Writing Greenwood Tree – and more

18th century curiosities

A Day Out…

Here’s a nice little curio I came across Retronaut the other day: a ticket issued by the British Museum in 1790 to one (*squints *) Mr Masefield (?), who was allowed entrance as one of five or six visitors  for a genteel amble around Montagu House, one ‘fair’ day in March (according the Meterological Table in Gentleman’s Magazine, with temperatures of 56° Fahrenheit at noon).And after admiring Sir Sloane’s admirable collection of books, prints and natural specimens,did Mr Masefield then wander out for a stroll in the neatly laid out gardens ? It is quite a view, with a fountain at the end of the walk, and close on 600 species of plants growing there.


The gardens had had a chequered history, the house having been abandoned in the 1740s; however, when it was purchased as the first home of the Museum, they were restored by the Trustees’ hired gardener Mr Bramley, and became a popular visitors’ spot in their own right.

Sadly, they disappeared completely in the 1820s under the new designs for the present British Museum by Sir Robert Smirke…

Montagu House, North Prospect, 1715, both house and gardens in fashionable French Style

I wonder if the Warrens might have popped in on an occasional visit down to London. I should think Robert did when he was not at Temple Bar or ‘Varsity. That and the Pump Rooms at Bath were on the Social Calendar for those wishing to be thought well of as Eucated Gentlefolk.

Much has changed. One thing has not: admission is still free, after three hundred years. Something laudable in that, especially at a time when libraries are being closed down and prices generally are going up …

Rather a different view now of course:

The British Museum, Great Court

The British Museum, Great Court (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(For those with a mind to hop through time, Retronaut is a rather fun place where various oddities from the past are put on display: http://www.retronaut.com/ – worth a toddle or two)

Oh, Take Snuff & Blow Your Head Off!

“He settles terms in such a way that each leaves the other entirely satisfied (no easy achievement in itself); with only one minor reservation:  Mr Oddman has a preference for a particular kind of snuff which makes up no part of his fee – yet his clients always feel totally convinced that a constant, fresh supply is entirely requisite, and do their utmost to ensure his wish in this respect is met to the fullest degree. After the usual introductions he is given his instructions; simple and to the point, which is how he would wish it, indeed, he encourages his new ‘client’(and here he pauses, takes a pinch of snuff, and leans forward confidentially) to be as brief and to the point as can be – nothing is better, more appropriate to the situation, more – (and here he takes yet another pinch of snuff, and waves his hand in the air) – to the point,  in matter of fact….”          

         Greenwood Tree, chapter 24

Mr Oddman is an Agent – one sent to discover information about individuals for his clients; in this particular case, he is engaged to follow the footsteps of the villain of the piece. Something of an 18th century private eye, with a penchant for snuff. Nothing but the best – and he makes sure, somehow, that he receives a plentiful supply of it from his clients. On top of his fee – which would not be modest either. Snuff, you say? A luxury then, on a par with sugar and tea – thereby limiting its use to the wealthy, while Joe the fisherman drew on his simple clay pipe. I am not about to relate its history – there is an abundance of information on the subject (in particular on this most excellent site: RegencyRedingote); an interesting story of travel it is,too, from 15th century Haiti, passing through Portugal,Italy, Russia,Africa and China to reach British shores by the 18th century, where it continues to be enjoyed to this day in a strangely secretive way- which I won’t go into now. What I will mention though are the snuff boxes. The minute I started thinking of the containers, I had a mental picture of skulls. This macabre item decorated a great many personal articles and trinkets during the Renaissance (when memento Mori and thoughts of man’s mortality were fashionably de rigueur) – how had it fared since then ?  Sure enough, there are such things as snuff boxes with skulls on them : (Science Museum UK). Quite why I thought of this in particular I cannot say – I suspect it is that part of me that forever hunts out material for more ghost stories (do I feel one coming on now ? Possibly), or perhaps something surfaced from the dusty corners of my memory to tickle my  inner eye …

Tortoiseshell & silver, early 18th century

Handsome fellow, ain’t he ?

  It was one of the quickest signals when a person whisked out a snuff-box; an immediate indication of status – and naturally enough, the materials the box was made from reflected this: ivory and tortoiseshell, silver and gold, gem-encrusted, multiform and occasionally eccentric – perhaps rivalling the tea caddy and teapot on that score. Dr Samuel Johnson’s was ivory and in the shape of a gloved fist . Others favoured pug dogs, piglets, eggs,shells, shoes (hmm, I suspect loose morals in there somewhere..) – even coffins (I did already mention the skull motif I believe?) – all in all, tastes varied then as much as they do today, with an enviable level of invention and craftsmanship to accommodate them.

And what about language, I hear you say – you surely aren’t going to leave it there, are you ? Well, no, not without mentioning that curious expression ‘up to snuff’ ; now perhaps a little out of use, but with a story of its own that I find quite intriguing.

1811 and Shakespeare’s Hamlet was being performed – only not quite perhaps as the Bard had intended. Parody, that accolade of admiration, had picked him out under the pen name of John Poole, the earliest known originator of the farce, whose work Hamlet the Travestie in Three Acts now trod the boards. For Poole to use the expression ‘up to snuff’ in his comedy suggests it was already common parlance, although the original meaning of the phrase was ‘knowing, sharp, not easily deceived’ rather than ‘up to standard’, which only came into  use in the early 20th century. Grose later defined it as ‘flash’ – derived from the stimulating effects of taking the wretched stuff in the first place. So stuff that, I’ve had enough, damme, I’m off  . . .

John Poole, author of the first Shakespeare parody since the Restoration

No more, I pray, or I shall snuff it. And mention not those snuff-taking iniquities such as that Corsican upstart or I shall take snuff and depart!

Of changelings, foundlings and ferals …

…or, A Question of Identity

Couldn’t resist re-blogging this fascinating, intriguing and ultimately mysterious account from the Georgian Gentleman‘s blog :

“Throughout the 18th Century I have come across stories of people suddenly appearing in a remote village, and no one can work out where they came from or why. Perhaps it is an indication of how little the population moved around, that strangers stood out in this way. There are echoes perhaps in the modern era with stories of children emerging from a forest claiming to have amnesia and uttering nothing but grunting sounds. You can bet that the red-tops will run with stories of ‘feral children being raised by wolves’ or whatever. They are generally found to be fakes…

Here then is a variation on that theme – as evidenced in a letter which my ancestor Richard Hall received some time in the 1780s. It is undated, so I cannot be more specific, but it appears to be in response to a query by Richard for information. Presumably he had gleaned some facts, and was intrigued to know the full story…”

Continues at Mr M.Rendell’s Blog

On reading the above I was reminded  of a couple of those more famous feral or ‘wild’ children from the late 18th and early19th centuries: the case of the wild boy, ‘Victor’ of Aveyron, who was found digging up roots and grunting, unable to communicate with humans, and the mysterious business of Kaspar Hauser who appeared out of the blue in 1812 in Nurnberg with an unsigned letter. Kaspar’s case differs from the Victor in that he was not, as initially assumed, living out in the wild; he could actually speak (two sentences), yet had difficulty walking and using his fingers. However, once he had learnt to speak more fluently, his story was no less mysterious than Victor’s – his earliest recollections were of living in a cell, visited by one human being who brought him water and bread (as a consequence, Kaspar could eat nothing else). There was never a light in his cell. Finally he was taught to say his name and taken outside where the fresh air and light made him faint. When he came to, he found himself in Nurnberg with the letter.

Victor of Aveyron, who was found digging up roots and grunting

In Victor’s case, two men who had lost sons in the French Revolution, travelled to see if he could be the missing heir; neither of them claimed him, however. Kaspar likewise caused some debate concerning his origins – to the extent that he was heir to the Baden principality, switched at birth by an ambitious relative. There are some interesting details connected with his story, including the manner of his death, but his claims remain unproven.

The idea of snatching a child at birth, either for profit or in order to save it from danger, is an ancient one, dating to prehistoric times, linked over time to the concept of the ‘changeling’ : the human child stolen away by faeries and replaced by an ugly homonid or goblin. Unpleasantly suggestive of people’s response to children born with defects, or simply not up to what had been expected – and also  a convenient cover for those born on the wrong side of the blanket.

To finish off this little trio of foundlings, changelings and ferals is the story of Karl Wilhelm Naundorff. The time: 1833. His claim was simple : he was the Dauphin, son and heir to Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI who had been so careless as to lose their heads during the French Revolution. Another twenty-seven men or so had already laid claim to the title during the interim since Napoleon’s downfall in 1815. What set Naundorff apart was the evidence he put forward.

In 1795, Louis Charles de Bourbon, youngest child of the French Royal Family, was supposed to have died while in prison awaiting his fate. Yet rumour had it the child had in fact been swapped for another. Certainly the boy changed considerably in health in seven months according to General Paul Barras (hardly surprising though, given the circumstances) – what did spur on rumours however was the size of the coffin used for the funeral of the heir apparent; people wondered that such a large coffin was used for   such a young child. Twenty years later, the rumours were further fuelled by a death-bed confession from the Dauphin’s female gaoler: that she and her husband had substituted a boy for the Dauphin. “My little prince is not dead,” were her last words on the matter.

The Dauphin was supposed to have died in the Temple when he was ten

Various officials had visited the Dauphin in prison – far from the robust ten-year-old, they encountered a deaf-mute, a ‘pitiable creature’  – indeed, when the new gaoler was engaged, he immediately asserted that the Dauphin was an imposter. General de Barras organised a nation-wide search for the child.

According to Naundorff however,  Barras was complicit in the plot to save the boy by having him smuggled out on the day the substitute died, then moved to Italy, thence to Prussia.

Naundorff began a civil court action to support his claim, was expelled from France and went to work in England where an attempt was made on his life. He died nine years later in Holland – reputedly poisoned. Enough people believed in his claim to erect a tombstone to him inscribed with ‘Louis Charles de Bourbon, son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’. Whether he was imposter or not, the story of substitution acquires more substance yet in the year 1846, when the presumed Dauphin’ s body was exhumed. Two doctors pronounced the bones to be those of an older child – a boy of fifteen or sixteen. In 1894 the bones were re-examined; this time, the age was set between sixteen and eighteen. In either case,speculation continued to murmur that the child in the coffin could not be the Dauphin. A quick perusal of Louis XVII, the Unsolved Mystery by H. G. Francq is suggestive – of botched mixed burials from hasty autopsies as much as anything else.

And what of the heart ? That sorry, pickled, much travelled heart on which DNA tests were carried out in 2000? Whose heart was it ? Certainly it belonged to a relative of Marie Antoinette (which Naundorff, likewise through DNA,was proven not to be) – but was it the Dauphin’s? Even there, the mystery continues.It certainly gave Baroness d’Orczy plenty of plot material . . .

How on earth did I get here? What links all of these cases, including the poor man from Leicester is that of identity – personal, individual, human. It lies at the heart of the human psyche, and operates at all levels of our lives. No wonder there is a constant absorbing interest every time a mummy is x-rayed, or Mozart’s skull is re-examined, or another portrait purporting to be of Shakespeare comes to light – are they who we thought they were?  And are we who we thought we were? Every time we suggest doubt of a person’s identity, past or present, we take a step towards challenging our own identity – understandably, passions run high. We take sides and perceive insults when academic and scientific clash with our favourite legends and prove them hollow and worthless.

The story of individual identity continues to appeal, attract, absorb and mystify, testifying as it does to our life-long, centuries-long obsession with who we are, where we come from, where we are going….

(Shall I finish with *the* quote? Or will you ?)

Related links of interest :


Eldorado by Baroness d’Orczy

Tea Caddies and a Ghostly Tale thereof . . .

I did say I might write about tea caddies . . .(smacks paw against making such rash promises in the future) . . once I had recovered from talking about teapots. However, I see so much already written about them, I feel justified in limiting myself to a couple of details, and inviting the reader to peruse the following post by @GeorgianGent : The Tea Caddy Revisited

Again, like teapots, these items came in a range of shapes, from straightforward boxes to apples and pears; from miniature desks to barrels (see examples in Mr M. Rendell’s blog)

As for the word tea itself (and this too has been pointed out elsewhere): it has  an etymology that I find strangely satisfying –  actually indicating what route the commodity took to reach western shores.

‘Teh’, for example, is its denomination in Indonesia and Malaysia,  whence it crossed the seas over to Italy, Spain and France, before making its way with Catherine of Braganza and Charles II to the British drawing room – and in all three Latin languages it is called té, or thé (thence likewise  in Dutch and German thee or Tee).

Meanwhile, the use of the word cha or char in Chinese, Russian, Persian, Urdu– suggests land routes taken, including the Ancient Tea Route starting from Sichuan Province in mainland China: (http://www.silkroadfoundation.org/newsletter/2004vol2num1/tea.htm).

(Other links relating to tea caddies:





And the details that tickle me  in particular are  : that caddy derives from the Malaysian word ‘kati’ or measure (approximately a little over half a kilo); and that some of them were designed to have a secret compartment – like writing desks . . . so I could not resist writing up a very short ghost tale around one . . .

(Click on cover below to read in Issuu form with zoom capacity)

The year : 1929

The place : An antique dealer’s.

 ‘Nice piece. Very nice. Shall we say, knock a guinea off for the slight damage on the corner there?’

‘Well, perhaps a shilling or two.’

‘Knock off the guinea, and I’ll take it now, as it is.’

‘You are a shrewd customer, Mr Anshaw – you know a good thing when you see it,’ chuckled the antique dealer.

Edgar Anshaw certainly did know a good thing when he saw it; shrewd was the polite word used to his face. What the antique dealer said later on to his colleagues was less flattering – and rather curious.

‘He is welcome to his guinea – he won’t be able to get rid of it fast enough, mark my words, and then we’ll see what he makes of it, the skinflint.’

‘Is that the caddy from Portland House ?’ asked one of them, raising an eyebrow.

The antique dealer nodded, just the once.

‘Well, sooner him than me,’ was the general comment.


Mrs Anshaw displayed much delight at the wonderful inlay and warm, glowing veneer of the caddy – it was immediately instated with full honours on the sideboard.

‘Do you think it is safe to keep tea in it ? Weren’t some of them lined with lead ?’

‘My dear, it was the one of the first things I checked – it is a little older than that, and made entirely of wood – with an old silver tray on the inside which has worn a little thin.’

‘I shall line that with tissue paper- I have some left from Worth’s which would be perfect.’

And Mrs Anshaw duly proceeded to line and fill the caddy; she stood back to admire the general effect: on either side, a couple of vases with purple primulas complemented it perfectly. Behind it, the huge Georgian silver teapot.

A rattle of teaspoons roused her from her reverie – ‘That will be Amy – it must be later than I thought.’ She turned to remind the maid about the visitors due that afternoon – but Amy had already left the room.


‘What a lovely colour,’

‘Doesn’t it look splendid with the primulas ?’

‘A delightful thing.’

‘How old did you say it was ?’

‘Edgar says at least early 1700s, if not earlier.’

‘Goodness. Beautiful inlay . . .’

The latest acquisition to the Anshaw collection was proving a great success – admiration, curiosity and mild envy in perfect measure which normally would have satisfied Mrs Anshaw mightily. However, she found herself somewhat distracted; twice she found herself pouring an extra cup for nobody in particular, and on several occasions she was convinced she heard the rattling of teaspoons on the tray by the door – when nobody was in fact standing there.

‘Are you all right, Emmeline ?’ asked one of her closest friends quietly while the others were still gathered around the caddy. ‘Only you seem a trifle nervous.’

‘Oh dear, do I ? It is the oddest sensation I have today, Mary – I keep counting how many of us there are – it always seems there are more people than I can see – isn’t that fanciful of me ?’

‘How very strange that you should mention that,’ replied her friend, widening her eyes, ‘for I have found myself turning my head to see who is by the door – but there never is anyone; now why do you think we have that feeling ?’

‘What’s that ?’ asked another of the guests, who had moved away from the group.

When they explained, she nodded her head to agree – and one by one, the whole gathering discovered they had each in one subtle way or another, sensed an extra, indistinct presence moving amongst them.

Somebody tapped the side of their cup with a spoon. Mrs Anshaw started. ‘I think I shall open the window,’ she announced suddenly. ‘Let a little fresh air and light in, as it is such a glorious day.’

‘Might chase away some of our fancies, too,’ murmured Mary to herself.