Writing Greenwood Tree – and more

19th century curiosities

Of Artists and Anarchists

“…A poster, half dangling from its moorings, flutters briefly in the draught created by passing coats and capes, delivering its message in flickers:

‘International… Congress … of Anarchists …’

Various speakers from America and Russia will be present including one Slavic prince lately escaped from an impenetrable fortress – such stuff as legends are made of, thus warranting a giant of a man swathed in dark cape with Byronic eyes and pose; and surely there should be a raven perched on one shoulder to complete the picture. Instead, the audience is treated to a little man of cherubic features, half smothered by bushy beard, whose eyes, Byronic or otherwise, are shielded by thick pebble glasses. …”

  (Of Soul Sincere, Part One, Chapter 2)

This could be called the Story of a Printing Press. Except that there is more than one printing press. It could also be a story about a family – only, there is more than one family.  It might be the story of one particular address – and yet, that too changes. It could also be about anarchists.  It is certainly about writers. Writers with quite an artistic and literary pedigree.

When does it start? I had thought to begin with the late 19th century; but really it could be said to originate in the 1830s when Italian writer and scholar Gaetano Polidori, by then residing in London, set up a printing press at his home near Regent’s Park and proceeded to print, among other things, the early work of his grandchildren: Maria, Christina, Dante Gabriel and William Michael Rossetti.

His eldest son (uncle to Dante and William) was that same John Polidori who became physician to Lord Byron and author of The Vampyre, the first of its kind. Interesting to note that Lord Ruthven, the vampire of the novella, was based on Lord Byron, just as Bram Stoker’s Dracula was based on Henry Irving – inspired by that same draining quality on the energies of the people surrounding them. As much a social commentary as gothic fiction, it is tempting to see in The Vampyre an anticipation of the later Rossettian social conscience in John’s nephews and nieces.

John Polidori by F.G.Gainsford

The two sisters we know went on to write poems and act as models for Pre-Raphaelite opiate-ingesting Dante. Poor Dante. His drawing, anatomically never terribly brilliant, took on near nightmarish qualities as laudanum, alcohol and mental instability progressed – not unlike Friedrich or Blake in its solidity, yet  weightier:  – a tangible expression of the oppression brought on by his mental and physical health. William Michael, by direct contrast, after briefly appearing in one or two paintings, went on to become writer, critic and, along with Dante, fellow founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848; in the same year, Dante began studying under Ford Madox Brown, whose daughter Lucy later married William Rossetti. The network was growing, with a fair amount of cultural overlap – artists with writers and the occasional politician (Burne-Jones, Kipling, Baldwin and Poynter were all connected by marriage).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti at 22 by Holman Hunt

Within the following few years, social revolution and anarchism were bubbling across Europe; the seeds sown by Proudhon gained momentum with Marx, Bakunin, Kropotkin, with its artistic counterpart represented by such movements as the Pre-Raphaelites. In 1853, Millais painted The Stile. In 1854, co-founder member Holman Hunt, produced The Awakening Conscience. Both of these caused quite a stir in their social commentary and symbolism, while contemporaneously in Smolensk a 12-year-old aristocrat called Peter Kropotkin renounced his title of Prince as a result of his republican education. He continued in his beliefs into adulthood, and furthermore, began to share his thoughts through writing and lecturing. In 1874, the year William Rossetti married Lucy, Kropotkin was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul fortress as a direct result of his teachings. He escaped from imprisonment in Russia and reached London, where he settled for a time, giving lectures on Anarchism.

In 1880 he wrote ‘Appeal to the Young’, a brief and brutally honest critique of living conditions for both rich and poor; by this time, William and Lucy had a family of five; the three eldest of the Rossetti children read it and decided to establish ‘The Torch’ in 1891. It was initially hand written, with small circulation.  Kropotkin travelled from Acton to visit their family home in St Edmund’s Terrace and was presented with a paper by Olivia (Isabel)to sign, regarding the political platform of the Torch. The anarchist was delighted to do so. (He appears, disguised as Count Voratin, in A Girl Among the Anarchists).  The Rossetti children later had tea with him in the British Museum (there were Thursday ‘At Homes’ held by Mrs Garnett in the east wing of her new address at the Museum). In 1881 he lectured at the International Congress of Anarchists, on which is based the meeting described in the opening extract from Of Soul Sincere.

Peter Kropotkin circa 1900

By the late 1880s, Ford Madox Brown was residing at Number One St Edmund’s Street. In 1890, his neighbours the Garrets moved to official residence at the British Museum, and the Rossetti brood moved into the newly vacated Number Three St Edmund’s Street. It was an unorthodox household; free from the trammels of religion, in a domestic environment where freedom and expression of thought were actively encouraged, it was hardly surprising to find the children developing eclectic interests as much in politics as in the arts.

In 1892, a year after ‘The Torch’ had begun, the Rossetti children acquired a new printing-press whch was installed in the Torch Room in the basement; circulation now increased and by 1894 the press moved to Camden Town, then to the West End, under the aegis of Dr Fausset Maconald and finally in December of that same year to Somers Town, near where the British Library now stands (and where the printing-press remained until 1928). ‘The place is constantly observed by policemen.’ (Olive Garnett, Diary)

Ford Maddox Brown continued to be closely connected: as father-in-law and neighbour (from 1890 on)to William Michael Rossetti, and as grandfather to Ford Maddox Ford, supposedly the friend from whom Conrad in casual conversation one day heard the words regarding anarchist activities: ‘Oh, that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterwards.’  Ford later re-wrote the words, and suggested he knew a great many anarchists and a great many of the police who watched them; he would, as cousin to the Rossetti children and as neighbour, have been well aware of the various anarchists who visited the Rossetti domicile.

Conrad visited William Rossetti the late 1890s or early 1900s, (possibly to discuss Nostromo) – Helen, the younger sister, recalled the occasion. She was by then twenty; he did not, according to her, meet Olivia(Isabel) although he may well have based his Lady Amateur in The Informer (1906)on her. He mentions The Torch in the first chapter of the Secret Agent(1907).

The Torch was by no means alone(see footnote below); it is interesting for its literary connections and the germs for narrative that were supplied as a result (The Girl Among the Anarchists, The Secret Agent, An Anarchist,The Informer). The Rossetti connection ended finally in 1896 and the press was handed over to Thomas Cantwell. Life had taken over, or perhaps as described in the Girl Among the Anarchists,  the Rossetti children had outgrown it. Kropotkin continued to be involved with the Freedom press for a while until theoretical disputes within the organisation caused him to part ways.

Cover for The Torch

And there you have it, a story that is more a mish-mash, a patchworky sort of a thing, where east meets west through the printed word; a mosaic as complex as the beings it describes. There is of course a lot more to it than the compressed version here; the following books are on my wishlist and will contain a great deal more detail and cohesion than my meagre effort and they are:

Conrad’s Secrets by Robert Hampson

Conrad’s Western World & Conrad’s Eastern World by Professor Norman Sherry

Essays on Conrad by Ian Watt


(FOOTNOTE)The main anarchist paper of the time was the Freedom, published by the Freedom Press, which publishing house still continues today, although the paper itself had ceased to run in 1927 (a year or so before the main action of Of Soul Sincere). (Freedom Press : History)




Appeal to the Young, by Peter Kropotkin can be read online here:




The Stile, by John Millais


Notes on The Stile by Millais:


The broken wall: if it is meant to be symbolic, then it could be suggestive of lost virginity – elsewhere it has been suggested that the wall represents a boundary, a form of innocence. If the sitter is indeed Effie Gray, as has also been suggested, the fact that Millais is painting her unchaperoned, in such a scenario, when she was trapped in an unconsummated marriage, offer even more interpretations, especially as Millais became her lover and eventual second husband.

In another interpretation the stile she sits upon acts as the stepping stone, or portal, of the wall; beyond it the viewer is treated to another landscape, fresh, green, apparently uncontrolled – a horizon of desire for freedom, perhaps, a hint at a more positive future. (If the model was instead Annie Miller, as has also been suggested, the symbolism does not change – he had taken her under his wing and educated her with a view to marriage – the relationship did not change until the 1860s when he decided she was unsuitable).


1853 : The Order of Release has Effie as the wife – but who is the wounded soldier husband she has rescued? Ruskin or Millais ?

The Order of Release by John E. Millais

Of Buns and Balancing Acts

‘Trunk – check.

Knees – check.

Now …. Up-si-daisy…creak, groan, not getting any younger, y’know. And we’re up! Loiter forward slowly – don’t let them think you can run or there’ll be no end to their demands …

Step one: collar the one in the top hat – he knows where the food is.

Step two : Walk, don’t run (see above).

Step three: allow them one encore then back out quick in pursuit of top hat (see step one)

Oh yes. The ball thing. Roll it about, kick it, balance it – keeps the punters happy.

And the old trick with the plate thingy.

Not sure I see the point to it, to be honest; perhaps it’s some form of exercise in Gestalt philosophy. More of a Copernican myself – when I’m not feeling Darwinian. But they’re a light-hearted lot here…

Right, done that, pick him up and carry out to rapturous applause. Where’s the grub?’


Well, I would quite like to think of Jumbo and his counterparts engaged in such ruminations while balancing balls and tossing plates (or was it vice-versa?) before being led off for a well-deserved pile of buns.

Elephants joined the circus relatively early in its evolution; the cavalcade of horses under the aegis of Mr (Sergeant-Major)Astley evolved in the late 18th century, and was quickly embellished with exoticism: as early as 1812 the first trained elephant performed at Cirque Olympique in Paris. This in turn set off the winning combination of circus and wild animals, most notably developed in Germany by the Hagenbecks, the world’s foremost importers and dealers of exotic animals.

The sheer logistics of transport quickly take on mind-boggling proportions in the 19th century, when the travelling circus became big business. Whole trainloads of performers both human and not travelled the length and breadth of Europe, some of them jumping aboard a passing steamship to America along the way – when Barnum’s came to London’s Olympia in 1889 their entourage comprised 450 performers, 300 horses and 21 elephants. The amount of hay alone required must have been astronomical.





A field. An ordinary, uncultivated field. Nothing untoward about it. A path running diagonally across, and a ditch running alongside. A handy pool in the middle distance, a tree or two, some wild flowers. And an elephant.

The elephant was not alone. She had wandered across to inspect the taller of the two trees tentatively with her trunk. A man with a canvas bag slung across one shoulder sauntered up beside her. ‘Come along now, old girl, you don’t want those, do you—look what I have here…’ And so saying he delved into the canvas bag and drew out some bread. This was quickly disposed of by the wandering proboscis.

A muted trundling in the distance grew gradually as a series of brightly coloured caravans grumbled across the ground; there was the occasional bark from the three dogs gambolling about, the chatter and clanking of pots and pans, swinging from their hooks in constant confabulation, a murmur of voices both within and without as the troupe dispersed, picking out their spots with the practised eye of a proprietor lately established in his new home. Each had its own identity: the fortune teller’s caravan had a huge white circle painted on the side, on blue sky with stars across which was emblazoned ‘L’Oeil Voyant’. Another, decorated with a mage in star-bespeckled robe spreading out his arms against a panoply of curtains, playing cards and tripods, heralded the coming of the Great Doctor Miraculous. A third, modest in comparison, yet of content explosive enough to outdo them all, featured a small man sailing across a night-sky, with below him the mouth of a magnificent cannon pointing diagonally up. And if the viewer were still in any doubt as to its significance, the whole was topped off by large, clear lettering that declared the occupant to be the one and only Human Cannonball: Blazer, A Marvel of the Modern World.

And so on: the clowns sported balls and hoops, the balancing act plates and cups teetering on poles and trays, and most imposing of all, the ringmaster’s own domicile, with both sides adorned with top hats, plumed horses in mid-leap and a whole collection of colourful performers, with the magnificent emblem ‘Roly Tadger’s Remarkable Circus of Oddities’ running in cheerful colours across. A modest king this, who, rather than take centre stage, chose to set his abode in the wings so to speak (in the shade of the trees), at a slight distance from the rest. A tall man in a chimney pipe hat stepped out and wandered amongst his citizens, checking on this, minding that.

Water was fetched from the pool, a clearing made for a fire, and food prepared. The elephant keeper wandered off, munching on an apple, sizing up the surrounding area. He ambled about, stretching occasionally, squinting up at a wintry sun, meandering along until he ended up near the ditch. The elephant, her curiosity regarding the trees now sated, drifted in his direction. Absently, her keeper fished another bread roll from his bag and handed it to her over his shoulder. His gaze focussed on a clump of grass overhanging the ditch.

‘Did you hear something, Milly?’ he enquired. Milly responded with a furtive rummage in his bag.

He stepped forward, and peered over to look at the ditch more carefully. He had not been mistaken. Another groan, as if in confirmation, came up from the sorry individual lying there.

‘Dear, dear. Footpads, no doubt. No good travelling alone in these parts: you wait there,’ murmured the keeper, as if the unfortunate man in the ditch were chafing to be off; the keeper turned and cupping his hands to his mouth let out a hearty ‘hallooo’ to his companions.

Instantly doors opened, feet clattered down caravan steps and an assortment of oddities both human and otherwise spilled across the field. One of them, in elegant coat and moleskin hat, with the air of a medical man, knelt in the ditch and checked the insensible body for breaks.

A decision was reached, a stretcher made up from coat and boom handles, and the unconscious man was lifted and carried back to one of the caravans. By general consensus, they put him in the caravan belonging to the Human Cannonball, he having the least cluttered of all.

Day passed into evening, evening into dawn, and come the morning the caravanserai set off again. From time to time they paused along the way: the tall man in a chimney-pipe of a hat would leap up and down steps, knocking on the door of the Human Cannonball to see how the patient was doing.

‘No memory yet? Well, well, but from the look of him, one of our kind. And we could do with an extra set of hands…’ ”

(From ‘Of Soul Sincere’, Part Three)

circus filled


By the time Roly Tadger’s troupe is travelling the counties in the 1880s, the wildlife element of his ‘circus’ is reduced to a few horses, Milly the elephant and some performing dogs. By the late Victorian period, the trapeze artist and acrobat had come into their own, fuelling a re-discovered interest in athletics which led to the Olympics of 1896. Roly Tadger is relying more and more on human  performers (and probably his drinking has made it inadvisable to keep big cats on the programme anyway).


9781909374867 RGB


It is summer, 1928.

When invited by her publisher to assist a well-respected M.P. write his memoirs, Julia Warren is at first reluctant to concentrate on anything other than her next novel; however, circumstances(involving among other things unexpected plumbing) conspire to change her mind and she finds herself at once guest and employee at the great man’s rather bohemian household.

Almost immediately she encounters memories from the past, of a rather unsettling nature …

Of Soul Sincere, coming April 2 2016, published by Grey Cells Press 

Tweeneys, tuppences and tricky divisions …

English: "Marianne, ringing the bell, req...

English: “Marianne, ringing the bell, requested the footman who answered it to get that letter conveyed for her to the two-penny post” – Marianne sends a letter to Willoughby when the sisters travel to London. Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. London: George Allen, 1899, page 165. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just been trying to look up servants’ wages for the 1890s (something for the next Julia Warren mystery I am trying to finish); must say, it is a blessing to be able to consult books online – even if they are only excerpts, for I have little or no access to reference books at present otherwise.

The findings are intriguing – rather higher than I had expected (although now comes the tricky part – dividing the yearly salary into weekly parts… and I haven’t calculated all the different levels yet) – oh look, a handy little online calculator as well.

So that means… muzzerwuzzerwizzerwozzer (and other suitable mathematizing sounds) a butler could be receiving the princely amount of one pound something a week(his expenses would be at most clothes, for board and lodging was all included). Now let’s take a footman – an ordinary one, who opens doors and runs about after people as opposed to the six-footer who stands about looking magnificent. Our ordinary footman then, would find in his pocket, a little less than a quarter of the butler’s pound…again, board and lodging is included. There’s usually wine to be had, and by 1890s, a week’s holiday allotted per annum.

Footman (Morning)

Footman (Morning) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Moving down a bit further … the Tweeney, or between maid,nearly the lowest of the lower Five, yet still above the scullery maid,  might earn between 10 to 15 pounds per annum. So if we take the minimum, that works out half again of the footman’s wage. Ten or twelve pence a month. How much was it to go to the theatre? A farthing? Tuppence? Sixpence for a half-way decent view? You’d have to save up for that… when you had the time and energy after a 5 to 10  working day; unless you went on your day off.

And these were the lucky ones ….

The 1890s saw thousands of Londoners homeless, sleeping in parks, on the Embankment or in the recesses of London Bridge (Frank Victor Dawes, Not in Front of the Servants, 1973). If disease and depression did not carry you off, then violent crime probably would. Receiving not only a roof over your head but clothes and food plus some pocket money might well have seemed like a blessing in comparison.

London Bridge, stereopticon card photo from ea...

London Bridge, stereopticon card photo from early 1890s (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And on that cheery note, I continue to add up, divide and multiply the farthings, shillings and pence – still wondering what that Tweeney might have forked out for a good night out at the theatre. I hope it was worth it.

(Written in haste, this windy night, in the echoing memory of 1890…)

Speaking of entertainment available: