, and Heavyweight titles between 1860 and 1866 and was World Heavyweight Champion from 1870 to 1971 while fighting in the United States. He lent his name to a bit of slang, macing, which was a severe but regulated thrashing. Both he and the word that commemorated his prowess have fallen into obscurity.

To be marwooded was to be hung, a phrase deriving its origin from the Victorian executioner, William Marwood, whose other claim to fame was that he developed the long drop technique in 1872, a more scientific approach which took the height and weight of the prisoner into consideration in calculating the drop. In his nine years as an executioner, he hung 176 people including Charlie Peace and Henry Wainwright, the murderer of Harriet Lane. He also spawned the popular piece of doggerel; if Pa killed Ma/ who killed Pa/ Marwood. Marwood died in 1883.  

A fictional character whose name was enshrined in the argot of the time was Alfred Muntle, a handsome man with a black, bushy moustache, who appeared in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. The husband of a milliner, he changed his name to Mantalini on the supposition that Muntle would be bad for business and lived off his wife. From the 1840s Mantalini was the name give to a male milliner.   

How times have changed. In the 1890s made in Germany was used as a term used to signify something that was bad or valueless, thanks to the vast quantity of inferior goods imported from Germany, notes James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era. The term increased in its usage when it was required by law to be stamped on the goods.

More slang anon.

Mystery Villa

A review of Mystery Villa by E R Punshon

Although he has long gone out of fashion and he never hit the heights of some of his more illustrious contemporaries, when E R Punshon is on song he is more than capable of producing a minor masterpiece. Mystery Villa, the fourth in his Bobby Owen series, originally published in 1934 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, almost reaches those heights.

Punshon has a predilection for the set piece and his description of Tudor Lodge, the mystery villa, is a fine piece of sustained writing. Miss Barton is a recluse who has shunned human contact for nearly fifty years. She was jilted on her wedding day and the rooms of her house still bear silent witness to the tragedy. The table is still laid for the wedding breakfast, food has decayed, the canary in its cage has become a pile of dust, mice and spiders have a field day. As Bobby Owen wanders round this house of horror, Punshon delights in adding layer upon layer of decay, dust, and misery. It is a fine piece of atmospheric writing that border on the gothic and even parody but just keeps to the right side of the line, sensitively handling the consequences of a woman who is unhinged.

It is not difficult to spot that Punshon has modelled the tragic Miss Barton on the equally tragic jilted bride in Dickens’ Great Expectations, Miss Havisham. Miss Barton even wears her wedding dress on the anniversary of her doomed wedding. Punshon also borrows another idea from a great writer. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Story of the Physician and the Saratoga Trunk, a short story in the Suicide Club series first published in 1878, a body is hidden and transported from Paris to London in a Saratoga trunk. In Punshon’s book, the sense of horror the house engenders in all who visit and in the reader is the discovery of the body of Miss Barton’s intended in a Saratoga trunk and the realisation that she has lived with it for all those years. No wonder she did not want anyone to visit her.

As the events in the book unfold, Miss Barton has disappeared. What has happened to her? Why was an experienced cat burglar, Con Conway, showing interest in the place and why did he flee the scene on terror? What have the shifty shop owner and his equally suspicious assistant have to do with the tale? Why was a valuable pearl left behind at Talbot House? There are many twists and turns before Inspector Mitchell and Bobby Owen resolve the mystery of the house.

What I like about Punshon’s portrayal of Owen is that while we know he is the man who will carry the series and is destined for great things, his ascent up the greasy pole is not assured. Indeed, Owen makes a number of elementary errors or fails to grasp the importance of a piece of evidence and he is reliant upon the guidance and wisdom of his mentor, Inspector Mitchell, to pull him through. Owen is not a super-hero but a young man who is learning the ropes. There is a great deal of realism in Punshon’s treatment of him.

The plot causes the book to fall short of being a classic. For all of Bobby Owen’s blundering and false steps, it is relatively easy to work out whodunit, even if the motivation is a tad opaque. There is not much in the way of true detection and the nosy neighbour, Mrs Rice, is just a little too handy. There are some loose ends left at the end, not least what Co Conway had seen and his involvement if any in the case and in comparison with the lengthy investigations the resolution, with much going on off stage, appears a little rushed.

That aside, it is a thoroughly enjoyable book and you can sense that Punshon had fun writing it. If you have not tried Punshon, this may just be the place to start.

Happy New Year to you all.

A Slice Of Turkey

The wild turkey was indigenous to the Americas and was first domesticated around two thousand years ago in central Mesoamerica. All the modern varieties of turkey originate from the turkeys found in Mexico.

The man credited with introducing the turkey to England is William Strickland. On an early voyage to America in 1526 he acquired six birds from Native Americans and upon his arrival at Bristol promptly sold them at tuppence each. Quickly realising that there was a ready market for this exotic delicacy, he began importing turkeys in earnest, earning enough money to build himself a stately home in Boynton, near Bridlington.

Whether he was really the first is far from clear, but Strickland certainly made a big thing about his association with the bird. In 1550 he incorporated the turkey into his coat-of-arms, the drawing of which, held at the College of Arms in London, may be the earliest depiction of the bird in Europe. The village church at which he is buried is a homage to the turkey, the bird appearing in stone sculptures on the walls, stained glass windows and even replacing the traditional eagle on the lectern.

Thanks in no small part to the Tudor equivalent of Bernard Matthews, the English developed a taste for the turkey. While the Venetian patricians passed sumptuary laws in 1557 restricting consumption of turkey flesh to the nobility, it was cash rather than class that defined who could eat turkey meat in England, their price set by law in London’s markets from 1555. So widespread were turkeys that in 1560 a law was passed banning birds bred for slaughter from roaming the streets of London.

By 1573 the turkey had found its place on the festive menu, Thomas Tusser noting that the perfect host at Christmas would offer “good bread and good drinke…brawn pudding and souse and good mustarde withal. Biefe, mutton and porke, shred pyes of the best, pig, veal, goose and capon, and turkey well drest”. Farming manuals of the time included instructions on rearing turkeys, which were smaller than the wild indigenous birds of the Americas, a point noted by William Wood in his New England’s Prospect (1634).

Cookery books from the late 16th century began to include recipes for turkeys. A Booke of Cookrye from 1584 instructed its readers to “cleve your Turkye foule on the back, and bruse al the bones. Season it with pepper groce beaten and salt, and put into good store of Butter, he must have five houres baking”. Gervase Markham, writing in 1623, recommended roasting with the pinions still attached.

Two major problems inhibited the universal adoption of the turkey as festive fare: cost and transportation. While, by 1720, 250,000 turkeys were being reared in Norfolk, getting them to consumers involved walking them from the farms to the markets, journeys that could take weeks and involved the farmers setting up impromptu camps each night by the side of the roads. Mrs Beeton wrote of turkeys being driven all the way from Norfolk to London, with their feet dipped in tar to prevent them getting sore.

The cost of transportation meant that turkeys were out of the reach of all but the well-to-do, a meat to aspire to, while ordinary folk made do with beef, a strong favourite in the North, capons, or goose. The arrival of the railways, improvements in refrigeration, and the sentimentalisation of Christmas saw a rise in the turkey’s stock in the mid-19th century.

Scrooge’s gift of a turkey to Bob Cratchit in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), Queen Victoria sitting down to her first roast turkey on Christmas Day 1851, and the realisation that the fowl provided more meat for the large families seated around the dining table may have cooked the goose, but it took another century for the turkey to become truly affordable.

Even in the 1930s, a turkey cost the equivalent of a week’s wages, and the thriftier amongst the population would subscribe to savings clubs to ensure that when the time came, they had enough to pay for their festive bird. It was not until after the Second World War that improvements in farming efficiency brought the price down to a level that was affordable to most. Since then, the turkey has not looked back.

If you enjoyed this, check out More Curious Questions, available now.

Wedding Anniversaries

Just over half, 50.4%, of the population aged sixteen or over in England and Wales were married or in civil partnerships in 2019, according to the Office for National Statistics. While much of the focus is on the big day, around £14.7bn is spent on weddings each year, wedding anniversaries afford an opportunity to reminisce, take stock, look to the future, and celebrate. Cards and gifts are exchanged and some anniversaries bear names which act as a reminder of the type of gift that should be given.

To reach fifty years of marriage is a considerable achievement, even more so when life expectancy was much lower than now. In 18th century Germany couples who reached this milestone were given a wreath made of gold by their friends in a ceremony witnessed by a correspondent of The Belfast Newsletters, whose account appeared in its edition of October 27, 1852.

“It was usual” he wrote, “for them to be married again, and this is called the golden wedding…the priest pronounces a simple blessing…the whole ends by a dance and a supper, to which all the friends and relations of the parties are of course invited”. He also noted that “there is another custom, too, called the celebration of the “silver wedding” (silberne hochzeit), which takes place after twenty-five years of wedlock; but it is of not such universal observance”.  

Counting the years was not exclusive to the Germans. The Morning Chronicle in 1825 noted that Mr and Mrs Gerred of New North Road in Exeter had, on January 25th, celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of their wedding, a rarity worthy of especial note. More mundanely, in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, published in 1838, the Kenwigs celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary by hosting a gathering for their friends and acquaintances. It suggests that anniversaries were marked, even if they were not major milestones.

As well as noting the Gerred’s achievement, the correspondent of The Morning Chronicle helpfully tabulated the names of the key wedding anniversaries that prevailed at the time; cotton (first), paper (second), wooden (fifth), woollen (seventh), tin (tenth), silk and fine linen (twelfth), crystal (fifteenth), china (twentieth), pearl (thirtieth), and ruby (fortieth), not forgetting silver and gold for the twenty-fifth and fiftieth respectively.

The point of controversy lay with the Diamond wedding. “Contrary to a very general misconception”, the correspondent noted trenchantly, “this requires 75 years of marital companionship”, rather than sixty as it is now. Queen Victoria’s commandeering of the name to celebrate her sixty years on the throne in 1897 cemented it in the public’s consciousness. Clearly, it was used interchangeably to refer to both the sixtieth and seventy-fifth anniversaries, despite a rear guard effort on the part of compilers of anniversary tables throughout the century. The distinction, in truth, was probably moot.

The choice of symbols reflected the development of a marriage, starting with a blank canvas (cloth and paper), before it gained more solidity (wood) and strength and flexibility (tin). Crystal and china reminded the couple of the fragility of their bonds while the radiance and value of long and happy relationship was reflected in silver. Marriages of longer duration were rarer, reflected in the choice of pearl, while the inner flame of a ruby represented the passion that remained after so many years.

By the mid-19th century, the list was extended to include coral (35th), associated with magic and protective powers, for the thirty-fifth, and sapphire (45th), whose deep blue colouring signified profound love. Platinum symbolised the seventieth while oak with its strength and powers of endurance was adopted for the eightieth.

During the twentieth century the celebration of anniversaries became increasingly commercialised, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the American Retail Jewellers Association, who, lamenting the long wait until the golden and diamond anniversaries, compiled lists of gifts, mostly jewellery of course, appropriate to each of the fifty years of marriage. These were published in 1937 and, with minor regional variations, form the lists we use today.

What Is The Origin Of (292)?…


I worked for most of my career in the insurance industry in London. During my time that curious mix of private and corporate capital channelled into annual businesses called syndicates operating under the organisational umbrella of Lloyd’s was considered to be the bee’s knees when it came to underwriting and accepting risks. I was never quite so convinced that it really merited its world-class reputation, but after nearly driving itself into financial oblivion in the late 80s and early 90s and ruining many of its private investors along the way, Lloyd’s managed to pick itself up and regain much of its former glory.

It all started at Edward Lloyd’s coffee house, opened originally in 1688 in Tower Street, before migrating to Lombard Street. Although Edward died in 1713 the coffee shop continued to thrive. In 1760 a group of merchants, who met there to swap information and strike deals, formed an independent society by the name of the Lloyd’s Register of Shipping with the aim of surveying ships to ensure that they complied with designated standards of construction and maintenance. Their annual publication, The Register, which first saw the light of day in 1764, was designed, through a survey of the physical structure and equipment of merchant ships, underwriters and merchants some idea of the quality of the vessels they were respectively insuring and chartering.

By the 1775-6 edition a more systematic approach to characterising the quality of a ship, wooden in construction, by using a combination of letters of the alphabet, interestingly just vowels, and numerals. As the Register itself elucidated in its edition for 1800, “the vessels marked A are of the first class, E the second, I the third, O the fourth and U the fifth. The Materials of the Vessel with the Figure 1 are of the First Quality, with 2 of the Second Quality and 3 of the Third Quality”. A vessel rated as A1 was of the highest quality.

The phrase was originally A1 at Lloyd’s and was worn as a badge of honour by shipowners, eager to convince passengers of the quality and seaworthiness of their vessel. An example is this advert placed by Messrs Bain, Grahame & Co in The Daily Southern Cross, a newspaper in New Zealand, on June 25, 1859 promoting their latest vessel which was travelling to Sydney: “The fine new fast sailing Brig “Prince Edward” A1 at Lloyd’s. 170 tons register, Nowlan, Commander, will load alongside Queen-street Wharf, and have immediate despatch”.

Inevitably, this shorthand descriptor for the finest quality moved outside of the world of insurance, sometimes losing the reference to Lloyd’s along the way. Sam Weller and Mr Roker, discussing a man after my own heart in Dickens’ The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, published in 1837, had this exchange: “One of ‘em takes his twelve pints of ale a-day, and never leaves off smoking, even at his meals. “He must be a first-rater”, said Sam. “A,1”, replied Mr Roker”.

However, the Lloyd’s reference remained in nautical contexts. In Edward Oxenden’s poem entitled A1 at Lloyd’s, published in The Leeds Times on March 19, 1892, a sailor is extolling the virtues of his inamorata, Sue: “there are lasses, lads, that a tar can love;/ there are lasses a tar avoids;/ But my darling Sue is sweer and true -/Aye, she’s classed A1 at Lloyd’s”.

With the introduction of iron ships and to avoid confusion with a rating system that had stood the test of time for a century, Lloyd’s introduced in 1872 a classification in the format of 100A1 to describe the quality of construction of these more modern vessels. A1, though, usually without any reference to Lloyd’s, is the shorthand still used today to refer to something or someone of the finest quality.